Friday, August 3, 2007

Information, please- Part 1

Evolution and elocution

I know you want to
change the truth
oh we were made by nature's fools
- Amy Ray
(of the Indigo Girls, of course, for those not in the know- it’s been too long without an IG quote!)

It seems that, for creationists, while species may not evolve, definitions certainly do! One of the tactics that creationists often take in their discussions is to redefine common terms to be a meaning that is only used by creationists and signifies something far different than what a dictionary or other reference would offer.

I believe that is due to the differing worldviews of those involved in the discussion. Those approaching it from a scientific angle tend to value using clarity and logic in discussions, and to require reputable references to back up assertions- they do not take things on faith. If reputable scientific sources change part of a theory, the theory changes to accept that new information- as I will discuss later, this is a vital part of the scientific method, and occurs frequently.

I believe that young-earth creationists, on the other hand, cannot allow even tiny chinks in their theories, nor can they admit that any parts of their theories are wrong. Because their belief is that their source is completely accurate, to admit any inaccuracy is to invalidate their belief system, and since that belief system is the most important part of many creationists’ lives, (and also, perhaps, because they are utterly convinced that they have found absolute truth) such a possibility is unfathomable. In contrast, someone using scientific thought processes will not have his or her entire existence and belief system threatened by admitting a theory is wrong.

So what does the creationist do when confronted with undeniable problems with a theory? As mentioned above, they often just change definitions into something only creationists believe. Then, they can claim that their theory has not been invalidated, because it still fits the definition that they have created.

Here is a definition of evolution, from the American Heritage Dictionary:
Evolution (Biology)
Change in the genetic composition of a population during successive generations, as a result of natural selection acting on the genetic variation among individuals, and resulting in the development of new species.
A century or so ago, the creationist’s position was “All species were created in exactly the same form that they now have and do not change or evolve. There is no such thing as evolution.” That was simply not a tenable position, as change could be seen in living things over time. So, the definition changed, and now creationists accepted natural selection as a force for change in organisms.
Creationists are firm believers in natural selection. This is not evolution in the sense that most people use the word—the rise of new, complex organisms, the sort of change which in principle could be capable of changing one-celled creatures into pelicans, pomegranates and people.

So then the creationist position changed to “Microevolution can happen, macroevolution cannot. They are two entirely different things.” Well, they never defined how they were different, so that explanation didn’t work. So they dropped that line.
The main scientific objection to the GTE [general theory of evolution] is not that changes occur through time, and neither is it about the size of the change (so I would discourage use of the terms micro- and macro-evolution)

So then they had to come up with some other definition…

Evolution is the proposed process by which living things gain entirely new characteristics that were never before present in their genetic make-up, not even in a latent or ‘hidden’ form.

So now, evolution requires getting something from nothing. This is tied into the main topic I want to discuss in this series- the creationist idea that evolution is not evolution unless “new information” is created. Notice that this definition is not anything that even vaguely resembles the dictionary definition, or any definition from any reputable scientific source. It is a definition chosen by creationists specifically to set up yet another hurdle that they think that science cannot explain, and to confuse and mislead people who may not have the scientific background to realize just how wrong the creationist definition is.

Here are two more non-creationist definitions of evolution from reputable sources. Note that neither even vaguely resembles the creationist conception.

Biological evolution ... is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The ontogeny of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportion of different alleles within a population (such as those determining blood types) to the successive alterations that led from the earliest protoorganism to snails, bees, giraffes, and dandelions."

- Douglas J. Futuyma in Evolutionary Biology

Biological evolution, simply put, is descent with modification. This definition encompasses small-scale evolution (changes in gene frequency in a population from one generation to the next) and large-scale evolution (the descent of different species from a common ancestor over many generations). Evolution helps us to understand the history of life.
Understanding Evolution for Teachers

I’ll discuss the information “problem” in my next posting- stay tuned!

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