evolution of man

Ten Misconceptions About Evolution

150 years have passed since Charles Darwin first proposed his theory of evolution by Natural Selection in his legendary work, The Origin of Species. Today in America there are Christians, creationists, apologists, and preachers who are diligently striving to have evolution removed from classrooms, motivated by religious ideology and fueled by gross misunderstandings of the theory and of science in general. A poll conducted from 2005-2007 found that more Americans believe in the existence of a literal hell and a literal devil (62%) than believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution (42%).1 The problem is that evolution is as crucial to biology as the principle of relativity is to physics.

I sincerely wish I had no need to refute these objections, because all of them bear witness to some astounding ignorance of science or evolution at one level or another. They could easily be eliminated if creationists would sincerely study up more on evolutionary theory or if they would speak in earnest with biologists. Sadly, however, some of these individuals have been corrected time and time again, yet will persist in spreading untruths and believing in their misconceptions. I will encourage all of you who read this, do not merely accept my word as the truth – do further research, not through creation ‘science’ websites, but through actual science textbooks, scientific journals, and other peer-reviewed information resources.

These ten misconceptions will not be sourced, but you need not view a website or read a book to encounter them. They are quite easy to find among the general populace, at the high school level, the college level, and even at the professional adult level. As the poll mentioned, 58% of America does not believe in evolution, so all you have to do is gather a small crowd and ask around. The odds are unfortunately high that one person in that crowd will voice at least one of these common misconceptions. This resource is here for you to know how to answer them, and it is for those who seek to inform themselves as well.

I. Evolution is just a theory, not a fact.

Were we handing out medals for the most frequent objections to evolution, this frustrating misunderstanding would probably get the gold. Evolution is indeed a theory, but those who point this out as if it’s a weakness also expose their lack of attention to their science classes in school. We who stayed awake will remember that a scientific theory goes through a process of observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation, and conclusion. This is the scientific method and it is not often referenced by creationists because of how detrimental it is when applied to their own ideas of special creation or intelligent design. A theory is not a guess, as the term is used colloquially today. It involves lots of evidence, testing, repeated testing, and it eventually has to be submitted for peer review. A proposition must pass the scrutiny of other leading experts in the field before it will be recognized as legitimate science. If a biological theory conflicts with other biological theories or conflicts with elements of geology, physics, cosmology, or other disciplines, the theory in question will face massive critical study and a high probability of revision or perhaps even rejection. If evolution is as unsound as creationists claim, is the entire scientific community also in on the deception?

So evolution has support and evidence for it, then why do they still call it theory and not fact? There is no hierarchy of truths in science. An idea does not graduate from theory to law or to fact, for example. A theory in science is a unifying explanation of facts. It may be considered just as valid as fact or law. In addition to evolution, there are many other scientific theories such as germ theory, cell theory, gravity, and so on. These all explain multiple facets of our universe and its properties, and while we can’t be 100% absolutely sure that these explanations really are the most accurate explanations of these facts, we can have a high degree of assurance – even about 99.9% in some instances – based on tons of evidence, observation, experimentation, etc. If evolution deserves to be doubted or downplayed simply because it is a theory and not a fact, then we may as well throw out practically all the explanations of science.

II. If we evolved from monkeys, why do monkeys still exist?

Actually, evolution does not claim that humans evolved from monkeys, but that we share a common ancestor with them. Think of modern chimpanzees as our distant cousins. We did not evolve from chimps, but we both (humans and chimps) came from one ancestor in the past. This should be rather intuitive, since evolution between two currently existing species would be a contradiction. Creationists like to look for anything they can perceive as a hole in evolution, although usually that hole is due to their own misunderstanding and not a fault in evolution itself.

III. Something cannot come from nothing, so evolution is false.

Frequently anti-evolution Christians confuse the concept of abiogenesis with that of evolution. Abiogenesis is the study of how life might have come from non-living matter, while evolution is the study of the diversity of life. If creationists wish to protest and object that abiogenesis is unproven, I will not stand in their way. It is still being researched by scientists and there is much about life’s origins and our universe’s origins that we still do not know. However, inserting God as an explanation truly explains nothing. If God is behind our origins, why not let the scientists continue their research and eventually discover it for themselves?

IV. There are no transitional fossils to support evolution.

Transitional fossils (or missing links) are evidence of evolution in action. They are examples of species evolving new traits, losing old traits, and evolving into other species. Most organisms are in transition because evolution is constantly taking place and changing life as we know it. This means that even you might be a transitional form! If humanity continues to survive and does not go extinct, then Homo sapiens sapiens will eventually evolve into a new species at a distant point down the road.

When we look at the fossil record of history, it is painfully clear that saying no transitional forms exist is just flat-out wrong. This misconception is born from ignorance, an intentional desire to mislead, or from a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the transitional nature of these organisms. The truth is that we have quite a lot of these fossils, showing fish evolving to tetrapods (Eusthenopteron, Tiktaalik), whales evolving beyond the use of their feet (Ambulocetus, Dorudon), non-human primates evolving to humans (Homo habilis, Australopithecus afarensis), and there are many more similar cases demonstrating the facts and power of evolution. Wikipedia has a decent introductory list to some of these fossils,2 and TalkOrigins.org provides a very thorough response to practically all further objections which creationists may raise to the presence of transitional forms.3

V. If evolution is true, why can’t I stretch up my arms and grow taller after several years?

Charles Darwin was not the first man to write about evolution. Fifty years before The Origin of Species, French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck suggested that organisms evolve through their own individual efforts. Darwin’s concept of Natural Selection is actually what ended up debunking and replacing Lamarck’s theory. Instead of an organism like a giraffe growing a longer neck by straining to reach the leaves on higher branches, Natural Selection explains that traits are acquired through no intervention of the giraffe itself, but occur through simple, random variations that have the result of being either advantageous or disadvantageous to the giraffe. Giraffes with necks too short to reach the food may die out from starvation or females may prefer longer necks on their mates. Either way, the giraffes with short necks are unable to pass on their genes and so they go extinct, leaving the long-necked giraffes to inherit the region.

Therefore, you can’t stretch up your arms to grow taller because Lamarck was wrong and Darwin was right. Natural Selection is not influenced by humans or animals, and it has no end goal. It operates by selecting upon random mutations in our genes. In summary, evolution is merely the change in organisms over time, Natural Selection is the mechanism that evolution operates from, and so species evolve when nature selects a random mutation to aid an organism in survival. Species that are at a disadvantage in their environment will die off, leaving the species with advantageous adaptations to thrive and prosper.

VI. A belief in evolution will lead to racism.

This heinous lie is one that has been spread by many Christians before, and it was most recently espoused by Ben Stein in his 2008 film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.4 First of all, it is absolutely worth pointing out that ‘survival of the fittest’ does not necessarily mean survival of the strongest. The phrase only literally means that an organism will have a better chance of surviving in an environment it is well-adapted to, as opposed to one that it is not well-adapted to. This plain sense observation has been distorted throughout history to fit certain agendas, of course, but it was never Darwin’s intention to slander any race or to endorse eugenics. Darwin proposed his theory as an explanation of what is, not what should be, and as philosophers have often been quick to tell us, there is no good argument to show that just because something is a certain way, that is the way it ought to be. Social Darwinism has little to do with Darwin, and is rooted more in the ideas of Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton.

Nowhere does evolutionary theory imply that one race of humans is inferior to another. On the contrary, it has suggested for quite some time that we all share a common heritage in Africa. Mutations and evolutionary advantages work through individuals, not through races. When Darwin talks of “the Preservation of Favoured Races” in the subtitle of his famous book, he means nothing racist in how we use the term “race” today, but is discussing the natural adaptation and survival of species. The idea of selectively breeding a species for desirable traits was also around long before Darwin, and artificial selection is the opposite of Natural Selection. If Darwin has inspired any racist, eugenicist, or Social Darwinist, their inspiration simply stems from their own misunderstandings of Darwin, just as many of the creationist objections to evolution stem from misunderstandings of the theory.

VII. Evolution is just a way for atheists to teach children and students that there is no God.

This may be the reasoning of the countless Christians and creationists who attack and reject the theory of evolution. Would they so viciously attempt to discredit something that is not perceived as a threat to their faith? Odds are good that whoever is telling these believers that faith and evolution do not mix is also failing to mention people like Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins, both biologists who have reconciled religion with science. The poll told us that 58% of Americans do not accept evolution, but that is not necessarily made up exclusively of Christians, and there are certainly Christians in the other 42% who do accept evolution. These are facts which the Discovery Institute, Answers in Genesis, and other creationist groups want to keep from their religious audiences. If they find out that evolution is not really anti-Christian but can even be adopted as part of a Christian perspective, then these creationist organizations will lose their opportunities to force religion back into public schools and textbooks.

It may not mean much to some of the religious believers who read this, as it is coming from an atheist, but I do have great respect for those people who are able to reconcile their faith with the facts of science. Evolution is not the faith of atheists and Darwin is not our god – we only defend the theory against misconceptions and lobbying groups who want to criticize evolution while they simultaneously try to sneak creationism into its place. If creationists and Christians were ignorantly denouncing the teaching of gravity in Physics classes or music theory in Band classes, many atheists would be opposing them on those issues as well. I would greatly appreciate it if any Christian or religious opponent of evolution would take some time to ask themselves these few questions:

What is it about evolution that threatens your faith?

Yes, the Bible says God created man and woman, but does it specify what type of man and woman they were – does it say Homo sapiens?

If God created giants that no longer exist (Numbers 14:32-33, 1 Samuel 17:4-7), might he have created protohumans that no longer exist?

A computer programmer will typically design a program in such a way that it will diagnose and improve itself when it needs to fix a problem or be updated. Just how troublesome would it be for the programmer to continually meddle with the program, when he could’ve easily opted to give it a streamlined self-correction system? Why would a god not institute a similar sort of method of automatic and efficient adaptation for his creatures? Evolution is not incompatible with faith unless you are an unflinching biblical literalist or one who cares more for tradition than truth.

VIII. There is a controversy over evolution.

In a sense, this statement is correct. The controversy in America is between the general, uninformed (and often religious) public and the scientific community, but within academic science you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees with the theory of evolution. Is this because of a massive conspiracy, as Ben Stein and others have suggested? It is difficult to imagine such a well-organized collective of deceptive scientists, especially when there is so frequently competition going on for research grant money. Some of the minute details of evolution, as well as the particulars of the mechanism by which it operates (Natural Selection), are in debate, but there is little to no doubt that evolution is as well established as gravity, cell theory, or any of the other time-tested and verified theories.

It is critical for certain creationists and ministers to promote the misconception that there is a controversy over evolution, because unless they are able to manufacture some challenge to the theory, their alternative of creationism will have virtually zero opportunity to make it into public teaching curriculum. This is why scientific academia has been demonized, encouraging a strong suspicion of authority among the general populace. It is commendable and important to question authority at times, but we should also respect and value the knowledge and qualifications of some people more than others. If you wouldn’t expect a plumber to advise you properly on performing medical surgery, why would you expect a preacher or average Christian to properly advise you on science and evolution?

IX. Evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.

The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy will tend to increase in an isolated system. Creationists make this claim because they think the second law forbids the production of ordered and complex forms like those that result from evolution. The simplest answer to this is that Earth is not an isolated system, since we receive energy from the sun. But to be more specific, the second law is not a predictor of disorder, it describes the distribution or balance of energy in an isolated environment. For more detailed explanations, 2ndlaw.com has a very thorough article on the subject, entitled The second law of thermodynamics and evolution.

X. How do you know evolution happens? You weren’t there, were you?

For some bizarre reason, creationist Christians will sometimes assert that evolution is unproven because it has never been directly observed. Evidence comes in a variety of forms, though, not just through direct observation or someone witnessing an event firsthand. Such experiences can be deceiving, or might be filtered through an individual’s unique perception, so that when the witness describes what they observed, their report may not be exactly like the event. This is why courts and juries do not feel so comfortable about resting a verdict on the testimony of eyewitnesses, because eyewitnesses can be wrong and forgetful. A detective does not need to have witnessed a murder firsthand, nor do they even need eyewitnesses. He or she can piece together the events of a crime in an impressively reliable manner, using DNA-testing, fingerprint analysis, and other forensic methods.

The evidence we have for evolution is much better than direct observation, it is like the evidence a detective would collect from a crimescene. We have the transitional fossils that demonstrate evolutionary changes in organisms, we have vestigial structures like our appendix and wisdom teeth (to name a very slim few), and comparisons of the human and chimp genomes show a 95-98% similarity.5 Nylonase is a strain of bacteria capable of feeding on nylon, a product that was invented in 1935. What explanation could there be for the emergence of such a lifeform? Was it perhaps created by an intelligent designer some 6,000 years ago, only to have to wait nearly five millennia before its primary food source would be created by humans? At what point does the overwhelming evidence for evolution begin to expose the ridiculousness of creationist ideology?

 

Sources:
1. Stoddard, E. (2007) Poll finds more Americans believe in devil than Darwin. Reuters. Retrieved Mar. 20, 2009.
2. Anonymous. List of transitional fossils. Wikipedia. Retrieved Mar. 20, 2009.
3. Isaak, M. (2006) Claim CC200: There are no transitional fossils.. TalkOrigins.org. Retrieved Mar. 20, 2009.
4. Anonymous. Claims that Nazism was inspired by acceptance of evolution. Wikipedia. Retrieved Mar. 20, 2009.
5. Deininger, P. (2004) What does the fact that we share 95 percent…. Scientific American. Retrieved Mar. 20, 2009.