Back to My Soapbox
14 December 2004
Evolution is a subject that gets me pretty worked up. I don't know exactly why. There are other issues in the world that are more important, but it just gets to me how so many people can ignore or reject something so scientifically important, and so well accepted among scientists. It bothers me even more when I read about people that want to force their ignorance on the population by denying evolution from being taught in schools, or by teaching creationism as valid science. It's like saying that the Earth is flat.
I've been meaning to write a well thought out, convincing essay, to try to convince people to accept evolution. That's not what this is. This is placed exactly where it needs to be on my site, My Soapbox. I'll throw in some important information here and there, but a lot of this is just for me to get it all off of my chest. Maybe by actually writing all of this here, it will help me organize my thoughts, and I'll be able to write that well thought out essay, but who knows.
Why I'm Writing This Essay
I never even knew there were people who doubted evolution until I was in high school. I watched a lot of PBS before my family got cable, and then a lot of the Discovery type channels once we got it, so evolution was just something I'd heard about my whole life, and it's not like it's a topic that comes up in everday conversation. Anyway, I was sitting there in biology class, and the teacher had just announced that we were getting ready to learn about evolution. My friend leaned over and asked me if I "bought" evolution. I said something like, "Yeah, what about you?" And he said, "No,it's got too many holes." That made me realize two things- first, that there were people that doubted evolution, and second, that I had just been accepting it based on faith in scientists knowing what they were talking about, without really knowing a lot of the evidence. To the second realization, I started to look into the evidence for myself, starting with what I learned in that biology class. And after getting a better understanding of evolution, it made me about as positive as you can be about anything that it did indeed occur, and is still occuring. Which made me figure for the first realization that my friend was probably just an isolated case, especially since it was before we had studied it in school. I figured that once you learned about evolution you would accept it, so I didn't give too much more thought to the fact that there people that doubted evolution.
After that biology class, I went on for years still naively thinking that most people accepted evolution. I knew there were a few uneducated people out there that didn't really understand it, and some religious fanatics who wouldn't accept it unless Jesus himself came and told them it was true, but I thought that by and large, most people were educated/smart enough to accept evolution, or at least smart enough to realize to accept the word of scientists who devote their lives to studying it. I went on thinking that way all through college, and for the first few years after I got out of college. Then, one day in the lunchroom where I work, somehow we got started into a conversation involving evolution. I don't remember how it got started, but I remember being the only one of the five of us in there that believed it. That just shocked me. Granted, I'm living in Texas (part of the Bible Belt), and a lot of the guys I work with don't have college educations, but they're still smart guys, and they've been through high school. I just couldn't believe that 80% of the people in that room thought that evolution was a bunch of hooey. So that started me doing some research and a few informal interviews on my own. And what I found disturbed me even more. I'd say that well over half of the people that I talked to either flat out rejected evolution, or thought of it as "only a theory" (which I'll address later). And once I got to looking at formal polls of the U.S. population, I found that there weren't a whole lot of people nationwide that believed it, either. Actually, according to a Gallup poll cited on ReligiousTolerance.org, in 1997, a full 44% of the American public agreed with the statement that, "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." 39% agreed with, "Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including man's creation." And only 10% agreed with, "Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process." Those stats have stayed pretty constant since the 1980's. And that just amazes me, that almost one half of all Americans reject evolution. It's a pretty sad statistic on the intelligence/education of our nation. What's even scarier, according to a poll cited on PathLights.com, "According to a survey of 400 high-school biology teachers conducted by two University of Texas (at Arlington) sociology professors, 30 percent believe in Biblical creationism. Nineteen percent believe that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time." (Waco Tribune-Herald, September 11, 1988, p. 2E.) Biology teachers. What are these people doing teaching science to our children?
"Only" a Theory
Most people talk of evolution as "only a theory." I have two arguments to this- first, that it's important to distinguish between the theory of evolution occuring and the theories of how it occurs, and second, the actual definition of what a theory is. I'll deal with the latter first, since it is the more basic of the two. In science, a theory isn't an "only," it's something pretty important. To be a bit cliché, Webster's defines a theory scientifically as, "a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena." Notice the "scientifically acceptable" part of that explanation. This puts a theory on pretty firm ground, since it has been accepted to some level of confidence. This is different from a hypothesis, which is just an educated guess, based on some observations, but that hasn't been rigorously tested, yet. And even this is better than just coming up with an idea, since your hypothesis has to be based off of something. Going the other way on the confidence scale, a law in science is just a theory that's been tested so many times that our confidence is close to 100% that it will always be right. So, a theory in science is an explantion of phenomena that has a high degree of acceptance, though less confidence than a law. [Update 2006-01-16: This explanation isn't quite correct. The definition of theory is correct, as a body of principles that explain phenomena, but a law isn't just a theory with more confidence. This is largely semantic, and there is debate among philosphers of science as to what exactly is theory, and what exactly is law, but a law can be thought of as an observation that's been observed so many times that it's accepted without a reasonable doubt, whereas the theory would explain what's driving that observation. There's not necessarily a difference in our confidence between a theory and a law - they're describing different concepts. Actually, the next paragraph describes this pretty well.]
Like I said above, it's important to understand what is meant when referring to the Theory of Evolution. On the one hand, it is a theory, actually more of an observation, that evolution occurs. On the other hand, there are theories as to why it occurs, and the mechanisms that drive it. This is analagous to gravity. It is an observation that gravity occurs. Then, there are theories to explain how gravity works. Scientists (and most laymen) don't always agree on those theories that explain gravity, but they pretty much all agree that gravity exists.
Most people can observe gravity directly, so they have no problem accepting it as fact. But what about things that people can't observe directly? Most people accept that everything is made up of atoms and subatomic particles, because it fits in so well with our observations and theories of chemistry and physics. And most people believe that the earth revolves around the sun, because it fits in so well with our observations and theories of the way the world works. But ask people if they believe in evolution, which fits in well with our theories of paleontology, geology, and biology, and they're not so sure, or they flat out deny it? Is there any fundamental difference between these theories? I think most people have about as much knowledge of astronomy or nuclear physics as they do of paleontology, but they are willing to accept scientists theories in those first two fields, but not in the other.
Actually, I thought of a good story to illustrate the difference between the theory of evolution occuring, and the theories about the mechanisms of evolution. Say you walk into a room, and find a dead body. You'd logically deduce that at one point there was a living person who somehow died and ended up in that room. There wouldn't be any question that the person died, but there might be questions as to how they died, or how they ended up in the room. That's the stage scientists are at now with evolution. There's so much evidence that there's no question that it occurs, just how it occurs. A creationist, on the other hand, would say that God created that lifeless body in that room, and that that's the way it's always been.
Misconceptions About the Basic Theory of Evolution
Back when I started that biology class that I mentioned above, I didn't really have a true understanding of evolution. Like I said, I just accepted it based on faith in scientists knowing what they were talking about (not that that's all that bad of a thing- I really don't understand particle physics, either, but I'll accept that everything's made up of atoms). Actually, my concept of evolution at the time was Lamarckism, or evolution based on Use & Disuse and Inheritance of Acquired Traits (The classic example of Lamarckism is the giraffe, whose ancestors originally had short necks, but strained and strained to reach higher branches, thereby stretching out their necks with each subsequent generation and passing on that trait to their offspring), which is quite different from the way evolution actually works. I hesitate to say Darwinism, because the theories of evolution have advanced quite a bit since Darwin's day, but it probably gets the idea across well enough- random variation and natural selection changing a population over time. But to get back to my point, until I got into that biology class, I didn't really know at all how evolution worked, and I think that's a problem that many people have. They just don't understand it.
I'll share two examples to illustrate these misunderstandings. Both of these misunderstandings were on the part of friends of mine, college graduates, one of them even a college professor (though not in a technical field). The one guy didn't understand why would lose body parts. I think his question specifically was the appendix- why has it shrunk to just about nothing? It doesn't seem to hurt us now, was the original organ that harmful? He failed to see the resources that went into making that organ. Sure, it may not have been all that harmful, but if it wasn't doing anything beneficial, it used energy and nutrients to grow it that could have been better applied to other things. The other guy had a misunderstanding of how white people would have evolved from black people. He thought that white people were albinos, that they must have somehow become albinos in Africa, and then fled to non-equitorial regions to escape the sun. He wasn't sure why they wouldn't have died out in Africa as albinos. I think the most probably explanation of how white skin evolved is that originally, black people migrated out of Africa to other areas. Once they were out of the hot climates, it would have been more advantageous if they didn't waste energy producing pigment for their skin, similar to the argument above on why we don't have appendices. But the point is that these were smart, educated people, and even they had huge misconceptions about evolution.
Evolution and the Bible
The U.S. is predominantly a Christian nation, and many are fundamentalists. That seems to be the biggest stumbling block to the public accepting evolution. They feel that it contradicts the creation story of Genesis. Does evolution really contradict the Bible? Well, if you accept only a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, then yes. But then you might also believe that the earth is flat.
To believe that everything was created in six days, you pretty much have to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, especially considering that there's a far more likely scientific explanation of how animals came to be. But why do people persist in saying that the Bible is literal? Many Christians don't think that the Bible is literal. In fact, in other countries, an "allegorical" interpretation of the Bile is the majority view (More Info). But here in the U.S., people still cling to a simple interpretation. A good case in point, besides evolution, of why the Bible can't be literal is the story of the great flood. Unless God changed the laws of nature, or through divine intervention changed the world to give it a misleading appearance (and why would God deliberately mislead us?), there's no evidence for a worldwide flood occuring as the Bible says. In fact, there's a great deal of evidence against it (More Info). Does this mean that the Bible's wrong? Not necessarily, if you accept the story as a moral story, and not a literal one. Same thing with creation. The main point is that God created everything, even if the story is not literal in the way that it was created. And we know from the Bible that God does not alwasy tell us everything literally- Jesus taught in parables. Yes, he probably did it to avoid persecution, but the point is that we know that God doesn't always tell us everything literally.
Also, if you accept only a literal interpretation of the Bible, then it reads pretty much as saying that the earth is flat. A lot of fundamentalists will argue this, and point out places where they say that the Bible is saying that the world is round, but these are people that, at least in this instance, are trying to force the Bible into saying what they want it to say, instead of reading it and trying to determine what the writer's meant. In other words, the most sensible interpretation of the Bible (backed by historical evidence) is that its writers believed the world was flat, and wrote the Bible that way. Now that we know more about the world, we know that the world is round. So fundamentalists, in an effort to make the Bible still seem literal, try to force passages in the Bible to read that way. It's similar with evolution. The Bible reads a certain way, probably the way that the writers believed everything was actually created, but now through science we know that it's not the case.
I think a large part of the problem is that most people do not read the Bible, or only read certain passages. Most people get their Biblical information from other sources- from sermons, or reading articles where the author chooses what scripture to quote. If people would read the Bible for themselves, the entire Bible, they would have a much better understanding of it, and with just a little bit of scientific knowledge, would realize that the Bible couldn't be literal. But instead, most people are sheep. They're told what to believe by others, and blindly follow without questioning or thinking on their own.
While writing this essay, I've done a lot of reading, on both the pro-creation and pro-evolution sides. And after reading both sides, the pro-creation arguments just don't hold up. However, to someone that doesn't really know a lot about science, they seem to be valid, and apparently they are doing a good job of convincing people to continue believing in creationism. But there are just so many problems with their arguments. I would love to devote a whole section of this essay to exposing those problems, but that would be a whole (long) essay in itself, plus there are other people that have already taken the time to do this, and continue doing so for new creationist arguments (like TalkOrigins.org).
One of the arguments that I do want to address briefly, however, is how many people, not just creationists, cite that scientific theories come and go, and there's no reason to suspect that evolution won't be just like the rest. Well, that's not exactly the way science works. Yes, theories come and go, but it's almost always building towards more and more certainty. An oft-cited example is Newtonian physics being supplanted by relativistic (Einstein) physics. Replacing Newtonian physics with relativistic physics is a bit different than another theory coming along to replace evolution, but I'll argue it anyway, since so many people use the example. Strictly speaking, it is true that Newton's theories do not accurately predict the world, but the differences are so small that great pains have to be taken to get an experiment precise enough to see those differences. For most cases, it's plenty accurate to say that Newton was right. So even though relativity came along and changed things, it wasn't really that big of a change. So a new theory might not be very different from current evolutionary theory. Though I don't really see what type of parallel could be drawn to evolution, at least the observation of it occuring. And besides, there are certain theories that just get so much evidence, that it seems very hard to imagine that they'll ever change. Could you really see another theory coming along saying that the sun wasn't the center of the solar system? And it hasn't really been until fairly recently that people have actually used good scientific practices, so historical arguments going back more than a couple hundred years aren't really valid, anyway.
One other creationist argument that I want to address is the "conspiracy theory." Creationists routinely claim that there is evidence that disproves evolution, but scientists hide it away, deny it, or just plain ignore it, so that it won't destroy the theory. It's as if all scientists are members of some brotherhood, bent on turning the world into a bunch of atheists. Or that at least a few scientists are/were this way, and have managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the rest of the scientific community, "convincing" them that evolution occurs. It is true that a higher percentage of scientists are atheists than among the general population, but I think that this actually helps show why such a conspiracy could never endure in the scientific community. Scientists think analytically. They do not accept things unless there is evidence to back it up. That is the reason why so many are atheists, since they can't find any evidence for God. But it also means that they are constantly testing claims from other scientists. A good example is the feathered dinosaur hoax back in 1999. A fossil came out of the Liaoning Province of northern China, dubbed Archaeoraptor, purported to be a transitional fossil between dinosaurs and birds. It was even featured in an article in National Geographic. Soon after, it was exposed as a hoax, a conglomeration of bones from several different animals. But who was it that discovered the hoax? Other scientists, who themselves believed in evolution. It was the scientists' search for the truth that exposed the Liaoning fossil as a hoax, and would have long ago exposed any such conspiracy about the whole of evolution. (It's a shame that somebody made the hoax fossil, by the way, since it tarnishes the reputation of an area where so many legitimate bird, feathered dinosaur, and other animal fossils are found.)
Creationism in Schools
Whether or not you want to accept creationism over evolution, there is no way whatsoever that it should be taught in science classes in schools. By the very nature of it being a science class, science curricula should be based off of what scientists think. According to that article I had referenced before on ReligiousTolerance.org, "support for creation science among those branches of science who deal with the earth and its life forms [is] at about 0.14%." That is fringe science, if anything ever deserved the term. There is probably nearly as much scientific support for the earth being the center of the solar system, but nobody would dare suggest that geo-centricism be taught in science as a valid alternative theory. To put it frankly, among scientists that actually study fields related to evolution, there is no serious alternative to the theory that evolution occurs. Like I said above, the evidence so overwhelmingly supports it that the occurence of evolution might as well be called a fact.
The Role of Science Class in Schools
This is a little bit of a tangent, but I'll include it, anyway. My one brother's a scientist, a Ph.D. in microbiology, actually. So he and I have had a few discussions on evolution and creationism (talk about preaching to the choir). One area where we're not in full agreement is the nature of what a science class should be in elementary through high school. Being a scientist, he thinks that students should be taught how to think scientifically. Not just to learn things as fact, but to start looking at them objectively, and to start questioning them, and to perform experiments on them to determine if they're true or not. He likes to tell how when he was a judge at a high school science fair, some of the judges were ranking projects based on how good their presentations looked, even if the science was horrible. I'm an engineer, so my mindset's a little different. For engineers, it doesn't really matter how something works, as long as it does work (once again, gravity's a good example of that). So we spend a lot of our time in school being taught things as "that's the way it is." Not to question it, but just to accept it. Obviously, it's not exactly that way. We still do experiments to verify things, and we still do the proofs in our math classes, but it's a little bit different mindset from scientists. Anyway, I think that in grade school through high school, most students don't really have enough knowledge to make informed decisions. This is an extreme example, but think about how you would teach a five year old. If they ask why the sun sets, you wouldn't give them several different alternatives and tell them to pick the one they though seemed most reasonable. You'd tell them what you thought was the best answer. You're still trying to build their knowledge enough to where they can make intelligent decisions. I think that is still a large part of what grade school is. The students don't yet have enough knowledge, so a big part of science class should be giving them the knowledge that others have already determined. Yes, it's still important to have them start doing experiments and start thinking critically, but I think that at that level, the knowledge is more important.
What's the Real Harm of Creationism?
Like I wrote in the intro, why even worry about creationism vs. evolution? There are more important issues. And I think it's pretty obvious that I'm a Christian, so shouldn't I be more interested in saving souls than teaching truth about the origins of animals (including humans)? Well, one of the arguments that I'd been thinking was that creationism could actually keep people from becoming Christian, because it would alienate sensible thinking people. While researching to write this essay, I stubmled accross a quote by Davis Young that puts this far more eloquently than I could:
"The maintenance of modern creationism and Flood geology not only is useless apologetically with unbelieving scientists, it is harmful. Although many who have no scientific training have been swayed by creationist arguments, the unbelieving scientist will reason that a Christianity that believes in such nonsense must be a religion not worthy of his interest. . . . Modern creationism in this sense is apologetically and evangelistically ineffective. It could even be a hindrance to the gospel.
"Another possible danger is that in presenting the gospel to the lost and in defending God's truth we ourselves will seem to be false. It is time for Christian people to recognize that the defense of this modern, young-Earth, Flood-geology creationism is simply not truthful. It is simply not in accord with the facts that God has given. Creationism must be abandoned by Christians before harm is done. . . ."
Is this really the case? Are things like creationism really stumbling blocks to scientists being religious? Or is it just in their nature to be analytical, and not to accept something as true unless they have evidence? Either way, creationism is not doing any good. And it does keep those that believe it ignorant of a very important scientific principal.
Well, after writing all of this, I think I realize a little better why this topic gets me so worked up, and it's really a combination of a lot of things. First off is my own personal interest in evolution. I think that it's such an interesting concept, especially since that high school biology class when I started to truly understand it. Second, like I said in the previous section, is that creationist arguments could actually keep people from becoming Christian. And finally is other people's attitudes concerning evolution, how they can just utterly reject science, common sense, and all of the evidence that supports it. I don't know if it's close mindedness, ignorance, stupidity, or worse, if they're just being sheep, listening to other people's opinions without looking into the matter on their own, but all of the possibilities are bad. And now that I'm a parent, I can't imagine my daughter growing up in that cloud of ignorance, not even being taught in high school one of the most important scientific principals of our time. I'm already doing my best to keep her open minded about the relationships between humans and the other animals, so that when she's old enough to learn about evolution, she won't have any stumbling blocks. But if it ends up that she gets a science teacher that tries to tell her that humans might not have evolved from other apes, what am I supposed to do, tell her that her science teacher doesn't really know what they're talking about? (See that, I'm even getting worked up in my conclusion.)
So, I know I'm not going to change the world. But at least I can do my own small part. I'll make sure that my own daughter learns about science, and I'll try to write that essay that I mentioned up at the start of this essay. But what it's really going to take is just plain education. If students were taught about evolution in grade school and high school, and shown all of the evidence that supports it, and didn't have their heads filled with a bunch of propaganda refuting it, I'm sure that our country would quit being so backward in this regard.
There are many sites dealing with creationism and evolution. I list here only a handful of the most useful.
- TalkOrigins.org- possibly the best source for learning about evolution
- ReligiousTolerance.org- a good source for keeping an open mind
- CBS Poll on Evolution
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