It’s Evolution, Baby

Question from Nichole:
So, I just have a couple questions for those atheists who believe in evolution or those who would call themselves Evolutionists. I’m really curious what you guys think about it. So here are my questions:

1. In your thinking, what is evolution? How would you define it?

2. What do you think is the strongest evidence for evolution?

3. What empirical evidence are you aware of supports evolution?

4. Is there anything about evolutionary theory that makes you wonder about its validity? If so, what?

5. Are you aware of scientific evidence (or mathematical probabilities) that suggests evolution may not be true? If so what?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s already quite a lot about this on the site so do a search in the top right for ‘evolution’ and other obvious keywords, but there’s no harm retreading old ground. I gather from your language that you’re neither an atheist nor an “Evolutionist”, so everyone has to start somewhere. I’ve numbered your questions for easy reference.

1. Evolution simply means “gradual development”. The demands placed upon followers of the God of Abraham evolved between the Old and the New Testament, for example, when Jesus became a requisite object of worship. Of course what we’re really talking about here is the scientific theory of Darwinian evolution by natural selection, which says that the first primitive life on Earth multiplied and diversified into literally all of the modern forms of life, including plants, animals and humans.

The theory of evolution takes no position on where that initial life came from; that’s a whole other area of investigation. It passes no judgement on the morality of the phenomenon, if indeed morality can even be applied to it, though some scientists have their own opinions. (Even Darwin wrote that “nature is red in tooth and claw”.) It makes no pronouncements on how we ought to behave, as it is merely an explanation and not a set of rules or guidelines. All it does is describe the development of life in all its diversity and complexity, accurately as far as we can tell from the evidence.

I think the strongest evidence for evolution is the genetic and morphological (i.e. shape-related) similarities between living things. Almost every vertebrate animal has practically the same skeleton, but seemingly stretched, squashed and bent by countless generations of developmental pressure. Most of the same organs are there too. Two species of bird on one island may be able to interbreed, while seemingly similar birds from the next island over are incompatible with either species because they’ve been separated for too long. We share over 95% of our DNA not just with apes, but with any given species of mammal. Embryos of different animals look almost identical up to a certain point in their gestation.

In case you think all of this is simply signs that all life had a common designer, it doesn’t speak well of that designer because the similarities are not always a good thing. The appendix is useful to many animals, but about all it can do for us is kill us. Many deadly viruses and bacteria are just as at home in a human body as any other warm-blooded animal, which is why we can catch fatal infections from pigs or birds. The laryngeal nerve connects the brain to the larynx but it takes a detour all the way down by the heart in mammals, because the equivalent route in fish was more direct. (In a giraffe, it’s just ridiculous. Here’s a video where they’re dissecting one – it’s not too gory.)

Everything mentioned above is empirical; you can see the evidence in your own body, anything else that’s alive, the recently dead and even the fossilised remains of ancient lifeforms. Really, the study of evolution is the direct study of living things, so there’s very little evidence for it which could not be called empirical.

There isn’t anything which seriously throws the validity of evolutionary theory into question, or the controversy would be an argument between evolutionary biologists rather than between evolutionary biologists and religious creationists. Religion is the only reason anyone challenges it, which is why there are no secular opponents of the teaching of evolution (except for one fellow I know of, who makes quite a lot of money as a professional advocate). Not every religious person denies evolution as many prefer to see it as a divine method, but opposition to it has just that one source.

Carrying on from #4, creationist evangelists present a wide range of claims about the natural world as arguments against evolution. They all have the same form: “Feature X could not possibly have come about naturally and gradually, or the odds are so small as to be practically impossible, so evolution can’t have produced X.” Even if no evolutionary path to the final result is known, this in all its forms is an argument from ignorance because not knowing how something is done does not necessarily mean it’s impossible. In practice, however, a plausible evolutionary method of producing the feature is often already known before the claim is made – the creationist just hasn’t looked it up.

I think that’s a fair representation of what atheists think of evolution, though any atheists reading this are free to correct me. So, tit for tat: what do you think of it, Nichole?

32 thoughts on “It’s Evolution, Baby”

  1. You say: “I think the strongest evidence for evolution is the genetic and morphological (i.e. shape-related) similarities between living things.”

    I have wondered for some time how atheists explain “uniqueness” in light of the above. Unique characteristics (DNA, fingerprints, retina etc.) appear to be hard to explain from an evolutionary construct. Your thoughts?


    1. The similarities between living things have such impact because it is such an incredibly varied set of life forms that nevertheless maintain those similarities. Aside from this, of course there are differences and unique features, because within the tree of life every species has found its own particular solution to the problem of survival and procreation. If everything lived the same way, ate the same food, made its home in the same place and so on, there’d be so much competition for every resource that millions of species would rapidly be wiped out.

      Features unique to individuals, such as fingerprints, are possible partly because the complete genome is long enough to allow tons of minor variation without changing anything major, and partly because there are some random elements in our development. Let’s consider fingerprints specifically: we’ve all got the main genes to grow hands and fingers, and we’ve even got genes to develop particular textures on our fingers (which is why there are three distinct types of print) but as the finger skin cells grow in the womb they jostle and buckle in ways determined simply by the physics of such closely packed objects.

      1. If the physical universe is finite, as most Scientist believes, then how can “one time events” happen within a finite reality? A simple illustration would be a deck of cards (finite environment). If the king of hearts is pulled and placed back in the deck, how would it be possible that the king of hearts will never be pulled again from the deck?

        1. Finite does not always mean low, Rick.
          One time events can happen in a finite reality if the number of combinations possible are very high.
          In the case of fingerprints for e.g., I just searched and found that 1 square inch of human skin has 19 million skin cells.
          In the case of fingerprints for e.g., if you assume that an average fingertip has 0.5 square inch of skin then a fingerprint means that we are talking about the arrangement of 10 million cells at-least.
          Even if there are just two arrangements/ orientations per cell possible, the possible arrangements of cells on a fingertip will be in the range of 2 to the power of 10 million (2^10,000,000). Now admittedly there will be some biological rules and requirements (dictated by an individual’s genes) related to skin cells combining with each other to form skin structure – this will reduce the number of possible unique combinations.
          But the fact is that at just 2 to the power of 36 (2^36) we hit 68 billion unique prints – a number close to the current human population of the world times 10 (for ten fingers).
          So we don’t end up drawing the King of hearts twice. Nature’s deck of cards might be finite but it has millions and millions of unique cards in it – and thus we see unique events.
          Broad patterns may be discerned and used to classify these unique arrangements of-course (much like drawing a king of hearts is part of the pattern of drawing a hearts card from the deck – there being 4 unique patterns in that case).

          The same simple argument can be given for retinas or any other body part that’s unique to an individual.

        2. Honestly, I don’t see the problem here at all. A finite universe has limited possibilities, so after the king is drawn and replaced the deck of cards might fall into a shredder. The conditions for a particular outcome might change slightly, so that the result will be a bit different from then on, or completely, so that nothing like it can happen again. This is what likely happened to the conditions in the early days of Earth where life first formed. Even “infinite” does not necessarily mean “cyclical”, so not everything will come around again.

          1. Do you guys ever listen to yourselves? You sound a lot like the crowd you deplore. “the king is drawn and replaced the deck of cards might fall into a shredder”

                1. Rick, as I tried to point out … nature’s deck is finite but it has millions of cards. When we talk of a fingerprint or a retina for e.g., you can’t logically compare it to a single card being drawn from a deck of 52 simply because natures deck of cards (the cells making up our bodies for e.g.) aren’t just 52 … they run into billions and billions (though admittedly finite).

                  It’s not fair to compare nature with a deck of 52 cards and say that an event must repeat itself just like a king drawn in a deck must (and since there is no repetition, it must mean something divine is intervening).

                  When you have millions of cards, the probability of drawing a single card again diminishes as rapidly as the deck stacks up.
                  And we can’t even talk of drawing single cards here. When we talk about a fingerprint not repeating we are talking about possible combinations of cards (arrangements of skin cells in the case of fingerprints) which even in a deck of 52 cards can be extremely high .
                  Think of all the two card combinations possible, then three card combinations, then four card, etc – in-fact the mathematical answer to that particular problem is 2^52 (if I remember my high school math right, I think), which is a huge number just from a deck of 52!

                  1. Rohit, just reaching out and correcting your math :).

                    For combinations, order doesn’t matter. If you want to say order matters when selecting then you are talking about permutations, which work by doing factorials on the set of possibilities (assuming no repeating values allowed), or “partial factorials”.

                    For instance, all of the permutations of (2) cards from a deck of 52 is 52*51 (or 52! / 50!). That is for your first choice you have 52 options, and for your second choice you have 51 options. 52*51 = 2,652.
                    You can see how with just 52 options, without repetition, if you want to see all the possible ways you can select the entire deck one card at a time the result is huge. 52! (factorial) or over 8×10^67.
                    Meaning if every single person that ever existed sat down and pulled one card at a time randomly from a deck of cards until all cards are taken, the order that they would have grabbed those 52 cards would likely never be repeated by two different people.

                    This is the number of permutations with just 52 values. If you get into millions or billions of possible values then the number of permutations may as well be infinite (though technically finite) because of how astronomically high the actual number of unique outcomes is.

                    Gotta love math :).

                    1. So the vastness of natural possibilities assures uniqueness. But when we traverse backwards in time we march toward a singularity. This vast reality from which you hold that all answers lie likely came from nothing, far less than a deck of cards. We know that this defies possibility; more time will not solve this mystery. This unique singularity (the birth of the Universe) did not materialize from vast possibilities, but likely from nothingness.

  2. Rohit, just trying to lend a helping hand!

    Rick, not sure if you were addressing me, but I don’t have an answer to how the universe began (and IMO, nobody really does, and I’m not convinced it isn’t eternal). I also don’t think it’s an important question in my life, or to humanity (I may have already told you this). It is just one more thing we don’t know as humans. And of course, everything we don’t know as humans is naturally given an explanation of “god did it.”

    This is the reason for the origin of the question “so then who created god?” To use god as an explanation of an unknown has little meaning when god itself is an unknown.

    1. Rick, all indications are indeed that the entire universe was at once concentrated at a single point known as a singularity. We are not in a position to say what happened before that, if indeed the nature of time allows for a “before”. Perhaps it emerged from a state of affairs which can reasonably be referred to as “nothing”, as Lawrence Krauss hypothesises. Perhaps a previous universe was temporarily compressed, or it simply ejected a packet of matter and energy which was then free to expand. Maybe this sort of thing happens all the time, we don’t know.

      Honestly, I’ve lost track of how you’re using this line of discussion to argue for the existence of a god. We know of only one Big Bang, and its cause if any is unknown, but I’ve never seen anyone argue purely from the fact that there was only one (which, of course, is uncertain). Would you care to try formalising your current argument?

      1. @smart, I would only formalize the argument in that there is no evidence that random “beginnings” materialize from “nothingness”, therefore, there must be an Eternal Imperative.

        The only question remaining is, what is the Eternal Imperative? Know for sure that one of the chief attributes identified within the Bible of God is that He is Eternal (without beginning or end). This of course is tangible evidence that remains ignored within this site; instead I am told that it is much more likely that everything came from nothing.

        So I would wonder about the sincerity of one that would argue the case that the Eternal Imperative is nothing.

        I maintain that believing “everything” came from “nothing” as opposed to an extra-dimensional something is absurd. You yourself realize that at least another dimension that does not conform to the physical perspectives of our Universe is probable.

        In regard to “uniqueness” I find it amusing that you argue that the vast possibilities assures unique characteristics, yet the commonality of features you believe is the best evidence of Evolution. So evidently you believe that evolution overcomes the odds of uniqueness by rational selection or choice. I just find this improbable, but now that is just my opinion.

        1. Hi Rick, quick question!
          You said: “Know for sure that one of the chief attributes identified within the Bible of God is that He is Eternal (without beginning or end). This of course is tangible evidence that remains ignored within this site”

          I wanted to be sure that I was interpretting this correctly. Are you saying that the Bible is evidence of god’s eternal presence because the Bible describes it as so?

          I believe you understand that atheists (at least all atheists I have talked to about this) believe the bible was 1. Definitely written by men, and 2. Either a work of complete fiction, or a work of historical fiction. So, us “ignoring” it as evidence of anything supernatural is natural considering that the bible and the illiad are both great tales of the ancient world…but to us they are both thought of to have the same credibility when trying to prove something supernatural occured in the past.

          1. Adam, No I am sorry, the previous mentioned evidence “Something from Nothing” verifies an Eternal Imperative, which is characteristic of God as presented within the Bible. This is what is simply being ignored within this site.

            I believe you yourself said that you did not believe everything came from nothing, well if that is true then something has to have always been, that is the Eternal Imperative.

            1. Ohh, ok. Gotcha!

              Well, I haven’t bought the idea that the universe (defined in my mind as “all of existence”) is not eternal and I’m hugely skeptical about any claims saying it isn’t, scientific or religious. But then again I haven’t done research on it either, and I don’t find it important enough to do such research. I’m guessing my viewpoint on the matter is in the minority though.

              1. Adam,
                So you believe the Universe is Eternal, it has no beginning and has infinitely been. If one doesn’t believe in God, that makes as much sense as anything. The only problem is it defies Scientific evidence.

                1. That may be so, and if I cared if I was right or not I might actually look into it. But I don’t. It’s a non-issue to me. I’m not a person who goes out and acquires Impractical knowledge just for the hell of it (unless I find it interesting).

                  I’m not arguing that I am correct, I’m just telling my opinion on the matter of the universe. Even if it is uninformed.

        2. I haven’t heard “Eternal Imperative” before, but it seems to be interchangeable with “First Cause”, “Uncaused Cause” or “Prime Mover”, which means all the cosmological counter-arguments going back to the time of Thomas Aquinas apply here.

          I keep name-dropping Lawrence Krauss; in his book A Universe From Nothing and elsewhere he discusses “quantum fluctuations” wherein particles with observable effects can and do materialise from at least a type of nothingness. They can do this because a positive and a negative particle appear simultaneously, which means their total energy still comes to zero. If the combined energy of all the matter and antimatter in the universe works out to zero, it’s mathematically possible for the whole thing to have emerged spontaneously.

          Regardless, if there is an Eternal Imperative, or an eternal thing which can cause other things, then of course its main attribute is that it’s eternal because that’s the only thing we know about it. That God is also claimed to be eternal is no reason to think the Eternal Imperative is God, any more than the idea that the Tooth Fairy takes teeth is reason to think she got all the teeth I left under my pillow in the 1980s. It makes a certain amount of sense internally, but there are other explanations which do not require the assertion of an unprecedented, magical, intelligent being.

          So, if it’s real and it’s not God, what is it? A larger, ongoing system of propagating universes is one idea. A related idea is a single, physically infinite “mother universe” which spawns smaller ones like ours. Then there’s the “quantum foam”, which may be spontaneously and regularly spawning universes. Finally, our universe itself may be the Eternal Imperative, endlessly cycling from singularity to singularity while everything else goes on inside it. Heck, at least we know the universe exists.

          You need only look at the human race to see that uniqueness and sameness can be plentiful together. Our anatomy is so similar we can design clothes that will fit almost anyone, and yet every part of us (e.g. our nose) is at least slightly different from the equivalent on any other body.

          Evolution is a more likely explanation for the diversity of life than rational selection at least until someone is able to establish the existence of a being capable of making choices that directly affect the bodies of all living things. Even if you do seriously see this being as a possibility, you have to be very selective in your view of the apparent choices it’s made regarding its creations in order to see them as the kinds of choices such a being would have made.

            1. I get that. I did say that the fact that it’s eternal is the only thing we know about it. Incidentally it strikes me that even if it was imperative (i.e. necessary or required) for the universe and existed forever into the past, that doesn’t mean it still exists now. Maybe it was destroyed last century, or last week. You have to make further assumptions about it to assert its persistence, unless of course you claim it’s observable.

              1. You are correct; the “eternal imperative” would not necessarily still exist. However, knowing that there is an eternal imperative is significant because that understanding shift the conversation from “is there” to “who is/was” or “what is/was” the eternal imperative?

                You do realize that the Bible never claims that God is observable from a physical perspective. In fact the Bible identifies God as the “Invisible God”. If one thinks about it, finite measurements of an infinite God would be improbable. The atheist insists that “reality” can and must be explained empirically, thus the atheist insists that God confine Himself within His own creation.

                You are also correct that to believe that the eternal imperative still persists one must make further assumptions, but one also makes further assumptions to assume that what once was imperative, is no more.

                1. Are you actually arguing that because the Bible claims God is invisible and we don’t see a god, God must be there and the Bible must be right? Aside from affirming the consequent, that’s straight from the apologetic of the Invisible Pink Unicorn. At the very least it’s an excuse for the lack of evidence for a god.

                  Whether the Eternal Imperative still exists was only a side point, and would be answered if we knew what it was anyway. It still has to be established that there was one.

                  1. My point in regard to the “invisible God” is only to share that the Bible outlines an extra dimensional eternal imperative.

                    Believing (placing faith) in a concept that all answers are confined to the material universe assures inability to encounter the God of the Bible. Simply, they are looking in the wrong place.

                    Regarding origins: Until we discover an inhabitant of the material universe that sourced itself into existence from nothingness, it is more sensible to believe in an ‘eternal imperative”. Granted the “eternal imperative” could be confined within the material universe, but Science points backwards in time toward a moment of origin (big-bang). So one can argue that everything naturally came from nothing, but it would be an argument against our daily observations and sensibility.

                    Therefore, it is not foolish to hold that the “eternal imperative” is likely extra-dimensional as the Bible outlines. This can be ignored but those that do so run the risk of becoming the very thing they have come to hate, those who are unwilling to look at facts because the facts do not support their paradigm.

                    1. Allow me to quote Lawrence Krauss here … I bought his book after viewing his lecture. Its a good read, by the way, more detailed than the lecture.

                      He says (I quote him verbatim, Pg 142 of the edition I have) … “IN any case, even in a universe with no miracles, when you are faced with a profoundly simple underlying order you can draw two different conclusions. One, drawn by Newton himself, and earlier espoused by Galileo and a host of other scientists over the years, was that such order was created by a divine intelligence responsible not only for the universe, but also for our own existence, and that we human beings were created in her image (and apparently other complex and beautiful beings were not!). The other conclusion is that the laws themselves are all that exist. These laws themselves require our universe to come into existence, to develop and evolve, and we are an irrevocable by-product of these laws. The laws may be eternal, or they too may have come into existence, again by some yet unknown but possibly purely physical process.
                      Philosophers, Theologians and sometimes scientists continue to debate these possibilities. We do not know for certain which of them actually describes our universe, and perhaps we shall never know. But the point is, as I emphasized at the very beginning of this book, the final arbiter of this question will not come from hope, desire, revelation or pure thought. It will come, if it ever does, from the exploration of nature.”

                      Arguing that the question of origin can be settled by referring to what’s said (or implied to have been said) in a holy book (the bible or any other from the many others) then is basically trying to settle the question through revelation …
                      Our daily sensibilities are based on our senses … which cover an extremely very limited arena. There are so many things proven facts of science that go against our daily sensibilities. If anything, science has consistently proven that our daily sensibilities are not something we should rely on while pondering over fundamental questions.

                      I have tried to explain my viewpoint elsewhere in this forum that given science’s search for ever simpler axioms, it will probably hit upon a set of very simple laws which are necessary and self propagating. I remain firm in that stance, since the alternative of “an intelligence” or a “creator” is not simple … it is extremely complicated and does not make any sense at all, given science’s thrust of discovering simplified ever axioms behind the workings of nature.

  3. It may be easy to believe that nothing caused everything! But one should not be deceived into believing that it is an intelligent perspective!

    1. Rick, given the mathematics and what we know about quantum activity, it is not an ignorant position at all. Just because something is hard to comprehend doesn’t mean it is wrong. If it is backed by empirical data and evidence then it must be considered as plausible. Always existing god creatures, for which there is zero proof for, is the deception you are speaking of….

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