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Charles Darwin, Evolution and Creationism

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Alternative title: What is a scientific theory? Who is Charles Darwin? Charles Darwin was a British naturalist who was born in 1809 and d...

Alternative title: What is a scientific theory?
Who is Charles Darwin?

Charles Darwin was a British naturalist who was born in 1809 and died in 1882. He is known for his work on evolution and is given credit for accumulating the evidence supporting evolution and the idea of natural selection.

As a child he did not excel in school work, either in grade school, nor later at college, proving that you don't have to make high grades in school to be a success later in life. He originally went to college to be a medical doctor, but found the sight of blood distasteful and changed his studies to the ministry. It's safe to say that Charles Darwin never really liked school or studying.

He seemed to have enjoyed the social life that surrounded going to school more than school itself. He always had friends and almost everyone liked him, even those who disagreed with him. It was while at school that he became interested in geology, beetles, and marine animals, none of which was part of his regular studies. His passion for the outdoors and science was far greater than his desire to study his regular school work.

His big break came in 1831 when he was awarded the position of naturalist on the ship HMS Beagle. The voyage on the HMS Beagle that he signed up for was to last two years, but it actually lasted for five. It was a non-paying job that was created at the discretion of the captain of the ship, Robert FitzRoy. As the captain of a military ship, FitzRoy could not talk freely with the crew, so he was looking for a non-crew member he could talk to. The previous captain of the HMS Beagle had killed himself and FitzRoy, prone to depression, feared he could do the same (in fact when he was much older, FitzRoy did kill himself). It's important to recognize that Darwin was not a trained scientist; he was an amateur, and he got the position on the Beagle because of the recommendation of friends that he had a friendly personality, as well as because of his passion for naturalism.

The job of the crew of the Beagle was to chart the ocean off the coast of South America to improve the maps used by the British navy. They spent the best part of five years charting the coast, first the east side of South America, then the west. Most of this time was taken up simply taking readings of their location and then getting the depth at that location by dropping a heave weight that was attached to a rope to the sea floor. While this was going on Darwin spent a great deal of time on land exploring, collecting animal specimens, rock specimens, and fossils. He visited and explored many different places: from Rio de Janeiro, to Tierra Del Fuego, the Galapagos Island; then on the way back to England, Tahiti and Australia. At this time he was not developing the theory of evolution that he would later be known for. But the voyage was important because it gave him much to think about and was the bases of the many questions he would later ask.

Later, after tclip_image001he voyage, he married Emma Wedgwood. They had 10 children, two died at birth, and one died at age 10. Also, Darwin became an invalid and for much of his life was confined to bed. The cause and nature of his illness is not known.

Charles Darwin never had to work for a living. He made his money in several ways. First, his father was a wealthy doctor; it was his father who financed his trip on the HMS Beagle. In fact his father financed much of his life. And when his father died, Charles inherited a great deal of money. Secondly, Charles seemed to have been a very good real-estate speculator. And third, there were the books. He wrote many books; the most well-known being “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection….” Darwin is now known for his work on evolution, but he did other things. During his time he was the world's authority on barnacles. He was one of the first to understand the nature of coral reefs. He was one of the first to realize that the earth is always changing, that mountain ranges can grow where there had been none, then erode away. But it is for evolution that we know him today.

Why is he important?

He did not invent or discover the concept of evolution. Other people had speculated that animals might have evolved and on how that might have happened; Jean Baptiste de Lamarck being the most notable, but also his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

So what did Charles Darwin do that makes his name synonyms with evolution. He did several things: First, he advanced the idea that all organisms are related. Although that idea was not new, he stated that one organism would evolved into another with very small, step by step changes, each small change useful in and of itself. These very small changes are mutations that would be passed from parent to child. Second, he laid out all the facts and evidence for evolution in a way that had not been done before, so he was the first to build the case for evolution. Other people may have advanced the idea of evolution, but Darwin showed the explanatory power of evolution. The books he wrote where big and thick with facts and observations. The third thing he did was develop the idea of natural and sexual selection. Natural selection first accepts that all resources are scarce, then recognizes that the organisms best able to take advantage of those scarce resources are most likely to survive to reproduce. So any small mutation that helps an organism take advantage of the resources at hand will help that organism to survive to the disadvantage of the brothers and sisters without that mutation. Sexual selection concerns the small mutations (changes) that might not help an organism survive but will help an organism to mate. I believe these ideas were original to him.

Today most biologists accept evolution, natural selection, and sexual selection. But this does not mean there are no debates between these biologist. There is still much debate as to exactly how these small changes work to bring about new species. The science of evolution is not a cold theory where everything has been figured out; instead, there is much that is not known. Does the evolution of a new species happen fast or slow? What are the causes of mutations? Is a mutation necessary or there other ways for genetic material to move around that will cause evolutionary changes?

Why is evolution important?

Evolution is just a theory, but it’s a great theory. So what is a theory and what makes evolution such a good one? A theory is a tool, nothing more and nothing less. It’s a tool that explains the connection between a set of facts and observations. If it’s a good theory it will also predict new facts that have not yet been observed. What a theory is not, is absolute Truth. Which means that you can not assume that just because a theory does a good job explaining and predicting it is also the Truth. A good example of this is Newton’s theories on physical motion, which worked very well, but not as well as Einstein’s theory of relativity. So Einstein showed that Newton’s theories were not True, but we can’t assume that Einstein’s ideas are “True” either; all we can say is that they work better than Newton’s theory.

The problem with all theories, and all other ideas, is that you can’t know what you don’t know. No matter how well established a theory may be, some unknown physical phenomena may be observed which will upset that theory. Does that uncertainty mean theories can no longer be used? No, as long as it works well doing the job at hand it can be and should be used. A theory is, after all, just a tool. In fact, during the Apollo moon launches, Newton’s formulas where often used instead of Einstein’s relativity formulas because they were easier to use and good enough for the job of getting Apollo to the moon.

Why is evolution a better theory than creationism?

Creationism is certainly a simpler idea than evolution. But simplicity is not more important than the ability to explain and predict. It is the ability to explain and predict that makes evolution much better than creationism. Creationism simply says that God did it and then tries to explain why observations, such as fossils, do not contradict the assumption that God did it. Creationism tries to prove that observations, such as fossils, do not contradict the creationist's interpretation of the Bible's account of how God created the universe. Creationism does not try to explain the connection between species and fossils. Creationism is all about proving a certain interpretation about God, not about explaining Earthly biology. Evolution, on the other hand, says nothing about the existence of God. Nor does evolution say anything about the Bible's story of creation. In fact if you're a Christian, you can easily take the position that evolution is the means God used to create man, and many Christians do take that position.

To be a good theory Creationism has to explain many questions, such as:

  • Why did God let some life forms go extinct?
  • Why some life forms do not appear to have existed from the very beginning of Earth?
  • Why some life forms seem more closely related to each other than they do to other life forms?

Basically, a basic statement of what God is trying to do with life, so we can understand the connection between life forms.

Other questions:

If people can breed different kinds of dogs, cats, cows, etc, why can't nature do the same thing? (In other words, if man can influence a species by breading it, then why can't nature also influence species by allowing the individual not as well adapted to their surroundings to die faster than the individuals that are more adapted? And if nature does this for thousand and millions and even billions of years, why can't different species evolve?)

A good theory has to explain the connection between things; that's the whole point of making a theory. If you're religious you could define a theory as an attempt to explain how God does the things that he does, and exactly why he does it. For it to be scientific it needs to be testable and help us make predictions (that's what theories are for). Creationism does not explain anything but simply tries to defend the Creationist interpretation of the Bible.

Evolution may not be as simple as Creationism, but it is still a very simple theory. Why did some species go extinct, because some other organism came along that was better suited for that environment, or perhaps the environment change and they did not. Why do some species not appear to exist from the very beginning of Earth, because they didn't; earlier species evolved to better use their environment or because their environment changed. Why do some life forms seem more closely related than other life forms, because they are, some life forms have common ancestors, like man and apes. And yes nature can breed different forms of dogs, cats, cows, and even new species.

Whither or not you believe that evolution and the Bible contradict each other depends on if you believe you know how God created man. If there is a God, there is no reason evolution could not have been his method of creation.

Man and Apes

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But evolution might not be the true problem. Creationist have many criticisms about evolution, but the truth is that geology, cosmology and physics are no more compatible with the Creationist's interpretation of the Bible than evolution. They all assume that the universe took billions of years to form, not just a few days. Geologist believe that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and that half a billion years passed before the simplest life would have been able to form. Cosmologist say the universe is around 14 billion years old. But creationist say nothing about this. They worry only about evolution Perhaps it's because those sciences do not try to say that man and apes are related. Personally, I think the idea that I evolved from an ape like animal is cool.

Just for the record, evolution does not say that man evolved from apes, just that man and apes had a common ancestor, which might be even worse from a Creationist point of view. But how man came to exist does not take anything away from who we are now. If humans have souls, we have those souls regardless of how we developed. And even if we don't have souls, we are who we are. Perhaps instead of seeing our evolution from other life forms as demeaning, as Creationist seem to do, it should give us more respect for nature and its creative abilities.

One final note, the Bible says God created heaven, Earth, animals and man, it does not say how. The Bible does say that God did it all in seven days, but we know the length of a day changes, in the winter it's short, in summer it's long. Even the length of one complete revolution of the Earth has changed, getting longer as Earth gets older. The point being is that the concept of a "day" has changed over time. So to interpret a "day" in the Bible to be what we mean it to be now is very short sighted.

Evolution is the right theory because it is the best theory. It's the best theory simply because it works; it's a good tool. In no way are the theories of evolutions and creationism equivalent. Evolution is science, creationism is religion.

The Big Scientific Problem for Creationism

Here's the big problem with trying to dress the biblical creation story as a scientific theory. And this has to do with the very nature of science and knowledge, and religion and faith. A scientific theory is not an attempt to explain "Truth." A scientific theory is never absolutely true. It is always possible that some bit of knowledge will pop up that will disprove a scientific theory. You may feel greatly comfortable with your theory, but you can never be absolutely, absolutely certain about it because some better theory, completely different from yours, may be developed. Even if you come up with a theory of everything that explains everything, someone else could come up with a much simpler theory of everything that does everything your theory does, but in a much simpler way. The point is that you don't know, you can't be certain, and there is no absolute knowledge. All that is really important for your theory is that it work in explaining the world around you and that it does it in the simplest way you can think of.

Religion and faith are different. Religious faith tends to be absolute and leaves no room for doubt. A belief that is based on faith is first assumed to be True, then evidence is looked for to support it. Any evidence that does not support it is assumed to be flawed in some way. First you believe, then you interpret everything you see and encounter in such a way as to support that belief. Sometimes quite a bit of warping of reality is needed to get reality to conform to belief, but that's what faith demands.

So when a creationist presents his theory as science, they are saying they are not absolutely certain it is true. It is true that most evolutionists have little doubt about the truth of evolution; that's because it always works so well in explaining the world we live in. But philosophically speaking, he could be wrong, and some other theory that's totally different could come along that better explains all the things that evolution explains. I doubt that will ever happen because evolution is so simple and so powerful at explaining life, but there is no way I can be absolutely certain. Can a creationist admit the same thing? Could a creationist admit that no matter how certain he feels about creationism, that philosophically speaking there could be a better theory than creationism. No, because the creationist theory is based on faith, not on how well the theory explains.

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The Evolving Monkey : Charles Darwin, Evolution and Creationism
Charles Darwin, Evolution and Creationism
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The Evolving Monkey
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