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23 November 2009

Creationist Canards

[ˈnɑrd; Fr. kaˈnar]
–noun, plural -nards [-ˈnɑrdz; Fr. -ˈnar]
1. a false or baseless, usually derogatory story, report, or rumor.


Q1. If humans evolved from monkeys, why are there not any other intelligent beings that have evolved from other animals? Should we not see more "intelligent beings" evolving from other species?

Q2. After centuries, we have yet to reproduce any artificial system that simulates the functioning of the brain. Is it possible for such an complex organ to have evolved from simpler organisms? how could this have been possible?

The first question is an evolutionary relative of the old Monkey Gambit: "If humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" The quickest answer to this is to say that humans didn't evolve from monkeys, and no one but an ignorant buffoon (read: creationist) would use that particular antecedent when forming a conditional statement. Those of us acquainted with formal logic recognise that the consequent is irrelevant in the face of a false antecedent.

Humans are members of the ape (Hominoidea) superfamily of primates, while monkeys are of either the old world (Cercopithecoidea) superfamily or the new world (Platyrrhini) parvorder; you can find a useful hierarchy here. Neither one evolved from the other: they both evolved from a common ancestor. Both Q1 and the Monkey Gambit are akin to asking: "If my cousin is my great-grandmother, why do I like iced cream?" It's complete nonsense.

However, we can meaningfully address the statement if we graciously assume that what the inquisitor meant was: "If humans and monkeys both evolved from earlier primates, why are there not any other intelligent beings that have evolved from the ancestors of other animals?"

PZ Myers deals with this quite well in his response, but I wanted to add a couple of things:
  1. It would seem that primates were particularly well suited to evolve intelligence, as it is an important component (along with manual dexterity) of tool-making, which increases fitness.
  2. Although it seems that we are currently more-or-less alone in the intelligence department*, our ancestors had several other competitors for the intelligence niche: homo neanderthalensis comes to mind. Happily for us, our ancestors won!
  3. Regardless of the species, anyone who developed to a comparable cognitive level as we have would be left wondering the same thing. If an ecosystem were to produce several species capable of self reflection, one of those species would by necessity come first; until the arrival of its intellectual contemporaries, it would be left to wonder why only it had evolved intelligence.
  4. This is also a clear case of what I've heard called the "lottery fallacy", which is very popular with creationists: although it is exceptionally unlikely that any given person will win the lottery, it is much more likely that someone will. Although it is perhaps unlikely that any given animal's descendants will evolve intelligence, it is much more likely that some animal's descendants will evolve such a thing.
As for Q2, PZ† did an admirable job, but I wanted to add one thing.

"After centuries, we have yet to reproduce any artificial system that simulates the functioning of the brain." No more than 106 years ago, this statement justifying the irreproducibility of an animal's capacity for intelligence could have been equally used to testify to the irreproducibility of any given animal's capacity for flight.

The fact that something hasn't been done doesn't justify claiming that it's inherently impossibile any more than the fact that no explanation is currently available for something testifies to its inherent inexplicability. This is a fallacy. Although clichéd and overly simple, the idea that "there's a first time for everything" might suffice here.

Via Pharyngula.

*Although several types of birds, elephants, dolphins, and other apes show signs of quite astonishing intellectual problem-solving abilities that can't be attributed to the Clever Hans effect.

†Yes, it should be made clear that I pronounce his initials "Pee-Zed", although I'm aware that other Canadian bloggers make the exception. I've also been known to say "Zed-Zed Top".

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