5 (more) Misconceptions about Evolution

I recently came across this excellent post debunking 5 common misconceptions about evolution (hat tip to Joe Hansen at It’s Okay to be Smart). It’s a great infographic, and in light of the recent debate about whether creationism is compatible with science, between young-Earth creationist Ken Ham and Bill Nye the Science Guy, I thought I’d take this opportunity to add five more.

Full disclosure, the five misconceptions I’m writing about here are indeed common, but the inspiration was not all mine. This list is actually presented in The Tangled Bank, by the prolific science writer Carl Zimmer. It’s a great book for a non-biology major evolution course (I happen to be using it for just that right now), or for anyone outside the field who would like to learn more about evolution. No paid promo here, it’s just my opinion.

One thing that clearly unites every argument denying evolution: they are nearly always some form of a straw man argument. With ever-growing mountains of overwhelming evidence to support the theories behind evolution, this is really the only type of argument available to creationists. They must make false claims about evolution that they then easily take down to give their arguments the appearance of credibility.

strawman-macleod

Any time a creationist makes an argument to discredit evolution that seems on its surface to be scientifically compelling, this is probably how they did it. (Cartoon by history professor Dr. James MacLeod)

So in addition to the 5 misconceptions listed by Molecular Life Sciences, I figured it would be useful to add 5 more to the list (with no claims about whether these fit at the top, bottom, or middle of such a list). It turns out that most denials are so weak, they can be refuted in short order. So let’s get started…

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Objective morality is not a required tenet of atheism (also, it is NOT TRUE that atheists have no objection to child rape)

The title of this post was not unprovoked. It’s a direct response to statements made at a small public gathering by pastor and student of theology Andrew Pitts, of Antioch Church LA. I’m a bit late getting around to this, but the message is too important to let it fall through the cracks. I (evolutionary biologist) co-wrote this with my girlfriend (science historian – @deetronic), who is posting it on her own blog as well.

A couple of weeks ago we were invited to attend what was called a “debate” at a church near the UCLA campus. This debate, which was actually a presentation of two stand-alone 20-minute talks, was called “The Conflict,” and described as “[t]wo opposing views on God and Science meet up to debate whether there is a conflict.” Pastor of Antioch LA, Andrew Pitts (organizer) represented the view that there was no opposition between God and Science. Colleague and friend of ours, Anthony Friscia, a UCLA faculty member in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology, represented the view that Science cannot support the existence of God.

Perhaps we were naïve to think this would be a lively, rational conversation. Even before walking inside, we were greeted on the sidewalk by two friendly college students who asked, “Are you here for the debate? It’s against the biologists!” It was amusing to see them stare awkwardly when one of us answered, “We’re biologists!” But in retrospect this was an obvious indication that we were not walking into an honest discussion of conflicting worldviews. When Pitts started his talk, it was immediately clear that the event was intended to bring a scientist into a church meeting to somehow lend credibility to what amounted to pseudoscience, insisting that there is more scientific support for theism than for atheism and then attacking atheists for lack of morality.

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What happened or existed before the Big Bang?

This was one of a few questions posed to me by someone in the comments section of my last post. It was clearly rhetorical, meant to suggest that because science hasn’t been able to answer the question, it therefore provides proof for the existence of God as a creator. Well, just because science hasn’t yet found an answer, that doesn’t necessarily mean it never will. But even if science never does find an answer, it is no more rational to fill the knowledge gap with God as a default than it would be to say the universe was created by Santa Claus or that everything started as an infinitely old brick of cheese that exploded 14+ billion years ago. Of course everyone would agree that these latter two options are obviously absurd, yet there is no more or less evidence for them than there is for a creator we call God (or Allah, Yahweh, Jehovah, etc.). Science can speculate, however, as to why it has been so difficult to find evidence for what might have preceded the Big Bang. In the video below, MinutePhysics does a great job of breaking it down in just 5 minutes while avoiding physics jargon that would put most of us to sleep:

I want to be clear that my motivation here is not to bash believers nor their religions. While it’s true that centuries of harm and bloodshed have been driven by religious ideology, I also recognize that, on a personal level, the idea of God has provided many people with inspiration and comfort in their lives. However, I cannot stress how important it is to distinguish religion from science. In fact, it is important to distinguish anything that is not science from science, whether in the classroom, the political sphere, or any other environment where we face problems that can only be solved through reasoned and logical solutions. Facts are facts whether or not they contradict the self interests of a person, a corporation, a political party, or a church.

In an op-ed for the New York Times yesterday titled “Welcome to the Age of Denial,” Dr. Adam Frank laments the regressive position that many politicians and others in the US have taken toward science. From the time he was a physics student in the 1980’s until now, he has witnessed the rise of pseudoscience as a means to create doubt about real science whenever that real science happens to be inconvenient for those with particular economic, religious, or other ideological interests. While conservative politics in the US are largely to blame for ignoring facts and perpetuating ignorance when it comes to evolution and climate change, there is also a loud contingent of neo-liberals who continue to spread irrational fear about a non-existent link between childhood vaccines and autism. Please click here or on the link above, and take the time to read Dr. Frank’s brief essay. He does a much better job of explaining the problem than I could, and his op-ed is worth of some attention.

Intelligent design is not science

It’s not often that scientists address the topic of intelligent design (ID). Despite the way it is presented, there is absolutely no science behind it. It’s simply a futile effort by creationists to discredit the overwhelming evidence supporting evolution by common descent, because these facts are inconvenient for religious fundamentalists. Yet there remains an unfortunate need for science to push back against the lies that have led so many Americans to consistently deny that the theory of evolution explains the origins of the diversity of life on Earth – no creator necessary. Gallup polls, for example, from 1982 up until last year show that a very consistent proportion of nearly 50% of the population thinks that God created humans in their present form. This can at least be partially attributed to a failure of science education in the US, but science teachers are unfortunately up against the deceptive tactics of a handful of determined and unrelenting religious fundamentalists (predominantly Christians in this country, but the Muslim/Islamic community is in no way immune). There are even some science teachers at the elementary and high school levels who are part of this opposition, not to mention entire school boards, which makes science educators’ jobs even more difficult.

ID_cartoon

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