Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Apologetics, Culture wars and Current events, Evolution | Posted on 16-12-2013
Several times in the past couple weeks, friends and acquaintances on Facebook have pointed out an article in World Magazine, in which the headline breathlessly proclaims that a “Fossil Finding Shakes Evolutionary Theories.” Similar articles have appeared in the Christian News Network’s website, including Unprecedented Skull Discovery Raises Serious Questions Over Evolutionary Premises on November 4, and Groundbreaking Genetic Discoveries Challenge Ape to Human Evolutionary Theory on June 17 (please note: links are for reference not endorsement). Each of the articles refers to an actual scientific discovery which, to quote the November Christian News article, “has thrown the proverbial monkey wrench into the theory of human evolution.” Simplified (as things frequently are) on Facebook, the message is this: Scientists have just discovered proof they’ve been wrong about evolution!
Now I have opinions about the creation/evolution debate … I discussed them somewhat here if you’re interested … but that’s really not the point of this article. In fact, for the moment, I actually don’t care whether you, the reader, are a young-earth creationist, old-earth creationist, theistic evolutionist, atheist evolutionist, or any other “…ist” you care to propose. I do, however, care a great deal whether you tell the truth about others’ opinions when you make your argument.
The Christian reporters in the articles I linked above have done a terrible job of representing the science upon which they presume to report. Whether their misrepresentations are through genuine ignorance of science, or willful distortion of facts they know their readers will not bother to verify, I cannot presume to say. I have my suspicions though, when I see the World article state that one of the researchers, Juan Luis Arsuaga, told the New York Times that “the baffling discovery of DNA evidence that does not fit with current theories of human evolution is causing scientists to rethink the whole story of human biological development.” It’s true that Arsuaga was interviewed by the Times; you can read the article here, and it’s true he said “we have to rethink the whole story,” but the “story” to which he is referring is certainly not the very foundation of evolution.
The actual journal publications upon which these stories base their claims, certainly give no hint that they’ve knocked the props out from under evolutionary biology. But to understand this, you really have to read the original publications. Only one of them is freely available on the internet (scientific journals are pretty expensive), but anyone who’s interested enough can get the others through the library of a local college or university (many of whom may allow you to request the articles online). Here are the citations:
- For the World article, the source is in Nature: Meyer et al., A mitochondrial genome sequence of a hominin from Sima de los Huesos
- For the November Christian News article, see Science: Lordkipanidze et al., A Complete Skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the Evolutionary Biology of Early Homo
- For the June Christian News article, see Molecular Biology and Evolution: Farre et al., Recombination Rates and Genomic Shuffling in Human and Chimpanzee—A New Twist in the Chromosomal Speciation Theory (this one is free to download)
There is no doubt that each of the articles presents some new evidence that challenges scientists to reconsider their earlier theories. That’s actually one of the cool things about science … good science takes a look at available evidence, tries to fit it into what we already know (or think we know), but candidly faces the fact that new discoveries sometimes demand new explanations. True scientists are actually excited when a discovery rattles previously-held theories, because that means they get to do more science. But to state that any of these researchers makes the slightest suggestion that evolution in general is false, is simply playing loose with the facts. Each, in reality, discusses their findings in the light of the principles of evolution:
- The Meyer article reports on a study of mitochondrial DNA in some 400,000-year-old hominin (human-like) bones from Spain, and discovers that the DNA is more like the Denisovian branch of hominins than it is like Neanderthals. This discovery challenges the timing of both evolution and migration (from Africa to Europe) of different proto-human species, and the authors propose “several evolutionary scenarios” that might explain their discovery. If there’s one obvious take-home from the article, it is that the picture is more complicated than they thought, and merits further research.
- Lordkipadnidze and his colleagues reported on a 1.8 million-year-old hominid skull found in Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia. Combined with five other skulls they found in the same area and from the same time, the fossils present a diverse range of size and brain size within a single species … more so than earlier researchers had thought possible. These finds do scramble a number of evolutionary timelines, as they provide solid evidence that we need more than just measurements of skulls to determine the species of a hominid fossil. But again, the implications are discussed in wholly evolutionary terms.
- Farre and her colleagues dig into the details of the role genetic recombination (the way genes in chromosomes sort and resort themselves during replication) may play in “speciation,” the process whereby organisms diverge enough to actually represent different species (for example, how a single species of simian ancestors gradually evolved into humans and chimpanzees). The researchers compared human, orangutan, and chimpanzee DNA to see what genetic sequences are common and what ones are different, and perhaps as importantly, where the same gene sequences appeared to have broken off one chromosome and attached to another in one of the species. This article is probably the most difficult of the three for a layman to read (and not being a geneticist, it’s a tall order for me). However, it’s quite clear that the authors, far from “challenging ape to human evolutionary theory,” are merely providing evidence that current thought on the mechanism for genetic evolution needs to be revised.
The important point for us to face is that the scientists from each group represented above, are working from within a scientific framework in which evolution is completely accepted as true … and what they are doing with their research is to add new data to refine the “how,” not the “if” of human evolution. When they say, as each does at some point, that their discoveries shake up the status quo, they are not suggesting that they were wrong all along, and “biblical Creationism” was true after all. They are merely suggesting that there are elements of the evolutionary model that need to be re-examined in the light of new evidence.
Not every Christian–not even every conservative Christian, considers the battle over “creationism” as a key to their apologetics. However, there is a subset that seem to be under the fallacious impression that if one small piece of “the Evolutionists'” theory is shown to be wrong, the whole (godless) edifice must of needs come crumbling down. To be fair, many orthodox Christians seem to have a similar attitude toward the truth of Scripture. Greg Boyd discussed this “house of cards” perspective in his recent (and excellent) book Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty, when he said:
“…I was taught that if the earth was not created in six literal days and if Adam and Eve were not literal, historical people, then the whole Bible may as well be a book of lies. Flick this one card out, and the whole structure of faith collapses.”
Boyd goes on to explain why the “house of cards” analogy is an unhealthy way to look at faith. But it appears to me that Creationists may be using a similar rationale when they pounce on scientific articles such as those discussed here. They certainly seem to think that if they can prove the scientists wrong about one thing in evolution, they’ve effectively demolished the whole of evolutionary biology. But science doesn’t work like that, and no responsible scientist would accept such a line of reasoning. The reporters for Christian News and World Magazine may not understand this, but the scientists from the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis, whom they quote, certainly should know better. People with PhDs may not all believe alike, but they ought to know how to read a scientific journal.
I began by saying that I really don’t care whether readers of this article are “creationists” or “evolutionists.” It’s mostly true, I don’t. But when Christians, in an attempt to buttress their theology, flat-out misrepresent science, it is no surprise that people in the sciences don’t take them seriously. As I already stated, I don’t know if the Christian, Creationist writers are deliberately distorting the scientists’ reports; that is, whether these misstatements are actually lies or just bad apologetics. But either way, it does no benefit to the truth of the gospel, to make blatantly untrue statements about the discoveries of its putative opponents.