Thursday, January 8, 2009

I'm an evolutionist? I wish someone had told me

I finally sat down the other day to read the new Darwin issue of Answers magazine, and I noticed in the letters to the editor that someone (maybe more than one someone) wrote in to complain that my horse article from the previous issue was promoting evolution. I’ve been thinking about this a few days now, trying to think of a response.

It’s not like I’ve never heard this before. I once had someone take me aside at a creationist conference to tell me that I accept "too much evolution." He was totally serious, like he was trying to get me to repent of some sin. On the one hand, the absurdity of it makes me laugh. If I’m an evolutionist, I’m easily the stupidest evolutionist ever. On the other hand, I think it’s really sad that people can’t figure out the difference between legitimate scientific inquiry and religious indoctrination.

Like I said, I’ve been thinking about this for a few days now, trying to come up with a response. I thought I might explain again the various ways of thinking about biological change, but I don’t know if that really would do much good. I could talk about data and interpretation, but that’s an ongoing theme that will appear a lot in this blog. What I’d like to plead for is a realistic understanding of what evolution is, based on the way actual evolutionists use it.

Take for example microevolution. This is an imprecise term that’s usually used to describe evolution that can be observed in a person’s lifetime. It’s basically change of gene frequencies within a species or population, and it might entail adaptation or natural selection. We can’t just redefine this word to mean evolution within a baramin. It already has a meaning, and trying to make up a new one is just going to confuse matters. And it’s an irritating way to argue.

Another example: evolution as atheist ideology. This is what creationists usually mean when they talk about "evolutionists." It’s definitely what they mean when they accuse me of being an "evolutionist." They don’t think I’m making a purely scientific judgment about the origin of species. They think I’m theologically, philosophically, or maybe even morally compromising with an anti-God, anti-Bible, anti-Christian way of living.

I personally don’t think that’s fair to the term evolution. It’s a very vague term that covers an enormous range of concepts, from bill shape changes in Gal├ípagos finches to universal common ancestry. To insist on equating evolution exclusively with an atheistic ideology will only make our work more difficult in the long run. Why? Because not all evolution is wrong. We need to be careful consumers of scientific information, not attacking every evolutionary concept on the assumption that it must be somehow anti-God. We need to carefully analyze scientific information, keeping the useful concepts and rejecting only that which must be rejected.

And when we’re wrong - like we were about the horses - then let’s be mature enough to admit it and move on.

(The saddest part of this post is that some ideologues will read it and be convinced more than ever that I'm an "evolutionist." We should pray for those people.)