Charles Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection is an enormously important and influential theory in science. The vast majority of scientists today are convinced by it , and many biologists, including yours truly, have careers that revolve around testing ideas put forth by this theory.
Evolution, of course, remains a contentious idea among the lay American public and other communities across the planet, particularly religious individuals [1,2], with at least some seeing it as an assault on their religious faith. Perhaps due to the perceived implications evolution has for certain beliefs, it is not uncommon for churches and other religious institutions to teach that the evidence for evolution is nil, with some even saying that there is a conspiracy to dismantle religion by evolutionary biologists.
As an evolutionary biologist, and a religious individual, I can confidently say that I have never once heard a fellow scientist say or imply that they are doing their work with the goal of destroying religion. If anything, the vast majority of them are motivated by a single thing: curiosity.
So that brings us to you, the reader, who is undoubtedly curious about evolution. Perhaps you were taught that evolutionary theory is nothing but lies and speculations. Perhaps you believe evolution implicitly, but don’t really know why scientists believe it.
In other words, you’re either a skeptic, or you should be a skeptic. Because after all, as the satirical cartoon below correctly observed, evolution implies that your ancestors were apes, monkeys and even worm-like animals.
Evolution also implies that your dog or cat isn’t just a pet, it’s your cousin. It means that when you eat a burrito, say with a wheat tortilla, rice, carne asada, lettuce and salsa, you’re literally eating your relatives. For some people, this is a bit difficult to swallow.
So when you read about evolution-this and evolution-that, I’m not surprised if you’re skeptical. I encourage you to be skeptical, but I also encourage you to be open-minded. The evidence for evolution is far from nil. In fact, it’s rather tremendous, and if this is a subject that interests you, it will take time and patience to understand what the evidence for it really is. For you religious readers, it will likely take a lot of time, discussions and prayer to understand how to reconcile these ideas with your religious beliefs. As someone who once struggled mightily to reconcile these seemingly opposing worldviews, know that you are not alone.
Structure of Evolution for Skeptics
This blog covers six subjects of evolutionary biology, those of which I consider to be the most convincing evidence for major evolutionary change (i.e., macroevolution). They are based on facts, not theory, but I then provide context for why these facts appear to support the theory of evolution.
The first topic involves transitional fossils, fossil evidence that seems to document the evolution of one kind of organism into another via major reorganizations in anatomy. The next is biogeography, which covers where different organisms live and why they live there. The third is developmental biology, which sometimes provides glimpses into anatomical structures that seem to have belonged to an ancestral form before the organ disappears during development. Then there is the subject of extinct life, covering groups of organisms that we have fossil evidence for but no longer exist on our planet. Molecular phylogenetics, or the reconstruction of ancestor-descendant relationships using DNA and proteins, has revolutionized scientists study evolution and have provided many intriguing insights that tell the same stories as fossils. Finally, pseudogenes, or dysfunctional remnants of formerly useful genes, provide genomic ‘fossils’ that point to major evolutionary change in an organism’s past.
After I discuss the data and evolutionary interpretation, I end with a “Questions for Creationists” section, where I pose questions for my Creationist readers to reflect on and/or respond to. I have been exposed to Creationist teachings for most of my life and count Creationists among my friends, so in these questions I do my best to address issues frequently raised by the Creationist teachings I am familiar with. Creationism has transformed in many ways over the years, with different (often conflicting) streams of thought existing simultaneously, so the questions I pose may not apply to all forms of Creationism. Please let me know if you believe that I have incorrectly conveyed a Creationist concept, as I cannot keep up with every school of Creationist thought!
I also try to provide links to the original scientific papers in question whenever possible, but papers (unfortunately) are not always freely available. If you are interested in accessing a specific paper I reference, do not hesitate to leave a comment, and I will do my best to obtain the paper for you to examine.
Further exploration of the relationship between evolution and religion
Reconciling evolution with religious beliefs can often seem like a daunting process, a problem that isn’t helped by the fact that many individuals would like you to believe that these concepts are mutually exclusive. But if this is an important topic for you, do not give up. You will find that there are a number of resources that can help you make the transition into balancing, and even integrating, religion and evolutionary biology without sacrificing the core tenants of your faith. Here are just a few that might help you get started:
BioLogos is an excellent resource for Christians interested in reconciling evolution to their faith, founded by Francis Collins, Christian and director of the Human Genome Project and National Institutes of Health.
Finding Darwin’s God is a wonderful book by Catholic molecular biologist Kenneth Miller, which discusses Creationism, Intelligent Design and evolution in the context of theism and atheism.
Answering Islamic Skeptics presents a scriptural argument for the acceptance of evolution in the context of Islam.
Naturalis Historia, a blog by biologist and Presbyterian Joel Duff, explores many of the more specific claims of Creationism and how they relate to scientific data.