Monday, 10 June 2013

Common Christadelphian attacks on evolution exposed

Most of the attacks on evolution made by Christadelphian evolution denialists have been rebutted endlessly. To avoid needless repetition, they will be listed here and referenced appropriately.

1. Failure to define evolution correctly

Incorrectly defining evolution is a common special creationist mistake, and is one that invalidates their attempts at rebuttal. If you fail to define something accurately, then you have shown that you do not understand the subject you are attacking. Common errors include:
  • Failing to differentiate between the fact of evolution (common descent and large-scale evolutionary change for which the evidence is copious [1]) and the mechanism proposed to explain it.
  • Conflating evolution to include unrelated areas such as abiogenesis and cosmology.
The standard approach creationists use in this attack is to assert that difficulties (real or imagined) in the mechanism proposed to explain evolution (the modern synthetic theory) or unrelated areas of science such as cosmology prove evolution never occurred. This ignores the fact that the evidence that evolution has occurred (common descent and large-scale evolutionary change) does not go away even if there are difficulties in the currently accepted theory of evolution.
2. Dismissal of evolution as 'only a theory'

Another common attack is to dismiss evolution as 'only a theory.' In science, the term 'theory' does not mean 'hunch', 'speculation' or 'guess'. In science, a theory is:
"...following the definition given by the NAS, is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.” Science not only generates facts but seeks to explain them, and the interlocking and well-supported explanations for those facts are known as theories. Theories allow aspects of the natural world not only to be described, but to be understood. Far from being unsubstantiated speculations, theories are the ultimate goal of science."  [2]
Dismissing evolution as 'just a theory' is as ill-advised as dismissing gravity, atomic theory or the germ theory of disease as also 'just theories'.

3. Argument from personal incredulity

When special creationists marvel over complex patterns of behaviour such as migration or complicated organs such as the eye or molecular, then assert that evolution is false because they cannot imagine how such structures could not have evolved, they are committing a form of logical fallacy known as the argument from personal incredulity.

There are many problems with attempted rebuttals of this nature:
  • What may be a problem for science today may well be resolved tomorrow. A special creationist who dogmatically asserts that a particular structure is too complex to evolve will lose credibility when an evolutionary explanation is eventually found.
  • It is smuggling in the first error - failing to differentiate between evolution as fact and evolution as theory. The absence of a robust explanation for how a pattern of behaviour evolved does not invalidate the overwhelming evidence that evolution occurred.
  • It is a remarkably arrogant claim for the special creationist to make. In short, he is asserting "I cannot imagine how X evolved, therefore no one else can, and therefore evolution is false. The logic of this can be readily demonstrated by using a religious equivalent:
It is no easy matter to harmonize the gospel narratives in their accounts of the visits to the tomb, and of the appearance of the angels and of Jesus himself. Many say dogmatically that it cannot be done. Unwilling to believe themselves capable of error, such critics are very ready to assume fallibility in the gospel writers. In the world of mathematics the man who says: "I cannot find a solution to this problem, therefore it cannot be solved," is written off as a fool. Yet in the field of Bible exegesis there are plenty of such. [3]
A special creationist would (rightly) bristle at the suggestion made by a scientist with no demonstrable knowledge of NT textual criticism or NT studies who claimed that he could not imagine how to harmonise the resurrection narratives, therefore Christianity was false. Yet, that special creationist who is utterly without any scientific expertise in evolutionary biology blithely makes the same error when he asserts that instinct is "too complex to evolve" therefore, evolution is false.

4. Argument from authority

Special creationists frequently argue that "many eminent scientists reject evolution", or refer to lists of "scientists who dissent from Darwinism." In making this argument, they are making an argument from authority, which is yet another logical fallacy. In general, there are many problems with this attempted rebuttal:
  • Expertise in one area of science does not translate to expertise other unrelated areas. A professor of materials science may well be able to speak with authority about the best way to deposit thin reflective layers on precision optics, but when it comes to palaeontology or comparative genomics, he has no more authority than any other educated layperson. Lists of scientists who 'dissent from Darwinism' are studded with mathematicians, engineers, inorganic chemists, computer scientists and other professionals from outside the life and earth sciences who simply are not in a position to give an authoritative opinion on evolution.
  • Such lists do not define evolution adequately and include scientists who do not doubt that an evolutionary process has occurred, but believe the current theory of evolution needs revision. The average creationist layperson does not pick up on this subtlety, and instead believes that the scientist actually doubts common descent and large-scale evolutionary change.
  • Over 99% of biologists and geologists accept evolution [4] - the few life and earth scientists who reject common descent and large scale evolutionary change do so not from scientific reasons, but from religious. One is entirely justified in asking why this tiny minority should be believed when they have failed to convince their peers, some of whom are also like them devout Christians, Muslims and Jews.
5. Quote mining

Quote mining is the practice of quoting someone out of context in such a way as to alter the original sense of what that person was saying. Special creationists are notorious for selectively quoting Darwin and other evolutionary biologists in such a way as to cast doubt on evolution.

One of the most widely-abused quotes is Darwin's remark on eye evolution in "The Origin of Species". Creationists frequently quote the first part of his remark:
To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.
However, they finish the quote at this point, omitting the conclusion:
Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.
Another scientist whose work was frequently abused by special creationists was Stephen Gould:
Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists -- whether through design or stupidity, I do not know -- as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. The punctuations occur at the level of species; directional trends (on the staircase model) are rife at the higher level of transitions within major groups. [5]
The practice of quote mining is so widespread among special creationists that a collection of commonly-abused quoted and the context in which they occur has been collated in order to put an end to this intellectually and morally dishonest special creationist strategy. [6]

6. Equating evolution with atheism

Special creationists are not averse to claiming that evolution and atheism are synonymous, and will quote vocal atheists in the scientific community such as Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins as proof. This ignores the fact that many contemporary scientists such as the palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris, cell biologist Kenneth Miller and medical geneticist and former head of the Human Genome Project Francis Collins not only are respected scientists who accept evolution, but are active in showing Christians that evolution and Christianity are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, many of Darwin's best defenders were Christians who accepted evolution because they could see the evidence for common descent and large-scale evolutionary change was robust:
Darwin’s cause in America was championed by the thoroughgoing Congregationalist evangelical Asa Gray, who set himself the task of making sure that Darwin would have “fair play” in the New World. Let us be clear right away that this cannot be dismissed as capitulation to the social pressure of academic peers. To the contrary, Gray had to take on one of the most influential naturalists in America at the time to maintain his viewpoint – none other than Louis Agassiz, a Harvard colleague who vitriolically scorned Darwin’s theory. But Gray was not alone. Many of his countrymen, associates in science and brothers in religion took the same stand. And indeed even those who ultimately remained unimpressed with if not hostile to Darwin were quite prepared to admit that evolution had occurred. It is surely not without significance that Christian botanists, geologists, and biologists – that is to say, those best placed to see with clarity the substance of what Darwin had proposed – believed the evidence supported an evolutionary natural history.  [7]
Contemporary Christadelphians are often surprised to realise that early Christadelphians, though opposed to evolution, nonetheless were far more sophisticated in their attempts to reconcile Bible and science than their contemporary peers. [8] Over 100 years have passed since the early Christadelphian efforts to understand the Bible in the light of contemporary science, and the evidence for common descent and large scale evolutionary change is now overwhelming. Evolution is (despite what atheists and fundamentalists allege) not irreconcilable with Christian faith. Examples of how this can be done can be found elsewhere. [9]

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here


1. Theobald, Douglas L. "29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent." The Talk.Origins Archive. Vers. 2.88. 2011. 6 Mar, 2012 >

2.Gregory T.R. "Evolution as Fact, Theory and Path" Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-52

3. Whittaker, H "Studies in the Gospels" Chapter 239. "At the Rising of the Sun"

4. "Are There Large Numbers Of Scientists Who Don't Accept Evolution?"

5. Gould S.J. "Evolution as Fact and Theory. Science and Creationism" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 124.

6. The Quote Mine Project

7. Livingstone D.N. “Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders” (Eerdmans 1984) p xi-xii

8. See here  for a summary of early Christadelphian efforts to understand the Bible in the light of science.

9. See here