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Bill Maher has been having a ball posting clips of Tea Party favorite, Delaware Republican Senate candidate, and Sarah Palin endorsee Christine O'Donnell from when she (for reasons I don't understand) appeared on several episodes of Maher's show POLITICALLY INCORRECT in the late 1990s.

In one of the more recently released clips, O'Donnell lets this one loose:

O'DONNELL: You know what, evolution is a myth. And even Darwin himself -

MAHER: Evolution is a myth? Have you ever looked at a monkey?
O'DONNELL: Well then, why they -- why aren't monkeys still evolving into humans?

O'Donnell is flat wrong about evolution being a "myth" and Maher's comeback, while funny, made no traction.  Let me trot out my standard stump speech on the subject.

Yes, "evolution," or as it is more formally known, "natural selection," is indeed a theory.  Instead of blathering on about the dictionary definition of the word "theory" or more pertinently what the term means as it's applied in the sciences, it may be more useful for me to point out that evolution is a theory the same way gravitation is a theory.  Or the Standard Model of particle physics.  But just as the theory of gravitation was set forth over 400 years ago and has held up sufficiently to enable us to land manned spacecraft on the Moon, deduce the existence and location of Neptune before it was ever observed, and sling spacecraft from here to Venus twice and back to Earth once on its way to Jupiter and Saturn with freakish precision, the theory of evolution was coarsely set forth over 150 years ago and has been verified and refined by experimental and emprical means ever since, and the molecular mechanisms by which evolutionary processes function have been understood and described for over 50 years.  Evolution lies at the heart of all the life sciences and underpins a huge array of other theories in molecular biology, paleontology, anthropology, and medicine.  Were evolution merely a myth, whole swaths of mankind's understanding of itself and all life on Earth would fly apart like a Jenga game given a swift kick.

The thing about "theories" in this context is that when they hold up time and time again when put to the test, and other theories that interlock with those theories also hold up when tested, a web of confidence hardens around them; they become reliable.  We know the Standard Model works because cell phones and nuclear reactors work.  We know the theory of gravitation works because we can soft-land spacecraft down on other planets with regularity.  Evolution is harder to test because among macroscopic living things, evolutionary processes take many, many generations to play out and because the processes are not simple or straightforward.  But biologists working with microorganisms with very fast replication cycles can observe it, and even when armies of little motorized machines are imagined computationally with their components arranged at random, judged by computer on their ability to locomote on a flat surface, and made to "mate" and "reproduce" in a biology-like manner, their "offspring" become very efficient walkers after a surprisingly small number of generations.  And we know evolution works because we can keep making flu vaccines work (even producing a new vaccine specifically for a novel substrain of influenza virus in a matter of months) and also because we can disassemble and analyze creatures' DNA and trace their ancestry back to antiquity.

So concludes my stump speech.

All of these theories have been subject to refinement and extension as new observations arrived.  Isaac Newton's predictions about gravity were not sufficient to precisely describe Mercury's orbit around the Sun; because that planet is so close to the Sun and the Sun is so massive, effects predicted by Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity become significant; time itself goes a tiny but measurable bit slower on Mercury relative to us on Earth because of its proximity to the Sun.  Similarly, Darwin - who was a naturalist, not an experimental research scientist, after all - set forth rather vague notions of how evolutionary effects play out in nature without benefit of understanding any of the underlying mechanisms (that came about a century later).  Subsequently, in the 20th century, refinements like Stephen Jay Gould's "punctuated equilibrium" idea came closer to explaining what scientists observe in nature.  Had Darwin followed his thoughts to their logical conclusion, one species of plant or animal would be nothing but a point on a smoothly shifting transition between two other points on the same transition - that's not what we see; Gould's refinement does a much better job of describing nature but is more complex than Darwin's original postulation.  

Which brings me to Christine O'Donnell's question, which on its face, is actually a reasonable one: why aren't monkeys still evolving into humans?  One problem with her question is that its premise is badly flawed.  I'm going to give her the benefit of the doubt that when she says "monkeys" she's referring to not just true monkeys but also many apes; this is a common misconception that, in this case, actually helps O'Donnell's case because it's the so-called great apes - especially orangutans and chimpanzees - that are our closest genetic relatives.  But the real point is that the ancestors of those species and ours, going back to the ancestors all three or any two have in common, are long extinct.  So it's not reasonable to consider one species evolving into any other species that's a contemporary to it; any two contemporary species of animal will have a common ancestor that necessarily predates them both, and both species are on their own evolutionary paths that will lead to either extinction or yet another species.

I should also clarify that "evolving" isn't the same thing as "speciating," which is when one species separates into two or more.  When O'Donnell speaks of Species A "evolving" into Species B, what she seems to really mean is "speciating."

Aside from its flawed premise, O'Donnell's question shows more than anything else an ignorance of the time scales involved in the evolution of macroscopic life on Earth.  Humans that look like us are about 200,000 years along, down a line that split off from chimps about 4.1 million years ago (as a species chimps are very old compared to humans, which has a lot to do with why chimps pretty much all look the same; leave Earth and come back in a couple million years and humans - if we still exist - will pretty much all look the same too).  An animal like the platypus, which goes so far back that something visibly recognizable as platypus-like was contemporary with dinosaurs, dates to somewhere between 19 million and 48 million years ago (meaning that if you went back in time 10 million years, a platypus would pretty much still be a platypus!).  So right off the bat, you can see that people live nowhere near long enough to see big animals speciate in the way O'Donnell's question suggests.

Christine O'Donnell did not come out with this declaration about evolution when she was some uneducated teenager; rather, it happened when she was an uneducated adult, as she appears to remain today.  But beyond any mere passing incomprehension of a fairly significant concept like evolution, O'Donnell appears to reside in a world where things that would traditionally grace the cover of the WEEKLY WORLD NEWS - alongside Bat Boy and the meddlings of the alien P'Lod in our government's affairs - are somehow real.  Witness this bombshell she dropped on Bill O'Reilly in 2007:  "American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains!"

Quite simply, a creationist or someone who thinks that the things that mad-scientist characters do in cartoons are real has every right to live and be that way - but they disqualify themselves from public office.  To extend the above analogy, a creationist is akin to someone who claims that every so often, water will flow uphill or that a hammer may hover in place when you release your grip on it.  Such a demonstrable and willful lack of understanding of the natural world calls into question any understanding they would have of the economic, political, technological, legal, and sociological worlds; I contend that a facility in those arenas - or, at bare minimum, the the facility to acquire the knowledge as called upon - is a prerequisite for elected officials.  Her endorsees and her ardent supporters do not hold this view.  It is vitally important that they be counteracted and outnumbered at the polls.

Originally posted to EyeOfSouthGwinnett on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 02:40 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Christine O'Donnell is an ignorant grifter; (11+ / 0-)

    exactly like her mentor Sarah Palin.  

    Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official... ~Theodore Roosevelt

    by Pam from Calif on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 02:49:20 PM PDT

  •  I think she looks like Rachel Ray, do you? (5+ / 0-)

    Sure hope she doesnt get a cooking show on Fox News.

  •  She's the answer to her question and ... (5+ / 0-)

    .... I know some monkeys who aren't happy about it :)

  •  Read this shit they have in my newspaper (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RonV, mattman, oscarsmom

    I live near a bunch of teabaggers not odonnell related but teabaggers

    http://www.wilsoncountynews.com/...

    I deal with this all the time- a whole community proud of their ignorance. If anyone wants to chime in on the comments, you'll be shocked and amazed

  •  My reply is simpler (9+ / 0-)

    Monkeys are still evolving. Just not into something the watches F*X News.

    Those who forget the lessons of history are probably watching Glenn Beck.

    by ontheleftcoast on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 03:04:20 PM PDT

  •  I think they don't believe... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    walkshills, asterkitty

    in gravity either.

    evolution is a theory the same way gravitation is a theory

    "We believe that the people are the source of all governmental power; that the authority of the people is to be extended, not restricted."-Barbara Jordan

    by sancerre2001 on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 03:07:56 PM PDT

  •  The reason why monkeys don't become us (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    walkshills, oscarsmom, msmacgyver

    I would like to recommend to candidate O'Donnell a book which should explain why monkeys did not become homo sapiens. Pick up the book "Superfreakonomics" by Stephen Leavitt and Stephen Dubner. Go to the very last chapter, the postscript. In that postscript read about researcher Kevin Chen and his results when he introduced the concept of money to a group of capuchin monkeys. THEN perhaps she will understand why the other primates chose not to become like us.I'd like to discuss this further somehow.

    •  I dunno about those guys (0+ / 0-)

      I read Freakonomics and then SuperFreakonomics.  I've decided to take Leavitt and Dubner with a grain of salt.  It turned out that the story in the first book about how the KKK was brought down via the Superman radio show was apocryphal - great story; didn't happen.  

      But more to the point, the Capuchin story is certainly interesting but trying to find parallels to what they did to human behavior is a leap I'm not willing to make.

  •  the thing that really bothers (0+ / 0-)

    me is that a university (admittedly tardily) gave this woman a degree.  We have all these congressmen and senators ostensibly attorneys who are stupid beyond believe.  Geez if I'd only known I could have moved to Oklahoma or Alabama and gotten a law degree.

    It's not a "pledge for America" it is a "pledge for American Corporations."

    by regis on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 03:20:55 PM PDT

    •  Well It's Not "A" University, the Religious Right (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      walkshills

      has been constructing universities and schools to credential grads for our jobs and offices but informed with their beliefs. I don't know about O'Donnell specifically but this is the up and coming thing as fundamentalism grows and spreads.

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 03:30:24 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  You Really DO Need to Blather About What "Theory" (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    walkshills

    means. It is the opposite of 'hunch' which is what it means on the street. It's important if you're trying to convince a persuadable person.

    But the main crowd of evolution flat out deniers are religious fundamentalists who are morally opposed to reason and who are informed directly by God. They don't accept input at all.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 03:29:00 PM PDT

  •  So your axiom is that there will someday be (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    msmacgyver

    a majority of well-informed voters who will outnumber the easily demagogued masses?

    Books, conversation, radio, television and the internet don't seem to be helping, so what is your projected route to  civic literacy?

  •  O'Donnell's personality package for elections (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Zack from the SFV

    does not include intellectual competence, but the converse of it, deliberately. She is at the age of 41 designed to look like the charming and perky young lady at whom you automatically smile, not anything intended to project competence at anything whatever. Of whom you will forgive anything, because you expect nothing but the perkiness and the smile. It's the image of women that advertising sells, well groomed in slightly bright and silly colors so not to look like a lawyer in a power suit, with a calm voice, playing to a mostly fictional female stereotype of the demure and not-bossy woman. Frankly a Hilary sort of look but in a less experienced neighborhood, for those who bought HRC on her gender and not her competence. She's missed the fact that 'women in high levels of politics at last' was a 2008 meme already worn flat by Olympia Snowe, Collins, Pelosi, Murkowski, Murray and Cantwell, Sarah, and a whole large flight of others, who have erased the gender distinctiveness of it by now. The closest actual comparison is Sarah without even the political experience Sarah admittedly had, however inadequate

    The fact that such a woman could not do a Senator's job is what she wants you not to think about. As she doesn't want you to think about twenty years as some form of political consultant in a quasi religious setting where the fighting is done out of sight, think on when you heard James Dobson or any of those in a public brawl about anything.

    The fact that she does not have the ethical standards required of public office she also doesn't want you to think about. She in her own presentation cuts corners a bit here and there as she asserts most people would, without reference to the corner cutting which is bringing even well established Congresscritters before the Ethics committees as soon as the elections are over, for what sounds like less to me, no abuse of campaign contributions or the like in their problems, but hers full of them. It's another verison of 'you know that ethics business is too complicated for a simple girl like me.' At 41, it just looks tacky.

    And the level at which she is talking evolution here is the dog breeder's level. How many generations does it take to breed into a pool of dogs a characteristic you want but they don't have, once one or two with a little bit of it appears. The answer, depending on the characteristic sought, requires luck but can be as little as six or eight generations if you only let the ones having that little bit have it do the breeding and no unpleasant side effects such as hip dysplasia show up. Think about AKC miniatures and British dog breeding in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries for all of those sports of standard hounds and terriers, and the like.  That is as close as the women she is courting here come to knowledge about evolution, and she thinks they will remember that.

  •  timely diary for me (0+ / 0-)

    as I just finished reading The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins this morning.  Aimed at the Intelligent Design folks, it completely explains evolution...entertainingly.  I have a much better understanding of it now...I wish Christine O'Donnell would read it.  But she won't.

    I will sing you a song no one sang to me, you can be anybody that you want to be

    by two moms in Az on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 06:09:22 PM PDT

  •  This nation has truly lost its way when it comes (0+ / 0-)

    to denying rational evidence and science.  For example, the MLB playoffs have been going on for the last week and I am astounded to see how many of the players are wearing those Phiton necklaces, the epitome of snake oil, junk science marketing to people who are completely lacking in critical thinking skills.  Aqueous titanium indeed.  It is no wonder that Christine O'Donnell was elected as a Senatorial candidate.  The US has entered the realm of magical thinking.

    And it feels like I'm livin'in the wasteland of the free ~ Iris DeMent, 1996

    by MrJersey on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 06:34:19 PM PDT

  •  god, guns, gays and (g)witches? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Zack from the SFV

    Has the Tea Party effect expanded the Repubs time-honored fear-factor strategy? Is there no criminal defense lawyer who will take the side of witches in this campaign season, despite the long history in Western Tradition, as far back as Dyonesias? Is the age of Nintendo less of an age than the age of Caesar and Cicero? Was the sacrifice of birds and bulls on the patrician altars to view the entrails for favorable omens before battle any less scientific a method for causus belli than Gen. Colin Powell holding up a cartoon-like sketch of a chemical truck before launching a 600,000 strong force to slay Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein?
      The candidate's ads categorically claims to disassociate herself from all witches. The first item to consider is, of course, if she were a witch, it would be quite in character to lie, so why would one believe such a statement? The second item to consider is that the very notion of denying that she is a witch, indirectly implies that witches do exist. So we are forced to ponder what type of witch she claims NOT to be.
      There are, of course, fictional witches. Casper the Ghost has his Wendy. Disney films are populated with the likes of the the good Ariel in the Mermaid and the evil octopus who pursues her, the evil Queen in Snow White, and the dog-skinning antagonist in 101 Dalmations. Even PBS has a witch in Carmen Sandiego's Medeva, who memorizes all of Shakespeare's plays (which feature many witches, of which more anon).
     TV sitcoms have a whole witch genre. Sabrina the Teenage Witch shows Aunt Hilda and the whole Spellman family. Grandma is a witch on the Adams Family. Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie make them seem loveable--despite the national defense implications of having an Air Force officer use her powers on official business, not to mention the immigration issues of keeping an obviously illegal alien in his household. (Did Lou Dobbs have witches on his horse ranch too?)
      In movies, you have fictional witches in The Witches of Eastwick and Hellboy, the Troll Witch, so that covers the two major sexes. Judy Garland immortalized the concept of witches to a post war generation in the Wizard of Oz, pitting her and Glenda the good witch against the Wicked Witch of the East and the Wicked Witch of the West. (Sidebar, your honor, but we must point out here that there remains some ambiguity about the Witch of the North, whose descendant Gaylett raises some troubling cultural questions in witch-human relations). D.C. Comics had Morgana, among others. In plays, no less a master than Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth in league with three witches (symbolizing darkness, chaos, and conflict).
       Which leads us to the heart of the witch question, your honor. Namely that, where there is so much fictional smoke, there must be some factual fire.
      For Shakespeare's allegedly "fictional" play Macbeth actually drew upon centuries of precedent, where courts of law tried, condemned, and executed thousands of witches, who were real people. Macbeth drew upon the trials of the witch trials of Lancashire, England, in 1612--before the founding of our country, so thus I am invoking common law here--where 10 were executed for being found guilty of witchcraft, specifically maleficium, ie inflicting harm to others by witchcraft. The accused came from the lawless area of Pendle Hill, as fabled then for theft, violence and sexual laxity as the worst provinces in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Then King James I feared the area, convinced that Scottish witches were plotting to overthrow him. Worse, 7 years earlier, there was the infamous Gunpowder plot, trying to blow up Parliament and kill the King himself. Members of the court, and the honorable jury, having lived through a modern equivalent in the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, can surely appreciate how the king felt about the reality of a plot against the throne.
      On the basis of this common-law precedent, as the strict constructionists of the current Supreme Court can surely appreciate, it is in the tradition of origionalist jurisprudence that we have no room to doubt that witches do, in fact, exist; and further, that it is a long standing custom to execute the same. Especially since the current plan to obstruct, filibuster, and otherwise poison the lifework of the head of state is no less a plot against the state than in Macbeth, where the serpent's milk was given to the king by Lady Macbeth to effect regicide. No state can allow this to happen.
     All of which (no pun intended), your honor, leads the defense, on cross examination, to ask the candidate this vital question: Are you now, or have you ever been, a Klingon?
       

  •  You simply CAN'T sell evolution (0+ / 0-)
    to people who believe in a 6,000 year-old Earth.

    -------------------------------------------------------
    Take your protein pills and put your helmet on

    by SFOrange on Sun Oct 10, 2010 at 07:41:39 PM PDT

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