Evolution and creationism


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

: a process of slow change and development

Can we observe any of those? Yes, of course. We can and do. Organisms physically change all the time. We’ve seen colors of organisms change, we’ve observed the tusk length of elephants decreasing, and we observe things like antibiotic resistance in bacteria. All of those things represent physical changes to an organism. Suddenly sprouting wings or a new appendage is not the only measurement of physical change in an organism, nor do organisms have to transform into totally “new” ones for an evolutionary change to have occurred. The changing of an organism’s color or patterning is a physical change. The decreasing length of elephant tusks is a physical change. Antibiotic resistance in bacteria is due to a physical change in the bacteria. So here we have three clear cut examples of observable physical changes that meet all three of the definitions of biological evolution. These are small, gradual physical changes–check. They differentiate one species of animal or plant from another–check. Not to mention the fossil record shows clear progressions of organisms during different geological epochs.

Okay. All of this evidence aside, there is one argument that creationists fall back upon during discussions of this sort. And that is what I call “the jury’s out” argument. According to this argument, the jury is still out on evolution because there are scientists who do not believe it. There are several problems with this argument, though.

First, in order for this argument to have any modicum of objective credibility, there would have to be non-religious scientists who oppose Darwinian evolutionary theory. I could not find any. And I really, really did try. But no matter what I searched, all I could find were lists compiled by anonymous people on the internet that, when scrutinized, were in serious doubt. Many of the lists that a Google search will yield include scientists who died well before Darwin developed his theory–so obviously they didn’t believe in Darwinian evolution. Several lists included scientists who weren’t biologists. While this isn’t conclusive, just because someone has a PhD behind their name doesn’t make them an expert in every branch and field of science. I don’t expect a geologist to be able to go toe-to-toe with a theoretical physicist about quantum tunneling or super string theory. But perhaps most curiously, there was no primary evidence to support the existence of secular scientists who don’t believe in evolution. In other words, there were no scientists at all who took to writing about this subject–I couldn’t find one instance of one of these secular non-evolutionists coming forward themselves. It was always someone else doing it for them, which I find rather dubious.

I’m not saying that there aren’t scientists who are non-religious and who don’t believe in evolution. I’m saying that if there is such a group, they’re either a remarkably small minority or they’re dispassionate about the subject based on the amount of information and literature available regarding their existence and beliefs. Or course, it also doesn’t necessarily follow that anyone who has problems with Darwinian evolution must automatically then believe in a divine creator.

So where does that leave us? Well, usually the most vocal scientists who oppose evolution are openly religious. Which, again, says nothing of the scientific validity of evolution. How could it, when these scientists themselves are biased by their own religious beliefs? Replacing a scientific theory with an unobservable God is NOT a scientific argument. There’s absolutely no science involved in asserting a divine creator as the alternative to evolution. Sorry, but there isn’t.

But even if there were secular scientists who came out against evolution, ultimately it wouldn’t prove anything, because there are plenty of religious people who have come out in support of it. Since 1950, multiple Popes have spoken about the validity of evolution as a scientific theory (they still maintain that souls are God’s domain). So what does that imply? When the holiest man on earth is okay with evolution? Are people really going to sit there and say that the Pope just isn’t a true believer? How would creationists reconcile proclamations about evolution and science by popes over the last 60 years?

If you don’t want to believe in evolution, you have every right not to. The point of this post is not to convince creationists to suddenly believe in evolution. Nor is the point of this post to prove that creationism is wrong. The point of this post is to clear up some of the inaccuracies or misconceptions surrounding evolution. If you don’t want to believe in evolution, best of luck to you. I’m fine with that. But you should have the science behind the theory properly explained to you. If you still don’t want to believe in evolution, fine. But you cannot and should not use inaccurate or non-scientific ideas to attack the validity of a scientific theory. Otherwise you’re not only doing yourself a disservice, but you’re also preventing a productive dialogue between the two camps.


16 thoughts on “Evolution and creationism

  1. Evolution is an explanation of how we got from simplicity to complexity.
    That is constantly refered to by Richard Dawkins in his The Blind Watchmaker. The driving force is natural selection it has no end in view and no purpose. The world we admire and wonder at was made by a stumbling blindman as were we ourselves. The great stumbling block of evolution is just how did the first replicators come into being?
    Mr Dawkins juggles with probobility and mathematics taking us on a merry ride back to the big bang. He believes it happened by chance but chance he quickly adds is a form of science.
    Its not an easy read I struggled a lot but I must say its a noble effort.

    1. Certainly valid points, and certainly points worthy of discussion. I’ll be the first one to admit that despite how well evolution explains biological diversity, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the beginnings of life. That’s why I think it’s good that people of different beliefs have productive dialogues. And I look forward to seeing if science can answer those questions at some point in the future. The products of that “noble effort” to borrow your words may indeed end up merging a lot of different beliefs. Who knows. That’s the great thing about science–you never know where it’ll take you.

  2. Nice writeup, covering most of the bases.

    While you do say this is not an attempt to dispel the pervasiveness of religious mytholgies… the logical implications of the facts tend to have that side effect. 🙂

    I was on a tear on a blog somewhere a while back about the theory issue. I said that a scientific theory explains the observable evidences, and that reaching the theory stage in science is the highest degree of certainty we can attach to an area of study, or something to that effect. And, that a laymans defintion of a theory goes something like this: “Billy Bob’s theory on why his tire went flat, is that bigfoot came along and sucked the air of it.” There is quite a distinction between the two, and I am literally amazed every time I see some Dufus using that one. I mean c’mon, this is the age of information, the internet era, the Google fucking universe! People still do not understand the difference between the two uses of the word theory. Sad really, that people are that uneducated, or worse mis-educated to that degree in society today.

    Evolution unobserved? Fossils anyone? Also numerous reports and papers on observed evolution in the lab. (oh, but they are still bacteria? You can lead a creationist to water, but you can’t make them think.)

    Evolution untestable? Flu vaccines anyone? And the implications of why they have to be changed every year, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

    The complexity argument? I thought we were past the watchmaker analogy by now? The only people who cling to that illogical fallacy are, well, um, you did not write this post to be offensive, so I will restrain myself.

    Oh, I thought Abiogenesis was independent of evolution? One had to occur before the other kicked in. Once it kicked in, there was no going back. Also when you have a time scale of millions of years, and millions of mutations to work with, chance is no longer a barrier, but a finite possibility.

    I am familiar with every point you made here. I am also familiar with WHY you pointed these things out. It is a battle we are in. A battle between those who who realize the implications of the things we know, and continue to try to understand better… and those entrenched in outdated, irrelevant mythologies. Some of us are not content with pat, half assed, non answers. Many question nothing.

    1. I suppose it really is a battle. In general, people can feel free to believe whatever they want, for better or worse. But I feel that this particular issue is symptomatic of a much, much larger one, and that’s really one of science denial. Science denial is probably the single greatest threat to our civilization, in my opinion.

      Because once you start picking and choosing which facts you like and which facts you don’t like and ignoring the ones you don’t like, then it becomes incredibly easy to justify destructive behavior. Climate change? Don’t like, gonna ignore it. Vaccinations don’t cause autism? Don’t like it, gonna ignore it. The list goes on and on.

      I tend to agree with Sam Harris that at its very core, religious thinking is short sighted and damaging. If you believe that you’re going to an eternal paradise when you die, then what motivation do you have to make the world a better place? To take care of the environment? None.

      1. …much how I feel as well. It is one thing to live in denial, or to engage in fantasyland-ism. It is another thing entirely to let you fantasyland-ism take the ship down with everyone else on board.

        Science denial has 3 main purposes. 1. To keep the gullible rubes in line and tithing, “we don’t need them getting all uppity and learning stuff.”. 2. Political and financial gain due to the political influence, 3. and by encouraging certain politicains into trying to slip unconstitutional creationist bullshit into our schools/laws. 3. is perhaps a by product of 1 and 2, but no matter how you categorize it it is a serious issue.

        I guess it all boils down to greed really. Keeping the status quo, keeping a steady hand at the wheel of power, and making as much $ as you can along the way.

        That human beings would put their financial gain before the fate of our planet, and maybe even our own survival as a species, makes me ashamed to be a human.

        The whole science denial market (and it is a market) is a fucking calculated plan of action (we all know about the wedge doc) being carried out by those who would gain from it. See the DI, AiG, and the ICR, as well as many groups with the term “family” in their name.

        …of course there are some old school cranks and crazies out there too. They aren’t in line for a slice of the pie though.

  3. When did I change the definition of evolution? As far as I know, I’m using the definition and understanding that every evolutionary biologist uses. I’m not quite sure what you think I’m changing.

    If what creationists are saying is that new information cannot produce new traits, then I don’t think you as a group really understand how genetics works and what DNA does.

    I also don’t remember inciting anyone to accept anything blindly or without criticism. The entire point of this post was to say that if you want to be critical of evolution, do so through a scientific lens. So far none of the arguments or information you’ve presented here in this reply are scientific of scientifically accurate.

    1. I’m really at a loss here. Using the standard definition that mainstream science uses is not “self serving.” There’s nothing at all vague about it to the rest of us, only you. I could easily say that rejecting the standard definition is equally self serving.

      I think I’ve already explained several times the difference between faith and probability in science. You’re welcome to still think that everything scientists believe is done on blind assumptions, but that’s not at all the case. Observations and experiments in the physical world change how likely one explanation is over another. Reject that if you will.

    2. As I said at the end of this post, you’re still free to reject evolution. I’m fine with that, since objective reality is not dependent upon our beliefs. My intent here was to take the philosophical arguments out of the debate.

      Ultimately, every argument you’ve presented here has been a philosophical one: subjectivity, faith, “rebranding”–none of these things inform objective fact. Instead, all of these things speak to what the human mind is comfortable acknowledging.

    3. Again, how does this pertain to whether evolution is based on evidence?

      Instead of discussing the science, you’re sitting here quibbling with me over definitions.

      This is the problem with this discussion: to you natural selection and speciation aren’t evidence of evolution, and to evolutionists they are. That’s the crux of what’s going on here.

      The point is to say that if these forces can produce physical changes, then it’s possible or even likely that they explain large changes and biological diversity that we see today.

      That’s obviously not concrete enough for you and you view that as a leap of faith. That’s fine. But it’s also only your personal definition.

    4. “Probability science is meaningless once you begin to apply it to mythology- what’s the probability of you or me evolving super powers, like Wolverine?”

      Nice job of creating a false equivalency.

      “Creationists think outside the box because we’re not constrained by it. Evolutionists are. They’re not permitted to leave the box.”

      This is literally the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read, congratulations. This is cognitive dissonance and wishful thinking on your part to the nth degree. As a creationist, you’re literally constrained by the words of text on a written page. With science, at least a theory can be proven wrong or reworked when new information enters the picture and progress can be made–your point of view is always static. Science is only constrained by human curiosity and imagination–creationism is constrained by the bible.

      This is a supreme example of arrogance, ignorance, and hypocrisy.

      Which ultimately leads me to my last and final point. Right up until now, I think I’ve been a pretty good sport about your activity on this blog. Even at my worst, I’d guess I’ve been more polite and cordial about your views than most atheists on WordPress.

      But I think I’ve finally reached my limit. The point of this blog is NOT to allow you or other creationists to automatically respond with “the bible is infallible so science is wrong about things that I don’t like.” Which is basically what all of your arguments devolve into. I’m also fed up with your false equivalencies, your constant redefining of science to suit your argument, your using “historical science” when it suits you and then chastising others for it, and all of the other sneaky rhetorical tactics you use when you don’t have reality or facts on your side.

      I wouldn’t put up with someone preaching at my door using this nonsense; I’d kindly tell them to leave and shut the door. So why should I put up with it on this blog?

      “The bible says X, so science is wrong” is not a valid argument, it’s not a scientific argument, and it does not represent any sort of takedown of scientific principles. What it represents is your personal belief and philosophy. That’s fine for your own blog, but I’m sick of you trying to undermine the views of mainstream science on this blog and replace them with your personal ideology.

      You can’t “win” an argument by claiming you’re always right because an invisible man outside of time and space that no one can see or hear or touch or talk to gave you a book of “perfect” facts that, conveniently for you, cannot be verified or observed.

      We never discuss objective fact. All we invariably discuss are your beliefs. And I’m not going to give creationism anymore free press on this blog. Call it censorship, call it whatever you want, but it’s over. Save the biblical sermons and demonization of science for you own blog.

  4. This why the creationist concept of how DNA works is flawed. Consider the following:

    Some human beings are born with a tail.

    That’s a literal, well documented, scientific, observable fact. You can go to any library and pick out a book on genetics or biology or what have you, and you will invariable find documentation of a human beings who exist that have or were born with tails.

    If you reject the idea that humans have a common ancestor with another creature that has a tail and you instead embrace the creationist viewpoint, there are some implications. If all humans are descended from Adam and Eve and Adam and Eve did not have tails, that means that, operating under the creationist understanding of genetics, they “did not have the genes for a tail.” They were created by God, in their totality, and that totality did not include a tail. So if a modern human (or any human throughout history for that matter), is born with a tail, that would mean, according to your own scripture and definition of how genetics works, that humans should not be able to have tails, which did not exist during creation. This means that the only way this totally new trait could have arisen is through genetic mutation.

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