|The view from my Southend hotel room on Wednesday morning|
The talks went well (I think) but a useful bonus was a chance to attend a little symposium the school was running for a group of students. Said students were entering a competition to write a piece about science and religion, so the school put together a panel of five of their teachers, who each gave their personal opinion on science v religion, from an out-and-out atheist perspective to one that put the two on very much equal footing and could see no conflict between them.
The students were then given the chance to ask questions of the teachers. One, rather daringly, questioned a statement from the head teacher that while he had no problem with evolution, we need to recognize that as a theory it has some big problems. Would the head like to identify one of these problems, asked the bold student.
The head responded that the fossil record does not provide good evidence for evolution. Not that it counters evolution, but is not sufficient to support it. With the thoughts of what my friend Henry Gee would say, who gets rather hot under the collar when the fossil record is waved around in a dangerous fashion, I waded in and pointed out that the fossil record is inherently incomplete in a big way, and any attempt to use it to cast doubt on evolution was dubious at best.
Ah yes, said the head, but the fact remains that there are not, for example, enough dead-end fossils. We should expect many more fossils of creatures that were evolutionary errors, the outcome of random variation gone wrong.
|A breakfast view that morning|
However, it's not going to stop me responding now. I know very little of palaeontology and the likes of Dr Gee are welcome to correct me on this, but my response would have been 'So what?' I'm not at all surprised there aren't many dead-ends for three reasons. One is that by definition many dead-ends would be, well dead-ends. They'd be one-offs. Chances of being fossilized? Vanishingly small.
Then what I always feel is the most amazing aspect of evolution, something that isn't made enough of. This is that every individual creature throughout history has been the same species as its parent. Even though if you follow back through our parental history you will eventually get back to bacteria-like ancestors, you will never see a species change from one generation to the next. It's a glorious paradox. So inevitably the first step down a dead-end will be indistinguishable from a non dead-end fossil.
Finally, I very much doubt how well we can deduce whether or not many fossils are dead-ends, bearing in mind what a fossil is. There may be some where it's pretty obvious but surely there will be many where it won't. To use a breeding rather than evolutionary analogy, I doubt if anyone looking at a fossilized mule would say 'that's a dead-end animal. It won't continue the line.' But the fact is a mule is just that.
As for the religion v science debate it was inevitably open ended. But it was fun trying and much kudos to the school for trying it.