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.

  • http://dharmicatheist.tumblr.com/ Iqbal Selvan

    An awesome post, most of the religious people are known the fact that evolution is true or at least skeptical about the god’s creation, but they don’t want to admit it out, due to the political or personal reasons. I indeed met many religious people, and they were saying weather evolution is true or wrong, they are in a position cannot accept it, because it goes against their religion. To me evolution make’s sense because it provides a lot of evidence and proof, where as other theories like creationism neither provide evidence nor proof, except their religious texts.

  • http://deusdiapente.wordpress.com J. Quinton

    “many creationists seem unable to let go of the claim that evolution contradicts the laws of thermodynamics”

    What’s always deliciously ironic about this statement is that not only is it wrong, what creationists themselves believe — disembodied minds, angels, demons (and probably god too) — is what actually breaks every law of thermodynamics. A non-bodied soul is basically a perpetual motion machine.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    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.

    I think you took a wrong track on that one. It is a fact that a large majority of evolutionary biologists are atheistic. All evidence aside, Plantinga is saying that for these atheists, creationism is not an option, since they reject a Creator. So for the majority of evolutionary biologists, there is no alternative to acceptance of evolution. He is wrong to assume that evolutionary biologists had their religion set before entering the field, and that they would not be swayed by evidence.
    As for evolutionary biologists who are believers, there are some famous ones in the past, such Dobzhansky and Fisher. No current evolutionary biologists come to mind; Ken Miller is a cell biologist, and Francis Collins is a geneticist.

    • Chris Hallquist

      He says all that–but also says it in the context of asking why acceptance of evolution is so dominant among scientists.

      As for famous evolutionary biologists specifically, that’s a pretty damn small subset we’re talking about. How many period can you name? There’s Gould, Dawkins… who else? Trivers is famous to me but maybe not so famous generally. When I reach for names of other living evolutionary biologists, the next one that comes up is Amotz Zahavi, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t really count as famous. Lynn Margulis?

      Also, from what I understand, there is a tendency for elite scientists, the people who make the National Academy, to be even less religious than scientists in general, but that doesn’t tell you about the evolutionary biology faculty at a random university. It would be nice to have poll data on that, but unfortunately the Pew data isn’t that fine-grained.

      • Reginald Selkirk

        Lynn Margulis is dead, and she had some very kooky ideas, once you got beyond her one kooky idea which worked (endosymbiosis).
        Jerry Coyne. Will Provine (recently retired). Francisco Ayala(an accomodationist who is cagey about his own beliefs).
        Data on the religious beliefs of evolutionary biologists; already mentioned: “The Cornell Evolution Project,” carried out by Greg Graffin under the advisement of Provine.

        • Reginald Selkirk

          Richard Lenski.

        • Chris Hallquist

          D’oh for not noticing Cornell Evolution project. Though what’s up with all the religious scientists in other fields agreeing, according to Plantinga? Just being duped by those awful atheistic evilutionary biologists?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The Wikipedia page on “Theistic Evolution” has a section on “Evolutionary biologists who were also theists” and “Contemporary advocates of theistic evolution.”
    Results from The Cornell Evolution Project, a survey of the views on religion of evolutionary biologists conducted by Greg Graffin, show that an overwhelming majority of evolutionary biologists are atheist; one sub-field that stands out as having a higher number of believers is palaeontology.

  • Nolan

    “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.”

    This sounds a little bit like the genetic fallacy. “Criticisms of evolution are bad, therefore evolution is true.” A positive case, even a short one that you don’t intend to defend, would fill the gap here.

    • Chris Hallquist

      No, “genetic fallacy” is attacking a belief because of how it’s generated. And sounding a bit like a fallacy does not make something a fallacy. There’s nothing fallacious about saying, “I see the experts pretty much all agreed on one view, and people attacking the expert consensus massively failing at basic factual accuracy, so I’m going to trust the experts.”

      • Patrick

        Not to mention, those fallacies are only fallacious if you’re doing formal deductive logic.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      A positive case, even a short one that you don’t intend to defend, would fill the gap here.

      You can find a good synopsis of the case for evolution in many good books, at various reading levels. Several years ago I saw a ‘panel discussion’ (a debate by another name) with Cornelius Hunter for ID, and two actual biologists standing up for evolution. Hunter started out with a “Gish gallop” of lots of bogus creationist arguments. Then the two biologists had their turn. They simply ignored what Hunter had said and laid out the evidence for evolution:
      Fossils
      Nested Hierarchy of anatomical/physiological similarities
      DNA evidence
      Biogeography.

      • Reginald Selkirk

        You could also toss in that evolution has both explanatory value and predictive value.

      • Reginald Selkirk
      • Nolan

        That’s basically what I was hoping Chris would mention to tighten up the argument. I do think it would be easy to mention the major lines of evidence for evolution with further resources, all in a single sentence. When the only reason presented to believe evolution is true is the bad critiques, it looks like an insufficient case. The fallacy fallacy might be more accurate than genetic fallacy.

        “Argument A for the conclusion C is fallacious.
        Therefore, C is false.”

        Or arguments for the falsity of evolution are fallacious. Therefore it is false that evolution is false (or evolution is true).

        • Patrick

          How about,

          “Tons of smart people have spent a great deal of time investigating the issue of evolution with the intent of refuting it. The sum of all of their work is stupid to the point of insulting our intelligence. If there were good reasons to disagree with evolution, most likely they would have found them. Instead, they failed horribly and hilariously. Our certainty in the accuracy of the theory of evolution should therefore be significantly strengthened by this debacle.”

          Many fallacies of deductive reasoning go away when you stop engaging in deductive logic.

          PS- this is actually just a subject matter specific form of THIS argument, with which you should be familiar: “A scientist has advanced Hypothesis X. Multiple research teams have created experiments designed to obtain various evidence which, if found, would refute Hypothesis X. No research team found evidence that actually refuted Hypothesis X. Hypothesis X, having withstood peer review and experimental testing, is therefore better supported than before.”

          • Nolan

            Patrick, I think your line of reasoning does work, and avoids possible accusations of fallacious reasoning. To be clear, I don’t think Chris was necessarily committing a fallacy, just that it would be easy to interpret his claims as fallacious, and that a slight addendum would head off such an interpretation.

            I agree that Chris’ claims need not be considered a deductive argument, but I still think it’s fair to say that it is insufficient to merely point out the flaws in critiques of evolution to conclude that scientists are right about evolution. It only requires a small inferential step to close up the gap, which is what I suggest occur. One could make a short case that consensus is positive evidence for the truth of evolution, or make a few statements summing up the major lines of evidence supporting evolution and the job is done.

        • RobMcCune

          You’re leaving out the part where arguments for evolution are valid. If arguments for a conclusion are valid and arguments against it are not, then one should believe the conclusion is true. Notice I said believe, since we’re talking about being convinced by arguments.

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  • MNb

    Come on, RS, give CH a break. He specifically mentioned several sources where you can find all the positive arguments for the evolution theory anyone needs. There really is no need to summarize it here.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Thank you.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    A bit tangential to the OP, but there is a category of “philosophers commenting on science; evolution in particular, and doing so badly,” and Thomas Nagel falls into that category. Jerry Coyne collects some criticisms of Nagel’s book on the subject.
    Tom Nagel’s antievolution book gets thrice pummeled


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