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A Reply to Bill Oddie

Reading Bill Oddie’s article ‘I don’t believe it!’ in Birdwatch (January 2019; issue 319) got me thinking about evolution. I am not religious but I am a philosopher with an interest in natural history, and it struck me that some of the inferences that Bill draws from what I understand to be the three main discussion points of his article are a little muddled. The three main points are as follows (I will discuss his inferences presently):

  1. Human beings are, to a large degree, responsible for ‘improvements’ in dogs – Bill characterises these as artificial improvements.

  2. Changes of a similar kind take place in avifauna, which are not caused by human beings (they are the product of evolution), but Bill finds it difficult (as I do) to accept that the natural world was made by a creator.

  3. Creationists believe that the earth was made by a creator in six days..

Let us look at no.1 first. Bill claims that not many modern dogs look natural because they are not natural - having been subject to human ‘improvements.’ This is an interesting assertion. Why not, instead, suggest that evolution has directed at least many of us towards a bias in relation to conserving those creatures that we find cute or useful? Evolution is a complex thing. Like everything else, we (as Homo sapiens) are a product of it. That being the case, it seems strange to think of the activities of this species as somehow artificial and distinct from the natural world. Surely, how we act, and what and how we think (as individuals and collectives) are all dimensions of an ever evolving species that, in turn, can be understood as just one aspect of the natural evolution of life on earth. On what grounds might we exclude human ways of thinking and acting from the evolution story? – Any such exclusion would, surely, be arbitrary and merely a further example of the ways in which the species Homo sapiens has evolved to think.

It seems at least reasonable to suggest that the evolution of the dog – its continued genetic survival – might be contingent upon our (presumably evolved) human disposition for finding dogs companionable and useful. Thus, one might argue that dogs have exploited such a disposition insofar as human beings have become inclined to take them into their homes. The survival of the fittest is, after all, dependent upon the environment in which a species finds itself – in the case of dogs (and others), the fittest counts as being able to adapt to the otherwise constricting activities of other creatures (often human beings). The point is that what makes a life-form the fittest at any given time is seldom dependent upon the way a particular species has evolved in isolation; frequently it has much to do with the actions of other creatures (in this case Homo sapiens) and the environments in which they both find themselves.

Now for the second claim – that, unlike in dogs, changes which take place in birds are not the result of ‘artificial’ human intervention. Perhaps it would be useful to group claims 1 and 2 together insofar as we can now count the changes in dogs as a natural evolutionary process, much as we can the changes in birds (albeit changes with different causes). Little more need be said in relation to this claim other than to remark that the changes involved happen at different rates, due to the processes involved.

Claim three – that creationists believe that the earth was made by a creator (God) in six days – is true. However, not all monotheists are creationists as Bill seems to imply - indeed, many Christians believe Darwinian evolution is compatible with theism and expressive of God’s intelligence. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that the number of Christians in the UK who are creationists is under 10% and that a former Archbishop of Canterbury – Dr. Rowan Williams – has explicitly stated that he is opposed to creationism being taught in schools. Accordingly, the decisive evidence that exists against creationism is insufficient to disprove the existence of God, or a creator of some kind; it merely disproves that such a creator made the birds and the bees (along with much else besides) in six days. All of that said, like Bill, I do not see God’s hand in our evolution story; the ways things are does not logically imply God’s existence.

But it is the latter parts of Bill’s article that really got me thinking about evolution.

Bill addresses the idea that – for example – Great Bustards were once Wrens and vultures were once hummingbirds (his example). Although radically different in kind, each of these creatures is classified as a bird. But here it gets interesting. What determines the way we classify such creatures? – Darwin obviously saw resemblances (partly informed by an emerging fossil record) and classified animal life accordingly. However, the concept of ‘bird’ is much older than our relatively recent scientific modes of classifications, in spite of the fact that, in this day and age, we tend to think that such a concept is determined by DNA. The microstructures of organisms are, of course, interesting, important and objective – but they are no more so than those which are visible to the naked eye. The essence of the concept of ‘bird’ is not, therefore, to be found in its DNA any more or less than it is in the features that are open to view. And yet, even before the discovery of the microscopic dimensions of animal life, creatures of different sizes, colour and shape were grouped under the same concept (Wrens and Vultures, for instance or German Shepherds and Shih Tzus).

The point is that such resemblances play a role in our systems of classification – when we talk of the essence of concepts such as bird or dog, and marvel at how a range of very different looking creatures come under the umbrella of such concepts, it is the priority we give to certain characteristics and resemblances over others that determines how we classify animal life. If we are asked to point out what, for example, makes both a German Shepherd and a Shih Tzu dogs, to what do we appeal? – The fact that each is furry, the fact that they are different sizes, their respective diets, their colour, their DNA, whether they are male or female and so on?

How we (as Homo sapiens) understand the essence of a bird or a dog seems to be relative to the way we are disposed to classify it which, in turn, is contingent upon the priority we give to certain characteristics and resemblances; this could, itself, be understood as a function of evolution. For the animal life itself – whatever that creature may be – all its properties (both micro and macro) are equally essential to its existence as that creature.

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