Ari Armstrong's Web Log (Main) | Archives | Terms of Use

Refuting Evanson's Anti-Evolution Nonsense

Her scientifically illiterate stance shows she has no business influencing education.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
November 4, 2023; ported here on January 10, 2024

Barbara Evanson, candidate [and winner] for school board in Colorado's District 51 (Grand Junction and surrounding area), wants schools to teach Biblical creationism as science (and wants to "ban a ton of material" from school libraries), as Erik Maulbetsch reported October 31 for the Colorado Times Recorder. On November 2, the Times Recorder published Evanson's reply, which she penned with her husband Charles, a Christian pastor. (Grand Junction's Daily Sentinel also published a story about Evanson's stance and also published the Evansons' article.)

On November 3, the Times Recorder published my reply to the Evansons (republished here).

A Fuller Refutation of the Evansons' Nonsense

In my brief, previous article, I counter a few specific points that the Evansons raise, but I do not go into great detail—their piece is long and is riddled with errors and confusions. I write, "One could write a point-by-point refutation of the Evansons' article (and perhaps I'll do that elsewhere), but that would be tedious and about as useful as responding to flat earthers. For such minds, reason is beside the point."

I do not believe that responding to the Evansons' piece in detail will do anything to change the Evansons' minds. But perhaps responding to the Evansons in greater detail will stimulating more thought and research among some who do not have much knowledge of evolutionary biology.

I am not a scientist. I write as a popularizer of important works on evolutionary biology, of which I have a reasonable layperson's knowledge. Ideally, a PhD-level biologist would respond to the Evansons' claims, but biologists tend to be busy people. I have an interest in the politics as well as the science—the Evansons' drivel is worth reviewing only because Barbara Evanson is running for school board—so I am willing to take the time.

Some of the issues at hand pertain directly to evolutionary biology, but some issues are more philosophical and metaphysical in nature. Thus, I will espouse my own philosophical views in those areas that various evolutionary biologists and cosmologists may not agree with.

The Overwhelming Evidence for Evolution

The Evansons ridiculously claim "there is no tangible evidence" to support evolution.

On the contrary, overwhelming evidence supports the science of biological evolution, which is why every actual scientist (a handful of cranks notwithstanding)—including those who embrace religion—accept the reality of evolution. Multiple lines of research support evolution, including the extensive (and ever-growing) fossil record, which clearly shows the development of species over billions of years; comparative anatomy; and genetic research showing many of the relationships among living things (including many vestigial genes).

It is unnecessary for me here to try to summarize the field in a popular article. In today's world, no educated adult is ignorant of the basics of the science of evolution. An adult who is ignorant of it (or who feigns ignorance) is ignorant by choice and is deeply incurious about the world. Anyone looking for a primer can turn to such works as Richard Dawkins's The Greatest Show on Earth, Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, Steve Stewart-Williams's The Ape that Understood the Universe, and Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish (also an excellent PBS documentary). Or, as I suggested in my piece for the Times Recorder, one can attentively walk through the "Prehistoric Journey" halls of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Here is what the Evansons have to say about evolution (I quoted a bit of this in my earlier article):

[T]here has never been in human history the observance of a . . . new species coming into existence, only extinction. Evolution has never been observed; therefore, it cannot be measured, and as such is in no way repeatable. There is not one instance in primordial history, neither archaeological, paleontological, anthropological, or otherwise, of one species turning into another species: for example, a dog turning into a lion or an ape turning into a human. There are, however, examples of adaptation occurring in species which are and have been and will be observable, measurable, and repeatable.

The evolution of new species certainly has been "observed" in the sense that scientists have seen their development in the fossil record and seen markers of the relevant changes in the genetic record. If the demand is that we "observe" the evolution of a new species right before our eyes, than that is just a grotesque misunderstanding of what evolution means. No one thinks that an individual dog can turn into a lion. And no one thinks that dogs might over time evolve into lions. Either of those claims is a ridiculous straw man.

Individual humans live perhaps a century; the evolution of new species takes place over the course of hundreds of thousands or millions of years. When we're talking about species that reproduce sexually, the offspring of a given couple necessarily are the same species as the parents; otherwise, the offspring could not find a mate with which to reproduce. Yet, over many, many generations, genetic changes can add up such that the distant descendants of the members of one species indeed become a new and different species.

Regarding the Evansons' claim that an ape cannot evolve into a human, that's a rather silly proposal, because humans are a species of ape, and we and other apes indeed share common ancestors. Here is a basic taxonomy from Wikipedia.

The Evansons write, "Evolution has never been observed; therefore, it cannot be measured, and as such is in no way repeatable." Their suggestion that, to be validated, evolution must present a new species that evolves within a human lifetime to be directly observed, and that the evolution of a given species must be "repeatable" in a laboratory, represents a grotesque misunderstanding of the demands of the scientific method. No, scientists are not going to recreate an ancient synapsid in the laboratory and then "evolve" that creature into (say) a modern elephant. On this point the Evansons are being willfully obtuse. But the basis of evolution certainly is observable facts (including millions of fossils), and the findings of evolution are "repeatable" in the relevant sense that different scientists can duplicate and expand the methods that other scientists used to ground evolutionary science, as by digging up new fossils, studying the vast extant fossil record, subjecting fossils to various tests, analyzing the genes of living organisms, and so on.

The Evansons' Appeal to Faith

The Evansons explicitly appeal to religious faith as the basis for their creationist views. How do they try to excuse that? They claim that belief in evolutionary science also is based on faith and that their Christian creationist story is more aligned with known science. They thus equate belief based on evidence with belief based on arbitrary assertions. And yet they in effect hedge their bets by saying that their brand of faith is nevertheless more rational.

The Evansons claim that "everyone's thinking starts from a presupposition." One "presupposition" is as baseless as any other, they imply. They write, "Big Bang and Evolution are not Facts or Laws of Science. . . . They are ideas taken on Faith."

The Evansons continue:

[E]xistence of Space, Time, and Matter . . . is and was preceded by something. What is and what was that something? The Fact is there is no scientific answer that can be applied using proven Laws of Physics. So . . . we all have to make a choice, the choice is based on Faith, we choose to put our Faith in an Omniscient and Infinite Creator God who brought all of these things into existence. . . .

It seems to me more rational to believe in Intelligent Design than believe in scientific miracles which have no grounding in any proven Law of Physics and are otherwise man made and ever-changing theories about the origin of the universe and its preceding biological life. . . . We choose to believe in something rather than nothing, and we choose to base our Faith in proven scientific law. . . .

The FACT is we both [creationists and scientists] have presuppositions both of which must be taken on Faith. Our Faith is in the Creator and yet others' Faith is in Man. . . .

We believe Biblical Creation, also known as Intelligent Design, Special Creation, because we have weighed the scientific evidence or facts such as the Law of Thermodynamics and others against the writings of the bible, which are found in the most ancient writings, and find them to be historically and scientifically accurate and true.

I'm not quite sure how this claim that "everyone has faith in something" got started; I've heard variants of it for decades. But it's nonsense.

Something has to get our knowledge started; some knowledge is therefore foundational. For example, our perceptual awareness of reality is foundational to our other knowledge. But foundational knowledge is not the equivalent of arbitrary assertions; saying "I have a hand" when I see my hand is not on par with Making Stuff Up about demons and gods and the like.

We know the Evansons don't actually believe what they're selling, for, if it were true that all beliefs ultimately rest on faith and thus are beyond justification, then the Evansons wouldn't feel the need to also invoke science and reason to make their case. And, if they really believed that science and reason support the Christian creationist story, then they would not feel the need to also invoke religious faith and the authority of the Bible. The Evansons attempt to straddle faith and science and end up falling on their faces.

From Nothing Comes Nothing

I agree with the Evansons on one point: It is not the case that, in an ultimate sense, "something came from nothing." And their bogus interpretation of the Big Bang as implying that something came from nothing is behind most of their "scientific" arguments.

The Evansons certainly can be excused for their confusion on this point. After all, the physicist Lawrence Krauss titled a book of his, A Universe from Nothing. Yet, as various observers have pointed out, by "nothing" in this context Krauss means a special sort of something.

It's worth mentioning here that Stephen Hawking does not claim that the universe came from nothing. Rather, he writes in A Brief History of Time (p. 9):

Hubble's observations [that distant galaxies are moving rapidly away from us] suggested that there was a time, called the big bang, when the universe was infinitesimally small and infinitely dense. Under such conditions all the [currently known!] laws of science, and therefore all ability to predict the future, would break down. If there were events earlier than this time, then they could not affect what happens at the present time. Their existence can be ignored because it would have no observational consequences.

I do not believe that, if you reverse the Big Bang, this implies that matter at the start of the Big Bang must have been "infinitesimally small and infinitely dense." This seems like an error of undue extrapolation, an assumption that an observed trend must continue to infinity. An alternate view is that matter at the beginning of the Big Bang was extremely small and dense, as small and dense as it could get.

At any rate, the view that the universe as we know it originated with a Big Bang is completely compatible with the view that the universe is eternal. That combination of positions merely implies that we don't know details about the universe prior to the Big Bang.

The Evansons' claim that there is no evidence for a Big Bang. In the wake of Edwin Hubble's 1929 observations of an expanding universe, scientists have used the Hubble telescope to measure with a high degree of accuracy the expansion rate of the universe.

Yes, some issues of cosmology are less certain and more controversial than issues of evolutionary biology. Yet nothing about the debates over the cosmological origins and fate of the universe (as we know it!) imply that there's anything wrong with the science of biological evolution or that the Christian creation myth is compatible with science or should be taught in science classrooms.

The Evansons are very concerned about whether a Big Bang makes sense but entirely incurious about whether an eternal God makes sense. The position that the universe as a whole is eternal is sensible because it merely holds that what exists—all of nature—keeps changing according to the nature of things. But the position that God is eternal and that God preceded or ordered the natural world implies that God came from . . . nowhere and nothing. There just happened to always be this all-knowing and all-powerful being capable of creating or ordering all of nature. God somehow could do anything with nature and know everything about nature with no natural means to do or to know anything. Conjuring up a supernatural realm to explain the natural order is a cheap trick explaining . . . nothing.

The Nature of Entropy

The Evansons imagine that the Second Law of Thermodynamics implies that neither the Big Bang nor biological evolution is possible.

Let's start with evolution. The Evansons write, "Either evolution is true, or thermodynamics is true, but both cannot be true at the same time." Wrong. The Second Law of Thermodynamics does not claim that order never can arise within a delimited system. For example, I can clean my room. Can you think of anything, say, a huge ball of nuclear reactions, that might provide the energy necessary for life on our planet to sustain itself and evolve? I just wonder what such a theoretical giant ball of energy in the sky might be.

The Evansons make a comparable mistake on the order of stars and galaxies, claiming:

[T]here has never been in human history the observance of a star being born, only dying; a galaxy being born, only devolving into maximum chaos; and no new species coming into existence, only extinction.

Regarding stars, as I replied in my previous article:

Has Evanson never heard of NASA? A website following the Hubble telescope observes, "Hubble's keen vision allowed astronomers to peer deep into gigantic, turbulent clouds of gas and dust where tens of thousands of stars are bursting to life."

Regarding galaxies, scientists using the James Webb Space Telescope have made big strides in understanding how galaxies formed in the wake of the Big Bang.

Explaining the Big Bang in light of an eternal universe theory and the Second Law is considerably more difficult. One move here is to say that the universe expanded one time and eventually will end in heat death. There's nothing contradictory about that, although the very-long-term result is unpleasant from our perspective.

But the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not actually imply that. Here's what the philosopher Michael Huemer has to say about that (see the paper for his citations):

[T]he Second Law of Thermodynamics only records a probabilistic tendency. It is sometimes said that the entropy of a closed system never decreases, and that a system not in thermal equilibrium will always increase in entropy until it reaches thermal equilibrium—but these statements are not strictly true and are in fact refuted by the PoincarĂ© Recurrence Theorem. What is true is that it is extremely improbable that one will observe a spontaneous drop in entropy, on a human time scale. This is why we have never in fact observed this and never expect to. But in an infinite time, "extremely improbable" simply translates to "extremely rare." In the fullness of time, there will eventually be a macroscopic system that spontaneously decreases its entropy by a large amount, even after reaching thermal equilibrium. . . .

That is ignoring the possibility of a systematic mechanism for producing low-entropy states; on some cosmological theories, entropy is systematically reset or diluted at the end of a cycle, or new low-entropy universes are generated.

Although I have no evidence for this view, I'd personally like to think that the universe somehow continually regenerates itself, as by continually expanding and contracting. I don't think the Second Law of Thermodynamics rules this out. But even if I'm wrong, that does not help the Evansons' case for the creation of the universe and of life by a supernatural god.

There are lots of things about the universe that we do not yet know. That hardly excuses rejecting the well-established science that we do know or fantasizing a supernatural cause of the natural universe.

The Evansons' Semantic Games

The Evansons define "theory" broadly and say it it synonymous with "hypothesis" or "conjecture." Hence, they say, the theory of evolution is not a "fact" or a "law of nature." QED.

Obviously they are equivocating on the term "theory." In the context of the biological theory of evolution, the theory is thoroughly demonstrated by overwhelming facts from multiple fields. I do not suppose that the Evansons walk off of cliffs because we ought not trust the theory of gravity, or that they doubt the existence of microbes because they are explained by the germ theory of disease.

As I see it, the reason that evolution is not a scientific "law" is because, although it explains all life on Earth, it does not necessarily explain the existence of life everywhere and for all time. For example, if humans tarraform Mars, the life there will not have evolved on Mars (although it would then proceed to slowly do so). If humans start genetically engineering new organisms, those organisms will not be the result of biological evolution. Intelligent design of life certainly is possible—indeed, it is already a reality—and it is conducted by human beings.

But the Evansons are not interested in putting forward good-faith arguments to support their positions. They are grasping at straws to try to support the faith-based positions that they are determined to maintain. Their aim is not to reveal relevant evidence but to sweep it under the rhetorical rug. Their aim is not to present a logical theory but to obscure the illogic of their beliefs.

School Boards No Place for Dogmatists

Ordinarily, it would not be worth my time to reply to anti-scientific rantings of religious dogmatists. The context, again, is that Barbara Evanson is running for school board, where she wishes to use tax funds to impose her personal religious beliefs on the students of her district.

I have not discussed the potential injustices of the state forcing people such as the Evansons to finance the instruction of scientific education, including education about biological evolution. There's a good case to be made that government ought not compel people to finance the propagation of views to which they object, even if those views are correct, even in the context of public schools. But that is a separate issue. Injustices would only be compounded if Evanson were allowed to use tax dollars to promote her religious beliefs among school children. Getting the government involved in promoting religion is extremely dangerous, which is why the First Amendment prohibits it.

Just considering basic competence, we ought not have people who are hostile to science on school boards. Hopefully voters in Evanson's district will agree. [They did not.]

See also "School Board Candidate Promotes Creationism in Science Class" and "Evanson Promotes Creationism, Abstinence Education, and Anti-Trans Agenda in Schools." For a fuller discussion of religious faith and of Christianity in particular, see my new book, Getting Over Jesus: Finding Meaning and Morals without God.

Ari Armstrong's Web Log (Main) | Archives | Terms of Use