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What is the theory of evolution?

The term evolution basically means alterations through time - typically very slow changes over a very long time interval. Strictly speaking, the theory of evolution refers to the development of all of the species of plant and animal life on earth, in the past and present. However, a leading evolutionary biologist, Douglas J. Futuyma, in his book "Evolutionary Biology" (Sinauer Associates 1986) gives a much wider definition:

"In the broadest sense, evolution is merely change, and so is all-pervasive; galaxies, languages, and political systems all evolve. Biological evolution ... is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual."

Both the narrow and broad definitions of the term "evolution" are in widespread use.

Evolution is often casually used to refer to a person's change during their lifetime; e.g. "Her feelings have gradually evolved...." However, when used in a scientific sense, it often relates to changes that often extend beyond a lifetime, sometimes involving millions or even billions of years.

Some people confuse Darwinism with Evolution. Darwinism is simply Charles Darwin's proposal for the methods by which natural processes cause the evolution of the species. Stephen J Gould stated:

"Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory--natural selection--to explain the mechanism of evolution."

Many scientists, before and since, have supported evolution while proposing alternative mechanisms that drive it. Evolution of galaxies, of the earth, of plant and animal life on the earth are accepted by essentially all scientists, except those who are conservative Christians - those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible.

Evolution, when interpreted in its broadest sense of "change through time", impacts many sciences:

bullet astronomers view galaxies of stars that appear to be in different stages of development in their lifetime which extends over many thousands of millions of years
bullet astronomers observe stars (including our own sun) which seem to be at different points in their evolution, again having lifetimes of many thousands of millions of years
bullet astronomers view stars that are so far away from earth that it has taken billions of years for their light to reach us.
bullet the twin planets of earth and Venus are similar in terms of distance from the sun, diameter, internal makeup, etc. But Venus seems to have developed over billions of years into a very hot, cloud-covered planet that is incapable of supporting life as we know it, whereas the earth has evolved into a planet rich in many forms of life.
bullet paleontologists studying the fossil record have found evidence for the evolution of life forms. The earliest fossilized life forms are simple, single-celled organisms found in deeply buried rocks. They are dated as many hundreds of millions of years old. More recent fossil lineages show evidence of species with increasing complexity. Most have died out, but others have been traced to present day species, including humans.
bullet plant biologists see the same process in the fossil records of plants.
bullet geologists study the evolution of the continents and their present arrangement on the earth's surface through continental drift. They have also analyzed the development of land forms (e.g. mountain ranges), the rates of deposition for many types of sedimentary rock and the cooling rates of many types of igneous rock. These and other earth processes appear to have occurred over very long periods of time.

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How Scientists Study Nature

Scientists have followed the scientific method of inquiry for centuries in hundreds of different areas of specialty. This method involves:

bullet making observations and collecting data, while holding (as much as possible) no preconceived beliefs
bullet forming a hypothesis (an informed guess) of how things happen the way they do
bullet testing that hypothesis
bullet using the test results either to tentatively accept it or reject it.
bullet over time, if other scientists are able to replicate the testing, the hypothesis may become a generally accepted theory.

Implicit in the scientific method is the assumption that there is a natural, logical explanation for how things evolve. God is not invoked in the minute-by-minute operation of the universe. If they can, scientists explain a phenomenon in terms of basic laws; otherwise they simply admit that their knowledge is currently incomplete.

Whether this evolution was originally set in motion by a deity, or is guided by a deity are philosophical and religious concerns outside the realm of scientific inquiry. Efforts to deduce theological principles from nature are similarly outside the pale of scientific endeavor, and are regarded with suspicion by many philosophers and scientists.

The precise mechanisms which drive the evolution of species are still hotly debated. The current consensus is that primitive life evolved on earth about 3.5 billion years ago in the form of bacteria; they left behind traces of fossilized remains. Primitive plants subsequently evolved from the bacteria. A little over 1 billion years ago, small primitive animals emerged. They are absent from the fossil record because they lacked hard bodies and were not preserved in rock. The Cambrian period, (sometimes called the Cambrian explosion), began about 550 million years ago. Newly evolved species had developed hard bodies by this time, were preserved as fossils, and appear abundantly in the fossil record. Dinosaurs first appeared about 200 million years ago and died off at the end of the Cretaceous period, 64 million years ago. Mammals evolved from little four legged creatures during the end of the dinosaur era into about 4,000 species today, including humans.

A minority of scientists who are theistic evolutionists follow the "old earth" theory of creation, in which species evolved under God's guidance during a period of billions of years. They are primarily mainline and liberal Christians. They believe in the fact of evolution, but believe that it was guided by God.

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What is Creation Science?

There are probably hundreds of creation stories and myths among the religions of the world. Some North American examples are:

bullet The account starting in Genesis 1:1 of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). This describes an involved deity - a God who intervened in history a few thousands of years ago and created the world and the rest of the universe by an act of will or by uttering a phrase.
bullet The belief shared by many Native tribes that humans fell out of the sky into water, and that sea animals brought up earth from the bottom of the sea to support the humans and build "turtle island" (North America)
bullet The belief shared by other Native tribes that their ancestors once lived under the surface of the earth, and emerged into this world through a small hole.

Most Creation scientists follow the "new earth" theory of creation. They are typically Fundamentalist or other Evangelical Christians who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. i.e. that the Bible is without error. These are the individuals often seen in public debates with supporters of evolution. They use the creation story (Genesis 1:1) and the great flood (Genesis 6:1) as the foundations for their beliefs. Many look upon evolution as denying their Gods' rightful role(s) as creator. If they abandoned their faith in the precise accuracy of their sacred text's creation stories, then they feel that many other traditional beliefs might be threatened, including the story of the Garden of Eden, the "fall" of Adam and Eve, the concept of original sin, and, ultimately, the need for a savior.

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Studies by creation scientists:

The Institute for Creation Research and two similar organizations are tackling a thorny problem which has plagued creation scientists for some time: how can a rock be dated as being billions of years old by the use of radioisotope analysis, if the world (and the rock) was created less than ten thousand years ago? Since creation scientists regard the Bible as inerrant, they can only conclude that various scientific analysis methods are in error by a factor of perhaps a million times. A group of "young-earth creationists" met on 1997-JUL-5 to "discuss plans for research and publication on radioisotopes and the age of the earth." Their goal was to publish a single authoritative document that will prove to everyone that radioisotope dating is hopelessly inaccurate and cannot be relied upon.

Their project is doomed to failure. The team is made up of 10 individuals who hold identical opinions about the dating method. All being young-earth creationists, they start their research with the belief that the measuring technique is worthless. Persons holding alternative beliefs are not allowed to contribute to the study. Such a document will have little credibility among other scientists. A similar investigation into the accuracy of radioisotope dating, which was conducted by scientists who all believe in evolution, would be rejected by creation scientists. The only type of study that would stand a chance of being accepted by both regular scientists and creation scientists would be one in which both sides were represented. 

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Fuzzy Thinking

There is much fuzzy thinking in the Creation/Evolution debate:

bullet Sometimes, the debate is whether evolution actually happened or not. At other times, the debate involves the detailed physical mechanisms which drove evolution (physical processes or God). These two topics are often confused; they are often called by the same name: "evolution."
bullet Some courts and scientists have concluded that creation science is not really a science. Generally speaking, creation scientists are not willing to accept the possibility that some future investigation or experiment will prove their beliefs are wrong. And a long-held scientific standard is that true scientists must be open to falsification of even established theories.
bullet Although they are often viewed as having a single, consistent belief system, creationists hold many differing interpretations of the Genesis passages.
bullet Contrary to common belief, the theory of evolution does not state that humans are descendants of monkeys; scientists generally believe that the fossil record shows that humans and monkeys have a common ancestor.

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Other related essays dealing with evolution & creation science:

bullet Overview of creation and evolution
bullet Three conflicting world views, and many individual belief systems
bullet Beliefs of the U.S. public
bullet Beliefs held by various faith groups

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Copyright 1998 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2005-AUG-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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