What do you believe if you don’t believe in evolution?

I live in a bubble pretty much empty of evolution deniers, so I haven’t had the chance to try this. But I am genuinely interested to hear someone nicely take one, say Ben Carson, through some questions that would explain what they actually believe.

Do you believe DNA controls how an organism develops from a fertilized egg?

Do you believe there is cosmic radiation?

Do you believe it (or anything) could change DNA and therefore that an organism would grow up a little different from its parents, siblings, and the other critters in the pack?

Do you believe such a difference could ever make it more likely to reproduce successfully than the other critters of its kind?

It seems to me that to deny evolution, you have to get off the foregoing train somewhere before the end, but where?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

26 thoughts on “What do you believe if you don’t believe in evolution?”

  1. While no longer your fellow Berkeley professor, I'm still in such a bubble. I always assumed that the response would be "Yes of course there's evolution today, that's a triviality. But _humans_ were created by divine intervention."

  2. A lot of creationists do go all the way to the end. But they add the proviso that what Darwin called descent with modification only takes place within a genus, so that species can change into a similar species, but not cross barriers between genera. The idea would be that wolves can evolve into dogs, but that apes cannot evolve into humans. Really, the bit about humans being specially created is the only bit that really matters to most of them.

    1. I would note that while wolves and dogs used to be considered different species, Canis lupus and Canis familiaris, respectively, they are now both classified as Canis lupus, with sub-species Canis lupus lupus and Canis lupus familiaris. To the lay observer, of course, a grey wolf and an Alsatian seem a lot more alike than an Alsatian and a Yorkshire terrier.

  3. The creationists I've talked with & read seem to get off about at the end of your train: that there may be minor adjustments or differences, the kind that would allow developing a new breed of dog, for example, but no major changes such as new species.

    Part of the issue is that they don't disbelieve the actual model, they disbelieve the straw-man they've been presented. Dogs don't give birth to monkeys, therefore evolution is impossible. I know of someone who teaches computer science at a church-based private college who's seen as a slightly odd duck because while he doesn't believe in evolution (of course), he's actually gone so far as to read Darwin. (No modern accounts that fill in Darwin's gaps, of course…don't be silly.) Reading even the basics of the actual science is seen as slightly odd (and not really necessary, since Scripture is the ultimate authority on the natural world).

  4. Your post perpetuates the confusion, which Darwin would have thought odd, between evolution – the fact of the succession of different species in the fossil record – with common descent plus speciation by natural selection, his successful theory to explain this fact.

    The major difficulty that Darwin conceded is the inconvenient observation that species do not evolve gradually in the fossil record. They appear, survive for a while unchanged, then disappear. They are succeeded by different species occupying similar niches. Modern genetics accounts for this by saying that almost all mutations are deleterious; natural selection normally operates to ensure stability, not change. Modern biologists account for the fossil record by proposing that new species evolve quite rapidly in isolated habitats subject to new pressures (such as the arrival of a new predator or pathogen) and opportunities (such as the niches opened up by a mass extinction). The new species then expand away from their local origin. The "rapid" and the "isolated" account for the non-discovery of transitional fossils. This explanation looks satisfactory to us, but it is a face-saver and does open up space for denialist arguments.

    1. Do you believe such a difference could ever make it more likely to reproduce successfully than the other critters of its kind?

      For the reasons Mr Wimberly notes above (almost all observed mutations are deleterious), this is the typical point where creationist think the logic trail above fails.

  5. One question I always toss out at the handful of evolution deniers I know: do you think a whale or dolphin is a fish? They're called fish in The Bible. It looks and behaves pretty much like a fish. And if God wanted to create a fish that needed to breath and suckle its young, God could certainly have done that, right? Do you believe whales and dolphins are fish?

    Usually the answer is a cautious no, because they don't want to sound like idiots. And most northeastern and Western creationists are fairly recent converts, in a sort of FoxTV tribalism, where you MUST not believe in global warming or evolution in order to be a member in good standing of the Limbaugh/O'Reilley tribe. They probably went to college, and aced their biology exams in high school, and accepted evolution as a fact until told not to over the past 10 or 15 years of lockstep orthodoxy enforcement by the rubes of Dixie who now run the country. So you get a cautious no, as they suspect a trap is being laid.

    And then you ask why not. And they say because they have hair and give live birth and produce milk and need to breath. And then you say that sharks give live birth and lungfish breath and catfish seem sort of hairy, why don't you think a whale is closer to a shark or catfish than it is to a cow or badger? And you get a few ums and errrrs. And you prod them, "what does it mean that a whale is a mammal, besides those handful of characteristics that it shares with mammals, when it shares so many MORE characteristics with fish???"

    And then there are a few more ummmms and errrrrrs, and then you say: "the term you're looking for is common ancestry".

    That usually changes the subject quickly. My other tactic (and I'm an evolutionary biology major, and an epidemiologist for 25 years, so I don't back down on this shit) is to simply lay out the three pre-requisite axioms for natural selection:

    1) Do you agree that more things are born than survive to reproductive adulthood? (They must agree, or otherwise we could walk from Falmouth to New Bedford on the backs of bluefish, and your sink would be a pile of blue-green mildew every Friday)
    2) Do you agree that some characteristics aid survival (speed, strength, camouflage, venom, intelligence, etc.)? Hard not to agree that the fast antelope has an edge on the slow one, so you'll get a yes.
    3) Do you agree that some of these characteristics can be inherited? Most of these people consider their English-Scottish-German background to confer inbred superiority, plus, they understand that Barry Bonds's and Peyton Manning's daddies were Hall Of Famers also, so you'll get a yes, that we can inherit stuff from our parents, including useful stuff.

    OK, so since you agreed to all three premises, then what is the INEVITABLE outcome? Genetic change over time. Period. There is no other possibility, given those three self-evident facts. The freakiest thing is that despite farmers and ranchers having understood this for 12,000 years, Western Science really only codified it 140 years back. You'd think it would have been painfully obvious to, say, Aristotle, or any polymath of the classic era. It just shows you what blinders culture can impose upon the most childishly simple common sense.

    1. one of the obstacles to understanding the grand (i.e. larger than the farmers'/breeders' experience) design was the lack of appreciation of the age of the earth, and thus just how long the process had to produce the diversity everyone could see. Even Darwin grossly underestimated the age of the earth, as I recall. To some extent the need for time for evolution tended to push back estimates of age, but only better methods for calculating it showed how very long it may have taken.

  6. I have several questions of my own I would like to hear answers for:
    1. Which evolved first: the mouth, the stomach, the digestive fluids, or the ability to expel waste?
    2. Which evolved first: the windpipe, the lungs, or the ability of the body to use oxygen?
    3. Which evolved first: the bones, ligaments, tendons, blood supply, or the muscles to move the bones?
    4. Which came first the information in the DNA to build proteins, or the proteins needed to build DNA?
    4. If each rock strata represents what life was like on earth during that time period, why aren't all life forms recorded in that strata, like marine and sea life?
    5. Would the Law of Inertia, First Law of Thermodynamics, and the Law of Cause and Effect require an outside force or agent to act upon that state of nothingness that existed before the big bang to bring something into existence out of nothing, or can nothingness do that by itself, scientifically?
    6. If evolution has been going on for 600 million years, shouldn't we see life forms all around us in all different stages of transition?
    7. Which evolved first the giraffe's long neck, a special heart with the ability send blood all the way up to its brain, or the special valves needed to restrict blood flow when it lowers its head to drink?

    1. Those are all run-of-the-mill and easily answered Creationist/ID talking points. Consult any biology text for the answers, which are well known and well understood. Creationists THINK they're playing GOTCHA with these handful of sophomoric what-ifs and wherefores, but it's empty as rhetoric and ridiculously uninformed as science.

    2. The answers to #1, #2, #3, #7, and partially to #4a is that none of them evolved first; they evolved together, with each minute change influencing the others. Evolution takes place in tiny steps, and there have been countless iterations of reproduction over which the developments you list happened.

      The answer to #4b is that it takes a pretty rare set of circumstances to produce a fossil that lasts long enough for us to find. Then we have to actually find it; the percentage of each stratum that we have examined is infinitesimal.

      #5 is a question that betrays a lack of serious thinking about the subject. Positing a deity that created the universe does not answer your question; it only pushes it back a step and makes us ask where the deity came from. Its existence would violate the laws you list to the same extent that the Big Bang does.

      The answer to #6 is that they are all around us. In fact, we ourselves are in transition. There is no distinct line between "transitional" and "stable" forms; every species is simultaneously both.

    3. 1) Not clear. Some creatures have a unified mouth/anus. Perhaps you could call that a stomach?
      2) Ability to use oxygen. Some bacteria cell creatures use O2.
      3) Muscles predate bones in the fossil record
      4) There are theories about RNA, or other approaches to the first DNA based creatures.
      5) not every creature is well preserved in the fossil record. Soft tissue requires exceptionally rare happenstance to become fossilized. You also don't get marine fossils on land. No fish bones in the La Brea Tar Pits.
      6) Not a question about evolution.
      7) 'stages of transition' is misconception about evolution. There is no grand chain of evolution from simple to advanced.
      8) presumably they all evolved together, in small steps. Not sure how to prove it one way or the other – maybe there has been research you could google to find out?

    4. 1. The ability to expel waste. Even really simple organisms that lack mouths, stomachs, and anything you might call digestive fluids can still manage that.
      2. The ability to use oxygen. Which is a really neat trick, by the way. Oxygen is super dangerous stuff. It's really, really neat how this works. Look it up some time and you're in for a treat.
      3. Blood.
      4. A vanishingly small fraction of the creatures that have ever lived have died under conditions that left fossils. And you've got to figure we've found only a tiny fraction of the fossils that exist. So lots of stuff is missing.
      5. We don't know. If you ask a cosmologist, though, you'll get super interesting answers.
      6. It's been going on quite a bit longer than that. Near as we can tell, about four billion years. And of course we do see life forms all around us in all different stages of transition.
      7. That stuff surely evolved together, right? As their necks got longer, the mutations that gave tiny adjustments in blood pressure control became more strongly selected for, which then permitted the necks to get longer in response to the environmental pressures that were driving that adaptation.

      Look, I get it. These aren't questions to which you're expecting answers, other than gobsmacked confusion. But they're (mostly) really good questions, and if you ever start using them as conversation-starters rather than conversation-enders, you're going to have an awful lot of fun. This is really super fun stuff.

    5. 1) not certain – there are creatures that have just one opening, serving as both mouth and anus
      2) ability to use oxygen. There are single cell creatures that use O2
      3) muscles before bones, according to the fossil record
      4) maybe neither. There are a number of hypotheses about how the RNA / DNA system got started
      5) Some creatures don't fossilize well, due to lack of bony parts. We will never have the full record.
      6) Not relevant to evolution.
      7) The 'great chain of evolution' is a widespread misconception about evolution. There is no stages to evolution.
      8) probably all in in parallel, in small increments. I suppose somebody out there could examine the DNA variations on Giraffes to hazard a guess.

    6. An excellent set of questions.

      Speaking as not-a-biologist, I’d guess that most of the “which came first” answers are that they co-developed gradually – digestion could start out as simple absorption and excretion from the skin/membrane, gradually being compartmentalized into the discrete parts we know today. Giraffe necks likely elongated gradually over many generations, allowing for incremental changes to the supporting systems. Some structures, such as eyes or wings, seem like they would have no value until they were substantially complete, and various people have discussed this at length.

      I believe that the cause of the Big Bang is unknown to science at this point; I’m not aware of any claims of evidence that survived it. I don’t think we know there was nothing beforehand. But Hawking radiation is an interesting example of something coming out of what I would consider empty space.

      As for continuity of the fossil record, the conditions for fossil formation are uncommon, so the record is spotty. There is, at least, enough to support your implication that evolution does not proceed at a steady pace, and on a test would lose points for failing to show its work.

      I appreciate this approach to evolutionary skepticism; it leans on answerable but not necessarily answered questions, and lends itself to understanding, rather than winning, the argument. I respect that.

    7. Part of the answer to 6, to which I alluded in my post, is the theory of punctuated equilibrium: general stability (which is what a random observer sees) and local accelerated change. Another part is the extinction of species for one reason or another, so we don't see ammonites or T. rex any more. IIRC very few multiple-celled species last more than tens of millions of years. The coelacanth was a surprise.

  7. James is right – evolution was a major puzzle long before Darwin (and btw, the fossil record is spotty, but we do have reasonably complete fossil series for a few genuses, such as equids) I don't think anti-evolutionists, or climate change deniers or similar use the term "belief" in the same way. They don't have a single standard of truth or logic, but many, running in parallel. Religious or ideological truth just ranks highest. It's an old form of thought: medieval people had no difficulty accepting that the world was flat in the bible, round in reality – a statement could be true as parable, allegory, metaphysic, dogma or mundane reality, all or some. It was false only when it was none of these.

  8. AnBheal: One question I always toss out at the handful of evolution deniers I know: do you think a whale or dolphin is a fish? They're called fish in The Bible.

    While I am largely sympathetic to your argument, that is a parlously slender reed upon which to hang it. Of course the word "fish" doesn't occur in any book of the Bible, as no book of the Bible was written in English. And of course even in the various English bibles, it's hard to see where whales and dolphins are called fish. How could you tell they were whales and dolphins if the (translated) text merely calls them fish? And besides, when the early English bibles were being compiled, up to and beyond the King James Version (which is the "real" Bible to many English-speakers, myself included) any creature that lived exclusively in the water was called a fish, including aquatic mammals and other creatures still called "fish" today, such as jelly-fish and shell-fish. The restriction of the term "fish" to the cold-blooded vertebrates with gills (and so forth) is of fairly recent origin.

    1. In Jacobean times, whales and sturgeons were decreed to be "royal fish" that were the property of the Crown. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_fish So I tend to agree that this line of argument may be vulnerable to being distracted as being based on imprecise vocabulary rather than defective biology.

    2. Good point. Maybe I should leave the Bible out of it, and just demand of the ID Brain Trust: "is a dolphin a fish or a mammal?" And then proceed as described above.

      And Dude, there are more of my spud-pickin' poitin'-swillin' Doauy readers than your whey-faced colonialist King Jamesers!!! (Though I would never read Luke 2 on Christmas Eve out of the Douay, I mean, that's just HERESY!).

  9. I think there are also a bunch of fuzzy types who believe that creatures have evolved, and believe that DNA is the mechanism, but insist that some Higher Power tweaked the odds to get what we see today, the same way that (pre-GMO) animal and plant breeders selected for the traits they wanted. Some of those motivated by a desire to believe, some of them (imo) by an inability to understand just how likely the unlikeliest things get when your numbers are big enough.

    1. My experience (not inconsiderable) is that it's pretty much all accounted for by the assumption that the Bible, read a certain way, is accurate, and they have to square everything with that. I recall one man, for example, saying he could believe in evolution of all creatures except humans, since he didn't see how the Adam and Eve story worked. He could accept "forming man from the dust of the earth" as a metaphorical reference to evolution from earliest life forms formed in some fashion from the primordial soup, but at some point there must be just two humans, since Eve is described as taking a specific action that was hard to see as a collective act (at point X all proto-hominid females eat a forbidden fruit?). Every case where I've encountered the "too unlikely to proceed without God" explanation has been someone already heavily invested in belief in a creator god. (My experience: most people I know outside academia are creationists, ranging from the Francis Collins types to young-earthers.)

  10. Clarence Darrow asked some pretty good questions to William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial, for which Bryan didn't exactly offer compelling answers. (The actual transcript of those questions from the trial was used in the film "Inherit he Wind.") Evolution deniers haven't improved their answers in the years since.

    1. I love "It says here, 'and Cain knew his wife': Where the hell did she come from? did they pull off another creation in the next county?" [from memory]

  11. One point I haven’t seen made here: part of the reason they deny evolution is because if you believe in Biblical literalism, believing in evolution is immoral. You need to address that. The simplest way is to point out that most mainline Christian denominations teach science, including evolutionary theory, at schools they run (for example: Notre Dame).

  12. The fundamentalists I know would refuse to get on your train in the first place. In reply to your first question, they would say something like this: "In normal circumstances, God works His will in accordance with the laws of nature He has Himself laid down. When He chooses to work a miracle, He does. The Bible is our infallible record of His first miracles, beginning with Creation itself. God did it, I believe it, and that says it."

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