Like most people today, I learned about the theory of evolution in school. But I didn't really learn the theory. There weren't any details other than a few case studies, like the famous horse series, and some pretty vague, general descriptions of Charles Darwin's ideas. It was just another part of science, "how scientists think that living things developed to where they are today." Then I got interested in dinosaurs again -- really interested, much more than I was when I was a kid. One of the first dinosaur books I read as an adult was The Dinosaur Heresies by Robert Bakker, and I began to get a glimpse of just how enormous and how powerful the theory of evolution is. I kept reading, about dinosaurs and also about modern wildlife, and here and there I started to get glimmers of what evolutionary theory really is, and just how inadequate my public-school education had been.
At this time, my collection of books that are specifically about evolutionary theory divides into a couple of fairly broad categories:
- Darwiniana: These books are all about the life and work of Charles Darwin. The books that he wrote are there, of course, but so are several different biographies of Darwin, books about how his theory has affected science, and a few books about some legitimate scientific objections that were raised to the theory.
- Author Collections - These authors have made a life's work out of writing books that look directly or indirectly at evolutionary theory.
- All About Evolution - The rest of the story -- dozens of books about evolution in all its wonder, from many authors, spanning the whole history of the theory.
Unfortunately, you can't be interested in evolutionary theory for very long before you cross paths with those who would deny evolution, for either personal or religious reasons. (There were once valid scientific reasons for questioning evolution, but not anymore.) Most of these anti-evolutionists instead advocate some form of the doctrine known as creationism. They have some trouble understanding that the avalanche in favor of evolution started a century and a half ago, and the pebbles never really had a chance to change its course. As I accept evolutionary theory and reject creationism in all its forms, I've done a bit of debating with creationists of several different types over the last few years.
What is creationism? Creationism is the idea that all forms of life, and particularly humans, were independently created by a willful act on the part of a deity or superpowerful entity. Most creationists that I've encountered have been Christians, and they claim that the Biblical story of Genesis is an accurate description of the history of the Earth and of humanity.
What's wrong with creationism? That depends on what form of creationism you're talking about. There are several forms of creationism, all different. None are really scientific, though not all are unscientific to the same degree.
- Old Earth creationism holds that Earth was created a very long time ago, and populated with life more or less as shown in the fossil record. However, new species of organisms were created one by one over all that time, each the result of a separate creative act by the Deity. This position is a perfectly viable way to reconcile the Bible with the rock record. But it's not scientific, because it can't be falsified. Any evidence can be made to fit into it.
- Sequential creationism says that Earth is old, and the major groups of fossils do reflect organisms living at different times in Earth's history. However, the major mass extinctions represent times when all living things were destroyed, and then the Earth was repopulated by a new creative act. The last extinction happened recently, after which the current animals -- and humans -- were created. Again, this is a viable way to reconcile science and the Bible -- but it isn't scientific either. Sequential creationism simply doesn't agree with the evidence. None of the mass extinctions wiped out all life. In many cases, we find the same species of organisms both before and after the extinctions.
- Day-age creationism says that the Book of Genesis is accurate in describing the order of Creation, but that each "day" in Genesis actually represents a long period of real time. This position also runs afoul of the evidence, primarily because the order of creation as given in Genesis doesn't agree with the order as shown in the fossil record.
- A very widely-held view is the one called theistic evolution. This position boils down to "God Created, and evolution is the way He did it." The theistic evolutionist says that evolution has occurred as shown in the fossil record and in modern organisms, but that God has guided the evolutionary process to make it come out the way He wanted. In particular, humans evolved from ancestral apes, but at a particular point in time God picked two or a few humans and gave them minds and souls, thus making them more than animals. Theistic evolution is the most science-friendly version of creationism, so much so that I often don't consider it creationism at all. Theistic evolutionists accept all the scientific evidence for evolution; they just put a somewhat different interpretation on it.
Old-Earth, day-age, gap theory, theistic evolution -- all these are simply different interpretations of the known geologic and fossil evidence -- difficult to defend, perhaps, but no more so than many other hypotheses. The remaining forms of creationism are much less pleasant: Young-Earth creationism and Intelligent Design creationism. While these two movements call themselves by different names and claim to have different agendas, behind the scenes they are connected, sharing common goals and a truly disgusting disregard for scientific fact and honest, open discussions.
Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) is the position that most of the politically active "creationists" hold. Young-Earth Creationists demand a literal reading of Genesis. They insist that Earth is less than ten thousand years old; that it and all life were created in just six twenty-four-hour days; and that the entire fossil record is a result of Noah's Flood. They claim to have "scientific evidence" for this, but in fact their "evidence" consists partly of mistakes, partly of misinterpretations, partly of old stories now known to be wrong, and partly of outright lies. YECs routinely lie about the scientific evidence, both that for evolution and that against YECism, and don't even see anything wrong with their blatant dishonesty.
I used to think that young-Earth creationism was the most dangerous form of creationism. Unfortunately, in the last couple of years an even more dangerous form has appeared: the so-called Intelligent Design (ID) type of creationism. ID is dangerous not because it has any real facts on its side -- it doesn't -- but because its advocates have learned how to use rhetoric far more effectively than earlier creationist movements did. ID creationism cloaks itself in reasonable-sounding claims of "weaknesses" in evolutionary theory, and asks why students should be denied the chance to learn the evidence against evolutionary theory. When explained by one of its adherents, ID sounds like a variant on theistic evolution. But it isn't. In fact, "Intelligent Design theory" is just a trick, the latest in a series of disguises used by religious fundamentalists to conceal the same old anti-evolution, anti-science agenda that has driven them for over a hundred years. The "evidence against evolution" that IDers claim is simply recycled young-earthist nonsense. Their true goal is to defeat modern, naturalistic science and put religion (their religion, of course) into a dominant role in public schools and public life.
Both ID creationism and young-Earth creationism require their believers to either reject or rewrite most of the hard sciences. IDers must reinterpret or simply ignore much of the life sciences. Young-earthers must also reinterpret or ignore large swathes of atomic physics, astrophysics, most of geology, and most of paleontology. To support their position, both ID and YEC leaders systematically deceive their followers, methodically lying about what the actual evidence is and what it shows. So these two are the strains of creationism that I find most dangerous, and they're the ones I spend the most time fighting.
My intense interest in the creationism-vs-evolution debate has led me to collect many books from both sides of the debate. It's also one of the few fields in which I've written some significant pieces. Some examples include the following:
- The sedimentary rocks around Cincinnati, Ohio, and the challenge they pose to creationist Flood Geology
- An essay on radiometric dating
- A critique of Michael Behe's 1995 book Darwin's Black Box
- A page-full of handy refutations to some of the more common creationist arguments.
- A lengthy article called "Creationism and the Grand Canyon." This uses information from several sources, illustrated by pictures I myself took on a trip to the Grand Canyon, to refute the young-Earth interpretation of the Grand Canyon and defend the orthodox, old-Earth view.
I'm hardly the only one on the Web who is involved in the C/E debate. The single best pro-evolution site on the Web is the talk.origins FAQ Archive.