99% of the scientific community accepts evolution as fact. Most religious people do not. Could it be that the scientific community simply understands it whilst most theists do not? Yes. I think it’s as simple as that.
Every time I have debated with a theist who doesn’t believe that evolution occurred, they all claim to have some knowledge of it, or investigated it. It usually takes less than a minute of discussing this to discover that they have little to no real knowledge of evolution at all.
Let me say this now: I don’t wish to be critical of anyone for simply not knowing. Many people (like me and those close to me) were brought up and fed lies and misinformation about evolution all their life. Others have simply not had access to it. What I object to is people who talk about evolution and try to criticise it whilst not knowing even simple things about it.
Let’s face it: the only reason theists object to evolution is because it contradicts what they believe about the world. Since they assume their beliefs cannot be wrong, they assume the other person is. The ‘other person’ is anyone or anything! But in this case we’re talking about evolution. This is silly for two reasons. 1: whenever there is a debate over anything, science has always won. Always. That’s just a fact. Just like a heliocentric solar system, flat earth, young earth, etc: whenever religion argues with science it loses. Now, that might not mean that science will necessarily always win, but it has an infinitely better track record, so opposing it seems foolish. 2: theists in the past have opposed scientists but eventually had to recant their objections when they were proven wrong – they didn’t have to reject their beliefs necessarily, but they did have to admit that their interpretations were wrong! E.g.: Galileo. (Even in recent times for example, the Catholic Church has had to admit that evolution of man is a fact.)
Another example of interpretation: Genesis and the creative period. 6 literal days is ludicrous. Eventually, (when they could no longer keep a straight face) many religions conceded that the 6 days couldn’t have been literal. Many interpret them as symbolic. Now, whilst I disagree with them (there is nothing symbolic about the days of Genesis and which parts of the bible are literal and which are symbolic? And who gets to decide that??), it does show an effort to amend faith in light of evidence; something I actively encourage!
Why can’t today’s believers concede that their interpretations of scripture might be in error?? After all, surely god wouldn’t lie to us or plant false evidence of things that never happened. If god exists, then he is the Master Scientist! How better to praise him and understand him than through science!
So, as briefly as possible, let’s quickly review evolution and the truths and lies about it:
What is the theory of evolution?
Evolution is the scientific theory that all life on earth has evolved from simpler forms of life via mutation to produce variety, and natural selection to hone that variety into usefulness.
Natural selection is a fact. It is simply true that anything better at doing something will survive in that environment better than something that doesn’t do ‘it’ as well. Natural selection is true in life, in the workplace, in business, and in nature. In nature, the things to ‘do well’ or ‘be good at’ are survival and reproduction.
Mutation is a fact. It is simply true that genetic copying errors lead to different effects in life-forms, however slight. Mutations can be deleterious, neutral, or beneficial. If a mutation is so deleterious that it inhibits reproduction, the gene will not last long enough to get passed on, and if it does it will be displaced by non-deleterious mutations. Most mutations are neutral in that they have no observably immediate effect on life. Those mutations that are beneficial (in whatever way) will be selected for (e.g.: the human mutation of an enzyme which allows certain races to tolerate large quantities of milk. Some ethnic groups have not evolved this enzyme and are incapable of consuming fresh milk and dairy in large volumes. Other examples of successful mutations might be: slightly longer legs, slightly sharper teeth etc.)
Mutations need only be slight, and the difference only very small. Nature is ruthless, and the line between life and death is incredibly narrow! If you can run only very slightly faster than your rival, you can catch that bit more food, or escape a predator. It doesn’t matter what the real scale is, the point is that the line exists, and any slight advantage will make you “better” at doing what you do, and ultimately made you a better reproducer. Therefore, this advantage will be passed on to your descendants, and you will displace those without it. And the competition will continue: wilder beasts get faster and tougher, so lions get stronger and faster. As you can imagine, life will increase in complexity and get better and better. As time goes on, the more complex and “better” it will become. How long has life had to adapt and improve on earth? Billions of years! No wonder we see the complexity and efficiency we do in nature!
But there is no guiding force. It is a simple escapable result of natural mechanical forces in action. Natural selection will always be a fact of life, but without mutation evolution would be impossible.
By the way, by “better at doing what you do”, I don’t mean being better or more advanced in some universal or moral way. Cheetahs are excellent sprinters. Sharks are great swimmers. Monkeys are excellent acrobats. Humans are excellent thinkers. None of these life-forms is “better” than the other. Humans aren’t more ‘evolved’ than any other life-form on earth: all life is very very good in its own environment, doing what it does best. That is because life adapts to the environment. The environment never adapts to lifeforms!
When evolution occurs on small scales within species, we call this micro-evolution. When it occurs on large scales over time resulting in creatures being so different they are classed as new species, we call this macro evolution. They are both extensions of the same indubitable principle. They both occur by mutation and natural selection, and gradually. The only difference is the time involved. So, for those who accept micro evolution but not macro evolution, this is a profound ignorance of evolution! It’s like saying you accept where volcanoes come from, but not mountains.
Natural selection and mutation are how we explain the evolution of life. This is the theory: the explanatory part. But, there is no doubt that life has evolved. Absolutely no doubt at all. In fact, evolution is a better understood fact and better explained theory than gravity! If you’re a theist, that’s something you’ve probably never been told before.
That all life-forms have a common ancestor is a fact. It’s a fact because the nested hierarchy of all life-forms proves that all species are related, and the relational distance decreases as you go further back through time. Ubiquitous DNA, copying errors, vestigial organs etc, all prove that all life is related and commonly descended. Let’s take just one of those examples: vestigial organs: whales have hind limbs under their skin. Humans have an appendix, tailbone, wisdom teeth, a malformed third-eye, and an atrophied muscle in our feet that we don’t use (but apes do because they have superior dexterity in their feet which our ancestors would have had). It is impossible to explain these anomalies without evolution. Those who believe life was specially created cannot explain this “bad design” unless they pretend god intentionally created useless parts in life-forms. Or worse still, they say that there is an unknown purpose for these vestigial organs. This non-answer is worse than no response at all!
So, that evolution occurs is not debatable. Just like when you drop an apple, it will fall to the ground. It’s a fact. Gravity is a fact. Evolution is fact. We explain gravity with the Theory of Gravity, and we explain evolution with the Theory of Evolution. So, is evolution a fact or theory? Both!
Evolution is one of the best examples of science we have. It has been observed directly and indirectly. It is powerfully explained and incredibly predictive. It has never been significantly changed in all this time. It allows us to clearly understand nature at a biological and behavioural level. In fact, it would be impossible to perform biology, zoology, psychology, or geology without knowing basic evolution. The Theory of Evolution could be proved wrong, but so far it hasn’t been. It could be proved wrong by a better scientific theory that replaces natural selection and mutation as explanations. But that wouldn’t change the fact that life has evolved and continues to do so. No more than if we replace the Theory of Gravity with a better one, apples will stop falling and planets will stop spinning. Evolution is a steady inalterable fact of nature. To deny it is just as stupid as claiming the earth is flat. No exaggeration.
Some theists like to derive strawmen of atheism and humanism based on evolution. They might say that life is meaningless, or purposeless. They might say that evolution implies a “survival of the fittest” morality, or that nature should be our guide to behaviour. Anyone who says this doesn’t know what they’re talking about. To claim that evolution says something about morals is just as pathetic as saying that gravity, or a heliocentric solar system, implies something about the meaning of life.
To quote Robert Carroll again, life has no purpose, but lives do! Nature simply is. It tells us nothing about morality or how we should treat people. And whether you like it or not, the brute fact is: evolution is a fact. Even if realising evolution made you a heartless miserable evil nihilist, evolution would still be a fact! However, accepting the facts should be what everyone should do anyway. How you feel about facts is irrelevant. Whether facts appear to disagree with your beliefs is immaterial.
If you’re a creationist you have a choice: you can either admit that your beliefs require adjusting, or you can discard them altogether. Or you could pretend that the facts are wrong. Without doing any research you might just assume that you’re right anyway. Without understanding evolution or being able to explain the first thing about it, you might just kid yourself that you’ve studied it and fairly rejected it. You might assume it’s an evil conspiracy by atheists, or a lie from the Devil. You might even switch off as though nothing will ever trouble your faith.
Well, it’s your choice. This is not the article to discuss morality, right or wrong, philosophy, religion, or atheism. This is about a magnificent incredible theory that changed the world, and revolutionised how we explain it. It is essential that all theists must totally understand evolution if they’re to be taken seriously in debates with atheists and scientists. Hopefully this article is a small step in clarifying the facts.
Whether you’re a creationist or not, isn’t your goal the truth?? So, none of us has anything to fear…