Evolution is a scientific theory describing change in allele frequency over time. It is also used as shorthand to refer to Charles Darwin's explanation for the diversity of life on earth, stating that all life descended from a common ancestor by the processes of evolution driven by natural selection.
Common Misconceptions about Evolution
While there isn't enough room here to list and address every fallacious argument that creationists use against evolution, there are some very common misconceptions about the basics of evolution itself, which still persist:
- Evolution only concerns itself with the diversification of living species, and does not (nor is it meant to) address other topics such as the origin of life itself, the Big Bang, the formation of planet Earth, and so on. These are each covered by different scientific fields of study, such as abiogenesis, cosmology, and physics. Creationists often misuse the term "evolution" to erroneously refer to pretty much any science that contradicts a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis (see the Jack Chick tract 'Big Daddy' for an example).
- Evolution is both an established fact and a scientific theory. In science, a theory is not the same thing as a hypothesis. Those who try to dismiss evolution with the claim that it is "just a theory", are ignorant of the meaning of the word "theory" as it's used in science.
- Being an atheist is not a requirement for understanding and accepting evolution. There are plenty of theists who see no personal religious conflict in accepting evolution and believing in a deity. Evolution is a biological science and does not say anything about deities, one way or another. Likewise, not believing in a deity does not automatically mean that one accepts evolution; for example there are non-theistic groups such as the Raelians who deny evolution.
The Evidence for Evolution
An in-depth study on the subject of evolution is beyond the scope of this wiki. Only those arguments that relate directly to atheism and the existence of God should be cited in articles. For more information, please visit any or all of the following:
- TalkOrigins website
- Evolution Wiki
- "Evidence of Common Descent" at Wikipedia
- "List of Transitional Fossils" at Wikipedia
- "Human Evolution" at Wikipedia
The Untenability of Theistic Evolution
Theistic evolution = matter + evolutionary factors (chance and necessity + mutation + selection + isolation + death) + very long time periods + God.
God is, in Philosophy 101 terms, supposed to be all good, all powerful and all knowing. These attributes do seem to clash with using natural selection. First, if God is all powerful and all knowing, He could simply create the life forms He wants and not have to rely on a mechanism to do the work for him. An obvious reply to this is, however, to re-emphasis the view that God is the divine watchmaker who builds a world that can run on its own. Of course, many religious thinkers, such as Berkeley, regard this view as unacceptable. After all, if laws and mechanisms do all the work, what need is there for God? In any case, this does rekindle the old debate over the degree of God’s involvement in the world.
Second, if God is all good, then natural selection seems incompatible with God. This is so for two main reasons. The first reason is that natural selection seems to be terribly wasteful and brutal. It seems almost inconceivable that an all good being would allow so many species to simply perish. The second reason is that natural selection seems arbitrary. It is, after all, a chance driven mechanism. To leave survival up to chance hardly seems like the action of a perfectly good being.
"Of all species that have ever lived, 99.9 percent are extinct."
- From Teresa MacDonald, Director of Education, KU Natural History Museum & Biodiversity Research Center.
- Webpage: http://www.nhm.ku.edu/woodpecker/dodo.shtml
Undoubtedly, it is logically possible that God somehow directs a seemingly naturalistic process like evolution. But it is equally possible that Poseidon causes plate tectonics, or that Ra initiates nuclear fusion in the sun, and yet no one today appeals to these gods to explain earthquakes or solar fusion. Ockham's razor, the idea that explanatory entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity, recommends that we avoid appeals to any such divine explanations.
Because evolution is not goal-oriented, TE necessarily discards the biological teleological argument for the existence of God, which claims that postulating God is necessary to account for purposiveness in nature. Modifying theologian William Paley's renowned analogy, evolution is a blind watchmaker. Nevertheless, some TE proponents try to retain God's creative hand by suggesting that God directs some apparently random mutations. Not only is there no shred of evidence for this, but it doesn't even make sense: directed variation would make natural selection unnecessary for the diversification of life—but that certainly is not the case. Moreover, it raises thorny questions about whether God is responsible for pernicious mutations and the possible (often horrible) disorders that result from them. Kenneth Miller, for example, rejects creationism but leaves the door open for God to intervene through quantum mechanics.
Such divine action may be scientifically untestable even in principle, and there is no reason to favor it over natural quantum probability. Such vague speculations don't even touch questions about the purpose of natural selection or whether God is responsible for malicious mutations.
Is nature goal-oriented, with humans as the jewel of creation? Evolution is an immensely slow, wasteful, pitiless, and cruel process—hardly the most elegant process of creation open to a goal-oriented, omnipotent, and benevolent God. If humanity is the final goal of creation, whence the 3.5 billion (3,500,000,000!) years since the origin of life, or the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang? What is the point of this immense amount of time if human beings and their world are the pinnacle of the Almighty's creation?
Although evolution does not work with a purpose in mind, it is often called a tinkerer for continuously "testing" whether new mutants can survive their local circumstances in the struggle for existence (natural selection). The vast majority of mutants are selectively neutral or negative with regard to the evolution and survival of Homo sapiens, and thus their evolution is "wasteful" if measured against the goal of producing human beings. Such a wasteful process is hardly consonant with a goal-oriented, omnipotent, and omniscient God.
Furthermore, there is no progressive trend in evolution toward the development of human beings. Evolution can be seen as a huge tree with many branching points, not a direct line to humans. We are just a not-yet-extinct part of one of the very many branches of the enormous tree of life. The development of life has been interrupted by innumerable extinctions, some with so many different plant and animal species dying out in the same time period that they have been dubbed mass extinctions. The (hitherto) biggest mass extinction was the Permian-Triassic extinction event 251 million years ago. So many animal species lived long before the first humans appeared largely because of this repetitive cycle of speciation and extinction. But what was the point of all these extinct animals, if the goal of creation is man and his surrounding nature? To what purpose were the dinosaurs? What was the point of the trilobites? These groups of animals did not even contribute to the origin of humans. Why did God create complete ecosystems only to have them virtually annihilated, so that entirely different ecosystems would temporarily emerge in their place, only to meet the same fate, over and over again?
Had the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago missed the earth, it's likely that our little branch on the tree of life would never have developed, since the end of dinosaur dominance made it possible for our small mammal ancestors to flourish. How are such chance contingencies in the history of life compatible with the alleged providence of a Creator?
Worse still, consider the vast amount of suffering needed to secure our existence through natural selection. The environment "selects" those organisms best adapted to it, not the most even-tempered ones. Consequently, numerous predatory creatures have evolved which regularly inflict suffering on prey and host animals. The screw-worm fly (Cochliomyia hominivorax), for instance, lays its eggs in the wounds or eyes of mammals (including humans), causing any wounds to widen when the eggs hatch and the larva eat the surrounding tissue. This attracts more congeners, further widening wounds. Untreated, such parasitism often leads to a gruesome death. Or consider the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which causes autoimmune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). It is a great evolutionary success which creates immense suffering among human beings. Immense suffering, like wasteful "trial and error," is not incidental, but inherent to the process of evolution. And it does not sit well with the notion that evolution has been set up or directed by a loving God. The theistic retort that "God moves in mysterious ways" goes well beyond the evidence from evolutionary biology. There is a far simpler and elegant explanation for that evidence: there is no divine will to grope at in the dark, just the indifferent, pitiless, and naturalistic forces of evolution. Since evolution is a slow, wasteful, and brutal process, prima facie it is not the way in which a goal-oriented, omnipotent, omniscient, and loving God would choose to create the world. Thus a naturalistic explanation for the origin of all species, including Homo sapiens, is more plausible than a theistic one.
Paradoxically, TE proponents need science and religion to thrive together, yet require a radical separation between the two along the lines of something like Stephen Jay Gould's nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) thesis. In Gould's view, science and religion are two different, nonoverlapping domains of teaching authority. Science deals with empirical facts and theories, while religion deals with questions of meaning and morality.
Historically, scientific and religious developments have influenced one another and continue to do so in everyday life. Questions about abortion, euthanasia, sexual orientation, humanity's place in the cosmos, and so on were once thought to fall within the domain of religion. And historically, religious doctrine has often implicitly dictated scientific theses, such as traditional views about our place in the universe or the age of the earth. (And religion continues to do this, but to a lesser degree as religious doctrine continues to lose ground to advancing scientific understanding. We'll return to this point later.) So radical a separation between science and religion is largely just an artificial construct.
In order to avoid conflict between science and religion, Gould naïvely expects theists to concede that God refrains from intervening in the natural order by means of miracles: "Thou shalt not mix the magisteria by claiming that God directly ordains important events in the history of nature by special interference knowable only through revelation and not accessible to science." Is Gould oblivious that exactly this is an essential component of religion? What would Christianity be if Jesus did not miraculously rise from the dead, for example? Though Gould contends that the Roman Catholic Church embraces NOMA, he apparently overlooks their innumerable references to miracles. Their declaration that the Fall of Man was a real historical event is a gross violation of NOMA to which Gould only devotes one footnote! An appeal to nonoverlapping magisteria appears to be nothing more than a politically correct answer to the question of how science and religion relate to one another.
- 10 Dangers of Theistic Evolution - shows the incompatibility of Christian teachings and the theory of evolution.
Some literalist Muslims reject origin of species from a common ancestor by evolution as incompatible with the Qur'an. However, even amongst Muslims who accept evolution, many believe that humanity was a special creation by God. For example, Shaikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, an American Muslim and specialist in Islamic law has argued in Islam and Evolution that a belief in macroevolution is not incompatible with Islam, as long as it is accepted that "Allah is the Creator of everything" (Qur'an 13:16) and that Allah specifically created humanity (in the person of Adam; Qur'an 38:71-76). Shaikh Keller states in his conclusion however:
"As for claim that man has evolved from a non-human species, this is unbelief (kufr) no matter if we ascribe the process to Allah or to "nature," because it negates the truth of Adam's special creation that Allah has revealed in the Qur'an. Man is of special origin, attested to not only by revelation, but also by the divine secret within him, the capacity for ma'rifa or knowledge of the Divine that he alone of all things possesses. By his God-given nature, man stands before a door opening onto infinitude that no other creature in the universe can aspire to. Man is something else."
According to Qur'an, Adam is the first human being and the father of humankind. First Adam was created from clay, God himself formed the material of which Adam is made and breathed his spirit into him, and then Eve was created from Adam, the Qur'an does not report when she was created . Subsequently all humankind was created from clay. Today, some modern Muslim commentators have decided that, since the Qur’an makes no mention of the evolution of one species to another kind of species, the Darwinian theory of evolution is contrary to the teachings of the Qur’an. An apt verse that summarizes the process of human creation is:
"From the (earth) did We create you, and into it shall We return you, and from it shall We bring you out once again
Qur'anic verses 3:59, 35:11, 96:2, 20:55, 6:1, 24:45, 15:26, 7:11, and 19:67 are all related to the origin of mankind. Some critics of Islam and many Muslims state that the Qur'an and modern evolutionary theory are not compatible.