By Emerson White
In a previous week’s opinion section I read an opinion piece by Michael Janti and felt that it couldn’t go unanswered. Michael didn’t so much prepare an argument against evolution as he declared victory over it. This may be his opinion, but it has little basis in fact.
Let’s examine the argument. There isn’t much meat to it. There are two basic premises: First, that there is a difference of opinion between scientists on the subject. Second, that there is a difference in the way evolution shifts gene frequency and the way that evolution splits species. From these two premises he concludes that science is a dogmatic institution out to crush those who disagree.
Looking at the first premise about scientists disagreeing, the list of scientists who do not accept evolution is pretty short and the numbers are primarily padded with people who have no more education on evolution than a high school student.
The Discovery Institute has a list of about 800 scientists and engineers who “dissent from Darwin.” While some of them have prestigious educational backgrounds, the only ones who are famous within the realm of biology are known for incompetence or dishonesty in their presentation of evolution, specifically Michael Behe and William Dembski (interestingly enough, Behe would argue against the article’s objection to evolution, as he supports the idea of common descent).
The National Center for Science Education has compiled a larger list of scientists named Steve who ascribe to evolution.
There are indeed legitimate controversies within the study of evolution, primarily the controversy of gradualism versus punctuated equilibrium.
To use an analogy, this is like pointing out the fact that some cars use manual transmission and some use automatic transmissions, then use that as evidence that cars don’t actually move at all. However, this whole argument is further damaged because this bitter battle and a real disagreement within the field proves the point that evolution is a real science and not some dogma instituted by an ivory tower elite.
If it were a dogma, a Science Pope would simply wave his scepter and end the debate.
Moving on to the second major argument, we can see that it is based on a magical divide and a whole lot of ignorance. There is no mechanism to stop evolutionary changes from adding up to species level changes, or genus level changes.
There is no one change between our ancestor with chimpanzees and us that cannot have occurred as a part of evolution, and no mechanism that would stop all of them from occurring.
Using another analogy, it’s like looking at the Great Wall of China and saying “Sure, I can see that they could build one segment of the wall, but I just can’t fathom how they could have built it all”.
The ignorance may not be on purpose, and having it doesn’t imply fault (there are many misleading books, such as the one mentioned in the article, which will happily spread misinformation), but that ignorance isn’t evidence.
The whole creationist’s machine is about appearing to look like a scientist with out actually doing any biological science. It’s a library research heavy exercise.
When Massimo Pigliucci asked the people at the Discovery Institute what research they would do if they received a $3 million grant—a question real research scientists could answer easily—they didn’t have an answer, because they lacked the ability to study what was preached. The simple answer for this is that the phenomena they are trying to identify, the gulf between “micro” and “macro” evolution doesn’t exist…
Any one can become a scientist, anyone can contribute, but you really have to put in the legwork first. A creationist could dedicate their life to finding evidence against evolution—I think that would be a poor use of time, but it’s theirs to use. Science works on a sort of consensus driven model, and we all know it works, but it doesn’t respond to outside pressure.
In the words of Bill Maher: “When the topic is science, the non-scientist doesn’t get a vote.”
The responsibility, the burden of proof, lies with creationists to show that evolution is flawed. It’s a monumental task because of the huge mountains of evidence from the last 120 years supporting it.
The Northern Light was first put out in 1988, and if we filled all the pages of all the issues with the scientific evidence for evolution it would only amount to what could be called a summary.
To briefly touch on one such piece of proof, there are remnants in our genomes of viral infections called ERVs, and they can end up in one of roughly 350 million locations in the ape genome (different numbers for different phylogenetic families), so the odds of ending up with one in the exact same location are roughly 1 in 350 million, yet we share a number of these in the same locations on the same chromosomes with the other apes.
We share more with chimps than we do with gorillas. Chimps and gorillas share none that aren’t in humans (no specific instances, there is one type of retrovirus, now extinct, which could not infect humans due to a mutation in our toll-like 8 receptor).
It’s the same story when you look at humans and gorillas and compare them to orangs or look at chimps and orangs and compare them to gibbons. This is just one of several independent lines of evidence.
If someone wants to hold a religious conviction that evolution did not occur, the institution of science is neutral to that choice. Simply asking to be left alone is fine. It’s an entirely different thing to ask for us to hobble ourselves in order to make creationists a little more comfortable.
The freedom to hold a religious conviction must not be mistaken for a license to spread ignorance. This strain of anti-evolutionary, anti-science is in all cases religious in nature, similar to the anti-astronomical claims that come from the Hare Krishna, who believe firmly that the moon is the most distant of astronomical bodies.
If someone cannot reconcile their own personal beliefs with the findings of science, it is their responsibility to avoid science, not science’s responsibility to avoid them.
Evolution is a well-founded and important theory; it is subtle and profound, sometimes difficult to understand but powerfully predictive, having made valuable contributions to ecology, economics, agriculture, medicine, political science, psychology, linguistics and even anthropology.
It is important to teach evolution, as that opinion piece proves.
I would have preferred that the editorial staff of The Northern Light had bothered to vet what the article claimed with any of the dozens of professors in the biology, anthropology, geology, or philosophy departments who could have easily exposed this article as what it is: a check that no one can cash.