Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Buffon Meets Buffoon

"Nietzsche says, 'Out of chaos comes order'" (extra credit if you name the film and give the next line). Out of denying the history of biology comes a chance to discuss the history of biology. Much has been made of Alex Beam's column in the Boston Globe about the Conservapedia entry on kangaroos (see LGM and Kos, for example -- LGM is worth it just for the picture).

"like all modern animals . . . kangaroos are the descendants of the two founding members of the modern kangaroo baramin that were taken aboard Noah's Ark prior to the Great Flood."

You may not recognize the word "baramin." It's a 20th-century creationist neologism that refers to the species God placed on earth during Creation Week. Special for kids: I wouldn't use that word on the biology final. Although maybe your parents could sue the local school board for failing to teach the Book of Genesis in science class.
While the word "baramin" may be a recent creation of Creationists, the notion they are employing comes right out of the big debate over speciation in the generation before Darwin.

Species had become a bit of a problem at the time. Originally, it was thought that all organisms fit nicely onto a linear chain of perfection that put humans near the top, just below angels and the Big Invisible Man in the Sky. But then Linnaeus came along and showed that a more complex organization made more sense. This undercut the theologically-based picture a bit, but the big problem was that it was clear that there were related organisms that clearly had adapted.

Adaptation and speciation were problematic because the universe was to be created by a perfect God. If the creation was less than perfect, the Creator thereby would be as well. If change occurred within His system, then either it was getting worse (surely a mark of poor craftsmanship) or it was getting better (but if it was moving towards a more perfect state why wouldn't a perfect God simply create it in that way?). What to do?

Two French naturalists came up with competing ideas to explain it. Jean Baptiste Lamarck argued that species split off and developed as a result of interaction with the environment. If one group in a species made more use of a particular organ, it would enlarge and subsequent generations would naturally grow even larger ones. Similarly if the environment modified animals, the off-spring would inherit this modification. Chop the tails off enough lizards and you will give rise to a species of tailless lizards.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon argued the case differently. He took a decidedly more Platonic approach. He argued that each type of animal had been created with a perfect mold, an internal formal structure that were present in it at the center of Creation. But as the organisms of each type spread out over the planet, they would degenerate, that is, deviate from that perfect typology. Exposure to this imperfect material world added imperfections to these flawed material entities. This concept of internal mold is very much similar to the Creationists' "baramin," although Buffon does not pin the design of each internal mold to the Divine Will.

Interestingly, there was a correspondence and ultimately a meeting of Buffon with our own Thomas Jefferson. Buffon argued that, as his theory predicted, organisms in the New World that are similar to those in Europe would be degenerate forms -- smaller, weaker, inferior. Jefferson questioned whether Buffon had ever actually seen or weighed animals from America and delighted in sending and delivering to him him the antlers and skins of elk, panthers, caribou, and moose. He contended that Buffon's argument that Native Americans were a degenerate race of humans was false as they had among them those who were as skilled in oratory as Demosthenes and Cicero, while many showed the virtues of valor and bravery in war. Indeed his Notes on the State of Virginia is an entire volume dedicated to producing evidence to undermine Buffon's theory of degeneration in the New World.

So we have Creationists arguing in line with the Frenchman and opposing the American patriot. Of course, in 1800 we had an American President who understood and believed in science and who rejected the notion of baramins. And now... Well, maybe there is something to this notion of degeneration after all.