War and Progress

No Plane, No gain


From Thence to Hence


It is the 21st century; do you know where your ancestors are? They are, in all likelihood turned into dust, disintegrated into basic components and returned to the mother Earth. A set of better questions would be: Who were they? Where did they live? How did they behave? And what did they look like? If we are considering ancestors from a few generations back, they probably looked somewhat like you, lived where they were born, and behaved as the norms of humanity dictated several hundreds of years back. But when we talk of thousands of years ago, then we get into the evolutionary spiral.


The theories of the appearance of humans on Earth is, and has been one of the most contentious debates plaguing modern society since the early 1800’s when Darwin postulated that all things living, on Earth come from a single conceptual root composed of a primordial soup of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen and some other minerals thrown in for good measure. Living things came from non-living things. Life appeared by magic. Life transformed from primitive forms into complex forms such as plants. Later came fish, animals and finally humans.


The Darwinian magic clashes heads on with the religious dogma of “God created humans”. The most extreme end of the religious belief states that everything we see today is the work of a Supreme Being. The Universe, the Milky Way, the Solar System the Earth and all the flora and fauna was hand crafted by the Supreme Being. They have existed for a relatively short period of time, somewhere between 4,000 to 6,000 years. This world is expected to live for a short time too. Till the end of the world, the day of reckoning arrives. This day is not too far away, and estimates vary from a few years to a few thousand years. Of course, until we all get to witness the day of reckoning, we cannot prove the theory. Proof is not a necessary ingredient of belief.


The other extreme from the deeply held religious orthodoxy is the deeply held scientific belief of evolution. From simple non-life forms such as gas and water and heat and lightning, evolved complex non-life forms such as amino acids and nucleotides. From these building blocks we obtained primitive cells. The primitive cells, over a long period of time combined to form more complex living things such as algae or plants. From these building blocks, the process of evolution takes an interesting turn. Life forms undergo subtle, often unnoticeable changes as generations roll forward. Natural selection, selective breeding and other external forces cause life forms to evolve. These minor changes, over thousands of generations cause significant changes to the resulting forms and new life forms appear that are quite different from the ancestors. This theory, called the Theory of Evolution has its roots in the observations made by Charles Darwin and published in 1859 in his tome, “On the Origin of Species”. Of course, such a theory cannot be proven although many attempts have been made. A process that has purportedly taken billions of years cannot be reconstructed in the laboratory.


Straddling the chasm between the extremes of religion and science is the huge number of theories that mix evolution with the work of the Supreme Being. Two of the many such theories are the teachings of “Creation Science” and “Intelligent Design”. The underlying philosophy of these ideas is that, while many aspects of scientific reasoning are understandably correct, the basic elements of the process is the work of the Master.


Creation Science is on an odd blend of science and religion. This study hinges on the belief that while scientific observations of the age of the earth from fossil evidence and dinosaur bones are fine, but the age of the earth cannot be deduced by science, as all we observe today “were created that way”. For example, science uses the technique of radiometric dating to determine the age of fossils. One of the radiometric dating techniques used for relatively new fossils is carbon dating. When living things (like plants) assimilate carbon from the air they get more than just carbon (C) they get a fixed dose of an unstable, radioactive isotope of C called C14. The C14 decays over time into C and in 5730 years, half of the C14 is gone. By measuring the proportions of C and C14 we can determine the age of the sample. Similar techniques are used for other things such as old non-living fossils. However, what if, the fossil was created just a few thousands years back, with the proportion of isotopes making it look like billion years old? That is what has happened, and science has been fooled by a Power much Higher.


Intelligent Design is yet another plausible way of looking at things. Proponents say that while evolution seems to be quite correct for the most part, the process is too complex to be dictated by simple laws of nature. Things were (and are) programmed to behave in a manner designed by the “Intelligent One”. Hence, it is not by chance that the primordial soup turned into amino acid and then bacteria, it was “meant to be”. Humans are a different story—while other life forms may have evolved due to programmed behavior, humans were specially crafted. So advanced is this craft that we humans are foolishly perturbed by the craftily planted evidence of 98% commonality in the DNA sequences of humans and apes.


Since no theory regardless of its origins in science or theology is provable the debate goes on. Believers of each segment hold on to their beliefs with more zeal than a mother bear guards her cubs. Since proof is not a possibility, there is no fear of being proven wrong.


Charles Darwin was a student of divinity after failed attempts by his father (who was a prominent doctor) to make him well versed in botany and medicine. Somewhat by luck he was appointed as an unpaid naturist to sail on the HMS Beagle on a geological survey mission to South America and the Pacific Islands. During this long voyage (1831-1836) Darwin had the chance to study geology and a whole slew of plant and animal species. While much of his studies and observations were about the earth (earthquakes, coral reefs, continental formations) as a side interest he developed theories of the evolution of life forms. Darwin’s geological observations made him search for universal laws. He predicted that islands sank into oceans forming coral reefs. He built theories of how continents formed. Then he turned to ideas about how new species replace old. These theories have made Darwin famous as the first person to postulate the theory of evolution.


Even as the debate of evolution and creation rages on, we know of scientific facts today that are intriguing at worst and amazing at best. For example, we know that humans did NOT evolve out of monkeys. The family of apes may be related to humans via a common root (mistakenly called the “missing link”). All dogs regardless of size, shape or color belong to the same species (have identical DNA sequences). Bacteria and viruses change properties and characteristics very quickly and continents separated by large distances often share quite similar life forms (due to natural selection).


Our cells contain the blueprint of genetics in the form of chromosomes. Chromosomes are made of genes. Genes are made of DNA. DNA has intriguing sequence of molecules that we believe hold the key to the mystery of life and its forms. Changes in the DNA sequences give rise to the variety and diversity of life forms. The study of evolution is very closely related to the study of DNA sequencing. Even with massive concerted efforts into cracking the mystery (notably the “Genome Project”) we are at the infancy of research into the gene soup.


We see evolution in action in many forms of bacteria and viruses; the most glaring one is the human HIV virus, the instigator of AIDS. The HIV virus is a short lived and prolific reproducer. The complete colony of the virus in the body of an infected human can change a whole generation in one day. This rapid generational change causes evolution to be remarkably observable as the virus evolves from a kind that can be killed by anti-AIDS drugs to one that is resistant. A stronger mixture of drugs called a cocktail can kill the drug resistant strains of AIDS (also called wild-HIV). However, as the cocktail onslaught is unleashed on wild-HIV, the virus mutates to a wilder cocktail-resistant form. A controversial treatment for this form of HIV is the discontinuation of drug therapy. Then (according to some studies) suddenly the basic form of the AIDS virus gains a foothold and starts killing off the virulent forms. Soon the wild HIV declines and the human is amenable to regular AIDS drugs.


Finches (a type of bird) in the Galapagos Islands constituted key evidence for Darwin in his quest for unlocking the secrets of life. Natural selection ensures that life forms adapt to environments. Selective breeding creates dizzying shapes, sizes and colors of the about 200 breeds of domesticated dogs, from the towering Great Dane, to the slender Greyhound, to sausage-like Dachshund to the yappitty Chihuahua, all purportedly derived out of the menacing wolf. The maniacal Adolf Hitler failed in his tragic quest to create the superior race of selectively bred humans by killing off undesirable races. The battle of the opinions on the origins of man rages on, and what does the future hold? Only the stars can foretell.



Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha




Partha Dasgupta