The Process of Belief?: Evolution, Creationism, and “Truth”


I didn’t watch the debate about evolution and creationism between science educator Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham this past Monday, but I have had a few general thoughts about this topic lately as this seems to have stirred up a necessary conversation about the nature of science.

Science is not a belief system.  People mistakenly say that they believe in evolution but that is not an appropriate way to phrase it.  We think that evolution provides the best explanation for the data we currently have on the diversity of life. It is an intellectual process that should be based entirely on what we can observe or measure.  Of course, scientists are people too so they make mistakes in interpreting these observations and measurements, most of which are done honestly because we only have pieces of data rather than the whole picture.  The scientific process over time corrects these mistakes especially as we gain new and better methods for observing/testing and as we fit together more pieces of the puzzle/world.  Occasionally there are cases of outright fraud (see the autism-vaccine study, Hwang Woo-Suk’s fabricated stem cell research) or bad methodology that is politically motivated (the Regnerus study supposedly on gay parenting that wasn’t really).  So we as scientists have an important role to play in being vigilant in peer-review and in repeating experiments to ensure the honesty of the results.   But this is all part of the process.

Creationism (or intelligent design) is fundamentally untestable under this scientific famework.  It is beyond the realm of the tools of science.  It is entirely possible that a divine entity (or entities) did create everything, however this interpretation can never be disproved by science (because how can you completely eliminate the possibility of divine acts?).  Contrary to popular belief, science actually works by disproving certain ideas, which then provides support for others.  Nothing can be absolutely proven (which is true of all science, not just biology) so we work to disprove what we can.

Source: David M. Hillis, Derrick Zwickl, and Robin Gutell, University of Texas.

It is so important that people understand that this is an intellectual process, not a faith or belief based one.  If we find another idea that explains the data we see better than evolution then we move to that idea.  Although it can be very hard to accept new ideas and it can take time until it is generally accepted; it does happen (for example the idea that mitochondria/chloroplasts have a prokaryotic origin, or the Ecdysozoa/Lophotrochozoa split, maybe the placement of ctenophores in the tree of life? The last one is one that we are currently working through and I don’t know what the answer will be yet).

But the fact is that so far, no other scientific ideas (remember that creationism is not a scientific idea) come even close to evolution in explaining the patterns we see.  We don’t understand all the details of evolution, we understand the broad strokes of the process, but we are working on the details.  Keep in mind that even something as fundamental to physics as gravity is in a similar situation, i.e. we understand what gravity does, but not really how it works, not in fine detail anyway.  But even without the details, evolution does a pretty amazing job of explaining the patterns in the diversity of life we see on the earth.  And in science, support is given to the idea that explains the most data.  Until another idea that can be tested (and potentially disproven) comes along that explains more of the data than evolution does, then as a science, biology will have to stick to evolution.

Additionally, we benefit greatly from framing our scientific inquires this way.  For example, studying agriculture and medicine within an evolutionary framework helps us find better ways to grow/breed crops or develop better/more effective medicines (and test them appropriately).  If life is all designed by a creator, how does that help us better understand the world around us?  I would argue that the framework of intelligent design is not useful for actual study, it does not allow us to make inferences that are important in driving forward our understanding of the world.  For example, if a drug works one way in mice, how will it work in humans?  With evolution you have a framework to evaluate this (the mouse is similar to humans in this way due to a common ancestor, but is different from humans in that way as a result of being a separate lineage for some amount of time, it’s important to understand the similarities and the differences in the context of drug testing).  With intelligent design, we have the whims of a creator that might make some things similar but other things different.  And ok, that’s fine, but how does that allow us to actually infer the likely effect of the drug in a human?  To give another example, why does one animal respond differently to a pesticide when compared with another? Because God made them differently? How does that help us develop a pesticide that works on the insects we want it to and not on the ones we don’t?

Source: David M. Hillis, Derrick Zwickl, and Robin Gutell, University of Texas.

People see science as a way to get at the “truth”, the exact reality of what happened historically and what is happening now.  But scientific truth is not absolute truth.  We all make observations about the world and science seeks to provide a framework through which we can come up with ideas that make sense of these observations (i.e. make hypotheses) and test them in a way that is repeatable by others again and again until we come to some consensus of what is the most likely explanation for the data. But because we can never absolutely prove anything in science, even the most likely explanation will have some uncertainty (we can’t prove that the explanation is true in all cases because we can’t test all cases).  We can never know the absolute truth, we can only determine the most likely scenario given the data we have (and the data we have is always increasing which leads to changes in our ideas).   The reality is that unless we have divine intervention, the exact accounting of the history of life, the earth, and the universe will always be unknown to us.  Science just gives us the best guess (given what we know) and all (good) scientists have to make peace with this.

People are free to believe (i.e. accept as truth) what they want, but we cannot characterize all “truths” as scientific.  Science has very specific parameters and some things (such as the divine) are simply beyond those parameters.  And if certain explanations are beyond the parameters of science, then they are not helpful in moving forward our scientific understanding of the world around us. So why would we want to fundamentally change the definition of science (which is what you would have to do to teach intelligent design in a science class), to present an approach that doesn’t help us evaluate/make sense of the observed facts? If you want to teach creationism/intelligent design then it should be taught in a philosophy or religion class and not in a science class.

One last note on evolution. For those that despair about our organismal beginnings, admittedly, evolution does not speak to the origin of life at all.  Evolution only speaks to the change that occurs once life is already here. There could be a deity that started life and allowed diversification to occur through evolution.   Some people choose to integrate their faith with science in this way but again science cannot speak to the veracity of presence/influence of God here, which brings us full circle.

To conclude, science is a tool that helps us make sense of the world around us.  But it is not an appropriate tool for all questions (such as questions related to divinity).  Some questions will remain deeply personal (such as the meaning of life) as how each person decides to integrate their faith with what is objectively known to science will be always be a personal choice.  But it is very important that we understand what science is and what it can and cannot do.  Science provides us with one avenue that we can use to make our lives better (and hopefully the lives of other organisms too), but to use it, we have to understand it properly and not dilute its power with unscientific approaches.

Abigail Reft holds a MA in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Kansas and a PhD in evolution, ecology and organismal biology from Ohio State University. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Morphology, Conservation Biology, Biological bulletin,  and The Nautilus, among others. She is currently a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow in biology and is continuing her work on the evolution of sea anemones and their relatives at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

6 thoughts

  1. Thank you, Dr. Ajreft for the above article. It is clear and straightforward and I appreciate your fact-based perspective. With this in mind, I would like to point out a few areas where I believe your facts could be improved.

    First, contrary to your presentation intelligent design does not assert a divine creator. This is a common error so it is not surprising that you would follow this pattern. Now, I cannot know if you make this assertion because it makes the rebuttal easier or if that is truly your belief but the tone of your article suggests you are interested in pursuing truth so I will offer a bit more information.

    The fundamental thesis of intelligent design is that it is possible, in some cases, to determine the cause – or creative force – that brought an artifact or working biologic into being. This thesis asserts that by close examination and systematic analysis of a finished product it is possible to identify whether chance, natural law, or intelligent design was the responsible agent. (Note: By intelligent design here, I am referring to a design that came about as a directed result of an intelligent process.)

    Furthermore, intelligent design is not an alternative too or necessarily in conflict with evolution. Intelligent design sees evolution as the process that opens up, or exposes, the design within. As noted in your paper, evolution does not speak to the origin of life “at all”. It only contributes once life is well established. In contrast, Intelligent design does attempt to look back a step and argue for the nature of the originating cause.

    Intelligent design does not assert a divine creator but it does suggest that life came about from a directed intelligent process as opposed to strictly natural forces or chance.

    Thank you for your attention and I hope this is of some value to you.

    1. How exactly is it that intelligent design “does not assert a divine creator but it does suggest that life came about from a directed intelligent process”? What’s directing this intelligent process? Egg salad?

      1. The theory of intelligent design does not claim to know what is “directing the process”. The claim is simply that it is sometimes possible to distinguish the nature of the source behind a creation.

        I can see where it is tempting to say that intelligent design implies a divine creator, because it is a mystery and it is easy to assign mystery to the divine, but it is important to maintain the distinction between “assert” and “imply”.

        Intelligent design noes not assert a divine creator: However, I agree, that if it were possible to eliminate all other possibilities, intelligent design could be said to imply it. However, I do not think we are at that state of knowledge. We are at the very beginning, and in my view, the theory of intelligent design is simply helping us to ask the right questions.

  2. I am aware of the argument that some proponents make that intelligent design does not assert a creator. However, I have a very difficult time following the logic in this idea. You say that intelligent design suggests that “life came about from a directed intelligent process as opposed to strictly natural forces or chance.” If we are eliminating natural forces, then where does this “directed intelligent process” come from? What else is out there except the supernatural or divine? This wording may remain agnostic about what exactly this external organizing force is, but it certainly claims that there is one. The word intelligent clearly signifies that there is a plan somewhere and, since evolution does not work this way, there is some other force at work. But what is that force?

    Natural selection (one of the mechanisms of evolution) is a directed process, but it is not a planned one. There is no final product it is working towards. If something benefits the organism or the reproduction of the organism, then it stays in the population. This does not mean that complexity cannot be built through natural selection, just that this process can only work with what is available and that it moves forward through trial and error. Much work has gone into showing how complex structures such as eyes can evolve in this way. Furthermore, often we see that complex structures are not so well designed really (which I would expect if there is an intelligent plan). Human eyes have a blind spot, which can be attributed to the evolutionary history of their eyes. Squid eyes do not have a blind spot (which is a smarter way to build an eye) because they had a different evolutionary history. Therefore evolution can provide insight as to not only how the structure came to be, but can also explain the imperfect features of that structure.

    Even if you disagree with the logic I have laid out here, the fundamental point that I was trying to make with this piece is that we should only teach science in science class. If you want to teach intelligent design in a science course then it needs to follow a few rules. It needs to be testable, i.e. we should be able to come up with hypotheses to test it through either experimentation or observation. It needs to have predictive power, i.e. based on this theory we should be able to make predictions about other biological systems. Evolution follows these rules, but I don’t see how intelligent design does. How can we test this idea? How can we disprove intelligent design? What does intelligent design predict? If you cannot do these things with an idea, than it is not a scientific one and should not be taught in a science class. Furthermore, I have never been clear on what is complex enough to be considered intelligent design and what is not, so I am not clear on how we even define this in an objective way. Therefore, I do not see how intelligent design helps us understand the world around us in a scientific way. It may help us from a philosophical point of view, and may be worth teaching in such a class. However, I have yet to hear a good justification for it being taught in a science course.

  3. Thank you for the response. I appreciate your questions and your comments.

    Let me start with a recap of the theory from above: The fundamental thesis of intelligent design is that it is possible, in some cases, to determine the cause – or creative force – that brought an artifact or working biologic into being. This thesis asserts that by close examination and systematic analysis of a finished product it is possible to identify whether chance, natural law, or intelligent design was the responsible agent. (Note: By intelligent design here, I am referring to a design that came about as a directed result of an intelligent process.)

    I have taken the liberty of restating the proposition so that we can separate the theory itself from the implications or suggestions that may flow from that theory. This is an important step in understanding the logic because once you become convinced the thesis has merit the questions that follow can be seen in a different light. When Einstein looked at the Lorentz’s experiment and concluded that the speed of light was constant, independent of the speed of the observer, the implications must have seemed crazy. However, the discoveries that came from the insight were profound, even if they still seem crazy.

    At this point, the dialog could go one of two ways. One is to examine the fundamental thesis to decide if we should give it credence. Two, assume it has merit and explore the implications. From the feedback, so far there is more interest in the implications, so I will offer a few ideas with the proviso that these implications are not the theory of intelligent design itself, but merely some of the possible lines of inquiry.

    Let us look at the implications for evolution if intelligent design is true. The current theory of evolution holds that some form of “simple” life came into being and then through an adaptive process of chance mutations, additional complexity was created, and locked into the genome. With this theory, the fundamental designer was “chance”. An alternate theory suggested by intelligent design is that the original “simple” life form was already “complex” and the evolutionary process was more akin to selecting from an existing set of designs. With this modification, the role of evolution shifts from “designer” to “selector” and most of the challenges for evolution disappear. For example, the Cambrian explosion is easily understood if all morphologies were already embedded in the genome prior to the explosion.

    I do appreciate your paper and your point about teaching science in the science class. My objection is what I see as an inaccurate characterization of Intelligent Design and a rather dogmatic insistence that it is not “scientific” and equal to creationism. I am quite interested in what you have to say on the subject but much more interested if your characterizations are accurate.

    Thank you for your response.

  4. A few thoughts on the idea that Intelligent Design is a competing construct to Evolution or natural selection.

    In your last response, you highlighted a few areas where evolution brings explanatory power and suggested that the imperfections we see in our biology are explained by the imperfections in the process of natural selection. The implication, I take from this, is that we need to choose between evolution and intelligent design and you are offering a few points in favor of the former. I agree there are some conflicts between the two theory’s but from my perspective they do not have to be fundamental. The role of “creation” of the specified complexity that we see in biology does not have to be a part of evolution in order for evolution to operate as we observe.

    At the core, I believe the question comes down to, what did evolution have to work with in the beginning? If the original seed was rich in specified complexity then the two theories merge and the conflict dissipates. Of course, this leads to the question of where did the complex seed come from. But, is that fundamentally different from the question of where the simple seed came from? As we know, even the simplest life form is extremely complex.

    I was struck by your comment in the paper that “…evolution does not speak to the origin of life at all – with an emphasis on the “at all”. I agree with this statement in general but it seems to me many people respond to Intelligent design by taking exception on this very point. They respond as if evolution offers a materialistic explanation for the origin of life and intelligent design a supernatural one: One is science the other divinity.

    I encourage the view that neither evolution nor ID speaks directly to the origin of life but each contributes to the understanding of how the diversity came about. ID offers a set of tools that helps us understand the source of design and evolution offers a means for bringing that design into the ecosystem.

    A final point on your comment – “Furthermore, often we see that complex structures are not so well designed really (which I would expect if there is an intelligent plan).” From this, it seems to me you are confusing the label “Intelligent Design” with a descriptive phrase. Intelligent Design is a theory describing how to recognize the difference between a product that comes from chance, natural law, or a reasoning agent. It does not judge the quality or how well it was designed. It simply asserts an ability to recognize and separate the causes that brought about the effect. A simple example is an Indian arrowhead: we clearly recognize it as a product of a reasoning agent but that does not mean we believe it was the best possible design.

    I look forward to your perspective on the question of integrating the two theories. It is not something I have read anywhere or seen analyzed in any depth so I am especially interested in your perspective.

    Thank you for your attention.

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