X. What Religion Gets Wrong: (Part 1) Evolution
“Evolution is JUST a theory.”
This unfortunate statement has passed from the lips of believers time and time again. It’s such a simple sentence, and yet these 5 words in this particular combination have contributed to more ignorance about how the world works than I can even imagine. Let’s clear this up folks, once and for all.
The scientific definition of the word “theory” is different from the colloquial sense of the word. Colloquially or in the vernacular sense of the term, “theory” can refer to guesswork, a simple conjecture, an opinion, or a speculation that does not have to be based on facts and it need not be framed for making testable predictions. Scientific theories also contain speculation at first, but they develop over time and many are rejected as they are specifically crafted for the purpose or function of being testable. In this way, theories can be constructed using logic, models, or schemes for generating testable hypotheses with precision.
The “theory of evolution” is actually a network of theories that develop with the science over time. Since Darwin, evolution has developed into a well-supported body of interconnected statements that explains countless observations in the natural world. Evolutionary theories generate testable predictions about nature. Theories offer more general explanations of systems in nature than the hypotheses they generate, which are used to test specific instances or examples of the theory. Theoretical models are one of many kinds of scientific methods that can used to communicate accurate and precise depictions of systems, such as evolutionary systems, that are continually and repetitively investigated.
So the “theory of evolution” is a collection of hypotheses and models that have been proven to be true with the scientific method, modified with new evidence and capable of making accurate predictions time and time again. You would never say that the Theory of Gravity is “just a theory” or that Germ Theory is “just a guess” and should be taught to schoolchildren alongside ‘Plague Theory’ (which explains that people get sick not due to bacteria, viruses and other microbes, but rather by God’s wrath as punishment for wrongdoing, and that the appropriate cure is not medical attention, but prayer.)
Here is a fantastic video featuring Carl Sagan narrating the entire animated story of the evolution of life on earth, from the first cells all the way to modern humans, in 10 minutes:
What the Bible Says
I have chosen to discuss the main topics that religion gets wrong using the Holy Bible as a point of reference, not because I am trying to pick on Christianity, (remember, I believe that ALL religions are wrong and harmful), but because the Holy Bible is shared by the majority of the world’s religious believers. This process of looking at the data and analyzing the evidence can and should be applied to all of the world’s religions and holy texts, and I will most likely do just that in future posts after this series is concluded.
The Bible states quite plainly that God created the Heavens and the Earth, and that he did so in 6 days (with a well-deserved day of rest on the first Saturday). It goes on to say that he created all of the animals, as they exist in the forms we see today, all within a few days. It also describes how God created the first man, as he exists in the form we see today, (biblical scholars estimate this occurred anywhere around 6 to 12 thousand years ago, with some estimating slightly longer), and how the first woman was created from the rib bone of the first man. It would further have us believe that all the people of the world that ever existed descended from these 2 homo sapiens (this is called incest, which is forbidden elsewhere in the Bible). Then you have God killing off all of the world’s people in the Great Flood except for Noah and his family, who then repopulated the Earth. God apparently found mass murder and incest (once again) to be necessary. And perplexingly, if you look closely at the scriptures, the two different stories of Creation, told in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 respectively, contradict one another ever so slightly but ever so importantly. Interesting. And the story of the Tower of Babel explains to us, rather childishly (though quite colorfully), how the diversity in human language and culture came to be.
What the Evidence Says:
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Biological Evolution can be defined most simply and accurately as any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Charles Darwin was the first to formulate a compelling scientific argument in 1859 for a theory to explain the diversity of species of life on our planet. In his book “The Origin of Species”, Darwin described evolution by means of natural selection, the nonrandom process by which biological traits become either more or less common in a population as a function of differential reproduction of their bearers. It is this process, for instance, that led the tiny random mutation of a tail feather gene in a single male peacock that lived long ago to evolve large, colorful, showy plumage in an entire species over time, simply because he and his male offspring were more attractive to females. The subsequent offspring thus produced would have more of a genetic chance of having showy plumage, and thus more chance of passing it on to their offspring (this process in particular is called “sexual selection”). Over hundreds or even thousands of generations, the population eventually changes to the point that all of the surviving males express the genes for this plumage. This theory has grown to become one of the most well-supported and widely accepted ideas in all of science.
What Darwin Didn’t Know: But Darwin did not know about genes, nor did anyone else know until the early part of the previous century, HOW evolution actually mechanically works: that changes in physical traits are caused by random mutations (tiny errors in the copying of genetic material), and that these mutations are passed from generation to generation through an organism’s DNA. This is the same process that resulted in all of the varying breeds of dogs, cats and livestock through selective breeding by humans, a process known as artificial selection (as opposed to natural selection), over a few thousand years. The only difference is that humans did the selecting of desired traits with these animals instead of nature, which is why it has caused such variation in such a relatively short time. It is this same process of evolution that allows us to formulate new flu vaccines every year, and precisely why we have to- because the viruses are constantly evolving through mutations. And just to clarify, “survival of the fittest” (a term adopted but not coined by Darwin,) does NOT mean and NEVER meant “survival of the strongest“, rather it means that organisms that develop random mutations that allow them to be more suited to living in their environment (the intentional meaning of the word “fit”) will be more likely to survive and thus pass on these mutated genes. Biological evolution is a beautiful merger of the random and non-random.
For The Record: It is also this understanding of evolution that has led us to be able to map the human genome, and the genomes of countless plants and animals in the world. This has led to new advances in medical technology and advanced understanding of how the natural world works, as well as the inner workings of our bodies and minds. It has also clearly shown us how we are literally related to every living creature on the Earth, including bacteria and plants, and shows once again that most likely all life on Earth descended from a single common ancestor. The evident pattern of this change over time is also clearly laid out, just as we would predict if evolution were true, in the fossil record of the Earth’s history. It is this fossil record, along with DNA mapping, that has also proven, without a doubt, that humans and current apes evolved from a common ape-like ancestor, and that the first of our species, homo sapiens, migrated out of Africa sometime around 100,000 years ago to explore and populate the globe.
Here is a great video illustrating evolution and addressing some common misconceptions:
Proponents of Intelligent Design (which makes the supernatural claim that evolution is guided by an intelligent being and not purely by natural selection, and is not accepted by the scientific community because it does not adhere to the strict rules of scientific methods, data analysis, and peer review) make the invalid argument that there are far too many “gaps” in the fossil record to use evolution as an explanation. This is just false. First of all, it ignores the fact that we are extremely lucky to have any kind of fossil record at all. As it turns out, fossils that can last for millions and millions of years are extremely difficult to make (imagine that). That’s why every living creature that dies does not become a fossil, and why scientists have to search hard to find fossils. Secondly, we have collected so many fossils at this point that there are remarkably few “gaps” left at all, and we are looking even now to complete the collection (the transition is blatantly obvious, regardless).
Our evolutionary history has been proven time and time again, and has been proven and accepted across all scientific fields, including geology, archeology, biology, history, economics, psychology, genetics, physics, chemistry and medicine. What evolution via natural selection does NOT explain, nor is it or was it ever intended to explain, is how life originated on Earth in the first place. Or how the Universe came into being. There ARE, however, evidence-based scientific theories available to explain those particular phenomenon, which I will describe in my next few posts.
If you are a believer in the Abrahamic faiths, then you either believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, which in this case has been proven to be wrong, and therefore cannot be the literal explanation of creation from God to his people, or you believe that the stories of creation are simply metaphor, written by “divinely inspired” human hands. And if either is true, if the Bible is not the literal word of God, edited, altered, added to and subtracted from as it has been through the ages, and if it has caused so much damage to humanity already, it begs the question: why would an intelligent person such as yourself ever bother wasting your time trying to design your life around it, when there are so many other sources of knowledge available that are far more useful, comprehensible and reliable?