Evolution - Myths and Evidence

by maksutov 27 Replies latest watchtower beliefs

  • maksutov

    I have nearly finished writing my 'apostate' book, which I will soon be publishing as a free e-book. Here is an excerpt from it on the subject of evolution and the misconceptions about it held by JWs. Sorry it's a bit long, but I would appreciate any feedback. Is it easily understandable? Do I waffle too much? Too much detail? Not enough detail? Any mistakes/inaccuracies?

    Key Facts:

    • Most JWs, even those who think they have thoroughly researched the subject, do not understand the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection.
    • Evolution is compatible with creation by a supreme being, but not with a literal interpretation of the Bible book of Genesis.
    • Evolution is a well established scientific theory; there is copious evidence in support of it, and virtually all life scientists (even those who are religious) agree that it is a fact.
    • The principal lines of reasoning in favour of special creation used by JWs (and other creationists) rely on personal incredulity, arguments from ignorance and false analogies, not empirical evidence.

    Most mainstream Christian religions (including Catholicism) officially allow for the acceptance of the scientific theory of evolution. While it is true that many individual members of mainstream Christian religions believe that humans and other animals were created directly by God in basically the same form we find them today (which is at odds with science), there is no real incompatability between the existence of a supreme being who created life, and the scientific theory of evolution (more on this in a moment). In any case, it is intellectually dishonest to start with a conclusion and then try to find evidence to support it, disregarding evidence that does not support it. That's not to say that everyone who believes in special creation is being intellectually dishonest, but to dismiss evolution without understanding it, simply because one has already reached a conclusion which is incompatible with it is.

    In order to understand evolution, it is important to remember that it takes place on the scale of millions of years, and involves populations, not individuals. Pick a creature at any point in history, and it is likely that it will very strongly resemble its ancestors that were around a thousand years previously. Likewise, its descendents in a thousand years' time will look very similar. Over the course of a million years though, the resemblance may not be so obvious - some features may well have changed significantly, and it may be that they would now be classified as separate species.

    Natural selection is one of the main theories that explains why these changes occur. There is natural variety in the mixture of genes that get passed from one generation to the next, mutations and copying errors which allow for features and characteristics to be slightly different from previous generations (eg. a child might end up taller than both of their parents). If the environment is such that a particular trait provides the creature with a survival or reproductive advantage, creatures with that feature are more likely to pass on their genes to the next generation. Over many successive generations, these advantageous features (advantageous for reproduction that is) can therefore accumulate and, combined with geographical isolation, an environmental niche, or other survival pressures, result in the development of new species.

    I've listed twelve of the most common myths here (among JWs that is), but of course there are others.

    First, let's deal with the title of that JW book that originally convinced me that God exists: "Life - How did it get here? By Evolution or by Creation?" - I'm sure you can recognise this is a false dichotomy, but it is also a straw man. It demonstrates either a profound ignorance of what evolution is about, or is a deliberate attempt to mislead the reader (and I don't think saying that is a false dichotomy). You might as well ask "Life - How did it get here? By Gravity or by Creation?":

    Myth no.1: Evolution attempts to address how life got here.

    The theory of evolution by natural selection has nothing to say about how life got started. It is about how plants and animals diversify over time - not how life arose from non-living matter (that is abiogenesis, a separate subject). A naturalistic explanation for the beginning of life, whilst more probable than a supernatural explanation, is not a prerequisite nor a foundation of evolution. Evolution is therefore perfectly compatible with creation. Most modern Christian religions officially acknowledge evolution, and can do so without being hypocritical (assuming the biblical description of creation is taken as at least somewhat allegorical). Evolution is at odds with 'special creation' however (the notion that God created all the current species in basically the same form or 'kinds' we see today).

    Myth no.2: Organic machinery shows evidence of intelligent design.

    Perhaps the most common argument used by proponents of special creation is that complex machinery cannot come about by accident. Analogies are made with regard to various man-made devices such as a watch or a camera, and it is asserted that because it is absurd to suggest that such complex machinery was not designed by an intelligent agent, it is also absurd to suggest that complex biological machinery was not designed by an intelligent agent. This appears to be a compelling argument, which intuitively makes sense, and which I found convincing for many years.

    However, living things are not assembled - they grow and develop based on their genetic code. It is important to remember that genes are not a 'blueprint' for an organism, they are more like a 'recipe'. The structures that result from the protein folding they encode adapt according to local rules that they are following, not a predetermined plan of what the end result should look like. So if a genetic mutation causes an organism to grow an extra finger for example, the blood vessels will still fill the finger and nerve endings will still grow into it, as they are following rules that say they should fill up whatever space is there - they don't "care" that the extra digit is not supposed to be there. This is totally different to a man-made structure - if you build a house and make the hole for the window too big, the window will not grow to fill the available space!

    This means that living organisms, unlike human machines, can adapt and change, and even develop new features spontaneously - by following local rules, not following a master plan (and when I say 'rules', I just mean the information encoded in the DNA which has been passed on from ancestral organisms - not formal rules that must be invented by an intelligent agent). This behaviour can be modelled in computer programs, and can also be seen in other phenomena, such as the apparent unified movement of a school of fish. Using the fact that we can recognise design in man-made objects to suggest that organic machinery must have been designed is therefore a false analogy (a logical fallacy).

    In addition, evolution has certain requirements which are not met by man-made objects. For evolution to occur, an entity has to be self-replicating, the replication must be imperfect (there must be capacity for descendents to differ slightly from their parent entities), and there must be some kind of survival pressure so that the traits that contribute to the entity's ability to replicate are favoured. As such, a watch or a car or a computer cannot evolve - they have to be designed and built by an intelligent maker. Such is not automatically the case with organic machines that are the result of many generations of imperfect self-replication in a competitive environment.

    Significantly, where humans have created 'virtual' imperfect self-replicating entities with environmental pressures (I'm referring to computer programs that attempt to model the conditions under which evolution occurs), the entities do indeed evolve, and the end results are entities that were not designed by any intelligent agent, despite being well-refined adaptations. So again, on this count, the analogy is false - when the analogy is corrected (by implementing the conditions required for evolution to occur), it lends more weight to evolution than to special creation (languages are similar - they replicate down the generations with slight alterations and also evolve, albeit by a somewhat different mechanism than biological evolution).

    On the subject of 'design', the existence of carnivores, viruses, and parasites is a problem for special creation. Typically these things are deemed to be in some way connected to the 'fall of man' (Adam and Eve's "sin" according to the Bible), but there is ample evidence that carnivores and parasites existed long before humans. Many of these destructive organisms show the same level of ingenuity of 'design' that is often used to 'prove' that other organisms had an intelligent creator. The emerald jewel wasp (as just one example of many) stings a cockroach to paralyse it, chews off one of its antennae, then drags it to its burrow and lays eggs in the cockroach's abdomen. When the larvae hatch, they eat the cockroach from the inside out, but they consume the organs in just the right order so that the cockroach stays alive (and therefore 'fresh') for as long as possible. How do the larvae know what order to eat the cockroach organs in? How does the adult wasp know exactly where to sting the cockroach and how much venom to deliver so as to paralyse the roach without killing it? Did Satan design these things? If so, he is also a creator. If not, why would a benevolent God design such cruelty?

    Myth no.3: Evolution says humans evolved from monkeys/apes.

    This is inaccurate. Modern monkeys and humans share a common ancestor. One does not descend directly from the other. The same is true for all living things (humans also share a common ancestor with cabbage for example, albeit much further removed). It should also be noted that there is a difference between monkeys and apes - both are simian primates, but apes are much more closely related to humans than monkeys are. The same principle applies though - humans did not descend from any modern ape - they share a common ancestor with all apes (a more recent one than the one that humans and apes share with monkeys).

    Modern humans are bipedal, have a large brain enabling abstract thought and adaptability to almost any environment (which likely developed in part due to having hands free to use tools), and a mostly hairless body. It is therefore easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking that humans are vastly different from any other ape - that apes all belong to one category and humans to another. However, genetic analysis shows that humans are more closely related to chimpanzees and bonobos than chimps are to any other ape; it can truthfully be said that humans did not evolve from apes, they are apes. The amount of genetic difference between chimps and humans is very close to the difference between African elephants and Indian elephants (footnote: Functional genomics in the chimpanzee, Wolfgang Enard et al. Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthrophology, Leipzig. https://www.eva.mpg.de/fileadmin/content_files/staff/paabo/pdf/Enardfunktionprog.pdf).

    Myth no.4: If ape-men existed, they must have been superior to apes, so should still be around today.

    A very common objection to human evolution (one that I raised myself when I was a JW) is that if early apes evolved into ape-men, why are there still apes but no ape-men? If ape-men were better adapted to survive than apes, why did they die out but apes continue to thrive? We will assume that the term 'ape-man' refers to some transitional form between early apes and modern humans. As with most of these myths, the question is based on a misunderstanding of how evolution occurs.

    Evolution does not make linear progress - it doesn't just go from simple to more advanced. Apes are not 'less evolved' than humans (or ape-men) - they are just as 'evolved' as humans (or any other species), having traits and skills that humans and other species lack, making them much better adapted to their particular environmental niche than we are. Although human intellect has enabled us to dominate the planet and accomplish things that no other animal can, we should also bear in mind that there are some things that chimps can do far, far better than humans - in fact, we are only just beginning to understand some of the remarkable capabilities of chimps and other apes (for example, staggering feats of super-fast memorisation).

    We should not expect that ape-men would be better able to survive than apes, just that they adapted to their particular environmental niche. The trouble with adapting to a niche is that if that niche disappears, so does the species that relied on it. Likewise if there is fierce competition for resources, only the best adapted (or most adaptable) will survive - hence the vast majority of species that have ever existed have gone extinct (and there will never be a whole series of intermediate forms existing at the same time). The ones that remain are those that have best adapted to the environment that currently exist. Apes and modern humans did not compete strongly with each other, having adapted to different environments, but both would have competed with a transitional species.

    Myth no.5: Evolution is 'only a theory' or a 'belief' or even 'requires faith'.

    These are also all myths or misunderstandings. First, we should be able to distinguish between a law and a theory. A law describes an observation (typically by way of a mathematical formula). A theory attempts to explain the observation - the underlying mechanisms that make it so. Evolution is not normally regarded as a law (although it is sometimes phrased as such), because it cannot be distilled into a mathematical formula like the laws of physics can - the same is true of almost everything in biology (a 'squishy science'). Even so, biology encompasses many scientific theories, with evolution being perhaps the most important ("Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" as Eastern Orthodox Christian, Theodosius Dobzhansky, observed).

    In common parlance, the word 'theory' has come to mean a hypothesis or conjecture - something unproven. A scientific theory is not the same thing. In science, a theory is superior to a law. It describes how things work - not just vaguely or potentially, but in a way that can be used to model the process, make confident predictions about the outcome of a situation, and even develop technology to exploit it.

    In order for a hypothesis to become an established scientific theory, it has to prove its worth. It must be falsifiable (ie. there must be some test you could do where a certain outcome would prove it wrong - if something can never be proved wrong, it cannot be tested, and does not qualify for the status of scientific theory). It must make predictions that can be verified. The effects must be reproducible by other scientists in well run controlled conditions. It must undergo a peer review process so that experts can scrutinise the theory and probe it for weaknesses.

    But aren't scientific theories sometimes shown to be wrong? Aren't they sometimes replaced by new theories?

    A scientific theory is never 'finished' - there is always the possibility that it can be refined, or even replaced, but that does not invalidate an established theory. For example, Newton's theory of gravity was replaced by Einstein's theory of gravity. Einstein's theory is more accurate and makes more precise predictions, but that does not make Newton's theory wrong - in fact, Newton's theory is still used in most cases, as it is accurate enough for everyday use and easier to understand. Both theories of gravity can be regarded as 'fact' in that there is so much supporting evidence that it would be perverse to refuse to accept the veracity of either of them.

    A theory then, is a model that describes why and how a law operates or a phenomenon occurs. A better, more accurate model might come along later, but that does not mean the first model was incorrect and it certainly doesn't indicate that the law itself is wrong or that the phenomenon does not occur. The more experiments that validate a theory, the stronger the theory becomes. A well established theory is one that we can have great confidence in, whilst still allowing for further improvements and refinements to be made. And whilst occasionally a scientific theory is proven wrong, this invariably happens with theories that are abstract and theoretical (and therefore difficult to test) or not well established. A well established theory (such as germ theory, gravity, or evolution) is one which has so much supporting evidence that it can safely be regarded as a fact.

    Evolution can be observed directly in progress in the laboratory as well as in the wild, and can be traced through the fossil record, by comparative morphology, embryology, geographical distribution of species, and through genetics (more on this in a moment). When scientists engage in debate and disagree about the theory of evolution, they are not discussing whether or not evolution happens! They are discussing details about some aspect of the theory of evolution - disagreements arise on the finer details, but there is overwhelming consensus among scientists that evolution is a fact.

    Even Michael Behe, one of the most high profile proponents of the 'Intelligent Design' movement who argues against Darwinism for the development of microscopic machinery (and is often quoted in Watchtower publications), still accepts that Darwinian evolution explains the adaptation and evolution of plants and animals. (footnote: "Further, I find the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it. I fairly respect the work of colleagues who study the development and behavior of organisms within an evolutionary framework, and I think the evolutionary biologists have contributed enormously to our understanding of the world. Although Darwin's mechanism - natural selection working on variation - might explain many things, however, I do not believe it explains molecular life." - Darwin's Black Box, p.5 (Michael Behe).)

    Myth no.6: There is little or no evidence to support evolution (it is just 'wishful thinking').

    Proof of evolution can be found in many areas - here are some of them:

    Laboratory experiments: Bacteria are usually the subject of laboratory experiments involving evolution because they can reproduce very rapidly, with two or three new generations appearing every hour (rather than every 20 years or so as with humans). Richard Lenski's experiments for example, have allowed 'irreducible complexity' to be observed developing by Darwinian processes in E-Coli bacteria, in experiments that have been running for decades and that can reliably reproduce their results. (footnote: Proponents of intelligent design argue that a system which has inter-dependent parts and cannot be simplified without losing its function (that is 'irreducibly complex') is impossible to explain by Darwinian processes. The Lenski experiments are one way to prove that this is not the case.) Nylon-eating bacteria have evolved recently which produce three different types of enzyme that are only effective at breaking down nylon by-products (nylon was only invented in the 1930's), and are unlike any other species of bacteria - they have specifically evolved the ability to digest nylon due to the man-made production of nylon - and scientists have been able to force another species of bacteria to evolve this ability, by restricting available nutrients. Various bacteria and viruses are known to constantly evolve resistance to antibiotics and vaccines through Darwinian processes (the individual organisms that are better able to tolerate the treatment are the ones who survive and pass on the advantage to their descendents, making the treatment ineffective).

    Observation: With speciation (the development of new species) typically taking place on the scale of millions of years, it is not possible to observe large scale changes as they occur due to our comparatively miniscule life span. Even so, speciation has been observed in the wild. The London underground has a population of mosquitos that has evolved in the tube tunnels, isolated from their above ground ancestors, and now considered a separate species (it is almost impossible for them to reproduce with their above ground ancestral species, and they exhibit unique behaviours).

    Perhaps the most spectacular example of observed evolution in the wild is that of Italian wall lizards. In 1971, a small population of lizards were deliberately transported from one island to another. Nearly 40 years later, it was observed that the descendents of this population had evolved to adapt to the new environment. The new population had a much higher amount of vegetation in their diet, and had developed larger heads with more bite force and new, less territorial behaviours. Most striking of all though, was that the new population had evolved an entirely new feature:cecal valves (sphincter muscles which separate the small and large intestines to prevent colonic reflux, slow down digestion, and provide fermentation chambers for digesting plant matter). Just a few decades is incredibly quick for such a sophisticated new feature to evolve before our eyes.

    Comparative morphology: The physical structure of different species also shows strong indications of evolution and common descent (this includes homologous structures, where different animals use the same body part, sometimes for different functions, and analagous structures, where different body parts are used for the same functions). For example, all mammalian tetrapods (four-limbed mammals) have a hand or forefoot with the same number and arrangement of bones, but a bat's hand has been modified to act as a wing - the bones in a bat's wing are fingers and are identical in number and arrangement to those in other mammalian hands (albeit elongated and reduced in density), because the bat's wing is a hand (not originally designed as a wing). Similar re-arrangements of existing body parts are seen throughout the animal kingdom - exactly as one would expect from the evolutionary model (but unnecessary and counter-intuitively restrictive for something specially designed). There are also cases where environmental pressures have led to the evolution of similar structures from different body parts - such as the tail of a whale or dolphin, which is horizontal due to evolving from land mammals, not directly from fish, and is analogous to the tail of a fish or shark (which is vertical).

    The recurrent laryngeal nerve (which runs from the brain to the larynx) shows evidence of an evolutionary past - in fish, these nerves run in a direct route from the brain, past the heart, to the gills. In animals that evolved from fish, as the heart moved lower down the body, and the neck formed, the nerve had to take a detour - it cannot just break apart and re-form in a direct line, so it had to lengthen. In the case of giraffes, this means that the nerve makes a detour of over four and half metres! The nerve runs from the brain, down the neck, round the aortic arch (near the heart), back up the neck, to the larynx - completely unnecessary if the giraffe was specially designed, but in reality an unavoidable relic of evolution due to its ancient fishy ancestry.

    Geographical distribution: Where a population of animals becomes isolated from other members of the species, the evolutionary model predicts that they will evolve to fill whatever environmental niche they are isolated in. Geographic isolation can occur with the formation of islands, where a population is accidentally transported from one island to another, or where some other geographical feature such as a river or volcano causes a long-lasting separation of a group. It was comparison of the fauna on different islands of the Galapagos that helped Darwin develop the theory of evolution - local populations adapt to local conditions and develop new traits. When an island is separated from the mainland for an extended period of time, the evolutionary path diverges much further - hence there are so many creatures that are unique to Madagascar, or unique to Australia - they are unique because they evolved there in isolation from their ancestral populations. Such an exact fit with evolutionary theory does not make sense for special creation (unless the creator wanted to make it look like the creation had evolved), and also presents a problem for the biblical account of a global flood (since animals would need to be teleported to and from their native islands - more on that in the next chapter).

    Genetics: Studying the genetic code of different organisms allows us to trace family lines where different species are related. Mutation rates can be observed and corresponding predictions made about evolutionary timescales and relationships which can then be verified with the fossil record and comparison with extant species. There are key markers in genetic machinery, including copying errors, which prove a common ancestry.

    Certain retroviruses will infect a creature and actually alter the DNA sequence in its cells (all viruses use the host's cellular machinery to make copies of themselves, but retroviruses actually leave behind a copy of their genes in the host's cells). When this happens in a reproductive cell, and that cell goes on to become a viable organism, the altered genome is incorporated into that organism's genome and passed on to the next generation (becoming an 'endogenous retrovirus', or 'ERV'). Estimates vary, but up to 5% of the human genome is understood to be made up of ERVs (it is thought that some artifacts that are considered to be ERVs did not actually originate with retroviruses, but we needn't complicate matters here). ERVs can be used to identify hereditary relationships between different species. For example, if the first common ancestor of all mammals was infected with a certain ERV, we can expect all mammals to have that same ERV. If the common ancestor of mice and rats had been infected with another ERV, all mice and rats should have that ERV as well as the first one. If the common ancestor of apes and humans had a certain ERV, all apes and humans should have the first one and the one from their common ancestor, but not the one shared by mice and rats. Using ERVs then, we can trace out a complex family tree which exactly matches the evolutionary history of modern organisms that have already been established by other means (fossils, gene sequencing, body plans, geography, etc.).

    There are copious examples of genetic evidence for evolution, but another particularly striking example involves the human "Chromosome 2". All the great apes have 24 pairs of chromosomes (which hold the DNA), but humans have 23 pairs. If humans evolved from a common ancestor with apes, we would expect to see evidence of two of those pairs of chromosomes merging into a single pair. At each end of each chromosome is a telomere - telomeres do not normally appear in the middle of a chromosome. In the middle of each chromosome is a centromere - there is normally only one centromere per chromosome. So a chromosome typically looks something like this: tt--------cc--------tt (where tt is the telomere, and cc is the centromere). Chromosome 2 in humans contains two telomeres in the middle of the chromosme, and a centromere in each half: tt----cc----tttt----cc----tt - indicating that this chromosome must be the result of the merging of two other chromosomes - which of course correspond exactly with the disparity between the chromosomes of great apes and humans. The gene sequences on these chromosomes in chimps and humans can be matched up (in fact they are almost identical), and prove beyond reasonable doubt that apes and humans share a common ancestor.

    Atavisms and comparative embryology Another strong indicator of evolution is the presence of vestigial traits in the genetic code, in embryos during their development, and sometimes even in fully developed creatures (where an ancestral feature is present in a creature, such as hind limbs on a whale, it is known as an 'atavism'). All vertebrates(including fish, reptiles, birds, and humans) share the same characteristics during early embryonic development - they all start out with the same type of skin, 'gill arches' (not gills, but the scaffold on which gills develop in fish) and a tail. As development progresses, the different groups of animals diverge along their evolutionary path - an early human embryo shares characteristics with early fish embryos, early reptile embryos, and other mammal embryos. Embryonic development is like a miniature evolutionary history played out in the womb.

    Humans have the genetic information needed to grow a tail. The tail is very much in evidence during the embryonic stage and although it is usually re-absorbed during later development, some people are in fact born with a tail (not all cases of humans with appendages are true tails, but some are - there are documented cases of tails containing vertebrae and even muscles allowing the tail to be moved at will). Dolphin embryos have the 'buds' of hind limbs (even though dolphins don't have any form of hind limb). Chickens have the genes for teeth (and these genes can be artificially 'switched on' to hatch a chick with teeth). Attempts are underway right now to create a 'chickenosaurus'. By switching on the teeth genes, suppressing the gene that re-absorbs the long tail, and trying to locate the gene for keeping the fingers separate (chicken embryos have fingers which become fused into a wing during development), scientists are attempting to create a more dinosaur-like creature from the genetic material present in a chicken's DNA. They can only do this because the genes are already there - leftovers from the chicken's dinosaur ancestors. This is not something you would expect to see if creatures were special creations, but is exactly what is predicted by evolutionary theory.

    The fossil record: The amount of fossil evidence in support of evolution is staggering. One of the interesting things about fossils is that it would be very easy to prove evolution wrong simply by finding a fossil in the 'wrong' layer of rock. Even when a layer of rock cannot be accurately dated, we can certainly deduce the order in which the layers formed - newer rocks being laid down on top of older layers. Thus, the depth or layer of rock that a fossil appears in indicates where it should fit in the evolutionary tree. If evolution is true, the deeper we dig, the more primitive forms should dominate - it would be impossible to find a fossil of a flower in the Paleozoic layer for example. This is not the case with special creation - species would not have to be created in any particular order, and even if the creator decided to make organisms more complex as time went on, their fossil placement still would not have to fit perfectly with the evolutionary tree, but again we find that without exception, the fossils we find are ones that fit exactly with the evolutionary model.

    Myth no.7: The fossil record does not support evolution, as there are many 'missing links'

    Despite creationist protestations about 'missing links', there are lots of examples of transitional forms in the fossil record. Huge numbers of fossils have been found in China and the US in recent years which provide quite a detailed account of the evolution of birds - from sparse display feathers to non-flight plumage to gliding dinosaurs to powered flight (in fact, birds are classified as avian dinosaurs today). The evolution of humans, whales, horses and other modern species are also very well documented in the fossil record. Don't take creationists' word for it that transitional fossils are 'missing' - they aren't. Look them up!

    Also note that every time a new fossil is found, it creates an extra gap - where there was previously one gap between two species, on finding an intermediate form, you now have two gaps between those species! So we should expect that the number of gaps between fossils will increase as more ancient species are discovered (fossilization is rare enough that we will never find every link between every organism that ever lived), but the existence of gaps in the record is entirely expected and does no harm to the theory of evolution.

    Myth no.8: Evolution requires that a creature could have 'half an eye' or 'half an organ'

    All transitional forms were complete, fully formed organsims. At the time they lived, they were not transitional, they were current. Again such an argument displays complete ignorance of how evolution works (or in some cases could be a deliberate ploy to deceive). No animal ever had half an eye. The most primitive eye would have simply been a collection of light sensitive molecules - enough to provide a survival advantage, but not highly complex and refined like the eye of a human. The ability to detect shape, colour, depth, to focus, to adapt to different lighting conditions, etc. are all separate features which could each confer a survival advantage and evolve gradually - it does not have to jump from blindness to a fully formed human eye.

    Even now, across the animal kingdom, we find animals with varying degrees of vision - some are completely blind, some have very poor eyesight, some have good vision, some excel (some birds of prey for example have eyesight far superior to our own). Some have even lost their eyes through evolution - blind cave fish still have the basic structures for eyes, but due to their light deprived habitat, the 'cost' of having eyes (the resources needed to develop an eye could put towards some other feature or process that favours reproduction) has meant that for them, eyes no longer confer a survival advantage and they have gradually been lost.

    Scientists have not unraveled the detailed mechanisms by which every feature of every animal evolved. In some cases we have strong evidence of exactly how a feature formed, even down to the exact genetic mutations involved. In other cases we have a general idea based on skeletal structures in fossils or other evidence. In other cases, we can have an educated guess or come up with several alternatives. In some cases we have no idea how a feature came to be. There are limitations to what we can learn, and undoubtedly some things will always be a mystery, but the absence of a concrete explanation, or even a hypothetical explanation for a particular feature cannot be held as evidence that the feature could not have evolved - the failing is with human imagination and knowledge and the limitations of our place in history and relatively short life span, not with the theory of evolution, which has proved itself time and again to have extraordinary explanatory power. Even if there are factors at play other than those that have already been discovered, history has shown that when supernatural explanations have been invoked to explain the apparently inexplicable, simpler, natural explanations have often been found by means of scientific investigation, rendering the supernatural unnecessary (still, if you want to resort to the supernatural, that's up to you - there will likely always be gaps in our knowledge which can easily be filled in by a God until such time as new evidence comes to light).

    Myth no.9: Life/Species got here either by blind chance or by design. Probability rules out blind chance, leaving us with no choice but to accept design.

    This is a false dichotomy. Blind chance is not the only mechanism by which evolution occurs. Environmental pressure, natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, self-organisation, and other factors influence the outcome. Not all outcomes are equally probable, so trying to use the probability of chance events to discredit evolution is specious reasoning. When applied to the origin of life (as it often is), this is still problematic, as it is quite possible that abiogenesis is inevitable given certain conditions (however unlikely it might seem to someone who does not know how it happened).

    For example, rolling a dice is commonly accepted as invoking a random result - the number on the upper face is a result of blind chance. If the dice is weighted though, the result is no longer just blind chance - there is a stronger probability a certain outcome will be achieved. Likewise, natural processes can cause certain outcomes to be more likely than others, without any intelligent guidance.

    In the case of natural selection, we can use the analogy of a monkey sitting at a typewriter. If the monkey taps out random letters, the chances it will ever produce the entire works of Shakespeare are so small as to be regarded as impossible - even several million monkeys could tap away for billions of years and never produce the complete works of Shakespeare. But if you were to record each letter that is typed, keep any that are correct, and discard any that are incorrect (effectively applying a filter to the results), it becomes inevitable that the complete works of Shakespeare will be produced within a relatively short space of time. In fact this experiment has been performed using a few million 'virtual monkeys' (computer programs to randomly select letters), and it took just over 2 months to produce the entire works of Shakespeare (footnote: The experiment was performed by US programmer Jesse Anderson in 2011. Rather than keeping every letter that was correct, he only kept groups of 9 letters that were correct - otherwise it could have been done in a much shorter time. The concept is dealt with more thoroughly by Richard Dawkins in his 'weasel' thought experiment, which provides a somewhat closer analogy to what actually occurs in natural selection.)

    Natural selection is a filter which keeps the genetic information that confers a reproductive advantage, and discards any that is reproductively harmful, leading to ever more refined organisms, well adapted to their environment. That is not blind chance - it is non-random - but not intelligently guided either.

    Myth no.10: Evolutionists are biased against the evidence for a supernatural designer.

    It is true that scientists are humans and are just as prone to bias and prejudice as anyone else. That's why the scientific method is needed to weed out the effects of bias and ensure that conclusions are only reached based on empirical evidence that can be reliably tested. The peer review process also weeds out bias and mistakes, and even on occasion outright deceit. No such bias-correcting procedures are used for religious revelations!

    Where scientific hoaxes have been performed, it has been the scientific method that has exposed them as being false. If special creation had any scientific merit, it would withstand the rigours of the scientific method, but it doesn't. If someone has a better explanation for the diversity of life, the onus is on them to use the scientific method to demonstrate it. Until they do, evolution is the best explanation we have, and there is so much supporting evidence that virtually all biologists accept it as fact - these are experts who have studied the subject in much greater detail than most, and who know what they are talking about. To suggest that they are all mistaken, biased, or taking part in a worldwide conspiracy is quite a serious allegation, and whilst it is not unheard of for the majority of experts to be wrong about something, it is very rare in science, and has never happened with any well established scientific theory, so it would require substantial contradictory evidence to substantiate such a claim.

    Myth no.11: Evolution has no explanation for how new genetic information can be created

    Development of new features in an organism requires new information to appear in the genome. Since mutations involve changing what is already there, asking how new genetic information can be created is a good question. The vast majority of the DNA in our cells does not go into making genes - only strings of DNA that follow a certain pattern are interpreted as genes and encode how proteins should be organised. The rest of the DNA (about 98% of it in humans), is often referred to as 'junk DNA' - it is passed on from generation to generation, but doesn't actually affect the organism in any way. This 'junk DNA' provides a rich soup of raw materials for new genes to form.

    There are several ways that new genes can be created. Sometimes a gene will make an extra copy of itself or split in two, sometimes two genes will merge, and sometimes random mutations or copying errors in the junk DNA will spontaneously result in a new gene. We already discussed endogenous retroviruses (in myth no. 6, above), which can insert new genetic information in an organism. Some genes act as controllers for other genes, and can change the way other genes are expressed - in other words, changing the genetic recipe only slightly can have quite large implications for the resulting organism. In many cases, these changes are detrimental, but sometimes they are useful, and those useful changes are filtered through natural selection.

    A recent study of the genome of fruit flies found that about 90% of new genes were a result of the duplication of a gene and subsequent divergence. (footnote: Science 17 December 2010: Vol. 330 no. 6011 pp. 1682-1685.) The same study found that sometimes, when a gene is duplicated, although at first it is unnecessary baggage, it quickly adapts to provide a new function and becomes indispensable (the organism would die without it, even though its ancestor managed just fine). Gene duplication is relatively common, and provides plenty of scope for the development of new genetic information for natural selection to act on. That's not to say that every gene duplication results in novel features - the human genome is littered with dead "pseudogenes": duplications of genes which ended up not performing any function.

    Myth no.12: Microevolution is possible but macroevolution is not

    For the sake of convenience, some biologists have at times referred to "micro" and "macro" evolution to distinguish between small scale changes that occur within a population but do not give rise to new species, and larger scale changes that generally happen over a much longer time periods (thousands or even millions of years) and cannot be directly observed.

    Many, perhaps most, creationists make a qualitative distinction between the two (ie. they claim that microevolution and macroevolution are two different things) - accepting that microevolution occurs, but denying macroevolution - allowing for adaptation within a species (or a biblical 'kind', which doesn't really have a firm definition), but asserting that development of new species that are vastly different from their distant ancestors is not possible. For biologists, the distinction is not qualitative, but quantitative - the two expressions refer to exactly the same thing (evolution), just over different timescales. As small changes accumulate, they lead to larger changes over a long period of time.

    Many creationists say that it is wrong to make the assumption that small changes accumulate to create larger ones, however (besides the fact that the assumption is strongly based on observation), for that not to happen would require some kind of barrier - a point beyond which no further change is possible. Selective breeding is often used as an example of what happens in evolution (with survival and reproductive needs 'choosing' the organsims to breed from in place of a human). On the point of microevolution and macroevolution, creationists point out that there are limits to how much variation can be achieved by selective breeding, and that this never results in speciation, thus, the same must be true of natural selection.

    However, selective breeding as done by humans is highly intensive (we can't wait millions of years), and pays attention only to certain desired traits - ignoring (or being unaware of) the effects such breeding has on the overall fitness of the organism. Thus, although the desired trait is enhanced, this comes at a cost - the organism is no longer as fit, and in many cases this can lead to health problems and a limited life span (especially when the gene pool is very limited, as it often is with pedigree breeding programmes). The more the desired trait is enhanced, the greater this effect becomes.

    In nature, the reproductive fitness of the organism (ability to pass on its genes) is of paramount importance - traits that evolve always tend towards improving the chances of survival and reproduction - any cost to fitness incurred in the development of a new trait must be of lesser importance than the gain to the organism from the new trait (otherwise the organism cannot compete and dies without passing on its genes). This balance is an intrinsic part of the process, and although it comes with the baggage of requiring an extended period of time for changes to accumulate, it does away with the artificial barriers to large scale change experienced in selective breeding. There is no known mechanism for a hypothetical barrier to speciation, so until such time as someone discovers one, it can only be regarded as imaginary.

    With the special creation hypothesis, all of the above can be 'explained away' in one way or another. In fact, there is absolutely nothing that could possibly disprove special creation - the hypothesis is not falsifiable. To attempt to disprove special creation would be as futile as trying to disprove that everything was created 30 seconds ago and all our memories were implanted. Every possible outcome, every possible piece of evidence can be made to fit somehow. That is not the case with evolution - there are many ways that it could be proved wrong if it were wrong. To have such an overwhelming abundance of evidence all in striking agreement leaves us to choose between the possibility that a supernatural creator decided to create things in a way that made it look like they had evolved, or they really did evolve (the latter option does not preclude the process being started off by a creator, but the role of the creator becomes smaller and smaller as science discovers more and more about how the universe works).

    Of course there is lots more I could say, but the above should be enough to equip you to spot some of the flawed arguments that creationists use (and that I used to use myself). For more information, I would recommend 'The Greatest Show on Earth' by Richard Dawkins (ostensibly about the evidence for evolution, but I found it far more useful as an explanation of how evolution works), and 'Why Evolution is True' by Jerry Coyne.

  • Village Idiot
    Village Idiot

    It's way too long. For example, your section titled Evolution is 'only a theory' or a 'belief' or even 'requires faith'. is 817 words long. At one time it's length would have been ok but nowadays everyone has a short attention span. For example, your "Evolution is 'only a theory'" section could be condensed into this:

    A theory is a scientific explanation. It is called a theory regardless of whether it's proven or disproven. For example: Einstein's "theory of relativity" was proven over a hundred years ago but it's still referred to as a theory. Therefore the saying "it's only a theory" is meaningless since a theory can be called a theory long after it's been proven. The same applies to evolution.

    That's 66 words or 8 percent of the original. It may not include every detail or nuance that you want to get across but in in the real world it stands a better chance of being read.

    If you were to condense every section in a similar manner you may not have too much of a book - more like a booklet - but it would be more readable.

  • scary21

    I have only read down to Genetics. I will read the rest later. I will have to disagree with VI. If this is to be a BOOK then I don't think it is to long. If you want only a few pages he may be right.

    I love your writing. You make it very easy to understand.


  • maksutov
    Thanks for the feedback. Yes, it is part of a book, and way too long for a forum post, lol. It is also one of the longest sections of the book, and could probably do with paring down a bit more.
  • Coded Logic
    Coded Logic
    Evolution is compatible with creation by a supreme being.

    How have you determined this? I know of no examples of supreme beings evolving or causing other things to evolve. Can you please explain your methodology and research that has led you to this conclusion?

    Other than that one statement, I think this is a great resource for those facing common objections to evolution.

  • scary21

    I just finished reading the rest of your post.

  • disposable hero of hypocrisy
    disposable hero of hypocrisy
    Marking for future reading, looking forward to it!
  • maksutov

    Evolution is compatible with creation by a supreme being. How have you determined this?

    I tried to clarify that in myth no.1 - the theory of biological evolution by natural selection has nothing to say about how life started. Ergo, life could have been started off by a supreme being, then evolved, and that would still be compatible with the theory of evolution (this is known as theistic evolution). That is not an idea I subscribe to, nor would it ever qualify as a scientific theory, but there is nothing about the theory of evolution that requires there to be no God. The incompatibility arises between the special creation of Genesis and evolution, not between a supreme being and evolution. But if that wasn't immediately clear, I should perhaps re-word it slightly, thanks.

    scary21: I love your writing. You make it very easy to understand. ... I just finished reading the rest of your post.

    Thank you Sherry.

  • Phizzy

    I just speed-read your work, very well done!

    A phrase you may wish to add at the section on the Fossil record is one that I believe Richard Dawkins used : " The Theory of Evolution does not rely upon the Fossil Record, every fossil we find is simply a bonus".

  • maksutov
    Thanks Phizzy.

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