Col's Evolution Discussion FAQ

The aim of this page is to spread information, to stimulate logical thought, and to get the Evolution/Creation debate to move forward and to stop repeating the same, overused arguments. For more up-to-date comment, please see Col's Rational World Blog

Many people's opinions of Evolution seem to be fuelled by misinformation and propaganda to which they have unwittingly been subjected. I don't intend to attack people who spread such opinions as I believe that any human being is allowed to hold whatever opinions he or she may wish, provided they don't harm another person. But I also believe that every human being has the right to make up their own mind clearly, and free from the influence of misleading propaganda.

Under the various headings below, you will find resources detailing the pursuit of science, the aims of science, the features of a good scientific theory and the common logical flaws on which many creationist arguments rely. Furthermore, after this you will be able to read a selection of discussions on the subject of evolution, both defending the claims of the theory of evolution, and analysing the theories of those who believe in Creationism, in the strict Biblical sense.

I expect most of the people who read this page will be either those who are sitting on the fence, unable to decide which theory is correct, or those who are definitely on the side of evolution. Sadly those with whom I would most like to speak, will probably never find this site as they won't be interested in seeking out arguments against their beliefs. Regardless of your position, I urge you to read what I say and make up your own mind. All I ask is that you read these pages with an open mind and consider what I (and many others) have to say.

For a far better site than this, please see the Talk Origins web page. If you're unsure about some of the complaints levelled against evolution then at least browse through their extremely detailed and fair Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section, to which I have often referred. I also extend thanks to Derek Potter, for comments on early versions of this page.

Advice before you start

When deciding who to believe, it's important that you do your own research and make sure that you can cope with all the implications of your chosen belief. You must ask yourself why you believe - remember that people holding irrational beliefs often argue irrationally, or rely on anger, insults and logical tricks to manipulate you into their frame of mind. It's important that you ask the questions they don't want you to ask. People from both camps are guilty of avoiding the difficult issues - and they're just hiding ignorance.

Make no mistake - scientists are just as embarassed about not knowing the answer to a question as creationists. You have to ask yourself whether this is because they just don't know the answer (but somebody else might), or whether there actually is no known answer. Are they hiding their own ignorance, or trying to defend a faulty theory?

This is a highly-charged subject. I can offer no single human being any better advice than this : Question all of your beliefs regularly. Do you hold your beliefs because you have tested them fairly and believe them to be true, or because you are afraid of being wrong? Are you clinging on to comfortable theories simply because the emotional pain of giving up on them is too great? Perhaps most difficult - would you rather hold on to a comfortable, but false theory than accept the less-comfortable truth? There is no 'right' or 'wrong' answer to this question - it's a matter of personal preference.

Thanks for your interest, and please enjoy these pages! All constructive feedback will be gratefully accepted.

Important Notice

Something that is often misunderstood in this highly-charged debate is the actual focus of our argument. The most important fact to bear in mind is this : Evolution, as a process, is not in doubt. Evolution means "change", and animals obviously change over time. Look at the domestication of dogs, for example. Nobody, not even the most devoted creationist, could possibly deny that the process of evolution occurs: it's only a process, and is obviously an effective one, as a moment's thought will demonstrate. When not applied to the origins of life, the process of evolution is at work in virtually every area of human endeavour from the incremental improvement of automobile designs to advanced computational applications.

However, what is in question is this : Could the process of evolution, applied to biological organisms, account for the variety of life that we see on Earth today? Or perhaps, more importantly, even if it could have caused the rise of life, did it? All creationists deny the latter, and most also deny the former. This is the core of the debate.

Don't waste time arguing with people who refuse to believe that evolution is even a viable process - that's not in doubt at all. In fact, most creationists now even accept that evolution applied to natural organisms can have an effect, they just deny that it is a plausible cause for large-scale changes such as the emergence of new a species or a substantial change in body type.

What is Science?

Please read this transcript of an explanation I wrote several years ago on the subject of scientific method. Also, here is another transcript I wrote recently to explain about scientific reasoning and Bayes' theorem. Please read both before continuing.

I also have a series of YouTube videos covering these topics.
Science is much maligned by the public. What is important to understand is that "science" is very distinct from "dogma". Science is a process by which hypotheses are proposed to explain observations. Those hypotheses are then tested and either rejected, altered or accepted depending on the findings of ongoing investigation. A scientific theory must be strong enough to stand up to rational criticism (see the next section) and must also be capable of explaining as many sections of the data as possible. No matter how strong a theory might seem, if it fails to explain a significant proportion of the experimental evidence then it must be either modified or rejected completely.

If you learn a simple phrase from this whole section, it should be this;
"Science does not dictate truths, it assigns probabilities"

Logic and the Art of a Good Argument

I present a common selection of logical flaws, and explain why they are so wrong. Many of these are frequently used by people in arguments, and I have come across some of them time and time again. It is worth at least browsing through this section, and learning to spot these flaws so that I can make reference to them later on. For more discussion of these points, see my YouTube video on Logical Fallacies.

(1) I mean, it's obvious, right? or You can't trust intuition

I've heard this one several times. Human intuition is intensely fallable - it is simply not designed to work in the ways we require it to. You must test claims before you make them. Anyone who has ever studied relativity or quantum theory knows that often reality goes completely against our intuitive feelings. Any wildly speculative claim must be backed up by evidence or it is worthless.

Example : "Evolution is wrong because it's obvious that creatures are too complicated to have evolved."

(2) Ignoring the plank or The problem with complacency

This involves arguing that your theory is better than someone else's because the other theory has a flaw in it even though your own theory has numerous significantly larger flaws. Therefore the first theory is still superior.

Example : "Astronomers cannot explain how the Galaxy formed - according to the models we shouldn't be here. Therefore I propose that the Galaxy doesn't really exist."

(3) Circular reasoning and Begging the Question

Assuming the answer in order to prove the answer. Many people on each side of the evolution debate have been accused of this. Circular reasoning is often extremely difficult to spot.

Example : "We know that radio-dating is false because it shows that rocks are older than a few thousand years."

(4) The non-sequitur or I am an ostrich

'non-sequitur' is Latin for 'does not follow'. Basically, it involves drawing a conclusion which does not follow from the previous points. This is an important one so I'll quote several examples of subtly different versions of this logical flaw.

Example : "All ostriches have two legs. I have two legs therefore I am an ostrich."
Example : "All car drivers are human beings. I am not a car driver therefore I am not a human being."
Example : "I am older than Fred, and Fred is older than Sam, therefore Sam is older than me."

(5) Post hoc ergo propter hoc or Guilt by association

This means "after this, therefore because of this." Just because one event happens immediately after another it does not mean that the first event caused the second.

Example : "My child got the MMR vaccination and then developed autism. The vaccination must have caused it."

(6) Ad hominem arguments

Attacking the person making the claim rather than the claim itself. The credentials of a scientist are irrelevant - he is merely presenting an argument which should be able to stand up for itself. Similarly, no matter how clever someone is, their theory should be tested exactly the same.

Example : "You claim that violence is wrong, yet you yourself have a conviction for assault. Therefore you are wrong."
Example : "Isaac Newton said this, and he invented classical physics, therefore it must be correct."

(7) The wonders of statistics (groan)

Statistics are incredibly counterintuitive. How many people do you think you need in a room for there to be a fifty percent chance that two of them share the same birthday? A few hundred perhaps? No - the answer is 23. Shocked? It's amazing what you can show with statistics. HOWEVER, when used properly, statistics are a vital, illustrative tool.

Furthermore, I've heard people claim several times that the chance of something like the eye evolving by chance is so many million to one. That's obviously a flawed argument - it assumes that a cloud of atoms were floating along and decided to arrange themselves into a coherent organ in a certain random way. What evolutionists claim happened is that the eye evolved along known physical principles. To claim that the eye assembled randomly is like claiming that ice crystals form randomly, or that salt crystals form randomly. Try leaving some salty water out to evaporate and look at the crystals you form - they're perfectly square. The chance against that is astronomical!

Example : "I threw a six two times in a row using this die, therefore it is a biased die."
Example : "The probability of assembling the proteins needed for a simple cell is one in ten to the forty-thousandth power."

(8) Absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence

Just because something cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt, that does not mean that it is false.

Example : "Can you prove that you were alone last night? No? Then I conclude that you must be the murderer!"

(9) Inexhaustive choices

Often people present a list of possiblities which they claim to cover all the available scenarios, but which do not. They disprove all but one, and then claim that this last one must be true. However, since they did not cover all possible scenarios in the first place then their argument is false.

Example : "Either the Earth is cuboid or else the Earth must be flat. The Earth clearly isn't flat, therefore it must be cuboid."

(10) All scientists are always correct

Many people quote the results of scientists, picking individuals from the entire scientific community, and then quoting their results. Occasionally they manage to find results from otherwise reputable scientists, and assume that they are always right. (See 'ad hominem' above). The scientific community never agrees fully on anything. There will always be outspoken critics of any theory. Whatever you believe, you can probably find someone who has published a paper on it. Even Isaac Newton spent a considerable chunk of the latter years of his life trying to turn base metals into gold, and Einstein dedicated many years to trying to show that quantum theory was utterly wrong! Both of them, naturally, failed.

Arguments along these lines often ignore that the rest of the scientific community totally disagreed with these anomalous results, and often the person publishing the results later completely withdraws his or her findings, admitting that they were wrong.

To sum this point up in a few sentences: The Scientific community is a large, constantly changing world. People put forward theories all the time. Many of these are later rejected, though some survive. Scientists are not always correct, but just because scientists sometimes make mistakes, that does not mean that they are always wrong either.

Example : "Even Einstein knew that quantum theory was wrong!"
Example : "Even Newton knew that the Earth was young!"
Example : "Scientist 'X' once claimed that this rock sample was 100,000 years old, and now he claims that it is 150,000 years old. Clearly his methods are unreliable!"

(11) The Straw Man

This involves diverting the attention of the reader into believing that a certain theory is much weaker than is the case. Occasionally they totally misrepresent the true form of the theory. The arguing party then disproves this weak or incorrect version of the theory and claims victory. This is a very dangerous trick, and it is extremely easy to be fooled by it. Beware!

The most common use of this argument is in claiming that evolution is a random process, or some similar falsehood. Those of you with knowledge in C programming might like to take a look at the following very short piece of code which demonstrates how evolution achieves the 'impossible' through a very simple process of trial and error.

Example : "Those who follow evolution claim that mice should turn into giraffes. Who do they think they are kidding?"

(12) Ridiculous extrapolations

This is a very common tactic used in this debate, mostly by the creationists. It happens when someone tries to extrapolate far too much from a set of observations without either understanding the principles behind the observations or their true meaning.

This method is commonly used in a form of argument called reductio ad absurdum, which involves taking a suggestion and showing that it leads to a ridiculous conclusion, thereby proving its falsehood. This is a great method when used correctly, but when the conclusions you deduce do not logically follow from the theory then it can be a tool for misinformation.

Example : "There are currently 6 billion people on the world. This is growing by about a billion people every 15 years. Therefore mankind is only 90 years old."
Example : "It is currently dark. Five hours ago it was light. Continuing this trend backwards, we see that the Earth must have been so bright last week that all human beings would have been blinded. Therefore the Earth is only a few days old."
Example : "We are now in March and the temperature is approximately 5 degrees hotter than it was in January. In a few years' time the temperature will reach boiling point and we will all die."
Example : "Stars at the edge of globular clusters are moving away from the centre. That means that the clusters can only be young."

What is the Theory of Evolution?

See this page for a far more detailed explanation.

"Biological evolution ... is change in the properties of populations of
organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The ontogeny
of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not
evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are
those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to
the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces
everything from slight changes in the proportion of different alleles within
a population (such as those determining blood types) to the successive
alterations that led from the earliest protoorganism to snails, bees,
giraffes, and dandelions"

- Douglas J. Futuyma in Evolutionary Biology, Sinauer Associates 1986 

The process of evolution is a method by which the entire variety of living organisms on the Earth today are hypothesised to have developed from the first primitive cellular life forms several billions of years ago. The name for this mechanism, when applied to the natural world, is "The Theory of Common Descent". The process by which this development occurs is known as natural selection, or survival of the fittest, which was first proposed by Charles Darwin in his revolutionary thesis On The Origin of the Species, co-authored by Alfred Russel Wallace and first presented to the Linnean Society in London in July 1858. The process by which these first primitive cellular life-forms developed from non-living matter is known as abiogenesis

Darwin and Wallace proposed that 'change' occured when certain animals which were better adapted to survival in their particular niche survived in preference to those that were not so well adapted. He argued that this sort of biological mechanism could preferentially select for the animals who by chance had been born stronger, faster or more intelligent than their peers. Remarkably, Darwin developed this theory when the age of the Earth was considered much lower than it is today, and before genetics had even been discovered, making the mechanisms by which this sort of process could work extremely unclear. Nowadays we know that certain physical traits are propagated from parents to their offspring by means of DNA, which is a sort of blueprint for life stored in our cells, and transmitted in our sperm and eggs. Tall parents are more likely to have tall children, and short parents are more likely to have short children. This is all stored in our DNA.

The remarkable thing about Darwin's theory is that he believed it to be right even though there were so many unresolved problems at the time. Since the 19th Century many of those problems have been resolved, and Darwin has been vindicated, at least in the eyes of the majority.

Life does not have an unique solution, so Darwin's theory uses the fact that there are many ways of succeeding in this Earth. Some animals survive by becoming extremely good at hunting (e.g. lions, crocodiles). Others survive by being extremely good at avoiding predators (e.g. camouflaged moths). Some learn to gather food from otherwise inaccessable locations (e.g. giraffes), whereas others simply learn to survive in hostile environments (e.g. polar bears, arctic seals, desert rats) Whatever the reason, animals whose ability to survive and produce viable offspring is the greatest are more likely to pass their genes on to the next generation. In the next generation the same will occur until the animals with weaker genes have all died out and those with stronger genetic traits are dominant.

Incidentally, as is common when talking about evolution, I am using a potentially misleading shorthand. If I say "some animals survive by becoming extremely good at hunting," what I really mean is "some animals, because of genetic variation, are naturally better at hunting than their peers. Those individuals are more likely to pass their genes down to the next generation, where the same benefits will be enjoyed. Therefore, those genes will grow in frequency in the population of that species and the individuals in the species will, on average, become better at hunting."

An example of natural selection is disease resistance. Imagine a herd of many buffalo, one percent of whom have a built-in resistance to a certain disease, which we will call disease X. If that disease now appears, it will wipe out the vast majority of the herd, leaving only those buffalo who are immune to it. If this immunity is genetic, then these buffalo will then pass their immunity down to their offspring, and in a few years' time the plains will once again be full of buffalo, but this time they will all be immune to disease X. This is an example of natural selection, which is the force by which evolution is driven.

Disease resistance is an example of micro-evolution. Many examples of this have been documented, such as the increasing ability of various bacteria to develop immunities to antibiotics. Macro-evolution is the term used for the larger-scale process by which animals evolve into totally different species. One of Darwin's most profound conclusions is that humans are descendants of the same recent evolutionary ancestor as other primates such as chimpanzees. This is usually the conclusion that people find hardest to accept. Note : this is not the same as saying "humans descended from monkeys", but rather that we had a common ancestor in the distant past. Modern estimates place this time to be around 5-10 million years ago, depending on whom you believe.

Evolution says absolutely nothing about the origins of the Universe. That is a separate subject, namely cosmology. This covers the origins of the universe from the hypothesised beginning in a 'Big Bang' right up to the formation of the galaxy in which we live. Astronomy and astrophysics involve the study of the formation of individual stars and the solar system in which our Earth lies. The sun formed from the collapse of a large gas cloud, the pressure from which eventually ignited hydrogen fusion reactions in its core. The Earth and the other planets formed from globules coalescing in the disk of gas and dust spiralling around the young Sun. These are the currently accepted theories in the majority of scientific literature. Science claims that the Earth is approximately 4.6 billion (thousand million) years old, and that the Universe is approximately 12-15 billion years old, or about three times the age of the Earth.

Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory
that the earth goes round the sun.
- Richard Dawkins, "The Selfish Gene"

What is the Theory of Creation?

Creation is the belief that the Earth, including every living thing within it was formed by the direct intervention of a supreme being, or God. There are varying versions of this theory, the weak version, the strong version and the trivial version. The trivial version states that "God created the world reasonably recently, but created it to appear as if it were 4.6 billion years old, and everything in it had evolved according to the theory of evolution." Clearly that version is impossible to disprove, so we can safely ignore it. Furthermore, it is hardly ever argued. I will focus on the weak and strong forms of creationism instead. The following pages illustrate the theories.

The Strong Theory of Creation (Young Earth)
The Weak Theory of Creation (Old Earth)

In recent years, two new theories have been developed which are designed to replace standard creationism. Those theories are Creation Science and Intelligent Design. Thanks to recent court cases in the US, it has been demonstrated that these theories are essentially exactly the same as Creationism, and therefore we need not deal with them separately.

Common Claims of Creationists

I have summarised here a list of common creationist claims that I have read over the past few months. Together with each one I have prepared a detailed scientific rebuttal with as much reference to evidence as I could find. The rebuttals are aimed to be perfectly logical, and appeal to rational, scientific sense rather than intuition. If you feel that I have been unfair or biased in any of these then feel free to email me and complain, and I'll do my best to address the problem. One thing that I don't want to do here is fight bad science with more bad science!

Radiometric dating is inaccurate
The Earth was Shielded by a 'vapour canopy'
Globular clusters are young
Noah's Ark - a plausible story?
The eye is too complicated to have evolved
Random processes cannot create order
The Geological record runs backwards
The ocean sediment is too shallow
The moon is receding from the Earth at a rapid rate
Coal and oil deposits could be formed very quickly

This page contains a list of rebuttals to most of the common Creationist arguments.

This page maintained by Colin Frayn. Email
Last Update : 01/Aug/2005