October 16, 2014 by Devin
Bill Nye’s latest book, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation comes out on November 4th. Nye has been an excellent and understanding voice in spreading education about science even to people who do not want to hear it, so I am looking forward to his book.
In honor of that, I decided I wanted to go over some common misconceptions about evolution and give some basic education as to why they are misconceptions.
1. Evolution is just a theory
I remember actually spouting this one off myself a long time ago. This idea come from a fundamental misunderstanding of the word, “theory.” Yes, evolution is a theory, but that does not mean it is not true or it is up for debate. A quick Google search provides the following definition:
a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.
In other words, Evolution being a theory simply means that the theory of evolution is a collection of ideas used to explain a phenomenon. Gravity is also a theory, but you will not see anyone jumping out a window going, “It’s just a theory! It could be wrong!”
2. Evolution contradicts the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics
This is a fun one and allows me to use my favorite science word: entropy. Entropy is a measure of disorder. A puzzle that is not put together has a higher entropy than a puzzle put together, for instance. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy is always increasing. When you eat food, you’re taking something ordered and breaking it down and making it disordered, so net entropy is increasing. This is true for every chemical reaction in known existence.
What does this have to do with evolution? Critics sometimes point out how ordered organisms are today, especially with all our fancy multicellular systems and organs. How could this happen if entropy is always increasing? The thing these critics do not understand, though, is that entropy can decrease in one area as net entropy increases. Some beings can become more and more ordered as long as there is something becoming more and more disordered in the same process (for example, a giant ball of ordered flaming energy providing the nourishment and resources for such organisms to exist).
3. Evolution is about how life began
This is a short semantical point, but evolution concerns the origin of species, not the origin of life. Why does that matter? Well, it does not matter incredibly much, but if you are going to try and critique evolution, criticize it for what it says, not for what you think it says.
4. There is such a thing as “micro” and “macro” evolution
I have heard this bandied around a lot with more educated Creationists. This idea is simply: species can change, but they can’t change species. A rabbit may microevolve to hop better and eat different foods, but none of its descendants will ever be squirrels. To support this argument, Creationists like to point out how species to species change has never been observed.
But this idea comes from a false conception about reality: that species exist in the first place.
Well, okay, species do exist, but not in the same way that this idea infers. Species do not exist like Plato’s ideal forms, which would have every iteration of the specific species spinning off from an ideal species. Species exist in the same way that colors exist.
Take a cup of blue paint. Add a drop of yellow paint in it, and mix it up. Is it still blue? Chances are, most people would still call that blue. Now add another drop. Is it blue now? If you kept adding drops, eventually it would begin to have a greenish tint, eventually becoming something people would describe as blue-green, then just straight green. And if you kept adding drops, eventually it would become yellow, but at no point during this process would you be able to add a single drop and go, “Oh yeah, this is definitely a completely different color than the one before.”
It is important to realize with this exercise that there are no ideal colors. There is no perfect shade of blue or green or yellow, simply a collection of shades that we, for simplicity’s sake, refer to as blue or green or yellow, and the lines between them are blurred.
Species work in the same way. There is no ideal dog: simply a collection of organisms that resemble each other closely enough for us to refer to them as one word, but the lines between those organisms and others, like foxes or wolves, is blurred similarly to colors.
This exercise also illustrates the ridiculousness of differentiating types of evolution. The difference between microevolution and macroevolution is like the difference between adding a drop of paint and adding a bucket of paint. In other words, they are both the same process, just one is more of that process. Because evolution works so slowly, we are not going to see one species become completely unrecognizable from its previous self (that so-called macroevolution), but we are able to see some drastic moves caused by evolution, such as elephants and rattlesnakes losing their tusks and rattles, lizards going from carnivores to vegetarians, and even single-cell organisms becoming multicellular organisms. No, none of those are that alligator-duck Creationists want to look for, but that only matters if you think there is an ideal animal blueprint, a claim with no actual evidence. We have never observed animals jumping from one blueprint to another because those blueprints do not exist. Claiming these major changes do not give evidence to macroevolution is like saying colors can only change shades but not actual colors.
(For more examples of evolution in action, check out this Cracked article)
5. There are no transitional fossils.
6. Evolution says we came from monkeys.
Evolution says you and monkeys have a common ancestors. That is not the same thing as saying we came from monkeys. Monkeys have traits we do not have because they went through a different evolutionary pathway. Humans have traits monkeys do not have because we went through a different evolutionary pathway. There is an ancestor of humans and monkeys that has some traits humans do not have and some traits monkeys do not have but has a lot of traits that monkeys and humans share.
7. Christians cannot be evolutionists
This is one of the more frustrating misconceptions, specifically because it comes from Christians and atheists. Christians have been taking Genesis metaphorically or allegorically for centuries. St. Augustine was one of the first notable ones, who argued against a literal six-day creation long before Darwin ever observed some birds. In fact, the Catholic church as a whole supports the idea of evolution and rejects literal interpretations of Genesis.
There are also a large group of non-Catholic Christians who support and understand the theory of evolution over at Biologos. Even Lee University, my fairly conservative Church of God alma mater, has several classes that are based on and teach the theory of evolution as facts scientists (and anthropologists) should know.
I think this idea that evolution=atheism is actually more harmful for Christians than for anyone else. I read the book, Generation Atheist, which is a collection of stories about (often young) people who became atheists, and one of the most frustrating parts was how many of them became atheists because they were taught Creationism, looked at the evidence, and realized what they taught about evolution was wrong, so they decided what they were taught about religion and life was wrong as well.
Do not get me wrong: I am all for people becoming atheist through their own intellectual pursuits and questions about theology, but I looked at them and thought, “You’re becoming atheists for the wrong reasons! Go back and try again!”
8. Many scientists contest the authenticity of Evolution
Ken Ham, the leader of Answers in Genesis, the people behind the Creation Museum in Kentucky, used several examples of actual scientists in his debate with Bill Nye about whether or not his model of creation was a viable model. He basically said, “Look, actual scientists with actual degrees in actual science actually believe in Creationism! We’re not just the crazy outliers.” In fact, if you go to their site, they even have a page of a bunch of scientists who support Creation. Last time I counted, there were around 200 names on there.
But what is missing from that number is context. I could go around trying to find people who understand that The Legend of Korra is the best show on air this fall (which it is), but that number would not mean anything without any context. Finding 100 people who understand this in a group of 150 people would show that that population is well-educated and quite attractive, but finding 100 people in a group of 1,000 people would be less flattering.
So with that in mind, let us add some context to that number. Project Steve was started in response to this list. Project Steve was an effort to create a list of scientists who understand and support the theory of evolution. This list, as it stands currently, is over 1,300 signatures long.
Now, that may not seem like a convincing number… until you consider how the only scientists allowed to be on the lists are those named Steve or some derivation, which is only about 1% of the scientists.
So to recap, over 99% of scientists support and understand the theory of evolution. This is not a hotly contested issue. If you got 99% of any group to agree on anything, there is no honest way you could look at the 1% and go, “Well, there is a controversy.”
I hope this has helped people realize the case for evolution. It is an incredibly well-researched and exciting field of science, and to hear people dismiss it for religious or ignorant reasons makes me incredibly sad, partly because I find evolution to be such a fascinating and fulfilling thing to study. Every time I go toward evolution with a question, I have received so much exciting information about it that leads me toward more and more revelations and knowledge. Beyond the professional reasons, like how future scientists need to know and understand evolution in order to interact with the scientific community at large, I think education about evolution needs to be more comprehensive for the simple fact that evolution teaches us wonderful things about where we came from and who we are.