Four Common Misconceptions Christians Have about Evolution

Tyler’s note: The following is the latest from GOE friend and certified next-level baller Phil Ledgerwood. Check out his blog here. This post was first published here.

A week ago, I participated in a discussion over coffee with other Christians about the creation accounts in Genesis and the theory of evolution and other theories and hypotheses that typically go along with it. All views that I’m aware of were represented among the five of us.

Something that struck me this time around, though, was not so much the various points people were making about who was right — I’ve heard and said most of these, and you probably have, too. What struck me were some of the misconceptions that some of the participants had about evolution and how that shaped the discussion. It appears some of these are actually very common, and I thought it was worth pointing out a few.

1. Macroevolution is not a Thing

In the discussion, someone literally said, “There’s more than one theory of evolution. There’s macro- and micro-evolution, so there’s two right there.”

There is no theory of macroevolution as distinct from microevolution. It’s all microevolution. In other words, the theory of evolution only ever posits tiny, incremental changes that in and of themselves do not radically shift a creature into a brand new type of creature.

This division is generally posited by creationists who are trying to fence off the phenomenon of tiny, incremental changes in creatures — which we readily observe — from the idea that this could account for all the diversity of life that we see, today. But evolution does not posit a different “level” or mechanism. It’s all tiny changes. In other words, all evolution is microevolution, by those definitions.

The question is really more about time than mechanism. If the Earth is a few billion years old, then these tiny, incremental changes add up. Some of the creatures with the changes survive, some don’t. Some without the changes survive, some don’t. Parallel branches exist while other branches die out altogether. Traits get handed down in different rates and in different combinations, and those eventually develop more incremental changes. If this process happens over a staggeringly huge amount of time, you will by necessity end up with a wide diversity of end products.

By contrast, if the Earth is six to ten thousand years old, there’s no way those tiny, incremental changes could produce the diversity of life we now observe.

So, if you believe that organisms will develop small mutations over time that allow them to survive in changing environments — a phenomenon we have observed in a laboratory — then you believe in the theory of evolution. There is no “macro” version of the theory. It’s all a matter of how much time you believe that mechanism has been in operation.

2. Proponents of Evolution Don’t Dismiss Creationism as Unscientific Because It Posits a God

The reason creationism (or Intelligent Design, for that matter) isn’t science is not because it posits a God, and scientists don’t believe in God, so they arbitrarily declare the belief as non-scientific.

The reason creationism is not scientific is because it doesn’t offer testable, falsifiable hypotheses.

In order for science to be science, it can’t just offer a possible explanation of natural phenomena; it has to present testable, verifiable hypotheses that can be accepted or rejected based on the results of the tests. You have to be able to say, “If X is true, then we should be able to look for Y and find it.”

For example, if evolution is true, then we should be able to observe mutation happening in the world around us. If evolution is true, then we should expect to be able to engineer an environment and observe an organism adapting to it biologically. If evolution is true, then we should expect to find that life has been developing on earth for a staggeringly long period of time. If evolution is true, then we should expect to find fossils of creatures at varying levels of complexity more or less chronologically distributed through geological strata. And so on and so on.

You might argue whether or not the data supports the hypotheses, but what you can’t argue with is that the hypotheses are testable and falsifiable. Even if you think every last one of those hypotheses is unsupported by the actual data, you can see how we are using the scientific method to pursue them.

By contrast, creationism (and ID) is not science because it does not offer anything we can test against observable data. That in and of itself does not mean it can’t be true; it does mean that it isn’t science.

If creationists could say, “My theory is that the God depicted in Genesis created all life on planet Earth in a special, supernatural act of creation where the animals were formed by divine fiat. If this is true, we should find the Hebrew letters for YHWH encoded in DNA.” That would be a testable, falsifiable hypothesis (it’s false, btw), and then would be subject to the scientific method.

But there aren’t any testable hypotheses for that doctrine that are being offered to scientists that I’m aware of. And that’s what makes it not science. It’s not because a God is involved; it’s because there aren’t any testable hypotheses around it.

It is because of this that creationism or Intelligent Design is not science. In my opinion, this means neither should be taught in science classes — in public or religious schools. It is a faith commitment. It doesn’t make it false; it just means it isn’t science no matter how you dress it up.

3. Evolution is not a Theory in Crisis or a Controversial Theory in the Scientific Community

There are scientists who reject the theory of evolution. They are very few and far between.

For instance, the Discovery Institute put up a petition for scientists to sign who upheld Intelligent Design. In four years, they received around 700 signatures with almost no earth-life scientists on the list. In response, the National Center for Science Education put up a petition for scientists named Steve who supported evolution (called “Project Steve”). They surpassed 700 signatures in three years and, to date, have about 1,400 signatures, mostly comprised of prominent earth and life scientists. Just to recap, there are twice as many scientists named Steve who support evolution as there are the totality of scientists the Discovery Institute managed to round up.

The debates within the scientific community over evolution are not about whether or not life as we know it evolved into its present form; the debates are things like the origin of the process and the role various factors play. For example, most scientists believe natural selection is the mechanism that drove the direction of the development of life, while other scientists debate natural selection as a primary role and look at other factors like synergies with other forms of life. And of course, there are several different ideas on how this whole thing got kicked off to begin with.

But virtually nobody in the scientific community is arguing that life as we know it, today, is not the product of evolutionary changes that happened over a huge amount of time.

4. A Naturalistic Explanation for How Life Evolves Does not Rule Out God

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says:

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:44-45 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

There are probably few, if any, Christians today who would argue that the rain is a supernatural act of God’s power.

The Bible talks about God sending the rain, creating the rain, withholding the rain, etc. And yet, we also observe that rain is caused by the water cycle. Water evaporates from the earth, collects and condenses in the air, and when this reaches a certain saturation point, the water returns to the earth as rain. It is observable, repeatable, and everyone knows this is where rain comes from.

And yet, many Christians have somehow figured out a way to acknowledge the water cycle without becoming raving atheists.

How do we do this? Well, some Christians believe God is responsible for creating the mechanism, and it pretty much runs itself. Some believe that, in some sense of fundamental reality, the rain exists and is sustained by the will of God. Some believe that God’s plan and purposes are behind the rain even if they play no role in directly making the rain to happen. Some believe some combination of those things or other things altogether. But what you don’t see are Christians up in arms about the water cycle. The Bible says that God sends the rain. We know rain comes from the water cycle. Everyone is totally cool with this. No one has ever said that the Bible is a pack of dumb lies because water evaporates and condenses.

And yet, this seems to be the inevitable horns of the dilemma that gets brought up in these discussions. If we evolved, then the Bible isn’t true. If we evolved, then God didn’t create us. If we evolved, then God doesn’t exist.

Now, someone may come to these conclusions. Certainly, an evolutionary view of life does not require a God, and if the only reason someone ever believed in God was because He was the most likely explanation for the development of life on Earth, then I could see someone ditching the whole thing because He is no longer strictly necessary.

But it is not a necessary move. The Bible is not a treatise on how the natural world works or used to work. It tells us about a being and His people and their lives together over a long period of time. It gives us theological commentary on events. It prods us to see into a world behind our world that is not readily available for falsifiable, empirical testing. Behind our natural world which is fully accessible to science, the Bible offers us a dimension of reality that is apprehended by faith (or discarded due to a lack thereof).

We have long since come to terms with this for many of the other propositions in the Bible. My guess is that this will happen, eventually, for evolution as well.

  • Seth

    Great article! I would offer a slightly different take on #1. The creationist literature I have read doesn’t limit the extent of evolution simply due to time. They in fact propose a rate of evolution orders of magnitude greater than anyone in the field, which they use to make the Ark story ‘work’. For example, all canids are part of one kind, and all the dozens of species in the family all evolved from an ancestral pair in the time of a few hundred years. They state that there are inherent barriers (established by God) between kinds that prevent evolution from crossing between them.
    Minor quibble though, very well written and thanks again for the excellent addition to God of Evolution.

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      Hi Seth. I actually thought about addressing that very thing, because I know AiG at least is proposing a sort of hyper-evolutionary rate. I went back and forth, but I thought that’d be getting too much into the actual debates with YEC theories as opposed to staying with misconceptions about the theory of evolution itself.

      That is a great observation, though. I came very, very close to including that. To me, it’s a “solution” that incorporates the worst of both worlds. It proposes both an unrealistic rate and an unrealistic timeframe.

      • SaraRJ

        The need for enormous, dramatic, and rapid changes after the Fall and then again after the Ark was my first conscious realization that strict creationism had just as many problems as they said evolution did.

        • Matthew Funke

          For me, it was the speed-of-light problem, and the strange sort of ad hoc “solutions” they created to account for it. (After that relatively small indication that creationism was not as explanative as creationist teachers were insisting, of course, the problems that creationism has just got more and more profound and numerous.)

          It might be interesting to find out what the “tipping point” was for all kinds of different people who once embraced creationism, but no longer do.

  • Regarding #1 and the idea that “the theory of evolution only ever posits tiny, incremental changes,”:

    Are you familiar with James Shapiro and colleagues and what he calls “natural genetic engineering,” where some evolution takes place not via random mutations but via things like transposition, horizontal gene transfer, symbiogenesis, and whole genome duplication, which can sometimes effectively lead to large changes in the genome that are organized by rules we are only beginning to understand? Some talk of this as a growing challenge to the now-old “modern synthesis,” and there seems to be a growing rift over how big a deal it is (see the different spins coming out of this year’s Royal Society meeting). Regardless, the challenge definitely seems to be coming from actual evolutionary scientists and it definitely seems to at least have the potential for quite a paradigm shift from only ever having tiny incremental changes through the natural selection of random mutations, but I’m not well-qualified to adjudicate these sorts of things.

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      Yes, well, bear in mind that I’m not a scientist and my article is probably better classified as “Op-Ed” than “Overview of the State of Biological Sciences.”

      The way I understand Shapiro’s contributions (once again, I’m not a scientist, so be gentle) is that he does skew toward saltationism. However, this is mostly theoretical speculation from him. It’s a direction he seems to feel is an extension of his core observable ideas that information gets into the genes more porously than previously thought and that the cells themselves can influence this process. Interestingly, when I finished Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene I wondered if Dawkins would find some interesting things in Shapiro’s ideas, because his basic thesis almost requires basic biological units to proactively shape their results.

      But this connection is not a necessary one and, to my knowledge (which is very small in this area), Shapiro has not actually offered any new evidence into the idea of punctuated equilibrium. It’s almost as if he just sees it to be a better complementary fit. But I don’t know.

      Regardless, I appreciate the point. Evolutionary theory is not a monolith on all points, and I tried to at least touch on that in item 4. I would say that the way creationists describe “macroevolution” is not punctuated equilibrium. They are referring to whether or not evolutionary changes could account for a change from… well, I almost said “species,” but now that we’ve proven evolutionary changes can form new species, now we’re all about “kinds.”

      That’s kind of a long way of saying that, when creationists talk about macroevolution, I don’t believe they are describing what Shapiro is describing. Once again, I’m not really qualified to make an authoritative pronouncement on that.

    • Matthew Funke

      Shapiro is a bit loose in his mental fastenings.

      The only people promoting his “theories” all seem to be cdesign proponentsists. Transposition, horizontal DNA transfer, interspecies hybridization, genome doubling, and symbiogenesis are all perfectly compatible with the Modern Synthesis. The degree to which they occur is certainly a game-changer, but it doesn’t upset how we understand the mechanisms by which evolution works.

      But don’t take my word for it. Here’s an actual molecular biologist who claims that Shapiro is doing nothing more than erecting strawmen and knocking them down, then claiming cutting-edge biological insight. (This is one of the few articles on the Internet where reading the comments actually grants deeper insight.)

  • Matthew Funke

    Excellent article! Just a quick thought about #2: It’s not strictly the case that ID proponents haven’t brought testable hypotheses to the conversation. They have, in a few cases, tried to define things like “irreducible complexity” that are, in principle, testable. But every time something has been claimed to exhibit one of these properties, it has been found not to.

    • “Irreducible complexity” is not, in fact, testable. Behe has claimed that certain biological systems are irreducibly complex (most infamously, the bacterial flegella – which is not), but he has never demonstrated a method for testing this claim.

      • Matthew Funke

        Essentially, yes, that’s true, because “irreducible complexity” isn’t fully defined. Every system that has been credited with “irreducible complexity” — even the mousetrap in the analogy meant to explain it — can be reduced to something functional with fewer parts, which is supposed to be impossible with something that is “irreducibly complex”.

        “Irreducible complexity” is poorly defined in part because Behe refuses to tell people precisely what a “part” is, and because it’s always possible to come up with a “yeah, but” and suggest a new system and pretend the idea still has merit. Lacking a rigorous definition, the idea can’t be tested. But that things doesn’t negate the fact that every single system credited with “irreducible complexity” has been shown to be functional with less of it present, so regardless of precisely what a “part” is, it’s been falsified every time it’s been claimed. That’s all I mean. Even if “irreducible complexity” itself can’t be tested, individual claims of its presence can be, and every single time, those claims have been falsified.

        • Not only is irreducible complexity poorly defined (I absolutely agree!), it’s very premise is false. Behe presumes that there is no way for evolution to produce a system, if it can’t perform the function better with each new part added to the system through mutation. That’s hogwash. Systems can evolve from parts that previously performed completely different functions. Systems can also evolve via scaffolding. More parts than are necessary or efficient come together to perform a function; eventually, the less necessary parts are lost through evolution, until what remains is an extremely efficient system.

          • Matthew Funke

            Yupyupyup. Exaptation and co-option for the win.

  • Macroevolution is, actually, a “thing”. It’s just not the “thing” that creationists want it to be. It’s not a separate evolutionary theory, nor is it a different type of evolution, distinct from microevolution.

    Both terms, macroevolution and microevolution, were coined in 1927 by Russian entomologist Yuri Filipchenko. When legitimate biologists use the terms (as opposed to creationists creating strawman arguments), they are simply referring to the hierarchical differences between large species-level changes that occur over vast periods of time and the small changes of allele frequency that occur within a biological population.

    Macroevolution has always been understood by biologists to involve vast amounts of microevolution. Only creationists try to confuse the matter.

  • What happened to #5

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Macroevolution is not a Thing

    “The King is a thing.”
    “A thing, My Lord?”
    “Of Nothing. Bring me to him.”
    — Hamlet