Black or White, The Highway Ring of Evolution.

Remember the Michael Jackson 1992 video “Black or White”? (If not, you can see the video online from this link. You'll need to have the free Quicktime player installed on your computer.)

During the video there is a sequence where a headshot of a singer is transformed in stages to that of a completely different singer. This process is called Morphing, and in this song it is done to several singers in a row.

Go take a look at the video – the actual morphing starts about halfway through the video – so you can skip ahead if you like.

There is a point during each morph where it’s impossible to tell if you’re looking at singer A or singer B – but the process happens so quickly that you don’t bother to label the intermediate stages of the process – you just wait until you can put the new singer into a neat pigeon hole.

Shades of gray

Richard Dawkins, in the chapter “Gaps in the Mind” from his book “A Devil’s Chaplin”, (you can read the original article here) speaks about how people like to see things clearly defined – in “Black or White” so to speak. People do not see that there is often an infinite series of gradually darkening grays that progress from white to black.

You can apply this blind spot to evolution - just as you don’t label each intermediate stage of the morphing process in Michael Jackson’s video, science does not easily label each stage of the morphing process between the stages of evolution of a species.

Michael Jackson’s video, like all American television, is displayed at 30 images per second. Each ‘morph’ from singer to singer takes perhaps 4 seconds – or 120 images. If you were watching this video on DVD, and your DVD player ‘hiccupped’ and skipped an image somewhere during the morphing process, you wouldn’t suddenly claim that the morph no longer made sense, or that it was no longer valid. There are still plenty of images displayed in a row for you to tell what is going on.

In Video Security (my current specialty) it is known that you don’t need very many images in a row to get a good sense of what is going on. A mere 2 images per second makes for a very jerky video, but provides more than enough information for a viewer to follow the action. In the “Black or White” video, if only 8 images were shown as one singer morphed into another, you would still understand quite clearly what had happened. The other images can disappear without destroying your overall knowledge of what happened.

Evolution deniers will often use specious arguments based on their own “Black or White” theories of how they believe evolution (doesn’t) work. For example – they say that no one has ever observed evolution in action, they say that there is a lack of ‘intermediate fossils’, and that if a new species arose from a parent species the new species would die off due to a lack of a mate, due to it being too different from it’s parents.

It’s easy to see where evolution deniers get their polarized thinking. Since their theories are usually based upon religion, instead of science, they must use the same “Black or White” thinking that they apply to God. Either God exists, or he doesn’t.

Ease on down the highway

Dawkins uses the analogy of a “Human Chain,” where a long line of people stand hand in hand, to show the flaw in “Black or White” thinking. I’m going to blatantly steal this analogy and update it for American readers.

Let’s start our human chain in Indianapolis, Indiana, where North Post Road meets Interstate 70. We will form the chain on the eastbound lane of I-70, heading for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (See the route - it's about a 6 hour drive.)

A cute little girl stands on the empty highway here, facing north. Her right hand is outstretched, and is held by her mother’s left hand.

The little girl's mother is also facing north. Mom’s right hand is clasped by Grandmother’s left hand and Grandmother’s right hand is clasped by Great-Grandmother’s left hand.

We play some games with this. First, we use Mother – Daughter relationships instead of Father – Son. It makes it easier to tell who was born from whom. Second, each daughter’s mother is brought out of time and space to stand on Interstate Highway 70 with all of her other relatives.

Each woman takes up about one yard of space.

So lets follow these daughters east on I-70 and see what happens.
  • In a mere 500 feet, about a tenth of a mile, we come to Year 1 AD – Biblical ages. Caesar Augustus is the Roman Emperor.
  • At almost four-tenths of a mile we come to the year 8,000 BC – Agriculture is a fairly new invention for the mother of this era.
  • At almost 2 miles down the road we come to about 40,000 years ago – over 3000 generations. Flint tools are in vogue now.
  • Just after the 6-mile mark, or 130,000 years ago, we see Madam Homo sapiens first use a stone ax.
  • At 154 miles down I-70 from our starting point, or 2.5 million years ago, mom first starts using stone tools. Mom, and her stone tools, stand on I-70 near road US-23 in Columbus Ohio. This mom is known formally as Miss Australopithecus afarensis – but you can call her Lucy for short.
Finally, somewhere between Cambridge Ohio, and Washington Pennsylvania, near the state border, stands a very special mother. We will call her Mrs. Matriarch.

Instead of standing on the eastbound lane of I-70,
Mrs. Matriarch stands on the highway-dividing median, facing west.

Mrs. Matriarch’s left hand clasps the right hand of her daughter, the line of daughters and granddaughters on the eastbound lane leading to our cute little girl back in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Mrs. Matriarch’s right hand clasps the left hand of a second daughter. This daughter stands on the westbound lane of I-70, and is facing south, instead of north – looking into the face of her sister.

These two daughters look like each other. Like any children, they look like their mother. Like any children, there are genetic differences – but these differences are inconsequential.

Mrs. Matriarch has a granddaughter on the westbound lane of I-70, and a great-granddaughter, and a great-great, and so on and so on. Each generation of daughters on the westbound lane face south, looking into the faces of their ever-increasingly distant cousins as they proceed west on I-70.

If we proceed all the way back to Indianapolis, Indiana, we come back to our starting place – the eastbound lane of I-70 still contains the original cute little girl that we started out with in the beginning, and she's still facing north. In the westbound lane of I-70 we see a distantly related cousin to the little girl – the relationship is through Mrs. Matriarch, over 500,000 generations east on I-70.

This cousin, facing south and gazing into the eyes of the little girl, is a modern chimpanzee. The chimpanzee and the little girl are bound together by interlinked generations on the highway.

This wonderful analogy makes it glaringly obvious that there is no ‘black or white’ – there is never a handclasp on this chain where you can point and say, “This little girl is Human, and her mother is not.” There may be groups of women with similar features that you can point to and assign a category, such as Homo erectus, but it’s impossible to find the handclasp that seperates H. erectus and H. sapiens.

A woman takes a powder

What about the lack of intermediate fossils? What if a woman on this highway suddenly decided to run off to "powder her nose" so to speak? Her Mother and Daughter patiently wait for her to come back, leaving an empty space for her return.

If you were walking down the line doing an inspection, you would see that she’s missing, but you could also see that genetically it makes no difference. The missing girl’s mother and daughter are obviously of the same bloodline – there is no need to suspect that a completely different bloodline jumped in here.

What if we randomly chose a one-mile segment of the highway, passed out pink slips and told those women that “their services were no longer needed.” 1760 generations of women are sent home – a period that spans almost 21 thousand years.

21 Thousand years seems like a long time – but if you apply it to modern Humans you see that it doesn’t make much of a difference. H. sapiens emerged around 100 thousand years ago. 21 thousand years ago H. sapiens were using flint blades to hunt, creating cave art, using language, and advancing their culture. These humans would look very similar to us today – they would be so genetically similar that a person from 21 thousand years ago could easily have children with a contemporary human.

We could throw out a 4-mile section of the highway just as easily, creating an 83 thousand year gap. And still we could easily prove a relationship between the two women on either side of this gap. The women on either side of the gap are still so genetically similar that they could successfully mate with the same man.

Only when we create a gap of 24 miles or more do we start making gaps that cannot easily be bridged by genetics – 24 miles is half a million years or more than 40 thousand generations. But even across this gap there is enough genetic similarity that a mating should produce a genetic ‘mule’. There is more than enough genetic similarity to easily deduce that the women at the ends of this gap are related.

In paleontology there are such gaps in Human evolution – no gap in this highway of mothers and daughters is so great that it becomes impossible to tell who is the next woman on the highway.

Evolution deniers who point out the lack of intermediate fossils – gaps in the highway – have not opened their eyes. There is plenty of evidence.

When someone says that a new species arising from an old species would die off due to the lack of a mate it is evidence of simplistic ‘Black or White’ thinking – this is a fatal flaw in our infinitely shaded world. There is no place on our highway where a daughter is genetically incompatible with her peers.

Lord of the Ring Species

If I haven’t bored you enough, let’s put to rest one more tired canard voiced by Evolution deniers. They often say that no one has ever observed evolution – so it doesn’t happen.

I could pose the question here that if evolution isn’t ongoing, why do we need increasingly stronger antibiotics? Why doesn’t plain old penicillin work on every bug anymore? If you don’t believe in evolution, I guess that means you’ll give up your flu shots too, right? You should put your money, or in this case, your life, where your theology is.

But the stuff that happens under a microscope isn’t readily observable by the common person. (Well, not until someone dies from flesh-eating bacteria.)

Dawkins, in “A Devil’s Chaplin,” mentions a ‘ring species’. He uses the classic example of the Larus Gulls, but I’ll use a more local (to me) example of the Ensatina salamander currently living in a distribution around California’s central valley.

Salamanders prefer cooler weather, with a moist environment. The California central valley is a very hot, dry environment and creates an impassible barrier to this species.

Charles Brown gives an excellent explanation of this salamander ring species on his web site – you can go there for details. I will only point out in my graphic that the six subspecies of Ensatina salamander live in a ‘ring’ around the valley. At every place in this ring, each subspecies is able to breed with adjacent species in the ring, all the way around except where the ring breaks just to the east of San Diego. Here, eschscholtzi and klauberi meet with each other and can NOT breed! Careful study has shown these two salamander subspecies of Ensatina are different species from each other, by definition.

A ring of salamander relatives genetically connect these two groups together just as surely as the little girl on highway I-70 in our example is connected to the chimpanzee in the westbound lane of the same highway. The ends of this ring cannot breed together just as a Human cannot breed with a chimp – but these rings are connected together just the same.

Here we observe speciation in action – something that Evolution deniers say can’t happen, is happening RIGHT NOW. And not only here – there are other examples of ring species.

The only difference between a ring species and our highway example is all links of a ring species are alive.

In conclusion - another joke at the expense of Michael Jackson.

On a more personal note to evolution deniers - no matter how hard you try, you can't frame Evolution in terms of "Black or White".

Now beat it.


Anonymous said...

It is obvious that you are not an Athiest because you go to great lengths to support your "belief" in a process that could make a brand new Mercedes from a junk yard as long as enough time is given. Good luck to you!

Anonymous said...

Why thank you, Phillip. It's always nice to see the warm regards given to me by loving believers.

Anonymous said...

You know, I don't really understand why you felt you had to tear me down when it would have been so much easier to build me up?

After all, I ask in my Creation Science Challange post for help in understanding the Creationist position. And I've gotten damn few takers.

Perhaps tearing down is the easier path to take. Plus it makes you feel so good too.

Seamus said...


The problem with using "just so" stories to defend an idea, like evolution in this case, is that every other "just so" story is equally valid. In addition, your first examples are circular. Your morphing story, for example, assumes the very thing it attempts to demonstrate: that evolution occurred as some long unbroken chain of minor variations through time. Even if such evolution did occur, imagining a pretty example does nothing to support the theory. Your maternal chain is in the same situation; you have to assume that such an unbroken chain exists in order to use your example to buttress the idea. As for your "woman takes a powder" example of why a gap is unproblematic, you again have to assume that the master chain exists in order to state that such a gap was at one time filled. You can't use stories like these, which assume their conclusion, as supporting evidence. If all you're trying to do is provide handy analogies to evolutionary theory, given the assumption that evolution is true and not trying to prove anything, then you have some fine examples.

What about your ring species? You have collected some evidence here of variations among like creatures. You first mention antibiotic resistant bacteria, although they have nothing to do with ring species, as evidence that evolution occurs. You then discuss salamanders in California that have speciated in a ring pattern. Your evidence is fine, no one has a problem believing those things. Your conclusion is the problem. What makes you think that variations among bacteria and salamanders support the macroevolution of all life in existence? Your examples betray you. The bacteria you discuss are all still the same kind of bacteria, and the salamanders are still all the same kind of salamanders. Sure we can give them fancy latin names to distinguish them using taxonomic labels, but that only changes their name - not their makeup. You are certainly aware that taxonomy is subjective and arbitrary. Salamanders of the same kind can be divided up based on minute criteria ad infinitum and yet the enormous variation among common dogs (even among dogs that can no longer physically mate) is all lumped together under one species name. Taxonomy does not delineate reality, it is an abstract tool we created to describe it. If you have evidence that one kind of creature can evolve into a completely new and different kind of creature, you have yet to show us. All you have shown is that species contain a wide variety of variation. We already knew that. The evidence at hand does nothing to help us determine whether genetic variation has impassable limits. Any extrapolation beyond that point is mere speculation.

But I digress, my point is to show that your example of the salamanders is a "just so" story. Your evidence is neutral. I have no problem believing that salamander populations mate or do not mate based on the ring diagram. I don't know it to be a fact, but I can assume that it is true for the sake of this discussion. What does that prove? It only proves that these salamander species exist in a ring pattern which affects their mating and geography. Using this data, you want us to believe that they will continue to diverge, ultimately becoming such wildly different beings as the ostrich and the elephant, or at least that such divergence occurred in history. Of course, there isn't evidence for this other than that salamanders have some degree of variation, however small. Why should we believe that this leads to macroevolution? Your authority? The authority of scientists? That doesn't help me any more than if I told you that they won't evolve based on the authority of biblical scholars.

Here's another "just so" story. Let's say that salamanders were genetically designed to manifest slight and non-random genetic mutations to best adapt to their particular environment. Let's assume that this genetic variation is specific and precise and has impassable limits. Salamanders will always be salamanders even though they will always display variation within their various populations. Over time these changes will ebb and flow, salamanders always being salamanders. Some pupulations may die, some may thrive. Some may not be able to mate with others as long as certain criteria are in place. Through these specialized changes, salamanders remain a viable creature on this planet.

Notice how the actual evidence at hand does nothing to help distinguish between our stories. One of us could be right, both of us could be wrong, but the evidence does not help us. We base our stories on assumptions and speculation. We may have reasons, good reasons, to say and believe what we do, but our stories describe life beyond the boundaries of our evidence. We each say, it happened "just so", and point to the same data.

The problem here, which the great majority of Americans don't seem to grasp, is that "just so" stories are not science.

Anonymous said...

“Just So” stories are a form of hypothesis. Where does the rainbow come from? Because it’s God’s promise. Why does the sun come up? Because it revolves around the Earth that is at the center of God’s universe. Why do animals look so different from each other? Because God created them that way.

In Jonathan Well’s ‘just so’ story in the “Horse Icon” he quotes Tim Berra’s analogy about the Corvette, pointing out that each species could, instead of evolving new species, be created separately from each other, without going through that difficult evolution nonsense.

This exposes a lot of Dr. Well’s own beliefs that he hints at from time to time in “Icons”. Personally, I don’t think that anyone who is a biblical literalist, or Young Earth Creationist, would be able to stomach Dr. Wells since he has no problem with a 4.5 billion year old Earth. Dr. Wells uses evidence of an ancient fossil microbe in one of his refutations. He uses the possibility of divine creation of the species that dot the fossil record as an alternative explanation to evolutionary theories that he finds to be flawed. It soon becomes clear that if Wells were to re-write the Bible he would have to add several hundred chapters to Geneses I & 2.

The interesting thing about a divinely guided pseudo-evolutionary hypothesis, where slightly different (but wholly new) species were created one after another, is that the hypothesis requires a divine entity who is extremely interested in the ‘hit or miss’ method of biology. (A lot of his creations weren’t so much of a success since most of them went extinct. But he sure hit the ball out of the park with beetles. God is a real nut for beetles!)

This leads us to a ‘just so’ story that is not only not provable, but needlessly complex.

I have an idea, let’s remove some of that complexity, and take away the idea of God as an omnipotent Dr. Frankenstein. It makes as much sense as the other ‘just so’ story, and isn’t nearly so cluttered.

There would be an excellent way to disprove the theory of evolution, and prove the theory of divine evolution – proof of an Intelligent Designer in action. As soon as definite proof is found for sudden, disconnected morphology, like a cat giving birth to a dog, all evolutionary scientists will hang up their lab coats and become beetle collectors.

Anonymous said...

Ensatina is almost certainly not ring species. The "ring" formed by the Sierra Nevada, Coast Ranges, and Transverse Ranges in California apparently has a permeable center, with salamanders able to cross the Central Valley (at least historically). Also a few of the birds have been disproved. Maybe something else will come up. Good luck.

Calladus said...

Oh thank you! I appreciate your help.

Uhm. Could you please quote the study involved?