Evolution is real science; creationism is fake philosophy

Paul Braterman
Prof Braterman holds the degrees of MA (1st cl. Hons), DPhil, DSc from the University of Oxford, and has spent his professional career at the University of Glasgow, and the University of North Texas, where he was Regents Professor. While in Texas, he came into contact with biblical creationism, and observed its corrosive impact on science education. He has worked on problems in chemistry related to the origins of life, and to conditions on the early Earth, and has served as an adviser to NASA’s Astrobiology Institute. He is now a committee member of the British Centre for Science Education, which exists largely to resist creationist infiltration. In this piece, he responds on behalf of the (United Kingdom) National Secular Society. This is a non-party-political organisation with members from across the social and political spectrum. Honorary Associates include MPs and peers, as well as leading figures from politics, journalism, law and the arts.

Evolution is real science; creationism is fake philosophy
A reply to O Evolucionismo e o Criacionismo à luz do Método Científico (read this article below)

         Evolution is not an optional Cosmovisão but a fundamental scientific theory, and one of the most successful scientific theories of all time. Biblical creationism is not a Cosmovisão either, but a set of factually mistaken beliefs about the world and the Bible.
          Prof Vieira argues that the present-day theory of evolution, and biblical creationism, are not in fact rival theories, but representations of differing untestable Cosmovisões, and that the difference between them is philosophical rather than scientific. He is mistaken on every count. Evolution is a scientific theory, not only about the past, but about processes operating and observable in the present. It has made numerous successful predictions and passed many severe experimental tests. It explains facts that could not even have been imagined when, 150 years ago, the theory was put forward in its modern form. The creation story of Genesis can be tested against observation, and fails. It makes statements contrary to known fact, so that, however great its significance to us, we cannot regard it as an accurate historical narrative.
           Prof Vieira claims that there is no scientific evidence for evolution. He is wrong. Two excellent books presenting this evidence, both available in Portuguese, are A Historia De Quando Eramos Peixes by Neil Shubin, and A Evidência da Evolução; Porque é que Darwin tinha razão by his colleague at the University of Chicago, Jerry Coyne. There is also an excellent on-line site, with hundreds of references to the primary literature, summarising the main arguments, and new findings supporting and illustrating the fact of evolution are reported every day.
         Shubin’s book begins with a beautiful example of evolution as a predictive theory. Lower Devonian rocks contain no land vertebrates. Upper Devonian rocks contain plenty. Therefore evolution predicts that there should be fossil evidence for intermediate forms somewhere in the middle Devonian. The earliest known land vertebrates are amphibians, which would have required fresh water, and this and other detailed arguments suggested that rocks around 375 million years old, formed in river deltas, would be the best place to look. Prof Shubin and his colleagues mounted an expedition to a location in the Canadian Arctic where such rocks were exposed, and discovered the predicted intermediate form, a fish with a wrist, which they called Tiktaalik. Notice that if these rocks had shown a sudden transition without intermediates, or if they had been full of rabbits, dinosaurs, or fried chicken bones, this would have disproved the evolutionary account.
          Coyne’s book lays out with great clarity the facts that are explained by evolution, all of them examples of the “evidências palpáveis” in support of evolution, “que possam ser submetidas ao escrutínio do Método Científico”, whose existence the learned Professor denies. These include (a) the way living things can be arranged in families on the basis of their anatomy, (b) copious fossil forms (of which Tiktaalik is one example) showing how different categorias biológicas are descended from a common ancestry, (c) our knowledge of how new species arise (Prof Coyne is also an author of the more technical book Speciation), (d) the family trees deduced from DNA evidence, (e) the fact that these three independent methods – anatomical relationship, fossil record, and DNA comparison – give the same tree, or rather branching bush, of life, and (f) the examples of evolution that we see all around us. In addition (g), we can and do perform laboratory experiments that demonstrate and elucidate evolution, and (h) the whole of plant and animal breeding consists of evolutionary processes harnessed to our wishes, with artificial selection replacing natural selection.
           Prof Veiera presents two kinds of reason for his claim that evolution is not science. One is the fact that it does not explain the origin of life, the Solar System, or the Universe. But this is no argument at all. Atomic theory does not explain the origin of atoms, the Solar System, or the Universe, but no one doubts that it is a scientific theory. The other one is that it does not explain the transformação das espécies do nível de Ordem para o nível de Família na Taxonomia Biológica aceita modernamente. As we have seen, this is not true. Shubin’s book, for example, gives a very clear account of the origin of the transformação of fish to amphibians, and Carl Zimmer’s A Beira d'Agua, Macroevolução e a Transformação da Vida describes the transformação of land mammals to whales. But even if it were true, a theory should not be rejected just because there are things we cannot yet explain. Unanswered questions are as essential to all kinds of science as unquestioned answers are to some kinds of religion.
            Regarding biblical creationism, this does make some very precise and verifiable claims. It asserts, for example (Genesis 1:20 – 25), that birds and whales were created before land animals. Now we know that birds are descended from land dinosaurs, and that whales (free review article here; also Carl Zimmer’s book mentioned above) are descended from terrestrial mammals. So we must infer that if, as Prof Vieira believes, God is responsible for the content of Genesis 1, He did not intend it to be used as a biology textbook. I note in passing that many Christians, including Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists, have no problem with the fact of evolution, and that only extreme Evangelical groups, such as the adventistas do sétimo dia to which Prof Veiera belongs, regard Genesis as a literal historical record.
         Finally, does it matter? Yes, to Brazil’s past, present, and future. Regarding the past, the mineral wealth of Brazil can only be understood using genuine science, including evolution and its companion, deep-time geochemistry. For example, the banded iron-formations of the Quadrilátero Ferrífero in Minas Gerais owe their existence to the release of oxygen by photosynthesizing bacteria more than two billion years ago, and the oil and gas of the continental shelf were formed by the decay of ancient organisms in the Cretaceous. The present includes the responsibility of managing the Amazon basin, something that can only be done wisely by respecting the evolved relationships between its many species. And all of us will need real science, and a recognition of scientific reality, as humankind faces its troubling and unsettled future.  

Paul S. Braterman,
Professor Emeritus, University of North Texas
Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Chemistry, University of Glasgow
48 Nith Street, Glasgow G33 2AF, Scotland, UK

My first non-technical book, From Stars to Stalagmiteshttp://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/2012/11/stars-stalagmites-everything-connects  

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