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An essay donated by Dave Wilson

The Evolution-Religion controversy: The
practical need for an understanding of evolution.

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Modern-day problems caused by evolution:

Many of us may not realize it, but evolutionary processes and the speed with which they can occur are of great practical importance to us. They present us with at least three immediate and serious problems: insect resistance to pesticides, weed resistance to herbicides, and pathogen resistance to antibiotics.   

In the 1940’s we first started using synthetic pesticides to protect crops from insect pests and to protect humans from insect-borne diseases such as malaria, typhus, and yellow fever.  DDT was the first,  followed by dieldrin, endrin, chlordane (all chlorinated organic pesticides), by parathion, malathion, and other organic phosphorus pesticides, by carbamate-based pesticides such as aldicarb and paraquat, by pyrethroids, and by others.  However, almost as fast as chemists have designed new pesticides and chemical companies have  produced them, our insect enemies have been able to evolve protective mechanisms making them sufficiently resistant to these poisons that they quickly become useless.  This is evolution in action with a vengeance.  Short generation spans, production of large numbers of eggs by each female insect, accelerated genetic variation as a result of the chemical stress of the poison, and natural selection on a vast scale make the rapid evolution of pesticide resistance by insects a sure thing.  Very similar problems arise with noxious weeds.  A clear understanding of the basics of evolutionary processes is essential for developing effective strategies for dealing with these insect pests in the future. 

Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, quickly followed by the development of other antibiotics, initially resulted in spectacular improvements in the effectiveness of medical care.  People began to insist on antibiotics for everything from warts to ingrown toenails, and the medical profession  prescribed antibiotics practically at the first sneeze.  Livestock and poultry producers got into the act, too; you could get faster weight gains, suffer less loss from illness, and save money by squeezing your animals into less space if you dosed them with antibiotics.  

However, if you understand a little bit about the basics of evolution, you can see that indiscriminate use of antibiotics would be a disastrous course of action in the long run.  Widespread use of antibiotics in humans, livestock, and poultry introduced an environmental stress on the microorganism populations inhabiting these critters (including ourselves).  We are, in fact, carrying out a process of natural selection for those microorganisms guaranteed to develop microorganisms that are resistant to one, two, perhaps a half-dozen or more, antibiotics.  Microorganisms have very short generation spans and reproduce extremely rapidly; they also show a good deal of genetic variability.  The unusually high genetic variabilities of the organisms causing malaria, flu, and AIDS are well-known and tragic examples.  Evolutionary processes under the influence of constant doses of antibiotics quickly and almost inevitably produce strains of microorganisms that are quite unaffected by our antibiotics.  As a result, we now have drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, gonorrhea, staphylococcus, and so on that can thrive on a diet laced with antibiotics.  Acceptance and a clearer understanding of evolutionary principles might have helped us to avoid getting into this potentially disastrous predicament.  And such an understanding may help us in figuring a way out of it.  If we’re unable to do so, we are in serious trouble. 

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Evolution, Creation Science, and Intelligent Design

The appearance on the scene of the theory of evolution and its subsequent wide acceptance by biological scientists have been viewed with alarm and outrage by a significant number of religious people in America, as witnessed by the Scopes Monkey Trial many years ago in Tennessee, by recent actions of the Kansas State School Board, and by a number of other court cases and impending court cases involving the questions of:

  1. Whether the teaching of evolution should be permitted at all,
  2. Whether evolution is discredited because it is “just a theory”, and
  3. Whether other theories of the origin of the species should be taught alongside evolution—in particular, Creation Science and/or the theory of Intelligent Design

Some Christians are deeply concerned that the theory of evolution represents a major threat to their religious beliefs and all those things for which these religious beliefs provide a foundation—ethics and morals, the place of Man in the universe, the nature of God, and so forth.  As an Agnostic, I am rather poorly qualified to address these matters, but there are a few points I’d like to make. 

The first point is a historical one.  Creation Science and Intelligent Design are not new theories.  Broadly speaking, this viewpoint was the standard among scientists before Darwin’s time, and was held by, for example, Carl Linnaeus, the great Swedish botanist whose system of biological nomenclature and classification is still in use today.  It was also held by Charles Lyell, one of the founders of the science of geology.   In its day, this theory was at the top of the heap in biology.  Its position in the Christian world was certainly strengthened by its consistency with Christian dogma, and by the clarity of the writings of such ecclesiastical supporters as William Paley, with his very effective watch --> watchmaker analogy.  

Unfortunately, in science very little is permanent, and by Darwin’s time some biologists and geologists were beginning to see holes and cracks in the theory of the day—Creation Science/Intelligent Design, in essence.  Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed (reasonably but incorrectly) that new species could be created by the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Years later, the Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko’s doctrinaire insistence that this was true wiped out genetics in the Soviet Union for a generation and did grievous damage to Soviet agriculture.  Darwin, a very religious man to the end of his life, started out accepting the standard orthodoxy.  It took many years of work and thought before he accepted the ideas of biological evolution, particularly natural selection, as expressed in The Origin of the Species.  He and Alfred Russel Wallace published simultaneously, and the concept of natural selection was fairly quickly picked up by some biologists, such as Thomas Huxley and Ernst Haeckel, and equally quickly resisted by others.  Gradually, as biologists realized that more and more aspects of speciation, the fossil record, and the work of plant and animal breeders could be understood within the framework of evolution, the theory became more widely accepted in scientific circles. 

We should note that the theory of biological evolution itself has evolved a great deal since Darwin’s day.  His basic ideas of random variation and natural selection have held up astonishingly well, especially when we consider that they are over a century and a half old.  But in Darwin’s day the science of genetics was still in the future (Mendel’s work was unknown until 1901); nothing was known about chromosomes, genes, DNA, and the mechanisms by which variations occur; the whole field of molecular biology was not even on the horizon; and we did not have the benefit of many studies by field biologists and paleontologists.  Today, evolutionary theory is a much more complex and elaborate business than it was when Darwin first proposed it, with a rich collection of supporting ties to molecular biology, genetics, field biology, physiology, microbiology, statistics, and a number of other disciplines.  As with other scientific theories, such as those of gravitation, electromagnetic theory, and atomic and molecular structure, evolution has undergone some criticisms, overhauls, refinements, and elaborations.  This evolution of evolution will presumably continue in the future. 

However, even with all these modifications and improvements, the theory of evolution, and natural science generally, I’m afraid, do not provide us with scientific evidence supporting the existence of a benevolent and powerful deity to whom Mankind is something special, and who is looking out for us.  Natural selection is a bloody, completely impersonal business that, while it brings about biological changes that allow life to go on when conditions change, is inherently involved with misery, suffering and death on a grand scale.  Survival of the fittest has no mercy at all for the less fit. 

Realizing that this is pretty much how the biological world operates is not a comforting thought.  Some religious people feel that a belief in evolution would pull the rug out from under a whole set of beliefs, principles, and values that they regard as quite precious and sacred, even absolutely essential to human civilization.  Does not a belief in evolution readily justify the most unscrupulous and savage actions as simply being illustrations of natural selection and the survival of the fittest?  If evolution is to be the basis for our morality and ethics, what happens to honesty, altruism, kindness, decency and all the other virtues that religious faiths around the world have attempted to foster?  The crimes against humanity committed under the justification, if you will, of so-called social Darwinism are numerous and grievous.  

If the Catholic Church at the time of Copernicus and Galileo felt that the idea that the Earth was not the center of God’s universe would be unsettling and injurious to the faithful, it is easy to see why some religious people now tend to react to the quite amoral ideas of evolution with horror.  Agnostic that I am, I can nonetheless agree with these people that evolution does not provide a basis for the sorts of moral and ethical beliefs, the sorts of values that I share with these folks and that are necessary to keep our society from collapsing into bloody, lawless chaos in which the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. 

Of course, other scientific theories do not provide us with moral principles and guidance, either.  What ethical aspects are there to classical mechanics?  What virtues are supported by electromagnetic theory?  What aspects of goodness and righteousness are propounded in the theory of relativity or in quantum mechanics?  None whatsoever—just like evolution!  All of these may be seen by their practitioners as having elegance and beauty insofar as their structures may be esthetically pleasing, and they provide us with understanding.  All of these also provide us with power—great power.  But none of them provides us with moral principles, and none of them provides us much in the way of comfort and reassurance in the vast, cold, impersonal, uncaring universe they describe.  Their main recommendation is that they work. 

Why, then, do some religious people have trouble with accepting evolution when they have no problem in accepting modern chemistry, physics, astronomy, and engineering?  After all, chemistry, physics and engineering were absolutely essential to making modern warfare possible with all its horrors—poison gas, napalm, guided missiles, smart bombs, land mines, nuclear weapons, etc.  And our place in the universe as described by astronomy is one of the utmost insignificance.  Perhaps these people’s hang-up with evolution is due to the fact that its fundamentals are more easily understood than are those of the other scientific disciplines, which, being more mathematical and requiring a formidable vocabulary up front, are less accessible to the general public than are the basic concepts of evolution.  And perhaps the hang-up is due to the fact that, if you do make the mistake of trying to see moral and ethical principles in evolution, what you’re likely to see mostly is greed, cruelty, misery, and death. 

On the other hand, we do not want to deny ourselves the use of evolutionary theory as a set of valuable tools in understanding our living world, and, in particular, in addressing such problems as the pesticide resistance of insects, herbicide resistance of weeds, and the resistance of microorganisms to antibiotics.  I speculate that Creation Science/Intelligent Design theory would not be nearly as helpful as evolutionary theory in addressing these very serious problems facing mankind.  Incidentally, a possible way the proponents of Intelligent Design could advance their cause would be to demonstrate its practical effectiveness in addressing the problems just mentioned. 

It seems to me that the proponents of Creation Science/Intelligent Design are making an error in attempting to force the theory of species formation into such a form as will support moral and ethical principles, specific ideas about the nature of God, and specific portions of the Bible.  Science is intrinsically amoral; it attempts to construct progressively more accurate models for how things work.  That is all.  Absolutely all.  The models that are the product of science are extremely useful for predictive purposes and for the development of technologies and devices.  If they are accurate, they are very helpful in answering questions such as “How can I do this?”, or “What will happen if...?”  These may be helpful in answering moral questions such as “Should I do this?”, but the science does not provide the moral principles governing the decision.  Science gives us power and knowledge, but nowhere does it provide us with the principles of good and evil that should guide our use of that power.  It is unreasonable to ask science to provide those principles—it simply is not designed to do that.  They must come from somewhere else. 

Here, it seems to me, is where religion -- or, if you are an agnostic, philosophy, -- come into their own.  Let me illustrate.  Science, engineering, and technology tell us how to make cars, and thanks to these fields of knowledge, cars are widely available.  But science and technology tell us nothing at all about whether it is better (a) to use our car for helping our elderly mother get to her doctor’s appointment or (b) to use it as the getaway car in a bank robbery.  Parents, churches and religion, teachers, the community, the law, and our own feelings, faith, and judgment are all possible guides on this, but not science.  Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Ten Commandments and the simple question “What Would Jesus Do?” should serve us quite well—far better than evolutionary theory, which was never designed for this sort of thing in the first place.  For Muslims, the ethical principles espoused in the Qur'an serve the same function.  And the Jews have their sacred books to provide them with moral guidance.

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What is a theory within science, anyway? 

I’d like to address, in a superficial way, the criteria for assessing whether or not something is a scientific theory.  First of all, let’s dispose of the canard of “It’s just a theory” as meaning that a theory really isn’t worth much.  In science, an idea probably starts out as a wild notion about something that occurs to somebody.  He/she ponders the idea, clarifies it, has a look at the available literature on it (if there is any), and, if his brainchild doesn’t die on the vine at that point, he organizes it into a hypothesis.  This hypothesis must be formulated in such a way that it can be tested, both for mathematical and logical consistency and by means of experiments and observations.  If the hypothesis is falsified (disagrees with experimental findings or is found to be inconsistent either with itself or with well-accepted scientific principles), then one goes back to the old drawing board to either scrap it or modify it—in any case, to find out what’s wrong.  As the examination of the hypothesis and its experimental testing continue, the hypothesis is used to generate predictions about known phenomena and also about as yet unknown phenomena the existence of which is suggested by the hypothesis.  At any time if the hypothesis is falsified it is modified or scrapped. 

If, after extensive review and efforts at falsification by a substantial number of scientists, the hypothesis, probably in modified form by now, is still alive and kicking, it is finally promoted to the status of being a theory.  Knowing scientists as I do, this promotion is not likely to be unanimous, at least at first.  In any case, given that rather lengthy and strenuous review process, describing evolutionary theory, or gravitational theory, quantum theory, or electromagnetic theory as being “just theories” is a bit unkind and also clearly demonstrates that one doesn’t understand how the word “theory” is used in science.  On the other hand, the testing process does go on indefinitely, and many years later someone may win a Nobel Prize when he or she shows, for example, that the elegant and long-standing theory of classical mechanics does not work for the motions of electrons in atoms and molecules.  Scientific theories evolve. 

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Status of Creation Science/Intelligent Design

At one time, up to about the middle of the 19th century, Creation Science/ Intelligent Design was a scientific theory, and was used by biologists in explaining the phenomena they observed.  It was then replaced in mainstream biology by evolution, which was perceived by biologists as being a better and much more testable model.  Evolution did not require appeal to a supernatural, unknowable Being, and it is hard to design experiments to test a theory that can introduce a supernatural, unknowable Being to whom all things are possible whenever this becomes convenient.  Something which explains everything in this way actually explains nothing.  Evolutionary theory as it developed provided concrete mechanisms for change; there was a fair amount of experimental evidence supporting it; it became more and more possible to design experiments attempting to falsify it; and, with modifications, the theory survived all attempts at falsification.  At least until now! 

At the present time, I have some doubts as to whether or not Creation Science/ Intelligent Design is a scientific theory any more, just as the phlogiston theory is no longer a scientific theory in chemistry.  Is it possible to design attempts to falsify the theory, given the presence in the theory of a Supreme Being of intrinsically unknown attributes and powers?  Are experiments attempting to falsify the theory being carried out?  Have experiments and reviews resulted in the modification of the theory to any extent?  Is the theory developed to the point where it is useful as an interpretive tool at the mechanistic level in understanding biological change?    Is it developed to the point where it is useful as a predictive tool?  To the extent that the answers to these questions are No, then Creation Science/Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory and should not be taught as such.    

The proposition that Intelligent Design is science inevitably carries with it some baggage that Intelligent Design proponents may not care for.  If Intelligent Design is science, then one must be able to use it as science, to draw logical conclusions from its principles and the observations we make on the world around us.  One of its principles is that there is an intelligent Being of some sort who designed what we see and experience around us.  If Intelligent Design is science, then it is appropriate for us to see what we are able to deduce from our observations about the nature of this Being. 

One observation is that life is wasted in vast quantities; fish, for instance, may lay hundreds or thousands or even millions of eggs, of which only a miniscule fraction will survive past infancy, and only a couple or so will make it to maturity and reproduce.  Similar comments apply to insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and most mammals.  This Being evidently holds life as very cheap, since He wastes it so profligately. 

A second observation is that cruelty, agony and suffering are extremely common in the biological world.  Consider hyenas or wolves, for example, who pull down their prey and often start eating its vitals before it is even dead.  Consider the numerous parasitic insects who lay their eggs in the larvae of other insects; when the eggs hatch they start eating the living host -- a grisly business.  Consider the Komodo dragon, who bites a deer and then waits for two or three days for it to die of blood poisoning.  Consider the occasional fratricidal wars between chimpanzees described by Jane Goodall.  Consider the fact that a major hazard to lion cubs and bear cubs is their own fathers.  I could go on and on.  Consider the Holocaust, and the slaughters of innocents in the Soviet Union, Turkish Armenia, Iraq, Darfur, Syria, the Congo, and Rwanda, for example.  This Being evidently has no revulsion against cruelty, infanticide, aggression, and pain. 

If Intelligent Design is to be regarded as a science, I do not see how it can avoid addressing such matters as the two points I have raised.  If Intelligent Design is a science, some rather ugly questions about the nature of God come up, as we have just seen.  Evidently pursuing this line of reasoning, of using Intelligent Design as a science, will tell us some things about God that we’d really rather not know!  And the conclusions one reaches make Intelligent Design every bit as poor a basis for ethical and moral principles as is evolution.  Both appear to be quite amoral, like all the rest of science!   If we are Christians, let’s stick with the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and “What Would Jesus Do?”, guided in their application and implementation by scientific knowledge.  If we are Jews, let’s stand by the Torah and the Talmud.  If Moslems, let the Qur'an be our guide.  Attempts to bend science to support the moral and ethical principles of religion can only damage both science and religion. 

In closing, I would ask the proponents of Creation Science and Intelligent Design to discuss with other Christians the issue of the survival of Christian beliefs, particularly ethics and morals, in the face of evolution.  What other core beliefs are at risk?  How is it that a substantial fraction of the Christian community does not seem to regard evolution as a threat?  What do you know that they do not know -- or, perhaps, what do they know that you do not?  What are the things that you desperately wish to protect, and does making Intelligent Design a science protect them?  I’m not sure that it does. 

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Originally posted: 2013-JUL-16
Latest update: 2013-JUL-16
Dave Wilson

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