The Third Conversation: Common Misconceptions

 (…or, “Things we need to stop saying…”)

As mentioned earlier, this third conversation covers common misconceptions many have about evolution. The point that needs to be reinforced about this conversation is this: even if one doesn’t believe evolution is a real phenomenon, there’s no excuse for presenting erroneous arguments.

We can’t really expect those outside our community to take our views seriously if we say things that are easily disproven. Talks and presentations on Creation vs. Evolution have been a staple of our community for decades (and no doubt will be for years to come), and now that we are posting material in the public domain via channels such as YouTube and Facebook it is vitally important we get our facts straight, otherwise we risk turning people away rather than introducing them to the wonderful hope that the gospel offers.

For example, a member of our community wrote an online article in which he attempted to debunk the writings of a noted scientist, Francis Collins.⁠1 When fact-checking the article, I contacted an organisation affiliated with Collins, and a few days later received a reply from one of his colleagues who is a professor of biology specialising in genetics. He is also a Christian. His response to the essay was “Either the person writing the anti-common descent article is deliberately misleading their audience, or, more likely, they simply don’t understand what they are reading”. As a community that focuses so much on ‘truth’ – and calls its beliefs ‘The Truth’ – we bring tremendous discredit upon ourselves by presenting material that contains so much error.

So, with this context in mind, below are some common errors that we make in presentations, but really shouldn’t if we did our homework properly.

“Evolution is just a theory”

In science, a Theory refers to a collection of observations, knowledge, discussions, and hypotheses about a particular topic.  Some of those things are well-established fact, other things might well be ‘theory’ as we understand the term. The article at this link might explain it better:  Definitions of Fact, Theory, and Law in Scientific Work.⁠2

So, in the language of science, a theory is not mere conjecture, but a connected series of propositions supported by many and varied lines of evidence. For example:

– Theory of Gravity
– Theory of Relativity
– Theory of Information
– Theory of Numbers
– Theory of Entropy
– Theory of Learning
– Theory of Time
– …and the list could go on….

One of the strengths of the Theory of Evolution is that the evidence for it has been gathered over centuries from a rich diversity of sources in biological and geological sub-disciplines: palaeontology, palaeoanthropology, stratigraphy, geochronology, biogeography, morphology, botany, zoology, genetics, bioinformatics, etc.

When discussing the Theory of Evolution, some aspects can be readily demonstrated as the evidence for their occurrence is solid. For example, fossil evidence proves the progressive appearance of life over time – from old to young so to speak; whereas genetics has unveiled the gradual change through genetic mutation allowing us to work backwards, starting with current genomic data and working back through the changes.

Other aspects of the Theory are hypothetical (or ‘theoretical’ as we understand the word). For example, the rate of speciation (was it gradual or stepped?), drivers and influencers of change (e.g. environment), and so on.

Let’s be honest, even our knowledge of the Bible contains some facts, and some hypotheses. No one is suggesting we should reject God just because some of our theological views are hypothetical, and so the same principle applies. Although there are many things we don’t know about God and the Bible, we still know enough to accept it as the word of God. Although there are many things we don’t know about scientific theories (not hypotheses!), we still know enough to accept them as credible.

So, when presenting a talk on this topic, it’s true to say the Theory of Evolution has certain hypothetical components within it. However, to say that evolution is not real because it is “just a theory” is not correct.

The Big Bang

Next on the list is the Big Bang. It seems this is often in the news, occasionally because someone has doubts about it; or more often than not someone has found a different type of evidence supporting the model. Either way, that debate is best left to the physicists, because in the context of this discussion, it’s a non-issue. It’s worth noting our community has shifted its position on the Big Bang. In 1965 the Big Bang was dismissed as just another latest theory from scientists trying to read the book of nature⁠3 (my paraphrase); yet by 1985 we accepted “that our planet arose, with others, as the cooling dust and debris arising from the ‘Big Bang’ coalesced; that it was consolidated by gravitational forces, and settled down in orbit around the sun”.⁠4

Even IF the Big Bang model was wrong, and was completely invalidated by a new set of discoveries, the point is that the Theory of Evolution covers biological processes, whereas the Big Bang is a cosmological model. The two topics are not even closely related.

Too often in our talks, three separate and distinct subjects get conflated:

  1. The Big Bang hypothesis (a model based on extrapolating observed cosmological data back to a point in time);
  2. Abiogenesis (the process by which a living organism arises naturally from non-living matter); and
  3. Evolution (biological changes that occur over time).

Whatever comments we chose to make about these three subjects, we need to realise that they are NOT the same thing, and so to talk about the Big Bang model as though it were part of biological evolution is not correct.

“There are no transitional fossils”

The point to note about transitional forms, is there is no halfway-point between (for example) a cat or a dog. A cat would not change into a dog; however, both today’s cats and today’s dogs would have had a common ancestor at some point in time. A transitional form is not some mutant half-&-half monster, but a viable, functioning creature that merely has a form between what its ancestors were, and what its descendants will be. In reality, every creature that has ever lived has been ‘in transition’ from what its ancestors were to what its descendants are now.

“No transitional fossils” was a popular theme after Darwin’s view become more widespread, but these days it’s no longer relevant because of the number intermediate forms that have been found.

Darwin was not the first person to think of the progression of life over time. It was widely discussed long before Darwin because of what people had been observing from fossils that had been found.⁠5 Over the last 2 centuries, thousands upon thousands of fossils have been found and documented, allowing researchers to piece together distinct patterns and paths of evidence.

One of the more recent discoveries was that of a creature that came to be known as Tiktaalik. The thing that made Tiktaalik’s discovery unique is that it was predicted (both the type of creature, and where to look for it); something that would have been highly unlikely if common descent was untrue.

The Palaeontologists involved (Edward Daeschler, Neil Shubin and Farish Jenkins) suggested that a transitional form must exist that would bridge the gap between fish and amphibians, and that this would be found in the late Devonian period, about 375million years ago.

First, they searched for suitable exposed strata that was recognised as being from this period; and Ellesmere Island in Canada was chosen. The first area where they started searching proved to have been an ancient ocean. This would have been too deep for the creature they were looking for, because it would have inhabited shallower waters and estuaries, so they moved their search until they located the right sediments.

In 2004, they found several specimens of the creature they were searching for. It had fins with elbows and wrists, a more flexible neck, a stronger rib cage that could support a heavier body weight, and showed signs of having both gills and lungs. (Anyone interested in reading more about it might find the University of Chicago’s website useful.)⁠6

In the 1990s, fossils of “walking whales” were found in Pakistan, which became known as Ambulocetus. It had anatomical features closely related to the more ancient Pakicetus which was also found in the area, and also has a number of features found in modern day whales. Its limbs are not perfect legs, nor are they perfect fins, yet much like those of today’s crocodiles, they were good enough for the creature to survive and flourish.

Archaeopteryx had feathers like modern birds, yet its wings were (by modern bird-standards) “half-wings” in that they didn’t have the muscular structure for sustained flight that modern birds have. Again, an example of a creature that was perfectly functional for its environment, but clearly intermediate between previous and subsequent species or forms.

Further examples of transitions that are well documented are those of ancient reptiles into mammals. The changes are so gradual that it has been hard to pinpoint which was the first mammal.⁠7

There are numerous resources publicly available that discuss the various types of transitional fossils from creatures such as Tiktaalik and Archaeopteryx to others such as ancestral whales and snakes with legs. These examples demonstrate how land vertebrates evolved from fishes, birds from dinosaurs, mammals from reptiles, and so on. To keep this conversation simple at this point we’ll avoid going into detail, however those who do wish to read more could consider these links:

Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ;⁠8
Tiktaalik Rosea;⁠9
BioLogos: Transitional Fossils;⁠10
Google Search.⁠11

“Where are the half-evolved organs?”

Consider this quote from a presentation online: “Evolution cannot explain the absence of transitional forms in the fossil record. I expect to see the fossil of a half-form, half-mutated species, an animal that is developing eyes, or developing lungs…”.⁠12

This statement is similar to the previous argument of traditional fossils, but with a particular focus on organs. It’s not logical nor accurate to talk about “half-evolved” or “half-mutated” organs, because any organism that survives obviously has functional organs. Agreed, the effectiveness of that function may differ (improve?) as the organ becomes more complex, but that doesn’t imply that simpler organs are non-functional.

For example, the eye is often used as proof of this problem. We tend to think of a human eye as fully developed; yet we do not have the visual acuity of hawks, nor can we see in dark like an owl. We cannot see ultraviolet light. So, the human eye is nowhere near as sophisticated as that of some other creatures. Yet at the other end of the scale, we have creatures like the Planarian whose eyes are merely photoreceptors; nowhere near as complex at the human eye, and yet quite suitable for its needs.

There is a good series of explanations at these links which will help to show how an organ like the eye can still be functional even though it may not be as complex as we might think.

Berkley University;⁠13
University of Utah;⁠14
Talk Origins Archive.⁠15

Although there are numerous other examples of this phenomenon, such as the lungs, fangs & poison, wings, vestigial organs, and so on; the discussion around these examples is still the same. Just because an organ or limb may not be as complex or high-functioning as we might think, it does not imply the species cannot survive. Therefore, to speak of the lack of half-evolved species and organs as if they were proof against evolution is not a valid argument.

“All mutations are harmful”

Following on the theme of organs and transition, another common misconception is that all mutations result in deformity, are harmful, or do not advance the species.

A mutation can be harmful and even lethal – but not always. For example, in deer mice it was found that one small change at only one place in their DNA sequence causes their genes to express differently. This change of just one nucleotide causes a difference of one amino acid… which causes a difference in the shape or chemistry of a protein, which causes a difference in the fur phenotype, which results in a lighter or darker fur.

As a result, those mice living on beaches with lighter fur have a higher survival rate as they are less visible to predators. On the other hand, those mice living slightly further inland with darker fur have the better chance of survival. Through subtle changes like this, over fifty sub-species of deer mouse evolved.⁠16

The more we learn about genomics, the more we are learning about the effects of even the smallest changes, and these show that mutations are most certainly NOT always harmful. This example of the deer mouse fur shows the degree of change that can occur from a single mutation. Typically, the human genome experiences about 130 mutations per generation.⁠17 (Most of these are harmless, and we’ll discuss why in Section Two.)

Even though there is sufficient evidence from fields such as palaeontology, comparative anatomy, and developmental biology, it’s the discoveries from genomics that have provided some of the most exciting evidence for evolution in recent years.

Disciplines such as palaeontology and comparative anatomy are able to use fossil evidence to tell us what happened in the evolutionary development of organisms (e.g. fins developing into limbs), but they haven’t been able to fully explain how these transitions were able to happen. That’s where genetic studies are opening all sorts of treasure troves, helping us to understand the mechanisms behind the changes.

For example; using a gene-editing tool (called CRISPR) researchers were able to show that the genes responsible for coding for fingers and toes are the same genes that make fins in fish.⁠18 In another study, certain genes were suppressed so that a chicken embryo formed a snout with a palate rather than a beak.⁠19 Similar studies identified the genes that caused snakes to lose their legs, and when those genes were inserted into mouse genomes, the embryos developed without legs.⁠20 Studies like this are showing us how even the smallest genetic tweaks can lead to wide-ranging anatomical diversity. In other words, descent with modification.

So what happens when many of these tweaks are able to accumulate over time? One of the first fossils that was recognised as a transitional form was Archaeopteryx, found in 1861. It had the feathers of a bird and broad wings, but it also had the long bony tail, toothed jaws, and the clawed fingers of a reptile. Whilst this seemed like a bizarre mix of features at the time, given the recent genetic discoveries discussed above, we can see how easily these happened.

“Dating methods are unreliable”

Dating methods are not precise, and they can have a margin of error associated with them. But…  this margin of error is seldom more than single percentage points (for radiometric dating).

Radiometric dating is one of those highly debated topics, but because of the debate one can also be sure that those who are experts in this field have had to cover every angle. There are several different methods of radiometric dating, and although its accuracy has been regularly challenged, it remains a robust and reliable method of dating. Carbon-14 is the one method that seems to take the biggest beating, which is ironic because it’s also one of the easiest to cross-reference and calibrate.

Vast amounts of data from a variety of different sources and methods, from several hundred laboratories around the world produce results that consistently agree. For those who want to take a trip down technical lane, these resources might be helpful to show that radiometric dating is reliable:

Radiometric Dating and the Geological Time Scale;⁠21
Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perspective.⁠22

Dealing with the real evidence

This final point is not really a misconception, but rather a misplaced approach to the problem: Very few – if any – of the talks and magazine articles that our community publishes acknowledges or attempts to deal with the ACTUAL evidence for common descent or genetic modification. (There is perhaps one exception to this, and that is the paper mentioned earlier, where the efforts evoked the response “they simply don’t understand what they are reading”.)

For example, one presenter stated, “I want to give you a number of reasons why I don’t personally believe in evolution, and they are going to be based on the Bible, and they are going to be based on the observation of science. Now I am not a scientist, but I do have the capacity I think, to rationally explore logic, and to rationally put together concepts and ideas. I think you are in a very similar position, and I want to present the evidence tonight to demonstrate why in actual fact the belief in the theory of evolution doesn’t really hold water. It’s not sustainable from scripture or from logic itself…”⁠23

In this particular talk, the presenter structures his arguments around the “concepts and ideas” that he has put together. However, his points either completely misrepresent/misunderstand the science, or completely ignore the actual evidence behind the science. So, to be blunt about it, the result in situations like this is that speakers do an outstanding job of disproving something that no-one ever thought in the first place.

However, when one considers some examples of the evidence that have led many in our community to accept that evolution is real, it shows that we can’t simply resolve these questions through Biblical word studies, or logical and philosophical arguments that skirt around the real issues.  To demonstrate this point, consider an example from the Sierra de Atapuerca caves in northern Spain, where excavations have unearthed fossils of at least 28 hominin individuals dated to over 300,000 years ago.⁠24

Now if someone believes that these findings have been misinterpreted, and there is no way these findings could be as old as the researchers claim, the onus is on them to provide an alternative explanation for what the evidence reveals. If the science behind these exhibits was so flawed that it led to such wildly incorrect conclusions, then it would need to be rectified. But this is no easy task.

One would have to start by proposing suitable alternatives for the dating methods used. It’s not good enough to dismissively assert “dating methods are inaccurate” because this has broader implications that would result in restructuring much of the periodic table of elements, chemistry, physics, and so on. Then, by extension, one would need to revisit the fields of biology and comparative anatomy, not to mention the need to rewrite practically everything that has been learnt about genetics.

It demonstrates the importance of moving beyond simplistic “evolution is not sustainable from scripture or from logic” arguments, and focusing attention on understanding positively the things that can be learnt from the natural world.

The fact is that there are many details about evolution that are unknown and are grey areas.  Groups like Answers in Genesis and Institute for Creation Research devote vast amounts of time and energy focusing on the grey areas and make much noise about “the problems”, but in the process of focusing on the grey areas they carefully avoid areas that are beyond dispute.  Their very existence is dedicated to trying to explain things away and cast doubt, all the while living in the hope that finally one day some big discovery will be made that blows extant knowledge out the water.

The problem that follows, is that their “science” becomes all about trying to dismantle and cast doubt on existing knowledge rather than making a positive contribution to it, and so for all their effort they have nothing positive or constructive to offer the scientific body of knowledge.

Meanwhile, the existing foundations of knowledge are leading to more discoveries such as richer fossil finds (because palaeontologists know where to look) or advances in genetic medicine (because we understand more about genomics).

Like all aspects of science, there are questions that have yet to be answered. But just because we don’t know some things, doesn’t invalidate the things we do know. Should we reject the existence of angels just because we don’t know where they came from?

Conclusion 

The point emphasised with this third conversation, is that these common misconceptions are easily refuted by any biologist or palaeontologist that might attend one of our classes, or stumble across one of our videos on YouTube.

As stated earlier, for a community that focuses so much on ‘truth’, we risk bringing tremendous discredit upon ourselves – and the Gospel – by presenting material that is so easily refuted.

This third conversation has shown that we tend to make some fairly basic errors when discussing matters of science in our publications and presentations, and these misconceptions steer the discussion away from the real issue that is the evidence for evolution and common descent.

This is unfortunate because science is not something to be feared, but something to be fearlessly embraced. When we do consider that evidence without fear of where it may take us, we learn fascinating things about God’s creative work. That’s what the fourth conversation is all about.

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1 Francis Collins is a geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes, and who led the team that first mapped the entire human genome.

2 https://ncse.com/library-resource/definitions-fact-theory-law-scientific-work

3 Science, Revelation and Origins (The Christadelphian, 1965) 102:509

4 John Morris, Science and the Disciple: 11 – “Or Ever Thou Hadst Formed The Earth” (The Christadelphian, 1989) 126:453

5 Martin Rudwick, Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters (2014)

6 http://tiktaalik.uchicago.edu

7 Jonathan Losos, Princeton Guide to Evolution (Princeton University Press, 2014).

8 http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-transitional.html

9 https://youtu.be/yeV96KAV4pg

10 http://biologos.org/search-results?q=transitional%20fossils

11 https://goo.gl/HTK2BR

12 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUPDQQ5E4hE

13 http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/eyes_01

14 http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/selection/eye/

15 http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB300.html

16 Jonathan Losos, Princeton Guide to Evolution (Princeton University Press, 2014). p40

17 Larry Moran, Human mutation rates – what’s the right number? (Sandwalk Blog, 24/04/2105) https://goo.gl/mf9qQI

18 Nakamura et al, Digits and fin rays share common developmental histories (Nature, 2016) (doi:10.1038/nature19322)

19 Bhullar et al, A molecular mechanism for the origin of a key evolutionary innovation, the bird beak and palate, revealed by an integrative approach to major transitions in vertebrate history (Evolution, 2015) 69:1665–1677.

20 Evgeny Kvon et al, Progressive Loss of Function in a Limb Enhancer during Snake Evolution (Cell, Oct 2016) 167 p633, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2016.09.028

21 http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/dating.html

22 http://www.asa3.org/ASA/resources/Wiens.html

23 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUPDQQ5E4hE

24 Meyer et al. A mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos (Nature, 2014) p403-406 (http://tinyurl.com/ldaugjy)