Friday, May 29, 2009

10 bad reasons to reject evolution

The inspiration for this post came from a conversation I had with a relative of mine at a recent family BBQ; it was an enjoyable conversation on the subject of evolution, but to my surprise the person that I had the conversation with kicked the ball off by saying that he didn't believe evolution was true.

I was keen to understand the reasoning behind this lack of acceptance and discovered some rather strange logic combined with a whole number of common misconceptions about both the facts of evolution itself and the scientific method in general.

I have captured what I think are the top 10 bad reasons to think evolution is false, then over the next few days I intend to explore each reason looking at why it might represent a misconception or why perhaps it might represent simple ignorance of the facts.

First let's look at the 10 reasons, these are statements or assertions that are commonly used as reasons why people say that they reject evolution, interestingly some of these assertions are exactly what the person I was talking to at the BBQ came out with :-

  1. You can't see evolution happening
  2. We have never seen a monkey give birth to a human
  3. We haven't got every single fossil going back to the first bacteria
  4. There are no fossils that show the transitions between species
  5. The human body is too complex to have come about by chance
  6. If we evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys
  7. They can't possibly know how old all these fossils are
  8. How did evolution know to create such specialised animals
  9. Evolution is "just" a theory, not a fact
  10. I just find it too incredible to believe

There are a couple of great reference books that cover the facts of evolution at a fairly basic level, I would recommend "Why evolution is true" by Jerry Coyne and there is a new book coming out soon by Richard Dawkins called "the greatest show on earth".

Over the coming days I will be looking critically at each of these assertions and covering them in more detail, stay tuned.


Elizabeth said...

I was amazed to hear that your own b-in-law doesn't accept evolution. I didn't think you had this problem in the UK because your educational system is so good. We have zillions of people in the US who don't accept evolution because they were never taught it. They say God put those fossils around to 'test our faith' in him.

Steve Borthwick said...

E, yes I was amazed too, he studied Geology at university too!

I think our education system is rubbish when it comes to evolution (probably even worse in the USA) it simply isn't taught properly until you get to A-Level, this is pathetic since it is the foundation of all Biology and should be taught first! I think someone famous once said that nothing in Biology makes sense unless viewed in the light of evolution.

I believe the statistics in the states are that at least 45% of people don't believe it (incredible!), I'm not sure what it is here but it's not less than 1, which is what it should be.

I have heard a similar thing, someone once told me that the devil put them there to confuse us, boy, that old devil must have a lot of time on his hands!

Oranjepan said...

I'm catching up today and I want to jump on #9 as a category mistake.

Theory and fact are equally necessary, just like two pieces of a jigsaw, to provide mutual confirmation, which imbues reality with meaning and enables us to make sense of the world around us.

On the statistical point about people in the US who believe in evolution, I think it's safer to describe 45% of respondents say they don't believe in evolution.

As is proven daily what people say is often only loosely related to what they think and what they do.

That particular survey response suggests to me not anything to do with religious belief, but a larger propensity to accept suggestions at face value - one of the hallmarks of a specific type of political outlook.

I find it difficult to attack such a viewpoint in general terms because every perspective has advantages and disadvantages, applications and particular circumstances where it will reach a preferable outcome: everything has it's uses, so it's more a question of what your purposes are, whether you can adapt one to the other and how to do it successfully.

At some point I'd be interested in an exploration of the differences between religions and cults... gods vs heroes, saints vs celebrities etc

Steve Borthwick said...

O, I find that people are horribly misinformed about the scientific method, which I suppose if they aren't scientists is understandable but actually it is such an important "ingredient" to our lives these days that it's a bit like not understanding about how money works (can't think of a crisp analogy here)

Traditionally (in science anyway) a fact is subordinate to a theory, not equal, a theory has explanatory and predictive power whereas a fact is simply something that is observed or deduced that forms one of the supporting bricks in a theory (or falsifies it) etc.

I take your point on the 45% thing, I can't prove it's correlated with religiosity but I suspect it is because of the legacy of the whole creationism, creation science, scopes trial, Dover trial etc. in the USA. Some of that bleeds over here too, for example last year ID (intelligent design) proponents sent free materials to UK schools promoting essentially re-packed creationism, for them to use in science classes, it is not science but unfortunately some institutions were either gullible enough or bias enough to actually use them.

I take a different view on the usefulness of different ideas question, I think in the case of evolution, either its true or it isn't, if it is true then the story in Genesis is wrong, however I agree with you that some people might find the Genesis story "comforting" and in that sense it is useful to them, but I am more interested in what is true.

Yes, the purpose of these things in our lives is a fascinating subject, they are so ancient and embedded it seems unlikely that they don't hold any evolutionary benefit to me.

Oranjepan said...

One of the problems with this debate is how it is politicised for partisan benefit.

In many cases US religiosity is largely a psychological reaction to the events of the 20th century - both the major conflicts were fought against ideologies which proposed solutions based on strictly scientific and darwinian conclusions, so if you interpret the assumed correlation logically then it is natural to react against it.

It's has been common during the post-war social-democrat consensus to emphasise the 'nationalist' aspect of National Socialism as 'right-wing', but now it's possible to hear reinterpretations of Nazis (and now the BNP) as 'socialist' and 'left-wing'. Equally Stalin & Co were categorised by many activists through oppositional terms.

Firstly this is to create disassociation from previous memes of commonalities in order to facilitate contemporary popularity trends. But more importantly this credits defeated enemies with a coherent rationale, and supports an implied reactionary tendency.

But this is madness - it is logically incorrect to conclude that if something is not wrong it is right, and if something is not right then it must be wrong.

Darwin's theory of evolution was not perfect and has been adjusted since it was first published - it has proved it's essential truth by evolved itself, but in so doing it has also disproved the value of dogmatic adherence to holy scriptures!

Even the supposedly discredited writings of Marx still has much to teach us, and while Plato or Machiavelli may have been used as justification for all sorts of horrors their continued relevance is undisputed.

And this is where it all gets messy - we are eternally frustrated by our endless and futile search for perfection, but to ever let our guard down opens the way to danger.

So when it comes to every book, especially those like Genesis, or even myths like beowulf, it is necessary to remember there is an essential truth underlying them, even if the specific details aren't immediately apparent.

My point is that truth exists on many levels simultaneously and without contradiction, so just because you have a key on your keyring which you've never used it and never seen a lock which it might fit, it doesn't mean there isn't one or that you won't find it.

I agree that almost all churches and religions represent an anachronism, but I also know there are important roles to fulfill which would make them universally relevant were we able to reinterpret and reform them in a helpful way.

My personal way of understanding the unfolding stories in the bible corresponds with patterns of human and individual development. The narrative structure mirrors the growth of consciousness and describes the changes which happen as specific types of challenges are addressed.

When you ask someone what their first memory is everyone's means of describing this is prescribed by universal forms first encountered in hypothetical ur-texts which have since found a way into early scripture and developed into a reflexive literary device.

In the beginning is only the beginning, but I had better stop there for otherwise there will be no end...

Steve Borthwick said...

O, many thanks for your comment, as ever some excellent and thought provoking points, apologies in advance for the essay.

I agree you can still sense the old cold war antagonisms are just under the surface in some older Americans, although I think there are some other contributory factors to religiosity; I’m not convinced that the atheist regimes of the communist era were entirely opposed by the USA because of Atheism although that was certainly part of it hence the application of “in God we trust” on the money in the 50s. I think another equally important factor was the separation of church and state, that meant religions were free to compete on level terms (unlike in the UK for example), leading to proliferation and more fine tuning (less boring), religion meets the free market if you will.

I think I understand where you are coming from on the right/wrong question; I was sloppy in my last post I think I left you with a false impression of simplicity with regard to my argument. I totally see your perspective, and I agree with it, I am not advocating that we throw out, say, the Bible, I think that would be a nihilistic thing to do and I am not suggesting such an act of vandalism. To use the Bible as an example, there is some profound and useful philosophy in there (not as much as people think there is IMO) but some, there is also artistic and historic merit, so keep that, incorporate it into new thinking and move on. When I say “wrong” I don’t mean throw it out.

As you know the best way to become famous in science (apart from inventing Google) is to prove something that is well established to be wrong (again I don’t mean 100% wrong, I think this is just how I’m using language), Newton was wrong, Einstein was right (for now), but Newton is still useful. The question of God is IMO a scientific question, some people S.J. Gould for example argued for the NOMA idea, non overlapping magisteria, proposing that religion covers different ground than science and the two don’t conflict, I disagree with that view. I think the universe would be different if there was an omnipotent being at the centre of it suspending the laws of nature to perform miracles etc. and we (humans) were the prime purpose of its existence. This is a scientific question and is either right or wrong, in the same sense that you are either pregnant or you aren’t, you can’t be a little bit pregnant etc.

I hold my hand up I have perfectionist tendencies, although I would prefer to think of myself as an optimist. Perhaps it’s a na├»ve viewpoint but I look at what we as a species have achieved since the enlightenment and it thrills me, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I contemplate what we could achieve in the next 400 years even more so. In some sense I feel that religion is holding this effort back, of course I realise that is a hopelessly simplistic view.


Steve Borthwick said...

Part II

I think we are using the concept of “truth” in different settings?, I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “essential truth”, in my mind I think of truth in the binary sense with the caveat that it is only valid at a point in time. For example, you are quite right that Darwin was wrong about some things in 1859 (more lacking than wrong), we have now filled in some of those gaps, however evolution was true then and is still true albeit improved, perhaps that’s what you mean, I am not sure. If we found a fossil hominid in pre-Cambrian strata then I would say evolution is wrong, some of its components like gene mutation etc. would still be true of course, but the overarching theory would have been falsified.

I’m trying to think of an analogy to explain myself; the best I can come up with is this,

Think of a set of digits there are 10 of them, each can be either 1 or 0, true or false, call the whole thing “evolution”, if all 10 digits are 1 then evolution is true (my definition) if any one of those 10 digits is zero then evolution if false, however if 9 of the digits are 1 then evolution is false but each digit set to 1 is still true in its own right. A simplistic view of course, since in reality the measurement of true or false can contain some element of subjectivity, as I think I have said before, there is no such thing as a “proven” scientific theory.

I would be really interested if it’s possible for you to explain your notion of different kinds of truth in some way like this; more quantitative perhaps, I fear you’re going to say it isn’t like that?

You outline in your last few paragraphs some sense that religion(s) performs an important role; I can see that, I would be interested to know if you think that is a vital role?

My opinion is not set on this point; I could perhaps argue that evolution has given us consciousness, which in turn has emergent properties which are manifested by religion or the anthropomorphising of nature, the development of rules to maintain social cohesion (ethics) and control. So, religion is a misfiring, a manufacturing of something tangible to satisfy a need that our brains have. Brains such as ours have been selected for by natural selection on the basis that brains which work this way exhibit increased understanding of natural phenomena, kinship and cooperation, hence better survivability. There is some evidence to suggest that religion (i.e. thinking about it, doing it) stimulates very specific areas of our cortex, interestingly atheists tested did not respond to the same stimuli, interesting but clearly more work is needed.

An analogy would be sex, we all feel lust, this is another kind of “need” that our brains have, it is there to encourage the reproductive imperative and sex rewards it. But these days we have contraception, however we still feel lust; we have pornography which we know cannot satisfy the reproductive imperative but it is still sufficient to stimulate our brains to engage the same physical responses. So, perhaps religion is a human manufacturing of something that satisfies needs in our brains, like pornography is a human manufacturing of something that satisfies different needs in our brains.

These are not my ideas BTW, this is a mash up of Dennett, Harris and Dawkins, I would like to see more research, but in principal I think the ideas have legs.

On that note I need a cuppa!

Oranjepan said...

Interesting stuff... will respond when I've got more than 5 mins.