When Two Worlds Collide: Evolution vs. Special Creation

D-friend John is a Jehovah's Witness. Not just a JW, but a minister of the church. He is also an eager student of evolution. Whaaaaaa? Yes, indeed.

He is a man of with an incredibly open mind. He was called upon to lead a discussion of evolution in his church and he wanted some input. He goes to great lengths to ease my discomfort at being the spokesperson for evolution. I am encouraged by his willingness to listen to my answers with an open mind (and not in that creepy way that some religious people do where you know they are devising arguments in their minds to discount everything you say).

Earlier this summer, John sent me some information he was going to use to lead his discussion at the church. There were several pointed questions.

1. What view does the fossil record support? I assume that the views they were considering were evolution vs. Biblical interpretation or church doctrine. A quote that followed was from Darwin, indicating that if numerous species came into existence at the same time, evolution would be disproven.
2. Have sufficient fossils been found to draw a sound conclusion? This is followed by a quote from a Smithsonian scientists indicating that the fossil record gives us "an excellent picture of the life of past ages".
3. What does the fossil record actually show? This question is followed by a series of quotes that give a somewhat biased view of a decade's old view of evolutionary thought. The first quote indicated (correctly) that the fossil record has been used to justify acceptance of Darwinian evolution, but that the geologic record is incomplete and does not offer a picture of the fine gradation of species over time. A second article mentions the "Cambrian explosion" and then periods of little to no change or no fossil record. A third quotes a zoologist stating that the fossil record does not support Darwinian evolution and the "facts" are best supported by the special creation (I assume of ALL organisms) by God, and finally they quote Carl Sagan saying that the fossil record could be consistent with the idea of a Great Designer.

Now I honestly believe my friend (he has been an exceedingly trustworthy person and I have a great deal of respect for him despite our differences of opinion on God) when he tells me that this is just meant to be a learning experience for his church group, and at least to me this discussion appears to me to be a desire for an honest review of the topic. I am somewhat disappointed by the "debate" feel to it and I would be much happier if instead of jumping to the topic of "which is right, religion or science" (which itself is a false dichotomy) that they spent a season of studying evolution by itself. How can one make an informed decision about anything if you don't understand what you are arguing for or against?

Anyhoo, he asked for my thoughts on the matter.

I explained to him that there is nearly universal acceptance of evolution by natural selection among scientists with an -ology to weigh in on it. I explained that there are holes in the fossil record and that we can't expect seamless understanding of the history of life. I explained how and why evolutionary biologists integrate this understanding into evolutionary theory. I explained how the Modern Synthesis (modified and) strengthened our understanding and acceptance of Darwin's theory. I tried to point out the Creationist talking points that were intended to lead people off the path of fact and purposely introduce false doubt where really none existed. Finally, I explained to him the limits of science in "proving" theories. John was of the opinion that theories grow up to become laws if they are "proven".

After all this, John wrote me with some very interesting information. He wrote me back about his beliefs. I must say, I know nothing about Jehovah's Witnesses and even though I know one or two, religion interests me so little that I had never bothered to look into it.

He said that he didn't believe the Bible to be either a science or history textbook. The Bible was the inspired word of God.

Then he asked a very interesting question.

One thing that you said was that there is no question of whether evolution occurs but whether it occurs by natural selection or not. I am curious as to how you define evolution here – does the laboratory document a change form one species to another? Or does it demonstrate variety within species?

For a minister of any Christian church, I'll give him a great deal of credit for bothering to ask at all. I wrote him back about cellular evolution up to the point of speciation. Of course, this is the easy part. Any evolutionary biologist can do that. Still, organizing that into a (hopefully) coherent email that someone with little science background could understand was challenge enough for one evening.

And you know that he wrote me back with more questions.

I thank you for clearing up my thinking on evolution. I see what you are saying about the small changes within species. That is without doubt evolution. I don’t have a problem with that at all. But can we really apply that thinking to the appearance of all living things with their various characteristics?

....Do evolutionists consider the jump from non-living to living organisms? There are so many things to consider Liz, I really like to hear your opinion. You are more in touch with current scientific thinking than I will ever be – It is like having a living encyclopedia at my disposal…

Awww geez. Don't you hate when someone says something like that? I mean I can cobble something together and (let's admit it) probably make this guy believe whatever I wanted. But I don't want to do it wrong. I want him to really understand. Ok, I can handle the abiogenesis discussion, but what in the world do I do in an email to someone asking for understanding of everything from character evolution to Evolution with a capital "E"?

I admit I am a bit overwhelmed. I am not a paleontologist. I can't point to a single lineage and trace the evolution from one organism to another. Not even humans. I'm feeling entirely inadequate. I know what to tell this man, I just don't know how to do it well.

And so, I'm asking for help. If you have any ideas at all about communicating the Big E Evolution, please, let me know. Really.


  1. Okay, let's try this again... I think I'm bad at posting comments.

    Tell him that evolution isn't perfect first off--I think that's a misconception of religious folks (they think evolution and god are dichotomous, but they also think they’re equally perfect).

    Explain it like this: the process of evolution is akin to that house you see in the woods… the one that is a camper trailer with a wood shed tacked on the side to accommodate the new kid, a porch on the front for the next time that rain storm comes through, and a roof added over the whole thing ‘cuz the old one started leaking. The one where the trailer hitch was found to work equally well as a tie-on for the clothes line once the thing was parked for good. The one where the flat tires are molded around the bricks that were once used to keep the filled tires from rolling. The one that never gets torn down, only built onto to accommodate whatever things happen along.

    Then tell him that everything you see today ISN’T evolution. Tell him that some of its just ‘flair’. That red blood cells aren’t red because red is ‘the best color for blood’, but because it happens to be the color of light that hemoglobin reflects best. That noses weren’t built for glasses, and chins weren’t built for The Thinker. That ostriches carry their wings like scarlet letters, and snakes wear their vestigial legs like the penitent wear hairshirts.

    Tell him that things that ‘should’ evolve can’t. That the one enzyme responsible for all those carbs he loves to eat is as inefficient and back-asswards as they come.

    But tell him that even though evolution can be likened to hillbilly-houses, it WORKS. Evolution, using natural selection like a carpenter uses a hammer, can make white moths become black in smoggy places. It can make weeds resistant to herbicides and keep authors of horror novels in business writing books about new strains of deadly viruses in business for all of eternity. Tell him about Rhagoletis on apple trees. And tell him that while people have been studying God for well over 2000 years, we have only been studying evolution with great fervor for 150 years. Tell him that it is only a matter of time until we see a real honest-to-Darwin new species come about. Tell him that even with the sometimes spotty fossil evidence we have, we know that evolution plods along at a pace equal to that of my proposal. That becoming a new species is like settling on a new planet, and that current species are reluctant to go if they don’t have to (unless said planet has greener pastures, fields of gold, fountains of youth, and other amazing resources to single-handedly exploit). And tell him that just because we haven’t SEEN evolution from beginning/end to end/beginning, and just because animals prefer to rot instead of fossilize, doesn’t mean evolution doesn’t happen. Just as because I have never seen a rhinoceros during the day doesn’t mean they only roam at night.

    And finally, tell him that looking for rhinoceroses is what makes science so damn fun.

  2. That and poking Mohave greens. =)

    Thanks Liv. It's perfect. I know just what to do.

  3. Heh.

    I would also encourage him to read some of the more accessible scholarly articles that are around (not that I can think of any off the top of my head). To read the NYT Science Times -- with a healthy dose of skepticism, if there was ever a need for one! -- because they frequently report new evolutionary discoveries almost adequately. (Once it gets to human genetics, though, they lose their shit.) And I haven't read any of the books by Big Name Evolutionary Biologists, but I hear some of them are ok =] I think Dawkins stretches a number of things quite a bit, and the details of Gould's conclusions and discussions seem to have gone out-of-fad, but I'm sure there are some good books out there (no pun intended wrt The good book). This would take some of the pressure off of you as THE PROCLAIMER OF THE WORD OF EVOLUTION. AND reading sources for yourself is as essential a part of understanding evolution/science generally as they come!

    And of course, he's actually where a lot of people are in re: Big E evolution. That is, microevolution vs. macroevolution and speciation, no? I think Liv's right that you should give some layman's stuff on neutral theory/genetic drift. Then there's the similarities between cetaceans and the ungulates, the dinosaurs and birds, and sightless animals in caves that nonetheless have much of the genetic and/or left-over organ-circuitry for sight that clearly speciated from sighted animals.

    And perhaps the most important point is that undirected evolution explains most things better than an Special Creation, because you get wrong turns, dead ends, and bad ideas. Evolution, in essence, adapts organisms to respond to *yesterday's* problems, and that in general works out because in the medium-long-term (thousands of years, at least before the Industrial Revolution) yesterday WAS pretty much like today and tomorrow (environment-wise). And I think life history trade-offs is a good point to bring in wrt seemingly inefficent or sub-optimal adaptation -- you can't make organisms that are good at everything because they weren't designed with foresight -- there are trade-offs to become better at something today than you were yesterday. And lastly, how "easily" speciation can happen via sexual incompatibility, both organs-not-fitting-together-wise, and zygotic-wise, allowing examples of speciation that happens quicker than average, say. Oh, AND that we're only the "most" adapted organisms in our own estimation, since we're outnumbered in biomass, number, ubiquity, and other various measures of "success" in the world, such that we try not to speak of "higher" and "lower" orgs. now in terms of superiority, or even degree of adaptation, since today's extant bacteria have undergone bunches of adaptation and are extraordinarily successful by a great many measures such that intelligence, per se, is kind of just a "lifestyle choice" evolutionarily and not an absolute bonus or goal.

    At least, those are some things I would bring up =]


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