How NOT To Defend Evolution; With Friends Like These Who Needs Enemies?

File:Tree of life SVG.svg Evolution is fact as well as theory. There is no scientific controversy about this. It has advanced way beyond what Darwin could have imagined, and well-meaning commentators who forget this risk doing more harm than good.  (And come to think of it, have I too misframed the problem by using the word “defend”, as if there were something that could sensibly be attacked?)

On Friday, the Forbes Magazine website carried an article entitled Creationism Has No Place In A Science Class. While sincerely intended as a defence of evolution, this article is so laden with rhetorical, logical, historical, and scientific errors that it plays straight into the hands of the creationists. If anyone were to defend atomic theory in the same way that this article defends evolution, the absurdities would be obvious. It is a sad comment on the extent to which we have allowed the enemies of reason to dictate the agenda, that articles like this continue to see the light of day.

To begin at the beginning:

 More than 150 years since Darwin published his Theory of Evolution, it still has the capacity to stir controversy.

 Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. Evolution happened, and continues to happen, and that is fact, not theory. We have theories of how it happens, and all or nearly all of these rely on Darwin’s seminal insights, but we also have direct information that Darwin could not even have dreamed of. It is not evolution itself that stirs controversy, but the nonscientific opposition to it, based entirely on religious obscurantism. And while the article does not define creationism, the only kind of creationism that pretends to a place in the science classroom is the late 20th century absurdity of “creation science,” and its pretentious relative, “Intelligent Design.”

The author goes on to describe a UK academic study of attitudes towards evolution as a “contribution to the debate.” The study’s authors would be horrified, since they themselves take the truth of evolution for granted. The debate to which they are contributing is not about whether we should teach creationism. On the very contrary, it is about how to teach evolution to students who are drawn to creationism for reasons that had nothing to do with science.

The article tells how the Christian Schools Trust claim to teach creationism “in a balanced way.” A little digging would have shown that the Trust has a policy, publicly available through its founder’s Ph.D. dissertation, of teaching evolution in such a way that it will not be believed (I have commented on this dissertation before; see here).

The final paragraph reads:

Critics of evolution claim that it is just a theory for which there is no proof. It is true there is no definitive proof, and nor is there likely to be, but there is a vast amount of evidence in its favour. Whether you choose to believe it is sufficient is up to you, but it is there. By contrast, there is no scientific evidence for creationism. It may be true, but it is a matter of belief and its proper place in schools is in religious studies class. Creationism is not science, and has no place in a science class.

This is even worse than the beginning. Science does not do proof, in the sense of mathematical certainty, but it can and does do proof beyond all reasonable doubt, and that we have for evolution. Consider the fossil record, vestigial organs, frozen in bad design, meticulously detailed anatomical homologies, DNA evolutionary trees that match those based on comparative anatomy, evolution in the laboratory, in nature and under our direction in the farmyard, and the way in which different species are distributed. Any one of these (and there are more) would be enough to convince, were it not for religiously motivated opposition. If this evidence is not sufficiently definitive, I can only wonder what definitive evidence could possibly look like.

And I do not understand the claim that creationism “may be true.” Philosophical creationism, the idea that a god or gods created and guide the universe as a whole, is indeed a belief worth examining in the religious studies class. Creationism as opposed to evolution is something quite different. It is the belief that different kinds of living things owe their existence to separate miraculous acts of creation. Not only is this contrary to the evidence, but it reduces God to the level of an incompetent trickster who needs to keep on cheating. In itself, deserves no more respect than any other intellectual pathology, and the only debate is about how to reach those misled by it.

Image: Phylogenetic tree of life, by Ivica Letunic after iTOL through Wikimedia commons. Vertebrates to left of top centre.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on February 22, 2014, in Charles Darwin, Education, Philosophy, Religion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. In the spirit of your blog post’s appeal for high-quality arguments, I am compelled to point out that you make a bad argument yourself: “evolution … in nature and under our direction in the farmyard”. Everyone, creationists and evolutionists alike, agrees that natural selection occurs. Natural selection is a valid example of evolution-at-work only if evolution in fact occurs — which is the point you are trying to make. So while natural selection is not a good example of evolution, offering natural selection as evidence for evolution is a great example of circular reasoning.

    For some reason, many who read this may conclude I’m one of those creationists. I’m not, neither am I an agent provocateur. My personal position is a little harder to define. Like you, I sigh, or grit my teeth as the case may be, whenever I see poor-quality arguments, or, as is often the case on this subject, people largely talking past each other. I believe the scientific evidence supports evolution of living populations, but I am not aware of any scientific evidence that supports the proposition that life can evolve from non-living substances. That idea would seem to be ridiculous to anyone with a knowledge of chemistry. Even the hailed Miller–Urey experiments validate the basic fact that the reaction rates for formation of so-called “precursor-of-life” compounds are orders of magnitude smaller than the reaction rates for their destruction. So, to close the loop on my comment, I would like to see higher-quality discussions on the origin of life than uncritically citing Oparin or Miller, or making the characteristically materialistic observation that “well, life obviously exists, so it obviously had to come from non-life”.

    Thanks and best wishes…

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    • Ungrit your teeth, my friend. Urey-Miller does not explain the origins of life, although it does demystify the origin of its simplest building blocks; those who still say otherwise need educating, and I have blogged on this. The origin of life is an unsolved problem, despite much interesting recent work (see e.g. here, co-authored by a Nobel prize chemist). But this in no way invalidates evolution science. Before the 1950s, we did not know the origin of heavy atoms, but that did not invalidate chemistry. And much natural selection is conservative rather than innovative, since many mutations are harmful.

      But we know that selection can be innovative, and evolution is defined as change in populations over time, which certainly happens. So I don’t see how we actually disagree.

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  2. In his thread on this topic on the British Centre for Science Education community forum Brian Jordan has also flagged this article by Pam Hanley, one of the York University researchers who wrote the paper flagged by Nick Morrison (whose background seems to be education rather than science and who is writing in a magazine targeted at US business people):
    http://theconversation.com/can-schools-find-way-through-creationism-meets-science-minefield-in-the-classroom-22807

    Brian is also I gather reading through a 2012 PhD thesis by Pam Hanley entitled ‘The inter-relationship of Science and Religious Education in a cultural context: Teaching the origin of life’.

    I note that this is NOT the 2013 paper flagged by Mr Morrison – which is by Hanley and two other York University academics and which is entitled: ‘The Inter-relationship of Science and Religion: A typology of engagement’ (full access is restricted).

    This is the BCSE thread – where I’m about to flag this blog:
    http://forums.bcseweb.org.uk/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=3449

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