Evolution 101

Thursday, February 09, 2006

What is NOT Evolution?

Last week I attempted to answer the question, “What is Evolution?” and I hope I was able to do so sufficiently. At the very least, I haven’t received any emails complaining about it. This, week, I’d like to look at the flip side of this question, “What is NOT Evolution?” In my experience, the main reason why people have a mistaken view of evolutionary theory is because someone has taught them something as evolution that is decidedly not. Most often, this teaching comes from creationists, who have it in their best interests to promote a strawman idea of evolutionary theory, the better for them to tear down. I’m going to focus now on one of Creationism’s prime offenders, Dr. Kent Hovind, or as some people may know him, Dr. Dino, from his website of the same name. Dr. Hovind is infamous for portraying evolutionary theory incorrectly, and I could probably devote a year of podcasts to his gaffs, but I’ll just start with one. In 2000, Dr. Hovind worked with Jack Chick publications to revise one of their most blatant anti-evolutionary tracts, which is called “Big Daddy.” This tract can be found at Jack Chick’s website, www.chick.com. During the course of the tract, the assertion is made that there are, in fact, Six basic concepts of evolution.

1) Cosmic Evolution: big bang makes hydrogen
2) Chemical Evolution: higher elements evolve
3) Planetary Evolution: evolution of stars and planets from gas
4) Organic Evolution: life from rocks
5) Macroevolution: changes between kinds of plants and animals
6) Microevolution: changes within kinds

This is patently false. Dr. Hovind was a biology teacher at one point, he should know as well as I do that there’s nothing about the Big Bang that relates to evolutionary theory. The first three “concepts” that are listed don’t even refer to biological principles- it’s astrophysics. The fourth concept refers indirectly to the concept of abiogenesis, the process by which life formed from non-life. This concept is biochemical in nature, and while it is of tangential interest to evolutionary theory, it has nothing directly to do with biology per se. Biology is the study of things that are alive- not the study of things that become alive. Although evolutionary theory assumes that life arose at some point in time, it is unnecessary to the theory to posit an mechanism for how that life came into being.

The last two concepts are really just one concept, separated by differences in scale. It is primarily creationists that talk about macro versus micro evolution, and when they do so, they do so to imply that different mechanisms are needed for each. This is also patently false. As I just said, both are evolution, but vary in terms of scale. Just as macro and micro economics are based on the same mechanisms, so are macro and micro evolution.

You also want to notice the word “kinds” in the tract. Dr. Hovind talks about changes between kinds and within kinds of animals. The word, “Kinds” is a Biblical term, and not a scientific term. Many creationists like to use the word kinds because scientists can point to examples of one species evolving into another species, at which point they retort with, “yes, but they’re both still the same kind.” This would presumably make “kinds’ synonymous with the classification genus, but I’ve run across creationists that will even backpedal on that, and say that “Kind” is synonymous with “order” Which, of course, means that they’d have no problem with the idea of pigs and cows evolving from a common ancestor. Doesn’t seem like that far of a stretch, right? Well, all primates belong to the same order also, so if Kinds is synonymous with order, then they’re admitting that chimpanzees and humans evolved from a common ancestor also.

Moving on, I want to talk about another creationist trick. Instead of mucking about with pseudoscience, this involves the Really Bad Analogy. A good example of this comes from evangelist Ray Comfort, who hosts the show Way of the Master with Kirk Cameron. I’m going to read a transcript from the show where Comfort gives an analogy of evolutionary theory. Quote:

It's my theory of where the soda can comes from. Billions of years ago, there was a big bang in space- nobody knows what caused the big bang, it just happened. And from this bang issued a huge rock, on top of the rock was found a sweet brown bubbly substance. And over millions of years, aluminum crept up the side and formed itself in a can, then a lid, and then a tab. And then millions of years later red pain, blue paint, white paint, fell down from the sky and formed itself into the words, "Twelve Fluid Ounces. Do Not Litter.” You say, what you’re doing is insulting my intellect, and so I am. As we know, if the can is made, there must be a maker. If it’s designed, there must be a designer. To believe the soda can happened by chance is to move into an intellectual free zone, is to have an echo when you think, is to have brain liposuction. End quote.

Comfort insults all our intellects with this. Of course his analogy sounds ridiculous, because it involves the evolution of a non-living thing. Evolutionary theory is a theory of biology- it’s going to sound ridiculous if you frame it out of context. This is nothing more than Paley’s watchmaker argument, dressed up for a teenaged audience, because let’s face it, who else is going to be impressed by a soda can?

And finally, I want to look at an evolutionary misconception that doesn’t come from creationists- it actually comes from a biologist that Charles Darwin held in high esteem. His name was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and he formulated a theory of evolution before Darwin put pen to paper. Unfortunately, although he was well-intentioned, he was wrong. But we was wrong for a pretty good reason- the mechanism that he proposed makes a little more intuitive sense than Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection. According to Lamarck’s theory, individual organisms acquired traits throughout their lifetime and then passed them on to their offspring. The classic example of this is the giraffe, which he believed gained a long neck by successive generations of individuals straining to reach high leaves, stretching their necks out bit by bit over the generations. Another, more blatant example of this would be someone who exercises their whole life, building huge bicep muscles, and then has a child with larger than normal muscles. This just doesn’t happen. Another aspect of Lamarckianism that still hangs around is the idea that evolution has a goal. It does not. Organisms evolve because of pressure to adapt, nothing more. Bugs, plants, and bacteria are all as well-adapted as humans are, and we are all at the same level of evolution. In fact, you might even say that bacteria are more highly evolved since they are able to adapt to environments that humans couldn’t even venture into with specialized equipment. Bacteria may even be able to withstand the rigors of space travel.

So, I hope I’ve been able to dissuade you from these false conceptions of evolutionary theory, and I hope that you’re able to recognize these as false when they’re put forth by creationsist or others ignornant of evolution.


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