Creation and Evolution: Misunderstood Terms and Concepts
by Erv Taylor | 22 August 2018 |
Author’s Note: Regretfully, it is again necessary to postpone a report of my concluding discussion with OV, “Our Visitor,” from a planet circling the nearest star group to our sun. Please see the end note for an explanation. In the meantime, another topic will be considered.
Some − even those with just a cursory interest in discussions of the “pros” and “cons” of creation and evolution − may have sometimes wondered if at least part of the differences of opinion expressed might be ultimately traced to misunderstandings of terms or concepts used by advocates or critics of these subjects on both “sides.”
This discussion considers five specific potential miscommunications concerning statements associated with differences of opinion which may be held by those advocating some form of Young Earth (YEC) or Young Life (YLC) Creationism. This is a sectarian, capital “C” “Creationism,” not the creationism espoused by all Christians. By definition, all Christians would be small “c” creationists in that they would confess that God is responsible for all that is good in the universe.
The purpose of this brief review is to see if it is possible to clarify some apparent misunderstandings by YEC or YLC Creationists by considering some simple distinctions in the terminology which is used. We will focus here particularly on problems in communication resulting from merging or conflating conceptually distinct statements.
By way of introduction, it might help to clarify future discussions by first addressing what is meant when most members of the scientific community use phrases such as the “best scientifically supported explanation.” First, we should not confuse “best scientifically supported” with “true.” When we read of “true” or “Truth” or “proven” statements, it is often within some type of metaphysical, philosophical, and/or religious category. The closest thing to the use of “true” or “proven” in scientific discourse is in some types of mathematics modeling posited physical or chemical processes which contain formal postulates.
I would assume that most or all scientists will certainly hope that some specific “best scientifically supported explanation” is the true, valid, or correct explanation of why a given physical system operates the way it does. However, most are vividly aware that many scientific explanations widely accepted at one time with better resolved or more comprehensive data sets were later shown to be incomplete or only applied to a special situation, or even turned out to be flat wrong. It is thus not prudent to ever assume that your favorite explanation for some phenomenon is the “true” one. It is only the one supported by the weight of the evidence currently available.
Consequently, the words “true” or “truth,” with or without a capital T, rarely, if ever, appear in any scientific paper of which I am aware or have ever heard of, to support or disconfirm some hypothesis or model. Different scientific researchers may disagree about how much weight should be accorded certain sets of data. However, the goal is to assemble the most convincing data sets which will support or refute a particular understanding, model, or hypothesis about how a targeted physical, chemical, or biological system or part thereof functions.
Also, the category of what constitutes “scientific evidence” may, in some cases, be misunderstood by non-scientists. It is not explicitly addressed in scientific papers because it is embedded in the historical background framework of what science is and what scientists do. It is now an implicit concept. In contrast, when it first appeared in Western discourse, it was a new idea. It was introduced at the beginning of the 16th Century “Scientific Revolution” in Western thought. As many readers will know, a number of historians and philosophers of science have written books about what science is. However, there are some very straightforward and relatively simple concepts that define what is generally meant by “science” and “scientific evidence.”
All of the foregoing involve relatively simple distinctions. However, some individuals seem to wish to disregard or ignore these distinctions. Some may even wish to dispute the historic position that science should deal only with the natural or materialistic world. A related argument sometimes encountered is that science is denying itself an additional source of valid data by ignoring the world of the supernatural or presumed “revealed” information from supernatural sources. Such a position seems not to be sustainable given the abysmal history of what tends to happen when some type of assumed non-natural or supernaturally provided information is admitted into consideration.
For example, I am not aware of any discovery of new information concerning how some defined physical system of any type functions as a result of the application of an approach developed by any Young Earth (YEC) or Young Life Creationist (YLC) oriented researcher. The same observation can be made about the lack of a track record of anyone supporting an Intelligent Design (ID) manner of thinking. Perhaps I have not read widely enough. If some new discovery can be attributed to the application of a specific YEC/YLC Creationist or ID concept, I would appreciate being directed to a discussion of such.
Let us now take up considerations of five specific potential misunderstandings in discussions dealing with the so-called evolution vs. creation controversies.
(1) There are misunderstandings due to conflating such statements as “Biological evolution is the best scientifically supported explanation of the development of living organisms on earth” and “Biological evolution is the true explanation of the development of living organisms on earth.”
This type of misunderstanding is an illustration of the point raised above about the self-imposed limited arena of the natural world which scientific methodologies are designed to address. This misunderstanding conflates a scientific-based assertion with a philosophically or metaphysically-based assertion. The first statement addresses the current scientific status of an understanding about how organisms have developed over time. The second is a philosophical statement addressing “the truth” about how organisms have developed. These are very different statements.
Scientific discourse deals with what empirically derived evidence, at some level of probability, will either support parts of or the whole of some usually highly focused, explicitly defined model or hypothesis or will serve to disconfirm parts or the whole model or hypothesis.
Conflating a scientific-based statement with a philosophical- or theologically-based statement can only cause unnecessary confusion.
(2) There are misunderstandings caused by conflating “Origins” and “Evolution”
Origins and evolution in the biological sciences are focused on two separate and distinct sets of issues. The scientific study of the origins of living organisms on earth seeks to determine the most likely biochemical or biophysical mechanisms that could account for the appearance of living organisms on earth and, if carbon-based life exists on other planets in other solar systems of our galaxy or other parts of the universe, how such organisms would have emerged on such a planet. Associated with such studies, what constitutes the categories which are used to define “life” or “living” is considered.
In contrast, once living organisms are present on planet earth, the study of biological evolution seeks to determine what processes are involved in causing the series of modifications observed in the succession of living forms whose remains are preserved in the fossil record. As a practical matter, research on the question of the origins of living organisms has been slow, revealing that a complex series of difficult problems are still to be resolved to the satisfaction of the scientific community as a whole. In contrast, biological and molecular evolutionary studies have produced a host of very informative scientific discoveries and continue to be a very active and productive field of research.
(3) There are misunderstandings caused by conflating “Biological Evolution” and “Darwinian Evolution”
The phrase “biological evolution” reflects the simple observation that biological organisms change over time. It also proceeds from the observation that something on the order of 99% of all organisms which have ever lived on earth are extinct. From a historical perspective, the words “evolution” and “evolve” were taken from a term which means “unfolding.” Historical dictionaries indicate that the root form is a Latin term, evolutio, from evolvere “to unroll.”
It would seem that just the phrase biological evolution would not be considered problematic unless someone insists that the genetic structures of biological populations do not change over time. Such a counterfactual statement can be dismissed without any further serious consideration. However, more serious concerns do legitimately arise with definitional extensions of the primary meaning of this word within biology. Examples of such definitional extensions and inferred concepts would be when the term “biological evolution” might be more specifically defined as describing changes in organisms which are inherited over multiple generations which give rise to new species, change within species, and the extinction of species over geologic time. Or perhaps there would be additional scrutiny of the term if it is associated with such statements as “all life on this planet has a common ancestor which lived approximately 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.” Such an extended or more detailed definition adds elements as further discoveries expanded more detailed knowledge of how evolution worked.
The primary, direct information available to paleontologists and paleoanthropologists and others interested in the course of biological evolution over geological time generally involves at least three different data sets: geochronological information, morphological data based on examination of the surviving fossil material, and the paleoenvironmental reconstruction of the environment within which a given fossil organism operated when it was alive. The placement of the fossil within a time frame is most directly accomplished by the application of one or more isotopic dating methods to components of the rocks within which the fossils were recovered or from rocks whose position in the stratigraphic column has been correlated with those from which the fossils were derived. The morphological characteristics of a given fossil form result from direct examinations of fossil forms and the analysis of specific features of a given fossil which prior experience has determined can inform researchers about behavioral traits that would have characterized the animal from which the fossil derived when it was a living organism.
In contrast, the term “Darwinian Evolution” is focused on a single posited evolutionary mechanism most often associated with concepts associated with the 19th century writings of the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882). The primarily mechanism discussed in Darwin’s major works is usually termed “natural selection.” In a strict sense, the term to describe this concept associated with Darwin should be referred to as “Darwin-Wallace mode of evolution,” since a younger contemporary of Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), had also written about natural selection as a mechanism by which organisms change through time at the same time that Darwin had conceived the concept.
The basic outline of this idea had been discussed by several individuals prior to Darwin, but his name is associated with it because of the large number of examples based on his observations in the natural world which were incorporated into his 1846 work Origin of Species by Natural Selection, which went through a number of editions for the following 20 years. The basic idea behind Darwinian evolution is a process of differential reproductive success in some defined population over time in response to changes in some element of the environment within which that defined organism functioned. To use Darwin’s own description of natural selection: There are “many more individuals of each species . . . born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form [emphasis added].”1
This is an explicitly scientific explanation because the mechanism proposed is a naturalistic one; hence the term “natural” in “natural selection.” The driving force of natural selection which Darwin focused upon was sexual selection. With increasing information about how organisms reproduce, resulting from genetic studies undertaken after Darwin’s time, the Darwin-Wallace concept has been updated and the term that is usually used is the “Neo-Darwinian” or “Synthetic” theory of evolution. This adds considerations of the dynamics of molecular genetics and issues having to do with the causes of changing frequencies of genes in a given population isolate over time.
The point here is that biological evolution — changes in biological entities over time — is a settled reality of the natural world within the contemporary scientific community and among most educated individuals in the West. On the other hand, Darwinian evolution emphasizes a specific set of mechanisms to explain how biological systems in different organisms undergo changes in their genome, morphology, and/or function over time.
The question: “Is the mechanism of natural selection sufficient to explain the major changes in biological forms observed in the paleontological record?” is a reasonable one from a scientific point of view. Other mechanisms that result in changes in gene frequencies are known. Are there still other physical, biophysical, or biochemical mechanisms or sets of mechanisms which can be shown to better explain the changes observed in the fossil record? Or should biological evolution be better viewed as a process reflecting a number of additional processes, some genetic, and some not? This expanded view of biological evolutionary dynamics is currently being discussed within some mainline biological research circles.
(4) There are misunderstandings caused by conflating the “Geochronological Timescale” and the “Evolutionary Timescale”
This misunderstanding is sometimes responsible for creating serious and glaring errors which are often evident in the writings of many Adventist and non-Adventist Fundamentalist Young Earth and Young Life Creationists. The “Geochronological Timescale” and the “Evolutionary Timescale” involve two completely separate and distinct areas of study including separate scientific disciplines which are involved, very different literature that reports on these studies, and the types of data used in developing these timescales. Typically, those scientists who are involved in developing the “geochronological timescale” and those working on the “evolutionary timescale” rarely talk to each other, have received their degrees from different academic departments, read very different journals and are specialists in very different subdisciplinary areas of research.
The scientists who have developed the geochronological timescale are typically trained in nuclear physics, nuclear chemistry, geochemistry, and various divisions of the earth sciences such as geophysics. For example, these are the scientists who have developed the various isotopic dating methods such as radiocarbon for very recent parts of the geological column dating to the last 50,000-60,000 years, potassium-argon (K-Ar) dating, and various types of uranium series and thermoluminescence dating techniques for the much older geological segments running into the hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions and hundreds of millions of years. Data obtained from these and other methods provide the ages assigned to the divisions of the geological column and by extension to the fossil record which is represented by the preserved remains of once living animals and plants of various types recovered from the geological record.
By contrast, an “evolutionary timescale” is constituted by temporal units assigned to various fossil assemblages based on assumptions concerning rates of change in certain diagnostic parts of the genetic codes of related organisms, as well as the assumed rates of morphological and other changes in various physical structures observed to exist in different fossil forms. In other cases, such evolutionary timescales may be inferred based on the studies of the erosion rates exhibited in sedimentary units of various part of the geological record. Other evidence might be gained from the study of the rate of uplift in some regions caused by the continuous movements of some geological structure.
In conclusion, the nature of these two timescales is very different and the types of information which can be gained from them are very diverse. To fail to distinguish between them is to invite endless confusion.
(5) Finally, there are misunderstandings caused by viewing contemporary biological evolutionary concepts as atheistic, anti-religious, or anti-Christian.
We have already noted that the scientific approach to the study of the material world is totally agnostic about the existence or non-existence of any non-natural or supernatural elements. An analogy that is often used to help to clarify such a perspective considers how two different sports — baseball and American football — are played. Each sport has well-understood sets of rules which are to be followed if one of the games is to be played.
For example, baseball rules states that a batter is called “out” if he collects three “strikes” or can go to first base if he collects four “balls.” In contrast, American football rules state that one team needs to advance the ball at least 10 yards in four “downs” to retain possession of the ball and continue to attempt to advance the ball to the “goal line” of the opposite team. Clearly, you cannot play American football using baseball rules. Everyone would agree that this would be absurd.
Likewise, science operates on the basis of certain rules worked out over several centuries. One rule is that one cannot use non-materialist or non-natural causation in developing a “scientific” understanding of some physical phenomenon. Some may say that this “limits” the ability of science to discover the “true” cause of certain phenomena. The fact is that science is willing to play by a set of rules which must totally exclude the use of any “data” or “evidence” that can be perceived by only “special” or “inspired” individuals or communicated in some special collection of religious literature. There is no such thing as “private” scientific evidence. Any evidence used in a scientific formulation must be, in theory, publicly accessible and subject to independent confirmation or refutation in an open, public arena.
Biological evolution is a scientific concept developed to explain how living organisms have changed over geologic time. The changes to be explained have been observed in the fossil record. The time frame for the fossil record has been determined by the application of various methods of geochronological dating data whose basis has nothing to do with biological evolution.
The charge that biological evolution is “godless,” “atheistic,” “anti-religious” or “anti-Christian is an example, metaphorically speaking, of asking science to play football using baseball rules. That would be a pointless exercise. It would frustrate and short-circuit the power that science clearly demonstrates by the successes of what it does: Seek to understand how the materialistic or physical world works. That is all it is designed to do, and it does that very well. Let us not confuse our discussions that attempt to defend certain views by confusing what are clearly separate categories and concepts which have been, in some cases, developed to facilitate clarity in such discussions. The use of confused categories does not advance the views of anyone.
Finally, it is important to distinguish the personal views publicly expressed by some scientists as representing the views of the scientific community. That some scientists in their personal life publicly and insistently espouse atheism has nothing to contribute to discussions about the nature of scientific discourse. Some Christians on the basis of their interpretation of statements in the Bible still argue that the world is flat. Does that mean that all Christians endorse such a view? Obviously not. The same understanding should be accorded the basic approaches to the study of the natural world espoused by the scientific community. On the other side, some well-known scientists say that they believe in a supernatural God. That is their personal opinion, having nothing to do with the assumptions and strategies used by the scientific community to investigate the natural world.
1Darwin, C., Origin of Species, 6th edition, Vol. 1, 79, accessed on California Digital Library
Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He has served as the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.
End Note: Readers may recall that OV had visited earth in search of information about Jesus of Nazareth and Christianity, having decoded broadcast and television signals coming from earth containing references to both. (I refer to OV as a “he.” However, OV is neither a “he” nor a “she” in earth terms, but it is too complicated to explain and I’m not sure I understand his explanation.) For a reason that eludes me, I became OV’s information source. I’ve reported our earlier conversations and expected to be able to report this month on my final conversation with him.
Last week, he again sent word that major responsibilities on his home planet are preventing travel. It turns out that he holds a very important post on his planet’s governing body and they are currently involved in deciding some complex issues. I previously had explained to him that earth has more than 100 independent sovereign nation states with different forms of government, various legal and economic systems, and a variety of different religions, of which Christianity is only one, and institutional Christianity itself is divided into vast number of separate cults, sects, and denominations, many of which think and say that they are practicing the only “true” Christianity. Each nation state has an army and police forces to maintain order. There is a United Nations organization on earth, but it has very limited powers. OV was appalled with the primitive state of our planet’s ways of doing things.
We both hope that by the end of the next earth month, he will be able to return for a quick visit so we can have our concluding conversion.