Thursday, February 6, 2014

Why Are There Still Monkeys?

It seems almost inevitable that in any debate over evolution versus creation, some creationist will trot out the old chestnut “If we’re evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?” In fact, in the wake of the recent Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate, the very next day there were commentators throwing out this very question. It’s almost always presented, not as a genuine request for explanation, but with the smug delivery of someone who thinks they’ve come up with the sort of unanswerable conundrum that represents ironclad proof that their opponent cannot possibly be right.

It’s a painful question for people who accept evolution to hear. Not because there’s no answer – in fact, the bulk of this article will be devoted to answering that question. No, it’s painful because of the startling ignorance it displays. If you can ask this question, and especially if you can ask it with that condescending confidence that it somehow disproves evolution, then you need to accept one simple fact: you do not understand the Theory of Evolution well enough to have a position on its plausibility.

Let’s see if we can correct that, at least on this particular part of the puzzle.

First of all, evolution (and here I’m going to use “evolution” as a shorthand for the Theory of Evolution), does not say that our ancestors were any currently existing species of monkey. It says that at some distant remove in the past, we shared a common ancestor with modern monkeys. Now if you looked at that ancestor you’d probably call it a monkey, but it would not be a chimpanzee or a macaque or a capuchin, or an orangutan or any other species we see currently running around the planet. Remember, after all, that “monkey” is a broad category covering many different species.

So what happened to this ancient monkey that we and all those other monkey species can be descended from it? Well, let me give you the broad strokes.

Picture, if you will, that ancient ancestor (we’ll call her Mona the Monkey) as part of a band of monkeys happily living in their trees millions of years ago. Maybe that band gets too big for the local environment and part of it splits off to find food elsewhere. Or there’s some sort of local disaster (a flood,  fire, earthquake, whatever) that splits the band. Whatever it is, some of that monkey’s children end up living and reproducing separately from the others.

So now we have Band A, the original, and Band B, the group that split off. Band A is still living in the same place doing the same things, so it doesn’t really change much. Band B, however, ends up in a place where the trees are more sparse, making it harder to move between them and forcing the monkeys to spend more time on the ground. That means that in Band B, the monkeys who are able to move better on the ground are more likely to survive and pass the traits that let them do so on to their offspring.

Before too many generations pass, the monkeys in Band B have noticeably longer legs than those in Band A simply due to the fact that the longer-legged monkeys in Band B are more likely to survive in the environment where they live.

Now, say a member of Band B is born with a mutation that increases the amount of muscle mass it puts on as it grows. This makes it better at protecting itself from predators in a physical confrontation, which enables it to spend even more time on the ground. And here’s the important thing: only those members of Band B who are descended from the money with that mutation will carry it themselves. That means that so long as Band B and Band A remain separate, no member of Band A will ever have that mutation.

You following me so far? We now have two bands of monkeys. Band A still strongly resembles Mona the Monkey and are a group of small, agile tree-dwellers. Band B, though, is composed largely of monkeys who, because of a combination of their environment selecting for taller monkeys with longer legs, and a beneficial mutation (yes, they happen) that increases their strength, are now larger and more comfortable on the ground. Both groups are descended from Mona the Monkey. But you notice what didn’t happen to Band A? It didn’t die out. It also didn’t change in the same way Band B did.

In other words, Band B is descended from Band A, yet Band A still exists.

The only difference between the story of the monkey bands I just told and the relationship between us and monkeys is one of scale. The band of monkeys that would eventually become us split off millions of years ago from the band that would go on to become modern monkeys, and both bands have split and/or mutated hundreds if not thousands of times in the intervening millennia. Some of those bands died, some of them survived, some even recombined at a later date. The details vary, but it’s always the same basic story repeated over and over and over. That’s what makes it so elegant – that by these simple steps repeated often enough over enough time you can arrive at such a diverse explosion of living forms.

That is why we can be descended from monkeys, and yet there are still monkeys.

Or, to steal a saying I’ve heard and found amusingly appropriate: the reason that we can be descended from monkeys, and yet there are still monkeys, is exactly the same reason most American can be descended from Europeans, and yet there are still Europeans.

This is, of course, only the most basic sort of layman’s explanation. I’m not a biologist, after all, nor are the people I’m targeting by writing this. I just hope this shows people that there is an answer to this question, and that it’s not so far-fetched as you might have been led to believe. And if this little glimpse has at all piqued your interest in what the Theory of Evolution actually has to say, I hope that you will pursue further reading on the subject from material written by actual evolutionary biologists.

Monday, February 3, 2014

How Does Being Straight Tell Me that Being Gay is Normal?

Strictly speaking, the question of whether or not being gay is normal, or should be treated as normal, isn’t an atheist issue. There are, for example, many atheists who believe that it’s not normal and ought to be banned for reasons that have nothing to do with the dictates of a god. I happen to disagree with them as well.

But the reason I bring it up here is that the vast majority of objections to homosexuality seem to be religious in nature. And it’s one of those areas where having no belief in a god allows you to examine the issue on its own merits rather than simply defaulting to obeying a dictate or by assuming that it must be wrong simply because you were brought up to believe that it is. It’s also one of those areas where you can see that the arguments religious objectors make are so hilariously at odds with reality that you wonder how they can possibly cling to them.

And then you realize that the arguments are meant to be taken seriously, and it becomes simultaneously sad and anger-inducing. Hence this article.

Of course, the primary argument is that one’s god considers homosexuality to be an abomination or something like that. This one automatically falls flat for everyone who doesn’t believe in the existence of that god, or for those who believe the god exists but don’t believe that it really thanks that. So then the argument is forced to go in the direction of things that might make actual sense in the real world. Many of these arguments kind of boil down to claiming that it’s not normal because it doesn’t occur “in nature,” or because if everyone were gay then the human species would die out.

Oddly, the “not normal” argument seems to use a different definition of the word “normal” than is used in pretty much every other facet of life. Only when it comes to homosexuality do I ever see people use “normal” as if it means “universally practiced,” and expect to be taken seriously.

Let me see if I can provide a few illustrations to get at what I mean. It is normal for a person to have blue eyes. We can all agree on that, right? Does that mean that everyone has blue eyes? Of course not. It’d be ludicrous to make that claim. It’s just as normal for people to have brown eyes, or green eyes. And even though grey eyes are unusual, they are still normal. Likewise, it is normal to like sports, but not everybody likes sports (and that is also normal). It is normal for a person to read books, but it’s also normal for other people to hate reading. It is normal to shower in the morning, but other completely normal people are still going to shower in the evening. Even though these things can be quite opposite from each other, accepting one as normal does not render its opposite abnormal. You know this.

Likewise, it’s normal to be sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex, but it is also normal for some people to be attracted to members of the same sex. Accepting homosexuality as part of the normal range of human sexual expression does not mean abandoning heterosexuality. If you think about this with any honesty, you know this is also true.

How do I know this? Because I’m straight.

I have a pretty fair number of gay friends. I like them. I think they’re good people, which is why they’re my friends. Some of the men have even hit on me at various times. And while I was flattered (who doesn’t like knowing that people they like think they’re attractive?), I was never even remotely tempted. And believe me, it’s not because I’m not a lustful person. It’s wholly and entirely because I’m straight. It simply doesn’t matter how accepting I am of my gay friends, or how many opportunities other men may give me to have sex with them, the simple fact of the matter is that I’m attracted to women. I am not just waiting for society to give me permission to give them up, as some people seem to want us to think.

Now, I know that’s just anecdotal. It’s only talking about my own experience, and I can’t speak for anyone else. I suppose that it’s just possible that I’m the only person on the face of the earth who isn’t burning with a repressed desire for others of the same gender that is only held in check by the disapproval of society and the fear of an angry storybook character. But does that seem at all likely? Does it really? It seems to me that the existence of seven billion people on this planet is pretty strong evidence that a healthy number of men really want to get together with women, and vice versa.

That’s why, when I hear people making ridiculously overblown claims such as that accepting homosexuality as normal will lead to the end of human families and procreation, it’s laugh-out-loud ridiculous. But when I see people accepting that argument, it turns to you-make-me-want-to-cry sad. Because there are really only two ways I can see someone honestly making or accepting that argument. The first is because they themselves are genuinely tempted by homosexuality and emotionally damaged over that desire. The second is that they aren’t tempted, but have completely abandoned reason and self-reflection on this subject. Neither of those are good things (and to be clear, it’s the emotional damage I’m claiming is sad, and not the sexual desire).

Of course, it’s possible to dishonestly make that claim. And I’m sure there are some people who do, in order to drum up fear and drive people in their preferred political direction. But if you honestly think about your own sexual desires (yes, it’s OK to think about what you might want), it should be pretty easy to see them for the ridiculous fear-mongering they are.

People love who they love. That doesn’t really change based on what other people tell them is normal. All that changes is whether we make them suffer because of it.