May 19th 2018


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The real cost of institutionalised child care

EDITORIAL AGL dismisses $250m bid for Liddell Power Station

GENDER POLITICS As Queensland transgenders birth certificates, 300 women quit UK Labour Party

CANBERRA OBSERVED No pressure on Malcolm to call election this year

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Can Greens regenerate, or are they mulch?

POLITICS Conservative shift in the Victorian Liberal Party

OPINION No fairytale ending from the Land of a Fair Go

LAW REFORM The Nordic Model: proven to curtail sex trafficking

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Committal hearing dismisses main serious charges against Cardinal Pell

GENDER AND ETHICS Transgenderism and the dissolution of identity

PHILOSOPHY The supercharged cheetah

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS One Belt, One Road: China's new empire

HUMOUR

MUSIC Business as usual: The sweet tinkle of falling coins

CINEMA Avengers: Last Flag Flying and Infinity War

BOOK REVIEW A hungry beast that ate up 4 million lives

BOOK REVIEW Skewed analysis of republic in crisis

POETRY

LETTERS

CANBERRA OBSERVED Bill Shorten's Budget-Reply speech: for what ails you

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Behind the U.S.-North Korea rapprochement

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PHILOSOPHY
The supercharged cheetah


by Hal G.P. Colebatch

News Weekly, May 19, 2018

The African cheetah is the fastest large land animal in the world.

Wasp-waisted, barrel-chested, lithe, a beautifully designed masterpiece of nature. It can for short periods attain about 100 kilometres per hour, enough to catch and bring down the fleet-footed grazing animals of the African plains. At least, it can catch them often enough to keep its species alive.

But it is no faster than it needs to be for that. It can catch just enough animals to feed itself and, for the female, to feed her cubs when she is in the prime of life. When the cheetah gets old and slows down, it dies.

The laws of evolution make it clear that no creature evolves a capacity it does not need for the bare survival of the species. When it gets up to that capacity – in the case of the cheetah, when it evolved into a being fast enough to run down its prey – evolution stops. A cheetah cannot evolve a supercharger and run at 1,000 kph, or 10,000 kph.

Or can it? Or can something equivalent evolve? Did something like that happen once in natural (or unnatural?) history?

Indeed, it is a rule that a capacity that is not necessary not only ceases to evolve but disappears. Cave-dwelling fish, living in perpetual darkness, have lost their eyes. In some cases their skulls do not even have eye-sockets.

Birds that do not fly lose their wings. There is a species of cormorant on the Galapagos Islands that does not fly and its wings have shrunk to about a third of the normal or useful size. Emus, penguins and kiwis have also forgotten how to fly. With time, their vestigial wings will disappear altogether.

Snakes and whales lost their hind limbs when they had no use for them, though in some cases vestigial bones remain. Other examples can be seen throughout the animal kingdom.

When Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Thomas Huxley and others put forward the theory of evolution in the 19th century, it produced furious debate in theological and scientific circles. Since then a number of objections to details of the theory have emerged which seem to be worth taking seriously, even if it is accepted in general and overarching terms.

A friend of mine wrote a doctoral thesis on a history of these initial debates, reading hundreds of papers of the day. When I asked him: “Who got it right, Chris?” He replied: “The critics can make some real points against evolution, but they can’t put a better paradigm in its place.”

Many Christians believed, and still believe, that it contradicted Scripture, not merely in things like the Garden of Eden and a walking, talking snake, but also in what was seen then as its implication of a blind, purposeless universe, with man, as Bertrand Russell put it, an equally purposeless crawling lump of impure carbon. (Russell had no idea of the fantastic, mind-boggling history of the carbon atom and the conditions necessary for its creation).

The great Christian writer, G.K. Chesterton, observed benignly that he could see no conflict between evolution and Christianity, and asked: “What does it matter if Creation was fast or slow?”

Yet the early partisans for and against the theory have been slow to point out a huge and obvious exception to it: the human brain. There is no evolutionary need for the human brain to have the capacity that it does, or indeed for it to have intelligence at all (Most life manages very well without intelligence).

When one steps back and contemplates the big picture, one realises how extraordinary that picture is: a plains-dwelling ape, perhaps recently come down from the trees, did not need much intelligence, not much more than a gorilla or chimpanzee, most of whose genes it shared. It invented spears – no gorilla or chimpanzee had invented a spear or indeed used any tool more complicated than a convenient lump of rock. It harnessed fire.

If the strict evolutionist argument is true, perhaps a few thousand ought to have survived in their own ecological niche, like other species, maybe using rocks to crack the shells of tortoises, and with maybe those who survived child-birth living about 20 years.

But if that plains-dwelling ape had lost its battle on the African savannah with the hyenas and great cats, or been out-competed for food and territory by the other ape species, and become extinct, as had happened to countless species before, including those as formidable as the dinosaurs, the cave-lion, the cave-bear and the dire wolf, the universe could not have cared less.

This plains ape, like other animals, fled from predatory carnivores over outcrops of iron ore, shivered in winter squatting on outcrops of coal, and lapped water muddied with clay. But its direct descendants sculpted the Venus of Cyrene, wrote the Iliad, built the Pyramids, the Parthenon and Chartres Cathedral, discovered calculus and relativity, split the atom and flew to the moon.

Its direct descendants had names like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, da Vinci, Newton, Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven and Einstein (and Darwin).

What gave it this supercharged brain, qualitatively as well as quantitatively different to the brain of every other animal? Even the most developed of monkeys never painted a sunset, wrote a sonnet or did a sum.

If, as some have suggested, human brains were stimulated by the existential challenges posed by the successive ice ages, why were bears, wolves, mammoths and tigers not similarly stimulated? The trunks of mammoths or elephants would make useful tool-handling organs if they wanted to so use them.

One prominent astronomer and astrophysicist, as well as many science-fiction writers, suggested intervention by aliens. But this does not solve the mystery, it only pushes it one step back (what gave the aliens their brains?).

For some religious believers, the evidence points to Divine intervention: a Creator God stepped outside the laws of evolution to create a miracle.

Watching the cheetah, it is hard to come up with a better explanation.




























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