Friday, 23 August 2013

Scientific errors in Christadelphian attacks on evolution: The Testimony magazine - 1

Gordon Hudson, the manager of an environmental charity based in Edinburgh used to be an enthusiastic YEC until his faith was destroyed when he realised YEC was wrong. Basing your Christian faith on anti-evolutionism is guaranteed to result in a severe blow to your faith when you eventually recognise that YEC is a delusion. This is why I regard naive science denialism in our community with dismay, as it is guaranteed to produce a steady stream of ex-Christadelphians when they eventually realise our community has led them astray on the subject.

Unfortunately, almost every article published in The Testimony and other Christadelphian magazines criticising evolutionary biology is either poorly researched or shows a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution. Quite often, they make both mistakes. Any young Christadelphian who is studying biology at a secondary or tertiary level and relies on the information in these articles to rebut evolution will be badly served by them at best. At worst, the possibility of a crisis of faith exists when they realise that everything they were told about evolution from ecclesial sources is utterly wrong.

 As it is natural for any tightly-knit community to respond negatively to criticism, rather than accept that those criticisms may have validity, I'll pre-empt a few of the most common responses, as well as outline some of the common problems inherent in most criticisms of evolutionary biology.

1. Why should we listen to you on the subject of evolution?

Actually, it's more appropriate to ask why should young Christadelphians listen to attacks on evolutionary biology that come from laypeople or scientists whose professional background was in a field unrelated to evolutionary biology or palaeontology, such as materials science or experimental physics? Those who make these attacks on evolution are not offering an informed opinion. Even when such attacks come from working professionals in a related area such as molecular biology, we need to remember that such a view is very much a minority opinion. The overwhelming majority of life scientists accept common descent as being supported by the evidence, so any Christadelphian life scientist who rejects evolution is obliged to point out why his or her belief should be regarded as authoritative, and that of their peers should be ignored.

For anyone to even begin to take a Christadelphian critic of evolution seriously, we'd need to see evidence that they had properly researched the subject, written up their findings, discussed those findings with evolutionary biologists and submitted those findings for publication. If that has not been done, then that Christadelphain critic simply cannot be taken seriously. In short, the burden of proof lies on the sceptic of evolution to make their case not to a sympathetic, scientifically untrained audience but to their peers.

Conversely, all I am doing is summarising the scientific consensus on evolution - I am not presenting my own opinion. It is quite frustrating that many people fail to appreciate the inherent asymmetry in the knowledge base needed by both sides. An analogous situation occurs in those who have to criticise the claims of homeopaths. One does not need to be a microbiologist, biochemist or infectious diseases physician to point out that the weight of professional opinion overwhelmingly against homeopathy. Likewise, one does not need those specialist qualifications to point out that the idea water has a ‘memory’ of the agent that used to be in it is not plausible.

Of course, those with relevant experience or professional expertise in related areas will be better able to understand the subject at a more professional level, and provide a more detailed summary of the evidence for evolutionary biology. I’m a medical doctor; medical training gives the average competent doctor a good grounding in anatomy, physiology, molecular biology, genetics, microbiology, comparative anatomy and embryology. This allows the motivated doctor to access the primary literature and see just how solid the evidence for common descent is. Many anatomical, embryological and genomic quirks become far more understandable in the light of evolution. <1> In fact, medical educators are now realising that evolutionary biology should be one of the basic clinical sciences taught to medical students. <2> This, coupled with the fact that educating patients about their own body is one of the fundamental aspects of being a doctor and my unease at the patently unscientific material being promulgated in our community on evolution places me in an excellent position to summarise the evidence for evolution, and point out just how flawed anti-evolutionary material circulating in our community is. 

2. But doesn't evolution lead to atheism?

It is unfortunate that some of the most vocal scientific defenders of evolutionary biology such as the ethologist Richard Dawkins and the geneticist Jerry Coyne are militant atheists who regard religion as a social evil. One needs to remember that they are not representative of the entire scientific community. While most scientists are not religious, Christians are hardly unrepresented in the scientific community. Prominent examples include:
  • Simon Conway Morris – palaeontologist (Anglican)
  • Francis Collins – medical geneticist (Evangelical)
  • Ken Miller – cell biologist (Catholic)

All these are active not only in defending their Christian faith and showing that it is not in opposition to evolutionary biology, but are also prominent in defending science against the attacks made by special creationists.

Furthermore, a number of the scientists responsible for creating the modern evolutionary synthesis in the first half of the 20th century were Christians, such as Theodosius Dobzhansky and Ronald Fisher (genetics.) In fact, one of the earliest defenders of evolutionary biology in the US was the botanist and Congregationalist Asa Gray. The historian of science David Livingstone observes:
Darwin’s cause in America was championed by the thoroughgoing Congregationalist evangelical Asa Gray, who set himself the task of making sure that Darwin would have “fair play” in the New World. Let us be clear right away that this cannot be dismissed as capitulation to the social pressure of academic peers. To the contrary, Gray had to take on one of the most influential naturalists in America at the time to maintain his viewpoint – none other than Louis Agassiz, a Harvard colleague who vitriolically scorned Darwin’s theory. 
But Gray was not alone. Many of his countrymen, associates in science and brothers in religion took the same stand. And indeed even those who ultimately remained unimpressed with if not hostile to Darwin were quite prepared to admit that evolution had occurred. It is surely not without significance that Christian botanists, geologists, and biologists – that is to say, those best placed to see with clarity the substance of what Darwin had proposed – believed the evidence supported an evolutionary natural history” <3>
You don’t reject a scientific theory because it is used to make a philosophical point that you find unacceptable, but rather because the evidence falsifies it.

3. The natural world is too complex to have evolved, therefore it was created.

This is merely the argument from personal incredulity, which is one of the logical fallacies often used by creationists to rebut evolution. The fact that a layperson with little or no professional background in evolutionary biology does not understand how something evolved is not proof that it could not have evolved. In fact, such an assertion is arrogant, implying as it does that if an uninformed, biased layperson can’t work out how something evolved, no one else could. If a layperson stated that he could not imagine how general relativity and quantum mechanics could be harmonised and concluded that it could never be done, he’d be rightly condemned for such arrogance. Unfortunately, when it comes to evolutionary biology, uninformed armchair speculation from science denialists is considered to be authoritative by members of our community. 

4. Evolution is just a theory, therefore it's not worth taking seriously.

The popular and scientific uses of the word ‘theory’ are completely different. The average person often uses the word ‘theory’ as a synonym for hunch, guess, speculation or hypothesis. This is not what the word ‘theory’ means in science. Rather, a theory is a comprehensive explanation of some part of the natural world that includes facts and laws, and is able to make predictions. The evolutionary biologist TR Gregory points out:
By contrast, a theory in science, again following the definition given by the NAS, is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.” Science not only generates facts but seeks to explain them, and the interlocking and well-supported explanations for those facts are known as theories. Theories allow aspects of the natural world not only to be described, but to be understood. Far from being unsubstantiated speculations, theories are the ultimate goal of science. <4>

General relativity, plate tectonics, atomic theory and germ theory are all scientific theories which no layperson would dismiss as a ‘wild hunch’ simply because they are described as a theory. Evolutionary biology holds an equally strong place in modern biology.

5. Evolution cannot explain how X evolved, therefore evolution is false

Although this tends to overlap the argument from personal incredulity, this commonly made assertion betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what evolutionary biologists mean by evolution, as the term has a wide range of meaning.

Evolution can refer to common descent and large-scale evolutionary change (evolution as fact) as well as to the theory proposed to explain how it occurred (evolution as theory). It can also refer to the particular paths taken in evolutionary history as seen in the fossil record. A common mistake made by creationists is to assume that difficulties – real or imagined – in the current theory of evolution (the modern synthetic theory) mean that evolution never occurred. This is poor reasoning, as the evidence for common descent from palaeontology (transitional fossils) and molecular genetics (shared genetic errors in closely related species) exist irrespective of whether the theory proposed to explain how evolution occurred is complete or not.

An excellent analogy is to look at gravity as fact and theory. As yet, we do not have a complete theory of gravity, since general relativity cannot be extended to the quantum level. However, this does not mean that planets do not orbit their suns or objects remain suspended in air when dropped. Charles Darwin was at pains to point this out on multiple occasions:
Whether the naturalist believes in the views given by Lamarck, or Geoffroy St.-Hilaire, by the author of the ‘Vestiges,’ by Mr. Wallace and myself, or in any other such view, signifies extremely little in comparison with the admission that species have descended from other species and have not been created immutable; for he who admits this as a great truth has a wide field opened to him for further inquiry. <5>
 Some of those who admit the principle of evolution, but reject natural selection, seem to forget, when criticising my book, that I had the above two objects in view; hence if I have erred in giving to natural selection great power, which I am very far from admitting, or in having exaggerated its power, which is in itself probable, I have at least, as I hope, done good service in aiding to overthrow the dogma of separate creations. <6>
Many critics of evolutionary biology are unaware that while the scientific world quickly accepted the fact of evolution, they were sceptical of the value of natural selection, the theory Darwin proposed to explain how evolution could have occurred. This was due primarily to the lack of a decent theory of inheritance, as Mendel’s work remained unknown until early in the 20th century. For a number of decades, natural selection fell out of favour, with alternative theories such as Lamarckianism, orthogenesis and mutationism holding sway until the first half of the 20th century, with the creation of population genetics, a fusion of natural selection and Mendelian genetics.

6. Darwin admitted there were problems with his theory, so why should I believe it?

Over 150 years have passed since the publication of the first edition of the Origin of Species. Evolutionary biology has changed immensely in this time period. If we look at the current state of knowledge in physics in 1859, we’d note the following:
  • James Clerk Maxwell had yet to publish “A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism” which appeared 14 years later.
  • Albert Einstein was not even alive
  • Boltzmann’s main work on statistical mechanics would not appear until the 1870s
  • Radioactivity would only be discovered by Henri Becquerel nearly 40 years later in 1896

When Darwin published his book, the fossil record was nowhere near as rich as it now is. Cell biology was in its infancy, while molecular biology and genomics did not exist. Faulting Darwin for his mistakes makes as much sense as criticising Newtonian mechanics for failing to explain relativistic effects.

7. Many scientists reject evolution.

Actually, almost all biologists accept evolution, so this claim can be readily dismissed. After all, some scientists do not believe that AIDS is caused by HIV. There are a few physicists who reject heliocentrism. A theory falls not because a particular authority rejects it, but because it cannot adequately explain the phenomena it was advanced to explain. Furthermore, if the authority in question is not qualified in evolutionary biology, palaeontology or any relevant area, their disbelief means little, as they simply don’t have the in-depth professional knowledge of evolutionary biology to give a credible opinion. For example, a materials scientist may be qualified to give an authoritative opinion on the appropriate vacuum deposition method to produce antireflection coatings on lenses. However, if he asserts that the fossil record shows no transitional forms detailing the evolution of the mammalian ear, then his opinion carries no more weight than that of an educated layperson.

One commonly cited example is “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism”, <7> a statement released by the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank based in Seattle which states:
"We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”
As of 2008, it had 761 signatories, and has been used as ‘proof’ that evolution lacks broad support in the scientific community. The list has been criticised severely by the scientific community as being deceptive and misleading.

One criticism is that the list represents significantly less than 0.1% of the world’s scientists. Ronald Numbers and Denis Alexander note:
After more than a decade of effort the Discovery Institute proudly announced in 2007 that it had got some 700 doctoral-level scientists and engineers to sign "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism." Though the number may strike some observers as rather large, it represented less than 0.023 percent of the world's scientists. On the scientific front of the much ballyhooed "Evolution Wars", the Darwinists were winning handily. <8>
Furthermore, not all of the scientists on the list have professional backgrounds relevant to evolutionary biology. Philosophers, engineers, mathematicians and physicists are well represented on the list, and as mentioned before, their scepticism about evolution is largely irrelevant as they have no in-depth expertise in the subject.

There is also the (arguably deliberate) potential for confusion in how the statement is phrased. Earlier, I mentioned that while many 19th century scientists were sceptical about the validity of natural selection, they had no doubts that an evolutionary process had occurred. Today, there are a number of biologists who believe that the modern synthetic theory is incomplete, and needs extension. There are biologists who accept the fact of evolution, but believe that “random mutation and natural selection” are not a sufficient description of the mechanism of evolutionary change, and believe that genetic drift is also an important element in driving evolutionary change. This list is often promoted as a list of scientists who doubt that evolution occurred.

Some scientists in fact have signed the list, not being aware of the true intention of the Discovery Institute in compiling the list. One example is that of Bob Davidson, a Christian and former professor of nephrology at the University of Washington’s medical school who initially thought the Discovery Institute’s goals were honourable:
It was these twin devotions to science and religion that first attracted him to Seattle's Discovery Institute. That's the think tank that this summer has pushed "intelligent design" — a replacement theory for evolution — all the way to the lips of President Bush and into the national conversation. 
Davidson says he was seeking a place where people "believe in a Creator and also believe in science. 
"I thought it was refreshing," he says. 
Not anymore. He's concluded the institute is an affront to both science and religion. 
"When I joined I didn't think they were about bashing evolution. It's pseudo-science, at best ... What they're doing is instigating a conflict between science and religion." 
Davidson, at 78 a UW professor emeritus, says he shouldn't be on the list because he believes "the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming." 
"I'm kind of embarrassed that I ever got involved with this," Davidson says. 
He was shocked, he says, when he saw the Discovery Institute was calling evolution a "theory in crisis." 
"It's laughable: There have been millions of experiments over more than a century that support evolution," he says. "There's always questions being asked about parts of the theory, as there are with any theory, but there's no real scientific controversy about it." <9>
The National Centre for Science Education maintains “Project Steve” which parodies lists such as those created by the Discovery Institute. The NSCE points out:

Creationists draw up these lists to try to convince the public that evolution is somehow being rejected by scientists, that it is a "theory in crisis." Not everyone realizes that this claim is unfounded. NCSE has been asked numerous times to compile a list of thousands of scientists affirming the validity of the theory of evolution. 
Although we easily could have done so, we have resisted. We did not wish to mislead the public into thinking that scientific issues are decided by who has the longer list of scientists!
Project Steve pokes fun at this practice and, because "Steves" are only about 1% of scientists, it also makes the point that tens of thousands of scientists support evolution. <10>
The list, which as of October 2011 numbered 1177 states:
Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to "intelligent design," to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation's public schools.
Of course, the fact that the NCSE list has around 400 more scientists than the Discovery Institute list does not “prove evolution”, but that’s hardly the point. Science is not determined by a popular vote, but by the evidence, and on that score, evolutionary biology is overwhelmingly supported by the evidence:

In The Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin cited independent lines of evidence such as the biogeographical distribution of species, homology of structure, the occurrence of vestigial organs and atavisms, and the already well established process of extinction as all pointing to a conclusion that species have changed over time and are connected by descent from common ancestors. Through the force of Darwin’s argument and the mass of supporting data he presented, it was not long before the contemporary scientific community came to acknowledge the historical reality of evolutionary descent. 
Over the past 150 years, this initial list has been supplemented by countless observations in paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, molecular biology, and (most recently) comparative genomics, and through direct observations of evolutionary change in both natural and experimental populations. Each of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every year in scientific journals provides further confirmation (though, as Futuyma notes, “no biologist today would think of publishing a paper on ‘new evidence for evolution’ ... it simply hasn’t been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century”). Conversely, no reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science. <11>
That hardly sounds like a 'theory in crisis' to me. Claims made by members of our community that evolution is false are wrong, and based on ignorance, wishful thinking and an untenable hyper-literal reading of the creation narratives.


Pointing out the numerous errors in our anti-evolution apologetics is not an exercise taken lightly. Over 40 years ago, the English Christadelphian Ralph Lovelock explored ways in which the early chapters of Genesis could be understood in the light of evolution. This process unfortunately resulted in his excommunication. His ecclesia however, in a letter released at that time acknowledged that the issues arising from this contentious subject were real, and needed to be examined:
“…we are not closing our eyes to the problems that confront us when the theories of modern scholarship are compared with the understanding and interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis commonly accepted among us . . . we are strongly of the opinion that the problems that undoubtedly exist should be frankly admitted by us as a community, for we do naught but dishonour to the word of God by pretending that these problems are not there. Our Brotherhood bears a responsibility . . . to turn its attention to the solving of these difficulties in an atmosphere of calm, sincere, conscientious study, unhindered by the rumours, mistrust, suspicion and hasty judgments that have been all too prevalent among us in recent times.” [12]
Unfortunately, this challenge has been largely ignored. Our leading magazines publish embarrassingly na├»ve attacks on evolution which consist of little more than arguments from personal incredulity or endless variations on the argument from design. Sadly, fundamentalist ideas such as young earth creationism and flood geology which were alien to the community from its founding days have been gaining currency over the last half-century. By making opposition to evolution something akin to a de facto first principle, we are in danger of repeating the same mistake the Catholic Church made in opposing Galileo. The battle is not evolution versus creation, but belief versus unbelief.

This series of articles is based on material written at the BEREA Portal forum, and is reproduced with permission of the author.


1. Held L “Quirks of Human Anatomy” (Cambridge University Press, 2009)
2. Nesse R.M et al. “Making evolutionary biology a basic science for medicine” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (2010) 107:1800-1807
3. Livingstone DN “Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders” (Eerdmans 1984) p xi-xii
4. Gregory TR “Evolution as Fact, Theory and Path” Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-52
5. Darwin C. Origin of species [Letter]. Athenaeum 9 May: 617; 1863.
6. Darwin C. The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. (London: John Murray; 1871.)
7. A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism. Accessed 20th October 2011
8. Alexander D, Numbers RL Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins (2010 University of Chicago Press)
9. Westneat D (24th August 2005) “Evolving opinion of one man”. The Seattle Times Accessed 20th October 2011
10. Accessed 20th October 2011
11. ibid, p 49
12. Statement from the Watford Ecclesia The Christadelphian (1966) 103:543