The evidence for evolution

Previously: Neuroscience and the soul

The first thing I need to say about evolution and religion is that what I am not arguing–and to my knowledge no one on my side of the debate is arguing–is that you cannot accept the theory of evolution and be religious. Whether evolution can fit comfortably into a religious worldview is another matter, but the idea that only those evil atheists accept evolution is a creationist fantasy (one which I hope even most creationists know better than to believe).

If you need proof, just look at Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller, two religious scientists who’ve been major public advocates of the theory of evolution. And lest you think they’re alone in this, the Pew Research Center has found that, while American scientists are less likely to be religious than the general population, it’s still the case that 33% say they believe in God, and another 18% say they believe in “a universal spirit or higher power.” It’s safe to assume that virtually all of these believing scientists accept the theory of evolution–Pew has also found that 97% of scientists do.

I won’t go over the evidence for evolution here, because it’s already been done by scientists who know a lot more about the evolution, and have a lot more experience explaining evolution, than I do. For those who don’t know much about the subject and want to know more, I could recommend a lot of resources, but I’ll limit myself to three: Richard Dawkins’ book The Greatest Show on Earth, Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution is True, and the website TalkOrigins.org. I’m an especially big fan of TalkOrigins—it’s free and instantly available to anyone with internet access, two things I’m strongly in favor of.

I should add that I’m not an evolutionary biologist, and while I’ve done quite a bit of reading about the evolution-creationism debate, there are other people who know far more about it than I do. Why, then, am I so confident the scientists are right about evolution? A large part of the reason is the persistent inability of anti-evolutionists to get their facts straight.

For example, many creationists seem unable to let go of the claim that evolution contradicts the laws of thermodynamics. That claim is wrong for reasons that are obvious to anyone who did well in freshmen chemistry, but I’ve even seen it promoted by William Dembski, one of the leading lights of the “Intelligent Design” movement (a movement based around making most of the same claims self-described creationists make, while insisting loudly they are not creationists).

Or take leading philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga. In 1991, Plantinga wrote an essay titled, “When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible,” which opens with a very clear statement of one of the main sources of conflict between science and religion:

Taken at face value, the Bible seems to teach that God created the world relatively recently, that he created life by way of several separate acts of creation, that in another separate act of creation, he created an original human pair, Adam and Eve, and that these our original parents disobeyed God, thereby bringing ruinous calamity on themselves, their posterity and the rest of creation.

Whereas contemporary science, Plantinga realizes, says otherwise. On the age of the Earth, Plantinga accepts that it is billions of years old, because although he accepts Biblical inerrancy he’s decided it’s not so clear that the Bible really teaches a young Earth. On the other hand, he insists that that “One need not be a fanatic, or a Flat Earther, or an ignorant Fundamentalist” to be a young Earth creationist.

And when it comes to the theory of evolution itself, Plantinga rejects it. He attempts to argue the evidence is weak by repeating a number of stock creationist arguments, including at least one real howler: he complains of “the nearly complete absence, in the fossil record, of intermediates between such major divisions as, say, reptiles and birds, or fish and reptiles, or reptiles and mammals.”

What makes this such a howler is that Plantinga quotes Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Panda’s Thumb in support of this point–yet ignores what Gould has said about creationist misrepresentations of his work:

Faced with these facts of evolution and the philosophical bankruptcy of their own position, creationists rely upon distortion and innuendo to buttress their rhetorical claim. If I sound sharp or bitter, indeed I am—for I have become a major target of these practices….

Since we [Gould and his colleague Niles Eldredge] proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists—whether through design or stupidity, I do not know—as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups.

These quotes come from Gould’s essay “Evolution as Fact and Theory,” which also appears in Plantinga’s bibliography, but he only cites it to portray Gould as part of a rigid “orthodoxy.” Plantinga completely ignores the parts that would have told him he was misrepresenting Gould’s work.

One other point about Plantinga’s essay is worth making: Plantinga tries to explain away the scientific consensus in favor of evolution by arguing that evolutionary biologists are mostly atheists and for atheists, evolution is “the only game in town.” This explanation can’t be right, though, because it doesn’t account for the fact that the overwhelming majority of religious scientists accept evolution too.

On the other hand, I think there’s a sense in which evolution is the only game in town: it’s the only game in town if it’s important to you to have your theories supported by the evidence. Creationists spend lots of time trying to find flaws in the evidence for evolution, but they never even try to present comprable evidence in favor of their own views. Since Plantinga has spent much of his career arguing he doesn’t need any evidence for his religious beliefs, I suppose he doesn’t care.

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