Refuting Three Trendy Myths about Evolution

Myth 1: The theory of evolution is a faith-based, “religious” concept.

Since it was first formulated by Charles Darwin nearly 150 years ago, the theory of evolution (TOE) has emerged as one of the best corroborated theories in all of science.   Conversely, biblical creationism in its various guises (including so-called intelligent design) has consistently flunked every scientific and legal test to which it has been subjected.   (See here and here.)  Thwarted in their attempts to fob off biblical creationism as real science, Christian fundamentalists are now engaged in a new form of subterfuge, i.e., asserting that creationism and the TOE share the similarity that they are both faith-based (i.e., religious) concepts.  The argument then goes, since the TOE is a religious ideology, it should not be taught in science class.  Instead, the creationists contend, the TOE should be taught in a history of religion or philosophy class where it, and the biblical story of creation, should be placed on an equal footing.  (It should be noted that this new approach is a clear departure from the creationists’ earlier strategy of arguing that creationism was scientifically validated and demanding that it should, therefore, be taught in science class.  Repeated legal defeats have now left that strategy dead in the water.)    

In this misguided attempt to even the playing field, anti-evolutionists are now fostering the deceit that acceptance of the TOE is analogous to an act of religious devotion founded on faith.  (See here for an example.)   In so doing, they are (purposely?) confusing faith (“… the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Heb 11:1) with the “hypothetico-deductive” reasoning process involved in scientific investigation.  (See here.) 

Faith demands no tangible evidence whatsoever; all it entails is hope and/or wishful thinking.  On the other hand, valid scientific theories must be based on solid, verifiable evidence.  This effort to equate an established scientific theory with religious dogma ignores the salient differences that exist between scientific and religious epistemologies.

·         Science is based on the systematic analysis of tangible, empirically verifiable evidence.  Religion is faith-based.  (Faith – Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.  Or, in the case of creationism, belief in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary.)  There is a profound difference between the objective, hands-on, testable evidence that serves as the nexus of scientific investigation and the often inconsistent, questionably authentic, self-serving narratives of ancient story tellers on which religious faith rests.  

·         Science permits explanations that invoke only natural causes and effects, with no exceptions.  Religion embraces supernatural causation.  This is one of the fundamental tenets of the scientific method that sets it apart from religious beliefs about causation.  (In this regard, it should be noted that science does not deny or confirm the existence of God.  It simply maintains a position of neutrality on the subject.)

·          Science offers explanations that are modified or rejected in the light of contradictory evidence.  Religion is customarily resistant to change when confronted with conflicting evidence.  

·         Science is universal in application.  For example, Newton’s laws of motion are generally applicable in the entire universe at normal velocities.  Religious “Truths” differ (often to the point of fomenting violence) from one religious faction to another.

·         Science develops theories that make accurate, testable predictions about how things in the natural world will be expected to behave under a variety of conditions.  The closest religion comes to prediction is so-called “prophecy” which, as “Prophecies: Imaginary and Unfulfilled”  shows, leaves a great deal to be desired in its predictive abilities.

·         Science offers explanations that are falsifiable.  In other words, there must be some way of testing to determine if a scientific hypothesis is valid or not.  Religion makes claims that involve supernatural elements that often preclude empirical verification.  (For example, how could one positively verify the claim, made by some biblical fundamentalists, that the earth is really less than 10,000 years old, but that God planted fake evidence that makes it look like it is several billion years old?) 

·         Science incorporates an egalitarian system of checks and balances known as peer review.  Religion is authoritarian and generally discourages critical analysis of established doctrine.

Science is a remarkably successful system for acquiring knowledge about the behavior of the natural world and for using this knowledge to improve the human condition.  It involves making observations, proposing predictive hypotheses to explain those observations, objectively examining the relevant evidence, and then testing the validity of the hypotheses in the light of that evidence.   If, as in the case of the TOE, a hypothesis is firmly corroborated by a large body of evidence, it advances to the status of a theory.   (See “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution” and here for some examples of this supportive evidence.)  The TOE is no more a religious concept than are gravitational theory and the germ theory of disease.  Evolution, like other natural processes, is self sustaining in the sense that it does not require the existence of adherents in order for it to continue operating.  Religions, on the other hand, cease to exist when people stop believing in them.         

Contrary to common creationist assertions, scientists do not advocate the teaching of the TOE in science class because they worship prominent evolutionary scientists or because they are promoting a faith-based agenda.  They are advocates because the TOE is currently the only scientific theory that successfully explains the diversity of life on earth.  Unlike creationists, whose crusade against evolution is unmistakably religiously motivated, those who promote the teaching of evolution do so, not because they have some ideological axe to grind, but because they are genuinely concerned about providing quality science instruction in public schools.   (Never mind that it is illegal to promote overtly religious concepts like biblical creationism in the public school classroom.)

Who better to judge if the TOE is a scientifically valid theory than the scientists who know most about it?  Earth and life scientists are the most knowledgeable regarding the areas of study directly related to the TOE.  Yet less than 0.2% of all these scientists have any qualms about the scientific validity of the theory.  (See here.)  On the other hand, many devout Christians who acknowledge the scientific authenticity of the TOE have reconciled their religious beliefs with an acceptance of the theory.  (See “The Clergy Letter Project.”)  Knowledgeable scientists and laypersons of various religious persuasions reject creationism because they recognize it for what it is – faith-based pseudoscience that unabashedly ignores, contradicts, and/or misrepresents the factual evidence.   Likewise, critical thinkers who have given careful thought to the subject recognize the TOE for what it is – a genuine scientific theory with numerous practical applications.  (See here for some examples.)

A pro-evolution bumper sticker reads, “We have the fossils; we win!”  That pretty much sums it up in a nutshell.  Because of the abundance of confirmatory evidence, the TOE is endorsed by every reputable science organization and many religious institutions worldwide.  (See “Voices for Evolution” for some examples.)  Lacking any substantive arguments to explain away this ringing endorsement and as a consequence of their repeated legal setbacks, some creationists now falsely assert that evolution is a faith-based “theory,” just like creationism.  Ironically, when creationists insinuate that their opponents are consumed by the same type of evidence-denying, dogma-inspired, religious fervor that they are, it only serves to cast greater suspicion on the integrity their own reactionary claims.  What a strange way to try to bolster their position – by claiming, albeit incorrectly, that their opponents’ arguments are just as emotion-driven and lacking in objectively verifiable evidence as their own.   It’s rather like a person trying to justify his auto purchase by claiming that his neighbor’s Mercedes is just as poorly constructed as his Yugo.

The creationists are right about one thing.  Creationism is a religious concept that, if it is to be taught at all in the public schools, must be restricted to something like a history of religion or philosophy class.  Where they go wrong is in trying to lump the scientific TOE in with their favorite superstition.  

Myth 2:  Since macroevolution* cannot be observed and repeated, it is not scientific.

Most creationists now reluctantly concede that so-called microevolution (i.e., evolution below the ill-defined biblical “kinds” level) does occur.  There is just too much supportive evidence (drug resistance, pesticide resistance, alternate host development, etc.) for them to deny the reality of microevolution any longer.  Since that target is no longer available for them to snipe at, they now focus on so-called macroevolution, i.e., normally understood to mean evolution at or above the species level.  (It is difficult to pin down creationists on what they actually mean by macroevolution since their definitions of biblical “kinds” are so vague and are continuously metamorphosing to suit their needs.)  However creationists define macroevolution, they are adamant that its occurrence cannot possibly be accounted for by the TOE.  Their reasoning, if one can call it that, goes something like this:  Since the emergence of all the basic “kinds” occurred so far back in the distant past, when no one was around to actually see it happening, it is impossible to develop a valid scientific explanation for how the process took place.  Valid scientific theories must be based on things that can be observed and tested by repeatable experimentation.  Since macroevolution to form the different "kinds" could not be directly observed and tested by repeatable experimentation, it is not a valid scientific concept. 

What the anti-evolutionists seem to misunderstand (or ignore) is that, in science, a particular phenomenon under investigation does not actually have to be repeated or reproduced from scratch, in toto, in order to arrive at valid scientific explanations pertaining to that phenomenon?  For example, geologists do not have to actually reproduce the Ice Age Missoula Flood(s) in order to determine that it occurred, when it occurred, how widespread it was, and to develop meaningful theories about its cause.  Examination of the geological evidence left behind by the historical event is all it takes to arrive at verifiable scientific conclusions about its occurrence.  Science is only concerned with the evaluation of verifiable evidence (circumstantial, after the fact, or otherwise) that is consistent among observers, regardless who examines it or when it was produced.  Repeatability in science refers to the availability of pertinent evidence, not the ability to completely replicate the overarching phenomenon being investigated.  There are a number of historical sciences (cosmology, paleontology, geology, archeology, etc.) which employ this method of evidence testing.

To meet the criterion of scientific authenticity, observations must be available to all interested investigators and must be consistent (within the limits of statistical variation) among all investigators.  It is the consistency of the observations and their openness to all investigators to which the term “repeatability” in science refers.  As stated above, there is no requirement that the entire scope of the phenomenon under study must be duplicated in order to develop valid scientific theories that explain the phenomenon.   It is by using this same line of reasoning that juries are able to arrive at meaningful verdicts.  As in the case of scientific investigation, the original crime does not have to be recreated in its entirety in the court room.  Examination of evidence left at the crime scene and elsewhere is often all that is needed for a conviction.  What is required in both a court of law and science is not absolute certainty.  Verdicts/scientific theories must only be correct “beyond a reasonable doubt” in order for them to be valid and instructive.  

Regarding the creationist claim that macroevolution cannot be observed and experimentally repeated, if one defines macroevolution as evolution occurring at the species level, then their claim is clearly false.  (See here.)  Even if one goes along with one of the creationists’ more fuzzy higher-level definitions of “kind, “ there is still a plethora of observed, testable and repeatable evidence that supports macroevolution.  (See here.)  Just because creationists are unaware of (or choose to ignore) this evidence does not mean that it does not exist and that their claims have any merit.  To falsely claim, as creationists do, that the TOE is not observable and repeatable in the scientific sense serves only to call attention to their ignorance of the scientific method.

As a corollary to their claim that the TOE is not a scientific theory, the creationists must believe then that, either scientists are too dumb to recognize the purported fatal flaws in the theory, or they must believe that there is some kind of conspiracy going on within the scientific community to suppress the facts.  Since most scientists are not noted for being dumb, it is presumably the conspiracy theory to which they give the most weight.  In this respect, they have much in common with all the other conspiracy kooks who pollute the Internet with their cockamamie fantasies.  

The truth is, any scientist who could disprove any of the major tenets of the TOE  would be a shoo-in for a Nobel Prize, would achieve instant worldwide fame and scientific acclaim, and would be the recipient of more grant money than he/she could spend in a lifetime.  Scientists are not just in the business of proving theories, they are in the business of disproving them as well.  Nothing would make a scientist happier (and more famous) than shooting down a well-established theory like the TOE.  Evolutionary scientists test the TOE every time they do research on the subject.   By investigating evidence that verifies the theory, they are also investigating evidence that could potentially disprove it.  All it would take would be something like the discovery of a rabbit fossil in Precambrian rock or an aquatic mammal with gills, and it would be the end of the TOE as we know it.  (Tellingly, no such evidence has ever been discovered.)  Taking these facts into consideration, orchestrating a worldwide conspiracy to conceal any serious shortcomings of the TOE would be a virtual impossibility – especially considering that many of these scientists are, themselves, practicing Christians.   Only someone unaware how both human nature and science work could peddle such a nonsensical idea.

Myth 3: Creationists do not believe in Macroevolution*.

Old-Earth Creationists of the Christian variety are biblical literalists.  As such, they believe that the six-day creation story in Genesis and the fabled worldwide flood of Noah were actual historical events.  Leaving aside the mountains of geological and biological evidence and the logistical problems which flatly contradict the flood saga (See here and here.), what are some of the evolutionary ramifications of the acceptance of this scenario? 

With the discovery of so many new species beginning in the early 1900’s, it began to dawn on the creationists that all of the mammalian, avian, reptilian, and amphibian species on Earth could not be properly housed and maintained (by a crew of only eight people) for nearly a year on a boat the size of that depicted in the Bible.  (This ignores the need to include all the arthropod and fish species, which may or may not be justified by scripture.)  In an attempt to rationalize this discrepancy, creationists began redefining the biblical “kinds” more along the lines of genera or higher classification levels rather than species.  Since there are fewer genera and higher classification levels than there are species, this, indeed, would have the effect of reducing the number of individual animals that would have to be housed on the Ark.  For example, with this new definition, the bobcat could be envisioned as being the progenitor of everything from the Siberian tiger to the housecat.   

Unfortunately for the creationists, this ad hoc approach has created an even more troublesome problem for them and turned them into hyper-evolutionists.  In order to get from the number of genera (e.g., approx. 180 for the bat) to the number of species (e.g., approx. 900 for the bat) that are known to exist today, macroevolution on an unprecedented scale would have to have taken place in the relatively short span of some 4,400 years since Noah supposedly captained the Ark.  Some creationists even elevate the biblical “kind” to the family level.  While this reduces the number of animals on the Ark even further, it also requires considerably more rapid and drastic evolution (i.e., more macroevolution ) to account for all the species known today.

To see how rapid and extreme this creation-style evolution would have to be, consider the situation relating to the evolution of bears.   Assuming one bear kind (actually two ancestral bears, one male and one female) was represented on the Ark, that one kind would have had to evolve into the 8 bear species that exist today.   From the original bear pair to the current 8 species, creationists must accept the development of differences in diet (herbivore, omnivore, carnivore, insectivore) and related differences in gut, teeth and jaw shape and behavior, differences in fur color and texture, different sizes, etc, plus the panda's thumb. All that diversity is supposed to have developed after the flood in just the last few thousand years. Now that’s a whopping amount of bear evolution in a very short time, and the situation is similar with all the other species.

To account for this hyper-evolution, creationists claim that the bear kind pair on the ark came preloaded with all the genes necessary for all the resulting bear species.  If this creationist fantasy were true, we would expect to still find all of the genetic variation inherent in the whole bear "kind" (all 8 species) to still be present in every individual bear alive today, because that's how genetic replication works.  Unfortunately for the creationists, that is not the case. In fact we find none of the evidence that would support such a claim, i.e., no 4,400-year-old to present-day intermediate fossils; no eyewitness accounts of hyper-evolution; no valid genetic mechanisms; and no bio-molecular evidence.  Other factors, such as genetic bottlenecks and allele numbers also argue strongly against this creationist scenario.         

Not surprisingly, the scientific facts do not deter the creationists in the least.  To their way of thinking, if the Bible story requires super-fast evolution on the macro scale, then it must have happened, the evidence be damned.  (This type of thinking further demonstrates why creationism is a religious concept and not a scientific one.)  The degree of evolution the creationists are claiming occurred after the flood is far greater in scope and much faster than any mainstream scientist has ever proposed.  It is macroevolution on an unprecedented scale.   Hence, rather than disbelieving in macroevolution, creationists are actually its most ardent supporters, whether they admit it or not.

The curious thing is that it is a common creationist refrain that they accept microevolution, but strongly reject macroevolution.   The irony is that, on the one hand, they claim to disbelieve in the same form of evolution which, on the other hand, they vigorously defend as having occurred, on an even grander scale, after the purported biblical flood.  One is reminded of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland who boasted that she could believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.   Considering the all impossible things that creationists must believe day in and day out, the Queen has clearly lost her bragging rights.

 

Footnote:

*Macroevolution is not a term that is normally used by most evolutionary scientists.  The distinction between microevolution (within the species) and macroevolution (at and above the species level) is largely an artificial one.  Evolution is evolution, and the same basic mechanisms are involved regardless what scale is involved.   Macroevolution is nothing but the additive effect of a sequence of many microevolutionary events occurring over longer periods of time.

All this current hubbub about macroevolution is due primarily to the creationists’ attempts to incorrectly portray it as something distinctly different from microevolution.  As discussed in conjunction with Myth #3 above, creationists can no longer deny that microevolution occurs.  This leaves macroevolution as their only remaining target.   Since changes on the macroevolutionary scale are more difficult to directly observe because they occur over extended periods of time, it is this aspect of the evolutionary process that the creationists have chosen to attack.

Creationists commonly argue that macroevolution cannot occur because the amounts of new genetic information required to bring about such changes cannot be generated by natural means.   (See here for refutation of that argument.)  They also argue that macroevolutionary changes are of such a magnitude that they could not possibly result from a series of relatively small microevolutionary events.  This sort of convoluted logic is like arguing that adding 1+1+1+1… for a long enough period of time could not possibly add up to one million.  To top it off, they have provided no biological mechanism whatsoever to account for their proposed magical braking effect on genetic modification.   The only argument they have left is to claim that there was not enough time for major evolutionary changes to occur.  As discussed in conjunction with Myth #3 above, in this case, they don’t even believe in their own argument.