The real reason many people reject evolutionary explanations isn't the historical claim of common ancestry and old earth - it's the philosophical claim that natural selection explains away design.
According to a 2019 Gallup poll, only 22% of Americans believe in the official scientific definition of evolution via natural selection as a purely material - or "mindless"- unguided process that explains away the apparent design of the biological world. As we will see through closer examination, the experts are wrong and the people - or at least 78% of them - are right.
In fact, many critics of evolution are way too generous to the theory, saying things like “I believe in microevolution, but not macroevolution.” If "evolution" is a mindless or unguided process, then this doesn’t really make any sense; it’s like saying you believe adultery is wrong except on Wednesdays. It’s like saying you’ll allow the Trojan Horse inside the city gates, but not into the city center. In principle, if microevolution is possible, then so is macroevolution. The truth is that unguided microevolution is no more coherent than macroevolution.
What is Evolutionary Theory?
The theory of evolution has two parts: history and explanation. It is often assumed that people reject evolution because of the historical piece: they reject the claim that the earth is billions of years old and that humans and monkeys - and all other forms of life - share a common ancestor.
Let's take those historical claims as true. Those aren't the reasons that most of us find "evolution" so difficult to believe. The real reason is the explanatory part. According to evolutionary theory, there is an entirely material, mindless, purposeless and unguided explanation for the design in the biological world. If you believe in "evolution," then you believe nothing in biology is designed.
For the sake of time, let’s just put aside the historical side and focus on the explanations that proponents of evolution use to deny design.
What does it take for a scientific theory to be explanatory? And how do scientific theories explain things? They explain them with laws.
Laws of nature are what allows science to explain the past and predict the future. Laws are the most important element needed in order to make predictions, but we also need a description of the universe - or at least of a certain closed system. For example, the laws of physics alone can't give us enough information to send a rocket to the moon - we also need to know how far away the moon is.
Thus, the two things we need for a scientific explanation are: (1) a description of a physical system at a certain time (e.g. the motion, shape, size, and location of the objects in the system) and (2) Laws of Nature.
Together, these two things allow us to make predictions about the future state of the system. This is what makes scientific theories testable, falsifiable, and explanatory. It is also what makes science useful and allows us to create technology using science. Biology without evolution gives us (1), so does evolutionary theory give us (2)? No - because evolutionary theory doesn't have any laws, which is why it can't explain anything.
I realize some people might think that natural selection is a law, so let's address that issue first.
Natural Selection as a Law of Nature
Natural selection is usually defined with a strange combination of vague terms and teleological terms, neither of which is appropriate for a law of nature.
According to Stephan Jay Gould, natural selection is the following:
“First, that all organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive; second, that all organisms within a species vary, one from the other; third, that at least some of this variation is inherited by offspring. From these three facts, we infer the principle of natural selection: since only some offspring can survive, on average the survivors will be those variants that, by good fortune, are better adapted to changing local environments. Since these offspring will inherit the favorable variations of their parents, organisms of the next generation will, on average, become better adapted to local conditions.”
What does natural selection apply to? What level of analysis? The species? The population? The organism? The organ? The genome? The gene? The allele? Why not the molecule? Or the atom? Supposedly, it only applies to things that replicate. Richard Dawkins says we should focus on the gene because it is the smallest unit of replication. What's the difference between replicating and continuing to exist, though? I could see there being a metaphysical difference, but there is no functional difference.
For example, let's say at time t1 you have an object and it replicates itself so that at time t2 you have a structurally and functionally identical object. Compare that to a case where at time t1 you have an object and it continues to exist so that at time t2 you again have a structurally and functionally identical object. How would natural selection be able to tell the difference between the object that replicated and the object that simply continued to exist? Why would natural selection apply to one of these cases and not the other?
Some people will claim the relevant difference in this context would be that replication appears to be where a lot of variation happens. Replication isn't perfect, so the object at t2 is not identical to the object at t1 in the replicator case. But, not all variation is caused by - or during - replication. Variation in the structure and function of an object can happen because of any chemical reaction, among other reasons. Variation just means change and change could be caused by any physical process and could apply to any unit of analysis whether it's an organism, gene, molecule, planet, atom, or a rock.
The problem with saying that natural selection is a law of nature is that laws of nature cannot make distinctions like whether or not something is a replicator - or a life or an organism or a species or any of these distinctions from biology. Can you imagine if Newton had said gravity only applies to replicators? What would that even mean? How could gravity distinguish between two structurally identical objects and decide that one had replicated itself recently? Or, if he had said gravity applies to zebras but not to rocks? How exactly would gravity make that distinction?
This brings us back to the problem, which is that natural selection is always defined using some combination of vague terms and teleological terms. Usually, if evolution proponents are responding to the charge that natural selection is vacuous, they will lean into the teleological language, but if they are responding to the charge that natural selection is just teleology, they will lean into the vague language.
As I explained above, natural selection can’t be a law of nature when it's defined using teleological language like "life," "organism," "population," and so on, so let's examine the vague language instead. The problem with the vague definition of natural selection is that it's too broad. A law of nature needs to be specific enough to be substantive. For example, "if an object moves, then it moves" is not a good candidate for a law of nature because it is not substantive. A law needs to make a substantive claim about something that is identified by a physical property like position, size, movement, or mass.
The vague definitions of natural selection use terms like fittest, survive, probably, usually, increase, decrease, and so on, and this is a problem because they are so vague that they end up saying nothing at all. Daniel Dennett almost seems to realize this in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, but he thinks that it means natural selection can explain away all design in the universe. He doesn't realize that it actually means natural selection is a vacuous tautology that explains exactly nothing.
The Tautology Problem
Stephen Jay Gould says: "Natural selection is defined by Spencer’s phrase ‘survival of the fittest,’ but what does this famous bit of jargon really mean? Who are the fittest? And how is ‘fitness’ defined? We often read that fitness involves no more than ‘differential reproductive success’—the production of more surviving offspring than other competing members of the population…"
He points out that this is a problem because:
This formulation defines fitness in terms of survival only. The crucial phrase of natural selection means no more than “the survival of those who survive”—a vacuous tautology… tautologies are fine as definitions, but not as testable scientific statements—there can be nothing to test in a statement true by definition.
Natural selection reduces "the fittest" to being defined as the thing that survives. This is obviously completely useless. Gould’s solution to this problem is to say that there is an independent criterion of fitness, namely, “an engineer’s criterion of good design.” In Gould’s words: "...certain morphological, physiological, and behavioral traits should be superior a priori as designs for living in new environments. These traits confer fitness by an engineer’s criterion of good design, not by the empirical fact of their survival and spread... why not equate fitness with the nontautological sense of improved design."
Gould’s solution makes the theory of natural selection strangely mind-dependent. Can the core of natural selection really depend on the opinions of engineers? What if two engineers disagree on what the best design for a particular environment would be? Can fitness really be a scientific property if it depends on the opinions of engineers?
Someone might object that Gould doesn’t mean that the definition of fitness is what the engineers actually think but rather an objective engineering standard - a standard that would exist whether or not there were any engineers in the world, just as presumably mathematical facts would exist even if there were no mathematicians. A standard such as “what would the ideal - maximally intelligent, maximally powerful, etc,. - engineer design?”
If this is what Gould means, then it relies on the proposition that ideal functionality and ideal engineering can be pulled apart. However, it's very unlikely that the two could be separated. Engineering isn’t some sort of open-ended process-based endeavor. Engineers work toward a goal. If an ideal engineer is given the goal of designing an organism that will survive, then that engineer will design the organism that is objectively most likely to survive.
So Gould’s definition of “the fittest” would be “what an ideal engineer with the goal of designing an organism to survive would design.” Therefore, “survival of the fittest” could be reformulated as “survival of the organism that an ideal engineer with the goal of designing an organism to survive would design.”
This reformulation is tautological since the ideal engineer is God, so naturally whatever he would design to survive would in fact survive. Even if it isn’t tautological, it is definitely strange and unhelpful. If I proposed the theory that “the speed of light is whatever God thinks the speed of light is,” would that be considered a contribution to science? I doubt it.
Another huge problem with this formulation of Gould’s theory is that it is untestable - just as my speed of light theory is untestable. Scientists can’t go ask God or some godlike engineer what sort of organism he would design given a certain environment. My conclusion is that Gould’s theory is either mind-dependent, or tautological and untestable. Neither option provides us with a useful definition of fitness.
Natural Selection as a Mechanism
Every Biology textbook I’ve seen starts the first chapter on evolution by explaining how, before Darwin, people used to believe that life was designed, usually mentioning Paley’s design argument. They say that Darwin’s great contribution wasn’t proposing that life had evolved: others had already done that before him. Rather, his most significant contribution was discovering the mechanism of natural selection that explains how evolution happens. It’s the claim made about this mechanism of natural selection - that it explains away the apparent purpose and design in the biological world - that makes evolution impossible to believe.
This is radically different from the claims made in physics. In physics we are told that things are explained by Laws of Nature. A law of nature is just a way of saying that something always seems to happen a certain way even though we don’t know why; it just pushes the explanation back a step. It’s like if someone visited earth and saw traffic lights for the first time and noticed that everyone stops their car if the light is red. They could make a note of the pattern even if they don’t know why everyone follows these rules or who made the rules or who enforces the rules.
However, evolution is different because it’s caused by natural selection, which is not a law of nature. Natural selection explains everything else but requires no explanation itself - like a magic trick. This magical ability of natural selection is why it's so widely believed that evolution nullifies the biological design argument for the existence of God.
As Richard Dawkins says in The Blind Watchmaker:
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
Dawkins expresses what appears to be the mainstream view - that evolution destroys the biological design argument because it gives an alternative explanation for the appearance of design in biology. The issue is that a mechanism is different from a law because it isn’t fundamental and universal. Instead, it is analogous to a machine, in that it does something as a result of a higher-level structure. But machines don’t reduce the need for explanation and they certainly don’t explain away design.
Let’s say you tell me your car was designed and I say, “No, it wasn’t. See, your car was created in a fully automated car factory that takes in metal, plastic, and rubber as inputs, and then through a purely mindless process of natural selection, only the fittest arrangement of those components makes it to the end. You can look inside the factory and see that there is nobody in there; it’s a totally mindless physical process! So it proves that your car wasn’t designed!”
Now obviously this is ridiculous because an automated car factory is much harder to design than a car, so it not only fails to explain away the apparent design of your car, it actually increases the amount of design that needs to be explained.
The hoax I've described has been perpetuated through the use of imprecise language. Naturalistic evolutionists are constantly equivocating and using "metaphorical" language in their explanations of natural selection to the point where they have three versions of natural selection and none of them work. Thus, they constantly switch between the three so that nobody can pin them down and expose their scam.
1. If natural selection is defined using mind-dependent terms such as life, organism, replicator, population, species, or anything else that cannot be identified by its physical structure alone, then natural selection cannot be a law of nature.
2. If natural selection is defined using vague terms like variation, change, increase, decrease, unit, group, or anything else that could apply to any physical entity (not just biological ones), then natural selection is a vacuous tautology that explains nothing and contributes nothing.
3. If natural selection is a mechanism - a machine - then it does not reduce the need for explanation, it increases it. The automated car factory is more complex (and more designed) than the car that it creates. The machine that creates something is always more designed than the thing it creates.
A common objection from evolutionists is to say that we know evolution is true because it works. They might also point out that physics also has a bunch of weird, confusing stuff in it so just because something doesn't make sense to you yet doesn't mean it isn't true. The fact that something works doesn't necessarily mean it is true, though. Newtonian mechanics works pretty well even though, according to modern physics, it is technically false. However, I will concede that if something works it is definitely a good reason to take it seriously and assume that there is very likely something true about it.
Obviously, though, natural selection does not work. Genetics works. Biology works. Paleontology works. Anthropology works. Understanding the machinery and history of life works. But natural selection is completely irrelevant to all of this. Natural selection does not predict anything. It does not build anything. It contributes nothing to technological innovation. The only field that natural selection is relevant to is a subfield of creative fiction writing called "evolutionary psychology." Quantum mechanics sounds crazy, but it works so we should at least take it seriously. Natural selection sounds vacuous and it doesn't work, so we should just ignore it.
In conclusion, we are justified in rejecting the claim that evolution explains away design because, as we have seen, it does no such thing. The burden of proof is on the evolutionist to give us a definition of natural selection that avoids both tautology and teleology. Or, they could just stop insisting that evolution explains away design and admit that what they are presenting is non-explanatory biological history.
Gould, S. (1984). Darwin’s Untimely Burial. In E. Sober (Ed.). Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology. (pp. 31-35). MIT Press.
Zimmer, C., Gould, S. (2001). Evolution: the triumph of an idea. Random House.