When I engage in conversations with creationists regarding the Theory of Evolution, I nearly always encounter the same problem: They don’t know what evolution is. They frequently to refer to evolution as ‘Darwinism’. In this context, evolution refers to biological evolution. I am not a biologist. I do, however, know how to find information and to process and comprehend that information. I am writing this post in the hopes that I can help others to come to a greater understanding of what scientists and lay people alike mean when they mention the Theory of Evolution.
What Evolution is Not
Before I discuss what evolution is, I think it might be best to describe some things that I will not be discussing:
- I am not going to talk about evolutionary computation, which is a subfield of computational intelligence involving combinatorial optimization problems.
- I am not going to talk about nucleosynthesis, which is the process of creating new atomic nuclei from pre-existing nucleons (protons and neutrons). Some people call this process ‘chemical evolution’.
- I am not going to discuss abiogenesis, which is the study of how life on Earth could have arisen from inanimate matter. This process is also sometimes called ‘chemical evolution’. [Now you can see why there is so much confusion.]
- I am not going to talk about the Big Bang, which is the cosmological model of the initial conditions and subsequent development of the Universe.
- I am not going to talk about galaxy formation and evolution, one of the most active research areas in astrophysics. It is concerned with the processes that formed a heterogeneous universe from a homogeneous beginning, the formation of the first galaxies, the way in which galaxies change over time, and the processes that have generated the variety of structures observed in nearby galaxies.
- I am not going to talk about stellar evolution, which is the process by which a star undergoes a sequence of radical changes during its lifetime.
- I am not going to discuss sociocultural evolution, a combination of cultural evolution and social evolution, which describes how cultures and societies have developed over time.
By this time, the creationists are probably shouting, “Hey, you can’t take those out of the definition. We know what Darwinism really is, and those are part of it!” [Okay, they probably aren’t saying that about evolutionary computation, but they most likely are saying it about the other things I won’t be discussing.] If you are discussing the Theory of Evolution, or if you are calling something ‘Darwinism’, and you are claiming that it encompasses any of the above listed areas of study, you honestly don’t know what the fuck you are talking about.
Confusing or conflating issues like those listed above with biological evolution is an error that creationists always seem to make. Creationists also seem to never admit that they’ve made a mistake in this regard. They claim that they are right because someone, whether it be a minister, friend, parent, or even a web site, gave them that information, and they can’t be wrong.
Guess what, folks. They gave you incorrect information. If they knew the information was incorrect, then they lied to you. Now that I’ve pointed out the error of your ways with factual information, if you continue to repeat the incorrect information to others, then you are a fucking liar too. How does that phrase go again? You know the one I mean—the one about ‘bearing false witness’ or something like that.
Then What is Evolution?
At the most basic level, biological evolution is simply change that occurs in the genetic material of a population of organisms from one generation to the next. The changes in a single generation are usually quite small. Over many numbers of generations, the accumulated changes can result in the emergence of a new species. This is called speciation.
The genes that are passed on from generation to generation form the basis of evolution; these genes produce an organism’s inherited traits. Different organisms within a population exhibit heritable differences in their traits. These differences are what biologists refer to as variation. There are two opposing forces which drive evolution: processes that make variants more common or more rare, and processes that introduce variation. New variations generally come about in one of two ways: from genetic mutations, or from the transfer of genetic material between different populations.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am not a biologist. I am not a college professor, nor am I a high school science teacher. I’m simply a geek who realizes that the Theory of Evolution is the best explanation we have for the diversity of life on this planet. Evolution is what gave rise to the different species of life that we see every day. I’m not going to teach you everything I possibly can about evolution. I will, however, provide some links to places where you can learn a great deal about the subject, if you choose to.
- “How Evolution Works” from How Stuff Works
- “Understanding Evolution”: An excellent resource for a vast amount of information about evolution for everyone, including numerous resources for K-12 teachers. The site was created by the University of California Museum of Paleontology with support provided by the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
- “Evolution Resources” from the National Academies
Now that we know what evolution is and what it is not, I hope that the creationists in the crowd will at last be able to take part in more intelligent discussions about the subject. Judging from the reactions that I’ve received when pointing these facts out to creationists in the past, however, I’m certainly not going to hold my breath.