Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation

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Overview

The New York Times best seller by the host of Bill Nye the Science Guy, with a brand new chapter for the paperback edition!

"Evolution is one of the most powerful and important ideas ever developed in the history of science. Every question it raises leads to new answers, new discoveries, and new smarter questions. The science of evolution is as expansive as nature itself. It is also the most meaningful creation story that humans have ever found."-Bill Nye

Sparked by a controversial debate in February 2014, Bill Nye has set off on an energetic campaign to spread awareness of evolution and the powerful way it shapes our lives. In Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, he explains why race does not really exist; evaluates the true promise and peril of genetically modified food; reveals how new species are born, in a dog kennel and in a London subway; takes a stroll through 4.5 billion years of time; and explores the new search for alien life, including aliens right here on Earth.

With infectious enthusiasm, Bill Nye shows that evolution is much more than a rebuttal to creationism; it is an essential way to understand how nature works-and to change the world. It might also help you get a date on a Saturday night.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250074225
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/08/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 149,914
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Bill Nye is a scientist, engineer, comedian, and inventor. He has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University where he studied under Carl Sagan, and worked on the 747 as an engineer at Boeing before creating and hosting his much-loved Emmy award-winning PBS/Discovery Channel show Bill Nye the Science Guy. He holds six Honorary Doctorate degrees from Lehigh University, Willamette University, Quinnipiac University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Goucher College, and Johns Hopkins, and teaches at Cornell regularly as a visiting professor.

Corey S. Powell is the former editor in chief of American Scientist and Discover, where he is currently editor at large and continues to write the "Out There" column and blog. He is also a visiting scholar at NYU's SHERP science journalism program, as well as a freelance writer for Popular Science, Smithsonian, Nautilus, and Aeon; his article "The Madness of the Planets" appears in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, two daughters, and a small collection of Permian-era fossils. Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation is his first collaboration with Bill Nye, but he hopes it will not be his last.

Read an Excerpt

1

ME AND YOU AND EVOLUTION, TOO

I think it started with the bees. I was about seven years old, and I watched them … all day. That Sunday, I had read the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” column in The Washington Post, which claimed, “The Bumblebee: Considering its size, shape, and wingspan, is an aerodynamic misfit—which should be unable to fly!” It was frustrating, because here they were flying. I got caught up in the details. Their wings looked like decoration, no more useful than a store-bought bow glued to a gift. I looked closely at my mother’s azalea flowers—so many delicate parts. Somehow, the bees were able to get in there, fill their pollen baskets from the flowers, and fly away again and again.

How did bees learn to do all that? Where did they come from? Where did the flowers come from? Come to think of it, how did any of us get here? Why did Ripley’s have it so obviously wrong? I was getting pulled into something much larger than myself. The yearning to know about nature and where or how we fit in is deep within all of us. As I learned about evolution and descent by natural selection, the answers fell into place.

We are all aware that evolution happens, because we all have parents. Many of us have, or will have, children. We see the effects of heredity up close and personal. We’ve also experienced firsthand what Charles Darwin called descent with modification: the way that an entire population of living things can change from generation to generation. Think about the food grown on farms. For about twelve thousand years, exploiting the phenomenon of evolution, humans have been able to modify plants through a process known as artificial selection. In wheat farming and horse racing we call it breeding. Darwin realized that breeding (and domesticating) plants and animals involves exactly the same process that occurs naturally in evolution, only accelerated with the help of humans. This natural process produced you and me.

Once you become aware—once you see how evolution works—so many familiar aspects of the world take on new significance. The affectionate nuzzling of a dog, the annoying bite of a mosquito, the annual flu shot: All are direct consequences of evolution. As you read this book, I hope you will also come away with a deeper appreciation for the universe and our place within it. We are the results of billions of years of cosmic events that led to the cozy, habitable planet we live on.

We experience evolution every day in our culture as well. People everywhere are fascinated with other people. That’s why we have sidewalk cafés, televisions, and gossip magazines. We interact to produce more of us for future generations. People are fascinated with their bodies. Turn on the television to any channel. If it’s youth-oriented music programming, you’ll see advertisements for skin medicines to make you look healthy, for deodorants to modify your natural scents, and for hair and makeup products to render you more attractive to a potential mate. If it’s a staid news channel, you’ll see ads for improving your breathing, your bones, and, of course, your sexual performance. None of these products would be produced were we not walking, talking products of evolution.

We are all so much alike, because we are all human. But it goes deeper than that. Every species you’ll encounter on Earth is, near as we can tell, chemically the same inside. We are all descended from a common ancestor. We are shaped by the same forces and factors that influence every other living thing, and yet we emerged as something unique. Among the estimated 16 million species on Earth, we alone have the ability to comprehend the process that brought us here. Any way you reckon it, evolution is inspiring.

Despite all of that, a great number of people in many parts of the world—even in well-educated parts of the developed world—are resistant or hostile to the idea of evolution. Even in places like Pennsylvania and Kentucky, here in the United States, the whole idea of evolution is overwhelming, confusing, frightening, and even threatening to many individuals. I can understand why. It’s an enormous process, unfolding over times that dwarf a human lifespan—across billions of years and in every part of the world. And it’s profoundly humbling. As I learned more about evolution, I realized that from nature’s point of view, you and I ain’t such a big deal. Humans are just another species on this planet trying to make a go of it, trying to pass our genes into the future, just like chrysanthemums, muskrats, sea jellies, poison ivy … and bumblebees.

Many people who are troubled by evolution want to suppress teaching the whole concept of descent through natural selection in schools. Others try to push it aside or dilute it by casting doubt on the established science that supports it. State education standards allow the teaching of fictitious alternatives to evolution in Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee. Even though the people who support these curricula live lives that are enriched in many ways by science and engineering (everything from running water and abundant food to television and the Internet) they avoid the exploration of evolution, because it reminds us all that humankind may not be that special in nature’s scheme. What happens to other species also happens to us.

I continually remind people what is at stake here. Our understanding of evolution came to us by exactly the same method of scientific discovery that led to printing presses, polio vaccines, and smartphones. Just as mass and motion are fundamental ideas in physics, and the movement of tectonic plates is a fundamental idea in geology, evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science. Evolution has essential practical applications in agriculture, environmental protection, medicine, and public health. What would the deniers have us do? Ignore all the scientific discoveries that make our technologically driven world possible, things like the ability to rotate crops, pump water, generate electricity, and broadcast baseball?

Even the theological objections to evolution stand on shaky ground. For the last century and a half, ever since the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, many people have come to believe that evolution is in conflict with their religious beliefs. At the same time, many people around the world who hold deep religious convictions see no conflict between their spiritual beliefs and their scientific understanding of evolution. So the naysayers are not only casting doubt on science and nonbelievers; they are also ignoring the billions of non-conflicted believers around the world, dismissing their views as unworthy.

I’ll admit that the discovery of evolution is humbling, but it is also empowering. It transforms our relationship to the life around us. Instead of being outsiders watching the natural world go by, we are insiders. We are part of the process; we are the exquisite result of billions of years of natural research and development.

Frankly, my concern is not so much for the deniers of evolution as it is for their kids. We cannot address the problems facing humankind today without science—both the body of scientific knowledge and, more important, the process. Science is the way in which we know nature and our place within it.

Like any useful scientific theory, evolution enables us to make predictions about what we observe in nature. Since it was developed in the nineteenth century, the theory itself has also evolved, by which I mean that it’s been refined and expanded. Some of the most wonderful aspects and consequences of evolution have been discovered only recently. This is in stark contrast to creationism, which offers a static view of the world, one that cannot be challenged or tested with reason. And because it cannot make predictions, it cannot lead to new discoveries, new medicines, or new ways to feed all of us.

Evolutionary theory takes us into the future. As the foundation of biology, evolution informs big questions about emerging agricultural and medical technologies. Should we genetically modify more of our foods? Should we pursue cloning and genetic engineering to improve human health? There is no way to make sense of these issues outside of an evolutionary context. As an engineer trained in the U.S., I look at the assault on evolution—which is actually an assault on science overall—as much more than an intellectual issue; for me, it’s personal. I feel strongly that we need the young people of today to become the scientists and the engineers of tomorrow so that my native United States continues to be a world leader in discovery and innovation. If we suppress science in this country, we are headed for trouble.

Evolutionary theory also takes us into the past, offering a compelling case study of the collaborative and cumulative way that great scientific discoveries are made. In some sense the concept of evolution can be traced to the Greek philosopher Anaximander. In the sixth century BC, after evaluating fossils, he speculated that life had begun with fishlike animals living in the ocean. He had no theory of how one species gave rise to another, however, nor did he have an explanation of how Earth acquired its stunning biodiversity. Nobody would, for another two millennia. Ultimately, the mechanism of evolution was discovered by two men at very nearly the same time: Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

You’ve probably heard a great deal about Darwin. You may not have heard so much about Wallace. He was a naturalist who spent a great deal of time in the field studying and collecting specimens of flora and fauna. He traveled in the Amazon River basin and in what is now Malaysia. Through his far-flung geographic and intellectual explorations, Wallace formulated his theory of evolution independent of Darwin, and described an important aspect of the evolutionary process, often still referred to as the “Wallace effect” (more about that in chapter 12). Wallace recognized humans as just one part of a much broader living world. Quoting from his 1869 book The Malay Archipelago, “… trees and fruits, no less than the varied productions of the animal kingdom, do not appear to be organized with the exclusive reference to the use and convenience of man…” In Victorian England, such a point of view was controversial to say the least.

Darwin had the earlier start. Wallace was just eight years old in 1831 when the twenty-two-year-old Darwin had a remarkable opportunity as an energetic young man to go to sea aboard the HMS Beagle. He realized that if humans could turn wolves into dogs, then new species could come into existence by the same means naturally. He also saw that populations do not grow and grow indefinitely, because their environment will always have limits on the resources available. Darwin connected these ideas by observing that living things produce more offspring than can survive. The individuals compete for resources in their respective ecosystems, and the individuals that are born or sprout with favorable variations have a better shot at survival than their siblings. He realized that, left unchecked, the process of natural selection would result in the great diversity of living things that he would go on to observe.

Recognizing the two scientists’ convergent views, colleagues arranged for Wallace and Darwin to present a paper together at a meeting of the Linnaean Society in London in 1858. The paper was based on a letter that Wallace had written to Darwin, along with an abstract for a paper that Darwin had written in 1842. The revolutionary impact of the joint presentation was not immediately obvious to all of those in attendance. Thomas Bell, the president of the Linnaean Society, infamously reported that no important scientific breakthroughs had occurred that year: “The year which has passed has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear…”

The publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 created a sensation and proved President Bell spectacularly wrong. It also made Darwin far more famous than Wallace, as Darwin remains to this day. His ability to articulate the theory of evolution is still astonishing. On the Origin of Species remains a remarkable and remarkably readable book, readily available in hardback, paperback, and online a century and a half later. In it, Darwin gives us example after example of evolution and explains the means by which it happens, providing both the facts and the mechanism in one volume.

Evolution is one of the most powerful and important ideas ever developed in the history of science. It describes all of life on Earth. It describes any system in which things compete with each other for resources, whether those things are microbes in your body, trees in a rain forest, or even software programs in a computer. It is also the most reasonable creation story that humans have ever found. When religions disagree about just creation, there is nothing to do but argue. When two scientists disagree about evolution, they confer with colleagues, develop theories, collect evidence, and arrive at a more complete understanding. Every question leads to new answers, new discoveries, and new smarter questions. The science of evolution is as expansive as nature itself.

Evolution goes a long way toward answering the universal question that ran through my brain as a kid, and still does: “Where did we come from?” It also leads right into the companion question we all ask: “Are we alone in the universe?” Today, astronomers are finding planets rotating around distant stars, planets that might have the right conditions for supporting life. Our robots are prospecting on Mars looking for signs of water and life. We’re planning a mission to study the ocean of Jupiter’s moon Europa, where there is twice as much seawater as there is here on Earth. When we go seeking life elsewhere, the whole idea of what to look for, and where to look for it, will be guided by our understanding of evolution. Such a discovery would be profound. Proving that there is life on another world would surely change this one.

The great questions of evolution bring out the best in us: our boundless curiosity, and our boundless ability to explore. After all, evolution made us who we are.

Copyright © 2014 by William S. Nye

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Me and You and Evolution, Too

2. The Great Creationism Debate

3. Creation and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

4. Bottom-Up Design

5. Deep Time—Dive in

6. On the Origin of Evolution

7. Lamarck and His Not-Acquired Traits

8. My Prom and Sexual Selection

9. The Red Queen

10. Dogs Are All Dogs

11. The Tree of Life—Or Is It a Bush?

12. Biodiversity Comes in the Territory

13. Fossil Records and Explosions

14. Mass Extinctions and You

15. Ancient Dinosaurs and the Asteroid Test

16. Punctuated Equilibrium

17. Contingency, Bottlenecking, Founding

18. Mosquitoes in the Tube

19. Convergence, Analogy, and Homology

20. What Good Is Half a Wing?

21. Human Bodies Are Walking Talking and Good Enough

22. Evolution Is Why We Don't Believe in Evolution

23. Micro or Macro—It's Evolution

24. Michael Faraday and the Joy of Discovery

25. Medicine and You—Evolution at the Doctor's Office

26. Antibiotic Drug Resistance—Fight Back

27. The Urge of Altruism

28. Games Species Play

29. Costly Signals

30. Genetically Modified Foods—What the GMF?

31. Human Cloning—Not Cool

32. Our Skin Colors

33. Is the Human Species Still Evolving?

34. Astrobiologically Speaking—Is There Anyone Out There?

35. The Sparks That Started It All

36. A Second Genesis—of Life?

37. Life's Cosmic Imperative

Interviews

Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Bill Nye

What is your earliest memory of writing a story?

In first grade, I wrote a poem about autumn leaves. Gravity was an influence even then.

When and where do you write? What does your workspace look like?

I write in my apartment in New York; I can see the Empire State Building outside, but I'm isolated from the bustle by two dozen stories of altitude.

In Undeniable you write, 'Once you see how evolution works - so many familiar aspects of the word take on new significance.' Did writing this book make you more grateful or in awe of certain moments in evolutionary history? Which instances of evolution at work have recently inspired/amazed you?

I came to understand that we are, from nature's point of view, good enough. We all made it this far in evolutionary history. So scientifically, we are all in this together.

What are the greatest books on science that you've read? Do you have favorite passages or turns of phrase from them? Where can we find poetic exploration of the physical, natural world?

The Chemical History of a Candle, by Michael Faraday is something else, as is just about any passage from On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin himself. My favorite idea might be from Carl Sagan, when he pointed out that since we are made of the stuff of stars, we are at least one way that the universe knows itself.

What has been the proudest moment of your career?

I hope it is yet ahead; I hope someone, who grew up watching the Science Guy show does something that changes the world, like inventing the very high density battery, or curing cancer.

You are a strong advocate of clean energy: what are the most important changes in behavior that one can do to better utilize clean energy and reduce one's carbon footprint?

Talk about climate change; talk about it with everyone, everyday, so that it becomes part of our everyday thinking.

What do you do to relax?

Swing dance, bicycle, and especially fill out questionnaires.

Is there a genre or type of writing you would still like to try your hand at? What haven't you yet done that you want to do as a writer?

I very much hope to one day produce my screenplay, a story about a historical figure who excelled at mathematics.

Who are your heroes in the world of science?

George Lang, my high school physics teacher, and Michael Faraday.

What are humanity's most common misconceptions of evolution? Ignoring those who don't accept it as undeniable, what are the hiccups in our understanding of evolutionary processes?

The biggest misconception is that evolution is something you can choose to believe in it or not to believe in. Evolution is the fact of life. In science, a theory is an idea that enables predictions. The theory of universal gravitation enables us to predict the rate at which apples fall from tree branches and to predict the exact amount of rocket fuel required to land spacecraft on Mars. The theory of evolution enables us to predict the characteristics of the apple crop five years from now.

What do you consider some of the most beautiful places in the natural world?

In the hills, the surf, and under the waves in Hawaii.

What is the best advice you've received as a writer?

Divide the task at hand into many, many much smaller tasks.

November 19, 2014

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