The Evolution / Creation wars

by Neil Rickert

In We’re doing it rong (again), Jerry Coyne rejects comments by Everett Hamner on what he (Hamner) sees as the problem, describing them as “an annoying piece ripped straight from the pages of the accommodationist playbook.”  I think the dismissal of Hamner’s views is a mistake.  I don’t doubt that I will also be labeled as “accomodationist” for my comments below.

We need to look at this pragmatically.  To say that the problem is all due to religion, is to say that there is nothing that we can do about it.  We cannot change how religious people act or think.  If we want to do anything about the evolution-creation wars, we need to see whether there are things that we can ourselves change.  Whether or not that is considered “accomodationism” is beside the point.  If we want continued never-ending war, then let’s do nothing about it.  If we want the wars to end, then we have to look toward the kind of changes that we can make, and not place all of the burden of change on religious groups that are based on resistance to change.

What biologists could do, is change the way that evolution is presented to the public.  An explanatory scientific theory serves two purposes.  As a theory, it establishes a framework that guides research in the field.  And as an explanation, it attempts to communicate to the lay public, the kind of thinking and the evidentiary basis that supports the research.

As a scientific theory, as a framework for research, the Theory of Evolution has been very successful.  However, as an explanation, it has been a dismal failure.  You don’t have to look at creationism to see that it has been a failure.  Just ask a non-scientist who is also a non-religious person, about his understanding of evolution.  There’s a good chance that what he describes will turn out to be more like the strawman version coming from creationists, than like the version coming from biologists.

What should we change?

We should stop talking about natural selection and mutation as the driving forces.  They aren’t.  Evolutionists often describe natural selection as a filter, which is appropriate.  The oil filter in my car is a passive element.  It is the oil pump that forces oil through the filter, that is the driving force of the filtration.  Similarly, it is biological reproduction that forces things through the filter of natural selection, so biological reproduction should be more emphasized as a driving force.  Likewise, mutation is often described as copying errors.  But you don’t get copying errors unless there is copying.  Once again, it is biological reproduction that drives the copying that is prerequisite for there being any copying errors.

Biologists, of course, understand that reproduction is a primary agent.  But lay people, listening to discussions of natural selection and mutation, often miss that background assumption.  Evolutionists would be better off saying that biological reproduction is the primary driving force, with natural selection and mutation acting to shape and modify what emerges.

We should stop talking about evolution as fact.  There are many facts, but they are mostly facts of natural history, facts of biology, facts of genetics, facts of biochemistry.  Many of them are known as facts because of the effectiveness of the theory of evolution.  But the theory itself is best considered a framework for research, and not as a fact.  The trouble with saying “evolution is fact” is that saying this drives the impression that evolution is itself a system of dogmas and is little more than a religion.  So keep the idea of evolution as fact to yourselves, and don’t stress it to an audience that has doubts.

We should stop saying that there is more evidence in support of evolution than in support of gravity.  That’s patent nonsense, and is recognized as obvious nonsense by the critics of evolution.  Every time I take a step while walking down the street, I am experiencing forces that are in support of gravity.  The trouble with saying that evolution has more support than gravity, is that it is seen as evidence that evolution is more dogma than science.

Scientists are usually valued more for their research than for their ability to communicate with the public.  And that’s how it should be.  However, when there is controversy and disagreement, scientists need to pay more attention to how they communicate their science to a non-technical audience.


One Comment to “The Evolution / Creation wars”

  1. Good points. It’s difficult enough to explain evolution, dealing with the “Why aren’t we still evolving?” and “If we evolved from apes why are there still apes?”, which are so common, yet relatively easy to deal with. The most difficult thing to convey is the lack of teleology; but there sits teleology, right in the middle of evolution language – a regrettable situation Dawkins found himself in with respect to The Selfish Gene.


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