I was asked by somebody in another echo to post this article in here.
It was written by Ranse Traxler, the Executive Director of the St.
Louis Association for the Teaching of Evolution (SLATE) and
originally published in The American Rationalist. The REALL News
(official newsletter of the Rational Examination Association of
Lincoln Land) reprinted the article with permission in its third
issue. If anybody wishes to reprint this article further, you must
get the permission of The American Rationalist (see end of article
for address). The REALL News issue may be FReq'ed from 2430/2112
as REALL1-3.ZIP. Issues 2 and 4 are also available.
The Misconceptions of Evolution
By Ransom R. Traxler
In spite of our technical society and our public school
system, most people believe in many misconceptions about
evolution. This is due, in part, to educators who wish to
avoid controversy or who do not fully understand the subject
they teach. Furthermore, anti-evolutionists knowingly
propagate these erroneous beliefs in their religious crusade
against science. As a systematic biologist (in whose field
organic evolution begins), I wish to correct a few of these
myths. These statements are not just personal beliefs--they
are facts and concepts supported by volumes of research and
agreed upon by those scientists who are most knowledgeable
about the subject.
"Evolution is just a theory."
Evolution is a valid scientific theory, just like electricity,
gravity, atoms, light, cells, and disease-causing germs are valid
scientific theories also. For example, we are taught that the earth
orbits the sun; scientists call this the heliocentric theory. A
theory in science is a highly-tested, verified and demonstrated
explanation for observed facts, not "a guess or conjecture." To
state that evolution is only a theory is the same as stating that
gravity is only a theory. Knowing this, who would still wish to
contest it by jumping off a building?
"Evolution is not based on facts."
There are facts and theories about evolution. The facts of evolution
are that the earth is billions of years old and that the life on it
has changed over that time. The fossil record is clear that life
living today differs greatly from that living, say, 300 million years
ago. In between we have a vast collection of fossils that, as one
looks at younger and younger specimens, become more modern-looking.
The theories of evolution are about what caused this metamorphosis.
We know several mechanisms that can produce changes in organisms:
natural selection, genetic drift, the founder effect, genetic
recombination and mutations are just a few. The debates scientists
have are about the mechanism of evolution, not the fact that it has
occurred. Practicing scientists do not doubt evolution.
"Darwin invented evolution."
Would one say that Newton invented gravity or Einstein invented
time? The evidence for evolution had been known by scientists for
centuries. In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
the early naturalists, who were also clergy, discovered that the
earth was very old and that life was very different in the past.
However, evolution was not generally accepted because no one knew
how it was happening. In the nineteenth century Darwin was the
first to propose a valid mechanism to explain what produced evolution.
Since then his mechanism, natural selection, has been thoroughly
tested and was rapidly accepted by scientists everywhere. Likewise,
continental drift was thought of since Benjamin Franklin's time, but
it was not until the 1960's that a valid mechanism, plate tectonics,
was discovered. Today scientists accept it as they accept evolution.
We now have several mechanisms that explain how evolution occurs,
discovered by many scientists over the last century.
"Evolution is caused by blind chance."
In all aspects of evolution (cosmic, chemical and organic) natural
laws and principles can explain what has occurred. These influences
act as a controlling force that guides evolution to predictable
outcomes. Cosmic evolution is governed by the laws of physics, not
chance. Gravity and nuclear reactions cause the birth and death of
stars and planets (we have witnessed these events with telescopes).
Chemical evolution abides by the laws of molecular reactions which
can produce complicated organic molecules naturally (we have witnessed
this in the laboratory). Organic evolution is directed by biological
principles such as natural selection and genetics, which again we have
observed in the laboratory. The odds are, at the moment of conception,
over 70,000,000,000,000 (70 million million) to one that your genes
will not come together in the combination now in your body. However,
you are here and it was all controlled by the principles of genetics.
Natural forces and laws govern and direct evolution, not "blind
"Complex organisms, such as ourselves, must have been
designed by a more complex, intelligent creator."
This argument has been shown to be logically and scientifically false
for at least a hundred years, yet it is still used by anti-
evolutionists in their religious crusade. Logically for their
argument to be true, two criteria must be adhered to:
One: everything as complex as a living organism must have been
designed. No exceptions, or else we could be here not by design but
by the natural process of evolution.
Two: everything as complex as a living organism must have a
designer even more complex than it is. If this was not true, then we
could have been designed by a less complex primate who, in turn was
designed by a less complex mammal, and on and on to a primordial cell.
This is a teleologic view of evolution.
Since the two conditions above must be true or the design argument
fails miserably then who designed our more-complex-than-we-are-
designer? And who, in turn, designed "him?" These two conditions
require an infinite number of designers, each one more complex than
the one he designed.
Scientifically, there is another choice instead of a designer or blind
chance; evolution, which is guided by the laws and forces of nature.
We have documented cases of changes produced by natural selection,
which acts as a "designing force" to make organisms better suited to
their environment. However, it is not as perfect as an omnipotent
designer would be.
There are thousands of examples of poor design in nature. Many
organisms use modified organs that barely suit their need; many
organisms have vestigial parts that do not help them but could
actually harm (wisdom teeth and appendix in us, hind limbs in whales
and snakes, and much more). If this is the work of a designer, then
it was a terrible job. We, with artificial selection (breeding) and
genetic changes, are improving on some of the poor designs of nature.
"Creationism is another scientific explanation."
This is definitely not true. Creationism is a religious belief based
on the Bible. Evolution is a scientific explanation based on
observation, experimentation and objective evaluation. None of the
vast store of scientific data we have supports a literal
interpretation of the Book of Genesis. The small amount of
"scientific" evidence propagated by "scientific creationists" has been
investigated by the scientific community using the scientific method
(just like evolution has been for over 150 years). Most of these
claims were abandoned by scientists over two centuries ago because
the data and experiments did not support them. The newest claims were
found to be distortions and misrepresentations of firmly established
data. Creationism is a religious belief and, as such, everyone is
free to believe it or not; but as a scientific explanation, it has no
support whatsoever in fact.
"Creationism should be given equal time in the science
class because so many people believe in it."
Many people believe in astrology; should it be given time in an
astronomy class? Or how about alchemy in a chemistry class? Numerology
in a mathematics class? Atlantis and ancient astronauts in a history
class? Flat-earth in a geography class? If some people believe that
6x9=42, should we give the students two multiplication tables and let
them choose which one they will use? The science classroom is not
where religious beliefs should be presented as fact for the student to
accept or reject as he/she wants. Instead, the classroom is where the
current knowledge in the field is presented to students to increase
their understanding of that subject.
"Evolution should not be taught because it is unimportant."
Evolution is to biology as atoms are to chemistry. It is the unifying
concept that connects genetics, anatomy, medical science, taxonomy and
many others into a comprehensible framework. It is THE central idea of
biology that ties together all its subparts. Evolutionary biology
explains the distribution of life on this planet, tissue rejection in
transplants, and how our body works. In other fields cosmic evolution
is the center of astronomy (it tells us how the universe and stars
function) and earth evolution is the basic concept of geology (it tells
us how the earth came to be as it is today).
What would chemistry be like without atoms to explain how and why
chemicals react as they do; or physics without the concept of energy
being able to convert into different forms to explain how a steam
engine works? What if a teacher felt that atoms or energy were
unimportant and ignored them in his/her chemistry or physics class?
Without the why and how explained by evolution, much of science
becomes a meaningless collection of facts with no logical association
"Evolution should not be taught because it is contrary
to some people's religious beliefs."
First of all our government is religiously neutral according to our
Constitution. Therefore, religion cannot be a factor in determining
the curriculum. Secondly, the teacher has the obligation to present
the students all the knowledge of the subject being taught based on
their level of understanding. Any science teacher who fails to present
evolution properly to the students betrays the trust placed in them by
the public and acts in an unprofessional manner.
"Evolution should not be taught because it promotes the
religion of 'secular humanism.'"
Evolution is a science and that is all it is. People are free to
form whatever philosophies or religions they want based on whatever
source they want. Some people have formed their belief system around
old books variously translated through the years. Primitive people use
a god or gods to explain ordinary occurrences in nature because that
is the only way they can comprehend the world around them. Scientists
of all religions accept evolution because it is the best scientific
explanation we have not because of some religious reason. As a
religiously-neutral science, it should be taught in the classroom.
"Evolution is anti-God."
Impossible, for science just like mathematics is neutral towards any
religious belief. Science and religion are two separate philosophies
dealing with different realms. Religion deals with the supernatural
and cannot be supported by experimentation--it must be accepted by
faith alone. Science deals with the natural universe and its
discoveries can be confirmed or disproved by experimentation--
scientific ideas are accepted by the scientific community based on
evidence. Evolution, as any science, can never say anything about
the "Ultimate Cause" of the universe and our existence; these can only
be answered by religion. Since these two philosophies deal with
different realms, there is no basic conflict between them.
"Evolutionists are atheists."
Many scientists and science teachers are devoutly Christian or
Jewish. Some of the great founders of evolutionary biology were strong
theists. A few of us are atheists. This is because we are able to
separate the two realms of our lives--the spiritual and the material.
Since evolution does not deny the existence of a Supreme Being, one
is free to hold whatever beliefs there are in one. Saying that
"evolutionists are atheists" is just like saying "apple-lovers are
orange-haters." One can like (or dislike) both apples and oranges.
"Scientists believe in evolution as their religion since
they do not believe in God."
The religious beliefs of scientists are as varied as it is in any
group of professional people. Unfortunately our secondary school
textbooks and various media sources like to use the phrase
"Scientists believe..." whenever they present evolution as if the
scientists hold a unique religious belief. This is especially
harmful when facts are presented, because it gives the student or
layperson the idea that the facts are not supported by evidence and
can be accepted as questionable. What would happen if a teacher were
to say, "Mathematicians believe that 5x6=30" or "Historians believe
that we fought a civil war in the 1860's?" Instead of saying
"Scientists believe in evolution" one should say "Scientists accept
evolution based on the overwhelming objective evidence in its favor."
"Evolution is 'The Big Lie' that Satan tempted Eve with
in the Garden of Eden."
This may not sound like a scientific statement, but it is repeated
frequently by the "scientific creationists." In fact one such group,
the Institute for Creation Research, publishes a book entitled The
Lie: Evolution with a large poster showing a serpent holding an
apple marked EVOLUTION. These people state that scientists lie while
they spread "The Truth." So then what is "The Truth?"
Creationists are the masters of prevarication. In their presentations
they frequently make false statements about science and scientists;
anyone familiar with biology or geology can spot them. Then why do
they do it?
One reason could be that they are ignorant about science and, therefore,
make many mistakes. However, they say that they are experts on
evolution and have some degree in engineering or theology to prove it.
A practicing scientist knows these statements are false and ridiculous;
many of us have exposed them as such. Then why are they still
The other possibility is that these anti-evolutionists know the
statements are false, yet repeat them anyway. Many of the "scientific
creationist" debaters make statements they cannot prove; in fact,
many scientists have proved their claims as false and they have admitted
their error. Yet in their next debate or presentation, they repeat these
I can show anyone the scientific evidence to support what I said above.
This is more than what "scientific creationists" can do. In this
country anybody can hold whatever religious beliefs they want to;
however, when they say that these beliefs are scientific and should
be taught in public schools, they must produce evidence to support
what they say. I have always found it amazing how many falsehoods
and distortions are said by those spreading "The Truth."
There are many more misunderstandings about evolution which a quality
science education will expose. Until such teaching becomes the
standard, we scientists and educators need to reveal these myths for
what they are--an attempt to mislead the public and discredit the
scientists and teachers who have devoted their lives to increasing
our knowledge of the universe solely for the purpose of converting
students and the public to a specific religious belief system.
[This article was the basis for Traxler's lecture before the
Missouri Association for Creationism meeting in April, 1991.
Ransom R. Traxler is the Director of the St. Louis
Association for the Teaching of Evolution (SLATE), P.O. Box 462,
O'Fallon, IL 62269-0462. This article reprinted with permission
from the May/June 1991 issue of _The American Rationalist_.
Permission to reprint this article must be obtained in writing from
_The American Rationalist_, P.O. Box 994, St. Louis, MO 63188.]