Let’s Reevaluate Where We Areis mere change over time. Thus the changing of gene frequencies is a favorite proof text for evolution. But by broadening the definition of evolution to include anything and everything aside from absolute stasis, the term becomes essentially meaningless and ripe for equivocation.
One of the scandals of evolutionary thought is that it actively trades on this equivocation. The result is a false dichotomy where the falsification of a silly foil—absolute stasis—is equated with the truth of evolution in the Darwinian sense. That is, that the biological world arose spontaneously. The biological world, and by extension everything else because evolutionary thought is by no means limited to biology, arose by itself as the chance outcome of the strictly blind interplay of natural law.
For instance, Isaac Asimov once wrote that mere color changes in the peppered moth prove evolution. How could such trivial change prove evolution? Of course it doesn’t—this is an equivocation on evolution.
Similarly Steve Jones wrote that the changes observed in HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus) contain Darwin’s “entire argument.” According to science writer Jonathan Weiner, the changes in the beaks of birds show us “Darwin’s process in action.”
Likewise Professor Marta Wayne tells us that “Evolution is change in gene frequency” and science writer Emily Willingham defines evolution as “a change in population over time.” Professor Pamela Bjorkman states that a mutating virus is “evolution at work” and that “In the same way, people have evolved, but over a much slower time scale.”
These are at best irresponsible mistakes. At worst they are simply lies. I’m not here to apologize for this conduct. However, as usual these lies do not arise out of nowhere. There is a history behind evolutionary thinking, and it helps to understand that Jones, Bjorkman and the rest are operating in a larger tradition that goes back for centuries. One of the strong influences on that tradition is biogeography. Here is a brief recounting of that influence, from evolutionist and science historian Frank Sulloway:
Darwin’s revolutionary theory was that new species arise naturally, by a process of evolution, rather than having been created—forever immutable—by God. According to the well-established creationist theory of Darwin’s day, the exquisite adaptations of many species—such as the hinges of the bivalve shell and the wings and plumes on seeds dispersed by air—were compelling evidence that a “designer” had created each species for its intended place in the economy of nature. Darwin had wholeheartedly accepted this theory, which was bolstered by the biblical account in Genesis, until his experiences in the Galápagos Islands began to undermine this way of thinking about the biological world.
Legend has it that Darwin was converted to the theory of evolution, eureka-like, during his visit to the islands. How could he not have been? In retrospect, the evidence for evolution seems so compelling. Darwin tells us in his Journal of Researches, first published in 1839, that his fascination with the “mystery of mysteries”—the origin of new species—was first aroused by a chance discussion on Floreana with Nicholas Lawson, the vice governor of the islands. Based in part on differences in the shape of a tortoise’s shell, Lawson claimed that “he could at once tell from which island any one was brought.” Darwin also noticed that the mockingbirds seemed to be either separate varieties or species on the four islands he visited. If true, he speculated, “such facts would undermine the stability of Species”—the fundamental tenet of creationism, which held that all species had been created in their present, immutable forms.
Gould’s taxonomic judgments finally caused Darwin to embrace the theory of evolution. Stunned by the realization that evolving varieties could break the supposedly fixed barrier that, according to creationism, prevents new species from forming, he quickly sought to rectify his previous collecting oversights by requesting island locality information from the carefully labeled collections of three Beagle shipmates. Two of these collections, by Captain FitzRoy and FitzRoy’s steward, Harry Fuller, contained 50 Galápagos birds, including more than 20 finches. Even Darwin’s servant, Covington, had done what Darwin had not, labeling by island his own personal collection of finches, which were later acquired by a private collector in England. The birth of the Darwinian revolution was a highly collaborative enterprise.
For Darwin, creationism was the dominant idea. And by creationism, as Sulloway explains, we mean the idea that the species were created forever immutable.
As Ernst Mayr has pointed out, “The fixed, essentialistic species was the fortress to be stormed and destroyed; once this had been accomplished, evolutionary thinking rushed through the breach like a flood through a break in a dike.”
Sulloway recounts Darwin’s famous journal entry that tiny variations between birds and tortoises from the different islands in the Galápagos Islands “undermine the stability of Species.”
That was an epiphany for Darwin. As Sulloway writes, Darwin was later “stunned” by the realization that evolving varieties could break the supposedly fixed barrier that, according to creationism, prevents new species from forming.
If there is anything that is stunning it is that a scientist could conclude that tiny changes between birds and tortoises would imply that the entire biological world must have spontaneously arisen by itself.
So strong is the influence of religious ideas.
There was no scientific evidence here for Darwin’s broad, sweeping conclusions about evolution. Darwin had no idea how those tiny differences could have arisen, much less how the entire biosphere could have been spontaneously generated. Yet that is what he claimed, on the basis of a one-dimensional, black-white, simplistic dichotomy.
Darwin was operating from an assumption that he knew all of the possible alternative explanations. And there were two: either the species were forever immutable, or they arose from blind chance. This is the problem of unconceived alternatives (see here and here for examples).
It is no different today. As exemplified above, evolutionists continue to operate from this false dichotomy. This is sad because today we understand far more about biology. Today we know what Darwin did not know, that from physiological changes taking place in less than a second to genetic adaptations spanning decades and multiple generations, the story of change in biology is far more exotic, creative and nuanced than anything Darwin imagined. The built-in capacity organisms have for directed, responsive change is profound. There is still more to the story we do not yet understand, but let’s move on from nineteenth century religious convictions.