Among many other descriptions, Merriam-Webster’s defines the term “evolution” in the following ways:
- one of a set of prescribed movements
- a process of change in a certain direction
- a process of continuous change from a lower, simpler, or worse to a higher, more complex, or better state
- a process of gradual and relatively peaceful social, political, and economic advance
- the process by which new species or populations of living things develop from preexisting forms through successive generations
Do things change over time? Has life on Earth changed over time? Have geographical structures like canyons and river banks been altered throughout history by factors like wind and water erosion? Do some viruses develop a resistance to particular antibiotics? Do living organisms adjust to their surroundings in at least minimal ways?
If you agree with any of the definitions above, and/or answered “yes” to at least one of these questions, then you are indeed an evolutionist. Of course, it’s not quite that simple.
The big “E” word is sown like a badge of honor on a uniform by many people, and is avoided like a pack of rabid hyenas by others. In truth, neither of these positions is rational. But the immense confusion surrounding the term “evolution” has no doubt caused both the worship and the hysteria to persist within our modern world. Nowhere is this confusion more prominent (and more important) than when evolution is applied to the biological world.
Let me say at the onset of this discussion that people on both sides of the aisle are guilty of either misrepresenting or misunderstanding what “evolution” really means. So allow me to evaluate each side in turn. On the one hand, there are those of us who view the world as the product of an extremely powerful Deity who produced life in a very intentional way. On the other, there are those from the cloth of raw scientific materialism who believe that evolution has provided us with a completely godless explanation of the biological world around us.
I’ll begin on the theistic side of the equation, specifically with those who have been conditioned to be horrified of anything having to do with evolution. There are of course plenty of theistic evolutionists (also known as “evolutionary creationists”) who believe that God created the biosphere by using some combination of evolutionary processes, namely the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection working on heritable variation (caused by random mutation). Sense this worldview is actually more compatible with atheism than it is with theism (I believe), the next section will deal with their major failures. There is certainly a paranoia on the side of some theists (Christians in particular), telling them that evolution is of the devil, and that we should not even use the term to describe things like how the game of football has changed (evolved) over the years. Specifically, those coming from the side of Young Earth Creationism (YEC)—who tend to take the Bible literally at nearly all points—often feel that the word is a complete abomination. But the dirty little secret here is that even the YEC view of creation has “evolutionary” processes built into it.
The YEC perspective typically holds that there once existed a large group (some 2,500) of “proto-species” that God created, and Adam only had to name those rather than hundreds of thousands (or millions) of species in one 24-hour period. As Answers in Genesis—Ken Ham’s apologetics brainchild—contributing author, Andrew Kulikovsky, explained:
“Since many genera contain dozens, even hundreds, of species, it is far more likely that Adam had to name only a couple of thousand of these proto-species—a task which could easily have been achieved in a few hours. (Assuming Adam had to name 2,500 proto-species (genera), and he named a single proto-species every five seconds, it would have taken him approximately three hours and 45 minutes to complete the task if we include a five-minute break every hour.)”
I could say plenty about the notion that God continuously paraded a couple thousand animals in front of Adam as he spat out new names every five seconds, and I could speculate about what Adam did during his breaks (hacky sack, perhaps?), but there are more important things to attend to at the moment. On this view, truly massive speciation (how species diversified) occurred in only a few thousand years. This is particularly true when we lump the rest of the Animal Kingdom—apparently all marine organisms, insects, beetles and arachnids—that Kulikovky’s 2,500 proto-species excludes (because Adam supposedly had no part in naming them). We would have Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection working on the incredible variation of genetic information thought to have been intrinsic to the 2,500 proto-species. On this YEC view, 2,500 proto-species diversified into the millions—at least 2 million, and probably many millions more—of species that exist today, based on Kulikovky’s article. I should add that they must have diversified at lightning-fast speeds because there is only a few thousand years of time for this to occur on the YEC view. Further, this furious series of speciation events occurred not once, but twice, because the same process had to have occurred after the global Flood too (on their view). Unless one wants to suggest that millions of species existed on Noah’s Ark during the Flood, that is. No credible thinker has been willing to do that, thankfully.
I find all of this to be stunning, considering the fact that Ken Ham and his associates are so emphatic that the Darwinian mechanism would never have enough time to work, regardless of how old the Earth actually is. I, of course, agree with that point. But I’m not the one proposing that all of the world’s species actually diversified (on two separate occasions) far faster than either Darwin or his followers have suggested.
What this means is that, in effect, YEC holds to something eerily similar to the Darwinian mechanism that many of its adherents despise. In some sense, this would actually be a sped-up version of biological evolution, but with God specifically creating the genetic information on the front end rather than random mutation doing this over the course of millions of years. I am not trying to attack YEC here, but am simply pointing out how it alleges to explain the living world around us. Biologically speaking, this perspective clearly qualifies as some form of evolutionary process. 2,500 biologically-loaded “proto-species” (also described in YEC as “genera” or “kinds”) are believed to have diversified into all of the species on the planet without any further divine intervention. Once the proto-species were loaded with incredible amounts of genetic information (how does something like that survive?), natural processes—namely, natural selection—sorted out the variation and produced the biosphere. And, again, this occurred at a rate that would make even the most ardent Darwinist’s head spin. There must have been hundreds or perhaps thousands of brand new species coming into existence every day.
This tells us that the most conservative theistic views of creation affirm that biological evolution—in some way, shape, or form—occurred. But that leads us to the most important aspect about the evolution discussion: the term has come to mean so many different things that it actually has almost no real meaning at all. To clarify this point, I now turn to the other side of the evolution ledger.
It should have been apparent at the beginning of this blog that to say that “evolution is true” is to make one of the haziest and most ambiguous statements imaginable. Yet, we hear it all of the time. The theory of evolution is simply beyond dispute. It has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. As Richard Dawkins puts it—on behalf of Darwin worshippers everywhere— “Is it a Theory? Is it a Law? No, it’s a fact.” It’s a sure as gravity. Just ask Neil deGrasse Tyson, he’ll tell you; “The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact.”
I wonder: if you drop an ape from the sky, will it turn into a human being before it hits the ground?
Though you still won’t read about the failures of Darwin’s theory in most biology textbooks or hear about them in many public forums, they most definitely exist. The doubts about Darwin and the neo-Darwinian synthesis are so pronounced at this point that many alternative theories have been put forth, as well as theories that simply seek to supplement its apparent inadequacies. There are now views positing that mass amounts of genetic information must have been present in earlier life-forms (biological front-loading), that diversification essentially occurred in massive jumps (punctuated equilibrium) rather than through the painstakingly slow process that Darwin proposed, and that less complex biological systems can give rise to more complex ones by simple interactions (self-organizational theory), just to name a few.
In fact, scores of researchers have expressed deep concerns about the efficacy of Darwin’s mechanism through what is called the “Third Way” of evolution. Perhaps the most well-known among them is James Shapiro, from the department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Chicago. Most of these individuals are anything but religious zealots. Many are actually atheists, but they can no longer ignore the facts: Darwin’s proposal that natural selection could act on heritable genetic variation (mutation-driven) in order to produce the biosphere just doesn’t obtain. It won’t work to explain everything, at the least. In my estimation, it doesn’t work to explain much of anything. As a matter of undisputed fact, the overwhelming majority of mutations are lethal and result in the death of the organism. It is a matter of simple common sense that mutation would not be a good foundation upon which to build an evolutionary theory. This point, along with many others, has severely damaged the neo-Darwinian enterprise.
The head has been severed, but the snake continues to twitch.
My brother and I have long referred to biological evolution as the “great blob” because it absorbs everything in its path. “Evolution” gets larger and larger as the umbrella widens to cover every supplemental (and sometimes competing) hypothesis. Darwin’s theory has sort of become the corroded old statue that awkwardly stands in the middle of the evolutionary graveyard. Though surrounded by many other decaying corpses and temporary visitors, it remains the most visible; it’s still what most people ultimately mean when they refer to evolution in the biological sense. Theories of biological evolution now unite to form what is very much a Frankenstein of explanations. It ultimately bears the name of Darwin, but its parts come from a host other places. Mainly, they come from A B Normal, a reference that any Young Frankenstein fan will understand. This predicament was the reason for the sentiments expressed by Dr. David Berlinski when he was asked whether or not Darwin’s theory of evolution is true. His response remains a classic:
“Before you can ask is Darwinian Theory correct or not, you have to ask the preliminary question, is it clear enough so that it could be correct. That’s a very different question. One of my prevailing doctrines about Darwinian Theory is: man that thing is just a mess. It’s like looking into a room full of smoke. Nothing in the theory is precisely, clearly, carefully defined and delineated. It lacks all of the rigor one expects from Mathematical Physics. And Mathematical Physics lacks all of the rigor one expects from Mathematics. So we’re talking about a gradual decent down the level of intelligibility, until we reach Evolutionary Biology. We don’t even know what a species is, for heaven sakes!”
Again, you will virtually never read something like this in a high school biology textbook or hear it from the science professor at the university down the street. But this assessment is spot on. When someone says, “biological evolution is a fact” (or anything of the sort), they are absolutely right . . . but they are right for all the wrong reasons. As I previously discussed, anything we observe in the biosphere is “evidence” of evolution because evolution now encompasses every possible outcome. Rapid changes, gradual changes, no changes, and everything in between. It’s all “evolution.” And again, don’t just take my word for it. Last year’s Royal Society of London meeting featured biologist Gerd B. Müller, who suggested—among others at the meeting—that there are more than half a dozen ways that “evolution” is defined in the biological sense alone. He proved this by referencing the literature being published in today’s scientific journals. Forget the different varieties of evolutionary theories for the moment: this means that “biological evolution” itself has many different meanings. How do you begin to talk about something that is so clearly undefined?
A “room full of smoke” may actually be a strangely generous statement. It now looks more like a coliseum full of smoke.
There is no simpler and less inescapable critique of any theory than to say that it is unfalsifiable: that no evidence could ever be brought to bear that might disprove it. Biological evolution is the filet mignon of all unfalsifiable theories.
I have now discussed the various ways that the term evolution is used in both the biological sense and in the everyday sense. It should be clear that nothing has “evolved” as much as the word evolution itself. I told you in the title of this blog that I would decode the evolution confusion, and I realize that I have not done so in the normative way. This is because decoding something that is quite literally incoherent is not possible in the normative way. But that’s just it—understanding that evolution has come to mean so many things (almost everything, really) is exactly how we decipher the way that we should understand it. That knowledge, in itself, ought to liberate those who fear the term, and it should also restrict those who use the word like a sledgehammer on others.
In conclusion, I want to leave you with a few general guidelines or approaches that we should take with regards to the issue of evolution.
- Everyone believes in evolution, in the very broadest sense of the word. This is true of ordinary things like how business procedures or fashion trends have changed over the years, and is also true of the ways that speciation (how animal species diversify) occurs in our world.
- Never forget that evolution has come to describe everything that is either thought to change or thought to have changed. The word is a giant blob: a tar-baby that sticks to everything it touches.
- There is nothing intrinsically good or evil (or true/false, if you’d like) about the word. Rather, there are only appropriate and inappropriate ways to use it.
- When discussing biological evolution in particular, we absolutely have to define our terms. When someone talks about evolution—in any way, shape, or form—do not let the conversation progress until you have asked one very important question: what do you mean by the word “evolution?” Make the person explain his or her perspective. (Oh yeah, and don’t let them tell you that evolution is simply about how species change. We all believe that happens. Make them tell you exactly how (which evolutionary mechanism/s is at work, so to speak) evolution occurs. Beyond spitting out a few general catch phrases, most people will not actually be able to do this.)
Based on the engorged nature of the word evolution, clarity is the key. Clarity is essential.
I hope that this blog has in some way helped you to understand the truth about the most enigmatic word in the English language (or any other). I think we would all do well to take this issue very seriously. When used appropriately, the word evolution has the potential to tell us a great deal about the God who created us. When used inappropriately, it has the power to lead us to the conclusion that this great Being has no part to play in our existence. Worse, that He does not exist at all.
Berlinski, David. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. 2008. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1091617/quotes
Dawkins, Richard. “Is it a Theory? Is it a Law? No, it’s a fact”. Richarddawkins.net. Nov 30, 2015. https://richarddawkins.net/2015/11/is-it-a-theory-is-it-a-law-no-its-a-fact/
Ham, Ken. “Evolution—Not Enough Time.” Answers in Genesis. Jan 19, 2006. https://answersingenesis.org/media/audio/answers-with-ken-ham/volume-120/evolution-not-enough-time/
Kulikovsky, Andrew. “How Could Adam Have Named All the Animals in a Single Day”? Answers in Genesis. June 1, 2005. https://answersingenesis.org/bible-characters/adam-and-eve/how-could-adam-have-named-all-the-animals-in-a-single-day/
Merriam-Webster. “Evolution.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evolution
Müller, Gerd B. “The extended evolutionary synthesis”. The Royal Society. Nov 7. 2016. https://royalsociety.org/science-events-and-lectures/2016/11/evolutionary-biology/
Rossiter, Wayne D. Shadow of Oz: Theistic Evolution and the Absent God. Pickwick Publications. Eugene, OR. 2015, print. https://shadowofoz.wordpress.com/
“The Third Way of Evolution.” http://www.thethirdwayofevolution.com/people
Tyson, Neil deGrasse. “Neil deGrasse Tyson Smacks Down Creationists Who Are Demanding Equal Time on Cosmos.” Politicususa. Mar 23rd, 2014. http://www.politicususa.com/2014/03/23/neil-de-grasse-tyson-smacks-creationists-demanding-equal-time-cosmos.html