Evolution What Evolution Is and What It Isn't Many arguments against evolution are based on an ignorance of what it really
says -- an ignorance often due in part to creationist organizations who deliberately spread misinformation in an attempt to make it seem less plausible than it is. This essay clears the air by explaining in plain language what the theory of evolution says and, at least as importantly, what it doesn't say. Naturalism In Science Naturalism is one of the fundamental principles of science. However, some creationists attack it and deny its importance, claiming it is an unjustifiable assumption or a product of bias. This essay shows why nothing could be further from the truth and makes the case that science and naturalism are inseparable. Atheism, Religion and Evolution Is evolution a religion? Don't you have to be an atheist to accept evolution? Do scientists "believe" in evolution? These questions and more answered. Has Evolution Been Proven? Laws in some states mandate warning stickers in textbooks labeling evolution a "controversial idea" or an "unproven theory." Are such criticisms accurate, or do they miss the mark entirely? Learn the answers here. Evolution Is Just a Theory! But is that a point against it? This essay examines the scientific definitions of the terms "theory" and "law" to show why it is not, countering a commonly heard but badly misguided anti-evolutionary argument. Why Evolution Isn't Chance One of the most fundamental mistakes made with regards to evolution is to assume that it is a process of pure chance or blind luck. This essay clears up that misconception, explaining how nothing could be further from the truth. The Tornado in the Junkyard A monotonously common creationist argument is that evolution is about as likely as a tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a fully functional jumbo jet. Learn why this argument is faulty. Creationism What Is Creationism? For newcomers to this website or people unfamiliar with the creation/evolution debate, this essay explains what creationism is, details the differences between different types of creationist, and briefly sketches the goals of the creationist movement. Why Creationism? Why should creationism exist at all? In this day and age, how can anyone still favor literal interpretations of
scripture over science? This essay attempts to explain the motivations of creationists and show what drives them. Why You Should Fight Creationism Many people regard the creationist movement as "not that big a deal" or "someone else's problem." This essay warns against such complacency and provides compelling reasons to fight against religion masquerading as science. Why Creationism Isn't Science While the creationists claim they're doing legitimate science, in reality nothing could be further from the truth. This essay explains why, citing sources to show that even creationists themselves are well aware that what they advocate is religion, not science. Why Creationism Is Harmful to Religion Although many creationist groups claim to be doing God's work in fighting evolution, the truth is that they are doing far more damage to their own faith than to the solid edifice of evolutionary biology. This essay explains why. On Conspiracies and Mined Quotes Creationists often present quotes "mined" from scientific literature that seem to cast doubt on whether evolution occurs. This essay examines this tactic and shows how scientific debate is a sign of the strength, not the weakness, of a theory. The Second Law of Thermodynamics: Enough Already! Creationists often make reference to a physical principle known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which they claim proves that evolution is impossible. This old and outdated argument is refuted thoroughly, showing how it was wrong from the start and based on nothing more than a misunderstanding of science. What Good is Half a Wing? Transitional fossils and intermediate structures that show fine-grained change in living things are among the most compelling pieces of evidence in evolution's favor. Creationists are aware of this and often attempt to define the evidence out of existence, arguing that by definition it could not exist. This essay examines and counters that claim. What's Wrong with "Equal Time" Laws Creationists often work through the legislative process, trying to pass "equal time" or "balanced treatment" laws that would set aside classroom time for the teaching of creationism as well as evolution. This essay points out why such laws are misguided, unconstitutional and just plain wrong. The Two Questions There are two fundamental questions that no creationist has ever answered. This essay explains what those questions are and shows why this refusal to answer firmly establishes creationism as non-science.
What Evolution Is and What It Isn't
What evolution is... Change in allele frequencies over time Variation in a population's gene pool Struggle for existence/differential reproductive success
Natural selection/survival of the fittest Random mutation Speciation Common descent Modern interpretations of the theory ...and what it isn't Abiogenesis or cosmology Random chance Saltation Single-step selection or the "tornado in the junkyard" "Survival of the meanest" New organs A process that occurs to individuals A process with long-term goals A march of progress or a "great chain of being" Monkeys evolving into man A religion A moral guide "Just a theory"
Many people who argue against evolution do so because they do not understand it. The straw-man caricatures of evolution commonly presented by creationists are indeed illogical, implausible and unscientific. But they are precisely that - straw men - and do not accurately represent what evolutionary theory really says. When presented in its true form, the theory of evolution is not only simple and plausible, but the only explanation of biological diversity that is scientific and consistent with the facts. Unfortunately, creationists work through the political process, not the scientific one. They spread misinformation as to what evolution is and work to prevent its teaching in public schools so that people do not learn the truth. These people then reject evolution based on their creationist-generated misunderstandings of it, and a vicious cycle is perpetuated. This essay will attempt to clear the air and show how creationist caricatures of evolution are faulty. So what is evolution? In its simplest sense, evolution can be defined as change over time, and that is what the theory of biological evolution means at the most basic level:a change in the frequency of alleles in a population over time. Alleles are different versions of genes that control specific traits. To slightly oversimplify, there is, for example, a gene that controls what color eyes you will have. One version of this gene - one allele - codes for brown eyes, another allele codes for green eyes, a third allele for blue eyes, and so on. Evolution states that over time in a population of living things, some alleles become more common and eventually dominate, while others become less common and may disappear altogether. But of course, there is far more to the theory of evolution than that. It is to the complexities of evolution that this essay will now turn. Charles Darwin opened his groundbreaking On the Origin of Species with a common-sense observation: namely, that great diversity exists among life, not just between different species, but among members of the same species as well. From the breathtaking mix of hues in a flower garden to the countless different melodies of songbirds and whales, from the millions of different beetles to the vast branching tree of the mammals, from the lowliest of bacteria to the most brilliant geniuses of humanity, modern biologists have more than confirmed Darwin's observations on this point by classifying the enormous diversity of life into a system comprising hundreds of classes and families and millions of
species, with new ones being discovered constantly. For further proof, one need only witness the dozens of remarkably dissimilar varieties of dogs, cats and other domestic animals that human breeders have brought forth in only a few hundred years. As modern geneticists now know, the ultimate source of all this variation is a population's gene pool, the entire set of alleles collectively possessed by all the members of that species. With thousands or millions of alleles that can be combined in countless ways, the potential for variation among even a small population is almost limitless. Darwin followed this up with another observation that was both simple and obvious: all life is a struggle for existence. Prey must escape their predators to survive, while predators must catch and kill their prey if they are to keep from starving. Plants growing near each other must compete for sunlight, water and nutrients. Bacteria, viruses and parasites cannot reproduce without a host organism, while the host's immune system must constantly work to fend them off. And everything must find sufficient food, water and other vital resources, resources which are often scarce. Out of this constant struggle, some organisms emerge triumphant, flourishing and reproducing abundantly. Others lose the struggle, dwindle and die off. This process is readily observable in all things living today, and the fossil record shows that it occurred in the past as well - the losers (and there are many of them) are preserved in stone. Over 99% of all the species that have ever lived are extinct today. Darwin's next observation formed the crux of his theory, and yet it too was so amazingly simple that it's almost hard to believe no one thought of it before him. As stated above, all living things must struggle for existence, must compete for resources and avoid predators and other hazards. Since the hazards are many and the resources scarce, it is inevitable that not all organisms will survive. In fact, in every population - every species - more organisms are born than can survive. But due to the vast amounts of variation in the gene pool, no two organisms of the same species are exactly alike. They all differ from each other, even if only in subtle ways. By chance, some of these slight variations will make some members of a species more adept at competing for survival than others. The lucky few that are more adept - more "fit" - will survive and produce many offspring. Others, which are less fit, will not be as well suited to their environment, will not be as adept at competing in the struggle for existence, and will die off having produced fewer offspring or none at all. Thus, in time, the traits that make organisms more successful, more fit, will predominate, while the traits that make organisms less fit will disappear. This blind process of winnowing is known as natural selection or, alternatively, survival of the fittest. The way in which it interacts with the idea of changing allele frequencies is obvious in the light of modern genetics. The genes of successful organisms, which carry the traits that make them successful, will tend to be passed on and proliferate. The genes of unsuccessful organisms will tend to vanish from the gene pool because less fit organisms reproduce less abundantly or not at all. Natural selection is not a conscious process; it does not have goals or intent, and it does not "choose" which organisms will survive. It is the result of environmental pressures which eliminate those organisms less suited to survive them and leave alive those that are better suited. To take a concrete example, on the African savanna, the ability to run quickly might be an indication of fitness in a herd of gazelles. Gazelles that can run faster are better at escaping cheetahs and other predators; thus they survive and produce offspring (they are selected for). Gazelles that can't run as fast are more likely to be caught and killed (they are selected against), and thus do not reproduce. It is important to note, however, that the cheetahs do not "choose" to attack any specific gazelle; they pursue all of them, and it is the faster and more fit ones that escape. Similarly, in a culture of bacteria exposed to an antibiotic, some might have resistance to that antibiotic. Those ones with resistance will survive and reproduce (they are selected for). Those without resistance will die (they are selected against). Again, the antibiotic does not consciously choose to kill any specific bacterium. It targets all of them, and the ones with resistance survive while the ones without resistance die. That is natural selection at work. Note, however, that natural selection does not necessarily imply that less fit organisms will die. Organisms that are less fit (meaning that they produce fewer offspring) may be incapable of reproducing because of injury or disease, or simply because they cannot attract a mate. For example, female peacocks tend to favor males with larger, brighter tail feathers as mates. Males with shorter or less brightly colored feathers are selected against, and tend to reproduce less abundantly or not at all. But why should some gazelles run faster than others, or some bacteria have resistance to an antibiotic while others do not, or some peacocks have more colorful feathers than others? To put it another way, where does all this variation - all these different alleles - come from? At the time Darwin proposed his theory, this was its greatest weakness. He could not explain the mechanism or the source of variation. Of course, that information is now known, and the wealth of
knowledge provided by modern genetics has been integrated with Darwin's original ideas in the modern theory of evolution known as the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Genetics provides for many sources of variation within a population's gene pool. As an example, there is genetic drift, a statistical "sampling error" of the gene pool: alleles may increase or decrease in frequency purely by chance. In species that reproduce sexually, there is also recombination, where the parents' alleles are mixed and matched to produce offspring. But, as the creationist might object, neither of these produce new information, only swap around alleles that already exist. This is correct, which leads to the next major component of evolutionary theory: mutation. Packed within the nucleus of every cell of your body is a tightly wound double helix. DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, is literally the instruction manual of life. This intricate, complex molecule contains all your genes, all the alleles that make you unique, encoded in a series of nucleotide bases that can be read by the cell's transcription machinery and converted into proteins that control the functions of life. Every time a cell in your body divides, the new cells must be provided with a copy of these instructions so that they know how to perform their specific duties. For this to happen, the DNA of the original cell must be replicated. The molecular machinery present in every cell does this job with a degree of fidelity that would put any human copyist to shame. Nevertheless, DNA is a long, complex molecule and the replication process is not perfect. Frequently, when DNA is copied, there are small errors, slight changes. A single nucleotide "letter" might be changed to another, or a segment of DNA might be deleted entirely, flipped end-to-end or added where one did not previously exist. These changes are mutations. Most mutations are silent - that is, they don't do anything at all. Of the non-silent ones, most are deleterious and impair the fitness of the organism that has them. Natural selection sees to it that these mutations are quickly eliminated from the gene pool. Those that remain - a small percentage of all total mutations, but they definitely do exist- are beneficial. In some way, even a small one, they contribute to the fitness of the organism that has them. Since organisms with this beneficial mutation have a survival advantage, they are selected for and tend to reproduce more abundantly than those without it. In this way, the mutation spreads throughout the population and eventually becomes "fixated" in the gene pool. It is important to recognize that mutations are changes to the genome, the set of instructions that dictates how an organism develops. Therefore, every non-silent mutation makes the organism that has it slightly different from every other member of its species. It may be something as simple as a tiny alteration in the shape of a blood protein, or something as complex as a change to the skeletal and muscular structure that determines the body's ultimate shape. The point, however, is that each mutation makes the organism different in some way, and over thousands or millions of years, these differences add up. Eventually, as mutations spread and accumulate, a population of organisms may evolve to a point where it is considered to be a separate species from the population it descended from. This is called speciation or macroevolution, and contrary to creationist claims, it has been observed and documented. See Observed Instances of Speciation and Some More Observed Speciation Events. It should be noted that in biology, the definition of the word "species" is a little fuzzy; it has several different meanings. It does not necessarily mean that two species will look entirely different or have entirely different body structures (though it can); it does not necessarily mean that two separate species will have very distinct genes (though it can). Indeed, two organisms from different but closely related species may have virtually identical genes and look so alike that only an expert observer can tell the difference. The key concept, and the one most commonly used to define what constitutes a species, is reproductive isolation; that is, two organisms from different species will not be able to mate and produce fertile offspring. Organisms that can mate and produce offspring which are invariably sterile hybrids are considered to be of separate species. Although species are not required to be drastically different, over time separate species do tend to become distinct, since mutations acquired by one population cannot spread to the other. Living things today possess enormous variety, but it can be shown that separate but closely related modern species all evolved from a common ancestral species. For instance, modern apes and humans both diversified from a primitive line of ancestors called hominids. However, those common ancestors were in turn linked to other organisms by their own common ancestors. If one extrapolates backwards far enough, it is possible to show that all organisms alive today have a single ancestor in common, a simple
unicellular organism that existed between four and five billion years ago, from which all modern life descended and diversified. This is known as common descent and constitutes the final major component of evolutionary theory. Within the scientific community, evolution is as solidly established a fact as gravity, and whether it occurs is no longer a matter of any serious debate. However, there is some debate over how quickly evolution occurs and the relative importance of the different mechanisms by which it proceeds. Until fairly recently, the prevailing interpretation was phyletic gradualism, which holds that evolution occurs constantly at a slow, relatively steady pace. However, in 1974, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium, PE for short, which holds that life consists of long periods of evolutionary stasis punctuated by brief (on the geologic time scale) intervals of rapid development and speciation. PE has won fairly general acceptance, though it is important to note that neither of these models precludes the other, as the rate of evolution may be different at different places and times. Other scientists have made other contributions to the theory as well. For example, Japanese biologist Motoo Kimura proposed the neutral theory of molecular evolution, which holds that genetic drift may play a more important role in the development of some genes than was previously thought. American Lynn Margulis has also contributed the endosymbiotic model of evolution, which holds that certain microscopic structures in the cells of all living things (chloroplasts in plants, mitochondria in animals) were originally separate organisms that colonized host cells and eventually became permanent parts of them. Both of these theories have become more or less accepted additions to the neo-Darwinian synthesis, but healthy debate is ongoing today; the frontiers of knowledge continue to advance. With that established, we turn to what evolution is not. Contrary to any creationist claims, what is described above is the whole of evolutionary theory. Significant departures from it, such as the more commonly heard ones listed below, are straw-man arguments made up to make it seem ludicrous and improbable. One of the most common misrepresentations of evolution is to extend it beyond its boundaries, claiming it says more than it actually does. The theory of evolution saysnothing about the origin of the universe, the origin of the earth or even the origin of life. Evolution concerns itself only with the subsequent development of life once it already existed. The manner in which life first came into being is irrelevant to evolutionary theory, though it is covered in a related field, abiogenesis. (If God had miraculously created the first living cell in the primordial soup, evolution could have taken over normally from there.) The origin of the universe and other cosmological bodies is not biology at all; it is sometimes referred to as stellar evolution, but it is an unrelated branch of science and has nothing to do with the theory first proposed by Charles Darwin. Statements such as "Evolution says that hydrogen gas turned into people," "Evolution says that particles develop into people" or "Evolution says that life and/or the universe came out of nothing" are all examples of this faulty type of argument. Another common misrepresentation is say that evolution proceeds only according to chance, accident, blind luck or random behavior. This is completely false. Evolution is anything but random. It is guided by natural selection, a nonrandom process that follows a fixed, specific set of rules. It is true that mutations, which provide the raw stuff for natural selection to operate on, are random events, in the sense that they are not predisposed toward increasing fitness. Nevertheless, they are frequent enough for it to be a certainty that a few beneficial ones will arise, and once they do, the process of filtering by natural selection takes over. To say that evolution is a random process would be equivalent to flipping a thousand coins, removing all those that didn't turn up heads, and then saying that the all-heads result came about purely by chance. (For more on this, see here.) In a related vein is the "speciation by mutation" argument, often phrased as "It's impossible that an X could have given birth to a Y," such as in, "There's no way a reptile could have laid an egg that hatched into a bird." This is another argument that demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of evolution. Speciation and other profound changes are not brought about by many sudden, drastic, simultaneous mutations - in other words, they do not occur by saltation. Rather, they are brought about by tiny, incremental changes gradually accumulating and building on each other over long periods of time, with natural selection filtering out those that do not improve fitness. Over time, this process can lead to organisms that are very different from their evolutionary precursors. Astronomer Fred Hoyle once said that evolution is as likely as a tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a fully functional Boeing 747. Hoyle, however, was not a biologist, and this statement demonstrates a severe misunderstanding of the subject. A tornado assembling a jetliner would be an example of a saltationary jump owing
purely to random chance in a process of single-step selection with a predetermined goal. This fails as an analogy to evolution on four counts. As stated above, evolution does not operate by saltation, nor is it guided by random chance, nor does it have goals specified ahead of time. And most especially, it does not operate by a process of single-step selection, where an end product entirely unlike the beginning product is assembled in one large chance step. As Richard Dawkins states in his bookThe Blind Watchmaker, evolution actually operates by a process of cumulative selection, where large changes are brought about through a gradually accumulating series of small changes guided by selection at each step. Rather than a tornado assembling a 747 in one step, send the tornado through the junkyard not once, but thousands of times, with each time representing a single generation. Rather than tearing apart its past work each time, assume that, once assembled, collections of parts that could function as part of an airliner will survive. Do this long enough and a 747 may indeed emerge - or, to complete the analogy to evolution, allow the end product to be not just a jumbo jet, but any functioning piece of machinery. In this way, cumulative selection can achieve in a short time results that would take trillions of years to produce by pure-chance, single-step selection. (For more on this, see The Tornado in the Junkyard.) Nor does evolution predict "survival of the meanest" - in other words, it does not predict that every species should be a vicious, carnivorous killer bristling with claws, fangs, stingers, spikes, and so on. What evolution does predict is that every species needs a niche, a way to make a living and successfully reproduce, and different species have adapted to different niches. Some are predators; some are not, instead getting their energy from eating plants, or making their own. In fact, it could be argued that it is easier to make a living as a plant or an herbivore than a carnivore. Not only is it easier to eat food that doesn't try to run away, but due to considerations of usable energy, successively higher levels of the food chain can only support smaller and smaller populations. Thus, it could be said that in terms of reproductive success, the deer and gazelles are more "fit" than the wolves and lions - some of them will certainly be killed by predators, but their counterstrategy is not to fight back, but to breed so rapidly that enough of them survive to allow the population to continue. Evolving strong defensive measures like the ability to fight back would be a significant drain on their energy and resources which could more profitably be used to reproduce. Some prey species have evolved their own defenses where it is cost-effective for them to do so; others have not. They each have their own niches and their own ways of making a living, not all of which involve being the strongest or the meanest. Another argument is often heard as "Evolution says that we should develop X, but we don't," where X is some significant change to bodily structure, such as another arm, feathers or new internal organs. However, these statements are wrong. Evolution does not state that our body structures should change drastically. Rather, it builds on what already exists. A case in point is the basic tetrapod (four-limbed) body form, which has been preserved to some degree in all vertebrate animals. Even some snakes have small vestigial limbs. A radical change to this well-established body form, such as growing a new limb, would not be in keeping with evolutionary theory; nor would the appearance of a new organ, since the vertebrate body structure already has all the organs necessary for survival. The basic body plan, including separate organ systems, evolved at a very early stage of life's history. The chances of drastic changes arising now in a wellestablished and complex body plan are virtually nil. Another note: It is absurd to claim "Evolution says I should grow a third arm because I could use one," or something of the like. Mutations are random events and do not favor what changes would be best for the organism; it is simply that the ones that do turn out to be useful are the ones that are kept. A subtle point worth noting is that individual organisms do not evolve, not even if a particular organism is the one possessing a beneficial mutation that later spreads throughout the population. Populations evolve; individuals do not. This answers the occasional absurd creationist objection that "Evolution can't explain how the first member of a new species could find a mate." This is like saying the first speaker of English wouldn't have been able to find anyone to carry on a conversation with. As follows from the above refutal of the "speciation by mutations" argument, an individual organism never arises that is an entirely new species from its parents. Populations gradually change over time, and while many of the intermediate stages would probably be able to interbreed, the original species and the end product would not be able to. There is rarely a specific and exactly defined point where speciation occurs; it is a process that usually happens in slow, incremental steps, one step shading into the next. Related to the last point, it is also important to mention that evolution, although it is not a chance process, does not have long-term goals or targets either. Natural selection has only one immediate short-term goal - to increase the fitness of organisms - and it does not care how that goal is achieved. It cannot traverse a "valley" of temporary decreased fitness to reach a "peak" of increased fitness. A river might be a helpful analogy. The water of the river has a goal, namely, to
seek the lowest point - to flow downhill. As long as it is on a level downward slope, the river's behavior is predictable. If it passes onto a flat plain, the direction it will take can be influenced by many different features of the terrain, causing bends and meanders, and thus is no longer entirely predictable. Nevertheless, the river will continue to follow the general law of always seeking the lowest point. It cannot flow up the side of a mountain - not even if, by doing so, it would be able to get over the top and flow down the other side to a much lower level than it was at before. Like evolution, the river's goal is only in the immediate short term. Likewise, although the modern vertebrate eye is what exists now, this does not mean that natural selection "intended" to produce it. The modern eye is the result of a long series of chance mutations, guided by natural selection, operating on the original eyespot; different mutations at various points along the line could have produced a completely different result, as long as every intermediate step conferred a survival advantage. Natural selection does not look ahead, which is why it is sometimes referred to as the blind watchmaker; it is a blind natural process without long-term goals. Another all too frequent misconception is that evolution is a steady march of progress, an increase in complexity or an upward climb towards perfection. This is not the case. This popular but erroneous idea is based on a nineteenth-century teleological concept called the "great chain of being" which has since been discredited. Natural selection guides organisms only in the direction of increased fitness; depending on the circumstances, this can entail either an increase or a decrease in complexity. (An example of the latter would be some types of parasitic intestinal worms which have lost their digestive systems; they no longer need them, since they can directly absorb food from their hosts through their skin.) Nor is there any ultimate standard of perfection toward which evolution builds, as fitness is a strictly regional characteristic determined by local environmental factors. Organisms only adapt to their own environment, by definition, but an organism that is extremely well adapted to one environment may be at a severe disadvantage in another. For example, penguins are well suited for life in arctic climates, but at the equator they would not survive long. Likewise, humans are primarily tropical creatures. It is only technology that has made us able to survive at colder latitudes, but this does not mean that we are more perfect or even more highly evolved than any other living thing on earth. Every species alive today, from bacteria to monkeys to man, is the result of four and a half billion years of evolution - theirs has simply taken different paths than ours. And as such, it is also worth noting that man did not evolve from monkeys, or frogs, or slime molds, or bacteria. This misunderstanding is very common, perhaps one of the most commonly heard among creationists, but it is wrong. Humans are not directly descended from any species that is alive today; instead, we share common ancestors with them. Humans and apes both descended from an original common ancestor, a variety of hominid, that is now extinct. Likewise, humans and frogs both descended from an common ancestor, albeit one much more distant than the common ancestor of humans and monkeys. The same is true of insects, plants, slime molds and bacteria, though the common ancestor is progressively farther back in each case. The common ancestor of humans and insects dates back to the original emergence of animal life, while the common ancestor of humans and plants or humans and bacteria was not even multicellular. But in every case, these common ancestors are now extinct; they either died out or evolved into an entirely new species themselves. No extant species is evolving into any other extant species, which answers the occasionally heard objection that "if evolution is true, why don't we see monkeys still evolving into humans?" The answer is that monkeys' evolution has taken a different path than ours, and the odds against the two paths ever converging again are next to nil. Evolution has a virtually infinite number of possible pathways, and it is extremely unlikely, to put it mildly, that humans would evolve again - that it would take the exact same path - if, so to speak, the tape were replayed. (The claim that monkeys should be evolving into humans also partakes of the erroneous concept of the "great chain of being", debunked above. Humans are not the ultimate goal of evolution - the evolutionary path of every species has gone its own way, each adapting to different niches.) Some creationists have claimed that evolution is a religion, but this claim too is false. Evolution is well supported by evidence, and all its basic mechanisms can be observed to operate today; unlike religion, it does not require faith. In addition, no one claims evolution is an inerrant doctrine - like all branches of science, it is being constantly tested and refined, and it could be falsified and rejected if the right evidence turned up. No one prays to evolution. Also like all sciences, evolution is theologically neutral. It says nothing, one way or the other, about the existence of God or the supernatural; it does not require divine intervention, but nor does it forbid it. Atheists can accept evolution without believing there is anything more, while theists can accept evolution and believe that their god controls it. Any god can be given credit for using evolution as the method of creation, and indeed, theists of all denominations accept it click here for a partial list, or see here for more on atheism, religion and evolution.
In addition to not being a religion, evolution is also not, nor does it pretend to be, a moral guide. Creationists sometimes charge that "if we're descended from animals, we should act like animals," but this is an example of a classic logical blunder - the naturalistic or "is implies ought" fallacy. Just because things are some way does not mean that they should be that way, or that it is right that they be that way. It is true that, in nature, there is much pain, suffering and death, even things that seem needlessly cruel. Natural selection can be a harsh and uncaring process, if we insist on subjecting an unintelligent force of nature to a human value judgment. But this does not mean it is right to be cruel and uncaring, just as the theory of gravity does not mean we should push people off tall buildings, or the germ theory of disease does not mean we should not treat sick people. Like all sciences, evolution is descriptive and not prescriptive. It is merely a statement of the way things are, not a statement of the way they should be. And for what it is worth, for every example of cruelty in nature, there is at least one counterexample of love, kindness, or cooperation. Many animals are monogamous, care for their offspring and defend them with their lives. Symbiosis, or reciprocal generosity, has proven to be a very effective survival strategy. Some of our closest relatives among the apes even care for and feed the wounded, sick or crippled among their numbers, displaying an almost human compassion. This is not meant to alleviate the cruelties and violences nature often also displays - it is merely meant to illustrate the uselessness of trying to derive moral rules from scientific theories. The final creationist distortion is to charge that evolution is "just a theory," as if this were a point against it. In truth, however, to label it "just a theory" is to support it, not denigrate it. In scientific parlance, "theory" does not mean "wild guess" or "hunch," but rather describes a scientific idea that is strongly supported and has stood the test of time. Furthermore, evolution is more than just a theory. It has also been directly observed to occur, and thus, in addition to being a theory, it is also a simple fact, as undeniable as the sphericity of the Earth. (For more on this, see here.) When the distractions of creationist straw men are removed, evolution is a process that, at its core, is both simple and plausible. Knowing what it truly says, and just as important, what it does not say, is a boon both to proponents of evolution who must defend their science against religious attacks, and also to creationists who wish to argue against evolution. While no one is denying them the right to do this, arguing against a faulty caricature of the theory based on misunderstanding, rather than against the theory itself, will earn them only ridicule. Footnotes  The experienced reader will note that this is an oversimplification. In cases of speciation by polyploidy, it is indeed possible that a new organism that also constitutes an entirely new species will arise in a single step. However, in the majority of speciation events morphological diversification occurs first, eventually followed by reproductive isolation. Recommended Links: Understanding Evolution The Talk.Origins Archive: Intro to Evolutionary Biology The Talk.Origins Archive: Five Major Misconceptions About Evolution
Naturalism in Science
A frequent creationist tactic is to attack, not just evolution, but the very underpinnings of science itself. Specifically, some creationists - especially advocates of intelligent design - claim that a basic guiding principle of science known as naturalism is a product of bias and an unnecessary restriction, which if removed would allow scientists to reach conclusions to which they had previously blinded themselves. The short answer to such claims is that this cannot be done. Naturalism is neither the product of bias nor unnecessary - it is a fundamental principle of science, not for philosophical but for sound practical reasons. If it were removed, science itself would be impossible. To explain why this is the case, some background information must first be provided.
As already stated, naturalism is one of the basic guiding principles of science. It requires that supernatural causes and agents must be ruled out as scientific explanations for natural phenomena; all proposed scientific explanations must be testable and repeatable, must be based on evidence and must obey physical laws. To put it another way, this scientist is not using naturalism:
This restriction to natural causes for natural events is what gives science its explanatory power. Scientists cannot, as scientists, explain an event by invoking divine intervention. They cannot say that thunder and lightning is caused by the anger of Zeus, or that schizophrenia is caused by demonic possession, or that angels push the planets around in their orbits, or that epidemic disease is a punishment for sin. And, of course, they also cannot say that every species on Earth was created by a separate, miraculous action of God. Such a statement would be unscientific - not necessarily false, just unscientific. If supernatural events do occur, science cannot study or explain them. It is easy to see why creationists feel excluded by naturalism. Many of their beliefs explicitly include miracles, which are forbidden in the arena of science. As a result, creationists often respond by crying bias and making accusations of foul play. They complain that naturalism is an unjustifiable metaphysical assumption that rules out entire classes of perfectly valid explanations, a ploy by atheist scientists who assume at the outset that God does not exist and tailor their investigations accordingly. To show why this is false, a distinction must be drawn between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. The former is what science employs: the belief that natural events have natural causes and that there are physical laws which we can discover and understand. The latter is the belief that there is nothing beyond those natural causes and physical laws, in other words, that the supernatural does not exist. This is a personal belief that some scientists hold, but that science in general does not require. Science must assume that all events it can observe and study are natural in origin, but it does not claim that the supernatural does not exist; nor does it claim that it does exist. That is simply not a topic which it can speak to, and to make a statement either way would be beyond the bounds of science. Creationists attempt to blur the distinction between these two, but the difference is not hard to grasp. Methodological naturalism is a statement about how we study the world; metaphysical naturalism is a statement about what exists. It is not necessary to be an atheist (a metaphysical naturalist) to do science. One can believe in God and still be a methodological naturalist, and there are many scientists who are. For example, one of evolution's best-known and most articulate defenders today is Dr. Kenneth Miller, a Christian and author of the book Finding Darwin's God. In fact, as the
creationists never tire of pointing out, many of history's great scientists were religious. A religious scientist is absolutely free to believe that miracles do occur but are beyond scientific study, or that God usually works through natural mechanisms rather than suspending the laws of nature to accomplish his will. There is nothing about scientific naturalism that denies the existence of God, but there are real reasons why it is an absolute must for science, to which this essay will now turn. Naturalism is an absolutely essential part of science for the clear reason that naturalism is the only thing that gives science any explanatory power at all. With naturalism in place, scientists are restricted to testable answers supported by evidence. Without naturalism, there would be no such requirement, and scientists would be quite literally free to make up absolutely any answers they want, postulating unseen supernatural beings and untestable miracles as explanations for any phenomena. How did life come into being? God did it! Why does Planck's constant have the value it does? God made it that way! Why is the universe expanding? Because God wants it to, of course! Without naturalism, there's no reason to study how abiogenesis might have occurred, no need to formulate a grand unified theory of physics, and no point in trying to determine the nature of dark energy, because God explains it all. Without a need to come up with evidence-based explanations that obey physical laws, there is no reason to do research, because there is no way to truly understand anything, no way to learn. The creationists who reject naturalism's role in science are proposing that the growth of human understanding and science itself be brought to a halt. After all, once one has concluded a supernatural event occurred, there is nothing more to do, no further conclusions to draw. Supernatural influence, by definition, is not testable, obeys no laws that we can know, and does not leave any evidence at all. If these things were not the case, it would no longer be supernatural, but natural. Naturalism is what allows science to progress. Whenever we see some event that appears to violate physical laws, using our assumption of naturalism we can conclude that this is not actually what has happened, that our understanding of the laws is faulty or incomplete, and so we must search for a new and better set of laws that takes this phenomenon into account. If we instead conclude that a supernatural event has occurred, there is nothing more that can be done, as the supernatural by definition does not defy our understanding of the laws, but the laws themselves. This regularity is crucial if science is to be possible. If there existed an omnipotent, undetectable God who intervened in the world at unpredictable times in unpredictable ways, it would be impossible to do science, because we could not be certain that our past experience will be a reliable guide to the future. We could never know if an experiment succeeded where it should have failed or failed where it should have succeeded because of a miraculous and undetectable nudge from God; there would be no reason to believe that the results of an experiment yesterday would have any bearing on the theory it was designed to test. Nor would the concept of evidence be meaningful in the absence of naturalism. Without this principle, neither the absence of supporting evidence nor the presence of contradictory evidence would be strikes against a hypothesis, because this could always be explained by supernatural intervention. A researcher could propose literally any hypothesis, and explain away the absence of evidence by saying God erased it and substituted new evidence as a test of faith. (It is notable that some creationists do offer exactly this defense - usually called the Omphalos or "appearance of age" argument - which claims that the Earth was created recently with only the appearance of a longer history, complete with tree rings recording years that never happened, fossils of creatures that never actually lived, and rocks whose radioactive decay "clocks" have all been set to the same spurious age.) Finally, it is naturalism that gives science its predictive power. As already stated, the regularity and inviolability of physical law allows us to predict future events with confidence, but it goes beyond that. A theory's predictive power comes also from its ability to rule out many possibilities. For example, the theory of evolution predicts that we should never find a mammal with feathers, because that adaptation appeared in the bird lineage, where it cannot be transmitted horizontally across the tree of descent to mammals, and such a complex structure is unlikely to evolve in exactly the same way twice. But creationism and other non-naturalistic alternatives do not predict this, and in fact, do not predict anything at all. If mammals were found that had feathers, or six legs, or any other adaptation, creationism could accommodate this or any other scenario with equal ease. Whatever we find, that was the way God wanted it, but we can never know in advance what God will want. Unlike evolution, creationism cannot exclude any scenario - it can
never tell us what we should not expect to find - and therefore it is powerless to predict the future. If science were this way, it would be useless. When confronted with arguments such as this and accused of wanting to rob science of all its explanatory and predictive power, creationists typically claim they have been misconstrued. They usually claim that they do not want to throw out naturalism in all branches of science, but stop short before the implicit conclusion: "only in those branches where we disagree with the results". They would be happy to allow all other fields of science to proceed as normal, as long as they are allowed to wedge their version of God into those theories that would otherwise make them uncomfortable. However, no creationist has ever explained why non-naturalistic explanations should be restricted to those areas where they feel conventional science is inadequate. Indeed, they have never explained how to make that distinction. How do we tell the difference between things we do not know yet, for which a naturalistic explanation will presumably be discovered in due time, and things we will never know, for which a supernatural explanation is required? This is a very important question, but they have never even attempted to answer it. Are the opponents of naturalism claiming that human knowledge has reached its apex, that we will never learn anything more than what we know right now, and so the scientists should stand back and let them spackle in the remaining gaps with God? This is obviously false; we are making new discoveries every day. Or are they claiming every other branch of science should be allowed to proceed as normal, but they want to step in and impose their supernatural explanations on evolution? But why only evolution? Surely if God intervenes there, he may have intervened in other areas as well. How do we reliably detect supernatural influence? That the creationists have no answer to these questions shows how poorly thought-out their arguments truly are. They have carried their attempts to defeat evolution to such an extent that they would willingly undermine all of science to achieve this goal. In the end, the motivation of those who attack naturalism's role in science turns out to be the same motivation driving all creationists: unable to bear the thought that science might not support their interpretation of their religion, they set out to force it to be so, regardless of the truth. Recommended Links: TalkDesign: A Philosophical Premise of "Naturalism"?
Atheism, Religion and Evolution
Evolution is a science, and thus deals only in what can be known. It restricts itself to empirical facts and consistent, logical theories about the world derived from those facts. It is not a philosophy, nor a belief system, nor a religion; nevertheless, it does touch upon matters which, to some people, fall under the scope of those things. Creationists have seized upon this inevitable confusion and used it to defend themselves against the undeniable proof that creationism is religion and not science by claiming that evolution is a religion as well. However, as will be shown, this claim is completely false. There are some specific qualifications that are usually required for a religion, and evolution fails all of them. It has no prophets. It has no scriptures. It has no temples and no priesthood. It sets no rules for behavior; evolution does not promise me a reward if I adhere to it, nor does it threaten me with punishment if I deny it. It provides nothing to worship; no one prays to evolution. It is silent on the topics of life after death or the existence of the soul. It says nothing about the existence of a god or lack thereof - it can be seamlessly incorporated into any belief system, from the most ardent atheism to all but the most literal fundamentalist theism, with any deity or other supernatural entity of choice given credit for using evolution as the mechanism by which life was caused to diversify. And most importantly, evolution is a science and does not require religious faith of any sort. Of course, some creationists would dispute some of the above claims. Some would no doubt make the claim that evolution does have both a prophet and scriptures - Charles Darwin and his book On the Origin of Species. However, this claim is ridiculous on its face. While Darwin was an intelligent and perceptive scientist, no one has ever claimed that his
writings were divine revelations, nor that he possessed any special perception or faculty not available to the rest of humanity. His central insight of natural selection was born of much education, study and meticulous observation. In principle, anyone could have come up with it (and someone else did - English naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace proposed the idea independently, at nearly the same time). Nor is it claimed that Darwin's writings are inerrant - much the opposite, in fact. It is widely recognized that his work, though amazingly insightful and indisputably correct in most places, was wrong or incomplete in several areas, such as his speculations on the mechanism of inheritance, which were only poorly understood in his day and which he could not have been expected to know the truth about. While evolution does incorporate many of Darwin's original ideas, it has also changed and grown beyond him. His principle of natural selection has been merged with the more recent sciences of genetics and molecular biology to form the present-day theory of evolution known as the modern synthesis. Other creationists might also make the claim that there is a penalty for opposing evolution - censure, ridicule and exile from the scientific mainstream, with corresponding denial of job offers and tenure. However, the history of science shows that this claim is mistaken. There are many now-successful ideas that were first considered wrong or unlikely, such as plate tectonics, symbiosis as the origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts, or the hypothesis that ulcers are caused by bacteria and not by stress. But the advocates of these ideas were not excluded from the scientific community. Instead, they continued to collect evidence and publish papers, and when their arguments were sufficiently wellsupported, many scientists accepted these ideas and they became part of the scientific mainstream, often winning their authors glory, fame and recognition. That the creationists have not been able to do likewise - either because their ideas were so easily debunked that they could not survive peer review, or more commonly, because they made no attempt to even participate in the process - is not proof of inherent bias in science, but the griping of sore losers. If at any future time they want to present new evidence and participate, they are more than welcome to do so. But none of these are the main reasons why creationists wrongly insist that evolution is a religion. There are two of these. The first is the claim, made by countless creationists, that evolution is inherently atheistic, or that it denies the existence of God. However, this is not true. It is true that evolution stands in opposition to a narrowly literal reading of a small portion of a particular religion's scripture, but this is a far cry from the sweeping accusations made by its detractors. Contradicting one possible interpretation of one chapter of one holy book is hardly the same as denying the very possibility of God's existence. The fact is that evolution, like all scientific theories, is naturalistic; that is to say, it confines itself to what can be empirically measured, tested and explained. All supernatural phenomena - God, angels, devils, miracles, and so on - are non-naturalistic and thus fall beyond the scope of science. Evolution does not say God exists; neither does it say God does not exist. Such a question simply cannot be considered by science. It is, instead, one for theology or philosophy. What evolution does do is provide a consistent scientific explanation for the development of life that does not require direct divine intervention - it does not require miracles, but neither does it forbid them. If there is a God, evolution tells us how he caused life to develop and diversify. If there is no God, evolution tells us how life developed and diversified in his absence. But the theory itself does not say either of these things; it merely says what happened, making no metaphysical claims one way or the other. If evolution is atheistic because it does not require miracles, then so is all the rest of science. Additionally, in rebuttal to the creationists' accusations of atheism, one could make the very relevant point that the majority of the world's religious people find no conflict between evolution and their faith. As recently as 1996, the Pope, the spiritual leader of one billion Christians around the world, reaffirmed that there was "no opposition" between evolution and the Bible. A great number of other religious organizations accept the truth of evolution as well; some of them are listed in the "Voices for Evolution" section of the National Center for Science Education's site. Finally, there is the Clergy Letter Project, which has gathered over 10,000 signatures from Christian clergy of various denominations affirming that evolution does not conflict with religious belief. One more point remains to be made with regard to this argument. Creationists, in their arrogance, insist that they have discovered the true meaning of their holy text - that they know with certainty exactly how it is meant to be read and interpreted - and that anyone who disagrees with them is either sadly deceived or not really a member of their religion
at all. (This is the usual defense against theistic evolution.) But as the creationists' own Bible warns them, "pride goeth... before a fall" , and few things could be imagined as more prideful than their unbending insistence that they have once and for all discovered what scripture really means. In other words, how can the creationists be so sure that this time they've got it right, when so many times in the past people who attempted to extract scientific data from the Bible were mistaken? To name the most obvious example, there was once a time when a straightforwardly literal reading of the Bible led people to the conclusion that the Sun orbited the Earth. This conclusion was not only taken as following naturally from the plain meaning of the text, it was held that to doubt it was to deny that the Bible had any meaning at all. As Cardinal Bellarmine wrote in 1615 about Galileo's heliocentric theory, "But to want to affirm ... that the earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves with great speed around the sun, is a very dangerous thing, not only by irritating all the philosophers and scholastic theologians, but also by injuring our holy faith and rendering the Holy Scriptures false." The similarities to the creationists' arguments against theistic evolution are instructive. To deny geocentrism, the church authorities said, was to deny that the Bible was inspired by God and free of error; to admit heliocentrism would bring Christianity crashing down. Yet today, heliocentrism is universally acknowledged, even among creationist groups (though there are a few holdouts ), and Christianity has not come to an end. In fact, most people are wondering why anyone ever thought there was a conflict in the first place. The reader is invited to find parallels with the current debate over evolution. The second major reason creationists often label evolution a religion is this. To believe in evolution takes faith, they say, because no one has ever seen it happen. They argue that to accept evolution requires a leap of faith that is at least as great as the leap of faith required to accept God! Leave aside for the moment the question of what this says about the creationists' views on religion. (Surely they approve of it? Why do they think calling evolution a religion is an attack on it? As some have noted, it's as if they're saying, "Hey, you guys are just as irrational as we are!") The fact remains that this accusation, like all the others, is untrue. Evolution is a science, and as such, it is based on and accepted by empirical evidence - not faith. By definition, faith is belief in something for which there is no objective evidence. In the case of evolution, nothing could be further from the truth. Evolution is one of the best-supported theories in all of science, upheld by numerous lines of evidence from many different fields that all converge on the same conclusion. For instance, there are many transitional series showing the large-scale change of life over time, and nested hierarchies of genetic similarity that corroborate these fossils and allow us to chart the tree of evolutionary relationships. Nor is our evidence of evolution limited to reconstructing what happened in the past. Indeed, we can directly observe all the components of evolution working around us today - genetic mutations, increased or decreased by drift and acted upon by selection, to produce new genes and new morphology conferring differential reproductive success and increased fitness on a wide range of living organisms. No faith is necessary, because acceptance of evolution does not require one to accept any process that cannot be observed today and that is not supported by evidence to prove its occurrence in the past. The creationist claim that evolution requires faith in unobserved processes is flatly false. To accept evolution, or any scientific theory, it is absolutely unnecessary to make a leap of faith - it wouldn't be a scientific theory otherwise. All that is required is a willingness to accept evidence, conclusions drawn from that evidence, and theories logically based on those conclusions. Unlike the fundamentalist religion of creationism, evolution can be freely questioned, scrutinized in detail and refined to fit the evidence, and indeed, even its most dedicated defenders are constantly doing this. Just like general relativity, the heliocentric solar system, or the germ theory of disease, the theory of evolution can be taken on the basis of the evidence alone. It is not accepted or rejected by, and does not depend on, people's faith. Footnotes  See, for example, what the Institute for Creation Research has to say about theistic evolution here (sample: "There is no harmonizing or fence-straddling here; one must make a choice between holding to theistic evolution or believing the plain statements in the Bible"). Answers in Genesis says similar things here.
 Proverbs 16:18.  Robert Bellarmine: Letter on Galileo's Theories, 1615. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1615bellarmineletter.html.  For an example of one such, see The Earth Is Not Moving. Recommended Links: Do You Believe in Evolution?
Has Evolution Been Proven?
No, it has not been. Many creationists would be content to end this essay there, but in reality, the situation is not so simple. To argue against the theory of evolution by saying that it "hasn't been proven" is to demonstrate a severe misunderstanding of the nature of science, which this essay will endeavor to correct. It is true that the theory of evolution has not been proven - if, by that term, one means established beyond any further possibility of doubt or refutation. On the other hand, neither has atomic theory, the theory of relativity, quantum theory, or indeed any other theory in science. The reason for this is that science does not deal in absolute proof, only in the balance of the evidence. To see why this is and must be true, imagine that we are scientists seeking to explain some feature of the natural world. Based on the evidence available to us, we can construct a hypothesis - an educated guess - which we offer as that explanation. If more evidence turns up that supports our hypothesis, if our hypothesis is testable and falsifiable, and if our hypothesis can be used to make predictions which turn out to be correct - if all these things are true, then our hypothesis graduates to the status of a theory and, in time, becomes accepted scientific wisdom. But how do we really know the original hypothesis is true? What if it completely misses the mark, but gives the right answers just by coincidence? Or what if it is just an approximation, giving generally correct answers while failing to capture the true reality of what is going on? How can we ever be sure that these things are not the case? The answer is, of course, that we cannot know this. This is why no scientific theory, including evolution, is ever considered to be proven. The more evidence that accumulates to support a theory, the more our confidence in it grows. Eventually, a point may be reached where the quantity of evidence supporting the theory is so vast, so overwhelming, that further attempts to deny or question it would be futile and unfounded. This is the case with the theory of evolution, as it is the case with the other theories, such as the atomic theory of matter or the theory of plate tectonics, that form the pillars of modern science. But this is not absolute proof. Not even the best-supported, most thoroughly verified theories of science are put on a pedestal and considered infallible, since at any time, some shocking new piece of evidence might turn up that completely contradicts accepted knowledge. We have no way of knowing that this will not happen in the future. This is not to imply that the theory of evolution is in any way tentative or uncertain. On the contrary, it is extremely robust, backed by over a hundred years of research, experiment and observation. In all that time, not a single piece of evidence that seriously contradicts any part of it has ever turned up. Within the scientific community, evolution is not at all controversial and is no longer questioned; it is considered to be a fact, as simple and indisputable as gravity. While it can never be absolutely proven, it has come as close to attaining this status as it is possible for any scientific theory to be. To attack evolution by labeling it an "unproven theory" misses the point entirely. There is a saying in some scientific circles: "Proof is for mathematics and alcohol."
Recommended Links: Proof in Science The Talk.Origins Archive: Scientific Proof?
Evolution Is Just a Theory! (Or Is It?)
Anyone who has spent some time reading or debating creationists is almost certain to hear the argument that "evolution is just a theory". This is usually stated as if it were a blow against evolution, but in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Though this statement is technically correct - evolution is indeed a theory - people who do not understand the implications of that word as it is used in science often think it is saying something different from what it actually means. The important thing to keep in mind is that the everyday definition of the word "theory" is different from its scientific definition. In common usage, theory often means something like "guess" or "hunch". However, in scientific circles, this is not the case. To scientists, a theory is an explanation of some feature of the world that meets three requirements: it is supported by evidence, is testable and falsifiable, and can be used to make predictions. As the first requirement shows, "theory" in scientific use does not mean "guess" or anything similar. In fact, for a scientific explanation to be called a theory, it must bewell-supported by evidence. When a scientist wishes to explain the cause of some object or event, they make an educated guess, usually called a hypothesis. This hypothesis is then tested by experiment and observation, and graduates to the status of theory if and only if enough evidence is found to support it and it repeatedly passes the tests it is subjected to. This is a standard the theory of evolution passes with flying colors: in a hundred and fifty years of scientific study of the natural world, evolution has never failed any crucial test, and an overwhelming amount of evidence has been found which supports it. A scientific theory must also be, at least in principle, testable and falsifiable. If there is no imaginable test that could be performed to check a hypothesis, or if there is no evidence that could possibly prove it wrong, it can never become a theory. Evolution likewise meets both these requirements. To name some obvious examples, every discovery of a new fossil or a new species is a test of evolution. If a newly discovered species does not fit into the nested tree pattern used to classify all living things, or if a fossil is found in rock strata dramatically different from those where it should be, the theory of evolution would have to be drastically changed or discarded altogether. The last requirement is whether a theory can be used to predict new discoveries we should make in the future. Anyone can patch together a hypothesis that explains a set of facts; the real test is whether we can take the organizing principles of that hypothesis and use them to deduce the existence of new evidence or phenomena not yet known. If such predictions cannot be made, or if they are made and then shown to be false, then the hypothesis fails to meet the qualifications for a theory and must be rejected. Evolution possesses great predictive power - not in the sense of predicting exactly how life will evolve in the future, because that depends on many chance factors too subtle for us to measure, but in the sense of predicting how new discoveries will fit into life's established family tree. For example, if we possess part of a fossil series, we can reliably predict when in the rock record other members of that series will be found. See the Talk.Origins January 1997 Post of the Month for an example predicting where the ancestors of modern ants would be found. See here for a list of other verified predictions. It is also important to point out the difference between a theory and a law. In science, a law is a description of some feature of the natural world. A theory is anexplanation of that feature. In other words, laws say what happens, while theories explain why it happens. For example, Newton's law of gravity states that two objects attract each other with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. It says what happens, but not why; it does not explain what gravity is or how it works. A theory of gravity, such as Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity, explains why this happens. In astronomy, Hubble's law states that the observed redshift of light coming from astronomical objects is proportional to their distance from the Earth; the theory of the Big Bang explains this observation by stating that the universe is expanding. In biology, Mendel's laws of inheritance describe certain patterns in how traits are passed from parents to offspring, while theories of molecular
genetics explain these observations by referring to the structure of chromosomes, genes and DNA. Theories do not change into laws as evidence accumulates to support them. Rather, theories are the "highest" one can get, and coming up with theories is the goal of every branch of science. If science consisted of nothing but discovering laws, it would be the activity sometimes derogatorily referred to as "stamp collecting": listing natural phenomena without making any effort to explain them. Though it is not usually phrased in these terms by biologists, it could be said that the "law of evolution" is that living things change over time. This is observable both in the fossil record and in the present day from one generation to the next. The theory of evolution explains this general pattern, as well as the specific details, by saying that living things experience differential reproductive success due to random mutation and natural selection. However, the evidence supporting evolution is so strong that biologists also generally, and correctly, consider it to be a fact, as obvious and unquestionable as heliocentrism or gravity. Therefore, evolution is both a theory and a fact. An explanation of some feature of the world that is well-supported by evidence, that has passed every test it has been subjected to, and that has been used to make a great number of verified predictions - this is an accurate description of the status of evolution. To call it "just a theory" is not an argument against it, but an argument for it. Only the most powerful, best-tested scientific ideas ever earn this designation. One final point should be raised. As this essay has shown, to call evolution "just a theory" is not a valid objection to it, but a compelling point in its favor. But another rapid rebuttal to anyone who makes that claim is this: Creationism is not even a theory! It has not been verified by observation and experiment, and in fact, the experiments that scientists have performed have disproved all of its central claims. It is neither testable nor falsifiable, because it is ultimately dependent on divine intervention and no test could disprove the idea of a miracle. In the few instances where it has been used to make predictions, those predictions have been shown to be wrong. And lastly, it does not truly explain any aspect of the natural world, because to say "God did it" explains nothing; it produces no genuine increase in our knowledge. Indeed, it closes the book on explanations altogether, because miracles are incomprehensible by definition, and once we decide that one has happened, no further conclusions can be drawn. Not only is creationism not a theory, it probably does not even qualify as a hypothesis. It is to creationism, not evolution, that the ordinary definition of "theory" as "guess" or "hunch" is more appropriate. Recommended Links: The Talk.Origins Archive: Evolution is a Fact and a Theory Don Lindsay: Scientific Theories and Proof Lenny Flank: Is Evolution "Just a Theory"?
Why Evolution Isn't Chance
One of the most common arguments against evolution put forward by creationist laypeople goes something like this: "Either evolution is true or creationism is. If evolution is true, then we all got here by random chance. I just can't believe that; there's too much order, complexity and beauty in this world for it all to be the result of chance. Therefore, creationism must be true." Aside from the false dilemma that arises from assuming evolutionary theory and Judeo-Christian creationism are the only two options, there is a more fundamental error in this argument, one that cuts to the heart of the evolution/creationism debate. Creationists often say they find it inconceivable that pure chance could have produced all the complexity and diversity of life. And evolutionary scientists agree, because evolution says nothing of the kind. This is a crucial fact that must be grasped by anyone hoping to speak on this issue knowledgeably: Evolution is not chance. To conceive of evolution as nothing more than blind chance and randomness is the most serious conceptual mistake one can make. Evolution does contain a component of chance, but there is far more to the process than that, and it is precisely the existence of the non-chance components that allows evolution to work. The process of evolution is driven
by the engine of natural selection, a filter that extracts order out of chaos according to a fixed and non-random set of rules. It is for this reason that many of the most common creationist caricatures of evolution fail. Evolution is not like an explosion in a print shop producing a dictionary, a tornado in a junkyardproducing a 747, or DNA in a blender producing a human being, because all of these lack a component of non-random selection. Described in its simplest terms, evolution is easy to understand. Due to mutation, organisms undergo random changes, some of which are beneficial, while others are not. The organisms with beneficial changes enjoy a competitive advantage, and these changes are passed on throughout the population and become common; those with deleterious changes are at a disadvantage, are less likely to reproduce, and do not pass these changes on, causing them to disappear out of the population. This is natural selection in a nutshell. Within the scientific community, there are debates about topics such as the level at which selection operates or the relative rate of evolutionary change, but the simple principles outlined above lie at the heart of all versions of evolutionary theory. It is clear to see that natural selection, which is not chance but the opposite of chance, is what makes evolution work. If there were no selection, change in living things would follow a pattern called a "random walk" - sometimes the changes would be beneficial, sometimes not, and the population as a whole would wander back and forth across the fitness "landscape" but, on average, never get anywhere. That would be an example of random change, and it is absolutely correct to say that such a process could never produce all the intricate diversity and marvelous adaptations that living things possess. Natural selection changes all that, by preferentially preserving the good variations and eliminating the bad ones. It is like a ratchet, allowing a population to move only in one direction - the direction of greater fitness. And the changes that natural selection favors are not random, but are determined by the characteristics of the environment. This is why, for example, both fish and aquatic mammals such as whales and dolphins have the same streamlined body shape - because this is the shape that is most efficient for moving through the water in which they live. This shape has evolved separately in the fish and cetacean lineages, in an example of an evolutionary phenomenon called convergence, precisely because it is the best shape for that environment regardless of what kind of creature has it. If evolution were random, we would not see this kind of predictable pattern. Like all natural processes, evolution is guided by laws that do not change. If you throw a rock up in the air, its path is not governed by pure chance, but by the law of gravity. It cannot fly off randomly in any direction, but will travel in a parabolic arc and land at a predictable point. If you put a hot object next to a cold one, the transfer of heat is not governed by pure chance, but by the laws of thermodynamics. Heat cannot flow randomly in either direction; it will move consistently from the hotter object to the colder one. And if you set a population of randomly mutating organisms in an environment, their future is not drifting at the whim of chance, but is directed by the law of natural selection. Their evolution will not proceed in just any direction, but only in those that make them better adapted to their surroundings. Granted, the mutations that provide the raw material for selection to operate on are random, in the sense that they are not predisposed to increase fitness. Beneficial mutations are not preferentially more likely than deleterious ones, and organisms do not "know" how they "need" to mutate in order to survive. It is merely that the ones that do mutate in helpful ways survive better and reproduce more abundantly than those that do not. This has led to creationists charging that evolution is random in another sense, that it did not require humans to evolve; that is, there is no inevitability to it. And as far as science can determine, this is an accurate statement. Although we can confidently predict that there will be mutations that increase fitness, we cannot predict exactly what mutations they will be or what form they will take. The evolution of Homo sapiens was the result of a long chain of contingencies, and if any event in our evolutionary past had turned out slightly differently, we might exist in a dramatically altered way, or we might not exist at all. There is no scientific evidence that humans' existence was inevitable or that evolution in general has any predetermined goals. But these things are true only as far as science can determine. If one's personal convictions are such that God intended for humanity to develop all along and guided the course of evolution appropriately, that is not a belief that science can speak to. (That God was working behind the scenes to guide the course of events, despite a lack of any obvious sign of this, is of course a belief common to many religions.) For this reason, the theory of evolution has nothing to say about
whether God exists or whether there was a deeper plan to life, though of course, individual scientists are free to take a position on either side of that issue. But evolution itself is a science, and like all sciences, it tells us only what is, not what should be. It is a description of one particular aspect of reality, and that is all it is. It would be foolish to use it in an attempt to derive a moral code, a purpose for our lives, a meaning to life, or any such thing. Those things do not fall within the realm of science, and science will not give us answers to them; it is up to us as individuals to decide that for ourselves. Some people seek answers to these questions through religion, while others find them through other paths. When creationists say that one who accepts evolution must believe that life is nothing but the result of random chance, they are abusing the theory. In the scientific sense, this conclusion leaves out the most important part of the entire theory, and in the metaphysical sense, this is a deceptive attempt to derive from the theory an explanation of something it was never meant to explain. Evolution does not tell us that our life is the purposeless result of chance; it does not say anything on the topic at all. Either way, the creationists' conclusion is flatly inaccurate. Their strategy is to tar evolution with offensive-sounding implications and turn people away from it regardless of the evidence, but this fallacious attack will always wither before the truth. Recommended Links: The Talk.Origins Archive: Evolution and Chance
The Tornado in the Junkyard
In his 1983 book The Intelligent Universe, astronomer Fred Hoyle wrote the following infamous passage: "A junkyard contains all the bits and pieces of a Boeing 747, dismembered and in disarray. A whirlwind happens to blow through the yard. What is the chance that after its passage a fully assembled 747, ready to fly, will be found standing there? So small as to be negligible, even if a tornado were to blow through enough junkyards to fill the whole Universe." (p.19) Though Hoyle actually intended this as an argument against abiogenesis, the creationists have since assimilated it and used it against evolution. In creationist literature, this argument has mutated into a diversity of forms: setting off an explosion in a print shop to produce a dictionary, disassembling a watch and shaking up the pieces in a box to reassemble it, and so on, building a bicycle by applying a blowtorch to a pile of bicycle parts, and so on. No matter what form the analogy takes, however, creationists have promoted it as a common-sense proof of the impossibility of evolution producing complex, highly ordered forms. There is even a creationist book titledTornado in a Junkyard. This essay will show that this analogy is not an accurate representation of how evolution (or, for that matter, abiogenesis) works. In fact, it is a straw man, a ridiculous caricature that bears no resemblance to what the theory actually says. However, it is first helpful to establish a few things about the credentials of its author. Fred Hoyle was an astronomer, and whatever the validity of his professional opinions on astronomy, he was not trained in biology, paleontology, genetics, or any other field having to do with evolution. He was no more qualified to make pronouncements about evolution than any layman, and indeed his comments demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the theory. Nevertheless, whatever he was, he was certainly not a creationist. "The creationist is a sham religious person who, curiously, has no true sense of religion. In the language of religion, it is the facts we observe in the world around us that must be seen to constitute the words of God. Documents, whether the Bible, Qur'an or those writings that held such force for Velikovsky, are only the words of men. To prefer the words of men to those of God is what one can mean by blasphemy. This, we think, is the instinctive point of view of most scientists who, curiously again, have a deeper understanding of the real nature of religion than have the many who delude themselves into a frenzied belief in the words, often the meaningless words, of men. Indeed, the lesser the meaning, the greater the frenzy, in something like inverse proportion."
--Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, Our Place in the Cosmos (1993), p.14 "We are inescapably the result of a long heritage of learning, adaptation, mutation and evolution, the product of a history which predates our birth as a biological species and stretches back over many thousand millennia.... Going further back, we share a common ancestry with our fellow primates; and going still further back, we share a common ancestry with all other living creatures and plants down to the simplest microbe. The further back we go, the greater the difference from external appearances and behavior patterns which we observe today.... Darwin's theory, which is now accepted without dissent, is the cornerstone of modern biology. Our own links with the simplest forms of microbial life are well-nigh proven." --Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, Lifecloud: The Origin of Life in the Universe (1978), p.15-16 We turn now to the tornado in the junkyard. This analogy says nothing about the validity of evolution, or for that matter abiogenesis, because it fails to represent them in four crucial ways. 1. 2. 3. 4. It operates purely according to random chance. It is an example of single-step, rather than cumulative, selection. It is a saltationary jump - an end product entirely unlike the beginning product. It has a target specified ahead of time.
The first point is the most important. The tornado in the junkyard is an example of an intricate, complex and highly organized form being produced by nothing more than random chance. But evolution is not chance. (See this article for more on this.) Rather, it operates according to a fixed law - the law of natural selection - which favors some assemblages over others; it preferentially selects for those adaptations which improve fitness and selects against those that do not. The tornado, by contrast, slams parts together and tears them apart with no preference whatsoever, thus completely failing to represent natural selection, the central force which drives evolution. To more accurately represent evolution, one would have to grant the tornado some power to recognize assemblages of parts which could serve as part of a 747 and prevent it from tearing them apart. Second, the tornado analogy is an example of single-step selection - in one step, it goes from a random pile of parts to a fully assembled airliner. This is completely unlike evolution, which operates according to a process of cumulative selection - complex results that are built up gradually, in a repetitive process guided at each step by selective forces. To more accurately represent evolution, the tornado could be sent through the junkyard not once, but thousands or millions of times, at each step preserving chance assemblages of parts that could make up a jumbo jet. Third, in relation to the point above, the tornado in the junkyard is an example of saltation - a sudden leap in which the end product is completely different from the beginning product. Evolution does not work this way; birds do not hatch out of dinosaur eggs and monkeys do not give birth to humans. Rather, species grow different over time through a process of slow change in which each new creature is only slightly different from its ancestor. Evolution forms a gradually shading continuum in which any two steps are almost identical, though the creatures at the beginning and end of the continuum may be very different indeed. If we sent a tornado through a junkyard once, we would not expect to see a complete airplane; but if we repeated the process thousands or millions of times, at each step preserving useful assemblages, we might see a jumbo jet gradually taking shape out of slowly accreting collections of parts. The idea is the same with living things. We do not see complex new creatures appearing suddenly in the fossil record; rather, we see them gradually forming by a process of modification from a line of increasingly dissimilar ancestors. Finally, the tornado analogy fails to represent evolution in one more significant way: it has a target specified ahead of time. Evolution does not. Natural selection is not a forward-looking process; it cannot select for what may become useful in the future, only what is immediately useful in the present. To more accurately represent evolution, we might add the additional stipulation that the tornado be allowed to assemble, not just a jumbo jet, but any functional piece of machinery. A tornado racing through a junkyard hundreds of thousands of times, at each step somehow preserving rather than tearing apart functional assemblages of parts, with the aim of ultimately producing some sort of working machine, be it a 747, a station wagon or a personal computer - this is still not a very good analogy to describe evolution, but it is far
better than the implausible caricature of random, single-step saltation with a predetermined target the creationists put forth. This analogy completely fails to represent evolution in every significant way. Recommended Links: The Talk.Origins Archive Index to Creationist Claims: Tornadoes in a Junkyard Cincinnati Skeptics: Is Evolution As Unlikely As A 747 Forming Out Of A Tornado In A Junkyard?
What Is Creationism?
Simply stated, a creationist is one who rejects scientific explanations for the origin of life and the universe, preferring a hypothesis of supernatural creation by God. The majority of creationists in the United States are fundamentalist Christian Protestants, but there are creationists of other denominations as well. There are many different varieties of creationists, some of which are the following: Flat-Earthers: The most extreme position on the creationist spectrum, flat-earthers insist on a word-for-word literal reading of the biblical book of Genesis or other scripture, leading them to believe that the earth is a flat plane covered by a domelike solid "firmament." Though there are very few of them today, they still exist. Geocentrists: Another extreme position occupied by a small minority of creationists, geocentrists accept the sphericity of the Earth but believe that it occupies a fixed, motionless position in space, with the sun and the other planets orbiting around it - the pre-Galilean view, in other words. Young-Earth Creationists: The most popular and politically active faction of creationism today, young-earth creationists (or YECs for short) also occupy a very extreme position on the creationist spectrum. They accept a spherical Earth rotating around the sun, but read the rest of the Book of Genesis literally, resulting in a belief that the Earth, along with the rest of the universe, was supernaturally created by God in six 24-hour days approximately 6000 years ago. Typically they also believe that the fall from Eden and Noah's global flood were real, historical events, and that any evolution occurring today is nothing more than the result of degenerative mutations occurring as a consequence of sin. Old-Earth Creationists: Old-earth creationists typically accept the scientific consensus for the age of the Earth and the universe, but reject evolution as YECs do, believing that life was the special creation of God. How they harmonize this belief with the Genesis account varies, though OECs frequently also take the position that the Noachian flood was a local event, not a global one. Day/Age Creationists: A form of old-earth creationism, Day/Age creationists believe that each of the six days of creation in the Book of Genesis represents a period of thousands or millions of years. Gap Creationists: Also a form of old-earth creationism, gap creationists believe that there was a long time lapse between the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis, with a six-day recreation of the world occurring after the gap. Progressive Creationists: Another form of old-earth creationism and a more liberal position on the creationist spectrum, progressive creationists accept that both the Earth and life are ancient. However, they hold that there were several independent, sequential creation events, with new life forms being brought into being consistent with the order seen in the fossil record. Many of history's great geologists who lived prior to Darwin were progressive creationists.
Intelligent Design Creationists: Employing a modern version of an old creationist argument, intelligent design creationists (IDers for short) hold that evidence of God's design can be seen in the complexity of life and the "fine-tuning" of physical constants of the universe to support life. Typically, IDers believe that ordinary evolutionary explanations break down at some level, leaving supernatural intervention as the only plausible explanation for the complexity and information content of living organisms. IDers vary on how much of evolutionary theory they accept; some are young-earth creationists, while others accept common descent of all living things. It is important to note that creationism in all its forms is invariably a religious position. While most creationists freely admit this, some strenuously deny it, especially advocates of intelligent design, who take great pains to avoid mentioning just who they think the "Intelligent Designer" might be; but in the end, the tenets of creationism invariably arise from religious scripture. Creationism was the default hypothesis before Charles Darwin's day, but when the theory of evolution was proposed, its superior evidentiary support and explanatory power led it to quickly win scientists over and dominate the field of biology. Contrary to creationist assertions, today there is no serious scientific debate between evolution and creationism. That debate happened during Darwin's lifetime, and creationism lost. However, the creationists have never been prepared to take defeat lying down. The past few decades have seen a resurgence of this movement in America, with creationist groups attempting to bypass the scientific community entirely and insert their beliefs directly into the public school system through political action. Several legal cases of this kind have played out in recent years, but the creationists have invariably met defeat in the courts, which have consistently ruled that creationism is a religious position and laws forcing it to be taught constitute a breach of the separation of church and state. (This explains why creationists today sometimes try to disguise their true motives and claim creationism is a scientific and not a religious position; it is another attempt to get past the courts.) However, the fight is ongoing. This page was founded with the intent of serving as another volley in the battle. It is the opinion of the author that creationism is completely lacking in any scientific validity, and it is the author's hope that he may convince other people of this by exposing them to the evidence and arguments that first convinced him. Recommended Links: The Talk.Origins Archive: What Is Creationism?
There is no dispute that we live in a highly technologically advanced society. Our understanding of and ability to manipulate the natural world for our benefit is greater by far than any other civilization that has ever existed on this planet - including the civilizations that gave birth to the major world religions of today. We regularly perform feats that, though they seem routine to us, would likely have been viewed by the ancients as nothing short of magical. However, despite all our advances, there are still some areas of science in which the shadow of religious literalism lingers. Evolutionary biology is chief among these, of course, though religiously inspired antievolutionary attacks often touch on related fields such as paleontology, geology, physics and cosmology as well. This is an astonishingly broad sweep of attack, and one that requires either extreme confidence or extreme foolhardiness; nothing else, it would seem, could motivate a person to challenge virtually all the tested theories of modern science. How can the creationists be so sure of themselves; or, to put it another way - why creationism? Given the obvious and indisputable fact that creationism arises from religion, the first and probably the most important reason why it exists is for the purpose of evangelism, something which is naturally of primary importance to its fundamentalist backers. Answers in Genesis' Statement of Faith, for example, says plainly that "The scientific aspects of creation... are secondary in importance to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ." The Discovery Institute's Wedge Document similarly admits that one of the intelligent design movement's "Governing Goals" is to "replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that
nature and human beings are created by God". Arguing that the natural world proves the existence of the arguer's God beyond scientific doubt is a very valuable tool to proselytizers - especially when used against an audience insufficiently informed about how science works, which most people are. Still, this alone does not explain why creationists are so prone to use arguments that severely distort the process of science, or that are just plain false. An additional reason is needed to explain this, and a less charitable interpretation would be that some creationists see nothing wrong with telling lies for God, since saving souls is an end so important that it justifies any means, and besides, they are forgiven. (A few of them have admitted to doing exactly this, unfortunately. Others, such as Duane Gish, continue to promulgate arguments so plainly lacking in substance that it is difficult to interpret their behavior in any other way.) A more charitable, though hardly an exonerating, interpretation would be that creationists are so certain that they are correct that they feel it would be superfluous to check the facts. This kind of immovable faith may be a praiseworthy trait in religion, but it is the polar opposite of the way science works. Both these hypotheses go a long way toward explaining why so many creationist arguments continue to be recycled long after they have been decisively disproven. However, there are other reasons that can contribute to explaining why creationism persists. First among these reasons must surely be the state of scientific understanding among the public. To judge by surveys such as those of the National Science Foundation (see also this summary), an astonishingly high percentage, in some cases an outright majority, of people do not know many basic facts about how science works or what it has discovered. Nearly half of Americans, for example, do not know how long it takes the Earth to revolve around the Sun, or that electrons are smaller than atoms, and over two-thirds cannot adequately define the scientific method. It is hardly going out on a limb to say that there is probably significant overlap between these groups and people who express creationist sympathies. Clearly the state of science education among the public is inadequate and could stand to be improved, regardless of how that reform is brought about. When scientists do not devote sufficient effort to communicating their ideas to the public, the scientific illiteracy that flourishes as a result makes it far easier for creationist beliefs to take root. Worse, when the general public does not understand what scientists do, creationists can step in and sow suspicion and misunderstanding, painting the scientific community with negative stereotypes (such as that scientists are all atheists) that make the task of education much more difficult. People are curious to learn and to understand, which makes it all the more important to provide them with good information; otherwise the peddlers of pseudoscience will be sure to step in. Another factor, related to the last, must be the fact that science is difficult and complex, while creationism is simple. Though the growth of our scientific understanding has brought unparalleled improvements to our way of life, it has also revealed that the universe is in some respects a deeply strange and counterintuitive place, overturning many old common-sense notions about the way things seem to work. Einstein's theory of relativity, for example, shows that there is no "absolute" or "universal" time against which all things can be measured, and that different observers can record the same event happening at different times without either being wrong. Even more strange is the theory of quantum mechanics, which states that some objects literally do not have a well-defined position until an attempt is made to measure them, along with many other bizarre and paradoxical claims. Both these theories have been tested and borne out by countless experiments, but do not at all fit with everyday notions about the world. Evolution may not be as strange as these theories, but it is still an idea that requires adopting a substantially different perspective - the perspective of geological time - than the one we are used to. On human timescales, species do indeed seem to be fixed, not mutable. (As creationists never tire of reminding us, no dog has ever given birth to a cat.) But this intuition is deceptive, and it requires a great deal of evidence to overcome, which is why it took a naturalist as patient and diligent as Charles Darwin to build a convincing case for it. Though the process itself is simple enough to explain, to truly understand how and why evolution works requires comprehending evidence from a wide variety of scientific disciplines. Creationism, on the other hand, requires no such burdensome study, no amassing of evidence, no mastery of complex concepts. Its ideas are so simple, they can be and have been summed up in Sunday school sermons for children. It is not hard to see why many people would gravitate toward the option they can understand more easily, particularly in light of the generally poor understanding of the scientific method. Finally, creationism's persistence can be accounted for by noting that creationists tend to isolate themselves from other ideas in a way that scientists do not. As already stated, creationism springs from religion, and in most religions doubt is considered an evil act, the sign of a lack of faith. By contrast, the cardinal virtue of science is the opposite, a healthy skepticism that is always ready to reevaluate an idea, to test everything one
more time. Science requires bending over backwards to account for all possible sources of error and admitting the ones that cannot be conclusively ruled out. These are very different approaches, and lead to different reactions in the two communities. When confronted with outside criticism, creationists tend toward a "circle the wagons" response in which they defend their own at all costs. It is not hard to see how this insular, "us vs. them" view, resisting all outside correction, would create an environment in which ideas could persist long after the evidence shows them to be false. There is one more possible reason for why creationism survives to this day, and though this one is more speculative, I cannot help mentioning it. For all that it is held and defended by religious fundamentalists, whose faith may outwardly seem to be the strongest of all, I believe that creationism is the position taken by those of weak, fragile faith. There is no disputing that creationists, like other religious people, place great value and importance on their beliefs. However, a great many believers are entirely comfortable with the idea that religious scripture teaches spiritual and not scientific truths, and if a literal interpretation of their text turns out to be incorrect, they can modify their understanding of that text and still hold to the deeper meaning. But creationists do not seem to be like this. Instead, they believe that the Bible (or whatever scripture) must stand or fall as a whole, exactly as they originally interpreted it, and if their beliefs turn out to be wrong in even a single particular, their entire belief system and everything that goes along with it will be destroyed. Indeed, many of them have said as much. (For example, from former creationist Glenn Morton's story, creationist John Morris: "If the earth is more than 10,000 years old, then Scripture has no meaning.") This, then, may be the ultimate purpose of creationism: to provide validation to believers who desperately require it. They want God to have worked in a specific way - their way - because that is what they have been taught to believe, and because their faith is so weak that their entire belief system collapses if they find out that reality differs from it in even one aspect. When confronted with contrary evidence, it is no surprise that such people will cling tenaciously to their beliefs and rationalize the upsetting facts away. The structure of their belief is too weak to accommodate change, and they fear - because they have also been taught this - that without it, there can be nothing but a bleak life of nihilism and meaninglessness. However, a faith that could not accommodate such discoveries without crumbling probably was not worth being held anyway. By contrast, there is no reason why a person of strong faith should be threatened by a simple statement of how life as we now see it came to be. Any faith worthy of being held would not shatter when encountering a single piece of contradictory evidence, but could accommodate the hard-won truth of how the world really works while retaining whatever laudable moral guidelines are derived from that faith. There is indeed grandeur in this view of life - the grand sweep of billions of years of Earth history, the magnificent unfolding of life's family tree, encompassing countless millions of living species in a complex web of unparalleled intricacy and beauty - and it is a shame that there are some people who still live in the shadow of the past, and who are still afraid to accept it.
Why You Should Fight Creationism
In the first few decades of the twentieth century, several U.S. states passed laws forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools. The most famous of these was Tennessee's Butler Act, under which John Scopes was tried and convicted, only to be acquitted on a technicality. Today none of these laws remain in force, having been struck down by the Supreme Court in 1968 in in Epperson v. Arkansas, but the creationist movement has not faded away. Although they have suffered several more major defeats in court over the years, their campaign to push creationism into public schools and evolution out has not ceased, and neither have attempts at passing anti-evolution legislation by lawmakers with creationist sympathies. But despite all this, there are still people who believe that creationism is not a serious problem today, not worth getting concerned about or involved in. This essay will attempt to counter that misperception. The first reason to fight creationism has to do with the public perception of science in general. Now more than ever, human civilization is dependent on understanding science and technology. Issues such as global warming and alternative energy, genetic manipulation and cloning, stem-cell and other medical research, environmental destruction and species extinction, and many more are complex ethical matters, and we as a people cannot hope to make the right decisions if we do not possess an understanding of the science involved. Without such an understanding, there is no way to separate facts from hype, spin, and fearmongering.
In light of this, it is extremely disturbing that poll after poll reveals the general public's grasp of science to be dismal. According to polls such as those of the National Science Foundation, large minorities or even majorities of the American public are unaware of many basic facts about how science works or what it has discovered, such as how long it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun. When people are uninformed about even the basics of science, it is hardly to be expected that they will be able to make wise decisions when it comes to the far more complex issues that face society today. Creationism is, without a doubt, a major contributor to this state of affairs. Being fundamentally opposed to science, creationism perpetuates itself by teaching people to fear and mistrust science, to avoid exposing themselves to the writings of scientists, and to value their own personal opinions and beliefs over conclusions arrived at by diligent research and investigation. It is no exaggeration to say that this anti-intellectual outlook could have lethal consequences when it comes to areas where science affects us all. To safeguard the well-being of our fellow human beings and to make the best decisions for our common future, it is necessary to spread understanding of science and the scientific method, and that means fighting and overcoming creationism. Even beyond the general issue of scientific literacy, there are ways in which understanding evolution specifically is vital to making important policy decisions. When it comes to fast-mutating pathogens such as the AIDS virus and emerging epidemics such as avian flu, a detailed understanding of evolution is important if we are to effectively combat these scourges. Evolution helps us to understand how diseases leap from animal to human, how they increase or decrease in virulence, how they mutate to survive the drugs we use to stop them, and where we should look to find already-existing natural defenses that we can use against them. When it comes to farming and agriculture, evolution helps us understand how to maximize yields and prevent losses due to disease and pests. When it comes to medicine, evolutionary reasoning helps us understand how to study, control and manipulate cells, genes, and organs. When it comes to engineering, the principles of evolution can be applied in the form of genetic algorithms to design new innovations that never would have occurred to a human. Creationism and its descendant, intelligent design, are scientifically sterile hypotheses that offer no help, no guidance, in making the best use of these scientific advances. Another reason to fight creationism is to maintain the separation of church and state. The United States, as well as most Western democracies, were born out of the Enlightenment philosophical tradition that recognized the baneful effects of tangling religion together with government. The medieval theocracies were terrible places where human rights were trampled and the spirit of free inquiry stifled by law. The lesson we learned from them was to create governments where all people were free to practice their own religion as they saw fit without coercion, and no sect or church could use the power of the state to force its beliefs on anyone else. It is no coincidence that the countries incorporating this principle have flourished. But the wall of separation must continually be guarded against the attacks of religious fundamentalists who do not appreciate this freedom and would prefer to write their own beliefs into law to the exclusion of all others. Creationism is one such attack, as one can verify by viewing creationist strategy papers such as the Wedge Document. Mandating that it be taught in public schools would constitute an official endorsement of one religion over others, doing undeniable harm to those parents who would prefer to raise their children as they see fit, without government interference in matters of religion. It is vital to fight creationism in order to preserve this basic human freedom. This point leads inevitably to considerations of academic and intellectual freedom and the need to fight censorship. As the Wedge Document and other statements show, creationists of all stripes have made little secret of their desire to reshape society in their image, creating a theocratic state where their particular belief systems would receive official government support and approval and people who believe differently would be second-class citizens or worse. Some avowed creationists, the so-called dominionists, have gone even farther by openly stating their desire to abolish democracy and create a theocratic, Old Testament-style dictatorship, with them in control, of course. (Lenny Flank has more information on the political goals of the creationist movement.) For the sake of preserving the liberty of all people, this abhorrent plan must be opposed and defeated. Even creationists who are not quite so extreme have let their true goals slip on occasion: to require creationism to be given "equal time", in defiance of scientific consensus, not just in public elementary schools but in private universities, in scientific textbooks, perhaps even in scientific research itself. Consider what Henry Morris, the grandfather of the modern creationist movement, had to say in a 1975 article for the ICR:
"We conclude, therefore, that both creation and evolution should be taught... in all books and classes where either is taught or implied." Academic freedom and scientific integrity demand the rejection of this tactic. Creationism has failed to win the approval of the scientific community; now its backers are trying to do an end-run around that scrutiny by legislative fiat. And note, too, that their attacks are not limited solely to biology. On the contrary, creationists take issue with almost every field of science. The theory of evolution is, of course, their first and most prominent target, and to destroy it creationists would tear down virtually all of modern biology; but they have many other targets as well. To accommodate Noah's Flood, virtually everything we know about geology would have to be tossed out. To make room for a young Earth, quantum mechanics and other branches of physics used in radiometric dating would have to go. To allow for a young universe, astronomy and cosmology would also need to be completely rewritten. To enshrine the Biblical view of human history, archaeology would be required to undergo substantial revision. And to make the full scope of their ambition clear, many creationists have stated their desire to throw out the core scientific principle of naturalism itself, making prayer an acceptable method of scientific inquiry and miracles an acceptable scientific explanation for any phenomenon. And all this is itself just one prong of a broader strategy to impose the extreme religious views of a particular group on all people everywhere. For the sake of preserving scientists' and teachers' freedom to study, work and learn as they wish, following where the evidence takes them, and to safeguard our hard-won knowledge of the world gained over hundreds of years of patient investigation, creationism must be opposed. Finally, there is one simple, straightforward reason to fight creationism: it obstructs the scientific progress and the growth of human understanding. We humans are a naturally curious species, and when that curiosity is channeled through science, it has led to incredible dividends. Not only does science provide us with numerous practical benefits, on another level it has helped us appreciate what a truly awe-inspiring place the universe is. Our investigations have revealed a cosmos far vaster, more ancient, more intricate and more profoundly interconnected than even the most imaginative poets and theologians of antiquity ever dreamed. We now know that we are but one species on a planet full of life, heirs to a multibillion-year process of evolution that has brought forth a nearly limitless diversity of wonderful forms. The more we learn, the more humbling and yet glorious it all is. The rewards of intellectual discovery may not be as tangible as the other products of science, but I like to think that they are no less important. Creationism stands in opposition to this process of enlightenment, seeking instead to return us to the days when the limits of the inquiring mind were rigidly circumscribed by superstition and dogma. For this reason alone, it deserves to be opposed by all right-thinking people of conscience and principle. The true universe is too vast to fit into any one holy book or religious tradition, and it deserves to be fully investigated so that our descendants may marvel at discoveries even greater than the ones that amazed us. For this reason alone, creationism should and must be opposed wherever it may appear. Recommended Links: Anti-Evolution and the Law National Center for Science Education: Press Room
Why Creationism Isn't Science
There is no doubt that the most central issue in the evolution/creationism debate is whether creationism deserves to be called science. Creationists argue vehemently that it does, for obvious reasons: if that were the case, creationism would be a competing scientific hypothesis deserving of teaching time in public schools alongside evolution. Most scientists, on the other hand, dismiss creationism as religious and inherently non-scientific. The "demarcation problem" - where exactly to draw the line between science and non-science - is a thorny issue that has occupied many prominent philosophers without producing a clear answer, and this essay will not attempt to solve it. However, notwithstanding the fact that the exact boundary between science and non-science is somewhat fuzzy, there
are some cases that clearly fall on one side or the other of that line. This essay will argue that creationism is one of these - that it fails the most crucial requirements for science, and moreover, fails so obviously that there can be no doubt of its status. A scientific hypothesis must be testable and falsifiable. That is to say, a hypothesis must make predictions that can be compared to the real world and determined to be either true or false, and there must be some imaginable evidence that could disprove it. If an idea makes no predictions, makes predictions that cannot be unambiguously interpreted as either success or failure, or makes predictions that cannot be checked out even in principle, then it is not science. Various forms of creationism fail on all three counts here. For example, "intelligent design" creationism makes no testable predictions at all - it makes no checkable claims about how to identify design, who the designer is, what the designer's goals and motives are, what the mechanism of design is, or when and where the design takes place. In fact, it makes no positive claims whatsoever, other than the hopelessly vague assertion that some intelligent being played a role in the diversification of life. Unless additional details are provided - and advocates of ID have so far steadfastly refused to provide them - ID is untestable and unfalsifiable, and can thus be firmly excluded from the domain of science. Other forms of creationism, such as the young-earth creationism derived from a literal reading of the Bible, do make some testable claims. However, when these claims do not pan out, YEC advocates typically seek to rescue them from falsification by adding additional qualifications that make them untestable. For example, when radiometric and other dating methods show the Earth to be older than the 6,000 years YEC predicts, advocates of this idea often respond by saying that the world was created with an "appearance of age" - that it came complete with false evidence of a history that never happened. No conceivable evidence could prove this idea wrong even in principle, making any version of creationism that relies on it unambiguously not science. Even some of creationism's defenders admit this. Henry Morris writes in his textbook Scientific Creationism that "Creation... is inaccessible to the scientific method", and that "It is impossible to devise a scientific experiment to describe the creation process, or even to ascertain whether such a process can take place." His colleague and fellow creationist Duane Gish agrees, writing in Evolution: The Fossils Say No! that "We do not know how the Creator created, what processes He used, for He used processes which are not now operating anywhere in the natural universe. This is why we refer to creation as special creation. We cannot discover by scientific investigation anything about the creative processes used by the Creator." A scientific hypothesis must be naturalistic, relying only on principles of cause and effect and laws of nature to explain observed phenomena. An idea that is not naturalistic - i.e., that incorporates supernatural intervention and miracles - cannot be part of science, because it is impossible to test, disprove, or further investigate. Once one has concluded a miracle has occurred, there is nothing more that can be done. The proposal that a miracle happened can explain absolutely any imaginable scenario with equal ease, which is the same as saying that it really does not explain anything at all. On this score, there is abundant evidence that creationism in all its forms is not naturalistic, and indeed is absolutely dependent upon miracles, as creationists themselves admit (see below). A scientific hypothesis is almost always fertile, suggesting new areas to study and expand our knowledge and giving rise to new hypotheses in turn. Creationism does not do this; it is scientifically sterile. It explains observed facts in an ad hoc way but suggests no surprising consequences, nowhere to focus our efforts on next, and cannot be used to derive further predictions. Whatever we find, whatever patterns or evidence we uncover, the creationist explains it simply by assuming that that is how God must have wanted it, for unknowable reasons of his own. This does not add to our knowledge and does not lead to new avenues of research. Finally, a scientific hypothesis, in addition to being testable, must actually be tested. The essence of science is its self-correcting mechanism, in which hypotheses are constantly revised and refined to comply with new evidence. Those ideas that survive the test of time, that pass every test to which they are subjected, become generally accepted knowledge and are added to the scientific canon. Nevertheless, no theory is ever considered
to be proven beyond any further possibility of doubt, since there's always the chance that that one startling bit of evidence might turn up tomorrow. In short, doing science means always accepting the possibility of error, and always being willing to test your ideas and accept the results whatever they may be. This, more than anything else, is the one thing creationists refuse to do. Creationism starts with the Bible and goes nowhere. Most major creationist institutions, despite annual budgets in the millions of dollars, do not fund or perform any original scientific research at all. Indeed, such research would be redundant as far as creationists are concerned; they are already so convinced of the correctness of their conclusions that they see no need to test them. (If any reader thinks this is in any way an exaggeration, see below.) The moment you say, "I know I'm right and nothing could ever convince me otherwise", you are no longer doing science. For further evidence that creationism is not science, consider their "Statements of Faith". Almost every major creationist organization has one, which consists of a list of tenets that all members of that organization adhere to. The mere existence of such a thing is suspicious; no legitimate scientific body would require its members to hold certain opinions as a precondition of belonging. But it is in the specific wording of these statements that the creationists' bias comes out most clearly. These affirmations show in exceedingly clear detail that creationists subscribe, not to the self-correcting system of science, but to the infallible dogma of fundamentalist religion. Presented for your approval, here are excerpts from some of the statements of faith of prominent creationist organizations. The Institute for Creation Research: Tenets of Creationism In their belief statement, the ICR attempts to draw a distinction between "scientific" and "Biblical" creationism, claiming that the former can and should be taught in public schools, and that only the latter is religious. However, their version of "scientific creationism" includes statements such as "The physical universe of space, time, matter, and energy has not always existed, but was supernaturally created by a transcendent personal Creator who alone has existed from eternity" and "The phenomenon of biological life did not develop by natural processes from inanimate systems but was specially and supernaturally created by the Creator". These are patently religious statements by any meaningful definition of the word, explicitly invoking supernatural creation, which is definitively outside science. The ICR also boasts "a firm commitment to creationism and to full Biblical inerrancy and authority". (Note, also, that elsewhere the ICR specifically identifies itself as "an arm of the church"). Answers in Genesis: Statement of Faith AiG's Statement of Faith delivers the most brazenly anti-scientific statement to be found in any creationist document, which is the following, at the very end: "No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record." Apparently, as far as this group is concerned, when reality contradicts their interpretation of the Bible, it is reality that is wrong. This is not science, but the antithesis of science. Declaring that you know you are right, that the evidence cannot sway you, and more, that you will reject any evidence that contradicts what you believe, is as unscientific as one can possibly get, and shows in the clearest way imaginable that the brand of creationism these groups espouse is not science but religion. Reasons to Believe: What We Believe This old-earth creationist organization's doctrinal statement says the following: "The following paragraphs express the doctrinal convictions of every member of the Reasons to Believe staff and board of directors.... We believe the Bible (the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments) is the Word of God, written. As a 'Godbreathed' revelation, it is thus verbally inspired and completely without error (historically, scientifically, morally, and spiritually) in its original writings." Reasons to Believe also proclaims that it belongs to the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy, a group whose own doctrinal statement includes this: "We deny that extrabiblical views ever disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it." Again, these are not scientific, but religious statements. Declaring that their interpretation Bible is completely true and that no evidence can ever disprove any part of it is an admission that their view is unfalsifiable. (Try,
by contrast, to find a scientific body saying, "We deny that external evidence can ever disprove evolution or hold priority over it.") The creationists have come to the table with their minds made up, and they don't want to be confused by the facts. The Creation Research Society: Statement of Belief This document reads in much the same vein as the others. "The Bible is the written Word of God, and because it is inspired throughout, all its assertions are historically and scientifically true in the original autographs." Of course, one's personal religious beliefs do not prevent one from doing legitimate science. However, when the two are this intimately intertwined, the author's scientific integrity and objectivity must inevitably be compromised, because their belief that their interpretation of the Bible must be true will tend to override and color everything they observe. Real scientists, by contrast, must always follow where the evidence leads, regardless of whether that evidence overturns a generally accepted theory or even a cherished personal belief. Can any member of the CRS honestly state that they would accept evidence contrary to creationist doctrine? In closing, it is worth noting the asymmetry here. Imagine if the scientific world was as biased towards evolution as the creationists are against it. Imagine if Nature and other top scientific journals boasted on their masthead that they possessed a "firm commitment to the truth of evolution and the inerrancy and authority of Charles Darwin", and refused to accept any papers submitted by anyone who held creationist beliefs. Imagine if science popularizers like Stephen Jay Gould or Ken Miller wrote that, "By definition, no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including biology, geology and physics, can be valid if it contradicts evolution." Imagine if publishers of science textbooks or associations of science teachers declared, "We believe that the Origin of Species is completely without error, and all its assertions are historically and scientifically true in the original autographs." Imagine, in this scenario, what an outcry the creationists would raise against unscientific bias and prejudice - and justifiably so. Now return to the real world, where exactly the opposite situation pertains. What does this say about the scientific status of both sides in the evolution/creationism debate? Recommended Links: The Skeptic's Dictionary: Creationism and Creation Science Statement on Creationism by the American Geophysical Union Vatican's Chief Astronomer: Intelligent Design is Not Science
Why Creationism is Harmful to Religion
If one wants to learn what drives creationism, visit any major creationist organization's website - or, better yet, listen to some of the speeches and letters of creationists who have lobbied to have their beliefs taught in public schools. Do this, and their true motivations will quickly become clear. The primary motivations of creationism are not scientific ones. On the contrary, the true motivations of creationism are religious. To those who promote it, creationism is a means to an end, a tool to spread the gospel and win converts. Their ultimate goal is to replace the theory of evolution, which they believe is atheistic, with one that grants their religious beliefs and their conception of God an assured place in the process of creation, ensuring that all to whom it is taught will believe. In light of this, it is ironic that creationism has not only not succeeded, but is actually accomplishing the opposite of its goal. In their zeal, the creationists have blinded themselves to the fact that they are doing far more harm to their religion than good. Most obviously, the efforts of creationists simply make their religion look ridiculous. Many of them would have us believe, in addition to other absurdities, that animals could once talk, that women were created from a man's rib, that all human beings are descended from a single pair of people who lived in modern-day Iraq (meaning that every subsequent generation must have been the product of incestuous mating), that human beings co-existed with dinosaurs, and that all the world was once covered by a global flood through which one family survived and preserved every single species on the planet in a wooden boat far smaller and less advanced than even the smallest of today's zoos. There are even still geocentrist creationists, who view Galileo as a diehard enemy and refuse to admit that the Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around. While such mythological stories may have been accepted as fact in the dark ages before science, it is hardly possible to
take them so seriously today. Yet creationists do insist that one must take such myths seriously to be a member of their religion. And these groups, regardless of their relative size, shout so loudly and promote their beliefs so vociferously that it is very easy to make the mistake of believing that they speak for the entire group and that everyone who belongs to that religion must be equally irrational. People who might otherwise have become converts could not be blamed for concluding that if Christianity (or whatever other religion) requires them to forsake science and believe such absurd things, then they want no part of Christianity. By their efforts, creationists are strengthening the belief that religion is backward and irrational, and have hampered the efforts of forwardlooking people who want to bring their faith into the present and forge an accommodation between religion and science. But the harm creationism has done to religion goes beyond turning away potential converts. Not only is it doing this, it is also causing religions to lose members they already have. The fact is that creationism is so plainly false that it can survive only by twisting, ignoring, or outright lying about the scientific facts. Even a cursory search, if undertaken with an open mind without deciding on a conclusion in advance, will reveal the tremendous wealth of evidence supporting evolution and the total lack of evidence supporting creationism. Many former believers have discovered this and realized that they were lied to all along, and have understandably responded by leaving their religion entirely. An example of this can be found at the Genesis Panthesis website, run by former young-earth creationist Jon Scott; see also this page here, or the story of "lodger", a former Jehovah's Witness. Finally, consider the testimony of former creationist Glenn Morton, who writes that creationists hired at the oil company where he previously worked experienced severe crises of faith because "[they] were utterly unprepared to face the geologic facts every petroleum geologist deals with on a daily basis". Not only is creationism causing religion to lose members, there is no evidence that it is winning new ones over at a rate even great enough to make up for this. As an evangelistic tool, creationism has been a failure. While it readily convinces the already deeply religious, it has little persuasive power to those who do not already believe. R.J. Riggins put it best on his website, Things Creationists Hate: "After years of intensive research, I have all but given up hope of finding a biologist, geologist, physicist, astronomer, paleontologist, or whatever, who--through his actual field or laboratory research--came up with such overwhelming evidence that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, or that new species never evolve--that he came to the inescapable conclusion that it was all created recently. Then he looked around for who knew that all along. Then he became a fundamentalist Protestant. As I said, I've nearly given up searching for such a rare species. I suspect I'm more likely to find a biblical unicorn. It never happens in that order. A person FIRST becomes a fundamentalist--either raised that way or converted--THEN learns what he is supposed to believe about the history of Earth and life." The fact is that creationism is injuring religion - both turning away potential converts and driving away current members - for nothing. The only way it is ever likely to convince anyone is if it is propped up and given support by the state, which is why creationists have fought so hard, but so far unsuccessfully, to sow doubt about evolution and mandate the teaching of creationism in all public schools through legislation. In their attempts to twist the truth to serve their own ends, creationists have achieved nothing more than to put another black mark on the history of religion. Not only is creationism failing to win any new converts, it is actively turning potential converts away by associating religion with overliteral interpretations of ancient mythology; and not only this, but the deception inherent in creationism is causing formerly devout members to desert the fold. Creationism has done, and is doing, far more damage to religion than any atheist movement ever did. For this reason alone, the progressive moderates and forward-looking people who count themselves among the religious can and should speak out against creationism.
On Conspiracies and Mined Quotes
For well over a hundred years, evolution has been the unifying theory of biology. It is supported by overwhelming quantities of high-quality evidence, both experimental and observed in the field, and by literally thousands of peerreviewed studies from a wide variety of scientific disciplines. It explains and unifies a vast diversity of natural
phenomena, and no hypothesis proposed to replace it has ever stood up to scientific scrutiny, nor enjoyed similar explanatory success. Within the scientific community, evolution is as solidly established and uncontroversial as gravity, and enjoys the support of the overwhelming majority of qualified scientists as well as renowned scientific bodies around the world. Creationism, by contrast, was long ago falsified and discarded by the scientific community, and today survives mainly in fringe institutes funded by religious fundamentalists. When asked why this is so, if evolution is as obviously false as they claim, creationists inevitably resort to making claims about an academic conspiracy. The details differ, but the general idea is always the same - either the scientific community knows evolution is false and is conspiring to prevent people from finding that out, or it has merely become so invested in evolution that it will no longer consider any other viewpoint. However, there is another creationist tactic that directly contradicts this argument: creationists presenting quotes from famous evolutionary biologists which seem to say that scientists cannot agree and therefore evolution is "a theory in crisis". (See the Talk.Origins Quote Mine Project for an extensive list of such quotes, along with responses.) The quotes which creationists present in this way only rarely mean what they appear to say. Instead, most of them have been "mined" from the scientific literature, with context removed or words omitted so that they seem to say something completely different from their author's intended meaning. Simply looking up the sources from which these quotes were cited usually confirms that their original meaning has been distorted; most commonly, this is done by taking articles written by scientists arguing about some particular aspect of how evolution happens and stripping context to make the author appear to be expressing doubt about whether evolution happens at all. Another perennial favorite tactic is to quote a scientist wondering about a lack of evidence in a certain area, when that scientist lived or wrote before a discovery filling that particular gap, thus falsely implying that the problem is still unsolved. However, the questionable honesty of this tactic aside, creationists rarely seem to notice that these two arguments directly contradict each other. If evolution is the consensus of the scientific community because of academic petrifaction or conspiracy, then scientists would not be arguing about it, and it could not be a "theory in crisis". On the other hand, if scientists do argue about evolution, then it shows that the scientific community is not too set in its ways to consider new ideas, and creationism's failure to gain scientists' allegiance must be because it intrinsically lacks merit. That the latter scenario is indeed the case can be shown by examining other fields of science. Science frequently experiences debates and revolutions of knowledge that overturn long-accepted ideas. For example, the field of physics has seen two major upheavals in the twentieth century alone, first by Einstein's theory of relativity, then by quantum mechanics. Both of these were complex theories with bizarre implications that contradicted some long-established common-sense notions about how the world works, but because they fit the evidence and passed the tests, they overcame initial skepticism to gain a firm place in the canon of accepted knowledge. Heated debate is ongoing in this field over several other fundamental issues, including the exact nature of dark matter and dark energy, the form of a grand unified theory, and what, if anything, came before the Big Bang; and other fields of science have their own debates as well. It is absurd to conclude that biology is the only field of science no longer amenable to change, not least because it has many areas of debate of its own. To name one example, fierce scientific debate is ongoing about the origin of life, but there are also present or recent past controversies centered around proposals such as punctuated equilibrium, the selfish gene, cladistics, group selection, mechanisms of speciation, human origins, and exact lines of descent in a variety of taxonomic groups. The evidence clearly shows that scientists in every field, including evolutionary biology, are more than willing to consider new ideas and evaluate them on their merits. The only rational conclusion is that creationism has been rejected not because of a scientific conspiracy, but because it simply isn't true. But even if this is the case, do the fact that scientists debate evolution mean that it is still a theory in crisis, as the creationists say? The answer is no, and to understand why, it is necessary to understand something about how science works. As should be obvious, a scientific theory's success is evaluated based on how many natural phenomena it can successfully explain. The more observations a theory can tie together and account for in a consistent way, the more likely it is to be true; such a theory is said to be fertile, because it is good at generating explanations for previously unsolved mysteries and suggesting new directions in which to explore. In this respect, evolution has been a rousing success. Even a century and a half after it was first proposed, it continues to bring in new knowledge, and remains applicable and relevant in a wide range of areas. Debate is inevitable at the borders of our knowledge, where a successful theory is
being extended to account for new phenomena. In this respect, healthy debate is the sign of a scientific theory's strength, not its weakness, because it shows that that theory can still be successfully applied to unsolved questions, and that researchers are actively involved in doing this. And, it cannot be stressed enough, no reputable scientist taking part in these debates - not even the ones that creationists love to quote out of context - doubts that evolution did occur. These debates are about aspects of how evolution works - what mechanisms drive it, and what specific results it has produced in particular times and places. That is all. The "big picture" - that all life is related in an ancient tree of common descent - is unaffected, and has only been strengthened by many years of scientific study that have shown again and again how robust and successful a theory evolution is. Any creationist attempt to imply otherwise should be dismissed as the sophistry that it is. Recommended Links: The Talk.Origins Archive: The Quote Mine Project The Don Lindsay Archive: Famous Quotes The Talk.Origins Archive: The Revised Quote Book
The Second Law of Thermodynamics: Enough Already!
One of the most tediously common creationist claims is the Second Law of Thermodynamics argument. It is wrong, and was wrong from the beginning; but despite the fact that it has been refuted countless times, it continues to circulate in anti-evolutionist organizations, inevitably accompanied by the claim that it presents an insurmountable problem for the theory of evolution. Nothing could be further from the truth, as this essay will demonstrate. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is a fundamental principle of physics. It deals with entropy, a term that has a precise mathematical definition. For this essay, it is sufficient to say that entropy corresponds to the amount of energy in a system available to do work. The more energy available for work, the less entropy there is, and vice versa. The Second Law of Thermodynamics (or 2LOT for short) says that the net entropy of a closed system must always increase. To better understand the topic, a further explanation is worthwhile. The First Law of Thermodynamics, another wellestablished physical principle, says that the total amount of energy in the universe is constant; energy can never be created or destroyed. However, it can take many forms - kinetic, potential, electromagnetic, thermal, mechanical, and others. When you throw a ball, you are converting chemical energy stored in your muscles, in the form of the cellular fuel ATP, into mechanical energy to move your arm, which is in turn transferred into kinetic energy in the ball. The leaves of green plants collect electromagnetic energy - light - and convert it into chemical energy in the form of sugar. Virtually every interaction involves an energy conversion of some kind. The 2LOT states that no energy conversion is ever 100% efficient. Whenever energy is converted from one form to another, some of it is lost, in the form of waste heat. When electric current travels through wires, some of the energy is dissipated as heat by the resistance of the wire; when you move your body, some energy is dissipated as heat by friction in your joints, and so on. Energy cannot be destroyed, but this waste heat is effectively lost. It spreads out into its surroundings, becoming diluted among all the available molecules until no temperature differential exists and it is stretched too thin to ever be recovered. Entropy has just increased. This is the heart of the 2LOT: in every reaction, usable energy decreases and entropy increases, even if only by a small amount. The most common phrasing of the 2LOT is that in a closed system, net entropy always increases. A system is any collection of interactions; a closed system is one that exchanges neither matter nor energy with its surroundings. Equivalently, entropy can be described in terms of disorder. In a system containing atoms at different temperatures, the low-entropy state would consist of those atoms segregated by temperature, for example, one reservoir of hot atoms and one reservoir of cold atoms. This temperature differential is what makes it possible for the system to do work. The high-
entropy state would consist of atoms of all different temperatures randomly mixed together, so that the temperature of any part of the system is on average the same as the temperature of the whole system. The high-entropy state is more disordered than the low-entropy state, in the sense that rearrangements of the system are less likely to change it importantly. When atoms are separated into hot and cold pools, any random rearrangement will probably mix the two pools together, increasing entropy; but when the atoms are mixed together in a homogeneous gas, any random rearrangement is far more likely to leave them as a homogeneous gas, producing no change in entropy. (This can be analogized by pouring ink into a glass of water. If one randomly stirs the glass immediately after pouring in the ink, the result will be to diffuse the ink throughout the water's volume, but if one stirs the glass after the ink and water are well mixed, it is extraordinarily unlikely that the ink and water will unmix themselves and separate out; rather, they will remain mixed.) It is important to note that an increase in entropy is not necessarily irreversible. If the system is left to itself, random chance makes it overwhelmingly likely that entropy will increase to the maximum and then stay the same, just as it is overwhelmingly likely that the ink will diffuse throughout the water and never spontaneously re-separate. However, if the system is not "left to itself" - if work is done on it - the entropy of that particular system can decrease, although only at the cost of increasing the entropy of the system that did the work - and thus the total amount of entropy in the universe - by an even greater amount. Many kinds of human-built technology are designed to change a high-entropy state into a low-entropy state; one common example is a refrigerator. We now turn to the creationist argument. Typically, it goes something like this: Evolution predicts that organisms (biological systems) evolve from less complex to more complex (more highly ordered) states. The 2LOT predicts that all systems, including biological ones, inevitably degrade and break down into less ordered states. Therefore, evolution contradicts the 2LOT and must be wrong. With the above explanation in mind, several things can be said about this. First, it is a common mistake to equate entropy with everyday notions of chaos or disorder, but it is a mistake nevertheless. Strictly speaking, entropy is equivalent to disorder only on the atomic level, in the technical sense discussed above. If the terms "order" and "disorder" are instead used in the way most people would understand them - the way creationists use them - then entropy can increase without there being any corresponding increase in disorder, and some processes that increase entropy actually increase order. For an example of the first condition, if you set up a heater in your bedroom and leave it running for several hours, you will have significantly increased the room's entropy, regardless of whether the arrangement of items in the room has changed. The temperature of your bedroom, rather than whether your clothes are folded in the bureau or strewn about the floor, is the overwhelmingly important factor when determining the entropy of the room (see this Talk.Origins Post of the Month for an explanation); and this applies to every other macroscopic system as well. As for the second condition, there are many physical processes that spontaneously increase order without in any way violating the 2LOT. For example, the process of crystallization produces highly ordered, complex structures such as geodes and snowflakes. Random weather interactions give rise to highly ordered systems such as tornadoes and hurricanes. Evaporation can separate a mixture of water and salt; wave action on a beach can sort pebbles by size. Random processes of freezing and thawing can produce eerily regular geometric patterns of stones (Self-Organization of Sorted Patterned Ground; see also Stone circles explained). And finally, highly organized stars can form through the gravitational collapse of random clouds of hydrogen gas. None of these processes violate the 2LOT in any way. When the true definition of entropy is used, rather than the creationists' straw man, it is obvious that evolution in no way violates the 2LOT, regardless of whether it produces an increase in some vaguely-defined notion of order. For thermodynamics to be satisfied, the only requirement is that entropy increase, and it does. What energy is dissipated to cause this entropy increase? The answer is fairly obvious: the energy of the Sun. A small fraction of the energy the Sun emits reaches the Earth, where it is absorbed by living things and used for photosynthesis. The rest of the Sun's energy is radiated into space and dissipated, causing a huge increase in entropy. In other words, the Earth is an open system - it is not isolated, but rather is constantly receiving energy from the Sun. Therefore, there is no 2LOT constraint on what its net entropy gain or loss must be. (Living organisms, for that matter, are also open systems, since they continually take in energy.) Though the 2LOT, in varying formulations, does apply to all
systems, it does not say that the net entropy of an open system must increase. On the contrary, the net entropy of an open system can either increase or decrease. This is because an open system can import energy, as the Earth does, and export waste heat, so that the universe's total entropy does increase "somewhere else". Such is the case if one steps back and considers the larger system of the Earth and the Sun. Any small decreases in the entropy of the Earth are more than compensated for by the huge increases in entropy produced by the Sun each moment. If evolution violates the 2LOT, there must be some specific step in the process of evolution that violates the 2LOT. Which step is this, according to creationists? It is not mutation; the process of replicating the genome uses up energy just like any other chemical reaction. It is not natural selection; for every one organism that emerges victorious and prospers, many more must die, dissipating their stored biochemical energy. It is not reproduction; all living things are dependent on the usable energy of the Sun, whether used directly for photosynthesis or passed along the food chain. There is no step in evolution that violates the 2LOT, which is why creationists cannot point to one. And if no single step in the process violates this law, then the process as a whole does not, either. When confronted with this argument, creationists will usually speak vaguely about "the law of conservation of information" or "energy conversion mechanisms", or say that only intelligence can "overcome" the 2LOT to produce an increase in order. These arguments are pure fabrication. No such concepts exist in the scientific formulation of the 2LOT or in the field of thermodynamics in general. The equations of the 2LOT are called path independent, meaning that it is irrelevant for their purposes how an energy conversion is brought about. Intelligence has no privileged position in the equations; a human producing an ordered system no more "overcomes" the 2LOT than a human who throws a ball up into the air overcomes the law of gravity. Nor do the equations of thermodynamics mention "information", a term which creationists deliberately leave ill-defined and vague so that they can employ it in a manner convenient to them. Before such arguments can be entertained, creationists must first define exactly what "information" means in this context and provide a precise way to measure it. There is one final point to consider: If the creationists' arguments were correct and the 2LOT did indeed forbid evolution, then there should be a massive conflict between biologists and physicists. There is none. Even someone who has no understanding of entropy or thermodynamics can appreciate this point. If the clash were as obvious as it is made out to be, then every physicist in the world should be an anti-evolutionist, aware that the theory is a gross violation of one of their most basic laws. But since the community with the most comprehensive understanding of thermodynamics seems to see no conflict between it and evolution, the obvious conclusion is that the creationists have invented a problem where none exists. Recommended Links: The Talk.Origins Archive: Thermodynamics FAQs
What Good is Half a Wing?
A common creationist claim is that transitional species, intermediates between one form and another which are predicted by evolutionary theory, do not and could not exist. Their reasoning is usually that transitional forms, by the logic of evolution, could not exist because an organism in the process of transition would not be fully suited to either its former environment or the one it was evolving to live in, and would be at a disadvantage in both. To bolster their arguments, creationists frequently assert that complex structures such as wings or eyes could not have evolved, because they would not be advantageous until they were completely assembled. A "half-built" wing or eye would provide no advantage at all, and thus could not be selectively favored for further improvement. (Intelligent-design advocate Michael Behe bases his entire argument on this idea, though he shrinks it down to the molecular level.) To the layperson unacquainted with how evolution works, this argument may sound superficially convincing. However, on detailed examination, it does not hold up. Like many other creationist objections to evolution, it is heavily oversimplified, and the very details which it overlooks are its stumbling block.
The first thing to note is that evolution does not require living things to be suited to only one environment. There are specialist organisms that are exquisitely well-adapted to their particular environmental niche, but there are also generalists that can switch between different ways of making a living as the circumstances demand. (Indeed, one of the most successful generalist species ever to evolve is our own - Homo sapiens.) Natural selection can drive a species toward either greater specialization or greater flexibility, depending on what circumstances dictate. With this in mind, an answer to the first objection can be stated concisely: Transitional forms can exist because, by definition, they are suited to both their environments. Just because a species is adapting to a new environment, a new niche, does not mean it must lose the adaptations or abilities that made it successful in its previous niche. Even this is an oversimplification - there are and were many transitional species that did not need to survive in two different environments, but were intermediate between two species that both dwelled in the same environment. For example, the species Acanthostega, thought to be ancestral to modern amphibians, lived in the same murky swamps as both its fish ancestors and its amphibian descendants. Another example of a transitional form well-suited to both its environments is Archaeopteryx, intermediate between birds and dinosaurs and thought to have some capability for flight. Its skeleton, which is basically that of a small theropod dinosaur except for the feathers, indicates that it probably would have competed on the ground with its nonflying relatives for resources. However, its capacity for flight, no matter how limited, would have given it a significant selective advantage as well - whether to find food, such as flying insects, to escape from predators, or both. The creationists may object that these are some of the easiest examples, and that there are other kinds of transitions where it is not nearly so obvious how an intermediate could have survived. The appropriate response to such claims is the biologist's maxim often dubbed "Orgel's Second Rule": "Evolution is cleverer than you are." Our imaginations do not place limits on what nature can do, as scientific investigation of the world has revealed time and time again. Evolution has had hundreds of millions of years to test different solutions, and often arrives at results that human beings could never have anticipated. In one iconic example, creationist Duane Gish used to ridicule the idea of whales and dolphins evolving from land mammals by presenting a slide of an absurd creature that was half cow and half whale, and asking rhetorically how such a malformed beast could ever survive. This tactic reliably provoked gales of laughter from his creationist audiences. Several years later, the fossil Ambulocetus was discovered in present-day Pakistan, along the shores of an ancient waterway called the Tethys Sea.Ambulocetus, whose name literally means "the walking whale", was a marvelous example of evolutionary transition - a four-legged creature with a mouth full of sharp teeth that would have made it a predator to be reckoned with on the land, and also possessing large, flipper-like feet and a sinuous spine that made it well-suited to life in the water. Gish's much-mocked example of transition turned out not to be so impossible after all. The second half of the creationist argument states that complex biological structures, such as eyes and wings, could not have evolved because they would not be any good until they were complete, and a partially formed version would not present any selective advantage and could not continue evolving. As in the previous case, it is deceptively simple and plausible-sounding, but also faulty. It ignores a crucial point about how evolution operates, and works only by overextension of an analogy beyond the bounds of its applicability. The error in this position is that it assumes a complex structure could only work in its modern form, but this is not true at all. The analogy is deliberately misleading. Creationists would like people to think of the evolution of an eye as analogous to the construction of a house - and a half-built house is obviously no good to anyone. But when building a house, the builders know from the beginning what their ultimate objective is and move only towards it, even if it means that the intermediate stages will not function as a house. This analogy does not represent evolution. Evolution has no specific long-term goals, no foresight, and did not "know" from the beginning that anything like a modern eye would eventually develop. At each step, evolution can only move in directions of increased fitness and functionality, and so it does not and cannot produce functionless structures that evolve into functional structures. Instead, it produces simpler but still functional structures that, over time, adapt to become more complex and better suited to their environments.
To make the house-building analogy more similar to evolution, postulate that we start not with an empty lot but a primitive structure such as a tepee, and set the rule that every intermediate stage must also serve as a functional shelter. With these constraints, the tepee might grow taller and wider over time. At some point it might develop a more sophisticated and sturdier support structure, making it a more secure shelter but also allowing for further improvement, such as proper walls. For better protection against the elements, it might "evolve" a thatched or a shingled roof, or insulated walls. In time, something close to a modern house might appear, and while every step along the way could be considered "half-built" compared to the end product, every "half-built" stage would also serve as a house, albeit a more primitive one. Using the standard method, a half-built house is no good for shelter. But using evolution's method, a "half-built" eye is good for vision. As seen in the above example, the key is to think of a "half-built" eye not as a modern eye with half its parts missing, but as a more primitive but still functional eye whose capability for vision is simply not as well refined. Contrary to what creationists claim, this would present a selective advantage. Any vision at all is better than no vision, and even slightly better vision makes an organism more likely to succeed reproductively. For example, some simple organisms have a very primitive type of eye - an eyespot, which is only capable of distinguishing between light and darkness. This can be useful for survival. Sudden darkness might mean a shadow had been cast across the organism, possibly meaning that a predator was passing by - a good time to retreat into a burrow. Further adaptations might include turning a flat eyespot into a curved cup, with improved capacity to detect the direction of a light source, and from that point developing a pinhole-camera eye, which allows forming a true image rather than a simple blur. Over time, all the adaptations of the modern vertebrate eye could develop and be refined. Charles Darwin himself foresaw this possibility, and gave a simple story about how a modern eyecould have evolved. For more detail, see this article on the Talk.Origins Archive: An Old, Out of Context Quotation. Similar arguments apply to the development of the wing. Rather than assuming that only a fully formed, fully flightcapable wing would present any selective advantage, it is helpful to look at the possible intermediates. There are two hypotheses currently competing to explain this. One is that wings developed in tree-dwelling organisms originally as a method of gliding from branch to branch; animals such as the flying squirrel may be modern-day examples of this. The other is that it developed in organisms that took off for short distances from a running start; over time, longer and longer hops would develop into gliding and finally true flight. In either case, the intermediate stages leading to a modern wing would still present selective advantage, showing that such a process is plausible. The creationists' arguments notwithstanding, there is no obstacle to the step-by-step evolution of complex biological forms and intermediate structures. The argument from personal incredulity, which takes the form "X could not have evolved because I cannot imagine how X could have evolved", is logically invalid. Finally, regardless of what armchair reasoning tells us, there is only one way to put a hypothesis to the test: go out and look at the fossil record! And what we find, when we do such an investigation, is a wealth of transitional fossils linking many, if not most, of the major branches in the history of life. As with Ambulocetus, the species that creationists claim to be impossible really did exist. In the last resort it is always the scientific evidence that decides the truth or falsity of a theory, and in this case, the evidence stands squarely behind evolution. Recommended Links: National Center for Science Education: The Tale of the Whale The Talk.Origins Archive: Index to Creationist Claims
What's Wrong with "Equal Time" Laws
One of the stated goals of the creationist movement is to pass "equal time" or "balanced treatment" laws, which would mandate that public schools teach creationism alongside evolution in science classes. Their argument is usually that it is only fair to present both as options and let the students choose for themselves, and that to do otherwise constitutes unfair discrimination against their religious beliefs.
Superficially, these arguments may seem convincing. After all, tolerance is certainly a good thing, and what could be more fair than to let students make up their own minds? However, these reasons aside, there are several excellent reasons to consider such laws dangerously misguided. To teach creationism in public schools as science would confer upon it an air of legitimacy which it has not earned and does not merit. First of all, it should be said that neither I nor any reputable scientist would ever advocate excluding any legitimate scientific rival to evolution from the classroom. When there is a genuine scientific controversy, students should absolutely hear both sides of the issue, and neither should be taught dogmatically. Academic fairness and intellectual honesty demand no less. However, merely saying that a controversy exists does not make it so. The fact of the matter is that, among practicing, qualified scientists - the only group whose opinions are relevant when it comes to whether there is a scientific controversy - there is overwhelming support for the theory of evolution. Creationists who have any degree or relevant expertise in the biological sciences are a tiny, insignificant minority compared to the vast majority of scientists who have no doubt that such a process occurred, and that the assertions of creationists are factually incorrect. In scientific circles, creationism has been unambiguously defeated; it was replaced by evolution over a hundred years ago and has been the topic of no serious scientific research since. No papers are published on it in mainstream peerreviewed journals, no positive evidence supports it, and no new innovations or discoveries have ever come about as a result of it. Creationists argue that it is only fair to give both evolution and creationism equal time, but this is not true. What would be fair would be to give equal time to every theory that is scientifically valid and supported by evidence, and since only one theory, evolution, fits those criteria, that is exactly what is done. If more than one theory could meet these requirements, it would indeed be fair to teach them all, but this is not the case. Consider a parallel: the controversy over the occurrence of the Holocaust. The vast majority of historians consider it the undeniable truth that Nazi Germany instituted a program of deliberate genocide that resulted in the deaths of between five and six million Jewish people. However, a small, vocal minority insists that this evidence is misinterpreted or forged, and that the Holocaust either did not occur or occurred on a far smaller scale than mainstream scholarship believes. Does the existence of these contrarians mean that there is a "controversy"? Should we teach both views in history classes so that students can make up their own minds about whether the Holocaust happened? That would be only fair, wouldn't it? It is true that public schools should be in the business of creating independent thinkers, not in indoctrinating their students; but neither should they be centers of political correctness where every view is presented as if it were equally as valid as all the rest. To tell students that evolution and creationism are equally plausible, when the scientific community overwhelmingly rejects this, is to give a deceptive illusion of balance, and this is doing them a severe disservice. It is misrepresenting the views of the scientific community and telling students that we cannot decide between opposing views and that the opinions of experts are no more relevant than the opinions of any other group. This is precisely the wrong message to send if we want to create educated people who can tell the difference between truth and falsehood. In addition, there is a simple constitutional argument: equal time laws, or any other policy mandating the teaching of creationism, violate the separation of church and state. Creationism in all its forms is not science, but religion; therefore, to teach it as science would be an unconstitutional government endorsement of a particular faith. On this point the courts have agreed, repeatedly ruling against the creationists and striking down "balanced treatment" laws as unconstitutional. See here for specific examples of such cases. Finally, there is the fact that instruction time in school classes is severely limited. Given this unavoidable restriction, it is crucial to only teach ideas that have been tested and accepted by the scientific community - something which creationism has conspicuously failed to do. Evolution has the benefit of a hundred and fifty years of scientific research and support, while creationism has nothing comparable. Lacking this background of evidence, teachers presenting a "balanced view" of creationism would only be able to sketch out its basic ideas - a task of a few minutes. But if equal time were truly required for both ideas, they would then be forced to skip over the huge quantity of evidence in
evolution's favor and present only its basic ideas as well, creating an entirely false impression that the two were equally well supported. Of course, this is exactly what creationists want. On scientific grounds, creationism has failed. This is why creationists have sought to do an end run around the process of scientific validation and instead force their ideas to be taught through political lobbying and legislation. If creationism were supported by the evidence, there would be no need for laws mandating that it be taught - scientists everywhere would acknowledge its merit, and there would be no argument about including it in school curriculums, but this is not what has happened. If the creationists are so confident, why not present their ideas in peer-reviewed scientific journals and let people with the proper training and expertise evaluate them? That they avoid this most obvious of challenges, and attempt to make uneducated young students, rather than qualified experts, the judges of their ideas' merit speaks volumes. In the end, "equal time" laws are a disastrously bad idea, an attempt to legislate creationists' ideas into public schools when they have been falsified in the scientific arena. To protect the separation of church and state, and to encourage scientific reasoning and critical thinking skills in the next generation, they must inevitably be rejected. If creationism is to be taught in public schools, let it be taught in the one place it belongs: a comparative religion class. Recommended Links: Lenny Flank: What Effect Would Teaching Creationism in Science Class Have on Education?
The Two Questions
Although I have observed or participated in a great many creationism/evolution debates, there are two questions I have never seen honestly and clearly answered by any creationist. And small wonder, because these two questions cut straight to the heart of the debate; it is my belief that they cannot be answered by one who is immovably biased. I have asked these questions many times, and while creationists have avoided them, disparaged them, ignored them, or responded to them with meaningless statements cloaked in confusing language, I have never seen any creationist answer them in an honest and forthright manner. I do not think any creationist can truly answer them. Still, I'm always willing to be proven wrong. If you are a creationist and feel you can answer these, e-mail me using the feedback link at the bottom of the page, and we will see what comes of it. Question #1: What evidence would falsify your chosen variety of creationism? Falsifiability is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for any explanation that would call itself scientific. If there is no possible way a hypothesis could be proven wrong, not even in principle, then it is not science. There is more than one way to falsify a hypothesis. A hypothesis may make statements that do not fit with evidence already known. Or a hypothesis may make statements about evidence that will be discovered, and this prediction turns out to be incorrect. Finally, we may find evidence that should not exist if the hypothesis is true. Any of these criteria will suffice to make a scientific theory falsifiable, but it should be vulnerable to falsification - as virtually all theories are - on all three grounds. Unfalsifiability occurs when a hypothesis is so nebulous or has so many qualifications tacked on that it can accommodate any imaginable evidence; it can also occur when a hypothesis makes no predictions whatsoever, or makes predictions that cannot be tested even in principle. An example of an unfalsifiable hypothesis is "Last Thursdayism" - the belief that an all-powerful, deceitful god created this universe only last Thursday but placed in it misleading evidence of older history, including putting the exploded remnants of stars that never existed in the sky, burying the fossilized remains of animals that never lived in the ground, setting all radiometric decay "clocks" to read the same false age, creating trees full-grown with rings recording growth patterns of years that never happened, and implanting humans with false memories to make them believe they have had a longer history. This hypothesis makes no predictions - it simply states that things should be just the way they are. Nor could anything disprove it - no matter what evidence we produce for the antiquity of the universe, the Last Thursdayist would simply reply that it is a trick, purposely designed to look old even though it actually is not. Since we are unable to put this idea to the test or disprove it with evidence, it is not falsifiable, and therefore it is not science. Creationists of all varieties insist that their ideas are scientific and therefore deserving of being taught in public schools. To those creationists, I put this challenge: If your beliefs are scientific, how might they be falsified?
What evidence, what discovery would convince you that your chosen brand of creationism (young-earth, oldearth, intelligent design, other) is incorrect and cause you to abandon it? Clear, specific and detailed answers are required. Don't say "evidence that the Earth is old"; describe exactly what evidence you would accept as demonstrating this. Don't say "evidence that the global flood never happened"; describe clearly and specifically what geological evidence you would accept as demonstration that there was no global flood. Anything will do as long as it is evidence that could, at least in principle, exist, and as long as it is not a plainly useless, evasive or overbroad answer such as "I would accept that my brand of creationism is wrong if life did not exist". If the universe, the Earth, life or humanity did not exist, obviously there would be no one around to verify that fact, and thus such an answer would fall into the category of evidence that could not even hypothetically exist. Any proffered answer must consist of evidence that could conceivably be found at some point in the future. Likewise, your answer must consist of evidence that is not at odds with already-known facts. The suggestion that your brand of creationism would be falsified if life did not exist falls into this category, as does, for example, a suggestion that your brand of creationism would only be falsified if life did not contain information, and since it clearly does your brand of creationism has passed all possible tests for falsification. No scientific theory, no matter how well-supported, ever reaches a point where it becomes immune to any further possibility of contradiction. If you cannot provide an answer to this question, if your answer consists of some sort of evidence that could not exist, even hypothetically, or if your answer is so vague or so laden with qualifications that you have an escape hatch out of anything that is offered as satisfying it - in these cases, you have done nothing but further demonstrate that creationism is not falsifiable, and thus is not science. If you are a creationist and feel you can answer this challenge, e-mail me and I will reply to your answer and post it on a webpage linked to this one. If you are a creationist and feel you cannot answer this challenge, I invite you to consider the implications of that fact. Question #2: What evidence would you accept as provisional proof of evolution? To explain the relevance of this question, it is necessary to state a simple fact: Science is not a game of musical chairs. In other words, the objective in science is not simply to be the last person left standing. The situation frequently arises that there are multiple hypotheses offered to explain a given phenomenon. But to prove any one hypothesis correct, it is not enough just to falsify all its competitors. After all, even if all the other explanations are wrong, thatexplanation might be wrong as well, and the true answer might be something no one has thought of yet. Any scientist seeking to prevail in this competition must establish that their own hypothesis can accommodate the existing evidence and does not have any serious unresolved problems or contradictions of its own. Creationists frequently dispute this principle, asserting that if evolution is disproven, creationism wins by default. But this is not so. It is true that life either evolved or did not. This does not mean that the only options are naturalistic neo-Darwinian evolution or supernatural six-day creation by the Christian God six thousand years ago. Phrased in such a manner, this dilemma is plainly a false one. There are countless other options, for example, non-Darwinian evolutionary theories, or the creation stories of other religions of the world, yet creationists sometimes ignore these other options and insist that there are only two choices in the debate over origins. But since this is not the case, this second question is not redundant. It would be fallacious to claim that evolution must be true simply because creationism is false; like any other scientific theory, evolution must be able to stand on its own merits before we are justified in accepting it as true. With that in mind, I offer this second challenge. As part of their bid to get their beliefs taught as science, creationists frequently assert that their rejection of evolution does not arise from religious bias, but because they feel the evidence does not support it. And so I ask creationists of all varieties, what evidence would you accept as supporting evolution? What evidence would be sufficiently persuasive to overcome your doubts and convince you to accept it? By "evolution", I mean the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis currently held by mainstream biology as the unifying theory best able to explain the diversity of life: the theory that life undergoes large-scale change over time as the result of random mutations filtered by natural selection, with subsidiary mechanisms such as genetic drift and symbiosis also playing a role, resulting in the appearance of new genes, new adaptations and new species.
Again, any offered answer to this question must be evidence that could hypothetically be discovered in the future, and your answer must be clear, detailed and specific. Do not say "a transitional series"; give a hypothetical example of a series of fossils that you would accept as transitional, clearly and in detail describing the qualities and features they would possess. Do not say "a mutation that produces new genetic information"; give an objective way to measure information and then describe in as much detail as possible a hypothetical mutation that would increase it according to your metric. Also note that your answer must consist of evidence that is actually predicted by evolution to exist. Evolution does not predict, for example, that dogs will give birth to cats, bananas will grow from apple seeds, or that any such single-step saltational leaps will occur. Since evolution is not concerned with the origin of the cosmos, the origin of the Earth or the origin of life, but only the subsequent diversification of life once it already existed, any answer relating to the former three categories would also be irrelevant. If you are a creationist and feel you can answer this challenge, e-mail me and I will reply to your answer and post it on a webpage linked to this one. If you are a creationist and feel you cannot answer this challenge, again, I invite you to consider why not. There are some creationists, I am aware, whose belief in creation is a matter of faith not dependent on empirical evidence. With those, I have no quarrel. But the creationists who insist that their belief system is scientific, is supported by the evidence, is deserving of being taught in public schools - such people have no excuse if they cannot answer these questions in an honest and straightforward manner. Being able to answer questions like these is a minimal qualification for any hypothesis that would claim the mantle of science. I have found that, for all their rhetoric, creationists simply cannot answer these simple, fundamental questions, and this is just one further proof that creationism, while it may be acceptable as religion, is not and can never be science. Footnotes  To use a hypothesis to derive statements about reality and see if those statements correspond to already known facts is frequently called retrodiction. For example, for a long time it was known that there was a slight deviation in the orbit of Mercury that could not be explained by standard Newtonian gravitational physics. After Albert Einstein wrote down his equations of general relativity, which were slightly different from Newton's, he used them to retrodict what the deviation in Mercury's orbit should be. The result, by his own admission, gave him heart palpitations - the deviation that his equations predicted was identical to the deviation observed to exist. Had the two not matched, general relativity would have been falsified.  Again, general relativity provides an example. After Einstein's successful retrodiction of the deviation in Mercury's orbit, he used his equations to predict that light from distant stars should be bent slightly by the gravity of our sun or other massive objects, causing the apparent position of those distant stars to change slightly. No such phenomenon was known at the time, but subsequent searches discovered that it did occur. Had this phenomenon not been observed to occur where general relativity predicted it would occur, general relativity would have been falsified.  Continuing the example, if Einstein was correct, we would never expect to observe an object with positive rest mass traveling at a velocity greater than the vacuum speed of light. Special relativity predicts that this is impossible, and if such an object is ever discovered, we will be forced to discard that theory.