As an atheist who discusses religion and science on twitter, it isn’t long before you come across the creationist argument that evolution is just a theory. What these creationists don’t seem to realise is that a scientific theory is vastly different from a common language theory.
The oxford dictionary has several definitions of theory:
- A supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained: Darwin’s theory of evolution
- A set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based: a theory of education
- An idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action: my theory would be that the place has been seriously mismanaged
Most of us are very familiar with the use of the third definition in common language use. To most people a theory is a hypothesis.
Scientifically speaking however, theory means a whole lot more. In science a theory is a well substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world which incorporates facts, laws, tested hypothesis and is acquired by scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed by experimentation and observation.
Scientific theory is the highest level of certainty one can have about something. Evolution is not ‘just a theory’. Evolution is the most well evidenced scientific theory that there is today. There is copious amounts of evidence in geological strata, biology, dna, embryology and fossils and all of it confirms what is found in each different area of scientific study. What we know about DNA on it’s own is enough to confirm evolution but in addition to that we have the fossil evidence, we have the order that the fossil evidence is found in layers corresponding perfectly with the order in which those species evolved. What we find in embryology concurs with all of the fossil evidence. Scientists use evolution and what it shows us, to do testing on and treat viruses, bacteria and even cancer. The reason we have to have a new influenza vaccine every year is because the flu mutates and evolves constantly. Virologists have to predict based on how the virus mutates and spreads, what form the virus will take the following flu season.
Many creationists find it hard to believe we evolved from bacteria and I admit that when you keep it as simple as from bacteria to man, it does sound unlikely. I think part of the problem is that many find it hard to imagine the length of time it takes for that to occur. I have in my home a trilobite fossil. It has a very basic spine and very early bumps that were the beginnings of a very basic eye. That fossil is 525 million years old and was found in strata of the Cambrian period. It is hard to imagine what life might have been like 525 million years ago. Human beings have such a short lifespan in comparison to that time frame, imagining that length of time would of course be difficult. Just as it is difficult for a child to imagine ever being old. How many life times existed in that 525 million years? Certainly more than I can imagine. For me however it is not so hard to imagine when you think about just how long that amount of time is, that it might be possible for a great many number of changes to occur over hundreds of millions of generations of life. Life that started out small, may over such a long period of time gradually change and grow from one generation to the next.
Evolution simply put is decent with modification. Such modifications are not dramatic and they may not even be noticeable from one generation to the next. They are small and occur in gene frequency in a population from one generation to the next.
Evolution is defined as follows by nature.com
Evolution is a process that results in changes in the genetic material of a population over time. Evolution reflects the adaptations of organisms to their changing environments and can result in altered genes, novel traits, and new species. Evolutionary processes depend on both changes in genetic variability and changes in allele frequencies over time.
Natural selection favours positive changes that happen in a population over time. For example one species may migrate to a new area and evolve differently to the area it originated from due to differences in eating habits of the species in the new area. Those eating habits may effect which genetic changes are beneficial to the population of the species as a whole in that area. Those that are best able to adapt to the new food of the environment are the ones who will grow strongest and be more likely to procreate. One fabulous example of this which has been observed directly is in a population of lizards. The digestive tracts of these lizards changed over time by natural selection to suit the available food of new environment they were living in.
Because of the length of time it takes evolution to occur it is difficult to directly observe in species that live our lifetimes. For species that live shorter lifespans than us however there have been many changes observed directly. For humans, fossil evidence has been a wonderful source of evidence of our evolution as has our DNA. Humans barring those of African decent have 2.5% neanderthal DNA due to the interbreeding of our species during the time homo-sapiens and neanderthals co-existed. That in itself is evidence of evolution.
For those of you not convinced, I have watched a fabulous series of videos by Stated Clearly on YouTube which do a great job of explaining the processes of evolution in a clear and easy to understand manner. Click here to view the videos. They are well worth a watch and great for kids. The Made Easy series is also an excellent source of information starting at big bang and going all the way through to evolution. Click here to view the Made Easy series. There is a lot of information on the internet but it can be hard to know what is trustworthy information and what isn’t. If I am unsure, I prefer academic and scientific websites because they have a responsibility to teach accurate information. They are not biased sources of information. As an explanation to why they are not biased there is an excellent article on the scientific method by Neil deGrasse Tyson – astrophysicist. In short however a scientist who does not use proper and unbiased scientific method risks his career.
Many Christians like to go to websites like creation.com or AIG to read about scientific information but these websites do not report scientific information accurately. They make claims to support their their beliefs, rather than following what the evidence reveals. As an example they make claims about radiometric dating stating that it is not accurate when in fact it is. They do this to confirm their young earth belief. The truth is they are only partially correct when it comes to dating methods. Radiometric dating CAN be inaccurate but only when used incorrectly. The correct dating type and process must be used for the fossils they are trying to date. Radiometric dating, when used correctly always corresponds with the strata level. If it doesn’t, they know there is a problem and that can then be corrected by retesting with a better suited dating method, or by re-assessing geological strata. There is an excellent website by the Smithsonian that gives the basics on radiometric dating methods. There is a link at the bottom of the Smithsonian website that goes into more detail about radiometric dating.
I have on several occasions researched the creation.com website after having had a creationist share a link with me which they believed showed evidence of creation. On many occasions I have been able to find that they have used partial quotes from scientists or completely twist the information from what scientists have revealed through study. One such example would be the irreducible complexity of the eye. One such article is listed on the CMI website. They use the following quote (as do AIG), mined from Charles Darwin’s book, The Origin of the Species.
‘To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.’
Reading that quote it sounds very much like Darwin doesn’t believe his own theory. This quote is one of the most commonly used quotes on behalf of creationists. The problem is, they haven’t used the entire quote. That is, they ‘quote mined‘. If you read the entire portion of text, it begins to make a whole lot more sense, especially considering Darwin’s book is about the theory of evolution. According to The Origin of Species published by Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952 (in the Great Books series), this is the entire quote in context:
“To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of Spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei [“the voice of the people = the voice of God “], as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certain the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.”
Clearly when you read the entire paragraph, neither CMI or AIG have been entirely truthful in their representation of Darwin’s text. Why would they feel the need to hide the entire paragraph? Instead of sharing further information on how the eye developed and how it works, they go on to explain how it couldn’t possibly have evolved and had to have been designed by including disjointed pieces of information on the eye. They are selecting information to suit their purposes of proving creation, rather than following what the scientific evidence shows them. To explain how eyes in animals evolved further this article by the Academy of the Sciences is an excellent source of information.
As someone who was raised without religion it bothers me greatly that websites such as AIG and CMI go to such great lengths to protect their religion. If what they are telling us was true, would the information we have from scientists not tell us that we were created? Why would the majority of the worlds most reputable scientists accept evolution were true if the evidence was not clear? A conspiracy of that size particularly in the age of the internet would be impossible to hide and would make worldwide news.
If the evidence for creation is so strong, why do these websites only share parts of information and not all of it? Why does so much of the information shared on their websites contradict what scientists have shown through observation and testing?
The answer is simple. Evolution is NOT just a theory. It is not a religion or a tenant of the ‘religion of atheism’. Evolution is well evidenced fact, demonstrated by the sciences of biology, anthropology and geology. The evidence corresponds with each aspect of science and corresponds with each source of evidence as it should in a well evidenced scientific theory. There is a lot science doesn’t know or has yet to discover, but there is an awful lot they do know. Science has come a long way and learned much. Without it I would not be typing this article on my laptop. Without it scientists would not be developing vaccines for and eradicating polio and small pox. Without it doctors would not be curing cancer in so many cases. It is with the knowledge that science provides that mankind is able to do all of those things and much more. Scientists are still learning and with that comes more knowledge. Instead of turning away from knowledge to preserve doctrine, we should be turning towards the evidence and following where it takes us.