Saturday, September 6, 2008

HOWTO: Talk to an Evolutionist Without Being Dismissed as Ignorant and Stupid

Okay, I'm actually serious here. I'm going to try not to get snarky or anything, the intent of that title is just to catch your attention. If you're an adherent of Creationism or Intelligent Design (ID), I am actually going to give you some legitimate advice on how to talk to an evolutionist in such a way that they don't immediately dismiss you as an idiot. Okay, that sounds a little provocative, and I'm sorry, but surely you're aware that one of the most common accusations by evolutionists about those who question their theories is that the questioner is obviously ignorant of evolution and so they're not going to waste their time trying to carry on an intelligent conversation with such a person.

The goal here is to get you past that objection, so that the evolutionist can't just dismiss you out-of-hand and so actually has to answer both your objections to evolutionary theory and your promotion of an alternative view of life's origins.

Evolutionists are People Too

First off, you need to understand (and respect) who and what evolutionists actually are. They're ordinary people, just like everybody else. They're husbands and wives, they live in the city, suburbs, rural areas. Some are Democrats, some are Republicans, Independents, Tories, Conservatives, Liberals, Libertarians, etc. They pay taxes, drive their kids to school, go to Little League games and tennis matches, go on vacation, hike, watch TV, mow their lawn, plant a garden, and on and on and on. They are normal, ordinary people.

They are not all atheists, they are not out to destroy humanity or our morality, they are not trying to erase the distinction between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. They are not trying to turn us into "biological machines". They are not trying to promote promiscuity, or narcissism, or selfishness, or self-absorption. They are not intellectually deficient, they are not morally deficient, they have not had their minds "clouded by Satan". They are not "coldly rational", devoid of emotion, wonder, and awe. That do not advocate any particular moral philosophy as being a natural outcome of evolution. (Though they, like everyone else, may advocate a particular moral philosophy for other reasons.)

Evolution proponents live, and love, and experience elation, joy, frustration, and depression. They love their family and their country.

Think for a moment: If you talked a Republican or a Democrat into switching to your preferred party, what has really changed in them? They have the same personality, same history, same experience, same skills, but now just a different way of looking at how one should politically engage with our society. Likewise, if you convince an evolutionist of the validity of ID or creationism, what core aspects of their personality, skills, and experience, have actually changed? None. They're still the same person, just now with a different way of looking at our biological and cosmological history.

Look, the bottom line is that an evolutionist is just like you and me, and if you respect them, acknowledge that they rationally came to accept evolution as a guiding principle of the development of life as it exists today, that this made sense to them intellectually, and that it wasn't Satan who podcasted the theory directly into their brain, then you've taken the first step on having an evolutionist respect you enough to at least give you an initial hearing.

"Most of the theories have no concrete evedience [sic]. just like the evolution theory"

The above heading is from an actual comment on a blog post. It pretty much summarizes in a nutshell why evolutionists believe creationists and IDers are ignorant and stupid. Why? Because this is an ignorant and stupid statement. It betrays a breathtaking ignorance of just science in general, without even getting into the particulars of biology or evolution.

So what are we going to do about it here? Well, I'm going to give you the basics on just what a theory really is, which explains why theories are taken very seriously by all scientists--not just the evolutionary biologist types, and which therefore also explains why you can't dismiss evolution as "just a theory".

Look, if you want to be taken seriously in your discussions with an evolutionist, you have to learn to play on their turf, and understand how and why science works the way it does. You can't just stand on the sidelines and yell "You're wrong, the Bible says so!" and expect to be taken in any way seriously. Nor can you claim to be able to point out gaps, inconsistencies, and fallacies if you aren't even aware of the principles and methods (and rationales for them) that are being practiced by biologists. Doing that is the fastest way to get yourself written off as ...ignorant and stupid.

So...theories:

First, let's look at the difference between the way scientists use the term "scientific theory" and the way "theory" is used in casual conversation. If you've paid any attention at all when an evolutionist defends evolution, you'll have heard them claim that there is a difference. Well, there is. It's not just wordplay or defensiveness on their part, there is a difference, and not knowing it, or disbelieving their claim that there's a difference, is the quickest way to get you written off as... well... you know.

There's nothing unusual about the same word being used to mean different things, even if those different meanings are similar. Take "swearing" for example, as in "swearing an oath to tell the truth". If you watch any "reality" TV shows like Survivor or Big Brother, you'll always see the players "swearing" they're telling the truth, or swearing allegiance to another player or their alliance. And you'll also see them regularly breaking these sworn promises. When that happens there's almost always some drama and hurt feelings, and maybe some game-oriented revenge, but that's all that really comes of it. However, if you "swear an oath to tell the truth" in a court of law, and then don't--you can get yourself into REAL trouble, including prison time, because violating that oath is called perjury, and it's a criminal offense. In both cases you're "swearing" to tell the truth, but the import and ramifications differ significantly between the two contexts.

Likewise, saying something is "just a theory" in casual conversation is a far cry from the rigor embodied in the term when used in the scientific context of theories for such things as gravity, relativity, or evolution. And here's why:

In total opposition to our commenter's claim above that most theories have no concrete evidence, all scientific theories start with concrete evidence. Without evidence, without facts, measurements, and observations that have all been objectively acquired, there is no theory.

Facts, measurements, and observations are the "what" of scientific investigation. For example, when I find a fossil up in the hills behind my house, I have these facts:
  • This is a fossil
  • It was found within a layer of limestone
  • There are visible layers of rock above and below the layer in which the fossil was found
  • Limestone is a sedimentary rock comprised mostly of calcite (calcium carbonate)

I really found these in the hills behind my house!


















No one, creationist or evolutionist, can argue with the facts. They are simply "what is".

The fundamental thing you have to understand about the definition of "theory" is that a theory is an explanation of the observed facts. It is an attempt to explain how those facts came to be, what relationships exist between those facts, and how those relationships came to be.

Again, a theory is an explanation. It is not a guess, it is not even an "educated guess", it is not some made up idea, it is an explanation of the facts that are sitting right in front of you.

Evolutionists came up with the theory of evolution to explain what biologists were seeing in present day lifeforms and in what was recorded in the fossil record.

There are a couple more things that you must understand about scientific theories in order to deal with them intelligently.

First, they allow one to make predictions about facts that "should" exist, but haven't been observed yet. For example, if geologists date a layer of rock in a cliff to be 50 million years old, and a lower layer of rock to be 100 million years old, their theory of sedimentary deposition would predict that dating a layer of rock anywhere between those two layers would reveal an age somewhere between the two known ones. So if they go out and date a couple more layers, and one turns out to be 60 million years old and another, lower one (but still above the 100 million year layer) is 80 million, then this provides some confirmation of their theory. They don't need to verify that there is a continuous variation from 50,000,001 years old to 99,999,999 years old in that cliff face in order to say they've got a good theory. That the theory explains the layering, and whenever a prediction that was made based on the theory is checked out always conforms to the theory's explanation, indicates that geologists can have confidence in the theory.

Second, as more facts are uncovered, sometimes the associated theory can't explain them. And this means the theory, the explanation, needs to be revised to incorporate the new facts. There's nothing sneaky about this, it's the way science is SUPPOSED to work.

If your car doesn't start in the morning, it might be because no gas is getting to your engine. If you then notice that your gas tank reads 'E', you might call up your boss to explain that you ran out of a gas and you're going to be late to work. You go get some gas, put it in the tank, and try to start your car, and it still doesn't start. So knowing a little something about cars you check the fuel line and discover the fuel filter is clogged. Now you alter your explanation, gas was not getting to your engine not because you were out of it, but because you had a clogged filter. So (and this is the part you need to grasp about how theories change) the fact that gas was not getting to your engine was accurate, but you had to refine your explanation as to why that was (not) happening. No one thinks twice about modifying such explanations as new facts are uncovered. The explanation in this case was on the right track, it just underwent refinement as more facts were uncovered. It would be ridiculous for your boss to wholesale reject your claim that gas was not getting to the engine simply because what you initially thought was the cause turned out to not be the actual cause.

So to summarize:
  • Facts are the "what"
  • Theories are "explanations"
  • Theories always start from the facts and try to explain why those facts are the way they are.
  • Theories can make predictions about as-yet-undiscovered facts that can then be checked.
  • Newly discovered facts can conflict with the current explanation, requiring the explanation--the theory--to be refined. Repeating: This is normal.
  • Scientific theories are powerful tools for understanding how the universe works, from atoms to stars, and are the foundation of our modern technologies.
You should now no longer be ignorant about what a theory is, unlike the commenter that headlined this section.

Some Ignorant and Stupid Critiques Not to Try to Make With Evolutionists

There are some very tired, long debunked critiques that creationists/IDers keep trying to make with evolutionists that do nothing but try the patience of said evolutionists. These particular points have been long dealt with, which pretty much anyone can see for themselves if they'd do 30 minutes of research on the web--looking at resources OTHER than creationist websites. You can almost hear the evolutionist rolling his/her eyes when one of these comes up. And this is a big reason as to why evolutionists regard creationists as ignorant and stupid--very few creationists bother to take the time to learn the least little thing about the scientific theory of evolution before trying to level supposedly devastating critiques against it. If it was that easy to knock evolution down, don't you think it would have long ago been relegated to a footnote in history?

Instead, creationist authors and seminars bring up the same old discredited objections, which (the more patient) evolutionists once again discredit. You end up then with creationists only reinforcing other uninformed creationists' belief that evolution is a frail house of cards while Intelligent Design is a rock-solid framework of origins and biological development. And the evolutionary biologists (justifiably) write the whole lot off as ignorant and stupid.

Ignorant Point #1: There are no transitional forms in the fossil record

Okay, go to wikipedia. In the search box type "List of transitional fossils". Note the page that comes up, "List of transitional fossils".

That particular list is incomplete and merely a first cut at a list. For a really irritating summary of how evolutionary theory was buttressed by the discovery of the fossil of a transitional (between fish and amphibian) creature--not just regarding evolutionary theory's predictions about its transitional form, but also how the theory guided the paleontologists as to where in the world to search for the remains of such a theoretical animal--read up on the tiktaalik, particularly the part about its discovery.

If you can't acknowledge, and aren't ready to deal with evidence for evolution like this, then you needn't waste your, or any evolutionist's, time. This is the kind of evidence with they use to support the theory, and denying or ignoring it just makes you look ignorant and stupid.

Ignorant Point #2: There are gaps in the fossil record

Yes, there are.

Just as there are gaps in your personal life record. Can you provide incontrovertible proof that you were ever 9 years, 2 months, 25 days, 6 hours, and 15 minutes old? Unlikely, because we don't keep a continuous video record of our existence from birth to death. Yet there are photos from your 9th birthday party, and photos from your 10th birthday party, so we have tangible records of those points in space and time, and that, combined with the theory of how time passes in this universe indicates that it is overwhelmingly like you were at one instant 9 years, 2 months, 25 days, 6 hours, and 15 minutes old.

Getting a fossil to survive for millions of years on a planet that is subject to erosion, volcanic activity, and tectonic movement is no mean feat. Not to mention that the original plant or animal had to have been trapped in its fossilizing medium sufficiently gently and quickly so as not to have been almost instantly destroyed by its immediate environment.

Given these limitations it's understandable that the fossil record is going to be sporadic, but "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence". And whenever a fossil is found that fits into one of the known gaps a side-effect of that is that where once there was one gap, now there are two smaller ones. So an evolutionist will tell you that all a gap represents is that a transitional form that fits into that gap has not yet been found--but you can make predictions about what's in that gap that may at some point be testable--reread about the tiktaalik to see how that works.

Ignorant Point #3: If we're descended from monkeys, how come there's still monkeys?

See, this is where that whole "ignorant" thing really comes into play.

Evolutionists do not claim that humans are descended from moneys, yet creationists continue to attribute this claim to them and treat the present-day existence of monkeys as some supposedly devastating critique of evolutionary theory.

Evolution does state that modern humans, and modern monkey species, descended from an earlier primate species. Now this common ancestor may have somewhat resembled a modern-day monkey (hence the bit about being "descended from monkeys") but it does not correspond to any modern-day species of monkey. So, there aren't any contemporaneous primate species from which we (and the monkeys) evolved. Although while evolution claims the descendants of this early primate species evolved (changed) into modern humans and monkeys, there was nothing that actually forced all of its descendants to change one way or another. A line of descent could have remained faithful to the original creature, with evolution driving the changes of just the sibling descendants, thereby leaving a fair representation of that original primate still among us today. But there's no evidence that happened, so it's now just us and the monkeys.

Ignorant Point #4: Evolutionary theory cannot explain the complexity of the circulatory system

Yes, evolutionists say, it actually can.

Ignorant Point #5: The eubacterial flagellum is an irrefutable example of "irreducible complexity"

An individual being unable to conceive how some specific thing, like a bacterial flagellum, could have evolved into existence doesn't make it happening a scientific impossibility.

Ignorant point #6: Bananas were obviously intelligently designed for human consumption

Bananas are not an "Atheist's Nightmare". From the biology department at the University of California

“When humankind first encountered this fruit thousands of years ago we were probably not impressed by the almost inedible giant wild bananas. Historic mutations, rare and accidental, produced seedless bananas through chromosome triplication. Ancient humans focused on these seedless, pollen-less mutants to generate progressively more edible crops. Eventually, edible banana flesh retained only a few vague traces of the viable seeds once carried in the ancestral wild stock. Ancient plant breeders grew edible bananas by grafting sterile mutants onto wild stems. This process was repeated for thousands of years to produce the emasculated, sterile -- and defenceless -- plantation banana that currently feeds millions of people globally.”

Ignorant point #7: Evolution doesn't occur in a jar of peanut butter...so therefore the theory is false

Words fail.

So where are you now?

Being not ignorant and not stupid is not easy. If you're unwilling to understand the evidence and the argument for evolution on its own terms, then there's no point or value in your disbelieving it or trying to argue about it, because regurgitating what you heard in some ill-informed seminar or ID book that also shies away from the evidence and theory is going to fail you when you think you're criticizing evolutionary theory. It's very easy to fall into a victimization mode, where you think you're being discriminated against because you believe in God, or the Bible, or whatever.

No, you simply don't know what you're talking about.

So fix that first.

This can be done. Francis S. Collins is a self-professed evangelical Christian, and has authored books on science and faith. Did I mention he's also a world-famous geneticist and led the Human Genome Project?

The problem isn't with what you believe, the problems are with what you don't know, and won't learn. The first problem leaves you ignorant, and the second one makes you stupid.

The ramifications of gaining an informed, intelligent understanding of evolution prior to talking to an evolutionist

If you're still with me, and think you're willing to do the work so you can take a shot at holding an informed, intelligent discussion with an evolutionist about the merits of ID versus evolution, you might find yourself in some unexpected situations, which have associated with them some pretty serious ramifications.

I can tell you right up front that when you understand what a theory is, how it's created, and how it gets refined as more facts are uncovered, you're going to be very impressed with the power of the concept. And you should be, since theories are the foundation for our modern technology and civilization. Whether it's cell phones, television, space travel, weather forecasting, nutrition, antibiotics, CAT scans, and so on and on, the development and advancement of our technological society all trace back to the theories--the explanations--of how things work, and therefore what might be expected when trying, and guidance on how, to make new things

And the thing you're going to find out about sound biological theories, like evolution, is that the evidence for them is every bit as solid as the evidence for physics and chemistry theories. And not only is the evidence there, but the same careful, methodical, analysis, development, and refinement that was used to develop the theories of physics and chemistry is also used to develop and refine the theory of evolution.

I can't emphasize enough what this means for you when discussing creationism or ID with an evolutionist. There's an astounding amount of evidence for evolution, the theories are sound and their development conforms in all ways with the development of the theories on which all of our technology is based. In fact, evolutionary theory is at the heart of biomedical research and development, and is a fundamental concept for the development of modern pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, treatments, prosthetics, and so on.

You have to realize that you're really going to have your work cut out for you when trying to argue that evolution is an intrinsically flawed theory and that Intelligent Design provides a better explanation for the biological world as we understand it today. To put it all in a nutshell: Evolution is an explanation of observed biological and paleontological facts that accurately reflects, explains, and provides reliable information about the biological state of the earth.

This can be a bit harsh at first to acknowledge, but doing so really opens one up to the wondrous variety of life on this planet, and to understand how throughout billions of years and the pressure of natural selection that we've arrived at the amazing diversity of life that we see today. I've found it, belatedly, fascinating. I never used to care for biology, but once I gained a really good understanding of how evolution brought us to this point, and what it tells us about the interconnectedness of life past and present, I'm awed by it.

And I can now hold an intelligent and informed conversation with an evolutionist. Just as you can with me--just don't be ignorant and stupid.

13 comments:

Wayne said...

Great post, I love the way you think.

PsyberDave said...

For a long time I have thought that skeptics would do well to share the process of science and the process of forming ideas rather than just stating conclusions. Your ideas are a good example of sharing the process. I think this is a very well-written post. Good job!

I'd like to see what creationists/ID proponents/antievolutionists say about it.

Mark said...

Thanks mate, that was a really interesting piece.

From a personal point of view, and maybe in answer to psyberdave above, it's easy being an intelligent Creationist Christian. I believe that Creationism is a faith-based theory more than a scientific theory (though there is many interesting pieces of evidence that point towards Creationism), so it is simple to be able to say that I believe in Creationism, but can see validity in the theory of evolution.

At the same time, I work with some of the brightest minds around (not saying that I'm bright, I just associate with this smart people!!!), and am often questioned about my faith. It is nice to see an article like this that helps me not come off as a kook.

PS I think it's implied above, but Intelligent Design is just Creationism masquerading as a scientific theory. Something which is impossible when the fundamental part of the theory involves faith...

Oh yeah, have a look at this cartoon, it made me spit my coffee on my keyboard. Ewwwwww...

Meteger said...

Thanks for this really, really great article. The best article on this topic that i've read in a while.

Donald said...

An excellent explanation of the scientific method. Brilliant post.

Anonymous said...

Great post. However, the term evolutionist is misleading. It sounds like faith-based. There's no such things as evolutionists. They're called scientists. There's nothing evolutionist about them. If tomorrow science proves evolution wrong they'll drop it like a hot potato and move on. It's an essential difference between scientists and "ist" people.

Marc said...

@anonymous (9/12/08, 4:51),

>There's no such things as evolutionists. They're called scientists.

Correct, however, just as I tell a creationist/IDer that they need to employ the terminology of science in order to converse with a scientist, so I need to use creationist terminology in order to converse with them.

Vera said...

Excellent post!

Unknown said...

I'm a Christian and fully believe in God's word. I've studied religions of the world, history of the church, and evolution (including radiometric dating/carbon dating). My uncle is one of these "evolutionists" you spoke about and is responsible for instituting evolution as part of the curriculum for my home states public schools. I found your article to be offensive. It comes across in a manner that is exactly what you are telling the reader NOT to do, with plenty of ad hominen arguments and straw men. I know, in a simple article it would impossible for you to explain yourself on every counter point you brought up, but without doing so it left you looking like one of those ignorant and stupid people you frequently refered to. I have serious questions about the fossil record as do most "evolutionist" I encounter. Most specifically punctuated equillibrium. I also see where the human genome project refutes some of your statements concerning human ancestry. The validity of radio isotope dating itself is hotly debated even within the "evolutionist" community and a double blind study is a rarity indeed in this field. I don't claim to know the ins and outs of evolution, but that is only because I can find no uniformity in it's teachings, NOT because I havent done my research. I'm responsible for determining the truth and evolution has left me with no forward looking questions, but only questions of the validity of the data and it's interpretation. Historical evidence points to blatant misrepresentation and falsehoods, one after the other. Deceit and lies are uncovered throughout the history of evolution only to be labeled as part of the scientific process.
Your article does help those who want to blindly debate evolution, as I kow there are many unlearned Christians out there who just believe because... the sad thing is though, that your article reminds me exactly of just that; someone blindly defending their faith just because.

Marc said...

@Unknown:

Your uncle and every evolutionist--or as I like to call them, "biologists"--may disagree on the details, but I'd wager that every one of them acknowledges the fact of evolutionary descent. Not one of them will say, "The fossil record isn't clear-cut, so maybe it's more likely that God did just create everything 6000 years ago."

Uncertainty, conflicting interpretations, and disagreement (even vehement disagreement) is part and parcel of the striving for Truth. It's from the efforts to resolve those uncertainties, to pit differing theories against one another, that a clearer understanding of what happened emerges.

The fact that it hasn't all been figured out and locked down is hardly a reason to discount all that which is known and agreed upon, it's simply a clear indication that the robust search for a better understanding is still ongoing.

Marc said...

@Unknown,

I disagree with your claims that there are ad hominem attacks and strawmen in this post. Please identify and justify such a characterization of them.

Creationists truly are frequently subjected to ad hominem attacks, such as being labeled "stupid and ignorant". Name calling those with whom you disagree does nothing to break down barriers and facilitate communication. Unfortunately, all too often the creationists and IDers shy away from reading and learning about genuine evolutionary biology from bioligists (and the conflicts and debate that continue on today in that field), limiting their sources to anti-evolution materials whose claims about evolution have been long debunked.

I said it in the post: "The problem isn't with what you believe, the problems are with what you don't know, and won't learn. The first problem leaves you ignorant, and the second one makes you stupid."

I am ignorant about classical Greek architecture, I freely admit it. If I began making claims and assertions about classical Greek architecture and those behind it, yet refused to learn about it, then I could fairly be labeled as ignorant and stupid.

The point of this post was to help Creationists/IDers avoid being justifiably labeled that way. Learn what evolution genuinely is, warts and all, and then add your skepticism to the mix.

As for the "strawman" examples. Hardly. I grew up as a conservative evangelical "old earth" creationist. These are some of the anti-evolution claims I was taught, and made, and some are currently proffered as such today.

I stand by the integrity of my use of these examples--and there are many, many more such bogosities out there today.

Anonymous said...

"Uncertainty, conflicting interpretations, and disagreement (even vehement disagreement) is part and parcel of the striving for Truth."......NO, it's because "truth" in this, so called, "theory", doesn't exist. The ignorance, stupidity and blindness comes from evolutionists adhering to a ridiculous, medieval philosophy that they have allowed themselves to be indoctrinated into by a silly, misguided and pathetic creature known as Charles Darwin!

Marc A. Criley said...

@Anonymous,

Unclear how "evolutionists adher[e] to a ridiculous, medieval philosophy" when Origin of Species was published in 1859, 400 years after the medieval period is considered to have ended (ushering in the Renaissance).

To what medieval philosophy are you referring to? Catholicism? Feudalism? I don't see the connection.