Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Science, Evolution, and Creationism

For the past couple of weeks I have been posting off and on about a possible debate between another minister in our area and myself regarding evolution and creationism. I say "possible" as I am not interested in this debate unless it is hosted by a college or university. That is being considered now but it is by no means definite.

My colleague, Rev. Wesley Simons, challenged me to a public debate to prove a statement made in the newspaper regarding Evolution Sunday. He wants me to prove that evolution is a fact. I am not sure what "proof" would entail for him.
To defend my statement, I defer to the National Academy of Sciences.

They have just published a book entitled,
Science, Evolution, and Creationism.

It is a resource

"...for people who find themselves embroiled in debates about evolution. It provides information about the role that evolution plays in modern biology and the reasons why only scientifically based explanations should be included in public school science courses. Interested readers may include school board members, science teachers and other education leaders, policy makers, legal scholars, and others in the community who are committed to providing students with quality science education. This booklet is also directed to the broader audience of high-quality school and college students as well as adults who wish to become more familiar with the many strands of evidence supporting evolution and to understand why evolution is both a fact and a process that accounts for the diversity of life on Earth." (pp. xi-xii, emphasis mine)

One more quote from this booklet to answer the question whether or not evolution is a fact. After a brief explanation why teaching creationism and intelligent design in public school science courses has been ruled as unconstitutional because they are based on religious conviction and not science, the National Academy of Sciences writes:

"Others have argued that science teachers should teach the "controversies" surrounding evolution. But there is no controversy in the scientific community about whether evolution has occurred. On the contrary, the evidence supporting descent with modification, as Charles Darwin termed it, is both overwhelming and compelling. In the century and a half since Darwin, scientists have uncovered exquisite details about many of the mechanisms that underlie biological variation, inheritance, and natural selection, and they have shown how these mechanisms lead to biological change over time. Because of this immense body of evidence, scientists treat the occurrence of evolution as one of the most securely established of scientific facts." (p. xiii, emphasis mine)

I recommend this booklet. As I listened to Rev. Simons' radio broadcast in which he responded to the article in the Elizabethton Star, it was difficult to imagine how we could even have a debate. He is a nice guy and sincere. But we really are from different worlds.

I guess the most I could hope for is to present my side that evolution is a fact of science, does not threaten religious belief, and that our theology should speak to how evolution is the way of creation not opposed to the doctrine of creation.

The real difference between us is how we interpret the Bible. How we may regard the Bible will be something about which I can speak.


  1. I think that debating him for the purpose of "proving" that evolution is a fact is probably not a good idea. The people who can and do "prove" the truth of evolution are biologists. One problem with the creationist crowd is that they tend to throw out a lot of misleading or simply untrue statements that get tossed around within the creationist community (e.g., claiming that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics, or the Piltdown man hoax proves that evolution is based on wishful thinking based on invalid evidence, or that dating methods proving an old earth are unreliable--and so on.) Unless you are an expert who really knows the facts and can anticipate all the crap they throw at you, it is hard to effectively refute their claims. Asking a non-biologist to prove a biological fact would require you to do a ton of research, I would think.

    Just my opinion, anyway.

  2. "Fact" is one of those terms that postmodern scholars love to hate. So is "prove". I agree w/ mystic that debating him on this premise is dangerous territory, if only because of the absolutist nature of these terms. He's right about all the creationist crap that's out there, too. You'd better know your stuff. I recommend reading the major anti-evolution writers like McDowell, Denton, and Behe and having ready responses for each and every one of their arguments. I also recommend reading Kenneth Miller, a theistic evolutionist and critic of ID.

  3. Thanks Seeker and Chris. Good advice. Thanks for the Miller reference, too!

  4. I also, out of curiosity, listened to the radio broadcast that you linked to (it was a humorous soundtrack to World of Warcraft last night). I think a key element of all of the arguments put forth by the three guys on the broadcast was fear. Terror, actually, I would say. They are terrified that if evolution is right, then God is a liar and nothing about God can be trusted. This is the core of the argument. The pseudo-science is just that, but MSeeker is right, only people who have at least a background in biology will see *why* its crap.

    What I think should come clearly from you, if possible, is the idea that evolution is as broadly accepted as the germ theory of disease, and not only that, it poses no threat to faith. Its possible that you might move a few people to be less terrified of evolution, which will free them up to think more clearly, one can hope.

    Your colleagues on the other side sound like they do everything they possibly can to make this an either/or, which lets anyone who is inclined to abdicate their God-given right to think, which means everybody loses.

  5. John,

    Here is a solid reference that is an excellent resource:

    Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. Donald R. Prothero. Columbia University Press. 2007.

    He has great up-to-date info, and he is open and honest about the real issues under debate, yet fully debunks and addresses all the falsehoods spread by creationists.

    Here is some excerpts.

  6. I give you credit for considering this - it is always a challenge.

    I will want to know how this one goes.

  7. "Asking a non-biologist to prove a biological fact would require you to do a ton of research, I would think."

    It doesn't take that much. Given that it's not a "new" concept (all of us live in a post-Darwin age and we can't escape our matrix).
    Evolution made logical sense to me when I was about twelve years old. I am now an adult and have read some books on the subject and have a fairly decent understanding of the ideas it involves. One does not have to become a biologist to understand enough about the process to be persuaded of its veracity.

    One of the bad side effects of creationist persistence might be that it unnecessarily plants a seed of cognitive dissonance in young minds. Kids are told to be critical and logical while they are in school, but they come home to be told that evolution is a devil-woven test of their faith, told that evolution is a filthy lie.

    (Never mind that it's logically sound and has been an observable and thoroughly documented phenomenon for 1½ centuries now.)


    Zachary Moore's series of podcasts are a pretty good overview of the fundamental issues involved in current thinking on the process of evolution.

    Evolution 101


  8. It doesn't take that much. Given that it's not a "new" concept (all of us live in a post-Darwin age and we can't escape our matrix).

    I hear what you're saying, and I agree in theory, but the problem is that unless you know what kind of misinformation the other side will throw at you, you can easily be thrown for a loop and left without a response. For example, a long time ago I ran across a creationist who claimed that either the Neanderthals or the Anthropithecines (I don't remember which it was now) were found by evolutionary scientists to be knuckle walkers, just like the apes are. This was completely untrue, which I happened to know since I had some college coursework in anthropology, but unless you are armed with enough knowledge to see through these sorts of claims (which circulate among creationists and get passed off among themselves as true) then you are left without a rebuttal.

  9. Mystical Seeker hits the nail on the head. Creationists distort some facts and totally fabricate others. You have no clue as to what mistaken belief they're going to come up with, so it feels impossible to know what to say in rebuttal. If you don't know what they're talking about, or you can't fathom their misconception, you can't figure out what to say.

    As I listened to Simons' radio program I realized he mistakenly believes that evolution posits that species mutate to alternate species during their lifetime, and having done so, the mutants gain the ability yield offspring with the new characteristics. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It took a couple of minutes to sink in. In a debate I would have been totally confused. I was also appalled at the way they take statements out of context and wholly corrupt the original intent of the speaker they're quoting. When someone thumps his chest about proclaiming the truth, it is stunning to hear them be so immediately, well, dishonest.

    Nonetheless, I think creationists need to be taken on, head-to-head, in public if possible. There are large numbers of young minds seeking the truth, but afraid of the truth. They need models who will stand up in public and say the right thing with kind, but unapolegetic courage. Risky? Yes. Worth the effort? Definitely! To quote Niall Shanks, "In a real sense, then, those of us who care about science education are not just facing the challenge of teaching interesting and exciting scientific ideas, we are also fighting the battles of the Enlightenment all over again. Medieval ideas that were killed stone dead by the rise of science three to four hundred years ago are not merely twitching; they are alive and well in our schools, colleges, and universities."

  10. We are essentially in agreement that the problem is that creationists lie and that it is hard to respond to their lies in real-time (sometimes).
    In fact, I think that formal debates with creationists are a waste of time and should moreover not be engaged in, lest one inadvertantly give creedence to creationism as a viable argument in the first place. But educating people is easy once you can get the information to them. This is why we need to continue to protect our educational systems from being hijacked by evangelical kooques. Dover will be upheld for a long time, methinks.

    (if we don't back down to the weirdoes)


  11. You shouldn't have to defend common ancestry and descent with modification as it is the accepted theory. I think you need to frame the debate so that your opponent has to come up with a coherent alternative. A good starting point is the distribution of the fossil record and why most of what is found in the deeper strata is no longer around. The only answer I've gotten for that is some sort of super spin cycle and hydraulic sorting during the Flood. That should be a head scratcher for any audience.

    Of course you will find that no amount of evidence is enough and you are responding to a strawman version of evolution. Not only is biology wrong but physics, geology and cosmology are also suspect.

    On second thought, maybe a written debate would be better. Thanks for doing this, by the way. Richard Dawkins isn't going to convince many to accept the science for what it is but guys like Miller, Collins and hopefully, you, sure got a shot at it. Collins is particularly impressive. I believe there is a podcast of him speaking to a student group that is quite compelling. Might be worth checking out.