On Fossils and Evolution

Currently I am reading a book on the subject of evolution.

The opening chapter, Creation stories, briefly states the function of religious creation stories, which, it claims, is to answer some fundamental questions about life, such as: where do people come from? We are then told that these stories are regarded as lessons on how people should live i.e. they are not factual, although some, such as the story of Adam and Eve, explain minor details about living things such as why snakes have no legs.

As well as creation stories, there are minor legends. For example, salamanders were said to be born from flames. The book helpfully puts us right by suggesting that this story might have arisen because salamanders hide in damp logs and may have been seen rushing from the flames when their home was thrown on the fire. The book also dismisses the medieval misconception that barnacle geese grew on trees. “Careful” scientific observation gradually cast doubt on such tall stories until they were replaced by scientific (i.e. factual = true) explanation.

The book does not, however, attempt to explain the legend of the mandrake plant’s screams except to mention that the roots of this plant are sometimes human-shaped.

This theme is continued in the next chapter: Fossils and fairy tales, which describes some of the theories people developed to “explain” fossils.

The chapter starts off by telling us that Pliny the Elder collected some fossil “tall tales”. For example, sea urchin fossils were said to be formed from balls of foam created by a mass of entwined snakes.

Fossil elephant skulls, we are told, gave rise to the ancient Greek legend of the one-eyed Cyclops. Did they? How on earth do scientists know that? Science could be correct about the Cyclops, but not that the tale explained the fossil, more along the lines of someone coming across such a fossil and using their imagination to create a story around it.

Another example given comes from the Middle Ages. Huge fossilised skulls were found in caves, and said to belong to fire breathing dragons when they are, in fact, the skulls of extinct bears. Actually, since there were bears in medieval Europe so that many people must have known what a bear skull looked like the fact that they said the fossilised belonged to fire breathing dragons is unlikely to have been ignorant and fanciful hypothesising.

And as to the people who carved snake heads onto the bodies of fossilised snakes (science tells us that these are fossilised ammonites) “just to make a point”, well, were they really making a “point” or were these heads carved by some enterprising trinket seller to sell as souvenirs?

Niels Stensen wins the author’s approval because he came up with a “sensible” explanation for stone tongues: they were fossilised sharks’ teeth. Whew! Well that’s all right then. Thank god someone’s being sensible! If being “sensible” is such a virtue, why is it, then, that most people in Stensen’s time, according to the author, preferred the “tall” stories?

The problem here is that scientists haven’t done enough art. If they had done art they would know that artists see fanciful creatures or shapes in odd shaped stones, in rough surfaces, in the clouds. That tree on the horizon there looks like a bent old woman. That mountainous skyline looks like a sleeping giant. People do that sort of thing all the time. It’s called exercising the imagination. But it does not mean that people think there really is a sleeping giant there or there really is a bent old woman on the skyline. When my younger sister asked me for explanations for things she did not understand, I made up fanciful tales. I would have been 7 or 8 at the time.

I can see people wanting to believe these things, and I can see the superstitions/spirituality coming from things like that. Even in today’s world, you have superstitious Christians who believe in things like bad omens/signs. In the Pele’s curse (a fad that was supposedly created by a park ranger), for example, it says if you take rocks or sand from the island as souvenir, a string of bad luck will follow you. Nobody really believes it, and yet there are many accounts of people shipping rocks back to the island. Even those who don’t really believe in the curse, still don’t take them, just in case. I don’t think people have changed much in terms of overusing their imagination: back then, people saw unicorns in elephant sculls, today people see UFO’s and other otherworldly evidence in historical hieroglyphs and illustrations. The past is always somehow mysterious and magical.

There is, in fact, a perfectly good metaphysics in which signs and portents form an integral part. It is only in a narrow range of belief systems, including modern science, that signs and portents are dismissed as superstition.