Dec 06

In Defense of Science

American students continually fall well below their peers in other developed countries for knowledge of math and science.

There is animosity toward science that has a lot to do with religion. I wouldn’t say this is the main cause of our country’s poor performance, but it certainly must hurt us in some way. If these oppositional groups were bringing up true problems, then it would actually help us to advance by encouraging critical thinking. Instead, they rely on misinformation to garner support. The result is a general distrust of science and little emphasis placed on critical scientific thinking or “Scientific Literacy,” as Neil deGrasse Tyson calls it.

I want to focus on a few points about evolution that these oppositional, generally religious, groups feel are controversial.

Manufactured Controversy

Critics of evolution are notorious for providing misinformation, quote mining, and creating straw men. They must rely on these deceptive practices because the evidence all points to evolution by natural selection. Let’s explore some of their common techniques:

Why are there gaps in the fossil record? We should have lots of fossils showing transitional forms.

There are numerous problems here. First, we have several fossils of transitional forms between nearly every group. For example, there are well-established fossils showing the transition between sea-dwelling and land-dwelling creatures. Second, this assumes that we have an abundance of fossils at all. Most things that die do not fossilize. Those that do are often decomposed or not in one piece. It is not uncommon to find a tooth or a single bone. And there are the practical problems with trying to find all of these fossils. Third, in Darwin’s time, fossils were the main way to find historical evidence of his theory, but this is no longer the case. The DNA of living beings, as well as fossil DNA, provides enormous amounts of evidence in favor of evolution. Fossils are still important, but it is DNA that is our current best way of finding evidence of common ancestry. To appeal to the lack of fossil evidence is deceptive in that it ignores what the fossil evidence actually does show and ignores that this is not our only path to ancestral knowledge.

There is a lot of disagreement on Evolution. We should “teach the controversy.”

There exists no real controversy. The disagreements about evolution are between scientists and non-scientists. This debate has been long settled among scientists based on the evidence in favor of evolution. The number of biologists who doubt evolution is vanishingly small.

There is a lot of quote mining, lifting a quote out of context, to try and show disagreements among scientists. Answers in Genesis is one group accused of this tactic. Ironically, these are often from evolutionary biologists, including Richard Dawkins and even Darwin himself. These are taken out of context to usually present a problem in biology, but then leave out the remaining text which works out the solution to the problem. The best-known example uses Darwin’s quote that the evolution of the eye seemed “absurd in the highest degree.” Of course, he then goes on to explain why he believes the eye evolved. There are disagreements about evolution in the scientific community, but these are within the framework of evolution, not in opposition to it.

Another tactic in this line is used by proselytizing group, The Way of the Master. You may know this as the group spearheaded by Ray Comfort (Bananaman) and former TV star Kirk Cameron. Ray likes to go around college campuses and on the street to interview people about evolution. The first few minutes of this video will show you what I mean.

Notice what Ray is doing. He is interviewing amateurs (people who are not professional biologists) about the details of evolution. The result? They aren’t entirely sure of the technical details. Why not interview scientists if he really wants answers to these questions? That’s not what he’s really after, of course. He wants it to appear as if this is a crazy idea and people don’t have answers to how it works. A biologist, however, can answer these questions quite well. This is merely deception. It only succeeds in showing that people are not well educated on scientific topics, which we already knew. People like this prey upon ignorance to manufacture doubt, when there is none among specialists.

We should teach Intelligent Design in schools along with evolution. Then, the kids can come to their own conclusion.

I happen to agree that Intelligent Design and similar topics should be available in schools…within a philosophy classroom. Intelligent Design is not a scientific proposition, therefore, it should not be in a science classroom. Is there evidence of a designer? Is it testable? No, on both counts.

But evolution isn’t scientific either.

This is another misleading argument. Evolution is somewhat forced into a backward-looking role because of the time lapse for it to happen. This does not mean evolution is entirely postdictive, rather than predictive, or that it isn’t testable. The discovery of evolution created numerous predictions of what we could expect to find if it were the case. They have been verified quite strongly. Remember that the idea was hotly contested when introduced. The focus of the scientific community for a long time was on disproving Darwin’s theory. Unfortunately for our objectors, the opposite happened. As mentioned earlier, nobody knew of DNA in Darwin’s time and that has confirmed what we would expect to find within an evolutionary framework. There are real world tests being performed all the time, as well as inferences based on findings. Evolution has been, and continues to be, tested. And shown to be correct.

Other arguments

There are a variety of other supposed counter-arguments, such as invoking the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the idea that natural selection is only destructive. Those who mention thermodynamics, or entropy, either do not understand the topic or are willfully misrepresenting it. The idea that a system moves toward maximum disorder or randomness only applies to closed systems. The Earth is not a closed system – step outside during the daytime and you will likely see a giant, flaming ball of energy beaming down on us. To the idea that natural selection is only destructive, that it cannot lead to improvements, we need only to read The Blind Watchmaker, within which Richard Dawkins discusses the “arms races” that occur between competing species leading to vast improvements. For example, a hunter becomes better at hunting over time and prey becomes better at evasion through speed, disguise, armor, etc.


In any science that deals with huge expanses of time that we cannot imagine or tiny molecules that we cannot observe with the naked eye, there is bound to be resistance. It may not seem probable, but our measure of probability is limited to what happens in a normal day, week, year, or lifetime. The facts are still there whether or not it is hard to imagine. We should prepare ourselves for these types of arguments and counter them whenever possible. The problem of not having a “scientific literacy” was eloquently stated by Carl Sagan, so I’ll let him close the topic.

We’ve arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend upon science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces. I worry that, especially as the Millenium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.

Carl Sagan

The Demon-Haunted World

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  1. Mike

    I just realized I forgot to include the idea that evolution leads to Hitler-style genocide. Perhaps someone else wants to give their thoughts on this argument.

  2. Jim Stockman

    Darwinian Evolution does not lead to systematic genocide, but is the product of what is called Social Darwinism which is a bastardisation of evolution having, been developed by one Herbert Spencer. Darwin raged against Spencer for twisting the Theory of Evolution for conservative ideology.

  3. Mike

    Thanks Jim. It seems silly to even make such a defense, but ill-informed people actually use this argument. One such example is Richard Dawkins’ interview with Wendy Wright (sorry, I don’t have the link handy, but it’s available on YouTube).

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