The Nye-Ham Evolution Debate

Editorial_cartoon_depicting_Charles_Darwin_as_an_ape_(1871)

As I am sure many of you know, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” debated creationist Ken Ham on the topic of evolution a few days ago. I have little to add here that hasn’t already been said, except to say that I think Bill Nye did a superb job of defending science and evolution. I originally thought it was going to be a disaster for Nye who isn’t known to be a skilled debater. As the pro-evolution Sensuous Curmudgeon graphically put it “Bill Nye will be bringing a slide rule to a knife fight.”

Generally speaking, I do not believe that scientists should debate creationists. It makes creationism look more legitimate than it really is, when in reality there is nothing to debate. Creationism is not science, it is not an “alternative” scientific theory. The way I see it, it is no different from a geologist debating a flat-earther. Now Bill Nye isn’t a scientist, he’s a mechanical engineer, and an entertainer/science popularizer(he was on “Dancing with the Stars” not too long ago). So I suppose this is kind of different than if a prominent biologist were to debate Ken Ham. Personally, I believe only comedians who understand a thing or two about evolution should debate creationists – one clown versus another clown. It’s just a waste of time for scientists.

As expected, due to this debate, many creationists have questions for Nye and evolutionists in general. Most of these questions reveal a stunning lack of science literacy, and even outright laziness, but who better to answer them than Steven Novella over at his Neurologica blog: Questions from the Nye-Ham Debate

Although Dr Novella does a commendable job of answering all of them(about the 100 billionth time they’ve been answered), I thought I would take a stab at Question 22)  “If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?”

This is kind of like asking “If most Americans are descended from Europeans, why are there still Europeans?” Even if this was true, and we are the descendants of a currently existing species of monkey, this doesn’t refute evolution. This question also presupposes the erroneous idea that humans are somehow more “evolved” than monkeys, and that the less “evolved” species should go extinct. Monkeys are just as evolved as we are, they just evolved in a different environment.

The truth of the matter is that we are not descended from any currently existing ape or monkey species, though we all share a common ancestor from tens of millions of years ago. But now, this is where it gets a little tricky. Our now extinct primate ancestors from millions of years ago would almost certainly qualify as “monkeys” if they were alive today. Take a look at the tree-dwelling Archicebus achilles, said to be one of the earliest primates and an ancestor of humans, apes, and monkeys.

It is certainly monkey-like, and could even be said to be a “proto-monkey”. Part of the reason for the confusion over the word “monkey” is that it lacks rigor and is usually not treated as a distinct taxon by experts. Biologists treat monkeys as a “paraphyletic” group. According to the Wikipedia article on monkeys:

Scientific classifications are now more often based on monophyletic groups, that is groups consisting of all the descendants of a common ancestor. The New World monkeys and the Old World monkeys are each monophyletic groups, but their combination is not, since it excludes hominoids (apes and humans). Thus the term “monkey” no longer refers to a recognized scientific taxon. The smallest accepted taxon which contains all the monkeys is the infraorder Simiiformes, or simians. However this also contains the hominoids (apes and humans), so that monkeys are, in terms of currently recognized taxa, non-hominoid simians.

Believe it or not, I covered the rather confusing concept of “monophyletic” in my “I do not eat dinoaurs” post. I occasionally have to relearn what it means, so don’t worry if it confuses you!

So if someone wants to say that we are descended from monkeys, that isn’t entirely unscientific if they mean a long extinct species of archaic monkey or “proto-monkey”, not a currently existing monkey species. I realize this may be confusing. Even if we had a complete tree of life for all currently existing and extinct primate species, pinpointing which species was the first “monkey”, or which species qualify as “monkeys” and which do not, would be pretty much impossible, due to the various conflicting ways of defining what a “monkey” is. Science, especially biology, often deals with fuzzy sets and as a result, there are all these fun semantic disputes among scientists. Novella’s answer to this question is kind of different from mine, mostly because he wants his answers to be succinct and to the point, but I still agree with him. I may not be as much of an expert as Novella, so if I got something wrong, don’t hesitate to correct me.

For more info: Are We Descended From Monkeys?

monkey

The current state of science literacy in the U.S is an embarrassment. Widespread rejection of evolution is but one major symptom of this. I applaud Bill Nye for doing what he can to try to remedy this situation, but debating creationists may not be the best way to do it.

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