Disproving Evolution

Disproving Evolution August 17, 2012

On Facebook I shared this quote from Richard Dawkins, which came to me in poster form via George Takei:

Biologist Larry Moran chimed in both on Facebook and on his blog to point out that the statement is, at the very least, not entirely correct, and the extent to which it is true depends on what one is referring to by the word “evolution.” If, to use a classic example, a fossil of a rabbit was discovered in the Precambrian era, then that might require a major rewriting of the history of life on this planet. But it is not the case that, if we found that certain organisms had appeared earlier or later than we first thought – something that happens all the time as new fossils are found, evidence is re-examined, or dating methods are improved – this would disprove evolution.

But the quote from Richard Dawkins is correct in indicating that the evidence all consistently points in one direction. And so what could disprove evolution as currently understood? If the massive converging evidence pointing to a development of life on this planet from simple forms to more complex ones were to be shown to be problematic – say by suddenly finding clear evidence that mammals existed at the time from which our oldest fossils of simple life forms stem – then we would either have to reject evolution, or  accept that there had been a prior evolutionary history that was subsequently wiped out, with the process beginning anew, or perhaps that our planet had been visited by being from another world whose remains we had discovered. It is not just finding a fossil slightly earlier or later than we expect to that would make a difference.

This is what happens with theories. As more and more evidence is found to support them, the likelihood that any future evidence will require a radical discarding of the theory – as opposed to minor adjustments to the details – becomes unlikely. Many critics of science point to the history of our changing knowledge in ways that are completely off base. It is true that once humans assumed that the Earth was flat, and then that it was round but at the center of the cosmos, both being overthrown in turn in light of more detailed examination. But each time we have improved our understanding and moved closer to the truth. That future more precise measurements would ever cause us to simply reject that the Earth is roughly spherical is for all intents and purposes impossible.

Evolution has a comparable standing. The evidence from fossils, from genetics, from observation of and experiments with living organisms, all supports the theory of evolution – which, to say it yet again, does not mean “the guess of evolution” but “evolution the explanatory framework supported by and in turn making sense of a large array of data.”

As I near the end of this post, let me offer Larry Moran’s own statement in response to the quote from Richard Dawkins, proffered on both Facebook and his blog:

The statement is untrue. If we discover that a given species is older than we thought then we will just revise our view of the history of life on Earth. It will not disprove the fact of evolution and it will have no effect on evolutionary theory. It is a mistake to link the truth of evolution to our current understanding of the history of life. That history can be easily changed without threatening evolution.

And let me also share, with hat tip to Larry, a link to a more detailed discussion of the topic by T. Ryan Gregory, which clarifies the distinction between three different things which are sometimes all referred to as “evolution”: the fact that evolution occurs, the detailed theory about precisely how it occurs and why, and the path which the process of evolution is thought to have followed. Changes to the latter two do no invalidate the former, which is a matter of simple observation and rational deduction from an enormous amount of converging evidence.

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  • domy

    “… the fact that evolution occurs, the detailed theory about precisely how it occurs and why, and the path which the process of evolution is thought to have followed. Changes to the latter two do no invalidate the former, which is a matter of simple observation and rational deduction from an enormous amount of converging evidence. ”

    So, “the fact that evolution occurs” is not a scientific theory?
    or we do not know how ‘the fact that evolution occurs’ could be falsifiable?

    • “the fact that evolution occurs” is ambiguous. It can mean “some life forms on Earth owe their present form to evolution” or
      all life forms on Earth owe their present form to evolution”. The first is unarguably true – to falsify it we would have to throw out a mountain of evidence. That doesn’t make it unscientific.The second could be falsified, for instance by finding an island populated by sphinxes, mermaids, pegasi and other such unlikely things.

    • Popper’s falsification is slightly overrated; even he noted the use of simplicity, while not understanding that the former is simply a special case of the latter.

      To overturn evolution, you “just” need an alternative conjecture and description that is “simpler” (hiding some messy math in an sloppy English word) for describing the evidence — whether the simplicity is from the result of new conjecture, new evidence, or both.

      The problem is, the pile of evidence well-explained by the modern evolutionary-genetic synthesis is enormous, such that even having “and there’s anomalies X, Y, and Z that apparently just happened for no apparent reason” as part of the explanation isn’t enough of a handicap to allow any other alternate the edge. Things like Dawkins’ precambrian rabbit fossil would merely suggest a need to modify the current thinking in physics about the plausibility of closed loop space-time curves — aka, “a time machine”.

      You’re left needing not just one anomaly, but a gigantic pile of anomalies that evolution isn’t able to explain.

      Of course, there may be some new findings resulting in minor tweaks; say, showing that sympatric speciation plays more role and allopatric speciation less than previously thought; or vice-versa. But the core findings are bolted down pretty solidly.

  • Dr. David Tee

    With evolutionists providing the dating and location of a fossil it is hard to imagine that they would place any one of them in the wrong period and prove their own theory wrong.
    In other words, the claim above is false simply because it is a statement made out of safety. The people who take such a view know that their own will not upset the apple cart and if creationists do, then they can attack the creationist using faulty science as their hammer.
    There is no honesty in evolutinary thinking.

    • rmwilliamsjr

      There is no honesty in evolutinary thinking.

      there is an arrogance, a nastiness, a self-conceited smugness in such a statement that i really don’t think reflects the spirit of Jesus as I see him portrayed in the New Testament. they are all liars he cries, which i think tells us far more about “Dr. David Tee” than it does about the hundreds of thousands of hard working honest careful scientific researchers who are trying to understand this world we live it.

      there is a decided lack of graciousness, of an understanding of human nature, including his own, evident in calling so many people-liars.

      somewhere i think. “Dr. David Tee” has crossed a line from excessive confidence in his own thinking into hubris and delusion.

    • rmwilliamsjr

      There is no honesty in evolutinary thinking.

      This dismissal of evolutionary science as merely lies is one of the main mantras of AiG & K Ham et al as well. I’ve always seen it as 2 things: the 1st is the elimination of the need to study and come to grips with the TOE and the basic science behind it. what a great time saver for YECists, science is tough and time consuming, if you can avoid actually understanding it, you avoid a lot of effort. But the other more subtle reason is to call the scientific world liars is a moral judgement. Despite the fact that much of the initial work on the geological stratum was done by Christians looking for the Noahic flood, despite the fact that there are countless Christians working in modern biology, being able to dismiss them as liars and therefore morally evil allows you to answer why they are wrong in their science. they are evil. not mistaken, not mislead but evil.

      liars are willful, concealing the truth they known and spouting lies. YECists wish to paint most scientists as these willing liars, not simply mistaken about what they see in the world, but deliberately hiding God from the rest of us.

      it’s a strong position, because it allows no sympathy or compromise, nor any need to understand your opponents. for they are not simply wrong, needing education, but evil, needing redemption.

      but it is brittle to a personal relationship with either the data or the people doing science. once a fundamentalist kid begins to take science seriously and begins to get involved in the community of scholars, the fact is that they are sincere bright people. they are not lying about their research but are passionate to share and have others understand it. this knocks that key prop out of the YECist model of the scientific world and will lead to many new things for our young student.

    • arcseconds

      With evolutionists providing the dating and location of a fossil it is
      hard to imagine that they would place any one of them in the wrong
      period and prove their own theory wrong.

      Yes, it’s hard to imagine people who are making up fictions as they go along with an intent to deceive would ever do anything to contradict the lie they are telling.

      Yet this happens all the time in paleontology. Timelines are constantly being revised on the basis of new evidence that contradicts the previous theoryette.

      Your hypothesis (that it’s a bunch of lies told by venal people) results in a prediction (they would never deliberately pretend to find evidence that contradicts their account) which is wrong (this happens frequently).

      At what point do you start to doubt your hypothesis?

      (Does it ever make successful predictions?)

  • Zuma

    Radioactive dating method has been used by scientists to compute the age of fossils. Now question has to be raised. How reliably would Radioactive dating method be as nobody would live billion years to witness the accuracy of this method? The reliability of radioactive dating method is in question. How do you know the age of the universe is only a few thousands years and yet the age of the universe has turned up to be billion years due to the inaccuracy of this dating method?

    • rmwilliamsjr

      one of the interesting things coming out of the innocence project is how very unreliable eyewitness testimony really is. just because someone was there to report an event why should i trust their testimony? it is one of the mysteries about AiG/KHam and their “were you there?” campaign, the writer’s of Gen are not eyewitnesses to the events, nor do they claim to be, yet YECists wish to make this eyewitness epistemology(only human witnesses give reliable testimony) a key element in their drive to wedge YECism into churches and schools.

    • The heart of your question gets into the problem of induction, which requires some fairly tedious and fundamental math.

      As to the more basic question of radioisotope dating, I’d suggest reviewing CD0, CF200, and CE410 sections (and sub-items: CD001, CD002, CD004, CD010, CD011, CD011.1, CD011.2, CD011.3, CD011.4, CD011.5, CD011.6, CD012, CD013, CD013.1, CD014, CD014.1, CD015, CD016, CD020, CD031, CF201, CF210, CF220, CE410, CE411, CE411.1, CE412) of the Talk.Origins Index to Creationist Claims. If you’re less interested in the science and more interested in a philosophical answer, a short one would be: “Parsimony” — which results as a theorem from the math I alluded to. (It’s possible to avoid the theorem, but only by taking axioms that preclude ever being able to tell a hawk from a handsaw — an alternative philosophically legitimate, but even worse for Christian theology than Parsimony.)