Re: Human evolution and religious beliefs.

Tom Byers (
22 Sep 1995 19:07:50 -0400

In response to:
"How do you counter religious beliefs in Adam and Eve with evolution?"

In many cases there is no point bothering. Perhaps, however, there are
real consequences to the debate such as what textbooks will be used in
school. My approach would be to ask detailed questions about the
"scientific creationism" model to point out contradictions and outright


* Creationists are fond of giving examples of radiocarbon dates that are
way off the mark due to contamination, for instance a Wooly Mammoth older
than a dinosaur. Ask if they are claiming that radiocarbon dates are
entirely random. Get their explanation for what accounts for the results
of such dating. Ask what sort of distribution of radiocarbon dates their
theory would predict with respect to stratigraphic layers. Would they
expect most dates from upper strata to come out younger than most dates
from lower strata in sites with a good stratigraphic sequence? Why? Why
not? University libraries are full of examples from archaeological and
paleontological sites. Copy journal articles or pages of books to use in
your argument. Insist that your opponents apply their "scientific"
theories to real data.

* Expand the above questions to other absolute dating methods. Ask how
often creationist theory predicts that different techniques of dating will
reinforce one another. Most of the time? Half the time? Only on a
random basis? Why? Why not? Most adherents of creation science use
anecdotes to discount dating methods. Forcing them to include probability
in their arguments means insisting that the "scientific" in creationism be
taken seriously.

* The same approach applies to anecdotes about fossils being found at the
wrong stratigraphic sequence. Ask if creation theory predicts a random
distribution of fossil types at all levels. Ask if creation theory
distinguishes between a good stratigraphic sequence and one that has been
severely disturbed by geological or other forces.

* Depending on the brand of creationism you encounter you are likely to
have Noah's flood used to explain the stratigraphic associations of
fossils. Simpler creatures drowned first and were buried lower in the new
sea bottom. More developed ones survived longer and were buried in higher
layers. Anyone deluded enough to buy this scenario won't be convinced by
any argument you can make, but anyone else listening to the debate with an
open mind will quickly see its foolishness. Ask why sea reptiles were
buried lower in the flood than sea mammals. Ask if the differential rate
of drowning of land animals could be replicated by experiment. [Designing
such an experiment would not be difficult.] Ask if any creation
scientists ever even conduct such experiments to test their ideas. When
certain fossils are found above a layer of volcanic ash, and other fossils
below it, ask the creationist to describe in detail how the volcanic ash
was deposited in the middle of the flood. Repeat the question for cases
where a stratigraphic sequence has two or three separate layers of
volcanic ash.

* Your opponent will almost certainly use religious rather than
scientific arguments as the core of their theory. The most common
approach is to appeal to common sense. A Swiss watch has obviously been
designed by an intelligent creator, how much more so a human or a
universe. This argument is based on a logical fallacy about the origins
of complexity, but is better left alone. [If you insist on challenging
the fallacy, ask if God is more complicated than a Swiss watch.] It is
safer (with regard to your audience) to ask why God would have to create
something instantly rather than over a long period of time. Whatever
explanation follows, you can certainly demonstrate that creationism is a
religious, not a scientific, theory.

* Another argument you are almost sure to run into is that evolution is
just a rehash of the discredited theory of spontaneous generation. This
approach is intellectually dishonest. Both evolutionary and creationist
theories posit that all current life comes from existing life. The
question is about life's ultimate origins, whether spontaneously poofed
into existence in a flash of instant complexity by a conscious act of
Divine will, or whether spontaneously arising from natural laws which may
or may not have been consciously set in place by a Creator.

* One sort of argument that is also certain to be used against you is a
whole array of criticisms of current evolutionary theory, most of them
reasonable critiques that ultimately come from real scientists trying to
figure out how evolution works. To defend against these arguments you
should know something about evolutionary theory and the philosophy of
science. If you are short on detailed knowledge, you may want to do some
reading. In the meantime, point out that evolutionary theory changes just
like atomic theory or any other scientific theory. Neither atomic nor
evolutionary theory today much resemble their counterparts of a hundred
years ago or a hundred years from now. The foolish claim that evolution
is "just a theory" makes about as much sense as saying that atomic physics
is "just a theory".

* It also can't hurt to have pictures or casts of fossil
australopithecines on hand. Visual aids are powerful. Creationist
attempts to explain away upright-walking, small-brained, tool-using
hominids are bound to bring smiles to the faces of anyone not blinded by a
misguided brand of faith.

Gosh, I didn't mean to go more than a paragraph.

Tom Byers
unemployed anthropologist