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Sacred Geology Column # 008

Date: 11/27/98
The Ways and Means of Scientific Evolution
Type of Entry:
Didactic Tutorial

Ricard Ely headshot

Back in the old millennium, Richard Ely, long-time friend of Enlightenment.Com , gave us some written and video material that is still well worth reading and watching. As a professional geologist and long-time initiate of various neo-Pagan and earth-based religious traditions, Richard's views combine the scientific and the poetic in a singularly stimulating fashion.

Evolution And Its Discontents

by Richard W. Ely

Table of Contents


Chicken or egg: which came first? An evolutionist would say the egg, because eggs predate chickens by hundreds of millions of years. A creationist would say the chicken, because God created chickens. However, if God created chickens from scratch, He also created an intricately detailed planet that appears to be 4.55 billion years old to millions of fair-minded intelligent people. If creationism is true, this is a scandal of cosmic proportions that should raise serious problems with divine credibility. If the rocks and crystals themselves lie about their age, then what about the absolute truth of the Bible?

The controversy over evolution can be reduced to two issues: the length of geologic time and the mechanism of biological change. Extreme creationists assert that the Earth is six to ten thousand years old. They allow no change of "kind" (i.e., species), believing that God made everything perfect and unchanging. Part of the fundamentalist Christian objection to the theory of evolution lies in a visceral dislike of linking human beings with animals in an unbroken chain of sexual union. Christianity in general has been cursed with a pervasive denigration of all things physical, and of sexuality in particular, since the time of St. Augustine.

Many Christians believe the physical world is inherently corrupt, fallen, and ruled by the Devil. With this unfortunate belief system, it is not surprising that they are at war with their own sexual instincts and find the thought of being an animal revolting. Estrangement from one's sexuality naturally translates into alienation from the natural world and disdain for physical pleasure.

Vitalism, the belief that life contains a force that cannot be explained by the laws of physics, has been rejected by evolutionists of the post-war era. The pantheist idea that divine spirit is present in all life (as well as all matter) is ludicrous and irrational to academic evolutionists who, for the most part, have held to a narrow materialistic and reductionist perspective. Much of their intellectual rigidity is a defense against the creationist critique.

Recently, mathematicians have advanced a most interesting challenge to the theory of evolution, which is that the Earth is not old enough for chance variations to have created the vast range of biological diversity found on the planet. This is analogous to monkeys with typewriters reproducing Hamlet: it's possible, but cosmic time isn't long enough, not even with every monkey on Earth working every day of its life.

Evolution is descent with modification. The issue is how the modifications occur -- are they by chance or are they purposefully guided -- and if so, by what? Charles Darwin conceived the directing mechanism of evolution to be random variations in offspring, coupled with natural selection, which he epitomized as a "struggle for existence" that resulted in the "survival of the fittest." Darwin meant "survival of the fittest" in the broadest sense of leaving more offspring, which must include cooperative adaptations as well as victory by the strong. Followers of Darwin emphasized competition over cooperation -- "nature, red in tooth and claw" -- which fit very well into the Zeitgeist of the Industrial Revolution and the brutal social conditions of the Victorian era.

Geologic Time

The question of the length of duration of geologic time is settled beyond any reasonable doubt: time is deep. It's measured in billions of years. The techniques for measuring geologic time are massively redundant and mutually consistent to a high degree. Anti-evolutionists make much of disagreements between a few of the geochronological techniques, but these are relatively minor and gradually have become more consistent as research has proceeded.

An example of this is the use of tree-ring chronology to refine the carbon-14 method. This chronology extends back 8,700 years by using overlapping series of rings from living and dead Bristlecone pines in the Great Basin region of North America and oak trees from European bogs. The original assumption was that carbon-14, a radioactive isotope, was produced at a constant rate in the Earth's atmosphere by cosmic rays. By carefully dating individual tree rings, it was possible to show that the production of carbon-14 has fluctuated in the past. Recalibration of carbon-14 dates has allowed anomalous dates, such as were measured on Egyptian Old Kingdom samples of known age, to be rectified. The variations in the carbon-14 production rate are related to changes in the strength of Earth's magnetic field and to the sunspot cycle. The sunspot cycle is correlated with the solar magnetic field, which appears to interact with Earth's magnetic field in such a way as to help shield Earth from cosmic rays.

"Creation science" focuses on small discrepancies in scientific data to make the case for shallow time. If the Bible were held to the same logical standards that the scientific method holds itself to, it would have been discarded long ago. Which version of the Noah's Ark myth do you believe: all animals in pairs (Genesis 6:19, 7:8, and 7:15), or seven of each clean animal and two of each unclean animal (Genesis 7:2)? The Gospels are full of contradictory statements, too, such as the genealogies given for Jesus in Mathew 1:1 and Luke 3:23. Jesus' last words are different in every Gospel. Contrast the Sixth Commandment, "thou shall not kill," with "thou shall not suffer a witch to live." These are mythic stories that deal with spiritual and psychological issues. It is a profound disservice to concretize them by trying to prove them factual in all details.

A recent critique of evolutionary theory by a Christian lawyer is Darwin on Trial by Philip E. Johnson (InterVarsity press, 1993). Johnson rightly points out the many unsolved problems with how macroevolutionary changes occur in animals and plants, such as the appearance of new body plans and organ systems. However, none of these objections applies to bacteria, which make up virtually all of the vast range of genetic diversity found in the biosphere. Bacterial evolution is extremely rapid because bacteria can exchange genetic material between all taxonomic categories. This is why the indiscriminant use of antibiotics in animal feed is so foolish. It is inevitable that disease-causing organisms in animals will develop resistance to the antibiotics and eventually will share this resistance with organisms that infect humans.

The Diversity of Life

For most of geologic time, life on this planet consisted of microbes. They are the senior partners; multicellular organisms are an afterthought of the last 800 million years. The full diversity of the microbial world has not been appreciated until recently because most microbes defy cultivation in the laboratory. Genetic prospecting using DNA amplification techniques has allowed the identification of a great variety of new organisms, many of them from hot springs and other apparently inhospitable environments. Indeed, the most-ancestral forms are associated with hot springs, leading to the currently favored hypothesis that life originated in submarine hydrothermal vents.

The Tree of Life has three trunks (Figure 1), commonly referred to as "urkingdoms" or "domains." These are the Eukarya, the Bacteria and the Archaea. The Eukarya consist of organisms with nucleated cells. These include plants, animals, fungi and the Protoctista, a diverse group of algae, slime-molds and protozoans. The animal, plant, and fungus kingdoms make but three closely spaced twigs on the tree of life, which are labeled Homo, Zea, and Coprinus, respectively.

The Bacteria are microbial organisms that lack a nucleus. The greatest genetic diversity is found in the Bacteria. In addition to classical one-celled bacteria, this group includes spirochetes, colonial bacteria, and multicellular blue-green algae (yum!).

The Archaea are microbial organisms that lack a nucleus and have a genetic makeup very different from Bacteria. The Archaea include forms that are adapted to conditions thought to have occurred on the primal Earth. Various Archaeans can live in an oxygen-free environment, in extremely salty water, and in boiling acidic water. Brine-dwelling Archaea have been extracted and grown from fluid inclusions found inside large salt crystals in 400 million-year-old salt beds.

A recent review of the subject in Science (N. R. Pace, "A Molecular View of Microbial Diversity and the Biosphere," May, 1997) cataloged approximately 67 kingdom-level groups of organisms. A total of nineteen Eukarya kingdoms, twenty-five Bacteria kingdoms, and twenty-three Archaea kingdoms, are known, with more kingdom-level groups beings discovered every year. Bacteria appear to be the oldest group, having given rise to the common ancestor of the Archaea and Eukarya.


The mechanisms of macroevolution are not well understood. There is plenty of room for argument when it comes to the evolution of complex organs like the eye, or major adaptations such as the return of whales to the sea. There are no examples where the details of a macroevolutionary transition have been captured in the geologic record. The best examples are like a jerky movie with numerous missing segments. The plot line is obvious, but a love affair or two is missing. Very likely, this is because macroevolution takes place in very small populations, where the accumulation of genetic changes can occur rapidly compared to a large population, but there is little chance of preserving a fossil record.

On occasion, macroevolution takes place by modifying preexisting organs or limbs for new uses. An example is the vertebrate limb, which appears to have originated in relatives of the lobe-finned fish. Fossils of unusual lobe-finned fish with leg-like fins have been found in Devonian age strata from Greenland and Pennsylvania, dating from about 350-400 million years ago. These fish had toes and other bones in their lobe-fins similar to those in the legs of terrestrial vertebrates. The limbs could be used for bottom walking in shallow freshwater ponds, and for suddenly propelling lurking carnivorous fish after their prey. These modified lobe-fins were incapable of supporting the fish in the open air, but would have proved useful in slithering from one pond to another in time of drought. There is an obvious evolutionary advantage of having a slightly stronger fin. Presumably, this process eventually gave rise to the amphibian limb.

The evolution of the vertebrate eye is often given as a process that is difficult to understand as having occurred in small increments because the eye is so complex that intermediate forms would have been of no use to the organism. On the other hand, the designer, if there was one, must have been having a bad day, because the structure of the retina is inverted. The optic nerves are on the outside of the retina's light-sensitive cones and rods, not on the inside where any competent engineer would have put them. This results in a blind spot located where the optic nerve emerges through the retina. The octopus eye does not share this design flaw.

Coevolution and Symbiosis

Coevolution during long-term associations between organisms has led to extraordinarily refined mutual adaptations. In many South American orchids, the flowers mimic not only the sexual parts of the pollinating insects; they even emit the proper sexual pheromones to attract the insect.

Carried on long enough, coevolution may lead to commensalism and, ultimately, symbiosis. Symbiosis, the combining of what once were separate species into one organism, is one of the most important mechanisms for creating macroevolutionary leaps. The intermediate stage in this process is commensalism, whereby two organisms live in an arrangement that provides food to one while the other benefits in some way or is not significantly harmed. Pollinating insects, without which the plant species could not survive, and ants, with their aphid ranches and fungus farms, are examples of commensalism. Other examples are human beings and their intestinal bacteria, termites and the protozoans that dwell in their guts (without which they could not digest cellulose), and lichens, which are made up of algae and fungi.

Perhaps the foremost example of symbiosis is the eukaryotic cell (a cell with a nucleus), which evolved by a process of merging what were once several separate prokaryotic organisms (cells without nuclei, such as bacteria). An excellent book on this subject is Microcosmos by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan (Touchstone, 1986). The "endosymbiont hypothesis" postulates that two or more kinds of bacteria took up residence within the ancestral eukaryotic cell. These endosymbionts eventually gave rise to chloroplasts and mitochondria, the cellular organelles responsible for photosynthesis and the metabolism of food, respectively.

Chloroplasts in plants have their own unique DNA derived from the Cyanobacteria ("blue-green algae"). Mitochondria in animals also have their own DNA, which is inherited solely through the mother in the protoplasm of the ovum. The DNA in mitochondria is derived from the bacterial kingdom Protobacteria, which includes the common intestinal bacterium Esherichia coli. Flagella are whiplike appendages used for locomotion that are found on bacteria and unicellular eukaryotes -- and on specialized cells in multicellular eukaryotes. Flagella are believed to have evolved from an endosymbiotic spirochete.

Repetition of Patterns

An important macroevolutionary theme is the grouping of what once were separate genetic units into a larger whole -- Mother Nature's copy machine in action. This process includes such examples as the grouping of cells to form colonial organisms, the repetition of the eye spot to create the compound eye, and the creation of segmented organisms such as worms, isopods (sow bugs), millipedes, and centipedes. Composite flowers, such as dandelions and sunflowers, are formed by the agglomeration of many small flowers to create a plant with numerous seed-bearing organs. Hive insects -- termites, ants and bees -- have taken this process to the stage where individual beings are but components of the whole.

Gaia is thought of by many people to be the ultimate organism, made up of all living things on the planet. However, most scientists consider Gaia to be an emergent property of the biosphere acting upon the lithosphere to keep the planet habitable. The Gaia hypothesis emphasizes that cooperation is far more important for stability of the biosphere than is competition. In this light, Gaia can properly be thought of as a commensal meta-organism that is composed of all other organisms.


Neoteny is the process wherein a juvenile form achieves sexual maturity and thus is capable of reproduction. Vertebrates appear to have originated through neoteny from ancestors of tunicates (sea squirts). These filter-feeding invertebrates that live in the oceans attached to objects appear to have little in common with vertebrates, but the tunicate larva is another matter. It resembles a tiny tadpole and is capable of vigorous swimming, probably more so than the larva of any other invertebrate. This is because it has a notochord, a cartilaginous stiffening rod that is a precursor of the vertebrate backbone, as well as muscles and a neural tube that coordinates the movements of its muscles.

The oldest known vertebrate fossils, the jawless fish of the class Agnatha, date from the Late Cambrian Period, about 500 million years ago. Most of the oldest fish fossils occur in shallow marine deposits, though some are found in fresh-water deposits. One hypothesis proposes that free-swimming tunicate larvae swam upstream into fresh water habitats that were inaccessible to other passively-floating larval forms. There the tunicates proliferated into an unexploited habitat that was free of competition and predation. Subsequently, the larvae of the vertebrate ancestor executed an evolutionary coup de'etat by achieving sexual maturity, thus eliminating the need for the sessile adult form.

Morphogenetic Fields

A radically different perspective on evolution can be found in Rupert Sheldrake's The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature (Park Street Press, 1995). Sheldrake proposes that biological evolution is part of a much larger phenomenon that he calls "the hypothesis of formative causation." According to this hypothesis, every object and organism has its own morphogenetic field, as do intangible things such as customs, habits, and learned behaviors. Sheldrake proposes that morphogenetic fields are organizing patterns that transmit causal influences through space and time by the process of "morphic resonance." Morphogenetic fields are thought to build cumulatively through repetition, analogous to memories. Thus, all processes become easier to perform with time. In addition, morphogenetic fields are thought to slowly change with time, as they interact with other morphogenetic fields.

Sheldrake proposes that morphogenetic fields play a strong role in convergent evolution, what he calls "evolutionary plagiarism." Marsupials are extraordinary for this, having very similar body plans to moles, kangaroo rats, flying squirrels, and wolves -- all placental mammals. Another example is sharks, ichthyosaurs, and porpoises, which have similar shapes but very different metabolisms. Sheldrake also proposes that morphogenetic fields are responsible for the inheritance of instinctual behaviors and of some acquired characteristics such as calluses on specific body parts. This idea is very controversial in orthodox scientific circles.

The increase in intelligence quotient test scores, known as the Flynn effect, may be an example of the morphogenetic field phenomenon. Standardized IQ tests have had to be periodically "re-normalized" because, over time, people keep doing better. In the United States, for example, the median score on such tests rose 24 points between 1918 and 1989 (Scientific American, November 1995). It cannot be the case that people are getting smarter, because people of average intelligence in 1918 were as capable of reading and doing mathematics as people are today, even though their IQ scores were quite low by today's standards. This phenomenon has been observed in Japan, Europe, and other areas where IQ testing has been carried on long enough for the increase in the median score to become evident.

Evolving the Noosphere

The great Jesuit paleontologist, biologist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin proposed that Earth is evolving an organ of consciousness that he named the noosphere. He hypothesized that the noosphere has formed from the collective consciousness of all humanity, "a whole layer of consciousness exerting simultaneous pressure upon the future and the collected and hoarded produce of a million years of thought" (The Phenomenon of Man, Book Four, Ch. 3). He believed that as the human population grows, the noosphere would reach a critical stage and collapse into a single conscious entity, the Omega Point. Although de Chardin conceived of the noosphere purely as a field of consciousness, the Internet can be thought of as a hard-wired portion of the noosphere that has facilitated the interconnectedness of human consciousness.

One of the most interesting phenomena to appear in the Sixties was a form of collective shamanic rapture that often took place at large musical events where many people had consumed psychedelic drugs. Grateful Dead shows were famous for producing extraordinary states of group rapture. Joseph Campbell attended their Mardi Gras show the year before he died and declared that "the Grateful Dead spectacle is the recreation of the Dionysian Mysteries in our time."

By many accounts, these raptures involved mass telepathy that allowed a group mind to form. Extraordinary magical and psychic phenomena, including divine illumination, alien visitations, and the appearances of archetypal beings were reported from numerous participants in these shows. Group raptures of this sort appear to be a small-scale phenomenon analogous to de Chardin's hypothesized planetary noosphere.

Evolving Spirituality

All things change in time, including spiritual consciousness, for the essence of time is change: no change is timeless, no time is changeless. From the Animal Powers to the Great Mother to the Storm Gods to the Buddha and the Prince of Peace, human spirituality has evolved as culture has evolved. In contrast to the tolerant attitudes of most Pagan religions, the monotheistic, patriarchal religions of the Book (Zoroastrianism-Judaism-Christianity-Islam) are characterized by theological insecurity, doctrinal rigidity, and religious absolutism. They have attempted to arrest humanity's spiritual growth, forbidding all but the mildest forms of innovation.

Part of their intolerance lies in the relative novelty of the monotheistic religions, which represent only a small percent of the duration of human spirituality. Monotheism was the new kid on the block when it appeared, and was theologically insecure in the face of the antiquity of Animism and Paganism. The oldest sacred texts date from less than 5000 years ago, and historical Monotheism is 3350 years old (Akhenaten). Not much compared to the Great Mother, whose images date back to almost 30,000 years ago. The painted caves of Europe contain highly sophisticated animistic art and Cave-Bear-skull shrines that date back to 32,000 years (Chauvet Cave in France). Burial of the dead was practiced by Neanderthals around 60,000 years ago. Perhaps the act of stealing fire from Nature sometime around 300,000 years ago marks the birth of distinctly human spiritual consciousness.

Once literacy was established, rulers no longer were dependent on the memories of the bards to transmit spiritual lore. Tribal custom became divine writ, which was placed in the keeping of clerics. Established authority, doctrine, precedent, and law became possible. Bureaucracy was invented. This system was 3000 years old when Christianity appeared. In spite of this, Christianity flourished for centuries, but spiritual atrophy set in after it became the state religion and was able to punish heresy with death. The Wheel turned, and the divine feminine was reborn in the days of the Troubadours, and Paganism in the Renaissance. These hopeful trends were crushed by the Inquisition and the Burning Times. A stream of consciousness continued that gave rise to the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century, which put an end to the unchallenged dominance of clerical authority.

Now that scientific rationalism has ended the Church's authority to kill heretics, Christianity is evolving into a new balance between the spiritual and the material, the God and the Goddess. The Neopagan revival is part of a broader post-patriarchal spiritual phenomenon that is enlarging and dissolving the ossified boundaries of the sacred to include pleasure, the body, and the physical world. The driving force behind this is the morphogenetic field of archaic spirituality. The central-tendency of human spirituality in-toto contains a very large helping of the Great Goddess. Someday "pure" patriarchy will be viewed as an historical anomaly that arose from unique historical conditions made possible by the invention of writing.

[Editors Note: The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain may be worth following up on for those interested in this line of thought.]

Blessed Be,


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