This weeks Feedback Friday comes courtesy of my friend Liam, who’s comment on a creationist video made it pop up on my news feed. The video, which you can see here, says it will destroy my belief in evolution in three minutes. However, I was found fatal flaws in the arguments presented, and in the interest of education and science literacy, I will respond to them here.
Dear Mr. Creationist,
First of all, I would like to thank you for your interest in evolution, and I would like to personally apologize for a fellow atheist calling you “an idiot, moronic, and stupid”. Some parts of the community have taken to name calling and ad hominem attacks as part of their arsenal, and I want you to know that I do not endorse this. Please don’t think all atheists are jerks. I don’t think you’re an idiot—I don’t know you personally so I can’t judge. I simply think you are dead wrong. I hope you see that distinction.
Let’s jump in to your first argument against evolution: that evolution is not a science because it does not fit within the parameters and parenthesis of science because it was never observed. For the sake of simplicity, let’s break this down into two statements:
- A phenomenon must be observed to be considered science, and
- Evolution has never been observed.
Both of these statements are, in fact, false. To begin with, your assertion that a phenomenon must be directly observed to be considered science is simply untrue. Science is replete with explanations that cannot possibly be observed empirically; continental drift, special relativity, modern atomic theory, most of particle physics—these are all things that cannot, either because of the timescales involved or the invisibleness of the objects involved, be observed. To be a scientific theory, a proposition must do just one thing: make testable, falsifiable, predictions. To actually be a valuable theory that is generally accepted, it must also explain the evidence that we have.
Evolution passes all of these tests with flying colors. Most people don’t know this, but evolution is predictive. A beautiful example of this is the case of Tiktaalik roseae. In the early 2000’s, a group of paleobiologists at the University of Chicago decided to look for a transition species between fish and amphibians. Using the theory of evolution and gaps in the fossil record, they predicted that the animal would have lived between 380 and 363 million years ago. They then looked at the fossil record to look at what species would have “bookended” the transitional species and determined it would have lived in fresh water. Looking at geologic maps, the team determined that Ellesmere Island in Canada would have been a freshwater region during the time period that Tiktaalik lived and would have rocks of the right age near the surface. They set to work digging, and in 2004, they found the animal that they had described. Using evolution, the University of Chicago team made a prediction about when and where they would find a transitional species between fish and amphibians, tested their prediction, and confirmed it. Evolution is predictive.
Beyond that, evolution in fact has been observed in the lab. In the 1970’s, a group of biologists moved some Italian wall lizards from one South Adriatic island to another, then waited 30 years. In 2008, they announced that the population had evolved new morphologies to adapt to their new environment. For example, the lizards evolved larger heads that allowed them to better eat the abundant plant life on their new home island as opposed to the predominant insect life in their natural habitat. They had a lower running speed because they no longer had to chase prey. Most excitingly, they had evolved new structures in their digestive system called cecal valves which allowed them to digest food more slowly. And before you argue that these are different lizards, mitochondrial DNA testing revealed that these new lizards are the descendants of the lizards that were transferred 30 years before. Evolution in action, QED.
Let’s move on to your next argument, namely that the second law of thermodynamics prohibits evolution because it would require a decrease in entropy. You are correct in your assertion that the second law of thermodynamics states ΔS > 0, but there’s a catch. The laws of thermodynamics only work in an isolated system, that is one where there is no external source of energy. The Earth is not a closed system! Every day, the Earth is bombarded energy from the Sun and cosmic rays. Because of this slight catch, the second law of thermodynamics does NOT apply to the Earth.
We have now arrived at your final argument: that the universe is simply too perfect, too much like clockwork, to possibly have arisen by chance. This argument is based on an important scientific principle called Occam’s Razor, which states the best theory is the simplest one. Wouldn’t it defy Occam’s Razor to assume that everything was perfect for the origins of life? It would, if the Earth were the only planet in the universe. However, there are about 10 TRILLION planets in our galaxy alone, and approximately 10²⁴ planets in the observable universe. This leads to something called the anthropic principle: the universe seems tailor made for life because if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be observing it. If Earth wasn’t right in the butter zone when it comes to temperature, water content, orbital stability, etc., there would be no humans to observe it! There are literally a septillion—that’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000—wannabe Earths. Most of them don’t make the cut; they’re too hot, too cold, to wet, or too dry. But some, by the laws of shear chance and probability, make the cut. And on a few of those, life does emerge.
Mr. Creationist, I do believe that we are all here by chance, but not by accident. The human race emerged because our ancestors were better equipped to survive than those who competed with us. We are here because of the strength of our genetic code, and to deny that is to discredit the power of every one of our ancestors who honed our DNA to the powerful tool it is. We are a quirk of nature, but a powerful one.
Mr. Creationist, I hope you will do one of the hardest things a person can do: admit you’re wrong. I know, it sucks to be wrong. It’s hard to let go of beliefs and face reality. Reality is harsh. Reality isn’t fair. Reality has no love for us. But it is the world we live in, and I hope that when it comes down to it, you will follow the same path I did and choose truth over comfort. In the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Cosmos series finale, “Science Is a way to keep from fooling ourselves… and each other”. Mr. Creationist, that episode was called “Unafraid of the Dark”, and that is what it is to accept science: to not fear the unknown and instead devote your life to it, to accept that you have made mistakes and strive to rectify them, to leave your beliefs at the door and look only at the evidence, to love the darkness because it holds volumes of secrets. Mr. Creationist, I want you to take a walk with me into the dark, a walk called science where we do not fear the dark, but instead illuminate it with knowledge and inquiry. Logic will be our candle and experiment our torch. Mr. Creationist, won’t you join me, and generations of scientists before us and after, in wondering infinitely about the infinite wonder that is life.