The Fact of Evolution

Dr John's Q&AFrom 1989 to 2006 the ICR ran a Frequently Asked Questions column – sometimes referred to as “Dr John’s Q&A” – in it’s Acts & Facts newsletter. For 2013 they appear to have revived the concept in the form of a new series of “Creation Q&A” articles. The first is by Nathaniel Jeanson, and his question is “Is Evolution an Observable Fact?

“Evolution is fact!” is one of the most popular evolutionary assertions made by evolutionists, ranging from those at the National Center for Science Education to those working for PBS. Proponents of Charles Darwin want you to believe that his hypothesis is being confirmed right before our eyes.

The NCSE page linked to does not actually make this claim, and neither does the PBS FAQ. Not a great start.

A piece of pumiceWhether or not evolution is a “fact” is a complicated issue. Imagine you have in your hand a rock of some unknown type. The density, texture, and reactivity of the rock are all facts about it that you can easily determine. You might develop a theory that the rock is, say, pumice. If the predictions of this theory match your observations better than the alternatives you might reasonably conclude that the rock is indeed pumice. I would say that evolution being a fact or not is the same kind of issue as whether or not the statement “the rock in my hand is pumice” is also a fact. Importantly even if you decided that evolution wasn’t a fact by your definition of the term, that would not automatically mean that it wasn’t true.

But that’s not the kind of discussion the Jeanson wants to have. Instead, he wants to prove that evolution is not being observed, which has little to do with the ‘fact’ issue. First, he makes sure to impress upon his readers how evolution is against the teachings of the Bible:

Darwin’s ideas directly contradict the scriptural teaching on the origin of species. He proposed that all species derive from one or a few species (universal common ancestry). This concept contradicts Genesis 1, which teaches that God created different creatures “after their kind.” Darwin also claimed that each species’ original ancestors arose by natural selection, not by a direct act of God. Finally, Darwin’s timescale for the origin of species—millions of years—is irreconcilable with the time of creation, which occurred about 6,000 years ago.

There is much to dispute in the above paragraph, but today we shall give him the benefit of the doubt. Given what Jeanson is trying to prove, bringing in the bible seems quite odd. And it gets weirder:

So how do evolutionists get away with making this claim? By assuming that all change is evolutionary change. Why is this assumption wrong? Because the Bible permits biological change to a certain degree and, therefore, not all change is evolutionary change.

It also becomes clear here, however. Jeanson is treating the issue as a kind of zero-sum game. Either evolution is true, or young Earth creationism. If one is wrong, the other must be right. What’s more, if YEC allows something that automatically removes its ability to be used as evidence for evolution.

This willingness to accept a limited degree of “biological change” is another example of science altering views on the bible. There was a time, after all, when species were believed to be mutable. But we looked at that yesterday, so moving along:

Specifically, the Flood account of Genesis 6-8 demonstrates that limited biological change can occur and has already occurred. When God commanded Noah to bring the land-dwelling, air-breathing “kinds” on board the Ark, He required that “male and female” of each kind be taken. This implies that reproductive compatibility identifies membership within a kind. Breeding experiments identify the classification rank of family (kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species) as roughly defining the boundaries of each kind.

A fire antThe ‘family’ claim is cited to a Todd Wood paper from 2006 in the Creation Research Society Quarterly Journal, called “The Current Status of Baraminology.” One of the most important problems with this idea is that taxonomical ranks at that level are arbitrary. Consider that “ant” refers to the members of the family Formicidae, whereas insects in general are a “class.” Birds, meanwhile, are also a class all of their own, even though there are about twice as many ant species alone than there are birds – we don’t even have to bring the beetles into it. Why is this? The short answer is “because,” but I assure you that the long answer has little to do with any kind of fundamental biological truth.

Also fairly arbitrary is the division between micro and macro evolution which Jeanson does not mention but is implicitly using to separate evolution that he is prepared to accept from that which he doesn’t think could possibly happen. Given the large amount of change that family-level variation represents he has no evidence-based justification for excluding evolution on even larger scales. This is nicely demonstrated by his example:

Since Noah brought only two of each kind instead of two of each species, we know that many new species have arisen since the Flood. For example, Noah likely had two members of the family Equidae, and from this pair we have the species (horses, donkeys, zebras) and breeds (pony to Clydesdale) of equids observed today. Big biological changes within created kinds are perfectly compatible with Scripture.

As everyone should know, horses and donkeys have different numbers of chromosomes. That represents a fairly large change to be explained away as microevolution, and indeed a similar difference between humans and chimps is sometimes used by creationists to claim that we could not have a common anscestor. If you can accept that donkeys and horses arose from a single pair of animals then you had better have good reason to reject further modification. But Jeanson cannot provide such.

We can now revisit the evolutionary claim with which we began this article and evaluate it without making the erroneous evolutionary assumption that all change is evolutionary change. Using biblically appropriate language, we can interrogate the claim that evolution is fact with two questions. Do we observe change within a kind? Yes. Breeding experiments are the premier example of this. Do we ever observe one kind (i.e., one family) of species change into another kind (or family)? No. Every example of biological change that has ever been observed in real time has been change within a kind.

Another problem here is that from the definition of kind Jeanson has given us – determined from whether or not the organism can interbreed – would automatically mean that no matter what changes we observe, they would have to be within the same kind. If we observed a worm giving birth to an organisms that gave birth to an organism that… etc, all the way to an elephant, all that would prove to a creationist is that worms and elephants were part of the same ‘kind.’

Though there is another aspect to consider: polyploidy. If through some accident the offspring of an organism has twice the number of chromosomes it should have it would be unlikely to be able to interbreed back with the original species. This is called “instantaneous speciation,” and is quite common in plants (less so in animals). This would, in fact, create a new species that would by Jeanson’s definition be a new ‘kind’ as well. Unfortunately for him, this isn’t impossible. I don’t know if it has been directly observed in the manner Jeanson wishes, but in a number of animals it’s fairly obvious that it has occurred to the extent where it would be quite impossible for him to deny it.

But he goes on, oblivious:

The evidence for the biblical model is so strong that even the world’s most famous living evolutionist, Richard Dawkins, must concede this point. “We can’t see evolution happening because we don’t live long enough,” he said in a 2009 interview. In other words, evolution is unobservable.

Again with the zero-sum thing: just because evolution may be difficult to observe directly by its very nature does not, by any stretch of the imagination, provide evidence for any brand of creationism. And then we come to crazy town:

Wow. Not only is the “Evolution is fact!” claim false, but the complete opposite is true. Furthermore, since evolution is not observable, evolution isn’t even science! Yet, somehow in spite of this, Dawkins still concludes, “Evolution is a fact.” In light of what we’ve just discussed and what he himself admitted, we know he reached his conclusion in spite of the evidence—not because of it.

To check whether or not Dawkins does say “Evolution is a fact” you will have to watch the video yourself. I don’t think there’s much point, however. The issue of whether or not evolution is a ‘fact’ cannot be resolved via the methods Jeanson is using.

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5 thoughts on “The Fact of Evolution

  1. “The Bible permits biological change to a certain degree.” Where on earth does he find that in the text? He doesn’t, of course. What he finds is a story about a flood and a big boat that saved enough animals and people to start a new population. Then he looks at the world and finds a huge variety of life, far too many different forms for there to have been room on a boat for all of their ancestors. So he has to propose a theory to account for the difference between what the story says is possible and what he actually observes.
    Nowhere in the texts is this theory even hinted at. It comes entirely from the thought processes of the creationists who then take a sledgehammer and make it fit the stories.
    The theory can be examined using conventional scientific criteria. Does it propose a plausible mechanism for establishing the observed diversity within the time space of a few thousand years? I am not a biologist but what I read suggests that the answer is no. Does it make testable and useful predictions? I leave it to the biologists to ask and answer the appropriate questions.
    From a scientific point of view creation science is woolly-minded nonsense.
    From a theological point of view it is not only nonsense it is entirely unnecessary and counter-productive.

    • Yes, the Bible refers to going forth and multiplying – not ‘diversifying within your kinds’.

  2. Few things that are decidable as “facts” are more serious than the convicting by juries of accused persons as “guilty of committing capital (execution-worthy) crimes; yet many dozens of people have been convicted (found “guilty” beyond reasonable doubt) of UNWITNESSED capital crimes by juries on the basis of overwhelming circumstantial and forensic (indirect scientific) evidence, and many of those people have been executed for those crimes.

    And the great majority of the community of evolution-denying Bible-believers APPROVE of this state of judicial affairs respecting guilt beyond reasonable doubt of (and execution for) even unwitnessed capital crimes if the abundance, diversity and quality of the circumstantial and indirect forensic evidence warrants.

    …yet they DRAW A LINE line at accepting the scientific community’s provisional judging the evolutionary diversification of species and higher taxa from prior species to be a historical fact beyond reasonable doubt on the basis of a a presently overwhelming mountain of diverse quality INDIRECT “forensic”/scientific evidence because that evolutionary diversification has not been observed/witnessed? Yielding instead to science-contradicting interpretations of translations of copies of long-lost original autographs of (largely unknown) Bronze- and Iron-Age ancients concerning unwitnessed beginnings of Earth and first-life???

    The rational mind REELS!

  3. Humanity belongs to the great ape family, yet I’d be willing to bet the author denies we share a common ancestor with chimps which makes his argument that kind = family special pleading. “The change permitted by creationism is whatever is required by my beliefs.”

  4. There isn’t much point to address science denialism on its own level. These religious texts are wrong on the history of cosmology (matter before radiation), astronomy (Earth before Sun) and geology (global flood), so why wouldn’t they be wrong on biology (wrong order of speciation, one original human breeding pair and created from “goo to you” respectively rib to sib to boot)? They are myths without any hope of capturing facts.

    Which gets us to evolution as fact. Evolutionist T. Ryan Gregory likes to point out that “evolution is a fact, a theory and a path!” Meaning, if I interpret him correctly, that it is an observable fact that the process happens, it has a theory describing the process, and the process has taken a specific pathway (phylogeny) out of many possible.

    That the process of evolution is observable, by way of its theory constraining what we can look for, is no different than that the process of gravitation is observable. I would contend that processes are much more observable, because of their constrained theories, than specific objects like pumice.

    Observing pumice is like observing a biological species like a cat. It can be fuzzy at the individual level. Yes, even if we can’t classify the individual it is still a rock (organism) and there still exist pumice (cats). But these specifics are not what we mean when we say that generics like gravity (evolution) is a fact. Then we have abstracted, and much more solidified, the observation.

    As for not observing evolution happen, I believe Dawkins means at the complex multicellular species level. We do see evolution happen on human time scales as HIV overwhelms the immune system by rapid evolutionary change or when cancers do the same over decades, when HIV and cancers evolve immunity to drugs, when flu viruses evolve new variants every flu season.

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