(First written for school, but I’ve made some changes. Date of original writing: Around May, 2010)
This is a question that people on both sides of the theological coin have been asking themselves for over one hundred and fifty years. There are some atheists who say yes and some notable religious people, notably Pope John Paul II, also saying yes. Before diving into the arguments and conclusions, we have to be specific about what we’re talking about. In order to do that, we have to lay out explicitly what each side says. The creation hypothesis, at its most defensible, is thus: there exists a super human, supernatural intelligence that deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. Obviously, for this argument we’ll be focusing on the creation of life specifically, since that’s the aspect of the natural world that is explained by evolutionary theory.
There are a few things to get out of the way before getting underway. First and foremost, is this a scientific question or a religious question? It’s a question about the universe and it’s contents, thus it falls under the domain of scientific inquiry. It’s worth asking whether or not there even is a domain of religious inquiry. What sort of questions can be asked that aren’t empirical and yet would be best answered by religion? If there is a specific type, it isn’t immediately obvious. Even the famous “Why?” questions, aren’t clearly best answered by religion. Why are we here? Well, it couldn’t have been otherwise, given the way the universe is and the natural events that preceded by ability to ask this question. Now what sort of natural processes could have led up to this moment? The answer is simple to summarize and beautifully elegant in its explanatory power: evolution by natural selection. The details of this process, while fascinating and wonderful, take us too far away from the point of this paper. It shall have to suffice to give a brief explication of this process, and it can be summarized in four self-evident premises;
- Heredity – Every organism gets traits from it’s parents. It is no accident that we tend to look more like our parents than our neighbor’s parents.
- Variability – While we get our traits from our parents, we don’t have exact copies of their DNA. We get a mixture (plus some minor random mutations) that results in variation. That’s why we don’t look exactly like our parents.
- Exponential growth of populations – If not restricted, any reproducing species would spawn enough offspring to cover the face of the globe in a surprisingly short amount of time. Exponential population growth goes something like this, assuming only two children per family: 2×2=4×2=8×2=16×2=32×2=64…
- Limited resources – Because of the limited supply of food and other resources on the planet, organisms that can compete the best for it will have more offspring than their competitors. If I can beat you to the food or reach food that you can’t, I’m more likely to survive longer than you and thus have more offspring, passing on those genes that made me successful.
Even the most dyed-in-the-wool creationists can’t seriously doubt the transparency of these premises and yet it seems to necessarily follow that, given enough time, this process could account for all of the complexity we see in nature. In fact, that’s exactly what happened. (By the way, some anti-evolutionists assert that evolutionary theory is not sound because it fails to explain the origin of life. This seems to stem from a misunderstanding of evolution however, as the theory only encompasses the diversity of life after the first self-replicating system got going. This argument is similar to saying that gravitational theory is invalid because it fails to explain where matter came from.) It is simply a matter of expanding your understanding of these facts that allows you to see how an imperfect self-replicating system could, with billions of years to work with, compete with each other for resources and eventually lead to the complexity we see today.
It has been understood for millennia that organisms change over time – domesticating animals taught us that. Professional dog breeders have turned close cousins of the wolf into everything from Great Danes to Yorkshire Terriers (and, of course, Puggles!) in just a few short centuries. The realization that Charles Darwin had was that you didn’t need people to be the selecting agent, the thing that decides who breeds and who doesn’t. Nature, in too many ways to list, can unconsciously be the selecting agent.
The fact of evolution is as solid as the fact that water consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom and the fact that the earth orbits the sun. We know this from many mutually supporting pillars of evidence, from genetic and physical comparison of modern species, the fossil record, evidence of obsolete ancestry in organisms and their development, and many other areas. It’s a shame that I needed to spend this much time defending the validity of evolution, but I felt it was necessary that my readers have at least a glib understanding of evolution and since misunderstanding about it is so rampant. I’ve found that most people who deny evolution actually have no idea what it is and just reject it because they’ve been told to.
Now, to the main event! Is the creation hypotheses compatible with evolutionary theory? I don’t think so, for two major reasons which I’ll cover in depth. The first reason is simple, but subtly powerful and overlooked all too often. We already have a fully comprehensive and naturalistic account of the complexity of life. Given this, there is no reason to insert the assumption that supernatural guidance was behind it. “But,” say some, “what about the possibility that a creator sat behind the scenes and helped out?” This is a common response, but it is less than useless in a scientific discussion. Not only is there no evidence for this claim, but there is no way to test it. Is the burden of disproof on the scientists or skeptics to prove this claim false? No. Simple and firm. The burden of proof is always on the person making the claim, not on the skeptic who wont accept the claim at face value. What if I said that, in spite of the comprehensive explanation we have for why things fall – namely, gravity – things actually fall because of invisible, undetectable springs connecting everything to the ground. Are you being irrational if you don’t except my proposition? What about if you did? There is something profound to be said here that is the not-self-evident elephant in the room. As Christopher Hitchens said, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can also be rejected without evidence.” This simple dictum allows us to filter out the claims that are worth our time to investigate from the massive amounts of bogus claims we’re likely to encounter in our lives. Claims without evidence are not claims worth considering in scientific discourse.
Now, what is the second main reason to doubt the creation hypothesis? In light of the understanding of how complexity can arise from simplicity, we have a new way to look at the argument from improbability that is so often put forward by creationists who don’t understand evolution. The creationist argument is this: “An eye (or circulatory system or brain etc…) is too statistically complex to have come together by chance. The only alternative to chance that I can think of is design, therefore the eye was designed.” Faulty logic (argument from personal incredulity and false dichotomy) but there is something to be said about this mode of thinking. Given that we in fact do observe complexity in the world, where did it come from? The answer is that it arose from the blind laws of nature and the incremental improvements in complexity that stem from evolution. But let’s look more closely at the creation hypothesis. If the complexity in our world was designed by a creative intelligence, it would be scientifically irresponsible of us not to ask where that creator came from. This is the age-old “who created god” conundrum, but with a new light shined upon it in the context of evolution. Evolution by natural selection is the only natural process we know of in which complexity can arise from simplicity. That isn’t to say that it’s impossible for complexity to arise from some other means as yet unknown to science, but calling upon an unknown to defend your argument is special pleading, and wont hold up under intellectual scrutiny. This means that if a creator god exists, he himself (her herself or it itself) would have to be the product of a process like evolution by natural selection. There is no reason to suspect, scientific or otherwise, that a complex being can arise by any other means.
Of course, this argument presumes that god is complex. While people may nit-pick and say god is simple, they still have a lot of explaining to do. Even a simple universe creator almost certainly couldn’t just have smashed together randomly in the early history of the universe or pre-universe. That is where the statistical improbability comes back in. And if we’re talking not just a creator god, but one who listens to seven billion people’s thoughts, answers prayers, and has an interest in our sex lives, that god would have to be even more complex. However, the argument from statistical improbability doesn’t necessarily rely on a specific notion of a complex god, but rather that beings capable of designing things are only known to have come about through the gradual slope of evolution.
There is one last topic that needs to be covered in a paper on this issue, and that is the new rehashing of creationism called Intelligent Design or ID for short. ID can be summarized as a compromise between evolution and creationism. Its proponents concede that evolution has occurred, but stipulate that an intelligent designer helped the process along the way. It has been described (by someone who’s name I can’t recall so I can’t site it) as creationism in a cheap tuxedo. I’ll defend this claim by quickly going over the devastating faults of ID. It is wholly unscientific for at least three major reasons; One, it can not be tested by any real test or any imaginable test. If the hypothesis is that an invisible guiding force made little alterations in organisms over evolutionary time, but there is no way of telling where or when these changes were made, then there is no way to tell whether or not it even happened. This reason leads directly to the second critique, ID is not falsifiable. Falsifiability, the possible test by which a theory can be disproved, is a pillar of any good theory. A scientific theory is one which is vulnerable to disproof, yet is not disproved. Some claim that evolution isn’t falsifiable, but this is false (no pun intended.) Evolution would be blasted to smithereens if even one animal fossil were uncovered in the wrong geological strata-rabbits in the precambrian are favorite example. The last critique I already fleshed out in full above, the “who designed the designer” dilemma.
To wrap up, I’ll address why I think this debate is even worth spending time talking (or writing) about. After all, writing a persuasive essay simply for the sake of writing one seems to be an empty endeavor. The most straightforward reason is that, knowledge of evolution is important! Understanding the nature of evolution unifies all of biology and the history of our planet into one great story. More practically, it gives us insight into the emergence of potential epidemic outbreaks of diseases and human psychology, among a plethora of other things. Secondly, as a scientist-in-progress, I care a lot about what’s true. To me, learning about our universe is one of the most important and fulfilling things a person can do with his or her life. The social (not scientific!) controversy over creation and evolution is merely one stone on the road to public understanding of the nature of our world. And finally, it is important because there is grandeur in this view of life. Some people imagine that life in the context of evolution is impoverished and without purpose. This simply isn’t true. Understanding evolution means understanding the history of our species and our unity with the rest of the living world-and, indeed, the rest of the cosmos.