April 22, 2011

Myths About Evolution And Secularism - An Outline

by Jim Lassiter

[A talk given at the monthly meeting of the Fayette Freethought Society, Peachtree City, Georgia, April 21, 2011.]

I would like to thank the Fayette Freethought Society (FFS), and in particular Julie Williams, for inviting me to give a talk on secularism and the major myths about evolution.  I would also like to welcome all of you here and thank you for coming.  I am grateful to FFS for providing a forum for the open expression of free thought.

Nature, culture, and science have interested me from an early age and contain themes that dominate my life and work.  These themes are in fact truths in my life and include the following:

  • Nature is powerful and worthy of respect.  We are of it, not above it.
  • Humans behave based on cultural knowledge and reasoning.  I am optimistic.
  • Science is a fitting and useful truth.

My earliest years were spent in Florida, NC, GA, Alaska.  Florida’s panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico, southern Georgia near the Okefenokee Swamp, and farm country North Carolina not far from the Great Dismal Swamp provided natural environments that could not be ignored.  Winters and summer fishing trips in Alaska’s wilderness in the late 1950s powerfully informed this eight-year old boy of his place within and subordinate to Nature.

In early adulthood I lived in northern California, Germany, Japan and went to graduate school in Oregon.  I served as a Peace Corps high school science teacher in the Kingdom of Swaziland, southern Africa for 3.5 years.  All these locations were rich environments that increased my appreciation for Nature, culture and science.

In the mid-late 1980s I directed Peace Corps programs in Tanzania and Ghana where the Volunteers taught math and science and introduced tilapia fish farming and other forms of technical assistance, and engaged in cultural exchanges.  Latter I interviewed thousands of African refugees who sought refuge from persecution via the US Refugee Resettlement program – as a result my appreciation for Nature, culture and science deepened.

Now retired from federal government service, I have begun the final phase of my life’s work – promoting a broader and deeper understanding of Nature, culture and science as bases for helping Humankind achieve a global morality and civilization.  I am doing this through my blog and though research on my wife’s ethnic group in eastern Uganda.  I mention this background to show that my passion for Nature, culture and science is subjective and humanistic as well as objective and practical.   Our continued ignorance of or disdain for Nature, other cultures and science is not an option.  The survival of our species and the biosphere depend on teaching the ignorant and confronting the arrogant and disdainful forces pitted against Nature and science.

  • The Top 10 Myths About Evolution by Cameron M. Smith and Charles Sullivan, 2007
  • The Top 10 Myths About of Evolution (And How We Know it Really Happened), The Skeptics Society, 2008
  • How to Debate a Creationist:  25 Answers To Classic Creationist Arguments and 10 Answers to Intelligent Design Creationist Arguments, Second Edition by Michael Shermer, The Skeptics Society, 2004

This evening I would like to present various myths about evolution topically, rather than try and cover them all.  Although they have proliferated and continue to do so unabated since the 1860s, they seem to cluster under about six topics.  These include:

  1. Evolution is just a theory, not proven and therefore no better than religious truth.
  2. “Survival of the fittest” is a natural no-holds-barred life and death struggle among organisms.
  3. Nature is purposeful and progressive.  That evolution happens by random chance makes it unbelievable.
  4. Creationism and ID trump science and evolution.
  5. Evolution is wrong to claim humans came from monkeys because the evidence for human evolution is fraudulent.
  6. Accepting evolution as truth is atheistic and therefore immoral.

1.  Evolution is Just a Theory

  • “Theory” is being confused with “hypothesis.”  Also “something is theoretical possible.”  Evolution is not an hypothesis in need of further evidence to be proven correct.
  • A theory is an explanation of a large body of facts about the world based on an evidence-supported proposition (hypothesis) that has repeatedly withstood challenges.  It has predictive explanatory power that is provisional, testable and falsifiable.
  • Evolution is a fact.  Creationists contend there are no facts to support evolutionary theory.  What are the facts:
    • Geology – Charles Lyell (1797-1875) Principles of Geology (1830)
    • Paleontology – Donald R. Prothero, geologist and evolutionary scientist, Evolution:  What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, (2007).
    • Anatomy and Physiology – Biological (historically Physical) Anthropology; Evidence of Common Descent; Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish medical student, System Naturae (1735), plant and animal classification based on morphology
    • Genetics – Gregor Mendel (1822-1884); Population genetics (1918-1932); The Modern Evolutionary Synthesis (1936-1947) between Darwinian evolution and genetics; Evolutionary Genetics
  • Evolution is as much a fact as are the facts of germ theory, plate tectonics, cosmology, for example.  Cobb County, GA sticker “Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered” was found to be unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment on January 13, 2005 (Federal District Clarence Cooper Court Ruling).
  • “Descent with modification” - Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), use and disuse; inheritance of acquired characteristics.
  • Darwin.
    • Replication (reproduction)
    • Variation (recombination, mutation, genetic drift)
    • Selection (fitness, including sexual selection)
  • Speciation – microevolution (within species); macroevolution (new species arise from older species)
o    Macro - longer time scales allowing many changes to accumulate; Geographic isolation; Punctuated equilibrium

2.  “Survival of the Fittest”

  • Reduces “fitness” to “brute strength,” “only the strong survive,” “might makes right.” ["Social Darwinism" - "We have unmistakable proof that throughout all past time, there has been a ceaseless devouring of the weak by the strong." - Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), English philosopher, biologist, sociologist. He is best known for coining the concept "survival of the fittest", which he did in Principles of Biology (1864), after reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. This term strongly suggests natural selection, yet as Spencer extended evolution into realms of sociology and ethics, he also made use of Lamarckism. - Wikipedia]
  • Fitness has to do with what you are, where and when.
  • Evolutionary fitness is a measure of an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce in its environment and successfully adapt to environmental changes.  Fitness is not restricted to muscularity or fierceness.
  • Nature is more complex than to only “reward” muscularity or fierceness.  For humans it's brains not brawn, culture not conflict.
  • “Selective Pressures” - Brute force can be an asset but it is not enough for survival.  Other factors such as availability of and finding food and water, predators, injury, illness present selective pressures.
  • “Selective Environments” – Not always a choice or under one’s control.

3.  Nature is Purposeful and Progressive.  Evolution is Wrong to Claim Natural Events Occur Randomly or by Chance

  • What we observe in the world is that which has survived the challenges that have been randomly and without purpose imposed on organisms.  That they have survived is creditable to their ability to withstand those challenges and reproduce, not Nature’s purpose.
  • Nature is progressive only in the sense that the various challenges presented to organisms have selected for individuals that can survive and reproduce, and over time certain organs and responses of these organisms have become more efficient in meeting challenges.  Each new environmental challenge – meteor impact, disease, earthquake, flood, drought, famine, etc. – is not a purposeful act of Nature intended to improve living organisms.  Events in natural history have shown that drastic environmental changes have not always led to improved adaptive mechanisms among organisms – in fact, they have led to mass extinctions at least four times during the history of Life on Earth.
·    There is randomness in the natural events of the world – earthquake, meteor impacts, diseases, droughts, plagues, famines, etc. – only in the sense that these events are not directed or have a purpose.
·    Evolution can be random and undirected yet lead to order and complexity in nature?  Because we humans make things with intent, does not mean that Nature must do the same.  Undirected, random processes can generate order, even among living things.  How?  By replication, variation, and selection.
·    Evolution is not a single force that produces finished products.  The complexity found in Nature is the result of long periods of replication, variation and selection.  The complexity of organisms or organs and anatomical structures such as the eye or wing did not arrive as finished products.  Evolution is a result, not a cause.  There is little ordering and no way of predicting the nature and direction of variation caused by genetic mutation (deletion, insertion, copying error, denaturation).

4.  Creationism and ID Trump Evolution and Science

  • “God did it” is not evidence.  To have science accept ID requires evidence acceptable to science.  Knowing that they cannot do this, creationists and IDers have resorted to attacking science, pseudo-scientifically and in the courts, and putting forth explanations posing as science to show that science is no more reasonable or explanatory than religion and that their, the IDer’s, science is just as good as mainstream science.

5.  Humans Have Not Evolved

  • Geology
  • Fossils
  • Comparative Anatomy and Physiology
  • Genetics

6.  Evolution Is Atheistic and Immoral

  • No and no.  Explain.  See my Secular Truth and Morality, pg. 16, Shermer’s characteristics of mammals and human universals.  See Secular Truth and Morality, pg. 25ff., Shermer.  See Secular Truth and Morality.  See Secular Truth and Morality, pg. 28 – moral relativism, moral provisionalism, moral absolutism.
  • More below.

Where Myths Come From

  • Abrahamic Religions Under Threat
    • Judaism – Rabbi Adam Jacobs Reasonable Arguments for God’s Existence, Huffington Post, March 6, 2011; A Kabbalistc View of Evolution, Huffington Post, April 10, 2011; Atheism’s Odd Relationship with Morality, Huffington Post, March 24, 2011.
    • Islam – A mixed bag.
      • In March 2011, In London, a senior engineering lecturer and imam was stopped from leading prayers after 25 years and threatened with death because of his support for evolutionary theory.  In previous months Turkish and Saudi Arabian visiting scholars in the UK admonished Muslims not to pray behind someone who believes in evolution.
      • Evolution Abroad:  Creationism Evolves in Classrooms Across the Globe, Scientific American, March 3, 2011:  Evolution is included in the textbooks of most high school students in the Islamic world (with the notable exception of Saudi Arabia, where the national curriculum includes explicit statements rejecting evolution in favor of a creationist worldview). In classrooms and class materials it is often presented within a religious framework. In Pakistan—where the stated national curriculum goal for high school biology classes is "to enable the students to appreciate that Allah is Creator and Sustainer of the universe….  Compared with many fundamentalist Christians, Muslims with strong religious beliefs might be more likely to embrace at least organismal evolution because the Koran lacks a rigid time frame for the creation story.” … (Muslims) are more willing to accept—plant and animal evolution. But problems arise when humans are discussed. As humans are presumed to be uniquely moral beings, a direct connection to the animal world can be problematic.
    • Christianity – A mixed bag.  Some, IDers, want into the classroom.  Others want evolution and science completely out.

  • Political and Economic Culture of Dominance Tied to Religious Beliefs
    • Example - Africa:  Explorers, Missionaries, Commerce & Resources, Government Administration
    • Social Darwinism

  • Inadequate Science Education

How the Myths Matter

  • Distract, Divert, Block Scientific Inquiry and Science Education
  • Empower politicians, the rich, the private sector by allowing them to more easily manipulate the ignorant and lazy.
  • Hinder Our Stewardship of the Biosphere
  • Impede Emergence of Global Morality and Civilization
  • Should science speak to faith and morality?  Yes.  Hold for now, will take up later.

What Can Be Done

  • Confront anti-evolutionists when their efforts hinder science education, infringe on secular governance
  • Support FFS, NCSE, Others
  • Stay on topic:  What science can demonstrate, not seek to prove the non-existence of God.  Religion’s evidentiary inadequacy and increasing inappropriateness for the present and future combined with the growing knowledge and usefulness of science will allow science to prevail as the dominant global paradigm.

Evolutionary Foundations of Truth and Morality – “Eat, Survive, Mate, Parent, Get Along Theory”

  • 600 million BP – Sexual reproduction
  • 300 million BP – Amphibians and reptiles – defense of nests
  • 200 million BP – Mammals & Birds – protection of young, premoral group sentiments
  • 65 million BP – Primates
  • 6 million BP – Human lineage emerges from line leading to humans and apes
  • 3-4 million BP – Emergence of genus Australopithecus – upright posture; savanna
  • 2 million BP – Genus Homo – stone tool use; migration out of Africa?
  • 250,000 BP – Homo sapiens
  • 100,000 BP – 35,000 BP– Emergence of language
  • 23,000 BP – Gathering of wild cereal grains
  • 13,000 BP – Tribal groupings (100s – 1,000s)
  • 11,000 BP – Animal domestication (dogs, goats, sheep)
  • 10,000 BP – Origin of religion – codified morality; semi-permanent agricultural settlements; domestication of cereal grains
  • 7,500 BP – Chiefdoms & cities(1,000s – 10,000s)
  • 5,000 BP – Origin of civil law codes in Egypt
  • 3,400 BP – Invention of writing (Sumer and Egypt)
  • 3,000 BP – States (10,000s – 100,000s)
  • 1,000 BP – “Empires” (100,000s – 1,000,000s)

A “framework” for human truth and morality was begun 600 million BP with animal sexual reproduction.  To the "truth" of eating was added finding and reproducing with a mate.  This was followed by the protection of nests about 300 million BP – for humans this behavior among reptiles and amphibians was particularly important.  With the emergence of mammals about 200 million BP, came extended periods of infancy and protection of the young.  Learning and genetic behavior both played a role in accurately "perceiving" this "truth" and appropriately responding to it.

Within this framework the seeds of what we now call truth and morality were planted.  The question of what, or truth, was fundamentally “answered”:  environmental detection (it is); eat (stay alive); survive (avoid pain and death); and reproduce (mate).  The question facing land mammals, again a group of interest to human natural history, was how to do this in varied and unfamiliar environments.  This was a "moral" question that was initially “answered”:  engaging in one’s truth within groups in varied, unfamiliar environments.  Again, genetically determined and learned behavior played complementary roles.

Truth has been and remains basically awareness or knowledge of the micro- and macro-environment.  Morality emerged as a means of responding appropriately to that truth.

Why Scientific and Religious Truth and Morality are in Conflict

“Science and religion are not in conflict, they occupy two ‘non-overlapping majesteria’ (ala Gould).  Science should only concern itself with objects and their properties.  Morality is the concern of religion.”

Nonsense.  Imagine anthropology, or history, psychology or sociology, only concerning itself with human physicality, mental processes, artifacts and behavior, yet giving no attention to the beliefs, values and motivations of humans.  Imagine leaving the investigation and understanding of belief systems, including religions, and moral systems of right and wrong behavior, to the realm of theology, faith and personal interpretation.

Science and religion must be in conflict.  They both purport to explain the same thing yet do not agree on the same standard of evidence or proof.  The following are the major concerns of religion:

  • The supernatural, sacred, divine; transcendent divine beings, deities, a single god
  • The soul or spirit [science only interested in this as a belief expressed in brain activity (mind or consciousness) and associated human behavior]
  • Origin of life
  • Afterlife
  • Ultimate fate
  • Nature of the universe
  • The moral and immoral
  • Practices, values, institutions, and rituals associated with belief
Red = Areas of interest to religion and science.

Secularists who adhere to the findings of science require that Humankind accept responsibility for making its own truth and morality.  Followers of religion, particularly the Abrahamic faiths, refuse to "make" their truth and morality preferring to accept it as it was given by God.  Religion tells its followers “God tells me I am incapable of making my own truth and morality and adhering to it.”  Science and secularism say our natural history as animals on this biosphere tells us we must create and adhere to my own truth and morality.

The truth and morality one accepts depends on what one sees when s/he looks into the mirror – an animal, and, yes, in some ways a unique animal, from and of Earth; or an alien created in God’s image and placed here by Him, distinct from and master of all other earthly Life.

The circumstances of my conception and life experiences have led me to freely accept a scientific/secular truth and morality.  I must also accept that others’ conceptions and life experiences have led them to accept an Abrahamic truth and morality.  I have no evidence that their truth and morality are wrong, and I am free to accept or reject them.  I only have provisional evidence to support scientific/secular truth and morality, which I have no right to impose on anyone.  This provisional evidence is sufficient for me to accept that this truth and morality, compared to other truths and moralities, is most likely to lead to successful stewardship of the biosphere, including our own species, and the greatest good for the greatest number of life forms on Earth.

Science and secularism invite challenges, in fact, they thrive on them.  To date, the challenges put forth against the findings of evolution and science and hypotheses and “evidence” in favor of creationism have not been sufficient to require science and secularism to make creationism, in any of its forms, a part of scientific/secular truth and morality.  However, when followers of the Abrahamic faiths take actions, in word or deed, that misrepresent or dishonestly undermine scientific/secular truth and morality, or impose their truth and morality on secular governmental activities, including public education, that impact all people in a nation or in the world, or justify the oppression of others on account of objections they have to others’ truth and morality, I must oppose such actions.  All free thinkers must.

Maintain science as the dominant global paradigm through attraction, promotion, education and, when science is under attack, defending it.

Misc. notes:  Abrahamic creationists, especially fundamentalists, are angry because science will not allow them to fill in science's gaps in knowledge with ID, God and religion.  Secularists are asked to submit to faith and accept the existence of a creator God to fill in all the gaps of secular ignorance.  What Christians seem to fear:  evidence and reasons for not believing in God and following religion; atheism and immorality which the religious incorrectly believe follows from an acceptance of evolution; evolutionary theory is an attack on religion.  Evolution is not out to attack or disprove religion or the existence of God.  It develops understandings of the observable, testable.  Religion, especially fundamentalist Christianity, is out to attack, disprove or infuse science with ID because of what it, religion, incorrectly thinks science stands for and leads to.

Further Reading:

Top 10 Evolution Stories of 2010

5 Faulty Arguments Religious People Use Against Atheists (Debunked) by Greta Christina, AlterNet, July 6, 2011

As atheists know, you can be good without God by Jerry Coyne, USA Today, Forum, July 31, 2011

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