Do you Understand Evolution?

Posted on November 28, 2011 by Matt

While I do not believe the discussion of evolution is incumbent to the question of the existence of God, for the purposes of this blog we will consider the two as connected. Recently on some atheist forums there has been a question concerning a better angle to take when discussing evolution with creationists. Instead of the tired question, “do you believe in evolution?” it has been suggested that “do you understand evolution?” is preferable. I agree that the syntax on the first question is horrible. There are several different types of belief and there is something like nine acceptable definitions of the evolution. But then, does the second question fare better?

From an epistemological standpoint alone the question fails because the answer to any epistemological question is contingent upon basic ontology; or that, understanding of a thing does not add or detract to its efficacy or existence in the world. For example, suppose a gun fell from a plane in the midst of a pre-industrial village. If the villagers managed to understand the device or not, its efficacious existence is contingent on neither their comprehension of the device or not.

Since knowledge of a thing does not aid in that things existence, what else should we consider about this second question? From a semantic standpoint, the second question “begs the question.” What I mean is, those who ask such a thing are obviously presupposing the answer. Or that, anyone who asks the question is essentially saying, “You disagree with evolution because you do not understand it. If you did understand it your belief concerning a creator would change.” This is worth examination.

My previously mentioned “translation” seems to be the driving intent of the question. The epistemological problem, the motives and question begging aside there is still a myriad of problems with this question. I wish to focus on two primary problems (which really is one criticism in two parts), one the ineffectiveness of full acceptance and the nature of “believing/understanding in evolution.”

What I mean by “the full acceptance” problem is, suppose that someone fully accepted every tenant of Darwinian evolution, would this result in atheism necessarily? In no way! Evolution is not a relatively new concept, there are Greek texts referring to various aspects of evolution. Darwin simply applied scientific methodology, terminology, and observation to pre-existing evolutionary thought. He was an Avantgarde in many senses, but by no means as the creator of the concept. However, these concepts were readily available and welcomed by atheism because until this date there was no real intellectual justification for atheism. While there were various philosophical arguments questioning the goodness or intent of God, the arguments for God vastly outweighed the arguments against Him. But with Darwinian evolution, it was a chance for the atheist to, in her mind, be truly intellectually justified in denying God’s existence.

Darwinian evolution seems to be the intellectual rallying cry of atheists but this is misguided. Darwin himself was not an atheist. One would think that if the creator of a school of thought does not reach the supposed necessary conclusion that is purported by other followers, one would not be justified in concluding the result is unnecessary—if Darwin was not an atheist, Darwinian evolution does not necessarily mean that God does not exist.

Further, not only does Darwinian evolution not necessitate atheism, but it is theoretically possible (and there are instances of it) of someone holding both to Darwinian evolution and being a theist (or even a Christian). While it seems most atheists or Christians are neither satisfied with this middle ground approach (both see it as an unjustified compromise) its existence is nonetheless proof that full acceptance does not necessarily entail atheism.

My second criticism concerning fundamental problems with the idea of “belief/understanding of evolution” is within the same vein of my first criticism. While the belief or understanding of evolution does not necessary point one toward atheism, I believe this can be taken to a further degree and maintain that by its very nature, evolution is merely advocated not because of its intellectual preeminence, but merely because it presents a possible alternative to God. A famous quotation by Arthur Keith renowned evolutionary scientist claims, “Evolution is unproved and unprovable. We believe it because the only alternative is special creation, and that is unthinkable.” There have been some questions as to the validity of this quotation but it is hardly an outlier belief. D.M.S Watson, a zoologist said, “the theory of evolution itself, a theory universally accepted not because it be can proved by logically coherent evidence to be true but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.” The previous two examples are somewhat dated, but this line of thinking is by no means limited to yesterday, Harvard Biology professor George Walls said, “I choose however to believe that which is impossible (Darwinian Evolution) rather than accept the unthinkable – special creation.”

While the question of Darwinian evolution really has very little to do with the question of God, even if it did its efficacy is not contingent upon comprehension, acceptance, and in no way necessitates atheism. At best it is a hope of intellectually justification for atheism, and this justification seems to be clung to not because of its intellectual prowess but because of the unwanted alternative, special creation.


  • Ryan on November 29th, 2011

    In my experience, a number of people do not correctly understand the theory of evolution due to myths that a propagated (intentionally or not) about it. My guess would be that the change from asking people whether they “believe in” evolution to whether they understand it is more a move to get everyone on the same page about what’s in question.

    I agree that the theory of evolution isn’t incompatible with theism generally. It does, however, conflict with specific, often religiously motivated, views about the origin of species. Atheists most often complain about these connections.

    With regard to epistemology, many of the atheists that I know or read about tend to have a realist ontology and even a realist philosophy of science. That is, they believe that science describes reality. So, although I haven’t read or heard about this change in the question, it wouldn’t surprise me if the suggestion is one to emphasis education than a philosophical debate.

    From what I understand, you seem to suggest that people accept evolution because they don’t want to accept special creation. I think they adopt the position that evolution is the theory that best explains biological diversity. So, rather than thinking something like “I don’t want to believe in God. So, I’ll believe in evolution.” They ask questions like “Why are these birds so similar? Why do we find these kinds of DNA in chimps and apes and not others?” Evolution comes up with the best methods and answers to these questions.

  • Matt on November 29th, 2011

    brilliant words. I think you are right, there seems to be so much propaganda out there concerning evolution and if the question about comprehension helps get around such misconceptions it would be profitable.

    I agree that evolution gives us bio-diversity, but it is a false dichotomy to suppose one must choose from diversity or creation. It really is contingent upon the definition of “evolution.” As i previously noted there are many acceptable definitions. In any sense, i do not know any creationist who would deny evolution as the means for bio-diversity, the scope of such diversity would be different than those of the Darwinian biologist of course. The creationist would hold all things in common save speciation.

  • Zach on December 4th, 2011

    A good read. I think that you’ve pointed out the fundamental issue I’ve often run into when speaking with atheists; namely the question of whether or not I actually understand the details of evolution. Admittedly, I am no science major. I do profess to have a working understanding of evolution, but I tend to focus on theistic issues in my apologetic. Mostly because I am satisfied that there is nothing inherently contradictory in holding to a theistic evolutionary view (though I do not to at this time).

    Most of the time, after explaining what omnipotence means, I ask, “Could God have created through an ordained evolutionary process?” Believe it or not, some atheists I’ve spoken with say “No” and still hold to the dogmatic view that evolution and creationism are utterly incompatible. At that point I turn the tables and ask, “Do you really understand omnipotence?” and around in circles we go.

    Good read though, keep it up brother!

  • Willian on December 16th, 2015

    No, you don’t understand his logic. He is pntniiog out a fact. That is not evidence for (or against) evolution; it’s a statement about acceptance or non-acceptance of evolution. While argumentum ad populum is indeed a common logical fallacy, Dawkins is not committing it, as he simply is not claiming that evolution is true, because most educated people accept it as true, any more than he would claim that the organization of the periodic table is true, because most educated people accept it as true. The reason, of course, why most educated people accept evolution as true is the evidence in its favor. Dawkins himself is in that group; witness his book The Greatest Show on Earth. (If you’re a knee-jerk Dawkinsophobe, substitute Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution is True ).As for his use of the word almost, that is completely unsurprising coming from a scientist. That’s the nature of induction, and the way scientists talk. They know to leave room for uncertainty, unlike certain religious groups I could mention. Read Gould, Dawkins, Prothero et. al. The almosts are sprinkled around liberally. They are conspicuously absent in fundamentalist writings.Finally, your crack Awesome, about time is silly. No one seriously claimed that 100% of educated people accept evolution it’s probably true that not 100% of educated people accept the organization of the periodic table. Why not? As Michael Shermer stated in his book Why People Believe Weird Things, Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons. Which is to say that they, like the rest of us, are human, and therefore not always logical or rational.

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