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Evolution Rocks! The Power of Deep Time & Change

by Michael Shermer, Feb 09 2009

On this, the 200th anniversary week of Charles Darwin’s birthday (12 February, 1809), we celebrate the power of deep time and nature’s processes to produce dramatic change, as Michael Shermer demonstrates how a solid hunk of lava rock can be ground down to fine grains of black s Figure Coaching and, given enough time under nature’s power of erosion.

Figure Coaching

42 Responses to “Evolution Rocks! The Power of Deep Time & Change”

  1. Larry C. says:

    That’s all well and good, but now you’re cursed for stealing lava from Hawaii. Nice knowing you.

  2. Mastriani says:

    I know he’s a Dr. with a PhD. and all, but I don’t see any transitional rock forms, so he’s obviously misleading us.

    That’s all well and good, but now you’re cursed for stealing lava from Hawaii. Nice knowing you.

    LOL … Victim of Pele … although I’m not certain whether he will receive a hail of fiery lava or a downpour of footballs … hmmm.

  3. MadScientist says:

    Hawaii is fairly active but you can see weathering processes in various stages. The vegetation often covers things up though – in fact in the case of Hawaii the vegetation has a lot to do with breaking up the rocks; it isn’t just wind and rain. In the northern part of New Zealand there’s a volcanic island called “Rangitoto” – the island was formed by eruptions about 600 years ago. Curiosly, while surrounded by water, Rangitoto is a fairly arid island so the vegetation is not as well developed as on Hawaii. On the island you can see various stages of the degradation of the volcanic rock. Natural channels filled with fragmented rock might even give people the impression that humans were somehow involved. Some areas just won’t grow vegetation at all and may give the impression that the enormous volumes of rock were deposited recently.

  4. Max says:

    Sand isn’t working for me.
    First, we want to show a spontaneous reduction of entropy, as in quartz crystals or snowflakes.
    Second, on Darwin’s birthday, we should be talking about Darwin’s theory of evolution. Talking about evolution in the general sense adds to the confusion that the theory of evolution should explain the origin of life or sand for that matter.

  5. Max says:

    Also, rocks are shaped by external forces, but they don’t do much themselves.
    I prefer the example of breeding, which influenced Darwin as well. It has all the elements of evolution, except that the selection is artificial and the timeframe is usually too short for mutations or an increase in complexity.

  6. Max says:

    Oh, and the black sand can be created instantaneously.
    “Lava, erupting onto a shallow sea floor or flowing into the sea from land, may cool so rapidly that it shatters into sand and rubble. The result is the production of huge amounts of fragmental volcanic debris. The famous ‘black sand’ beaches of Hawaii were created virtually instantaneously by the violent interaction between hot lava and sea water.”

  7. sonic says:

    And I am building a stairway to the moon.
    Just takes time and an algorithm.

  8. frank says:


    need i really say more?

  9. Jackson says:

    USGS site interesting.
    For normal erosion processes the sand might arise not just from wearing down a big rock but by wearing or breaking off a small piece and then collecting the small pieces on a beach by preferential wave motion.
    Are there beaches with finer and finer sand? Perhaps if the sand is too fine the waves just wash it away.

  10. Ivan Hrabowsky says:

    Why are the final black sand particles so sharp edged? The progression from rock to sand results in smaller but smoother rocks to pebbles to mini-pebbles to sharp-edged sand?

  11. Professor says:

    I appreciate what he’s trying to say but this time he’s rather missed the boat. As Max and Ivan point out -and as a result of other gaps in Michael’s usually more solid line of reasoning- the theorum Michael posits is really a bit of a stretch; this isn’t quite the skeptic’s version of ID but neither is it up to the standards I’ve come to expect here.

  12. LovleAnjel says:

    Michael’s point is simply that a relatively slow process over extended periods of time can lead to major changes– not that erosion operates like evolution. (The minerals basalt is made of are very unstable at the Earth’s surface, they break down completely within about 1000 years.) I actually want to show this in my geology class to demonstrate the power of erosion (minor quibbling point– sand and pebbles are defined by specific particle sizes, so that jar of ‘maybe’ pebbles are technically pebbles).

  13. Tim Williamson says:

    Is it deliberate Max? In one post you say we need to show spontaneous entropy. Why? Erosion does the job — and not in one fell swoop from rock to grains. It’s a process and, as Michael said, takes millions of years. Rather like nature’s very own mortar and pestle, as used by chefs to reduce harder substances to powder in the space of a few minutes.

    Then again, in your next post, you tell us that Darwin’s theory of evolution does not explain the origins of life. Quite right, it doesn’t. Then again, it was never meant to and he never ever pretended that it had anything to do with the origins of life. The origins referred to were the origins of different species and how that speciation arose.

    And using the word “theory” in a way which suggests that because it remains a theory, it is somehow not yet proved. Wrong. Evolution is a process and Darwin’s theory gave us the outline of how it has unfolded. It remains a theory in exactly the same way that Atomic Theory remains a theory (long proven), electromagnetism remains a theory (proven). Evidence appears regularly that confirms the process continues.

  14. SDR says:

    I must agree that this isn’t the best example. It doesn’t follow the line of reasoning of how evolution due to natural selection works at all. I get what you were trying to show, but you could have used a better example.

  15. Max says:

    Tim, let me rephrase it for clarity.

    One Creationist myth is that natural processes can only increase entropy. Shermer’s sand analogy does not challenge this myth.

    A snowflake analogy, however, would challenge that myth.
    But even snowflake formation lacks the elements of Darwin’s theory of evolution (reproduction, inherited variations, natural selection). So it’s more analogous to abiogenesis than evolution.

    Giving an analogy to abiogenesis in a post about Darwin reinforces the other Creationist myth that the theory of evolution should explain abiogenesis.

  16. SL says:

    I have to also agree that this isn’t the best example for demonstrating the principle of evolution. I won’t belabor the point, as it’s already been covered in the comments of others both here and on YouTube.

  17. Xhu-Eh-Doin says:

    I am really surprised that Mr. Shirmer would use such an example for the theory of evolution. It is extremely elementary compared to the ULTIMATE POWER OF EVOLUTION. Perhaps he has never used a file to file his fingernails. When I read the title, The Power of Deep Time and Change, this is what I imagined it would be about:
    Now, hopefully, Mr. Shermer is not adverse to the theory that there is something that exists outside time and space. If so, then we can suppose there was something before space and time existed at all that could interact even though it could only interact with itself. After all, there had to be some interaction of something for the physical world to be here now. So, what else could exist outside the bounds of space and time – logically speaking, only consiousness is not bounded by space and time. Lets say there was some type of primordial consiousness that our individual consciousness as well as the physical universe might be related to, or even derived from. I think there is a possibility that a dim awareness of this primordial consiousness is what sparked primitive man to make up religion, gods, etc. This primordial consciousness is not a sentient being but a form of energy. (Again, primitive man anthropomorphized this energy by creating gods, religion, etc.) As an energy form, like earth’s early carbon based bio-forms, it has the potential to evolve – lets say evolve awareness. It is the primordial substance of conciousness itself, NOT the attribute of being conscious.
    This type of consciousness is the result of evolution offering profitability to a self-organizing complex system of relational digital-like content or an apparently infinite potential energy.
    I could go on and on and explain it further but if anyone is interested in this theory they can find it Tom Campbell’s book, My Big Toe. Mr. Campbell is a nuclear physicist and TOE represents theory of everything in physics. It is the best explanation for why we exist, why we invented gods and religions and why we probably continue to exist beyond our physical bodies but has nothing to do with the supernatural, belief systems or relgions of any kind.
    Since evolution created the physical world we live in today, why couldn’t another form of energy gradaully produce what we call consciousness today by slowly evolving an awareness through the process of making choices slowly over eons of time, even though in the beginning, there was no awareness of choices being made. The awareness slowly evolved and permeated all physcial matter from the lowest to highest forms – plant consciousness is primitive compared to human consiousness and so on. Of course, again, primitive man could not explain this awareness which at its highest form creates emotions such as awe, love, etc. and made up the idea of gods or creators. This is what I would think of when I hear – deep time and change – not the grinding away of rock!!!!!!!!!!

  18. It would seem exceedingly hard to think of a model that represents not just the natural selection aspect of evolution, but the equally important aspect of common descent, which makes it easier for me to accept less than perfect demonstrations.

  19. Armed_AI says:

    Boring and abstract

  20. William Cutler says:

    Amazing how many people (comments above)missed the point.

  21. Max says:

    What point, William? “The power of deep time and nature’s processes to produce dramatic change”?

  22. Overman says:

    What!? An Evolution Rocks Newsletter that we are not a part of?!?!?


    Check out this if you haven’t yet, and sing along for Darwin Day!

  23. Mastriani says:

    Wow … just f’n wow.

    Considering that these blogs are created and maintained by educated professionals, who willingly and selflessly give their time by attempting to ameliorate a borderline mongoloid populace, (eg., the internets society), the criticisms are just …. (**deleted string of unacceptable expletives in capital letters**).

    “This example doesn’t …”

    Here’s an idea. Stop posting, go get your PhD., spend twenty years earning the respect of your peers and achieving professional success, then start your own blog.

    We even have one poster making evolution tantamount to the “Darkside of the Force” … ???

    2000 years since the first great minds of Ionia … and this is the best that can be offered. Seemingly, evolution of homo sapien stalled and fell dead in Greece. Who knew.

  24. Max says:

    Hold on, let me check if constructive cricism of PhD’s violates the comment policy…

    Trolling, however, does.

  25. Craig+East says:

    1) Creationists/Intelligent Designers insist that the Theory of Evolution is “just a Theory” but have no problem with the Theory of Relativity being a “just” a “Theory”. DUH! There is no use arguing with them as they insist and do not think about “it” any.
    2) As for anything “outside” the universe creating the universe: that is a VERY OLD bit of nonsense. The “all” includes all and has no outside and contains all times and all spaces by definition. That includes all causes of any and all things by definition. The universe or the “all” includes all creations and creativity by definition. There is nothing “left over” to “cause” the universe, no space “left over” for the universe to be in, and no “time” for the universe either. This is an old-old-old argument for the incommensurability of god developed in the 1100’s by monastery monks and need not be debated anymore. As god cannot have any precursor, god being the creator, so the universe, the all that everyone said god created, cannot have any other either. They adjourned the discussion to FAITH as the absolute limit of the necessary use of reason and left reason right there as able to go no further. They were at least honest as well as religious monks. [The very same monks also developed the notion of uncountable infinite numbers by the contemplation of the number of possible incommensurate angels dancing, as angels do not “stand around”, on an infinitely small space, such as a needle. That is a different subject.]

  26. Mastriani says:

    Hold on, let me check if constructive cricism of PhD’s violates the comment policy…

    Trolling, however, does.

    troll 1 (trōl) Pronunciation Key
    v. trolled, troll·ing, trolls

    Slang; To patrol (an area) in search for someone or something.

    Notice the qualifiers; dismissed.

    The gentleman offered a 2:40 metaphor for something that is hundreds of millions of years in development along a continuum.

    I’ll let my previous comment stand.

  27. Max says:

    Let me help you out.

    “Don’t be a troll. Trolls lurk on blog comments, sniping at phrases or points taken out of context. They try to be provocative just to stir emotion, rather than sincerely engaging in conversation or trying to understand the actual points raised by the author or other commenters.”

    If you want to know how well the metaphor was received by the intended audience, see the YouTube comments.

    The first minute of the video goes like this: “What troubles most people about evolution is that you could get something like us from some lower form of animal. It just doesn’t seem intuitively logical… And as a dramatic example of that…”
    By now, viewers are expecting a dramatic example of increasing complexity, but what they get is rocks breaking down into sand.

    The same amount of time could’ve been spent talking about the formation of crystals, plant breeding, or the basic elements of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

  28. Mastriani says:


    In the first, every blog entry is read, and comments are always selectively replied to; “trolling” is directly at looking to take issue with a particular individual, (i.e. sought out), for the purpose of an emotional response. In my case, there is naught but stoicism.

    I would like to see/hear anyone who could cover the basic elements of evolution in just 2:40 to a degree you find “agreeable”, and still remain intellectually accessible to the larger mass of individuals reading a blog. That seems rather dubious. Again, it is about the qualifier.

    sniping at phrases or points taken out of context.

    Perhaps, heeding one’s own advice is the most prudent course of action.

    Crystals? Really? Try explaining differences of motif and lattice, lattice parameters, conventional/primitive cell, translational symmetry to a lay public in 2:40. I’d actually pay to see/hear that explanation.

    Plant breeding? The effects of artificial selection with phenotype, genotype, gene expression, DNA methylation, protein methylation in 2:40?

    Please, do it, I am more than interested to see these presentations.

  29. tmac57 says:

    I think most of us ‘get’ what Dr. Shermer is trying to convey. I agree that it was a bit simplistic for a skeptic audience, but I still champion his continuing efforts to make science more accessible to non-scientists . Shouldn’t all opinions be welcome here as long as they are sincere?

  30. Yep. Besides, Elvis didn’t have a hit with every recording, nor did The Babe hit every ball out of the park.

  31. Max says:

    Mastriani, did Shermer go into great detail about erosion? No. Then why on earth would the other analogies warrant ten times more detail? At least show sand turning into stone instead of vice-versa. Show some sediment, then limestone, then beautiful marble.

  32. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    Dr. Shermer presented 8 steps from lava rock to sand. That leaves 7 gaps! What about those gaps, Dr. Shermer? Explain those! Huh? Huh?

  33. Mastriani says:

    Dr. Shermer presented 8 steps from lava rock to sand. That leaves 7 gaps! What about those gaps, Dr. Shermer? Explain those! Huh? Huh?

    There’s nothing more appreciated than a vicious wit … lol. Some get it, some don’t.

  34. William Cutler says:

    Max comment 21 asks what’s the point? I would say the point of Shirmer’s video is that great changes can be wrought through many tiny increments over a long duration of time. That’s part of the argument for how evolution got to life as it now exists, starting with whatever form of proto-life emerged from the primordial ooze. I would agree, however, that the point falls far short of Shirmer’s claim of amazing revelation.

    Another simple demonstration that makes another relevant point (IMHO) is to clean a handfull of 6-23 screws and nuts in an ultrasonic bath. After a period of several minutes of jiggling, examination of the hardware in the bath reveals that a certain fraction of the nuts have screwed themselves onto the screws. Someone skilled in statistical mechanics could, I’m sure, come up with a formula expressing what fraction of the nuts have done this, and the distribution of distances they’ve screwed themselves along the screws. I leave it to others to infer the point I’m making.

  35. SDR says:

    “Here’s an idea. Stop posting, go get your PhD.”

    You’re obviously not a skeptic, are you? Having a PhD absolutely does NOT mean the person knows what he’s talking about, nor that the person is smart. Now saying these things I am not insulting Shermer, but refuting your ridiculous claim that anyone without a PhD should not talk. That’s the appeal to authority, a major logical fallacy, something any skeptic should recognize. The fact is Shermer gave a bad example that frankly had barely anything to do with evolution at all. Also, Shermer is not a scientist, his PhD is not in science, so he is no authority in the first place. I’m sure he knows his stuff, but don’t start trumpeting his PhD as a reason why we can’t criticize. Everyone is up for criticism, that’s part of being a skeptic in the first place. I’m sure he appreciates the criticism.

  36. Mastriani says:

    That’s the appeal to authority, a major logical fallacy, something any skeptic should recognize.

    Actually, it’s called the “false appeal to authority” fallacy. Which my statement doesn’t qualify for, which is something any skeptic should recognise, and know the definition of before posting.

    I’ve yet to meet a single PhD. holder who was less intelligent, or even of equal intelligence to a lay person. If your statement was correct, the likelihood is that the PhD. degree would be ubiquitous, not selective.

    In the end, see comment #30.

  37. “I’ve yet to meet a single PhD. holder who was less intelligent, or even of equal intelligence to a lay person.”

    Let me give you a tour of my world (psychology), where such madness abounds.

  38. Mastriani says:

    Let me give you a tour of my world (psychology), where such madness abounds.

    Hitler, Napoleon, Ghengis Khan, Nietzsche, Ted Bundy, Caligula, Nimrod … all technically mad.

    Also, all technically brilliant.

  39. Mastriani says:

    P.S. DA, I remember you mentioning the “God Particle” somewhere, can’t find the comment. Lost the meaning at that moment.

    Anyway, it is a reference to the Higgs Boson, (?fundamental binding energy?); look up Fermilab Tevatron accelerator and Cern’s LHC … you’ll get the necessary information.

    It will be America FTW on this one; I loves me some American scientists.
    (Just for clarity, “FTW” is “for the win” …)

  40. Max says:

    Actually it’s called “appeal to authority”, argumentum ad verecundiam (Latin: argument to respect).

    Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe not only has a PhD, but serves as professor of biochemistry, so let’s just accept everything he says.

  41. Mastriani says:

    How about that trolling Max?

    The appeal to authority fallacy is when one attacks the source of the claim i.e. as a matter of syllogistic logic. argumentum ad verecundiam or ipse dixit. As it is obvious you haven’t even a base understanding of philosophy, there is most often the form of a bare assertion fallacy involved. Not withstanding, the assertion was mine, and not Dr. Shermer’s, meaning this could not possibly be the proper form of the fallacy, as I was the source of the claim.

    The false appeal to authority is when a source is sited as proof for a claim, and the validity of the claim is questioned by diminishing the asserter and/or the source; i.e. an ad hominem. (This is where you and others are guilty and convicted, because your credentials, unmentioned and unestablished, do not meet the conditions for refutation based upon academic superiority or known expertise.)

    Which, in the form of the fallacy, has a rather pertinent exigency: that the authority is claimed to be infallible. Which never occurred.

    My statement was just as thus; you aren’t in a provable position to be dismissive of Dr. Shermer. His credentials established, yours … hrmmm, how should I say this: not.

    Although, I have to give DA credit for illustrating that proof by tenure is not necessarily a good choice. Well done, and accepted.

  42. Max says:

    If most of us “aren’t in a provable position to be dismissive of Dr. Shermer”, then neither are we in a provable position to be supportive of Dr. Shermer, or dismissive of Professor Behe and Professor Dembski. We should just stop posting and go get our PhD’s first, and so should the viewers of Shermer’s video before they can comment whether or not they liked it.