GEOL 204 Dinosaurs, Early Humans, Ancestors & Evolution:
The Fossil Record of Vanished Worlds of the Prehistoric Past

Spring Semester 2013

"Just A Theory": The Public and Biological Evolution II

Who Denies Evolution?
Despite what some might want to to think, there is no simple dichotomy between "godless materialist evolutionists" and "Biblical-thumping fundamentalist Young Earth Creationists". In fact, there is a spectrum of beliefs (although not all of them are broadly represented in society at equal numbers by any means!):

Looking just at the YECs, how wrong is their chronology? The actual age of the Earth at about 4.557 Gyr, but they claim a mere 6000 yrs. This is exactly proportional to claiming that the distance from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, CA (3690 km, or 2293 mi) is really only 4.86 m (16 feet)!! And in order to do this, one has to reject physics (nuclear decay, the speed of light, and so forth), astronomy, geology, chemistry: indeed, the whole corpus of modern Science.

Common Evolution Denier Arguments, and Why They Fail
Let's take a look at a bunch of arguments, concepts, and rhetorical devices used by evolution deniers, and see how they hold up.

The Omphalos Argument: formulated by Henry Phillip Gosse in 1857, the idea that the Earth was created to LOOK ancient, but is really only 6000 years old. (It's name is from the Greek for "navel": the idea that Adam and Eve were created with navels, even if they were never gestated inside a woman and hence would not have umbilical cords!) This idea requires a trickster God (who wants to make things look ancient, up to and including light from stars and other objects more than 6000 light years away being created in transit.), which doesn't jive well with most standard modern theologies. Furthermore, if God is capable of doing this kind of fakery, what is to say He didn't create the Universe only last Thursday, and all the books, movies, photographs, even your memories, of the past were simply willed into being to appear as it there were a past. Intellectually this is EXACTLY the same argument. (This variation of Omphalos is called, not too creatively, "Last Thursdayism".) As such, you can see why it is really way outside the realm of Science.

Intelligent Design:

Two primary new arguments were suggested by the leading thinkers of the ID movement. These are
Both of these are cases of the old Argument from Design of Paley and the like. These are really just cases of Argument from Ignorance ("We don't know, therefore Creation") (or more precisely, Argument from Personal Incredulity ("We personally don't know, even if other people do, therefore Creation").

Here are a few good videos that explore ID arguments in greater details:

"It Can't Just Be Random Chance!" or "It Couldn't Just Happen!": This includes several problems. One is that evolution isn't "just chance". While randomness is a factor in the generation of mutations (that is, mutations appear without any particular direction relative to the situation the organism is in), selection itself is a non-random aspect. The other aspect is the "just" part. After all, one could say that a symphony is "just a bunch of notes in order" or a poem "just a bunch of worlds", and be technically correct. But "just" is a subjective qualifier that doesn't really have a place in Science.

"It's Just a Theory!": Ugh. As we saw earlier in this course, "theory" in Science is not a word for "guess" or "speculation" or "opinion". It is a model or set of rules with broad explanatory power about some particular phenomenon. So evolution is a theory, just like gravity, or the atomic theory of matter, or plate tectonics.

"Where are the Transitional Forms?": Ummm… Yeah. See the rest of this course...

Related to the above, Misunderstanding Sister Taxa and Ancestors: Similar to a lot of people, evolution deniers misunderstand when scientists are referring to sister taxa rather than ancestors. Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, but they aren't our ancestors.

"If Humans Evolved From Apes, Why Are There Still Apes?": This is like asking "If there are Norwegian-Americans, why are there still Norwegians?" Evolution doesn't convert all of the old taxon into a new form, just some subpopulation. This is part of the general misunderstanding that evolution is progression towards a particular goal (especially humans), rather than simply the divergence of the Tree of Life.

"There are Gaps in the Fossil Record!": Yes, we know. But as we saw earlier in the class, the vast majority of individuals, or even species, are unlikely to be preserved in the fossil record, much less discovered, described, and identified by paleontologists. Nevertheless, we get more information as time goes by. Indeed, ironically, you get more "gaps" the more information there is! As demonstrated by Futurama:

"Microevolution Happens, But Not Macroevolution!": At least some evolution deniers accept that natural selection can cause transformations from population to population over time by the differential survival and reproduction of variants in a population. But they think that this is somehow limited in scope, and cannot produce change from one "kind" of organism to another. But one of the big points of The Origin is the demonstration that seemingly distinct end members can actually be connected by small steps in between. "Macro-" and "microevolution" do not have different causes; they are simply different expressions at different scales of the same phenomenon. As critics of evolution deniers point out, accepting microevolution but rejecting macroevolution is like believing in inches but rejecting the reality of feet!

"Where You There?": A common trope of YECs. Without eyewitnesses, they claim, we can't be certain any particular event happened. Leaving aside the fact that eyewitnesses are actually notoriously unreliable as recorders of fact, we use reconstruction of past events from the limited preserved evidence all the time in society: reconstructing accidents; forensic medicine; history and archaeology; etc. And while you and I weren't there, the rocks themselves and the fossils therein damn well were!

"The Cambrian Explosion Disproves Evolution!": Why a particularly evolutionary event is supposed disproves evolution isn't clear, and the evolution deniers don't make it any clearer. In reality, this trope comes from a list that the evolution deniers got from… Charles Darwin! See the lecture on the Cambrian Explosion for Darwin's puzzlement at this, and solutions to this. (It is worth noting that many other cases on this list are from Chapter 6 "Difficulties on Theory of The Origin. Darwin was honest enough to understand potential objections to his idea, and elucidated why these objections were invalid or fallacious.

"Evolutionists Get Things Wrong or Disagree!": Evolution deniers love to point out cases where paleontologists misinterpreted or reinterpreted data, and then changed their mind. This shows that they simply do not understand the basic aspects of Science: that it is not a single revealed body of wisdom, but rather a process of developing observations and models to explain phenomena. Through hypothesis falsification and reciprocal illumination we may replace older ideas with newer ones as new information comes to light. That is fine: that is how it is supposed to work. Furthermore, when the data are not clearly decisive one way or the other--or where some group (cough, the BAND, cough cough…) refuses to acknowledge the rejection of their claims for personal reasons--you will find that scientists will disagree. That is fine. (And it isn't like different religious people, even of the same denomination, agree on all matters of theology, but they don't recognize that as a reason to reject their own beliefs.)

Confusing Evolutionary Theory with any Particular Phylogenetic Scenario: A special case of the previous one, the claim that rejection of a particular phylogenetic model means that evolution is incorrect. For example, whales were once thought to derive from a group of primitive carnivorous land mammal, but new evidence placed their ancestry within (omnivorous) early members of the artiodactyls (cloven-hoofed mammals). But this change of idea was done entirely within the context of paleontology and evolutionary biology, not in spite of it!

"Darwin Said the Eye Cannot Evolve!": Yep, he sure did. It's right there in Chapter 6 (see link above), where he wrote:

Of course, the next sentence reads:

And the next several paragraphs document existing cases that demonstrate each intermediate form of eye still in use by some living animal.

(Additionally, great as a scientist as Darwin was, evolutionary biology is not the "Gospel According to Charles"! Ideas in Science are accepted by their evidentiary merit, not by who said it.)

Conflation of "Evolution" with "Abiogenesis" &: "Big Bang Cosmology: When asked to state their objections to evolution, many deniers will include aspects which actually have to do with the origin of Life as a whole or even of the Universe itself. But these topics are other fields of Science: they aren't evolution. (This does go back to an earlier point, though: Creationism requires a rejection of essentially all modern science, not just the particular fields of paleontology, evolutionary biology, and geology!)

Related to the above, "How Can Something Come From Nothing?": This is a misunderstanding of both abiogenesis at one level, and Big Bang cosmology at the other. In the case of abiogenesis, there was never a magic moment when something was non-living and became living; instead, it would have been a stepwise shift of chemical processes from something unquestionably non-living through various quasi-life stages to extraordinarily primitive life and so on to LUCA. And in the case of the Big Bang: this was not, as pretty much the whole culture thinks it does, an explosion of everything inside a void. In fact, it is quite the opposite: EVERYTHING (all matter, all energy, everything) started out there in a mind-bogglingly condensed state and inflated. It wasn't an explosion of something in the nothing; it was an expansion of everything away from itself. (And neither of these are about evolution, anyway!)

"Argumentum ad Hitlerum" & "Argumentum ad Stalinum": A common trope (and theme of the misinformation "documentary" Expelled is that Hitler was applying Darwinian principles to eliminate inferior gene lines to improve the human race. (Similarly, but less often, people argue that Stalin was organizing the Soviet Union on Darwinian lines). This fails on two main lines.

The first is that even if these were true statements, it would not invalidate the reality of evolution. This is an Argument from Adverse Consequences: assuming an idea is false because bad consequences would result if the idea were true. But Hitler and Stalin's military made use of chemistry, physics, and so on to kill millions: that doesn't mean chemistry and ballistics and the like are untrue.

And furthermore, neither of these dictators actually supported Darwinian ideas of evolution, anyway! Stalin himself doesn't seem to have written much about it, but he promoted the work of the anti-Darwinian neo-Lamarckian Trofim Lysenko, who wrote:

and indeed Lysenkoists (with the support of Stalin's regime) had pro-Darwin workers banished to the Gulags along with other intellectuals who held ideas contrary to those supported by the State.

In the case of Hitler, we have his own writings to demonstrate that he rejected the transformation of species or the origins of humans from other types of animals:


Hardly the words of a man committed to an evolutionary worldview, trying to implement a Darwinist view on society!

"If We Teach Children We Are Just (or Come From) Animals, They Will Act Like Animals!": This is just another Argument from (in this case False) Adverse Consequences. Consider that in many nations (as we saw last time) there is far more belief in evolution than in the US, but their youths are not particularly prone to delinquency, rowdiness, or otherwise "animal"-like behaviors.

The "Gish Gallop": A common debating technique, named after YEC Duane Gish, and defined as "drowning the opponent in such a torrent of half-truths, lies, and straw-man arguments that the opponent cannot possibly answer every falsehood in real time." Sadly, this is by no means limited to evolution deniers, but is sort of a general rhetorical device. For proof, see the Internet...

Who Does and Doesn't Accept Evolution?
Rejection of evolution is higher in the US than other English-speaking nations (Angus Reid):

Within the US, the general public versus Science (Pew Forum):

And by various subcategories of society (Pew Center):

By religion (US):

By state, with the most and least religious states noted:

Overall, the ratio of supporters in material evolution, theistic evolution, and creationism, have been largely constant over decades of polling (Gallup):

By education (Gallup):

and by politics:

and by church attendance:

Correlation between acceptance of evolution and belief in God:

So one of the strongest indicators of rejection of evolution is indeed religion (and in particular, evangelical Protestant Christianity, at least in the US). In fact, Protestant preachers are far more likely than the public to hold evolution denier views (LifeWay Research):

But why should (at least some) religious people feel motivated to reject evolution (as opposed to rejecting other aspects of science, like cellular biology, the germ theory of disease, the atomic theory of matter, galactic astronomy, or any other myriad fields outside the scope of Scripture)?

In the report cited at the quote at the top of the notes, it was noticed by the reporter that the real reason for rejecting this aspect of science wasn't the science itself: it was the perceived implications of a material origin for humanity on the source of morality. They felt that if humans were not divinely created there could be no absolute morality dictated (literally) from On High, and that lacking such any sort of behavior might be condoned. (Of course this ignores millennia of work by ethical philosophers to find reasons for moral behavior outside of divine command, but that's outside the scope of this class!)

Additionally, this is part of what Carl Sagan called "The Great Demotions": the perception by some that as Science discovers the size and age of the Universe, Earth, and Life, that we seem more insignificant:

So why should we matter that some people fail to accept real things for personal reasons? What is the harm? In and of itself, that's all well and good. But part of the problem is that failure to think critically on one issue is generally linked with failure to think critically in most issues. In other words, pseudosciences tend to travel in packs. So those who reject evolution also tend to reject the reality of climate change, a phenomenon which effects all of us and which requires voting citizens to act:

Basically, once you accept that an ideology trumps evidence in one sphere, it becomes difficult to use your critical faculties in others. So the harm in rejecting well-supported discoveries like the antiquity of the Earth and the evolution of Life makes one susceptible to accepting untrue ideas, which will result in faulty decision making.

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Last modified: 10 May 2013