Low-Effort Arguments in the Evolution Debate
This article addresses simpler arguments often brought against intelligent design and its proponents. These are typically over terminology, arbitrary distinctions, or involving a genetic fallacy that mostly distract from the real origins debate. But since they come up frequently it's still useful to address them. Also see Frequently raised but weak arguments against ID at Uncommon Descent.
Argument 1: "Real scientists don't use the terms micro and macroevolution"
There's also the common variant, "micro and macro evolution are terms invented by creationists." I can see how the terms aren't well defined, but the difference is recognized by many well known biologists.
Micro- and Macroevolution are legitimate terms used by biologists
Evolution.berkeley.edu defines macroevolution as "evolution on a grand scale--what we see when we look at the over-arching history of life: stability, change, lineages arising, and extinction."[[berkeley-macroevolution]]
Some even include the word macroevolution as part of their PhD title. E.g. Jon Tennant is currently undertaking a PhD in vertebrate macroevolution."[[john-tennant]]
It's common for evolutionary biologists to debate whether repeated microevolution can lead to macro
Or if different processes are needed. Biologist Andrew M. Simons writes:
A persistent debate in evolutionary biology is one over the continuity of microevolution and macroevolution--whether macroevolutionary trends are governed by the principles of microevolution.[[simons-continuity]]
In 2001, the European Molecular Biology Organization issued a report summarizing a meeting where PhD students debated whether extrapolation from microevolution to macroevolution was justified:
The symposium ended with a panel discussion about questions of microevolution (evolution within the species) and macroevolution (evolution after speciation). The issue at stake was whether extrapolation from the selection theory operating on organisms is sufficient to explain all patterns of macroevolution. In other words, do we need an independent body of theory to explain the changes occurring above, as opposed to at, the species level? There was no general agreement among the panel members. It seems that the jury is still out on this important question. ... Many speakers emphasised the role of internal constraints, which had not been considered in conventional Darwinian thinking. Constraints set, for example, by developmental gene networks, and probably many other unforeseen rules of complexity, define the boundaries of what is possible.[[embo-macroevolution]]
Michael R. Dietrich says he is among only a minority of biologists who say no distinction should be made betwen micro and macroevolution:
Most scientists would accept that there are distinct phenomena that can be categorized as microevolutionary and macroevolutionary.[[dietrich-debates]]
Likewise, In arguing for an erasure between the lines of micro and macro, biologist Sean B. Carol first concedes there's no agreement on the matter:
A long-standing issue in evolutionary biology is whether the processes observable in extant populations and species (microevolution) are sufficient to account for the larger-scale changes evident over longer periods of life's history (macroevolution). Outsiders to this rich literature may be surprised that there is no consensus on this issue, and that strong viewpoints are held at both ends of the spectrum, with many undecided.[[carol-big-picture]]
A 2016 biology textbook similarly notes:
The history of biodiversity—the processes and patterns of originations, adaptations, and extinctions—is known as macroevolution. The term stands in contrast to microevolution, the change of allele frequences within populations caused by mechanisms such as genetic drift and natural selection.[[zimmer-macroevolution]]
Many recognize macroevolution must entail more than long-term microevolution
Evolutionary developmental biologist Eric Davidson wrote that changes in developmental networks are fundamentally different than small changes and species divergences:
contrary to classical evolution theory, the processes that drive the small changes observed as species diverge cannot be taken as models for the evolution of the body plans of animals. These are apples and oranges.[[davidson-regulatory]]
Molecular and cell biologist Richard Strohman discusses how the fossil record shows large jumps instead of the gradual accumulations expected by microevolution:
There is a striking lack of correspondence between genetic and evolutionary change. Neo-Darwinian theory predicts a steady, slow continuous, accumulation of mutations that produces a progressive change in morphology leading to new species, genera, and so on. But macroevolution now appears to be full of discontinuities, so we have a mismatch of some importance. That is, the fossil record shows mostly stasis, or lack of change, in a species for many millions of years; there is no evidence there for gradual change even though, in theory, there must be a gradual accumulation of mutations at the micro level.[[strohman-khunian-revolution]]
Likewise, paleontologist and ID critic Donald Prothero describes how the changes seen among Galapagos Finches are very different than the large jumps seen in the fossil record:
The gradual adaptation of fruit flies and Galapagos finches may be good examples of short-term microevolutionary change, but they simply do not address what the fossil record has shown for over a century. This only became apparent when Gould, Eldredge, Stanley and others began to talk about species sorting, decoupling microevolution from macroevolution, and the importance of hierarchical thinking in evolutionary biology. Many neontologists appear to maintain a relentlessly reductionist attitude for no apparent reason.[[prothero-high-table]]
The well known paleontologists Douglas Erwin and James Valentine made a similar distinction in their 2013 book on the Cambrian Explosion:
One important concern has been whether the microevolutionary patterns commonly studied in modern organisms by evolutionary biologists are sufficient to understand and explain the events of the Cambrian or whether evolutionary theory needs to be expanded to include a more diverse set of macroevolutionary processes. We strongly hold to the latter position.[[erwin-cambrian]]
In Macroevolution is more than repeated rounds of microevolution, Douglas Erwin made the same argument:
Arguments over macroevolution versus microevolution have waxed and waned through most of the twentieth century... These discontinuities impose a hierarchical structure to evolution and discredit any smooth extrapolation from allelic substitutions to large-scale evolutionary patterns. ... The attractiveness of macroevolution reflects the exhaustive documentation of large-scale patterns which reveal a richness to evolution unexplained by microevolution.[[erwin-repeated-rounds]]
Nick Matzke is an evolutionary biologist and ID critic who is very active in the origins debate. He commented that those who deny a distinction aren't "very deep in the field":
Wikipedia articles can have a great many writers. The line “Contrary to claims by creationists, macro and microevolution describe fundamentally identical processes on different time scales” looks like it was stuck in by someone who was a popular fan of evolution but not very deep into the field.[[matzke-many-writers]]
Biologist "Albeartross" commented on reddit:
It's a (minor) pet peeve of mine when people claim that macroevolution is just microevolution over a longer period of time. But that doesn't preclude the validity of macroevolution or microevolution.[[albeartross]]
Argument 2: "Darwinist, Darwinism and Darwinian, and Evolutionist are not real terms"
On the contrary, proponents of evolutionary theory often use them in reference to themselves and their views. Evolutionist:
- The famed paleontologist Niles Eldredge calls himself an evolutionist on his website until 2015.[[eldredge-website]]
- Evolutionary biologist and ID critic Jerry Coyne uses it too: " Evolutionists often demonstrate this by compressing all of evolution into a calendar year."[[coyne-plenty-of-time]] Also in a 2014 blog post: "Why not just join together and file lawsuits against schools, or testify at school board meeting? Let the theologians do their thing (tell the faithful that evolution isn't a tool of Satan, if they must) and let us secular evolutionists do ours."[[coyne-nces-biologos]]
- Biologist Eric Bapteste: "I will assume that, although there is no doubt Eugene Koonin is a very bright evolutionist and a powerful thinker, he can not be considered as an expert on cosmology."[[bapteste]]
- The term dates back to at least 1921: "Unwilling as are many evolutionists to accept reported cases of reversion"[]
Darwinist and Darwinism:
- Richard Dawkins: "I have noticed that there are some creationists who are jumping on [the 2012 ENCODE results] because they think that's awkward for Darwinism. Quite the contrary it's exactly what a Darwinist would hope for, is to find usefulness in the living world"[[dawkins-jonathan-sacks]]
- Richard Dawkins: " Darwinism encourages precisely the opposite values... To a Darwinist it is not surprising that it is so hard to get agreement in support."[[dawkins-sustainability]]
- Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne: "the opponents of Darwinism are not limited to snake-handlers from the Bible Belt... The cultural polarization of America has been aggravated by attacks on religion from the "new atheists," writers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who are die-hard Darwinists."[[coyne-seeing]]
- An article in the journal Nature: "When biologists talk of the ‘evolution wars’, they usually mean the ongoing battle for supremacy in American schoolrooms between Darwinists and their creationist opponents."[[bones-molecules]]
- Evolutionary biologist James Shapiro: "The debate about evolution continues to assume the quality of an abstract and philosophical 'dialogue of the deaf' between Creationists and Darwinists."[[shapiro-a-third-way]]
- Leading origin of life researcher Eugene Koonin: "I am afraid that, if our goal as evolutionary biologists is to avoid providing any grist for the ID mill, we should simply claim that Darwin, ‘in principle’, solved all the problems of the origin of biological complexity in his eye story, and only minor details remain to be filled in. Actually, I think the position of some ultra-darwinists is pretty close to that."[[koonin-biological-big-bang]]
- Biologist Didier Raoult published a paper titled The post-Darwinist rhizome of life.[[raoult-post-darwinist]]
- Philosopher of biology Michael Ruse published papers titled Darwinism defended and Darwinism and its Discontents, as well as Can a Darwinian be a Christian?
- Humanist Biologist Kas Thomas wrote in 2014: "It always amazes me that creationists do so little research on Darwinism before attacking it. Darwin's theory is subject to some very legitimate scientific criticisms. Biologists are, by and large, painfully aware of the theory's shortcomings."
Argument 3: "Evolution doesn't include abiogenesis"
The distinction is rather arbitrary and there are those who see it both ways. For example see evolutionary biologist Eugene Koonin in The Logic of Chance, 2012, page 417:
In my view, all advances notwithstanding, evolutionary biology is and will remain woefully incomplete until there is at least a plausible, even if not compelling, origin of life scenario.
Prominent ID critic and biologist PZ Myers blogged in 2008:
I know many people like to recite the mantra that “abiogenesis is not evolution,” but it’s a cop-out. Evolution is about a plurality of natural mechanisms that generate diversity. It includes molecular biases towards certain solutions and chance events that set up potential change as well as selection that refines existing variation. Abiogenesis research proposes similar principles that led to early chemical evolution. Tossing that work into a special-case ghetto that exempts you from explaining it is cheating, and ignores the fact that life is chemistry. That creationists don’t understand that either is not a reason for us to avoid it.
Although this is no more than a debate over the scope of terminology. Whether or no abiogenesis is true doesn't depend on whether it is or isn't considered "part of evolutionary theory."
Argument 4: "Evolutionary theory is critical to our understanding of biology"
Evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzansky is famous (among other reasons) for his 1973 essay titled "Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution." Mutation and selection certainly are very important and nobody (not even creationists) are arguing they should be abandoned. However, the idea that all life evolved from a common ancestor through unguided processes is superfluous to our understanding of biology. Here I provide a sampling of supporting perspectives:
Philip Skell was a chemist and co-inventor of penicillin. In 2005 he published Why Do We Invoke Darwin in The Scientist, arguing evolutionary theory was unnecessary for biology:
Certainly, my own research with antibiotics during World War II received no guidance from insights provided by Darwinian evolution. Nor did Alexander Fleming's discovery of bacterial inhibition by penicillin. I recently asked more than 70 eminent researchers if they would have done their work differently if they had thought Darwin's theory was wrong. The responses were all the same: No. ... When an explanation is so supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery. ... Darwinian evolution – whatever its other virtues – does not provide a fruitful heuristic in experimental biology. This becomes especially clear when we compare it with a heuristic framework such as the atomic model, which opens up structural chemistry and leads to advances in the synthesis of a multitude of new molecules of practical benefit. None of this demonstrates that Darwinism is false. It does, however, mean that the claim that it is the cornerstone of modern experimental biology will be met with quiet skepticism from a growing number of scientists in fields where theories actually do serve as cornerstones for tangible breakthroughs.
Skell was the first signer of the Discovery Institute's Dissent from Darwin.
Also in 2005, Marc Kirschner (chair of systems biology at Harvard Medical) shared similar sentiments in an article in the Boston Globe:
Kirschner likes to invoke the much-quoted declaration of famed 20th-century biologist Theodesius Dobzhansky that 'nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution' (the title of a 1973 essay). 'In fact, over the last 100 years, almost all of biology has proceeded independent of evolution, except evolutionary biology itself,' Kirschner declares. 'Molecular biology, biochemistry, physiology, have not taken evolution into account at all.'
Jerry Coyne is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, and one of the most ardent proponents of evolutionary theory. But he also agrees that evolutionary theory is lacking in providing practical benefits. In Selling Darwin (Nature, 2006) he reviews the book The Evolving World by David Mindell:
In his desire to show how useful evolution is, Mindell strives desperately to herd every stray area of biology, even those barely related to evolution, into the darwinian fold...
To some extend these excesses are not Mindell's fault, for, if truth be told, evolution hasn't yielded many practical or commercial benefits. Yes, bacteria evolve drug resistance, and yes, we must take countermeasures, but beyond that there is not much to say. Evolution cannot help us predict what new vaccines to manufacture because microbes evolve unpredictably. But hasn't evolution helped guide animal and plant breeding? Not very much. Most improvement in crop plants and animals occurred long before we knew anything about evolution, and came about by people following the genetic principle of "like begets like". Even now, as its practitioners admit, the field of quantitative genetics has been of little value in helping improve varieties. Future advances will almost certainly come from transgenics, which is not based on evolution at all.
As far as I know, there have been only two genuine commercial applications of evolutionary theory. One is the use of "directed evolution" to produce commercial products (such as enzymes to protect crop plants from herbicides). The other is the clever use of insecticide-free "pest refuges" to stop herbivorous insects evolving resistance to herbicides containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins, a strategy derived from principles of population genetics. There will certainly be more of these to come. And evolutionary algorithms are used in designing computer programs, and may have uses in engineering and economics.
Likewise, in 2000 Coyne lamented in a book review:
In science's pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the bottom, far closer to phrenologythan to physics. For evolutionary biology is a historical science, laden with history's inevitable imponderables. We evolutionary biologists cannot generate a Cretaceous Park to observe exactly what killed the dinosaurs; and, unlike "harder" scientists, we usually cannot resolve issues with a simple experiment, such as adding tube A to tube B and noting the color of the mixture.
Francis Crick was the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and an atheist. He
It might be thought, therefore, that evolutionary arguments would play a large part in guiding biological research, but this is far from the case. It is difficult enough to study what is happening right now. To try to figure out exactly what happened in evolution is even more difficult. Thus evolutionary arguments can be used as hints to suggest possible lines of research, but it is highly dangerous to trust them too much.[[crick-mad-pursuit]]
Argument 5: "It's impossible to understand evolutionary theory without accepting it"
In 2014, creationist and evolutionary biologist Todd Wood reported his undergraduate biology major students scored in the top 99th percentile on standardized evolutionary biology tests. As he clarified, "The 99th percentile means they're outperforming most students taught by actual evolutionists."
Todd Wood appears to be talking about the Biology GRE. He said "The test splits up their scores in four categories: cell, organismal, genetics, and evolution". The Biology GRE is technically split into three categories, but the first is divided into two categories which are totalled separately, which then matches Wood's categories.
Argument 6: "Humans are apes, we didn't evolve from apes"
The classification is arbitrary. See Humans aren't monkeys. We aren't apes either, by anthroplogist John Hawks:
Jerry [Coyne] is far from alone in this -- many evolutionary biologists state as if it were an unquestionable fact that humans are apes. I disagree...
"Ape" is an English word. It is not a taxonomic term. English words do not need to be monophyletic. French, German, Russian, and other languages do not have to accord with English ways of splitting up animals. Taxonomy is international -- everywhere, we recognize that humans are hominoids. In French, apes are singes. So are monkeys. In English we differentiate these terms. In both languages humans are different from other primates. Does that mean French is right and English wrong? Does it mean both languages are wrong?
No, it means that colloquial languages have no problem describing paraphyletic groups. It is useful to have languages that can make these distinctions. If we must accept that humans are apes, then we must equally accept that chimpanzees are monkeys, and those awful parents at the zoo are right.
Biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks makes similar comments:
Science no more says that I am an ape because my ancestors were, than it says that I am a slave because my ancestors were. The statement that you are your ancestors articulates a bio-political fact, not a biological fact. And it is ridiculous and offensive in the modern era, in addition to being false. What are we? We are human... On the other hand, we also fall phylogenetically within the group that we call "fish."... Yet we are not fish. There are certainly things to be understood by confronting our fish ancestry (such as our gestation in a saline, aqueous environment), but fish can't read, so if you are reading this, then you are not a fish.
Argument 7: "Scientists who are religiously motivated can't be trusted"
Should we dismiss Isaac Newton's work for the same reason? Newton wrote:
I have a fundamental belief in the bible as the word of God, written by men who were inspired. I study the bible daily ... all my discoveries have been made in answer to prayer
What would happen if we applied the same standard in reverse? Eugenie Scott is former president of the National Center for Science Education, which is an activist group fighting to ensure evolutionary theory is the only origins theory taught. She was a signer of the humanist manifesto--the core document of a secular religion, but it would be unjust to dismiss her arguments because of that.
Argument 8: "Creation and ID proponents are only in it for the money"
In the American Spectator, journalist and ID critic John Derbyshire defends ID proponents against this accusation:
The least charitable skeptics accuse ID promoters of running a racket, taking part in the grand old American tradition of fleecing the rubes. (As the immortal Al Bundy told his acolytes while winding up for his sermon at the Church of NO MA’AM: “Now it’s time to eece-flay the ongregation-cay.”) I’m a cynic, but not that much of a cynic. I have engaged in formal debate on Intelligent Design on three or four occasions. I once spent an hour in a room full of principals from the Discovery Institute (DI). They struck me as persons who believe in what they are selling. The Charity Navigator website lists their total 2011 revenues as $5.7 million, which is not a lot. The executives, according to that same website, are not extravagantly paid.
In his dialog with biologist and BioLogos president Darrel Falk (starting at 17:57), Young earth creationist and evolutionary biologist Todd Wood comments on the lousy pay of his line of work:
I just love science and think it's amazing. The opportunity to study God's handiwork is amazing. The opportunity to take the bible in one hand and read about the flood and the tower of babel and the garden of Eden and take science in the other hand and see how they mesh together is astonishingly fun. And if you want a fun career then my career is awesome. It pays terribly but my career is totally awesome.
Darrel Falk doesn't challenge Wood's statement and continues the discussion amicably. However in a response to ID proponent Stephen Meyer, Falk shares that although he disagrees he considers intelligent design a legitimate science:
First, I would like to note that one cannot help but be impressed with how current Meyer is with regard to this literature. He cites ten articles from 2009 and three from this year. Clearly he and his colleagues are keeping up with the literature. This is just one example of why I have come to conclude that the ID movement ought to be considered a scientific movement. Another example is Meyer’s book itself. In the book, Meyer, quite eloquently in my opinion, demonstrates that his approach fits within the bounds of how historical science is done. The fact that he spends time carefully analyzing the scientific literature for evidence of function is further indication that they are doing science. Their Intelligent Design model predicts that the DNA in the human genome (and other organisms) is fully functional, and Meyer and his colleagues are carefully scrutinizing the scientific literature to see if it is.
If ID proponents were pushing their views for illigitimate reasons, then critics like John Derbyshire and Darrel Falk would be the first to call them out on it. Rather, they say the opposite. Even Nick Matzke, who spends much of his time fighting against creation and design, agrees that "Creationists usually believe what they say."
Likewise Christian apologist J. Warner Wallace laments about the lack of interest in apologetics in general:
If you are interested in apologetics or are already leading an apologetics group in your church, you probably already know how unpopular the topic can be. Apologetics groups are typically the smallest groups in the Church. Apologetics books sell less than other Christian topics, and apologetics conferences are less well attended than other types of Christian seminars.
Revenue and Salary Comparisons
Here are stats from Charity Navigator of various organizations involved in the origin debate. Links go to sources:
|Organization||Total Annual Revenue||Leadership Annual Salary|
|Answers in Genesis||$19.4 million||Director Ken Ham: $134k|
|Institute for Creation Research||$6.1 million||President Henry Morris III: $130k|
|Discovery Institute||$5.7 million||Bruce Chapman: $154k, Steven Buri: $107k|
|Reasons to Believe||$3.3 million||Hugh Ross: $62k, Fuz Rana: $106k, Kathy Ross: $70k|
|BioLogos (theistic evolution)||$5.7 million||?|
|National Center for Science Education (naturalism)||$1 million||Director Eugenie Scott: $95k|
Compared to other organizations:
|Organization||Total Annual Revenue||Leadership Annual Salary|
|Kiwanis International||$13.7 million||President Stan Soderstrom makes $219k|
|Planned Parenthood||$487 million - government grants
$224 million - private contributions
$711 million total
|President Cecile Richards $354k
COO Maryana Iskander $289k
CFO Maria Acosta $263k
|Smithsonian||$851 million in government funding|
|National Institute of Health||$32.3 billion|
|Individual Walmart Store||$43.2 million (average)||Average manager salary: $136k|
The WalMart entry was calculted by taking thier $476 billion annual revenue divided by 11,000 stores, information from Wikipedia. So all of the above creation and ID organizations have several times less revenue than an average Walmart. Nearly all of their directors make less than an average Walmart store manager.
For more information see Creationist finances revisited (2010) by Creation Biologist Todd Wood.
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