Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Stupid Arguments Part I: Creation vs. Evolution

"'Ideas are tested by experiment.' That is the core of science. Everything else is bookkeeping." -XKCD

I live in Texas, which I frequently refer to as "Darkest America." I also do a fair amount of reading on blogs belonging to ex-Christians and non-Christians. It is therefore nearly inevitable that I run into people who really want to argue about the relative merits of Creation and Evolution. Since this happens with some frequency, and since I get tired of making the same explanation over and over, I'm just going to lay out my position here.

It's a stupid bloody argument.

Here's why:

Science is, at its core, a method for studying the material world. It is, basically, the application of the Scientific Method. (The word is also used to describe the body of knowledge acquired by using that method; I think this is the origin of some of the confusion that contributes to this "controversy".)

Religion is... well, that's a complicated subject; it's not easy to define. For our purposes here, I'm going to say that religion talks about things that are spiritual and/or divine (or, if you're a non-believer, fictional and/or allegorical).

There's not a lot of common ground, there.

I'm going to digress for a moment, because I've seen people assert that science is just another kind of religion. This is an amusing rhetorical exercise, and I'll even go so far as concede that there are people who treat science that way; but science and religion are fundamentally different in the way they look at the world.

And that is precisely why the "debate" is stupid. On the one side, you have the Theory of Evolution*, developed by rigorous study of the material world, asserting (for our purposes here) that new species - including homo sapiens - come about through a series of gradual, successive changes across generations. On the other side, you have a certain sort of Christian** asserting that species are different because G-d made them that way. Then people start arguing as if the one proposition had anything at all to do with the other. This is rather like debating whether Glazed Donuts Have A Lot Of Calories versus whether Goblins Enjoy Eating Glazed Donuts.

The only reason to even have the argument is if you believe that the Theory of Evolution somehow disproves the belief that G-d created everything. It doesn't. In fact, let me emphasize this, because I hear both Christians and atheists make this assertion: The Theory of Evolution does not disprove the existence of G-d. Neither does it prove the existence of G-d. It doesn't address the question at all, because the existence of G-d is untestable, and as a result can not be subject to scientific study. (That's why they call it "faith".)

Think about it. Science is founded on the study of the material world, through a process of ongoing testing and assessment. G-d, on the other hand - at least in the Christian view - exists eternally, outside of space and time; and is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good. How do you test that? Even if G-d chose to reveal Himself in a documentable, reproducible fashion, how do you measure something that is, by definition, limitless? Did such a being create life, or cause human beings to develop intelligence? How could you tell?

There is a related argument which says, basically, that G-d must exist because the Theory of Evolution does not adequately explain how life could have begun, or why humans are intelligent enough to argue about this in the first place. This is both somewhat true and entirely misleading: while there is considerably argument over the details, the Theory of Evolution overall is very well established and enjoys a broad scientific consensus; and the origin of life, while related, is a separate issue. Secondarily, this argument reflects extraordinarily bad theology: if your faith is based on the idea that There Are Things Which Science Cannot Explain, then every new explanation makes your faith a little smaller, doesn't it?

Going back to my point: the Theory of Evolution says nothing, pro or con, about the existence of G-d. At worst, the Theory of Evolution can disprove one particular account of the creation of the world - and honestly, you don't need Evolution to do that; geological time does the job just fine. But even that isn't a problem if you're willing to accept the Garden of Eden story as an allegory, or even as a divine being explaining things to ancient tribes in a way that they would understand and pass on.

So please, please quit trying to mix science and religion. It only results in bad science - or bad religion.

* Which is a "theory" in precisely the same fashion as the Theory of Gravity.
** I am aware that there are other flavors of Creationist belief, along with a number of other beliefs that could arguably be called 'creationism'. However, the people who are currently trying to mess with our science curriculum are uniformly Christian.


  1. Thank you. Thank you so much. I have come across so many groups of people who seem to think that a fantastic use of time is spending it arguing between evolution and creation. I am a 25 year old biology major and a Christian to boot. So far I have not found anything on either side that merit's a fight between the two. In fact, every new thing I learn about the natural world brings me a renewed sense of the wonder of G-d and Her/His/It's nature. Thank you again for stating what every rational thinker should know and or understand about this particular topic. Shalom

  2. Thanks! The more I think about it, the more I think that a big part of the problem is that most people don't really understand how science works. An awful lot of people seem to think of it as a received body of knowledge, which comes from a small group of people who decide what is true. And really, if that's all you see of science, then it *does* look like another sort of religion.

    I don't know if better science education would help, but it certainly wouldn't hurt.

  3. Hi, Michael
    Good post. I finally made it over here. I like your castle. :)

    Have your ever read anything by Dr. Francis Collins?

  4. Dr. Francis Collins? No, I haven't. Biology isn't really my thing - I'm not much for the hard sciences in general, but I come from a family with a strong scientific/educational background. Also a family of long-standing Episcopalians, which I think explains why I have no particular antipathy for religion.

    As you can see from the castle, I'd be delighted to spend my time exploring, creating, and playing with various mythologies. In the modern book market, that generally means writing for Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror - and their various alloys, hybrids, and offspring. You're welcome to hang around, or not, as you prefer; I certainly don't have anywhere near as active a community of readers as Bruce has, though in some ways I'd like to. (In other ways, that sounds like way too much work.)

    Anyway, thanks for dropping by.


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