Humanist Perspectives: issue 154: Ten Things to Remember About Evolution and Creationism

Ten Things to Remember
about Evolution & Creationism
by Kelly Graves

Sometimes, you can lose sight of simple, evident truths. But no matter what school boards might say or the amount of attention the media give to creationist beliefs, some things are important to remember.

1 Remember what the two sides want. Creationists — even in the guise of intelligent design, even when they use scientific language — want to prove that a supernatural deity is behind all of existence.

Evolutionists want to use rigorous logical methods to generate theories that fit facts. Most will do this even if their personal opinions have to change.

If a creationist were to offer irrefutable scientific proof that a Judeo-Christian anthropomorphic personification were the only mechanism for species change, evolutionists would have to change their theories to accommodate this proof. (This would have to be a whopper of a proof!)

If an evolutionist were to offer irrefutable proof that life is an unavoidable and expected consequence of the nature of physical reality, and proof that life requires neither intervention nor design, most creationists would still believe in creation. (Many would argue this is the case today.)

2 Creationism is in retreat. Every week, new scientific discoveries are published in peer-reviewed journals. These discoveries reinforce or refine the theory of evolution and negate the idea of created life. This has been the case for five generations.

Remember that the amount of media attention an idea gets is not a measure of its validity. Keep your eye on the real debate, not the ratings-driven coverage in the popular media.

In this debate, creationists will point to some hard-to-explain biological fact as the ‘final proof’ that a deity is necessary because no imaginable mechanism could cause such a complex feature. But, inevitably, the feature is explained by evolution. So creationists step back, point to some smaller, less-obvious, more-complex feature as being the real final proof.

Then the process repeats itself. This has been the case for five generations.

3 Intelligent design is a public relations campaign. ID is not a scientific theory. It’s a religious movement with good press.

It did not start as an honest attempt to explain the unexplainable.

It did not start as a scientific movement.

It started when people who believed in the supernatural needed to defend their beliefs.

It is a retrenchment position in defense of an ancient superstition, and it operates by appealing to uncertainty and to culturally-induced elements of superstition in all of us.

4 Intelligent design avoids peer review. Creationists generally do not put forth their claims for scientific peer review. They can’t: the idea of divine creation is not promoted by a single mainstream scientific group.

Tens of thousands of scientists believe evolution is the best explanation for life. Only a tiny handful of scientists believe intelligent design is a viable notion, but (with the help of other superstitious people) they make a lot of noise.

Individual scientists (some of of high repute) may support intelligent design, but they are few in number, and sacrifice the esteem of their peers when they do so.

Similarly, a few individual scientists (some of high repute) believe in anti-gravity devices, time machines, perpetual motion, yogic levitation and similar things. Revealingly, these individuals also avoid peer review on these topics.

When you see respected figures who endorse creation, remember that the real lesson is about personal opinions, and how they can be expected to vary statistically within a large population. Just as some person somewhere always wins the lottery, some scientist somewhere supports every invalid idea.

5 If life was designed, an idiot did it. This is, of course, an exaggeration, but it serves to make a point: for every example of what looks like beautiful design, you can find dozens more examples of very poor design.

The human eyeball is an engineering mess. Heart attacks and cancer exist because they occur principally after we have passed on our genes and so these problems are not selected out. Yet these and countless other inefficiencies could be easily eliminated by a moderately-intelligent designer. The designer didn’t eliminate them, so either the designer has unknowable motives, or the designer doesn’t exist.

If the designer has unknowable motives, then you can’t use designer motives to argue for the designer’s existence (see number 6).

This should not diminish our wonder at the marvel of life, but rather increase it. Survival is the imperative, and species will find their ways to it through astonishing paths.

6 Creationism is not falsifiable. Evolutionary theory is. Although proponents of creation certainly offer scientific-sounding predictions, these predictions ultimately reveal a misunderstanding of the scientific method and of what falisfiability is. And, almost universally, the predictions are based on a-priori assumptions about what a designer ‘would do’ (see number 7). This is the event horizon of a black hole of anthropocentrism that admits all kinds of specious arguments (for only one example, see number 8).

Some student creationists argue that industrial-design principles are found in nature, thereby proving that evolution is invalid. Among their other failings, they confuse falseness with falsifiability.

The root of falsifiability is the statement: “If X is true, then my theory is proven wrong.”

Creationists can not make this statement. They can never admit their creator does not exist. When X is true, creationists must retreat to Y, or to Z, or to anything that prevents them from admitting that no creator is necessary. They do not have a falsifiable theory: they have ‘faith’.

7 Debates within evolution do not invalidate evolution. Yes, evolutionary scientists often argue. But that very argument is the engine that drives the development of understanding. Without informed debate, progress would stop — not just in biology, but in every field of human endeavor. So just because Richard Dawkins takes the occasional swipe at the ideas of Stephen Jay Gould doesn’t mean the theory of evolution falls apart.

Scientists embrace the arguments, and are never happier than when contradictions arise in a theory, because they know truth lurks behind the contradictions.

Can some new idea invalidate evolution? Yes, of course. It’s only a theory.

But as theories go, it’s a persistent one. Five generations of scientists have contributed to it, developed it, and refined it. Their results have been checked again and again and again.

Something could knock evolution off its hard-won perch, but it would have to be big, radical, well-documented … something truly revolutionary.

8 If life has been created, we have a big problem. Creationists maintain that inexplicable complexity can invalidate a theory.

But a god — who by definition must be infinite in every attribute — would be not only irreducibly complex, but inexplicably complex. A god would be far more complex than an eyeball or a mechanism for clotting blood.

Creationism doesn’t explain complexity. It just pushes it out to where we don’t have to worry about it.

But creationism creates all kinds of other problems. Where is this god? Where did it come from? If the universe is finite, how can it contain an infinite being? If the being is outside the universe, then where is it? Do other infinite beings exist?

A little organic complexity is much easier to explain than an infinitely complex extra-universal entity.

9 Creationism avoids the issue of mechanism. If evolution holds, we know roughly how it works. The mechanisms by which life arises are inherent in the theory.

If creationism holds, we still don’t know how anything happened, except that we can say, “Some god did it”. (Let’s not even go close to the question of whose god this might be.) You can’t cheat by disallowing the mechanisms of evolutionary theory, only to give the steering wheel of those mechanisms over to some unseen entity. Either those mechanisms work or they don’t.

Concede for a moment that a creator exists. Point to any complex biological feature, and ask how it came into existence. If it did not arise through natural pressures on slowly-changing populations (which are obviously insufficient to cause change), then how did it come about? Did mammary glands just pop onto the torsos of the first female mammals? For that matter, did the mammal itself just pop into existence? Did some old being sit down with clay, make a man, and breathe life into it?

You can see how rapidly this gets ridiculous. Once you stipulate design, you must stipulate a mechanism to effect that design, even if that mechanism is spontaneous appearance through mystic intervention.

Where is this mechanism?

10 Remember you can’t have both worlds. What biological features of species are complex enough to warrant design?

If one feature in a species has been designed, then why not a slightly-less-complex feature? And an even slightly-less-complex feature? This is almost proof by induction: if one very complex feature has been designed, it follows that all features must have been, no matter how simple.

(Just a slightly hyperbolic aside: you have to wonder where it would stop. If differences between species must be designed, then so too must differences between individuals. One could as well argue that god has gone to the trouble of giving you lots of hair, while your wife’s former high-school boyfriend is now bald by divine design. I don’t know how many people believe this sort of thing, but I do know quite a few of them personally. Some of them I don’t know run countries.)

Directed change would mean all observations that point towards gradual biological change are false. It would mean that the hand of god is the only means by which change could take place. See number 9.

Above all, remember this …

Creationism is a truly exceptional claim, staggering in its import. It cannot be proven by someone who says, ‘I see something I don’t understand, therefore an infinite being must exist.’ That only demonstrates the limitations of human understanding.

In fact, creationists should be able to offer stupendous, irrefutable proofs.

They can’t.

Kelly Graves is a computer programmer with a dual background in physics and the liberal arts. He telecommutes from Salt Spring Island, where the diversity of belief is staggering and humanists are scarce.

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