The Evolution Debate: What is Evolution?

Previous post in this series: Why are there still monkeys?

I wrote before about one of the problems with the creation v. evolution debate being PRATTs, or “Points Refuted a Thousand Times.” In that post, I explained why “If humans came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” is fallacious in a different way than you’ll usually hear, exploring in-depth exactly what different “kinds” of animals (including monkeys) means. I wanted to continue that discussion with some other common PRATTs. This time, I want to address the following:

“Evolution says we came from nothing.” OR “Evolution says we came from a rock.” Or for that matter, “Evolution says [anything that is not related to biology.]”

I want to get this one out of the way first because it’s another matter of definitions. It’s not exactly a PRATT—a purported argument against evolution that is easily refuted. It’s more of an argument from incredulity. (“This seems unbelievable; therefore it is false.”) In practice, it seems to be used more as a rhetorical device to ridicule evolutionists for believing supposedly ridiculous things, than it is for actual evidence, but the idea is the same.

The problem, of course, is the definition of evolution. When we say “evolution” by itself, we almost always mean biological evolution. However, Creationists like to point out that there are “six meanings of evolution”:

  1. Cosmic evolution (the Big Bang theory)
  2. Stellar evolution (changes in stars throughout their life cycles)
  3. Chemical evolution (also called cosmochemistry: “evolving” hydrogen into heavier elements)
  4. Organic evolution (abiogenesis, overlaps with molecular evolution)
  5. Macroevolution (formation of new species from older ones; this is the colloquial meaning of “evolution” by itself)
  6. Microevolution (changes in frequencies of genes within a species)

Now, it’s not technically creationist rhetoric to lump these things together because they know they aren’t the same. They’re all different scientific theories, and creationists are quick to point that out. The key is that they believe that only microevolution is a valid scientific theory. (Microevolution can be observed in a laboratory; they others can’t.) Instead, they claim that evolutionists lump these theories together to try to make all of them scientific.

The problem with this is that “evolutionists” don’t actually do this. If we say “evolution,” we mean biological or macroevolution. Even in astronomy, where we most often talk about stellar evolution, we actually say “stellar evolution” often enough to make it clear that’s what it is. Lumping these theories together is not an evolutionist position, but creationists claim it is and then use the incorrect “evolutionist” definition to criticize the evolutionist position with the blanket statement, “Evolution says…”

The weird thing here is that both sides are implicitly accusing each other of equivocation—of switching between multiple definitions of a word as it suits them. Creationists accuse evolutionists of sneaking in the “false” theory of macroevolution as part of the theory of microevolution, which they actually accept. Evolutionists accuse creationists of conflating macroevolution and “organic evolution” (or even the Big Bang theory), when the latter is not the subject of the debate. And keep in mind, creationists will unironically say, “Evolution can’t explain the origin of life,” even though that is the purview of abiogenesis, not biological evolution, so they don’t always acknowledge the differences.

For the record, the Big Bang theory says we came from nothing–except it really doesn’t. The Big Bang theory says we (or rather the universe) came from primordial energy fields, since it only purports to explain things after the universe began. The Big Bang theory proper does not address what caused the Big Bang. And abiogenesis says we came from a rock–except it really doesn’t. Abiogenesis says we came from chemicals in Earth’s primordial seas, not a rock, which is made out of different elements. At most, the chemicals might have had to collect on a rock surface to form proto-cells.

Now, it’s easy to say this, but you might be asking why the theory of evolution doesn’t deal with any of these other things, especially the origin of life. Well, simply put, scientific theories have specific phenomena and limitations to which they apply. For example, the theory of gravity only (fully) describes objects that are in freefall—that aren’t subjected to other forces like friction or magnetism. It’s useless to explain the behavior of magnets.

Likewise, the theory of evolution only describes changes in heritable traits in populations of living organisms (including what species the organism belongs to). But it can only describe changes in heritable traits if there are already living things to inherit them. This means that evolution can’t explain the origin of life not because we don’t understand it (even though we don’t understand it very well), but because it’s not designed to.

With this in mind, I wanted to end this post with a “Question for Creationists”—to try to find a question that is not so commonly asked that would force them to confront the fallacies of these PRATTs. I admit this isn’t entirely fair because many Creationists believe different things in the details, and what’s more, I’m not certain I’m familiar enough with these debates to determine which questions are commonly asked. But after some thought, I think I found an appropriate and civil response that can be used when this “Evolution says…” argument is used:

“Will you admit that not understanding the origin of the universe or not understanding the origin of life are not evidence against the theory of biological evolution (macroevolution), including by evolutionists’ definitions, because they fall under different, unrelated theories?”

I believe this response is a good one because it clearly and succinctly points out what the flaw in the argument is and calls on the speaker to recognize that flaw, without getting bogged down in refuting the substance of it, and this is something that should make debates over evolution significantly more productive.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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