As I sat down on the metro last Saturday, I noticed three magazines on the seat. The first two were Awake! magazine and The Watchtower: “Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom”. The third magazine — I’m not making this up — was the April 2009 edition of Metro Weekly: Washington’s Gay & Lesbian News Magazine. I would love to know who was sitting there before I was.
I hope that the issue of Awake! is targeted at children, considering the lack of complexity in their articles. I also hope that no child reads it, considering its misrepresentation of evolution. In a short section “Was it Designed?” the magazine marvels at the toucan’s beak:
The consistency of the toucan’s beak has been compared to that of a hard sponge. Some parts of it are hollow, while other parts are made up of beams and membranes. The result is a lightweight beak that has astounding strength. “It’s almost as if the toucan has a deep knowledge of mechanical engineering,” says [materials scientist Mark Andre] Myers…
As a friend of mine noted, my circulatory system works remarkably well and yet I do not possess a deep knowledge of hydraulics. But I digress. The ending was the most frustrating:
What do you think? Did the toucan’s strong but lightweight beak come about by chance? Or was it designed?
How about C) neither of the above? I think the beak is a result of cumulative natural selection. Awake! seems to be implying that something so successful couldn’t have “come about by chance” and so it must be designed. This great mini-lesson from the University of Indiana’s Evolution & the Nature of Science Institutes would have been helpful:
This lesson provides an elegant, easy way for students to actually compare Darwin’s cumulative non-random selection with the non-cumulative version so often erroneously implied. Students working in pairs attempt to produce a full sequence of 13 cards of one suit (ace – to king). This must be done by shuffling the suit of cards for each round, then checking the cards. Half the teams must look for the full sequence each time, and repeat the process until this is accomplished. The other teams start to “build” their sequence by pulling the ace when it first appears as the top card, then adding to the stack whenever the “next” card for the sequence is shuffled to the top. Discussion clearly reveals how the second method mimics Darwinian natural selection, while the first does not.
Of course, there are some significant differences between this activity and evolution. The students have a desired outcome and are only accepting shuffles that get closer to that ace-king “strong/lightweight beak.” But there’s no reason to assume that nature had to result in that particular beak. Over time the successful random changes propagate while the unsuccessful changes don’t. In that sense, we don’t necessarily know which random mutations and variations will occur, but we know any that stick around will be successful for their environment. The toucan’s variation could have exploited a different niche in its environment, and Awake! would be marveling: “Did the toucan’s incredible, narrow, and flexible beak come about by chance? Or was it designed?”
It’s not chance that the toucan’s beak is successful. It is chance that this particular model is what happened, but I’m not going to give Awake! magazine credit for having that degree of nuance in their question.