Ask the Right Question about Evolution

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Author Alan Shlemon Published on 05/08/2014

Alan’s monthly letter for May 2014

Evolution can be overwhelming. It draws upon evidence from multiple disciplines: geology, paleontology, genetics, chemistry, and others. It’s hard to know where to begin. That’s why I suggest using an easy, yet powerful tactic to help handle this issue.

Whenever you come across the topic of evolution, ask a simple question: What definition of evolution is being used? Since evolution has at least three different meanings, it’s essential to know which one is being invoked.

Definition #1: The first definition of evolution is change over time. In this sense, virtually everything evolves. Cities evolve, clouds evolve, personalities evolve, and even your hairstyle evolves. As you can see, there’s nothing controversial about this meaning of evolution. Anyone can subscribe to it.

Definition #2: A second definition of evolution is microevolution1 (also known as the “Special Theory of Evolution”). It entails minor changes that take place within a species that allow it to survive. Charles Darwin advanced this concept in the first five chapters of his landmark book, On the Origin of Species.

For example, evolutionists cite the ability of bacteria to develop a resistance to antibiotics. Because bacteria can change in this way, they are said to “evolve” and become immune to drugs designed to kill them.

Another example of microevolution is finch beak variation. Princeton University researchers Peter and Rosemary Grant followed Darwin’s initial observations of finches on the Galapagos Islands.2 They discovered that droughts produce mostly large and hard seeds that only finches with big beaks can eat. Birds with smaller beaks, unable to crack and consume the larger seeds, tend to die off. This increases the population of finches with large beaks and reduces the number of finches with small beaks.

Notice that these examples of microevolution are observable. No one doubts these small changes occur. That’s why this second definition of evolution is also uncontroversial.

Definition #3: The third definition of evolution is macroevolution (also known as the “General Theory of Evolution”). This molecules-to-man hypothesis says that every living plant and animal that exists today (or has ever existed) evolved from a single-celled organism by small, incremental changes. Evolutionists believe macroevolution is the same process of microevolution, but left to run for millions of years. This definition is often referred to as Darwinism.

Unlike microevolution, macroevolution is unobservable. Therefore, it assumes the small (micro) changes observed in bacteria and finches are responsible for the large (macro) transitions that evolved fish into reptiles, dinosaurs into birds, and produced other large-scale changes. It’s not merely that macroevolution is unobservable that makes people doubt it occurred. It’s that they’re skeptical that the mechanism involved in microevolution is also responsible for macroevolution. That’s why this third kind of evolution is controversial.

Here’s why defining the term “evolution” is so critical. Darwinists often equivocate on the term. They cite examples of change over time (definition #1) and microevolution (definition #2) to prove that macroevolution (definition #3) occurred. For example, they’ll point to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and call it “evolution.” Then they say, “See, bacteria have evolved, therefore evolution is true” (meaning macroevolution). But that’s precisely what’s in question. Can micro changes within a species add up and account for large-scale transitions?

The National Academy of Sciences (perhaps the most powerful science organization in the United States) equivocates on the definition of evolution. They’ve produced a 140-page guidebook, Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science, to help educators explain Darwinism. Most of their evidence for evolution includes examples of change over time and microevolution. Since virtually everyone agrees these instances of evolution are genuine, people are led to believe that’s all that is needed to prove that macroevolutionary changes are possible.

For example, page 11 of the guidebook tells us that a major theme in evolution is that “the world around us changes. This simple fact is obvious everywhere we look. Streams wash dirt and stones from higher places to lower places. Untended gardens fill with weeds.” Of course things change (definition #1). We all know that. But the process that moves dirt and stones downstream can’t produce beaks and birds.

Or on page 55, it says, “Evolution in the broadest sense explains that what we see today is different from what existed in the past. Galaxies, stars, the solar system, and earth have changed through time, and so has life on earth.” Again, this is just change over time. No one contests this. But the cause of cosmic events doesn’t seem to be the same process that causes dinosaurs to evolve into birds.

On page 17, the guidebook tells us that “The North American lacewing species Chrysoperla carnea and Chrysoperla downesi separated from a common ancestor species recently in evolutionary time and are very similar. But they are different in color, reflecting their different habitats, and they breed at different times in the year.” This is simply microevolution at work (definition #2). It’s easy to see how a sub-population of an insect can become isolated and begin to breed at a different time of year. It’s not as clear, though, how that same process can create insects in the first place.

The guidebook goes on to describe finch beak variation (page 19) and antibiotic-resistant bacteria (pages 16-17). They never clarify, though, that these are examples of microevolution. Instead, it is implied that if you accept the observable changes in bacteria, insects, and finches, then this proves “evolution” is true and—by implication—macroevolution, as well.

That’s why it’s critical to define the term “evolution.” If you don’t, you’ll be led to accept that macroevolution is true (definition #3) simply because things change over time (definition #1) or because small changes can occur within a species (definition #2).

Whether you’re reading a text, listening to a show, or talking to a person, employ this tactic first. Ask what definition of evolution is being used. It’s a simple and effective question that defines terms and gives you knowledge about the issue. That way you’ll know what definition is being invoked so you can respond appropriately.