Sunday Meditations: Misconceptions About Evolution

This is probably less of a Sunday Meditation and more of a “this keeps coming up and I actually wanted to write about it on Tuesday, but I waited until Sunday” kind of thing.

A week ago, I participated in a discussion over coffee with other Christians about the creation accounts in Genesis and the theory of evolution and other theories and hypotheses that typically go along with it.  All views that I’m aware of were represented among the five of us.

Something that struck me this time around, though, was not so much the various points people were making about who was right – I’ve heard and said most of these, and you probably have, too.  What struck me were some of the misconceptions that some of the participants had about evolution and how that shaped the discussion.  It appears some of these are actually very common, and I thought it was worth pointing out a few.

Macroevolution is not a Thing

In the discussion, someone literally said, “There’s more than one theory of evolution.  There’s macro and micro evolution, so there’s two right there.”

There is no theory of macroevolution as distinct from microevolution.  It’s all microevolution.  In other words, the theory of evolution only ever posits tiny, incremental changes that in and of themselves do not radically shift a creature into a brand new type of creature.

This division is generally posited by creationists who are trying to fence off the phenomenon of tiny, incremental changes in creatures – which we readily observe – from the idea that this could account for all the diversity of life that we see, today.  But evolution does not posit a different “level” or mechanism.  It’s all tiny changes.  In other words, all evolution is microevolution, by those definitions.

The question is really more about time than mechanism.  If the Earth is a few billion years old, then these tiny, incremental changes add up.  Some of the creatures with the changes survive, some don’t.  Some without the changes survive, some don’t.  Parallel branches exist while other branches die out altogether.  Traits get handed down in different rates and in different combinations, and those eventually develop more incremental changes.  If this process happens over a staggeringly huge amount of time, you will by necessity end up with a wide diversity of end products.

By contrast, if the Earth is six to ten thousand years old, there’s no way those tiny, incremental changes could produce the diversity of life we now observe.

So, if you believe that organisms will develop small mutations over time that allow them to survive in changing environments – a phenomenon we have observed in a laboratory – then you believe in the theory of evolution.  There is no “macro” version of the theory.  It’s all a matter of how much time you believe that mechanism has been in operation.

Proponents of Evolution Don’t Automatically Dismiss Creationism as Unscientific Because It Posits a God

The reason creationism (or Intelligent Design, for that matter) isn’t science is not because it posits a God, and scientists don’t believe in God, so they arbitrarily declare the belief as non-scientific.

The reason creationism is not scientific is because it doesn’t offer testable, falsifiable hypotheses.

In order for science to be science, it can’t just offer a possible explanation of natural phenomena; it has to present testable, verifiable hypotheses that can be accepted or rejected based on the results of the tests.  You have to be able to say, “If X is true, then we should be able to look for Y and find it.”

For example, if evolution is true, then we should be able to observe mutation happening in the world around us.  If evolution is true, then we should expect to be able to engineer an environment and observe an organism adapting to it biologically.  If evolution is true, then we should expect to find that life has been developing on earth for a staggeringly long period of time.  If evolution is true, then we should expect to find fossils of creatures at varying levels of complexity more or less chronologically distributed through geological strata.  And so on and so on.

You might argue whether or not the data supports the hypotheses, but what you can’t argue with is that the hypotheses are testable and falsifiable.  Even if you think every last one of those hypotheses is unsupported by the actual data, you can see how we are using the scientific method to pursue them.

By contrast, creationism (and ID) is not science because it does not offer anything we can test against observable data.  That in and of itself does not mean it can’t be true; it does mean that it isn’t science.

If creationists could say, “My theory is that the God depicted in Genesis created all life on planet Earth in a special, supernatural act of creation where the animals were formed by divine fiat.  If this is true, we should find the Hebrew letters for YHWH encoded in DNA.”  That would be a testable, falsifiable hypothesis (it’s false, btw), and then would be subject to the scientific method.

But there aren’t any testable hypotheses for that doctrine that are being offered to scientists that I’m aware of.  And that’s what makes it not science.  It’s not because a God is involved; it’s because there aren’t any testable hypotheses around it.

It is because of this that creationism or Intelligent Design is not science.  In my opinion, this means neither should be taught in science classes – in public or religious schools.  It is a faith commitment.  It doesn’t make it false; it just means it isn’t science no matter how you dress it up.

Evolution is not a Theory in Crisis or a Controversial Theory in the Scientific Community

There are scientists who reject the theory of evolution.  They are very few and far between.

For instance, the Discovery Institute put up a petition for scientists to sign who upheld Intelligent Design.  In four years, they received around 700 signatures with almost no earth-life scientists on the list.  In response, the National Center for Science Education put up a petition for scientists named Steve who supported evolution (called “Project Steve”).  They surpassed 700 signatures in three years and, to date, have about 1400 signatures mostly comprised of prominent earth and life scientists.  Just to recap, there are twice as many scientists named Steve who support evolution as there are the totality of scientists the Discovery Institute managed to round up.

The debates within the scientific community over evolution are not about whether or not life as we know it evolved into its present form; the debates are things like the origin of the process and the role various factors play.  For example, most scientists believe natural selection is the mechanism that drove the direction of the development of life, while other scientists debate natural selection as a primary role and look at other factors like synergies with other forms of life.  And of course, there are several different ideas on how this whole thing got kicked off to begin with.

But virtually nobody in the scientific community is arguing that life as we know it, today, is not the product of evolutionary changes that happened over a huge amount of time.

A Naturalistic Explanation for How Life Evolves Does not Rule Out God

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:44-45 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

There are probably few, if any, Christians today who would argue that the rain is a supernatural act of God’s power.

The Bible talks about God sending the rain, creating the rain, withholding the rain, etc.  And yet, we also observe that rain is caused by the water cycle.  Water evaporates from the earth, collects and condenses in the air, and when this reaches a certain saturation point, the water returns to the earth as rain.  It is observable, repeatable, and everyone knows this is where rain comes from.

And yet, many Christians have somehow figured out a way to acknowledge the water cycle without becoming raving atheists.

How do we do this?  Well, some Christians believe God is responsible for creating the mechanism, and it pretty much runs itself.  Some believe that, in some sense of fundamental reality, the rain exists and is sustained by the will of God.  Some believe that God’s plan and purposes are behind the rain even if they play no role in directly making the rain to happen.  Some believe some combination of those things or other things altogether.  But what you don’t see are Christians up in arms about the water cycle.  The Bible says that God sends the rain.  We know rain comes from the water cycle.  Everyone is totally cool with this.  No one has ever said that the Bible is a pack of dumb lies because water evaporates and condenses.

And yet, this seems to be the inevitable horns of the dilemma that gets brought up in these discussions.  If we evolved, then the Bible isn’t true.  If we evolved, then God didn’t create us.  If we evolved, then God doesn’t exist.

Now, someone may come to these conclusions.  Certainly, an evolutionary view of life does not require a God, and if the only reason someone ever believed in God was because He was the most likely explanation for the development of life on Earth, then I could see someone ditching the whole thing because He is no longer strictly necessary.

But it is not a necessary move.  The Bible is not a treatise on how the natural world works or used to work.  It tells us about a being and His people and their lives together over a long period of time.  It gives us theological commentary on events.  It prods us to see into a world -behind- our world that is not readily available for falsifiable, empirical testing.  Behind our natural world which is fully accessible to science, the Bible offers us a dimension of reality that is apprehended by faith (or discarded due to a lack thereof).

We have long since come to terms with this for many of the other propositions in the Bible.  My guess is that this will happen, eventually, for evolution as well.