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Reply to a Creationist

Post of the Month: June 2005


Subject:    Re: Op-Ed:  Charles Darwin Meets His Maker
Date:       13 June 2005

"Jason Spaceman" wrote in message
> From the article:
> ------------------------------------------------------
> Jeff Lukens
> It's amusing to see the variety of fish symbols found on people's
> cars. Some are plain, some have "Jesus" in them, some have "truth" in
> them, and some have "Darwin" in them with little feet on the fish.
> Some have the "truth" fish eating the "Darwin" fish. It seems we
> cannot escape this great controversy, even in traffic.
> Either a Creator made life long ago, or lifeless minerals somehow
> turned into all life forms we see today. That's it in a nutshell. To
> find answers on which is true, we can only rely on the evidence
> available.

It's hard to decide whether this is a strawman (turning monkeys, or even archaic prokaryotes, into people is not the same thing as turning lifeless chemicals into people), or a confusion of abiogenesis and evolution. Of course, since creationism sees the opening chapters of Genesis as explanations for the origin of life, the origin of species, the origin of complex adaptions, and the origin (and nature) of morality, I suppose it's natural that creationists don't distinguish among these topics.

> Charles Darwin's theories on "On the Origin of Species by Natural
> Selection," published in 1859, caused an intellectual upheaval that
> questioned assumptions about where humanity came from and where it is
> going. The upheaval continues to this day.
> Both creationists and Darwinists acknowledge what we call
> Microevolution, or the variation within species. That means a species
> will adapt and acclimatize to its surroundings while not changing into
> a different species over many generations.
> Darwinists also say that species can change into new species over
> time. This is called Macroevolution, and from a scientific standpoint,
> it is a bit of a stretch.
> So, when does a protozoan change into other protozoan, or let's say, a
> tadpole? And when does that tadpole become a rodent, and that rodent
> becomes a monkey, and that monkey becomes a human? Doesn't even a
> basic life form have a beginning, or have been created, somewhere?
> Science is about the search for truth, and it is supposed to take us
> where the evidence leads. Darwin assumed in time evidence would be
> found to support his theory. Nearly 150 years later, it has not
> happened. The Missing Link is still out there. Extensive fossil
> searches have turned up scant evidence that species evolve into new
> species.
> Furthermore, evolution theory is neither observable nor testable. And
> some scientists are beginning to doubt that Darwin's theory can fully
> account for the great variety of life on this planet.
> Yet biology aside, the seeds of what is called "Social Darwinism" have
> been sown. The logical consequence to humanity if Darwin's theories
> are true are that the healthy and strong are more worthy of survival
> than the sickly and weak. We see this attitude already played out in
> many areas of society today.
> The "survival of the fittest" mindset has lead to much cruelty toward
> people. Carried to its logical conclusion, it ultimately leads to a
> "scientific racism," that says some races are less evolved than
> others.
> ---------------------------------------------------------------
> Read it at

I sent, probably to no discernable purpose, the following missive in reply:

Jeff Lukens, in his June 13th article on evolution and creation makes a number of errors, from the religious views of Albert Einstein to those of "Intelligent Design" proponents, to, of course, the contents, implications of, and evidence for the theory of evolution. It's impossible to deal with them in detail in a response of manageable size, so this is going to be a quite cursory reply.

It's difficult to know what he means by "species" when he denies evidence that "macroevolution" has occurred. It is true that in common usage of biologists, "macroevolution" means the transformation of one species into another. By the understanding of "species" that has prevailed among biologists since Linnaeus in the 18th century, the evolution of one species into another has been observed in the laboratory (and in the London subway, where a new species of mosquito has emerged in the last 100 years). There are also fossil sequences (Stephen J. Gould -- widely quoted on the paucity of interspecies transitional fossils -- described the gradual evolution of one species of the snail genus Cerion into another as shown in fossils he discovered) showing speciation, but I suspect in all these cases Lukens would say "but they're still mosquitos, or fruit flies, or snails."

I suspect that by "macroevolution" or "change into new species" he means not changes like those from, say, a brown bear to a polar bear (unobserved, but strongly supported by genetic evidence that shows polar bears are more closely related to some brown bears than other brown bears are), but a change from, say, a theropod dinosaur to a modern bird, or, more particularly, from an ape to a modern human. The fossil evidence for these changes is better than Lukens would apparently care to believe, whether in the form of feathered dinosaur fossils (showing gradual stages in the evolution of feathers and wings), to fossil skulls that straddle any boundary one might wish to set between the human and "ape kinds" (and indeed creationists cannot agree among themselves whether well-preserved specimens like ER1470 (Homo rudolfensis) are "fully ape" or "fully human."

But note that the principle evidence for evolution, whether in Darwin's day or ours, is not fossils, but the relationships among living species. One of the problems Darwin sought to solve was the nested hierarchy of life noted by Carolus Linnaeaus: the arrangement of species in genera united by many traits shared by only members of that genus, in orders united by a somewhat smaller number of unique shared traits, in classes united by their own suite of traits common to members of the class and not found elsewhere, and so on. For example, all animals with mammary glands also have (although this hardly seems a logically necessary corollary of mammary glands) a single bone in the lower jaw, three bones in the middle ear, and a single (left) aortic arch.

There are no birds with mammary glands (or with a left rather than right aortic arch). There are no bats with feathers; they all make do with the general mammalian architecture, including fur. This is an odd feature if species, or "kinds," are separately designed for their particular roles, but is a typical pattern for groups of entities resulting from common descent with modification. Families of documents hand-copied from a common original fall into consistent nested hierarchies, as do families of languages, but designed artifacts do not. This same nested hierarchy is reflected in genetic and biochemical traits. Humans share pseudogenes (nonfunctional "crippled copies" of functional genes) with chimpanzees and other primates, with those in chimps more similar to those in macaques, but all disabled in the same way.

Lukens may even mean, by "changing species" the change from the "species" that is unliving matter to life itself; he speaks of the theory as the idea that "lifeless minerals changed into all the life forms we see today." Actually, the origin of life (as opposed to changes in life that already exists) is not the subject of the theory of evolution; Darwin considered the problem, in his day, impossible to address, and was willing to allow for the possibility that the original forms of life were specially created. Modern abiogenesis researchers (biochemists rather than evolutionary biologists) search for ways that RNA and proteins could have spontaneously self-assembled and given rise to more complex life, but the theory of evolution does not require the success of any particular theory of how life came to be, any more than a history of the Second World War depends on knowing how the Germans came to occupy Bavaria back in the Dark Ages.

Lukens is wrong in implying that evolutionary theory implies "Social Darwinism" of any sort. The theory deals with what has, or does, happen, not with what ought to happen; it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Arguing that the survival and reproduction of randomly varying offspring is not itself random is no more an argument for oppression of the weak by the strong or for the superiority of one "race" to another, than the law of gravity is an argument for pushing people off rooftops. Natural selection has no goals towards which we can strive and no preferences towards which we can shape social policies. We can change the selective regimes in force from one to another, but evolutionary theory gives us no reason to prefer one selective regime to another (and note that eugenics programs or ethnic purges are artificial, not natural selection, reflecting a certain lack of confidence in purely "Darwinian" mechanisms on the part of social engineers).

Indeed, racism is doubly contrary to evolutionary theory.

First, the theory deals in "fitness," which is specific to a particular environment; what is fitter or "superior" in one environment may be less fit or "inferior" in another. There are no traits that are universally "better," and certainly mere strength is not an exception. Note that "more evolved" means simply more changed from a common ancestor; it may imply "fitter" for some particular niche (though not all evolution is adaptation), but not necessarily "smarter" or "stronger," much less "more worthy." One species or "race" may be more evolved in one respect, while another is more evolved in another respect (rattlesnakes are more evolved in humans in having no limbs, hollow poison fangs, and other snaky features, while humans are more evolved in having warm blood, large brains, and other mammalian features).

Second, populations vary among themselves; this variation is what natural selection must work with. Darwin himself noted that there is no trait on which one could rest a claim of "racial superiority" which was possessed by all members of one race and no members of another. Later evolutionists, however much they may have shared their society's assumption (also shared, often in stronger form, by their creationist contemporaries) that, on average, whites were smarter than members of other races, invariably noted that of course there were (as the theory demanded) many individual exceptions. Note that the theory itself does not require that races exist (and modern evolutionists mostly doubt that true races exist among humans) or that any particular differences exist in average group abilities.

To the best of my knowledge, Hitler did not consider "Aryans" to be "more evolved" than other groups. Certainly he did not consider them smarter; his claim to Aryan superiority rested on his assumption that they were more willing to subordinate themselves to the purposes of the race. Nazi school texts presented natural selection in highly colored terms, as a mechanism for preserving the integrity and purity of species and races, but did not discuss it as a mechanism for changing one species into another, or even one race into another. If the Table Talk can be trusted, Hitler was not even sure that natural processes could account for human origins.

Note that most of the people publically connected with the Intelligent Design movement do not assert that living things had to be created just as we see them now. Some, like Michael Behe, have publicly stated that they do not disagree with common descent, or even with natural selection as a mechanism for some (but not all) adaptations. Others, like Jonathan Wells, seem to concede some sort of evolutionary history to life, but are cagey about how much evolution (and Wells seems to deny common descent, preferring a sort of directly guided evolution as in the early theories of Lamarck). They try to stuff a vacuous "Designer" into gaps in current scientific explanations, while offering no account of how this Designer is supposed to operate, or when and where He has intervened in the history of life, or how one would distinguish between the effects of a Designer of unknown and unguessable motives and the actions of unknown or poorly understood natural causes.

This utter vacuity makes ID impossible to test; the "evidence" for design consists entirely of supposed problems for evolutionary theory (as has been noted, ID "theory" seems to amount to "somewhere, somehow, something or other is wrong with evolution"). Evolution, on the other hand, is quite testable. The consistency of the nested hierarchy is a continually available test for common descent. Pseudogenes shared between humans and dogs but not between humans and monkeys would be quite a problem for evolutionary theory, to take one minor example. The mechanisms of natural selection are testable: if it turned out (as creationists sometimes seem to suggest) that survival of offspring is random with respect to inheritable variations, that would show that natural selection could not work at all, or if, in fact, beneficial mutations never occurred (e.g. no genes for antibiotic resistance appeared in nonresistant strains of bacteria -- but they do), this would disprove the mechanism.

Regarding Lukens's closing remarks, Einstein denied belief in a personal God; the Creator he acknowledged was a personification of the laws of nature rather than an artificer of individual species or a judge of the quick and the dead. Michaelangelo was not a scientist. Galileo and Newton both opposed the religious establishments of their time, emphasizing the primacy of observations and the theories that explained them over dogma that read scripture as a science text. And, for that matter, several prominent evolutionary theorists today are Christians, and no more see evolution by natural causes as contrary to believe in a Creator than Galileo or Newton saw belief in a heliocentric solar system governed by natural law.

Lukens closes by arguing that it is easier to believe in creationism rather than in evolution, but I am not sure this is true. As Thomas Huxley once argued, it is easy to say that one can imagine creation, but can you picture in your mind the actual creation of a new species? What would one see, if one saw Adam (or australopiths) being formed from the dust of the earth? Do dolphins just materialize in water as though "beamed down," or in what way do they form? One can readily picture a breeding population giving birth to a host of variant offspring, with some being a bit better adapted to their environment than others, and small changes gradually being added one to another. One can also better imagine ways to test this account of origins against the evidence, than ways to test special creation when one has no idea how special creation would even work in practice.

--Steven J.

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