Saturday, October 29, 2005

Evolution Defined

Before we can have any meaningful discussion on this subject, we must clearly and concisely define what we mean by the terms “creation” and “evolution.”

What, then, is evolution? Evolution has a wide range of definitions, varying from the very scientific definition, “a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations” to the very vague generalization “descent with modification” (or even “change over time”). (See What is Evolution?, by Laurence Moran from the Talk.Origins website for a discussion by an evolutionist on the definition of evolution.) Upon inspection, though, it is easy to see that neither of these definitions accurately conveys what is commonly thought of when the word “evolution” is used. The first definition can be more accurately applied to the principle of natural selection (which is completely different from evolution) and includes nothing of the idea of life coming from non-life. “Descent with modification” can describe anything from “goo to you via the zoo” evolution to what happens in succeeding generations of a family to the effect of throwing a banana off the roof of a three-story building.

Educated proponents of evolution insist upon the first definition, pointing out that the origin of life is a separate issue, and the view that life comes from non-life is more accurately called a biogenesis. The general public, on the other hand, uses evolution loosely and freely, applying it to everything from organisms to the cosmos to language to technology. But while both definitions capture a particular aspect of the idea, neither describes it fully or accurately.

For instance, to deny that evolution includes the origin of life is misleading, since Darwin himself titled his book the Origin of Species, and talked about the first simple cells arising out of a primordial slime. Furthermore, textbooks, articles, or general books that deal with evolution commonly contain this idea of the first simple life arising spontaneously from non-living substances. On the other hand, to refer to any change over time as evolution is also incorrect, since the basic theory deals only with the biological evolution of living organisms. Nonliving substances cannot evolve. Furthermore, all change over time in biological entities is not evolution. Natural selection, for instance, is a well-documented principle in which the fittest animals in a species survive to pass on their genes, which provides the potential for great variety within a species.

It should be noted here that natural selection is not evolution. Charles Darwin was not the first to notice the principle of natural selection—it was first described by the creationist Edward Blythe. Even today, natural selection is an important part of creationist models. What Charles Darwin did was take the principle of natural selection and extrapolate it out to the point where it was capable of producing unlimited change, even to the point of creating entirely new species, genera, families, etc. In other words, natural selection is the means by which evolution is proposed to occur—it is not evolution itself. See the article, Muddy Waters, by Carl Wieland of Answers in Genesis for more information.

But while evolution itself applies only to biological entities, it is impossible to deny that there are a host of other theories about the origin of the universe that have become inextricably tied to this one concept—theories such as the Big Bang (“cosmological evolution”), uniformitarianism (“geological evolution”), a very old universe and earth, and other theories. Furthermore, evolution is almost automatically associated with more philosophical views, such as atheism, agnosticism, relativism, and materialism.

In other words, while a strict definition of evolution would refer exclusively to biological evolution, there is a large amount of baggage that has become attached to the term that cannot be ignored in any meaningful debate on the subject. Even evolutionists recognize that the public’s conception of evolution contains far more than the observable biological theory that they use as its definition. Furthermore, in most of the court cases concerning the teaching of evolution, the main issue is not the current biological process but the question of origins and the existence of God. In addition, when creationists debate evolutionists, the current biological process is only one area of disagreement. In any creation/evolution debate, you are likely to hear a wide range of issues discussed, from biological evolution to geological processes to the origin of life and the cosmos to the age of the earth to the existence of God, and many other issues. Therefore, to ignore all of these issues in a discussion such as this would be inappropriate, due to the universal nature of the issues automatically associated with the word “evolution”.

To come to a clear, concise, reasonable definition of evolution, then, we can say that evolution is the view that everything came from nothing—the idea that nature created itself. It includes such things as: the Big Bang theory as the origin of the cosmos, uniformitarianism as the default process of geology, a biogenesis as the means for the origin of life, biological evolution as the means behind the present variety of living organisms, and by implication the belief that nature is all there is (materialism; i.e., there is no God or supernatural) and that there are no moral absolutes (relativism).

Again, some evolutionists will disagree with this definition, but it is impossible to deny that those and other theories are firmly, automatically, and inextricably associated with evolution, both in the general public and in the creation/evolution debate.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

"It's Not Science!"


I’ve noticed that the Creation/Evolution debate has drawn increasing media attention lately due to the Dover school board Intelligent Design court case. Almost every newspaper you pick up is bound to have some column or editorial or even cartoon either defending or decrying the Intelligent Design (hereafter “ID”) movement. Almost every time you check the headlines on Yahoo or elsewhere on the Internet, some new article or story is out discussing the subject. Even the blogs are buzzing with private debates over which side is right.

In all of this discussion and debate, there is one particular statement that is thrown back and forth probably more than any other. Everyone is using it or commenting on it, whether they be scientist or politician, media or religious leader, lawyer or the guy on the street. The statement is, “Evolution is science; Creation and Intelligent Design are not.” In almost every secular media story or article I have read on this subject, if not every, this statement or something to that effect has been made.

In the next few posts, we will investigate this argument, with all its implications and ramifications, as thoroughly as my time and knowledge of the subject will permit. We will look at the claims of each side and analyze them to see what kinds of claims are being made, and whether those claims are “scientific” or not. We will do all of this without actually examining the truth of the claims themselves, only by classifying the types of claims being made.

But first, we will look at a few specific examples of this argument taken from various sources. We will also define the terms “evolution” and “creation,” as well as take a look at what, exactly, science is and what it is not.

The Argument

One need not look far for examples of the “It’s not science” argument. Almost any article about evolution and creation in the secular media or secular science websites contains variations of it. One of the most concise statements that I have found is on page three of the legal complaint filed by the ACLU on behalf of the parents in the Dover school board case:

Unlike the theory of evolution, however, intelligent design is neither
scientific nor a theory in the scientific sense; it is an inherently religious argument or assertion that falls outside the realm of science.
Or, there’s this more general statement from the National Association of Biology Teachers (taken from a list of such statements from the ACLU website (“What the Scientific Community Says about Evolution and Intelligent Design"):

Scientists have firmly established evolution as an important natural process. Experimentation, logical analysis, and evidence-based revision are procedures that clearly differentiate and separate science from other ways of knowing. Explanations or ways of knowing that invoke non-naturalistic or supernatural events or beings, whether called ‘creation science,' ‘scientific creationism,' ‘intelligent design theory,' ‘young earth theory,' or similar designations, are outside the realm of science and not part of a valid science curriculum.
Other versions of the argument are not nearly as precisely stated, nor as nice. They range from mild condescension--“the alternative reality that is biblical creation science” In Evolution Debate, Creationists are Breaking New Ground by Michael Powell from the Washington Post; also, the September 26 post on the blog Bad Methodist--to outright ridicule--Dark Ages Primary by Harold Meyerson from the Washington Post; also, the October 3 post from the blog The Strongest Note.

And I’m sure that if you read the newspaper or news stories on the web, you can find many more examples of your own. And these are the nicer ones. When you get into atheistic/agnostic/skeptic websites and blogs, things can get really nasty.

Why This Argument?

So, why is this argument used so emphatically, so persistently, and so extensively? Why does everyone feel a need to make sure you know that creation is not science, but evolution is? Why is this argument so important to them?

Furthermore, if this argument is repeated so often and so dogmatically, shouldn’t it be examined and tested closely? After all, since we are talking about science here, shouldn’t we take the time to prove our arguments?

I believe this argument has gone too long in the media without sufficient investigation. I think it is time we critically examine this claim, and see how well it holds up under scrutiny.

But before we do that, we need to take a little time to define our terms, just to be sure that there is no confusion. What, exactly, do we mean when we say “evolution”? What are we talking about when we refer to “creation”? We’ll take a look at the definitions next time.