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Evolution vs. God: A Review


Recently, I had the privilege of viewing Ray Comfort’s new DVD, Evolution vs. God (which can be viewed online here). The movie made for very interesting viewing, as it provided an excellent snapshot of the different worlds that Darwinists and believers in a designed cosmos inhabit.

Let me begin by saying that I was greatly impressed with Ray Comfort’s 2011 pro-life movie, 180. It packed a powerful emotional punch, and it also made you think. The hypothetical question which Comfort posed to the college students he interviewed was simple but stunningly effective, in exposing the intellectual inconsistency of the pro-choice position.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that Evolution vs. God was in the same league as 180. On an emotional level, it felt flatter – and it needn’t have been, because Ray Comfort could have had a field day exposing the chilling ethical views of leading contemporary evolutionists (see here, here, or see this video at 24:12 and 40:33, or this article, or this one, or this collection of quotes, or this post). Instead, Comfort asked the college students whom he interviewed a simple hypothetical: “Your pet dog and your rotten neighbor are drowning. You can only save one of them. Who would you save?” While the students’ responses were very disturbing, I would have loved to have seen the responses given by their professors to the following hypothetical: “Your (highly intelligent) pet dog and your neighbor’s newborn baby are drowning. You can only save one of them. Who would you save?” Now that would have packed a punch.

The movie Evolution vs. God doesn’t make viewers stop and think, in the way that 180 did. Its main intellectual argument is that there’s no observable evidence of macroevolution, as opposed to microevolution. Had Ray Comfort stuck to using those terms, he could have seriously undermined the credibility of Darwinian evolution by quoting from leading evolutionists who have asserted that: (a) microevolution is a process which is fundamentally distinct from macroevolution (which means that observational evidence of the former proves absolutely nothing about the occurrence of the latter); and (b) macroevolution takes place over a period of long periods of time, making it unobservable for human beings. (I compiled some very useful scientific quotes in support of these statements, in a recent post of mine on macroevolution.) Instead, Comfort spoiled his case by asking the people he interviewed to provide an example of a change in kind – a Biblical term which Comfort never defined in the movie, but which he clearly distinguished from “species.” Even worse, Comfort appeared to suggest at one point in the movie that all 32,000 species of fish were of the same “kind”: when he was confronted by Professor P. Z. Myers with an alleged instance of macroevolution in the stickleback fish, he responded that “it’s still a fish.” (For another perspective, see this article.)

How would I rate Evolution vs. God?

Most movie reviewers like to give their movies a rating, using the five-star system. I’m not going to do that for Evolution vs. God; instead, I’m going to give it a report card. Here goes:

Exposure of the ethical deficiencies of the secular humanist mindset: A
(I was staggered to see how many college students said they would save their pet dog from drowning, before saving their drowning next-door neighbor. I’ll say more about this below; for now, all I’ll say is that a rampant sentimentalism seems to have taken the place of a well-thought out system of ethics, for many of today’s young people who reject the claims of organized religion.)

Exposure of many biology students’ ignorance of the evidence for evolution: A
(The sight of so many college students majoring in biology who were unable to name any transitional fossils, let alone cite examples of species changes, made for comical viewing. Their professors will be tearing their hair out in frustration at their lack of education, after watching this movie. And I had a good laugh when I heard a college student argue that humans must have evolved, because “Monkeys are the only ones that had a fifth digit, did you know that?”)

Exposure of conformist thinking among college students: A
(Universities are supposed to be places where people question received ideas, reject authority and learn to think for themselves. But I was shocked to see how many of the biology students interviewed by Ray Comfort eventually admitted that their belief in evolution was based on trust in what the experts say. What this really means is that the intellectual case for the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution has become too complex for the average college student to grasp. Notwithstanding the commendable efforts of some scientists to simplify it to a level accessible to that of the average layperson, it appears that many people feel bamboozled by the claims and counter-claims, and have resolved to go with the scientific consensus, as it’s the path of least resistance. That is a great pity. Darwin’s theory of evolution, unlike the theory of continental drift, makes metaphysical claims which affect your entire perception of yourself, and how you choose to live. To allow an expert – no matter how learned – to decide whether you should accept such a theory is to surrender your whole self-concept, your world-view and your ethical beliefs – for Darwinism impinges on all of these – to the judgment of another person. It is intellectual suicide.)

Effectiveness of interviewing technique: B
(If Ray Comfort’s aim was to make evolutionists look uninformed, then his interviewing technique was moderately successful. If his aim was to look better-informed than his interviewees, then it flopped. See below.)

Fairness of editing: C-minus
(I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that the fairest way to examine a controversial issue is to look at the best arguments mounted by both sides. I was disappointed that the evolutionists’ best arguments were never even mentioned in Ray Comfort’s movie. While the opinions of the interviewees were fairly accurately represented on the whole, it was patently obvious from watching the movie that their responses were heavily edited, with the aim of making them look foolish. I suspect that the professors who were interviewed by Comfort had a lot more to say, but that much of what they said was left on the cutting room floor – which is a real pity. The movie would have been much more effective if the professors interviewed had been allowed to talk at greater length: as the saying goes, give a man enough rope and he’ll hang himself.)

Understanding of the scientific method: C-minus
(Ray Comfort quoted a statement from a short article in Science Daily, which declared that the scientific method is based on “the collection of data through observation and experimentation.” However, the anonymous author of the Science Daily article made the unfortunate mistake of relying heavily on a badly flawed Wikipedia article on the scientific method, which failed to distinguish the experimental sciences from the historical sciences. Charles Darwin regarded evolution as a process that unfolds over eons of time; if he was correct, then evolution – or more precisely, macroevolution – clearly falls into the historical category of sciences, rather than the experimental category. Before making his movie, Ray Comfort would have been well-advised to read Dr. Carol Cleland’s 2001 article, Historical science, experimental science, and the scientific method (Geology, 29(11):987-990), which argues that “the claim that historical science is methodologically inferior to experimental science cannot be sustained.”)

Clarity of the movie-maker’s argument: D
(Ray Comfort’s main argument in the movie was that there was no observable evidence for a change of kind occurring in Nature, but the term “kind” was left undefined, and the remarks made in the movie on what counts as a “kind” are totally inconsistent with one another: the reader is left wondering whether it means “genus,” “family,” “order,” “class,” “phylum,” “kingdom” or even “domain.” Another flaw in the movie was that no real attempt was made to explain why you can’t be a Darwinist and a Christian, as scientists like Dr. Francis Collins profess to be. I imagine Comfort would appeal to the authority of Scripture, but verses like “Let the land produce vegetation” and “Let the water teem with living creatures” could certainly be interpreted in an evolutionary sense, even if humans are treated as a separate creation in Scripture.)

Biological accuracy: D
(That “D” rating applies to both sides of the debate: Professor P. Z. Myers made himself look ridiculous by claiming (6:28) that “human beings are still fish,” when he would have been better off saying that fish are a paraphyletic group, while Ray Comfort discounted (6:20) an alleged instance of macroevolution in sticklebacks, on the grounds that “they stayed as fish.”)

Would I recommend that high school students watch this movie? No. There’s a very real possibility that it could backfire. Some students may perceive the movie as an “ambush” on unsuspecting professors, which may lead them to emotionally identify with the very evolutionists whom the movie is ridiculing. The severe editing of the interviewees’ response in movie will also annoy some teenage viewers, and rub them up the wrong way. So I would advise parents and pastor to exercise caution in screening it to young audiences.

The silliest statement made by a scientist in the movie

At one point in the DVD (6:26), Professor P. Z. Myers told Ray Comfort, “Humans beings are still fish.”

“Humans beings are fish?” Comfort asked, incredulously.

“Why yes, of course they are,” Myers said.

Professor Myers is evidently a cladist: he thinks that since humans are genetically closer to some fish than those fish are to other fish, it makes sense to classify us as fish. But by the same token, we are all bacteria. This, surely, is cladism run amok.

What Myers should have said is that human beings are vertebrates.

Is evolution a belief?

At the beginning of the movie, Ray Comfort attempted to pin down the college students he was interviewing with a simple question: “Is evolution a belief or a fact?” Most students said it was a “fact” rather than a belief, but a cleverer answer would have been to say that evolution is both a belief and a fact. After all, the term “belief” is a broad one, with a variety of meanings. Here, for instance, are three definitions listed in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary:

1: a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing

2: something believed; especially : a tenet or body of tenets held by a group

3: conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination of evidence

Evolution is certainly a belief in senses 2 and 3. The questions we should be asking at this point are: (i) is it a rational belief? (ii) is it a belief that has been established beyond all reasonable doubt? Engaging in futile word games over whether evolution is a “belief” or a “fact” fails to address these fundamental questions.

Evidence for Evolution?

About three minutes into the movie, Ray Comfort asks his interviewees: “Could you give me some observable evidence that evolution is true – I mean something I don’t have to take by faith?” Later on, he amended that question to: “Can you think of any observable evidence that Darwinian evolution is true – a change of kind?”

What I’d like to point out here is that the two questions are very different. A clever Darwinist, if put on the spot by Ray Comfort, would probably respond as follows: “Even if I can’t give you observable evidence of a change of kind, I can certainly give you observable evidence of phenomena that make no sense, except in the light of Darwinian evolution.” That response, if it were supported by suitable evidence, would suffice to render Darwinian evolution the most plausible account of the origin of species – unless there existed other observational evidence which Darwinism was utterly incapable of explaining. (Protein evolution, anyone?)

What I am contending, then, is that the tactic of attempting to discredit Darwinian evolution simply by arguing that it cannot be directly observed, is an invalid one, which (as I argued above) fails to do justice to the historical sciences.

What’s the best evidence for Darwinian evolution?

Any biologist worth his or her salt, if asked to provide observable evidence that Darwinian evolution is true, would cite the nested hierarchy of species. Dr. Douglas Theobald argues in his online essay, 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution that only Darwinian evolution can readily explain this curious fact:

The only known processes that specifically generate unique, nested, hierarchical patterns are branching evolutionary processes. Common descent is a genetic process in which the state of the present generation/individual is dependent only upon genetic changes that have occurred since the most recent ancestral population/individual. Therefore, gradual evolution from common ancestors must conform to the mathematics of Markov processes and Markov chains.

Because the nested hierarchy of species is a feature which pervades all groups of organisms, it provides strong prima facie evidence for the universal common descent of living creatures, as a result of a random branching process.

It has to be squarely admitted that until recently, responses to Theobald’s argument by opponents of Darwinian evolution have, for the most part, been weak and unconvincing. It has been argued that cars, for instance, can be classified in a hierarchical manner; but this ignores the fact that the particular classification scheme chosen for the cars is subjective, and that as Theobald points out, “only certain things can be classified objectively in a consistent, unique nested hierarchy.” The elements cannot, for instance; nor can rocks and minerals. Another claim made by critics of Darwinism is that Aristotle’s great chain of being, or scala naturae, generates a nested hierarchy; but this is not so: and in any case, we would expect a continuum to be blurry, rather than having well-defined species. Yet another response is that the Designer of Nature is quite capable of creating an objective nested hierarchy of organisms, if He wishes; but this account fails to explain why He must do so. Lastly, it has been alleged that Darwinism doesn’t necessarily predict a nested hierarchy of species. But this overlooks the fact that Charles Darwin himself did predict a nested hierarchy of species. (See Darwin, C. (1872), pp. 149, 551-552. The Origin of Species. Sixth Edition. The Modern Library, New York.)

Now, I would certainly maintain that an effective response can be mounted to Theobald’s argument. As I wrote in a recent post entitled, Is Darwinism a better explanation of life than Intelligent Design?:

[W]e would expect a taxonomic nested hierarchy in organisms which are generated by developmental programs, whose variations at key junctures are what is ultimately responsible for living things falling into different taxa (or categories). If living things are put together in this way, then both the taxonomic hierarchy and the structural hierarchy which are found in living things are features that we would expect life to exhibit.

Is there any other striking evidence for Darwinian evolution?

I shall bypass some of the “evidences for evolution” which are commonly cited in biology textbooks: comparative anatomy (illustrated by the pentadactyl limb, which is equally compatible with Richard Owen’s hypothesis that living things were made according to certain archetypes); embryology (ditto, which explains gill slits); vestigial organs (which merely show that organs can lose their function over time through disuse, but fail to shed light on how organs can gain new functions); convergent evolution (an interesting phenomenon, but one which is sometimes hard to distinguish from homology, since convergent structures such as the eye are generated by homologous genes, even in very different kinds of organisms); similarities in functional DNA (which could equally well be explained by an “archetype” theory, of the sort envisaged by Richard Owen); and finally, similarities in “junk” DNA (at the present time, estimates of the proportion of useless “junk” in our DNA vary wildly, so it might be wise to wait until scientists resolve this matter, before relying too heavily on this argument). However, it is only fair that I mention the article, The Chimpanzee Genome and the Problem of Biological Similarity (Occasional Papers of the BSG, 2006, No. 7, pp. 1-18) by the creationist Todd Charles Wood, who reviews recent research on the chimpanzee and human genomes, and acknowledges that not only the degree of similarity, but also the pattern of similarity observed between the human and chimpanzee genomes, cannot be adequately explained simply by ascribing it to the will of the Creator, unless a theory can be developed to explain why the Creator would will such similarity. Until such a theory becomes available, the similarity between human and chimpanzee genomes constitutes good prima facie evidence for human evolution. Wood suggests that the most promising candidate for a theory capable of explaining biological similarity is a modified form of ReMine’s message theory. We shall see.

I would, however, like to draw readers’ attention to another striking piece of observational evidence, which is often cited in support of Darwin’s theory: the evidence from biogeography. We find, for instance, that oceanic islands are missing entire classes of animals, despite the fact that their environment is quite hospitable to these animals. We also find that the distribution of animal species on islands conforms to certain general rules. The closer the island to another land mass, the higher the probability of colonization. The older the island, the more likely it will be colonized. The larger the island, the more species are likely to be established. Again, while a creationist might attempt to explain these facts by positing that each kind of animal was created at a single point on the globe, from which its descendants subsequently radiated, a Darwinist could reply that this sounds like a very lame, ad hoc explanation.

But the Darwinist has real problems, of his own making. Monkeys are a case in point. Molecular studies indicate that the South American monkeys split off from African monkeys around 35 million years ago. Yet the continents of Africa and South America broke away from one another over 100 million years ago, and by 35 million years ago, they were thousands of kilometers apart. So how did monkeys manage to cross the Atlantic ocean? Some Darwinists have seriously proposed that monkeys floated on rafts, Life of Pi-style, across the Atlantic Ocean to South America. Such a hypothesis runs afoul of the awkward fact that monkeys have fast metabolisms and would have required large amounts of food and water to sustain them on a sea voyage that must have lasted from 8 to 15 days. Leaving these fine points aside, Casey Luskin argues that cases like these point to an underlying problem with the evidence for Darwinism:

…[A] macroview must be taken here: Is there any real biogeographical evidence that can falsify common ancestry? If the presence of higher mammalian fauna on isolated island continents with no simple way to arrive there does not falsify neo-Darwinian explanations of biogeography, what will?
(Sea Monkey Hypotheses Refute the NCSE’s Biogeography Objections to Explore Evolution, 2 March 2010. Author’s emphasis – VJT.)

In a follow-up paper entitled, Sea Monkeys Are the Tip of the Iceberg: More Biogeographical Conundrums for Neo-Darwinism (3 March 2010), Luskin goes on to list dozens of observed examples of biogeographical distributions of animals that pose a severe challenge to neo-Darwinism. A few select examples: the origin of various land reptiles in Western Samoa; lizards reaching South America; the appearance of fossil elephants on “many islands,” which are said to have arrived by swimming; the appearance of sloths in South America; the dispersal of freshwater frogs across oceanic island chains; and the spread of flightless insects to the Chatham Islands, an archipelago 680 kilometers south-east of New Zealand.

I would love to have seen Professor P. Z. Myers cite the evidence for neo-Darwinian evolution from biogeography, only to have the tables turned on him, under sustained, skillful rapid-fire questioning by Ray Comfort. It didn’t happen that way in this movie, although I think a trained scientist like Jonathan Sarfati could have pulled it off. Still, it’s a tactic that Darwin critics might consider for future use. The most effective kind of pummeling is to pummel someone not with fists, but with facts.

At the current time, it seems that neither an evolutionary nor a creationist theory of origins does a good job of explaining the observed distribution of different species of organisms around the globe today. Obviously a more sophisticated theory is required, but at present, we have no idea what that theory might be.

The larger point, however, is that a difficulty for Intelligent Design and/or creationism does not equate to a point in favor of Darwinism – unless one can show that Darwinism accounts for all the other relevant facts as well as, or better than, ID and creationism.

Evidence for Darwinian evolution: what is a “kind”?

Time and time again, Comfort made his interviewees squirm when he asked them a simple question: “Can you think of any observable evidence that Darwinian evolution is true – a change of kind?” Ray Comfort made it clear to his interviewees that he was not looking for evidence of a change from one species into another, as there are 14 different definitions of species in the literature. (He’s not far wrong on that one: philosopher of science John S. Wilkins counted seven distinct definitions of “species” in a 2010 article entitled, How many species concepts are there? (The Guardian, 20 October 2010), and 26 or 27 variations on these definitions!)

It is extremely unfortunate that nowhere in his movie did Comfort provide his viewers with a definition of “kind.” The closest he came to offering a definition was at around the four-minute mark, where he distinguished the canine kind (of which he nominated dogs and coyotes as examples) from the feline kind (which, he said, included tigers and domestic kittens) and humankind, when interviewing Professor P. Z. Myers. So if tigers count as examples of felines and if canines are a separate kind from felines, I can infer that for Comfort, the term “kind” roughly equates to the biological taxon of “family.” Many creationists think likewise: most notably Todd Wood, a leading exponent of the field of creation research known as baraminology, or the study of created kinds.

However, Comfort did not apply his definition of “kind” in a consistent manner. At one point, he spoke of humans as a separate kind. But humans, chimpanzees & bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans are now classed in the same family (Hominidae, or great apes), so if humans are a separate kind, this suggests that “kind” corresponds to “genus.” When one interviewee cited changes in Darwin’s finches as an example of evolution, this was discounted on the grounds that “they’re still birds.” Going by that definition, “kind” must mean “class.” At another point in the DVD, changes in the metabolic function of bacteria were cited as observational evidence for Darwinian evolution, only to be rebutted with the statement that “they’re still bacteria.” By this criterion, “kind” must mean something even larger than the taxon of “kingdom”: it must mean “domain.” But in that case, “fish-to-man” evolution would still be evolution within a kind! Presumably even Ray Comfort does not seriously believe that the bacteria which produce cheese and yogurt, the E. coli bacteria in your bowel, and the bacteria which cause cholera, syphilis, anthrax, leprosy, and bubonic plague, all belong in the same created kind.

Why “kinds” are probably roughly equivalent to species, rather than families

In his 2007 book, The Edge of Evolution, Professor Michael Behe (who believes in common descent as I do) argued that intelligent design in Nature goes down to the taxonomic level of the family, or thereabouts (actually, Behe hedged his bets between genus, family and order). And until recently, I also used to believe that the “edge of evolution” – if we define “evolution” as random change culled by natural selection – lay roughly at the taxonomic level of the family: Darwinian evolution could explain the origin of cats, lions, jaguars, leopards, cougars, cheetahs, lynxes, ocelots and domestic cats from a common cat stock, but beyond that point, it could not go. However, I now believe that the edge of evolution lies at the level of the species, instead. What changed my mind was an article by the Croatian biochemist Dr. Branko Kozulic, titled, Proteins and Genes, Singletons and Species, which I discussed in my Uncommon Descent post, The Edge of Evolution?”. Dr. Kozulic argues that the presence of not one but literally hundreds of chemically unique proteins in each species is an event beyond the reach of chance, and that since these proteins exhibit specified complexity (as the amino acids which make up the polypeptide chain need to be in the correct order), each species must therefore be the result of intelligent planning. (A parallel argument can be made for de novo protein-coding genes.)

But if the work of Dr. Kozulic suggests that “kind” equates to “species” and not “family,” then creationists can no longer object to Darwinists citing species changes as changes of kind. The question we need to ask instead is: what is a species, and in particular, is there a fairly rigid and non-trivial definition of “species” that would allow Intelligent Design theorists and creationists to formulate an exceptionless rule that unguided evolution cannot go beyond the species level? This rule would have to be framed in such a way that a fair-minded individual could readily perceive that the commonly cited instances of “species changes” observed in Nature – such as sticklebacks – are not true examples of species change. Accomplishing this task will be no mean feat, and I don’t envy the scientists who take on the challenge: they will have many years of research ahead of them.

Apparent exceptions: cichlids

A good starting point, as I suggested in my Uncommon Descent post, Some testable predictions entailed by Dr. Kozulic’s model of Intelligent Design, would be research into cichlid fish. Creationists acknowledge that the 1,000+ species of cichlid fish found in Nature all arose from a common ancestor, despite the fact that they are commonly classified in an entire family of their own. Dr. Arthur Jones has done extensive research arguing that taken together, they are indeed a natural kind:

For all the diversity of species, I found the cichlids to be an unmistakably natural group, a created kind. The more I worked with these fish the clearer my recognition of “cichlidness” became and the more distinct they seemed from all the “similar” fishes I studied. Conversations at conferences and literature searches confirmed that this was the common experience of experts in every area of systematic biology. Distinct kinds really are there and the experts know it to be so. Developmental studies then showed that the enormous cichlid diversity (over 1,000 “species”) was actually produced by the endless permutation of a relatively small number of character states: 4 colors, ten or so basic pigment patterns and so on. The same characters (or character patterns) appeared “randomly” all over the cichlid distribution. The patterns of variation were “modular” or “mosaic”; evolutionary lines of descent were nowhere to be found. This kind of adaptive variation can occur quite rapidly (since it involves only what was already there) and some instances of cichlid “radiation” (in geologically “recent” lakes) were indeed dateable (by evolutionists) to within timespans of no more than a few thousand years.

Dr. Jones seems to be hinting at a criterion here which might be of some assistance to future taxonomists within the Intelligent Design and/or creationist movements: genetic variations that are the result of permutation should not be taken as defining a species, in the strict sense of the term in which Kozulic might define it. Sounds promising; we’ll see.

The other big question that scientists in the ID and/or creationist movements need to examine is: which, if any, of these cichlid species possess unique proteins and protein-coding genes? Dr. Kozulic has argued that each species can be characterized by literally hundreds of unique proteins and protein-coding genes which distinguish it from all other species. If the concept of “species” is to define the edge of Darwinian evolution, then there cannot be large numbers of proteins and protein-coding genes which are unique to a particular population of cichlids: instead, what we would expect to find is that cichlids, no matter what “species” they belong to, share virtually all of their proteins and protein-coding genes, with perhaps a handful of exceptions. A contrary finding would seriously weaken the notion of an “edge of evolution.”

Macroevolution vs. microevolution: where do scientists draw the line?

I alluded earlier to the distinction, commonly drawn in the scientific literature, between macroevolution and microevolution, which I discussed in an earlier post. The reader may be wondering: at what taxonomic level do scientists draw the line between the two? The following definitions show that for most scientists, macroevolution means evolution at or above the species level.

“In evolutionary theory, macroevolution involves common ancestry, descent with modification, speciation, the genealogical relatedness of all life, transformation of species, and large scale functional and structural changes of populations through time, all at or above the species level (Freeman and Herron 2004; Futuyma 1998; Ridley 1993).”
– Theobald, Douglas L. 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution.

Evolutionary change occurs on different scales: ‘microevolution’ is generally equated with events at or below the species level whereas ‘macroevolution’ is change above the species level, including the formation of species. A long-standing issue in evolutionary biology is whether the processes observable in extant populations and species (microevolution) are sufficient to account for the larger-scale changes evident over longer periods of life’s history (macroevolution).
– Carroll, Sean B. 2001 (Feb 8). Nature 409:669.

“Evolutionary biologists on both sides of famously contentious debates seem to agree that the definition of macroevolution boils down to ‘evolution above the species level.’
– Matzke, Nicholas J., and Gross, Paul R. (2006). “Analyzing Critical Analysis: The Fallback Antievolutionist Strategy.” Chapter 2 of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools. Scott, E., and Branch, G., eds., Beacon Press, pp. 49-50.

On the other hand, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne seems to define “macroevolution” more broadly, as major evolutionary change of any kind. Although he does not indicate which taxon he equates it to, he makes it clear that a transition from land animal to whale – i.e. a change at the level of the order – would certainly constitute an example of genuine macroevolution. The examples he gives of microevolution, however, are all changes occurring within a species. Thus I suspect that Coyne would also draw the line between macroevolution and microevolution at the level of the species, rather than at some higher taxonomic level, like that of the family:

“What really excites people – biologists and paleontologists among them – are transitional forms: those fossils that span the gap between two very different kinds of living organisms. Did birds really come from reptiles, and land animals from fish, and whales from land animals? If so, where is the fossil evidence? Even some creationists will admit that minor changes in size and shape might occur over time – a process called microevolution – but they reject the idea that one very different kind of animal or plant can come from another (macroevolution).
– Coyne, Jerry A. Why Evolution Is True. 2009. Oxford University Press, p. 36.

“MACROEVOLUTION: ‘Major’ evolutionary change, usually thought of as large changes in body form or the evolution of one type of plant or animal from another type. The change from our primate ancestor to modern humans, or from early reptiles to birds, would be considered macroevolution.

“MICROEVOLUTION: ‘Minor’ evolutionary change, such as the change in size or color of a species. One example is the evolution of different skin colors or hair types among human populations; another is the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.”
– Coyne, Jerry A. Why Evolution Is True. 2009. Oxford University Press, Glossary, pp. 268-269.

The foregoing quotes also hint at the ongoing controversy among scientists as to whether macroevolution is a mere extrapolation of microevolution over vast eons of time, or whether it is a fundamentally different kind of process.

Finally, Professor Coyne makes some revealing comments on the question of whether macroevolution can ever be observed on the scale of a human lifetime:

we shouldnt expect to see more than small changes in one or a few features of a species – what is known as microevolutionary change. Given the gradual pace of evolution, it’s unreasonable to expect to see selection transforming one “type” of plant or animal to another – so-called macroevolution – within a human lifetime. Though macroevolution is occurring today, we simply won’t be around long enough to see it. Remember that the issue is not whether macroevolutionary change happens – we already know from the fossil record that it does – but whether it was caused by natural selection, and whether natural selection can build complex features and organisms.”
– Coyne, Jerry A. Why Evolution Is True. 2009. Oxford University Press, p. 144.

All well and good; but if biologists expect the American public as a whole to accept the reality of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, it is incumbent on them to show that: (a) the process of Darwinian evolution is capable of generating the variety of life-forms we see today, within the time available; (b) there exists observable evidence which only the neo-Darwinian theory can successfully explain; and (c) there is no observable evidence that the theory cannot explain. I’d say they still have a long, long way to go.

The evolution of kinds: what did Darwin actually say?

In the DVD, Evolution vs. God, Ray Comfort also asserts in passing that Charles Darwin defined evolution “proper” as a change of kind, as opposed to a change from one species to another: “Darwin spoke of a change of kind” (10:43). I was curious when I heard this, so I went back to Darwin’s Origin of Species to take a look. I searched for the phrases “change of kind” and “change in kind.” No luck. So I did a search on the word “kind” itself – all 103 usages of it in the Origin of Species. In many cases the word was used to mean “sort”; in other cases, it meant “variety” or “subspecies.” But in its most precise usage, Darwin appeared to equate “kind” with the term “species.” Consider for instance the following excerpt from Chapter XI, where “kind” obviously means “species”:

Until I tried, with Mr. Berkeley’s aid, a few experiments, it was not even known how far seeds could resist the injurious action of sea-water. To my surprise I found that out of 87 kinds, 64 germinated after an immersion of 28 days, and a few survived an immersion of 137 days.
(Darwin, C. R. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray. [1st edition], Chapter XI, page 358.)

The passage below, from Chapter XIII of Darwin’s Origin of Species, should remove all doubt that Darwin himself equated “kind” with “species,” and not with a larger taxon such as “genus,” “family” or “class.” It also shows that for Darwin, the various taxonomic categories, such as species, genus and family, had no objective meaning, apart from the evolutionary notion of sharing a common ancestor:

Naturalists try to arrange the species, genera, and families in each class, on what is called the Natural System. But what is meant by this system? Some authors look at it merely as a scheme for arranging together those living objects which are most alike, and for separating those which are most unlike; or as an artificial means for enunciating, as briefly as possible, general propositions, — that is, by one sentence to give the characters common, for instance, to all mammals, by another those common to all carnivora, by another those common to the dog-genus, and then by adding a single sentence, a full description is given of each kind of dog. The ingenuity and utility of this system are indisputable. But many naturalists think that something more is meant by the Natural System; they believe that it reveals the plan of the Creator; but unless it be specified whether order in time or space, or what else is meant by the plan of the Creator, it seems to me that nothing is thus added to our knowledge. Such expressions as that famous one of Linnaeus, and which we often meet with in a more or less concealed form, that the characters do not make the genus, but that the genus gives the characters, seem to imply that something more is included in our classification, than mere resemblance. I believe that something more is included; and that propinquity of descent, — the only known cause of the similarity of organic beings, — is the bond, hidden as it is by various degrees of modification, which is partially revealed to us by our classifications.
(Darwin, C. R. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray. [1st edition], Chapter XIII, pages 413-414.)

The vast ethical gulf between atheistic Darwinists and the rest of the population

By far most disturbing segment of Ray Comfort’s movie, Evolution vs. God, was at a point (22:29) when he asked several young college students who were all science majors, the following question: “Your pet dog and your rotten neighbor are drowning. You can only save one of them. Who would you save?”

After a little hesitation, the students answered that they would save their pet dog.

“Why?” you might ask. As one point student put it: “Well, we’re animals. We’re all equal. I don’t think that humans have, like, a higher place” (23:07). Ironically, Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley would have firmly rejected this line of thinking. As I demonstrated at length in an earlier post on Uncommon Descent, both Darwin and Huxley were human supremacists, who believed in a scala naturae (or ladder of Nature) with people at the top, even if they also thought that the difference between man and the other animals was one of degree rather than kind.

In rejecting this way of thinking, the students interviewed by Ray Comfort showed themselves to be under the spell of a new ethic, which completely devalues reason, and values creatures solely for their ability to suffer. (Apparently third-trimester human fetuses don’t count, however.) This is the ethic advocated by PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk, who famously declared:

Animal liberationists do not separate out the human animal, so there is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They’re all mammals.
(Quoted in an article by Katie McCabe, “Who Will Live, Who Will Die,” The Washingtonian, vol. 21, no. 11, August 1986.)

Some readers might be tempted to trace this ethic back to the classic utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, whose remark, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” is often quoted by animal rights supporters. (See Bentham, Jeremy. Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, second edition, 1823, chapter 17, footnote 122.) Less well known, however, is the fact that Bentham himself supported medical experiments on animals, including dogs. In a letter to the editor of the Morning Chronicle of London, dated 4 March 1825, he wrote:

I never have seen, nor ever can see, any objection to the putting of dogs and other inferior animals to pain, in the way of medical experiment, when that experiment has a determinate object, beneficial to mankind, accompanied with a fair prospect of the accomplishment of it.

Researchers who study animal consciousness commonly draw a distinction between primary consciousness (which includes sensations, emotions, perceptions and mental images) and higher-order consciousness (which includes such abilities as self-reflective awareness, abstract thinking, volition and metacognition). Evidence of some degree of higher-order consciousness has been found for great apes, dolphins, elephants and crows – but not dogs. No doubt the professors interviewed by Ray Comfort would be aware of this fact, and I would be greatly astonished if any of them would save their dog rather than their drowning neighbor. Even on a strictly utilitarian view of life, that decision makes little sense: not all animal suffering is equal, and the suffering of a being with an extended, autobiographical .concept of self must far exceed that of a being who never wonders who it is, where it came from and where it is going. It is for this reason that I can only
ascribe the students’ willingness to value the lives of their pets over the lives of their neighbors down to a sentimental anthropomorphism, which probably results from having watched too many Disney movies in their childhood.

What I would have liked to see Ray Comfort do is ask the students’ professors whether they would save their pet dog or their neighbor’s newborn baby from drowning, if they could save only one. And I strongly suspect that all of them would save the dog, on the grounds that a dog’s level of consciousness is supposedly far more advanced than a newborn baby’s (or is it?) Showing that on the video would have been shocking to many viewers, and would have very effectively highlighted the warped ethical views that result from a materialistic view of consciousness, which is the view that Darwin and Huxley espoused.

And on that note, I shall conclude my review of Ray Comfort’s Evolution vs. God. It is a movie of uneven quality, and its depiction of the ethical vacuity of many college students, coupled with their willingness to accept an entire world-view largely on the say-so of their professors, makes for disturbing viewing. It will shock many people who watch it. I think the movie could have been much better done; nevertheless, it certainly made its point, and made it quite effectively.


(What follows, for those readers who are interested, is an examination of Darwin’s and Huxley’s views as to man’s place in Nature.)

APPENDIX: What ethical significance did Darwin and Huxley attach to human beings, compared to other animals?

For all their faults, there is abundant evidence that both Darwin and Huxley, unlike most modern-day evolutionists, believed in a scala naturae, with human beings at the top. One cannot imagine either of them choosing to save a dog rather than a man – even if he were a thoroughly odious person. Their writings demonstrate that belief in a theory of common descent via natural selection is quite compatible with the belief that some life-forms are “higher” than others, as I argued in an earlier post. Unlike their contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace, however, Darwin and Huxley rejected the view that humans are psychologically different in kind from the other animals.

Darwin and Huxley on man’s place in Nature

In his 1861 essay, On the Relations of Man to the Lower Animals, Huxley wrote:

I have endeavoured to show that no absolute structural line of demarcation, wider than that between the animals which immediately succeed us in the scale, can be drawn between the animal world and ourselves; and I may add the expression of my belief that the attempt to draw a psychical distinction is equally futile, and that even the highest faculties of feeling and of intellect begin to germinate in lower forms of life. At the same time, no one is more strongly convinced than I am of the vastness of the gulf between civilized man and the brutes; or is more certain that whether from them or not, he is assuredly not of them. No one is less disposed to think lightly of the present dignity, or despairingly of the future hopes, of the only consciously intelligent denizen of this world.

There can be no doubt that Huxley would have saved his neighbour rather than the dog, if both were drowning and he could save only one: for on his view, the life of a “consciously intelligent” being would automatically take precedence over that of a sentient being lacking self-consciousness.

What about Charles Darwin? In his work, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: John Murray, 1st edition, 1871), Charles Darwin argued that “the mental faculties of man and the lower animals do not differ in kind, although immensely in degree” (Chapter VI, p. 186). Nevertheless, Darwin made it quite clear that he regarded human beings as as occupying the summit of the scale of Nature, making them greater than any of the other creatures in the animal kingdom:

Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hopes for a still higher destiny in the distant future. (Chapter XXI, p. 405)

Since Darwin placed man at the “summit of the organic scale,” we must conclude that he, like Huxley, would have saved his neighbour rather than the dog, in Ray Comfort’s hypothetical scenario.

But there’s more. Darwin and Huxley would have not only saved their rotten neighbour rather than their pet dog; they would have also viewed it as perfectly ethical to kill or inflict pain on the dog, in order to save their drowning neighbour. We can be sure of this conclusion, because it is a matter of public record that both men actively supported draft legislation (known as the Playfair Bill) which would have permitted the infliction of pain upon animals (including dogs) in scientific experiments, even when their sole justification was “for the purpose of new scientific discovery and for no other purpose.”

Darwin and Huxley on animal experimentation

Charles Darwin was passionate about the prevention of needless cruelty to animals – indeed, whenever he came across cases of cruelty to farm animals as a local magistrate, he “was inexorable in imposing fines and punishment,” according to his biographer Janet Browne (Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002). At the same time, he was also a supporter of experimental physiology and opposed the introduction of laws that would have severely restricted the practice of vivisection, writing in a letter to one of his daughters that “if such laws are passed, the result will assuredly be that physiology, which has been until within the last few years at a standstill in England, will languish or quite cease.” (Darwin, Francis (Ed). The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray, 1887, vol. 3, p. 203). Although Darwin insisted that animals in science experiments should be anaesthetized whenever possible, even on this point, he actively opposed the passage of a draft bill presented to the British Parliament, known as Henniker’s Bill, which would have required that anaesthetics be used in all experiments conducted on animals. Instead, both Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley lent their support to a rival bill, known as the Playfair bill, which would have legalized painful experiments that were officially licensed, under government supervision:

The second draft Bill, presented by Lyon Playfair, was intended to head off Henniker’s Bill at the pass. It had been pulled together through the efforts of Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and John Burdon Sanderson, a leading physiologist and one of the few scientists in England then regularly using living animals in his research.… Presented on 12 May 1875, just days after Henniker’s, this draft Bill proposed the regulation of painful experiments on living animals and recommended the legalization of all painless experiments, including in this definition all those conducted under anaesthesia that were “for the purpose of scientific discovery, but for no other purpose.” … The Playfair Bill also outlined a process for granting five-year licenses to perform painful experiments to enable long-term scientific research programs. Licenses for painful experiments undertaken without anesthesia could also be granted by the Home Secretary on several grounds: first, “for the purpose of new scientific discovery and for no other purpose,” second, when the use of anaesthesia interfered with the experiment, and, third, when pain and suffering were to be kept to an absolute minimum. Those granted a license under such terms would be required to keep records of all experiments performed or face various penalties, including fines up to £50 and three months imprisonment.[3] As David Feller points out, the Playfair Bill placed scientists under government supervision only in the case of painful experiments, and left the decision to apply for license “to the scientist’s judgment” (266).
(Hamilton, Susan. “On the Cruelty to Animals Act, 15 August 1876.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net.)

In the end, neither bill was passed: after a lengthy report by the Royal Commission on Vivisection, Parliament finally passed the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1876, which has been described by Professor Susan Hamilton as “the world’s first legislation to regulate the use and treatment of live animals in scientific research,” which “brought together many of the key provisions outlined in the Henniker and Playfair Bills.”

For his part, Thomas Henry Huxley was an outspoken supporter of animal experimentation, even when it involved the infliction of “severe prolonged suffering” on “the more sensitive among the higher animals,” including dogs. In a letter to an unknown correspondent dated September 29, 1890, he wrote:

I am of the opinion that the practice of performing experiments on living animals is not only reconcilable with true humanity, but under certain circumstances is imperatively demanded by it.

I ask myself – suppose you knew that by inflicting prolonged pain on 100 rabbits you could discover a way to the extirpation of leprosy, or consumption, or locomotor ataxy, or of suicidal melancholia among human beings, dare you refuse to inflict that pain? Now I am quite unable to say that I dare. That sort of daring would seem to me to be extreme moral cowardice, to involve gross inconsistency…

…[I]f the good of society and of a nation is a sufficient plea for inflicting pain on men, I think it may suffice us for experimenting on rabbits or dogs.

The wanton infliction of pain on man or beast is a crime; pity is that so many of those who (as I think rightly) hold this view, seem to forget that the criminality lies in the wantonness and not in the act of inflicting pain per se.

Darwin on infanticide

A collection of Darwin’s writings on infanticide can be found here.

In his 1871 work, The Descent of Man, Darwin made it clear that he regarded infanticide as a despicable practice, found in “barbarous tribes,” but one that had no place in civilized society. He spoke with undisguised contempt of the “savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.”

Darwin also asserts, curiously, that “Our early semi- human progenitors would not have practised infanticide or polyandry; for the instincts of the lower animals are never so perverted.”

A writer in The Spectator (March 12, 1871, p. 320) made the following comment on the above assertion of Darwin’s:

“Mr. Darwin finds himself compelled to reintroduce a new doctrine of the fall of man. He shews that the instincts of the higher animals are far nobler than the habits of savage races of men, and he finds himself, therefore, compelled to re-introduce,—in a form of the substantial orthodoxy of which he appears to be quite unconscious,—and to introduce as a scientific hypothesis the doctrine that man’s gain of KNOWLEDGE was the cause of a temporary but long-enduring moral deterioration as indicated by the many foul customs, especially as to marriage, of savage tribes. What does the Jewish tradition of the moral degeneration of man through his snatching at a knowledge forbidden him by his highest instinct assert beyond this?”

A telling point. What is quite certain is that Darwin, were he alive today, would have regarded with loathing the views of his modern disciples, who use his theory to justify the infanticide of disabled infants, as historian Richard Weikart has documented in his essay, Does Darwinism Devalue Human Life? Darwin the man, growing up as he did in a culture that was steeped in the religious awareness of God and in the practice of the Judeo-Christian ethic, retained a high regard for human life; his modern scientific followers are perhaps more intellectually consistent than their “founding father,” but they are also more debased.

Peter Nonacs, You are correct. The appropriate choice is to let the Christian die because he is prepared for death and the life afterward. The sacrificial nature of Christ infuses His followers such that they understand that "no greater love..." mantra, er uh scripture. Well done Sir, you get a cookie. Now, would you like to hear about Jesus? Again I err, rather would you like to meet Him? haha All the Best, Aleo liberalskillbabies
Peter Nonacs, If I were the drowning Christian I would prefer that the atheistic evolutionary biologist be saved. I mean if I were being consistent with my beliefs at the moment. Adiel Corchado Adiel Corchado
The reason I would feel constrained to save the life of an adult human being over that of my dog (if I had one), would not be because of the reflective consciousness of human beings, but because God has given us a special, a very special place in his creation - even if it's hard to discern from our behaviour much of the time. If I knew the drowning man to be a very bad person, I would favour my dog. But, with rare exceptions, we can't know that for sure. Axel
First off, let me congratulate you on the single most thoughtful and balanced appraisal of Comfort’s movie that I have read so far. Unlike almost every other piece that I’ve seen, you neither slavishly praise what is obviously a very flawed and biased piece of film-making, nor simply string together a series of ad hominem attacks on the character of Comfort or Christians (depending on which side of the Evolution/Creation divide you reside). Well, you wanted to know a professor’s response to the save beloved dog/rotten neighbor dilemma. I went for the neighbor. Or at least that’s the way I remember it. (I think I’m right about that because probably everyone who said “dog” made it into the film, and those who said “neighbor” ended up on the cutting room floor!) But what I really do remember thinking was, first, what does this have to do with evolution? And second, what an absurd, absolutist question. How would I absolutely know that both would drown? How would I know that I could, with 100% certainty, save one and only one? A more realistic question would be, “You see a person and dog apparently on the verge of drowning, what do you do?” My response, and probably most everyone else’s, is” “Try and save both!” Of course, on an absolutist level I am already a horrible person. We have a beloved family dog. Over the years we’ve spent 1000’s of dollars on him for food, toys, medicine, etc. Just think how many human lives could have been saved or improved if only we’d donated this money to the appropriate charity or relief organizations. Indeed on this moral level, every pet in the US should be immediately euthanized and all those trillions of dollars devoted instead to improving the human condition worldwide. And not just pets – how about those luxury cars and fancy clothes we don’t really need. What if Comfort stood outside his local Best Buy and asked everyone, “Would you buy that plasma TV if you absolutely knew that 10 children in Ethiopia will starve to death unless you donate to my ministry instead?” Maybe that’s true, and maybe it isn’t. The point is that by spinning the appropriate absolutist dilemma, we can make anyone making the most mundane of life choices (e.g., I’m getting a candy bar after writing this!) into a vile, immoral actor. On the other hand, it’s fun to ask these questions because then you can blame your favorite villain for the obvious breakdown of public morals. So, in that spirit let me ask an absurd, absolutist question. You see a righteous Christian and an atheistic evolutionary biologist both drowning. You can save only one. Who is it? Peter Nonacs Peter Nonacs
I'm kind of confused about your argument for a nested hierarchy. Are you saying that life develops in such a way that a designer would most likely create it as a nested hierarchy? Also, would an example of an organism failing to fit in the nested hierarchy give evidence of design? CF the platypus. Collin
Shouldn't that be, the catatonic ZZZ Mires? Axel
P. Z. Myers Haha. Enough said. CentralScrutinizer
I love my dog, too, but when confronted with the hypothetical situation presented in the OP, I'd save the newborn baby. Which can't swim. Whereas dogs can (the dog paddle, anyone?). A book I utilized for an ethics class in college (Contemporary Moral Issues, 3rd Edition, by Lawrence Hinman) suggested that moral pluralism is the way to go when settling--or attempting to settle--moral conundrums. A moral pluralist maintains that there are moral truths but they do not form a body of coherent and consistent truths in the way one finds in the science or mathematics. Moral truthhs are real but partial, and they are "inescapably" plural. So, to the moral pluralist, there might be conflicting theories about a moral issue (abortion, for example), yet each claims to have the truth (or at least part of it). Thanks, I'll stick with moral absolutism. It makes more sense. Barb
The movie Evolution vs. God is now available for download online here. Persons wishing to do so can also purchase a DVD. vjtorley

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