Why Do Debates About Evolution Fail?

In a previous post, I analyzed the evolution debate between militant atheist Aron Ra and Christian creationist Kent Hovind. In short, I thought it was very unproductive, so I wanted to write a follow-up post describing how these debates could be done better. Plenty of “evolutionists” have written refutations of creationist arguments…but in a sense, that’s exactly the problem. Despite all these refutations, the same arguments keep coming up again and again.

Evolutionists call these PRATTs—short for “Points Refuted A Thousand Times.” PRATTs are statements that are easily proved to be fallacious and sometimes even factually false, and yet are still used over and over again in debates about creationism. “There are no transitional fossils” seems to be the most common example. Evolutionists consider these points to be not worth bothering with and therefore put little effort in refuting them, which makes their arguments appear weaker. You also don’t really see people try to engage with creationists over why they continue to use these false statements or really pin them down and force them to address the inconsistencies in their arguments.

Based on the Ra-Hovind debate, I thought it would be possible to dig down and ask specific questions to try to pin down flaws in creationist arguments in a fair way that gives them a chance to defend against them, but also does not give them space to evade them. That’s what I initially wanted to do in this post, but after investigating carefully, I don’t think I had the right sense of it. When you really try to steelman creationist arguments—when you try to understand them and frame them in a fair and charitable way, creationists have answers to many of the questions that are raised. They’re not necessarily correct or even logically sound answers, but they do have them.

So I think I’m going to take a different tack and try to address why PRATTs are a thing. Why, in these debates, are the same points brought up over and over again, long after being debunked, making them never seem to go anywhere useful? Aron Ra insists this problem is simple dishonesty—even claims he has had creationists tell him to his face that they know they’re lying—but I choose to take them at their word that they believe what they say.

It may take several posts to fully deconstruct my thoughts on this topic, but I want to start with something that isn’t so much a PRATT as it is a fallacy undermining many of the arguments on both sides, which is the fallacy of equivocation. Equivocation means using the same word to mean different things in different places to reach a false conclusion. The word “theory” is a classic example where creationists will accept the scientific definition of a well-supported explanation for observations when pressed, but then use it rhetorically in the colloquial sense of “only a theory.” (Granted, some creationists are significantly better about logical consistency than others.)

But by far the most annoying example of equivocation in these debates has to be the word “kind.” And I have to fault Aron Ra in his recent debate on this one because when he says “there is no such thing as a ‘kind,’” he just sounds silly because “kind” is a common word and a familiar concept that obviously exists. The trouble is that when evolutionists use the word “kind,” they mean either “species” or “clade,” but when creationists use it, they mean “baramin,” which is a special definition that says a dog, a wolf, and a fox are all the same kind of animal and actually do share a common ancestor. (Statement to that effect from Answers in Genesis.) This makes debates far messier because the two sides use different and sometimes multiple definitions of the word “kind” and often refuse to acknowledge the differences in their definitions.

I contend that this equivocation underlies one common PRATT (albeit one rejected by Answers in Genesis itself): “If humans came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” There are plenty of answers about how this is a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, but I contend the deeper answer is that you need to be more precise—surprisingly precise—about the definition of the word “monkey.”

How does that work? And what do these words actually mean?

A clade is the group of all descendants of a particular common ancestor. Mammals are a clade because they are all descended from a single species, and they include all of the surviving descendants of that common ancestor. Clades always “bring forth after their kind,” as creationists say. The descendants of a clade are always members of that same clade, by definition. So humans are mammals (members of the clade Mammalia) because we are descended from the first mammal, whatever that creature was.

A species is a group of organisms that can freely interbreed with each other, but cannot produce fertile offspring with other, related organisms. Horses and donkeys are separate species because, even though they can breed and produce mules, the mules are infertile. The descendants of a species are not necessarily the same species, if they reach the point where they could no longer interbreed with their long-extinct ancestors (if magically given the opportunity). Thus, these “kinds” can, over many generations, bring forth different “kinds,” but they will still be a part of the clade(s) in which that species arose.

A baramin, a neologism from the Hebrew words for “created kind,” is a group organisms that creationists believe are descended from a single pair of animals on Noah’s Ark, or from a single population (possibly a pair) at the creation of the world for sea creatures. Creationists claim that each baramin is roughly equivalent to a taxonomic family (although it can vary, and families themselves are a matter of convention). Each founding pair, they say, diversified into many species after the Flood. However, baramins always bring forth after their “kind.” While they can potentially produce new species, they are said to be limited to producing species similar to their ancestral pair. Thus, “dogs bring forth dogs,” which can be wolves, coyotes, or foxes over many generations. When pressed, creationists will say that when species give rise to new species, it doesn’t count as evidence for evolution because they are in the same baramin.

With these words, we can now address the monkey question precisely: humans (a species) came from a particular species of early monkeys—possibly Aegyptopithecus zeuxis, and, in fact, there are no more Aegyptopithecus. However, both humans and Aegyptopithecus are monkeys (a clade), so you can reasonably say humans came from monkeys. The fallacy comes from using two different definitions of the word “monkey,” once as a clade and once (by implication) as a species…if you consider monkeys to be a clade. But this is debatable because there’s a fourth word that can be rendered as “kind”: a grade.

Grade” is the least-known term, but is probably the closest to the colloquial meaning of the English word “kind.” A grade is a group of related organisms that are all similar to each other, but are not a complete clade. For example, reptiles are a grade because they are similar to each other, even though they are not a “complete” group because the term excludes their daughter clade, the birds (which are also a grade). Thus, a grade can also bring forth a different “kind,” just as reptiles brought forth birds. And if monkeys are considered a grade, as is the colloquial meaning of the word, then humans are not monkeys. And there are still monkeys because they simply brought forth a new kind—a new grade—the apes.

And here, we come to the real problem of this PRATT. Creationists and evolutionists both do not acknowledge that they are using different definitions of the word “kind” and sometimes change definitions when it’s convenient for them. Sometimes, this is an honest mistake, as the distinction can be very subtle, but other times, I feel like they’re just being deliberately obtuse. The result, as you can see multiple times in the Ra-Hovind debate, is that the two sides are just talking past each other, and no one learns anything.

In my opinion, evolution debates could be significantly improved if evolutionists would acknowledge the creationist definition of “created kind” and explain carefully the differences between that and the various scientific terms—and if creationists would make the effort to understand the scientific definitions and use them correctly. Even if they still disagree (and they probably will), they will at least see clearly what each other is talking about.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
This entry was posted in Biology, Debunking, Religion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.