Why Evolution is not Faith

Nine years ago, controversy erupted regarding a Christian school in the UK (Emmanuel College, Gateshead), which openly challenged the theory of evolution in its lessons and taught creationism alongside evolution.  

One of the school’s defenders, journalist Melanie Phillips, quoted  Emmanuel’s head teacher Nigel McQuoid and the former head John Burns, who stated that ‘the school should teach both evolution and creation theory [my italics], and that both are ‘faith positions [my italics].[1]

You may think that this issue is now old hat, a storm in a tea cup that has long subsided.  You may well be mistaken; if opinion polls are to be believed, such views appear to be gaining traction in the UK. One recent poll suggested that more than ‘half of [the UK] public believe that the theory of evolution cannot explain the full complexity of life on Earth, and a “designer” must have lent a hand, and one in three believe that God created the world within the past 10,000 years.’[2]

This article has no intention of rehashing the specifics of the Emmanuel College controversy.[3] But since the views expressed in Phillips’ defence of the school appear to be gaining ground, the misunderstandings and misrepresentation that inform them deserve challenge. We will take Phillips’ article as representative of these views in order to develop a wider critique.  In doing so, we will demonstrate that it is totally false to bracket evolution with creationism as a ‘faith position’.

Although Phillips has distanced herself from creationism in recent writings,   she still defends Intelligent Design (ID), claiming that ID has its roots in science, whereas creationism does not.[4] We will see that such a distinction will not hold up under closer scrutiny, so we will also consider the shortcomings of ID as well as creationism throughout this article, as neither position presents anything like a credible scientific alternative to Darwinism.

Back in 2002, Phillips asked rhetorically:

What is wrong with a Christian school encouraging its pupils to debate and question such great matters from different perspectives?[5]

There is nothing wrong with encouraging debate. But if any school were to teach creationism (or ID) in science classes there would be something seriously wrong with that.  It would be like teaching that the Earth is flat in geography classes.

This didn’t seem to trouble Ms. Phillips:

It is being said that taxpayers’ money should not be spent on teaching creationism because this runs contrary to scientific fact. But evolution is not a fact. It is a theory with holes in it … In science, teachers and pupils discuss the gaps that Darwin himself acknowledged in his theory of evolution.[6]

Phillips claimed that Darwin himself acknowledged gaps in his theory but she didn’t actually quote Darwin or any other scientist to support her claim. And neither does her claim that Darwinism has ‘holes in it’ invalidate the assertion that ‘creationism runs contrary to scientific fact.’

But still, let’s turn to the question of whether evolution is a ‘theory’ or a ‘faith position.’ I take theory in this context to mean ‘speculation’ and faith position to mean that the evidence as it stands does not lean toward creationism or Darwinism.  Hence, on the evidence there is, it is equally reasonable to opt to ‘believe’ in either.  

Here we should introduce Jerry A. Coyne’s excellent recent book, Why Evolution is True,[7] which tackles the misunderstandings about Darwinian theory head-on. Evolution is a theory, but that does not make it speculation. In science a theory is much more than speculation about how things are: it is ‘a well thought-out group of propositions meant to explain facts about the real world.’ Second, for a theory to be scientific, as opposed to mere speculation, it must be ‘testable and able to make verifiable predictions’ and, third, ‘the scientific theories can be tested against other theories.’[8] [author’s emphasis]

But the theory goes better than predictions: it makes retrodictions, facts and data not necessarily predicted by evolution, but that only make sense in the light of it.  We’ll look at examples of these later.

In other words, the facts about nature support the theory of evolution, and the theory itself makes sense of facts about nature.

What facts, then, support the theory of evolution – what predictions does it make that have been confirmed? I will confine myself to a few salient examples Coyne offers.

First of all there is the movement from simplicity to complexity. If life has evolved ever greater complexity over eons of time, the theory predicts that the fossil record should show greater and greater complexity over time. The oldest layers of rocks contain simple fossils, younger layers more complex examples. Simple organisms evolved before complex ones, predicted ancestors before descendants, with transitional fossils. Evolution predicts this and these and the fossil record confirms the prediction.[9]

So take the largest mammal on Earth, the blue whale, the distant ancestor of which was a shallow-water dwelling hippopotamus. Fossil mammals have been found that existed 60 million years ago but no fossil whales exist at this point. These appear 30 million years ago. Therefore the theory predicts that the transitional forms from hippo to whale would appear between 60 and 30 million years ago. The transitional fossils have been found exactly as predicted, appearing between 60 and 30 million years ago.  

Then there is remodelling of the old into new: whales are elongated land animals with paddles that used to be forelimbs, and nostrils that have moved to the top of the head. ‘Darwinism predicts, then, that new species will be modified versions of older ones.  The fossil record amply confirms this prediction.[10]

If species didn’t evolve, then there is no way their distribution on Earth would make sense. Marsupials like the platypus are not found outside Australia yet their oldest fossils, over 80 million years old, are not found in Australia but North America.  The theory is that marsupials originated in North America and migrated southwards to Australia, reaching the tip of South America 40 million years ago and reaching the Australia around 30 million years ago. But how did they cross the South Atlantic? There was no ocean to cross: the continents were joined. The tip of South America was joined to what is now Antarctica, which in turn was joined to Australia. Marsupials migrated across Antarctica. If this is true, then marsupial fossils should be found in Antarctica, and they should be younger than those in South America but older than those in Australia.  Scientists set out to prove just that and indeed did just that and they were of the right age, around 35 to 40 million years old.[11]

Perhaps the greatest anathema to creationists and intelligent designers is the idea that humans descended from ‘apes’. What is the evidence for this? When Darwin made this prediction, in The Descent of Man, in 1871, there was very little fossil evidence around to back this up – just a handful of Neanderthal bones. He made this prediction on the basis of anatomy and behaviour. But since then, starting with the discovery of the ‘Southern Ape Man’ in South Africa in 1924 and ‘Lucy’ in 1974, among others, the evidence has been coming in.

As the fossils become more recent, we should see brains getting larger, teeth smaller and posture becoming more erect and this is what has been confirmed. It’s not possible with the existing stock of bones and fossils to trace a linear descent and this may never be possible, as all the links may never be found. But, as Darwin predicted, ‘fossils that start off ape-like … become more and more like modern humans as time passes.’[12]

But evolution doesn’t just make predictions, it explains facts about the natural world, or retrodictions.

The greatest of these is natural selection, the engine of evolution, which explains why there we see so much complexity and diversity in the natural world. There is no need for a supernatural designer or creator to feature at all in the creation of life. Natural selection does the job sufficiently well to dispense with their services. Selection is the adaptation of traits to enable an organism to better survive its environment and enhance its reproductive fitness. It is a combination of chance (a random mutation) and lawfulness (in that mutations which produce traits suited to survival will persist).

The hoverfly has black and yellow stripes, ‘imitating’ a wasp and signalling to predators that it is venomous and inedible. It’s not as if the hoverfly has purposely adapted itself. The adaptation is the result of a mutation in a gene, which confers on the hoverfly an excellent survival advantage. No one intended it or designed it. The process of mutation is widely understood and known and can be seen. Ask any dog breeder.

We know about the alarming tendency of bacteria to develop resistance to drugs.[13] This is a result of random genetic mutation occurring in pathogens,  enabling them to survive and replicate, thus producing resistant strains. Creationism and ID cannot explain this phenomenon but evolution via natural selection can.

Then there are the facts of vestiges, atavisms and bad design.[14] The most troublesome vestige for us is the appendix, which may once have served some purpose for our ancestors’ roughage-rich diet but now only serves to generate work for surgeons.

The presence of atavisms – re-expressions of ancestral traits – confirms that our genetic heritage carries the genes of long-extinct ancestors. One whale in 500 is born with a rear leg that protrudes outside the body wall. Whales still have genetic information to make legs, carried from their landlubber ancestors from millions of years ago. Successive generations of whales still carry these genes, albeit degraded, but, occasionally, these genes flicker back into life to instruct the creation of an utterly useless extra limb.

Genes for redundant traits then do not disappear, they become dormant. Evolution predicts the existence of just such genes. In contrast, creationism would predict that no such genes would exist. If we do not descend from defunct ancestors, we would not be carrying their genes within us. But we do. Of our 30,000 genes, we humans carry a ‘graveyard’ of 2,000 dead or pseudo-genes. ID is hardly a better explanation – what an inefficient way of doing things!

We share with other primates and guinea pigs a dead gene for synthesising vitamin C. But neither primates, guinea pigs nor humans can synthesise vitamin C – we all have to take it through food. As Coyne writes: ‘if you believe that primates and guinea pigs were specially created, these facts don’t make sense. Why would a creator put a pathway for making vitamin C in all these species, and then deactivate it?[15]

We also carry the dead genes of viruses that tried to infect our ancestors but now sit safe and inactive. And, crucially, we share identical dead viruses with chimps, strongly suggesting the same viruses infected our mutual ancestor. Some of these sit in exactly the same location of in the chromosomes of chimps and humans. The probability of a dead virus inserting itself independently into the same place in two species is slight. But if the two species had a common ancestor, then this makes sense.

So when Coyne says evolution is true, he means the major tenets of the theory have been verified. There are controversies and divisions but that this is not the same thing as saying it’s not a fact because some mysteries remain unsolved.

Evolution has not explained everything.  Natural selection needs to explain a lot more than specific traits: can it account for complex traits, like the clotting of blood or the development of the human brain? There are complex biochemical processes the evolution of which is not yet entirely understood. And there are gaps in the fossil record that make systematic reconstruction of lineages difficult.

Gaps in evolution do not mean that the entire theory has no foundation or is just speculation. Moreover over time the gaps are becoming fewer. We know that birds came from dinosaurs. They were not created out of thin air.  We have evidence of the evolution of complexity in the eye, with many types of eye, at various levels of complexity all around us.  The precursors of complex biochemical processes such as clotting have been identified in invertebrates[16].

But still the existence of gaps allows proponents of ID to attempt to refute the theory. If there is complexity, and it is not entirely understood, then this is evidence for supernatural intervention.[17] But this is simply a ‘God of the gaps’ argument and explains and predicts nothing. If you do not have a complete understanding, then you postulate a God or supernatural designer to fill the gap. There is no way that this can be verified. It makes no sense whatsoever to explain facts about nature by appealing to something that is outside nature. This to me is the fatal flaw that undermines all appeals to ID: the idea is incoherent.

Further observation about the facts of the world undermines the plausibility of ID.

Natural selection is a tinkerer, not a precision engineer. It works with the material it has. So some adaptations maximise reproductive fitness but are otherwise a disadvantage to the organism concerned. The peacock’s tail is fantastically well-adapted for attracting mates but also predators. Female sea turtles dig their nests on beaches with flippers, an arduous process. It would be better if they had shovel-like flippers but this would mean they couldn’t swim very well. Selection involves trade-offs.[18]

An intelligent designer could resolve this by giving the turtle an extra pair of retractable shovel-like limbs, or maybe giving the peacock a tail it could unfurl away outside mating season.  Natural selection cannot do either of these things. It can only work with the existing framework but an all-powerful creator or designer by definition should not be limited by structural flaws.

Percy Bridgman, Harvard Professor of Physics and tutor of Robert Oppenheimer, once remarked: ‘Scientists aren’t responsible for the facts that are in nature. If anyone should have a sense of sin, it’s God. He put the facts there.’[19] How indeed to explain these facts?  Not all of them pretty facts, either. We’ve seen how drug-resistance bacteria evolve. Is the creator creating new resistant strains out of nothing or is the designer tweaking microbes’ DNA to develop resistance? How can we explain the existence of parasites like tapeworms? Are these the creations or the design of a benevolent deity? Why have 99% of species gone extinct? Is this really evidence of ID?

It is sometimes said that scientists are proselytisers and evangelicals for atheism and materialism. This is way off the mark. All scientific proof is provisional. New data may conceivably undermine Darwinism. The theory of evolution would not survive if fossils of Cro-Magnon were found in the same layer of rock as a Tyrannosaurus Rex. If this happened, this would refute the entire theory. But the theory is supported not because of a dogmatic refusal to countenance other possible theories but because the data support the theory.

The adherents of a literal version of the Christian faith cling to its tenets regardless of the evidence. Creationists hold that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Therefore, if the sun stood still, as the book of Joshua claims it did, then it’s true. Needless to say, this is a physical impossibility, given that we know that sun does not revolve around the Earth. There are numerous instances in the Bible whereby the laws of nature are irrationally suspended, which modern science shows are simply impossible. Yes of course it is possible to say that this is metaphorical and allegorical. But that is beside the point. It isn’t science. Science is not fable.

It is therefore false to say that evolution and creationism are both ‘faith positions’, if by this it is meant that it is equally reasonable to believe or teach either position based on the evidence available. The evidence out there does not lean equally either way: it leans one way – and overwhelmingly so.

Scientific theory is not about utter, inerrant certainty and absolute truths, but degrees of plausibility. It’s not that one can prove beyond all reasonable doubt that evolution is true and creationism or ID is false: it is that one can show strong reasons for accepting (as opposed to ‘believing’) that evolution is true, while its detractors cannot show any strong reasons for acceptance. You can of course believe that creationism or ID is true if you so desire, but this is an act of will and faith, and cannot be supported by an appeal to evidence. 

Evolution is not a theory of everything and it does not have all the answers. Darwin called his book ‘The Origin of Species’, a fairly modest endeavour that set out how life came to be on Earth. He never called it the theory of everything. There are plenty of legitimate questions that evolution cannot answer. But it provides the best answer there is to why Earth isn’t a barren rock, but teems with life.  

Notes

[1] All quotes taken from http://www.melaniephillips.com/articles/archives/000756.html (last accessed 27 Feb 2011). The article originally appeared in the Daily Mail, 15 March 2002

[2] ‘Poll reveals public doubts over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution’, Daily Telegraph, 31 Jan 2009 see  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/4410927/Poll-reveals-public-doubts-over-Charles-Darwins-theory-of-evolution.html (last accessed 27 Feb 2011).

[3] From my reading around the issue, it was not clear to me whether or not creationism was being taught in the school’s science classes. The article confines itself to whether the stated defence that evolution is on par with creationism and ID as a ‘faith position’ is valid.

[4] Melanie Phillips, ‘Creating an Insult to Intelligence’, The Spectator, 29 April 2009 http://www.spectator.co.uk/melaniephillips/3573761/creating-an-insult-to-intelligence.thtml (last accessed 27 Feb 2011)

[5] Phillips, op cit, 2002

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jerry A. Coyne, Why Evolution is True, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago.

[8] Ibid, pp.15-17

[9] Ibid, p.30

[10] Ibid, p.57

[11] Ibid. pp. 102-103

[12] Ibid, p.227

[13] Ibid, pp. 139-141

[14] Ibid, see pp. 59-91

[15] Ibid, p.73

[16] Ibid. p.151

[17] See for example Michael Behr, Darwin’s Black Box, Free Press, New York, 1996 and his argument of irreducible complexity

[18] Coyne, op cit, p.13

[19] Cited in Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer, Atlantic Books, London, 2009, p. 388

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