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Evolution: Clearing up some misconceptions

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

In the “Dear Jesus” article by Sara, on (12/27/12), Sara mentioned that her study of evolution produced one of the first substantial chinks in her Christian belief system. I have found that Christians have many misconceptions of just what evolution is and how it works. Thus, I thought a brief article on some of these misconceptions might be helpful for drive-by Christians or non-believers who might find themselves in a discussion of evolution with Christians. Now, I’m not an expert in this field, but every topic I touch on can be verified and studied further on the web.

Here is a very basic definition of evolution from Wikipedia which will be accurate enough for our purposes:
"Evolution is the change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organization, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins."

First, let’s be clear on the basic fact that evolution theory has nothing to say about the creation of life. The key word here is “evolve.” The claim of evolution theory is that once life existed, it evolved over time into many different species. Darwinian evolution then, does not claim that god did not create life. What evolution theory claims is that all the life forms that have ever existed on the earth evolved from just one initial, simple life form. Whether that initial life form was created by a god, or was just a very fortunate chance meeting of natural elements (or compounds) and energy, is outside the purview of evolution.

The second major point to be made here is that evolution is not all about chance. Some creationists have claimed that the evolution of man is about as likely as a Boeing 747 being created by a tornado in a junk yard. The junk yard example ignores natural selection. That is, evolution works by two principles working together: mutation (chance) and natural selection. It’s a bit like the Wright brothers having an idea for an airplane and it works, but barely. Later, they and others continued to experiment, trying out modification after modification (chance), tossing out the failures and keeping the ones that worked (natural selection). Thus the airplane was continuously refined until it became something far more complex and efficient than the Wright brothers’ first try. Natural selection is analogous to that refinement process.

The third major point to be made is that evolution is not just a hypothesis; it has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments. (see You see, evolution doesn’t always require millions of years to work. Some species of bacteria and viruses reproduce in a matter of hours, thus thousands of generations can be observed for change over just a few years.

But are the labs actually producing new species, or just variations in the same species? Well, in the experiment described in the link shown above, E-coli bacteria evolved through about 24,000 generations in about 11 years. That many generations of humans would require about 500,000 years. And, yes, the new E-coli can be considered new species as they are very different from the originals in terms of size, food preference, and many other attributes. Thus, even if the story of Genesis creation of species were true, evolution is still true (as the laboratory experiments have proven) and active in the world.

But, of course, the evolution of more complex species, like mammals, takes much longer. So, has the earth existed long enough for this? According to creationists, the earth is only about 6,000 or so years old. This was calculated by counting the generations of humans listed in Genesis –written over 2,000 years ago - and approximating average life spans.

Now, in Antarctica, ice builds up a bit each year, much like the growth of tree rings differs each year. And, just as a tree can be aged by counting tree rings, an ice core can be dated by counting the distinct ice layers in an ice core. One ice core (reported on in 2007), produced by drilling about two miles down, went back over 800,000 years. This experiment proves the earth is at least a hundred times or so older than the estimates from Genesis. Note that this method does not rely on fancy radioisotope dating which creationists dispute, but on a simple method analogous to counting tree rings. This is long enough for a great deal of evolution to take place, and, using other methods, geologists are almost unanimously agreed on an age of the earth of about 4.5 billion years, an estimate arrived at through several converging dating methods.

A fourth major point to be made is that amazing complexity can be created by strictly natural causes, using nothing but the laws of nature. Consider the snowflake, for example. Snowflakes are found in an amazing, possibly infinite diversity of complex geometrical shapes. Is a god necessary for this amazing diversity of snowflakes? Does anyone really think god makes each one separately?

A fifth major point to be made is that man, and probably all other higher level animals, is actually a sort of compound being. Strange as it may seem, there are more microorganism cells in and on each human body than human cells (as human cells tend to be much larger), and that without them we could not survive. Doesn’t it seem odd that god created man such that he needed these microorganisms in order to survive?

In the human body, bacteria help keep the digestive tract working properly. The average person hosts around 100 trillion bacteria in the gut. "Good" bacteria perform a number of necessary functions in the intestinal tract and also help keep bad bacteria from multiplying and causing illness in several ways. They use up nutrients so that bad bacteria don't have access to them and they maintain an acidic environment in the intestines which discourages the growth of bad bacteria. Good bacteria also strengthen the mucosal tissue that lines the inside of the intestines, making it harder for toxins to gain a toehold and take up residence. If bacteria are essential to human life, why does the Bible not mention their creation?

Speaking of the man-bacteria connection, another example of evolution in real-time, so to speak, is the recent evolution of some bacteria into drug-resistant strains called MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). These are strains that did not exist before man-made antibiotics. As man treated infections with antibiotics, sometimes the medicine wasn’t taken long enough and a few of the tougher bacteria survived. Over time, those that survived came to be more common and, through mutation, even more resistant to antibiotic environments. We are now in an “arms race” with these bacteria, trying to develop new, more effective antibiotics as these bacterial strains continue to evolve.

A sixth major point is that the creationist claim of missing links in the fossil evidence is simply bogus. They ask, “Where are the missing links between species?” Actually, the museums are full of such links. At the American Museum of Natural History (New York City), the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins pairs fossils with DNA research to present the remarkable history of human evolution. You see, virtually very fossil ever found represents a “missing link,” from a species that came before it, to one which came after.

While there are 250,000 species of plants on the books, and only 4,000 species of mammals, there are over 350,000 beetle species, with many more beetles yet to be discovered! Why did god create so many species of beetles? What was the point?Many species have been traced in great detail in the fossil record. One of the most complete fossil records traces the evolutionary development of the horse. We have indisputable fossil records of many “intermediate” species of horse. Did god create all of them at the same time? Why, if only one species was going to survive into human times? And why are these intermediate species ALWAYS found in different layers of the earth’s crust? How did they get sorted so perfectly from the smallest (oldest) species to the largest (newest) species in the layers from deepest to shallowest? Why does creationist “theory” offer no answer to this simple question?

A seventh major point is that the so-called “perfection” the creationists claim to result from creation by a perfect god is nowhere to be seen. For example, if we are made in the image of god, then why aren’t we all handsome or beautiful? That’s because evolution works on the principal of “good enough” rather than perfection. That is, although we can’t all be 10s, even the 2s and 3s manage to find mates to procreate with. And, as you have noticed, usually the 2s and 3s mate with other 2s and 3s, and very seldom with 9s and 10s (plus, the progeny of a 2 and 10 coupling could be a 2, a 10, or anything in between). Thus, Evolution theory actually predicts that if our minds and bodies are “good enough” to survive our youth, find a mate, and procreate, then our “good enough” genes will be passed on to another generation of “good enough,” and the perfect will not exist (even the 10s have some minor imperfections).

Another example of the “good enough” principal involves the construction of the human airway-digestive tract. We breathe into the same tube in our throat that we swallow food into, before the branching to the lungs and stomach. This is certainly less than intelligent design, because if we get food caught in this part of our throat, we can’t breathe and can suffocate. Fortunately, this happens only very rarely, so the vast majority of us survives and passes on this throat construction to our progeny. However, that it happens at all suggests that the system found in whales and dolphins, which have a mouth for eating and a separate blowhole for breathing, is much more intelligent. Again, in the real world, we find the “good enough,” and not the perfect.

An eighth major point is that the sheer volume of species and extinctions of living things argues against a one-by-one creation of each species by an intelligent designer. A recent paper on evolution estimated that there are at least 9 million species of plants and animals on the earth today. Scientists also estimate that at least 99.9% of all species that ever existed are now extinct. If 9 million species represents only 0.1% of all the species that have ever existed, then there have been 9 BILLION species existing over the lifetime of the earth. One wonders how long it would have taken a god to design 9 billion distinct plant and animal species, and why only about one in a thousand of them has survived into modern times? Isn’t this rather wasteful of a designer?

Even stranger, while there are 250,000 species of plants on the books, and only 4,000 species of mammals, there are over 350,000 beetle species, with many more beetles yet to be discovered! Why did god create so many species of beetles? What was the point?

Now, as I said, I am not an expert on evolution, but with just the easily gathered information presented in this brief article, one should be able to see that modern evolution theory fits what we actually see in the world today much better than the creation of all individual species by a god.

Isn’t it just possible that those thousands of highly trained and experienced scientists working on this problem over the past 150-plus years are right about the basics of evolution, and that one ancient guy who wrote Genesis was wrong, or perhaps just didn’t mean for people to take him literally?