Yes, I’m going to tackle this subject again because I’ve been thinking about it from a different angle. But right off the bat, I’m not out to bash religion. The purpose of this post is to address some common creationist criticisms of evolution. In most discussions about evolution with a creationist, there are certain talking points that always emerge: irreducible complexity, the fact that evolution doesn’t “add genetic information” to anything, the idea that the evolution of man was unobservable, etc. While I believe people are free to believe in a divine creator or that evolution isn’t a real process, I think that in order to have a real debate, the information and arguments given must be scientifically accurate. Thus we have this post.
We’ll start with the argument of complexity because that’s a fairly common one. The argument here is that the biological systems we see today are too complex to have evolved randomly, and the fact that such allegedly complexity is dependent upon each individual component working together in synchronous harmony points to the fact they couldn’t all have arisen randomly and coalesced so perfectly without the guidance of some kind of divine creator. And please, if there are religious folks reading this now and I’ve left something out, feel free to clarify that definition.
The complexity argument is a poor one because ultimately it’s entirely subjective. Saying that something is “complex” is merely an assertion–not a fact. I can (and do) assert that calculus is complex. But I have many friends who are very good at math and maintain that it isn’t as daunting or complex as it seems. Complexity is entirely relative. But as it pertains to any scientific theory, complexity in and of itself cannot be a refutation of any theory because there is no way to quantify complexity. You can’t scientifically test or measure complexity, so it can’t possibly be used as a scientific argument.
What about the idea that evolution doesn’t “add genetic information” to organisms? Well, unfortunately for people who like to use this argument, the forces of evolution do indeed add genetic information to organisms. When a gene mutates, new genetic information has been created since that particular gene didn’t exist before. Whenever a mutation or error results in the doubling of a gene–you’ve added new genetic information. In short, evolution adds new information to our genome all the time. It seems that the creationist line of thinking with this idea rests upon the notion that there is only ever a fixed amount of DNA or base pairs in an organism. However, there is plenty of scientific evidence that demonstrates the amount of DNA in an organism is not fixed at all.
Then there’s the idea that evolution is “just a theory.” Despite how long this argument has been around and how many times it’s been dispelled, people still use it all the time. It’s an issue of scientific literacy, which has more to do with our education system than it does with religion. Ultimately, though, this argument fails to acknowledge what a scientific theory actually is, confusing instead with a hypothesis. In science, a theory, “summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. If enough evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, it moves to the next step—known as a theory—in the scientific method and becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a phenomenon.” That definition is courtesy of livescience.
Finally, there is the idea that evolution is “untestable” and “has never been observed.” This argument is perhaps the most rhetorical of all for two reasons. First, because we can’t travel back in time, nobody can go observe the first human evolving. Or so the logic goes. As I’ve mentioned before, “historical science” is a very poor argument because using this logical framework means that it’s impossible to ever know anything about anything before the invention of photography or outside of the lifetime of the oldest living individual on the planet–both of which are false and have no logical leg to stand upon. The mere fact that an event was not witnessed by a group of people does not logically mean that available evidence cannot lead those same people to a correct conclusion about the event in question.
Second, the idea that evolution has “never been observed” relies upon the rhetorical tactic of changing the definition of evolution to suit the creationist narrative. The creationist idea of evolution involves the notion that evolution only happens if an entirely new organism is produced. That is certainly a possibility with evolution, but there are multiple things wrong with this line of thinking. First and foremost, evolution isn’t a process that happens overnight. By its very definition it’s a gradual process. So it’s entirely possible to go long periods of time without observing any physical changes in an organism. But more importantly, evolution is not random. That’s probably the biggest misconception out there in the creationist world. Mutations are certainly random, but natural selection is not. An organism will only change if environmental pressures favor mutations that change it. Ergo in a period of relative environmental stability, there might not be any environmental pressures that necessitate physical change.
But we can further examine some of the fallacies with this argument. In order to do so, we will need to work with the scientific definition of evolution. Here is how Merriam-Webster defines evolution:
biology : a theory that the differences between modern plants and animals are because of changes that happened by a natural process over a very long time
: the process by which changes in plants and animals happen over time