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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Creationism by divine design, evolution by environmental priority or extinctionism by catastrophe

Twitter is buzzing by those who are following the live debate about creationism (Ken Ham) and evolution (Bill Nye) streamed on

I've followed the debate on twitter, rather than live video, but the controversy took on new meaning after I read a fascinating article in the December 16 2013 The New Yorker:

The mastodon’s molars.

This article describes the once popular work, little known today, of Jean Leopold Nicholas Frederic Cuvier (1769-1832), an anatomist who challenged the "new-fangled" theory of his time, now known as "evolution". Cuvier did not base opposition to this theory on any Biblical beliefs. Rather, Cuvier responded to evolution based upon his extraordinary knowledge of anatomy. To put it succinctly, Cuvier claimed it was ridiculous to assume species changed or evolved. Rather, they either survived catastrophe or they become extinct.  

There's science available today to give Cuvier's theory more credibility, but in the 19th century, the only evidence he had was bones. Cuvier studied bones. One theory advanced by Cuvier was that Asian and African elephants were not the same species. Today, this is validated based upon scientific analysis, but Cuvier made this determination based upon his analysis of the bones of the elephants. In other words, African elephants did not evolve from their Asian counterparts. They are two separate species.

Following is the opening of The New Yorker article: 

April 4, 1796—or, according to the French Revolutionary calendar in use at the time, 15 Germinal, Year IV—Jean-Léopold-Nicholas-Frédéric Cuvier, known, after a brother who had died, simply as Georges, delivered his first public lecture at the National Institute of Science and Arts, in Paris. Cuvier, who was twenty-six, had arrived in the city a year earlier, shortly after the end of the Reign of Terror. He had wide-set gray eyes, a prominent nose, and a temperament that a friend compared to the exterior of the earth—generally cool, but capable of violent tremors and eruptions. Cuvier had grown up in a small town on the Swiss border and had almost no connections in the capital. Nevertheless, he had managed to secure a prestigious research position there, thanks to the passing of the ancien régime, on the one hand, and his own sublime self-regard, on the other. An older colleague later described him as popping up in the city “like a mushroom.”

For his inaugural lecture, Cuvier decided to speak about elephants. Although he left behind no record to explain his choice, it’s likely that it had to do with loot. France was in the midst of the military campaigns that would lead to the Napoleonic Wars, and had recently occupied Belgium and the Netherlands. Booty, in the form of art, jewels, seeds, machinery, and minerals, was streaming into Paris. As the historian of science Martin J. S. Rudwick relates, in “Bursting the Limits of Time” (2005), a hundred and fifty crates’ worth was delivered to the city’s National Museum of Natural History. Included among the rocks and dried plants were two elephant skulls, one from Ceylon—now Sri Lanka—and the other from the Cape of Good Hope, in present-day South Africa.
By this point, Europe was well acquainted with elephants; occasionally one of the animals had been brought to the Continent as a royal gift, or to travel with a fair. (One touring elephant, known as Hansken, was immortalized by Rembrandt.) Europeans knew that there were elephants in Africa, which were considered to be dangerous, and elephants in Asia, which were said to be more docile. Still, elephants were regarded as elephants, much as dogs were dogs, some gentle and others ferocious. Cuvier, in his first few months in Paris, had examined with care the plundered skulls and had reached his own conclusion. Asian and African elephants, he told his audience, represented two distinct species. . . .

The article goes on to describe how Cuvier created the concept of extinction, "Seems to me," Cuvier said, "to prove the existence of a world previous to ours destroyed by some sort of catastrophe..."

Frankly, I never thought of "extinction" as an alternative to either "creationism" (a concrete belief in a divinely created world) or "evolution", as popularized by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Although I'm not an anthropologist or a zoologist, I've heard arguments pro-Creationism and pro-Evolution for most of my life. 

Now, it appears there's an argument for an alternative. In other words, could there be an Extinctionism theory? 

Indeed, a Public Broadcasting Network program explores the extinction science. In summary, five mass extinctions have occurred since life began on Earth. Are humans causing the next mass extinction? What does evolutionary theory predict for the world we will leave our descendants?

Of course, scientists challenged Cuvier, during his lifetime, to describe the kind of catastrophes widespread enough to cause the extinction of species? Cuvier rightly responded that it wasn't his job to figure out the nature of the catastrophes. Nevertheless, he theorized that species, like the long extinct mastodon, disappeared because of a catastrophe, but he didn't know what happened to remove the animal from the earth, altogether.

Cuvier raised the concept of a civilization existing before our modern era. At the time he advanced this theory, he must have sounded as outrageous as a supporter of unidentified flying objects (UFOs).  

Today, the extinction concept is entirely plausible, at least to me. My husband and I have traveled just enough to be completely mystified about how Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Stonehenge on England's Salisbury Plain could possibly have been built by people who had no modern tools, whatsoever, or knowledge of physics. There may have been a civilization around before the creation of the story of the Biblical Adam and Eve.

Therefore, it seems like the debate between creationists and evolutionists might become archaic. Instead, it might be time to give Monsieur Cuvier's lectures another printing.

It would sure be amazing if the creationists and the evolutionists are both wrong. Rather, it's possible an 18th century French anatomist, named Cuvier, figured out what happened to species, just by examining bones. 

Yet, an even more sober thought is to ask what will cause the next extinction? It won't be an act of God nor an evolution of the species. Unfortunately, the next extinction may well be caused by humans.

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