Four Things That Evolution Isn’t

I read this Chick Tract comic, recently. I’d seen them before, but for some reason it was this week, and this particular article, that riled me so much. I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever before been quite so agitated by something as harmless as a comic.

In the comic, an arrogant and obnoxious biology professor argues in front of a class with a Christian student on the topic of evolution. By a combination of bad science, straw man arguments, a veiled ad hominem attack (the lecturer really is a model of intolerance) and the ultimate false dichotomy – that the only alternative to the theory of evolution involves the implication that Christ must have died for our sins – the student persuades his teacher that his acceptance of evolution is incorrect.

It’s a weekend for pet hates, for me, and I suspect that the thing that really got my goat with this comic was this particular panel:

In this panel, the student makes the premise that there are “six basic concepts of evolution”, and the professor agrees, listing them. But most of the concepts have nothing to do with evolution at all!

(if anybody thinks it’s strange that the thing that annoyed me about this piece of propaganda wasn’t it’s conclusion but one of it’s premises, they could stand to know me a little better – I have no objection to a belief in whatever you like, so long as it doesn’t tread on my toes… but I’m not keen on people mis-representing one another’s positions)

The first four of the six basic concepts of evolution expressed in the comic are:

  1. Cosmic Evolution – the Big Bang making hydrogen. The theory of evolution has nothing whatsoever to say about the appearance of the Universe and all of the time, space and matter therein. The author seems to have confused the theory of evolution with, perhaps the big bang theory and and other cosmogenic theories.
  2. Chemical Evolution – the appearance of higher [heavier] elements. Again, the theory of evolution has nothing to say about the fact that there’s more than just hydrogen and helium in the Universe. On the other hand, nuclear fusion it’s reasonably well-understood physics by now: we can do it in a lab, and we have strong, experimentally-backed theories about how it happens in stars and the like.
  3. Evolution of stars and planets from gas – yet again, the theory of evolution has no statement to make on the formation of heavenly bodies (a term I use with no irony whatsoever). This time the author’s gotten confused, probably, with the nebular hypothesis, the most popular contemporary explanation of the development of solar systems and galaxies. It must be admitted: the hypothesis isn’t without it’s faults (to do with stuff like the conservation of angular momentum in accretion disks, and other stuff you don’t want to have to think about without either a degree in space physics or, at least, a pint in front of you). But it’s still got nothing to do with evolution.
  4. Organic Evolution – as it’s put so crudely in the comic, “life from rocks”. This still doesn’t have anything to do with the theory of evolution, which only describes mechanisms by which organisms can change (with the potential to form new species as well as to produce adaptation within a species). This time around, the author seems to be getting the theory of evolution mixed up with theories of abiogenesis, of which there several, and of which many are mutually-compatible (i.e. two of them could, perhaps, both be factual).

Only the last two concepts – macro-evolution and micro-evolution (which are only generally described in separate terms for the benefit of those who would argue that one is possible while the other is not: in scientific circles, it’s virtually unheard-of to discuss the two as if they were separate ideas, as they are in fact the same idea based upon the same scientific understanding).

I could spend time picking apart the rest of the comic, but it wouldn’t achieve anything: all I really wanted to do is to point out that there are a number of very different and unrelated theories that seem to be often misunderstood – sometimes by both sides – in debates on the subject of creationism, and in debates on the subject of atheism.

I’ve come across it a lot myself, as an atheist: people have told me that, as an atheist, I must believe in certain things, and then proceeded to attack those things, when these premises may well be flawed (especially if they’re coupled with a misunderstanding of what those premises actually mean, as was the case in this comic).

  • Yes, I’m an atheist – which to me means that I have observed no compelling evidence for the existence of any deities (as defined by any non-naturalistic, non-pantheistic explanation, on the subject of which I’m ignostic). I’m also agnostic – which means that I believe that I do not know for certain, which I maintain is a perfectly rational position and is perfectly compatible with atheism. Don’t agree? This is the diagram I’m working from. While I find the concept of the existence of a deity ludicrous and implausible, it’s impossible to disprove, just like Russel’s teapot.
  • I also happen to accept the theory of evolution, because it’s a strong model with a lot of compelling evidence for it, and I haven’t yet seen a stronger one, although I’m open to the possibility that one exists – Lamarkism, an alternative theory that could describe some of the evidence we’ve seen so far, is probably due a comeback.
  • I accept that abiogenesis has almost certainly occurred (that there was a point at which there was no life, and now – ta-da – there is!). I don’t know enough about molecular biology to make a statement in any direction about which of the competing theories is the strongest; however, all of the scientific explanations I’ve heard have always appeared to be stronger, to me, than any of the superstitious ones. I accept in principle the notion of a biogenetic start to life on Earth (life from elsewhere), but haven’t seen any evidence for it that is not speculative.
  • Despite great strides in cosmogenesis in recreating theoretical early-Universe conditions that form functional and consistent models, I – like, I believe, every other human – do not know “what happened before that?” (or even if such a question is valid at all). I’ve always had a personal fondness for the cyclic model, although I appreciate that it’s riddled with faults and, in fact, raises as many questions as it resolves – I just like it for it’s almost-poetic completeness. I gather that it’s hard to accept modern understanding of the cyclic model without also accepting loop quantum gravity, which I don’t even understand, but as a model, it still makes me feel comfortable. Regardless: fundamentally, I don’t know “what happened first,” and I dispute that anybody else does, either.

My point is, though, that all of these things can be taken independently, and I think it’s important that people understand and accept that. I’ve met evolutionist theists, biogenetic anti-evolutionists, and even folks who believe that while a creator deity exists, created the universe, set life in motion, and then ceased to exist – they’re atheist abiogenetic creationists. And that’s fine. I think they’re all wrong, and they probably think I am too, but that’s not a problem: we’ve a right to be wrong.

So next time somebody tells you what they believe about the existence or non-existence of a god or gods, their acceptance or not of the theory of evolution, their idea about the initial appearance of life, of their belief in the quintessential beginnings of the universe, please don’t assume that you can guess the rest: there are some surprising folks out there with whom you might have more in common than you think.

(and look, I managed to avoid mentioning my thoughts on ethics and morality and on determinism entirely!)

3 replies to Four Things That Evolution Isn’t

  1. Wow.

    1) Wow. That’s an astoundly aggravating comic. I actually followed the link before I read the rest of the post, and I had one Hell of a time trying to work out what “side” it was on; I was on panel 30 of 36 [“I don’t know”] before I was over half sure that they weren’t just trying to send up both the super-arsey tutor and the super-arsey student*

    2) Anyone ever tell you that you know about some really complicated diagrams?

    3) Nice post, by the way.

    *FFS. Seriously; I can’t possibly be the only one that uses honourifics as a term of abuse, and anyone saying “Sir” that much has got to be filling it chock full of venom. (Actually, thinking about it, I probably pinched that tactic from Unman, Wittering and Zigo

  2. Really nice post. I was trying to explain only a few days ago that just because I don’t think anyone can be perfectly sure about anything, including the existence of deities, doesn’t make me agnostic *instead* of atheist. I’m both! I’m agnostic about everything, but that doesn’t mean I hold no strong opinions or beliefs or that I think there’s a 50/50 chance of gravity going downwards each day. I just think you never get to 100% confidence about anything. Nature of imperfect sensors, incomplete data, and all that.

    I suppose it’s about labels for other people vs the labels they use for themselves. But I don’t know how to resolve the problem that there’s very often a disparity between the two.

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