Thursday, 7 August 2014

What special creationists should know about evolution and how to discuss it

While this site does have a couple of FAQ lists, this article (reproduced with permission of the author) provides a concise summary of the main errors special creationists make when debating the subject. In short:
  • Evolution refers to fact and theory, and the evidence for the former is beyond dispute
  • Evolution is not an atheistic 'theory of everything'
  • Evolution is not synonymous with atheism
  • No one will take an uninformed special creationist seriously
  • Avoid arguments from authority
  • Avoid quote mining

Evolution refers to fact and theory

Evolution refers both to the fact of common descent and large scale evolutionary change, and the theoretical mechanism proposed to explain the fact of evolution. This point was made at least twice by Charles Darwin. Four years after the 1st edition of the Origin of Species was published, he noted:
Whether the naturalist believes in the views given by Lamarck, or Geoffroy St.-Hilaire, by the author of the ‘Vestiges,’ by Mr. Wallace and myself, or in any other such view, signifies extremely little in comparison with the admission that species have descended from other species and have not been created immutable; for he who admits this as a great truth has a wide field opened to him for further inquiry. [1]
Eight years later, in his book The Descent of Man, he emphasised the fact that his first book had two aims: showing that evolution had occurred, and proposing a theoretical explanation for it:
Some of those who admit the principle of evolution, but reject natural selection, seem to forget, when criticising my book, that I had the above two objects in view; hence if I have erred in giving to natural selection great power, which Iam very far from admitting, or in having exaggerated its power, which is in itself probable, I have at least, as I hope, done good service in aiding to overthrow the dogma of separate creations. [2]
The currently accepted theory of evolution is the Modern Synthetic Theory, which was forged in the first half of the 20th century. Like all areas of science, it is an active area of research, and scientific debate is vigorous, to say the least. However, there has been no doubt in the scientific world for well over a century about whether evolution has occurred. As evolutionary biologist T.R. Gregory points out:
Over the past 150 years, this initial list has been supplemented by countless observations in paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology,molecular biology, and (most recently) comparative genomics, and through direct observations of evolutionary change in both natural and experimental populations. Each of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every year in scientific journals provides further confirmation (though, as Futuyma notes,“no biologist today would think of publishing a paper on ‘new evidence for evolution’ ... it simply hasn’t been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century”). Conversely, no reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise,then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science. [3]
The example of gravity provides an excellent analogy. Planetary motion, gravitational attraction, and gravitational lensing are all facts. The currently accepted theory to explain the fact of gravity is general relativity. However, we know that it is incomplete, as it does not provide an explanation for quantum gravity. However, the failure of GR to work at the quantum level does not mean that rocks do not fall to the ground when dropped. The evidence that evolution has occurred is real, tangible, and overwhelming, [4-5]

Evolution is not an ‘atheistic theory of everything’

Some special creationists commonly refer to evolution when referring to geology,cosmology, or abiogenesis, the implication being that the motivation for these disciplines was to explicitly rule out God as a causal explanation. Ignoring the facts that many scientists in these disciplines are theists, and that many theologians recognise that the concept of divine agency means that God can employ secondary causes to effect His will, the main problem here is that these are separate disciplines. Evolutionary biologists investigate the origins of biodiversity over time. They do not investigate how the universe began. They do not investigate geomorphology. Although abiogenesis and evolution are related, they are nonetheless separate disciplines.

Evolution is not a synonym for atheism

While there are prominent defenders of evolutionary biology who are opposed to theism, not every evolutionary biologist is an atheist dedicated to the eradication of religion. Palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris, cell biologist Kenneth Miller, and medical geneticist Francis Collins are three respected scientists who are noted for both their scientific work as well as their efforts to showing that evolution and theism are not in conflict. At least two of the architects of the Modern Synthetic Theory were theists: Ronald Fisher (Anglican) and Theodosius Dobzhansky (Russian Orthodox). In fact, some of Darwin’s earliest defenders were conservative theists. Historian of science David Livingstone notes:
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. [6]
The reasons behind why the evangelical Christian world in the early 20thcentury shifted from a cautious engagement with evolution to a resolute hostility are complex, and include the perception that evolution motivated German militarism and theological modernism. [7] Nonetheless, the fact remains that evolution was not met with implacable hostility by 19th century Christians, and that many scientists from Darwin’s time to the present defendboth evolution and Christianity.

No one will take your anti-evolution position seriously if you are not informed

Australian philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes notes:
I say something like this [to my students]: “I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.” 
A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible. 
The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse. [8]
The simple truth is that in order to understand evolutionary biology well enough to teach the subject, act as a referee on scientific papers, and make penetrating criticisms about the faults of the current theory of evolution, you need to understand the subject back to front. That involves more than just reading a few web pages from Answers in Genesis. As Stokes points out, there is a false equivalence between experts and non-experts in our society. Coupled with the belief that everyone is entitled to an opinion, this results in people who know little if anything about evolution thinking that their right to free speech means that their lay opinion somehow is just as authoritative as that of an expert.

This is false. In order for your opinion to be taken seriously, it needs to be informed, and that requires considerable study, research and interaction with other experts. The layperson who does not know the difference between a ribozyme and a ribosome, cannot define long branch attraction, taphonomy, or summarise the salient points in the positions of those who believe changes to non-coding DNA are the main drivers of evolution, as opposed to coding DNA simply does not know enough to be able to contribute meaningfully to any discussion on problems with evolution.

Furthermore, given that the evidence for common descent covers disciplines such as palaeontology, developmental biology, comparative anatomy, biogeography, and comparative genomics, the special creationist who claims that common descent is false is implicitly asserting that he or she has mastered those disciplines, appraised themselves of all the information in these areas, and found that they do not provide evidence for evolution. It takes a professional lifetime to become an expert in just one of these areas – two for the rare polymath. For the special creationist to assert that they have mastered all these areas is very much an example of self-deception. This is why those who are acquainted with the evidence for common descent are disinclined to take seriously the claims of a layperson who says that evolution never happened.

Don’t try the Argument from Authority

A common rhetorical strategy is to reel of a list of scientists who oppose evolution as if that somehow wins the argument. It doesn’t. Ignoring the fact that many of those on such lists are engineers, chemists, mathematicians, physicists and other professionals who do not work in the life sciences and therefore are not in a position to provide a competent, authoritative opinion on the subject, scientific truth is not determined by appealing to authority figures, but rather by proposing hypotheses, testing them against the evidence, and rejecting or refining them accordingly.

A common rebuttal to those lists is to refer to the > 99% of biologists who accept evolution. Citing this fact in isolation does not win the argument for mainstream science for the same reason – it is an appeal to authority. The reason it is significant is that the overwhelming majority of trained, competent biologists who have examined the evidence using the scientific method (ie: try to falsify your hypothesis, accept that scientific truth is always subject to revision) have all found that it shows the reality of evolution. There is a difference between appeal to authority (Dr X is a Nobel Laureate in physics and thinks evolution is wrong), and referring to appropriate authority (> 99% of biologists have consistently examined the evidence and found that it supports evolution).

Avoid the quote mines

A common strategy employed by anti-evolutionists is to compile quotes from leading evolutionary biologists which appear to cast doubt on evolution. Trouble is, those quotes have been taken out of context. Darwin’s rhetorical style of posing a problem for his theory, then answering it is sadly amenable to such distortion by the simple provision of citing only the first part of Darwin’s quote, and omitting the second part where he answers the question.

Quote mining is such a problem that a list of the most commonly abused quotes, and the complete context of these mined quotes has been compiled at TalkOrigins.[9] Put simply, if you run across a quote from a mainstream biologist which appears to cast doubt on the fact of common descent, quite likely it has been taken out of context. Check it out before repeating it.


1. Darwin CR. Origin of species [Letter]. Athenaeum 9 May: 617; 1863.

2. Darwin C. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray;1871.

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

4. Theobald, Douglas L. "29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent." The Talk.Origins Archive. Vers. 2.89.2012. Web. 7 Aug. 2014

5. Venema D “Evolution Basics” 

6. Livingstone DN Darwin's Forgotten Defenders (Eerdmans 1984) p xi-xii

7.Keas M.N. “Darwinism, Fundamentalism, and R.A. Torrey” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2010) 62:25-51

8. Stokes P “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion” The Conversation 5 Oct 2012