Let’s think about Creationists (and let you remind you that by creationist I mean those who demand a literal reading of the scriptures as scientific texts–all the LDS members of my Biology Department at BYU believe evolution is the way life on earth emerged, and the way the human body was formed, yet believe in a Creator. However, literalist creationism, where it exists in Mormonism, is a leak from sources other than the Restoration that misunderstands the scriptures’ purpose. More on that in what follows.) Creationists love to talk about ‘macroevolution’ as if it was some mysterious magical thing that is problematic for evolutionary biology—science’s dirty little secret we don’t want you to know about.
Take the Discovery Institute, an evangelical front organization promoting Intelligent Design Creationism (ID), which is attempting to backdoor creationism into the schools. Macroevolution plays a big role in their mythology (is there another word for it?). For example, in their summary The Scientific Controversy Over Whether Microevolution Can Account For Macroevolution, they say,
“The scientific controversy over whether processes observable within existing species and gene pools (microevolution) can account for large-scale changes over geological time (macroevolution) continues to this day.”
That statement is based on either ignorance or deception (a well-established criticism of ID—even in the Dover Trial the judge found them engaging in lies, deception and misdirection (and who was it in the Garden of Eden that used those tactics . . . um it will come back to me).) Of course, to get to this point in the summary, they’ve just used science from the 1930’s. Then they proceed to take a bunch of out of context statements from evolutionary biologists today to make it look like there is a controversy. Macroevolution serves the role of straw man in ID circles. But it’s commonly enough repeated that maybe a closer look is warranted for people who are generally confused by the smoke they are pumping out of their bellowing misinformation machine. For when you boil it down the ID Creationist blathering about macroevolution causing problems for evolutionary theory is an argument from ignorance.
First let’s get at what macroevolution is. Macroevolution in short explores evolutionary patterns discernible over large periods of time. It is not a different kind of process. It’s a difference in scale of interest. But it is completely explainable by micro evolutionary principles. In macroevolution one is looking at larger-scale patterns and asking questions like, ‘What patterns do we see in the major radiation of mammals after the Cretaceous extinction of the dinosaurs?’ ‘How has neural complexity increased over time?” Why did flowering plants, replace ferns, in the Cretaceous?” There is no sense is there some kind of problem in explaining how these emerge from microevolution, but rather the scale of interest is different. Just because one might use areal photography to study the large-scale patterns of forest landscape patches, it does not mean that there is some problem in scaling up from how individual trees grow or are important to explaining how forests expand or shrink.
In fact, it is useful to look at what’s being talked about within science. Here’s the debate from one journal, Evolution. There are many such journals. This is what scientific activity looks like (you won’t find any such thing for ID). Peak into the vibrant research going on with macroevolution. Look at science in action! There are no debates close to what the creationists imagine–that there is some hard problem science isn’t grappling with moving from ‘micro’ evolution to ‘macro.’
Go There. Type macroevolution into the search bar.
What you see is lots of activity. Macroevolutionary models, data, theory, analyses, questions, debates, coming from genetics, embryology, the fossil record, etc.
Why is macroevolution so glommed onto by creationists? Because they reject a priori that species can evolve across ‘kinds.’ It is the archaic idea from antiquity that species represent a “Fullness of Forms” meaning that the species we see are all the species that are possible, and that there are no gaps. Species are fixed in this view and form natural boundaries that cannot be crossed. While the origin of this has its roots in Plato, it really came into its own in the Neo-Platonist writings of Plotinus and from his work into Christianity. There is a wonderful article on this by Sam Brown in the current issue of Dialogue and how it affected Mormon thought, but the basic idea is that species are fixed and immutable and form a hierarchy from high to low with God, angels and men at the top, and beasts below in a great chain of being. It is a particular reading of Genesis that has its origin late in Christian thinking, but became an important doctrine in explaining early attempts at natural history (So if you like your Mormonism mixed with ideas developed in the Medieval ages by all means keep this unsupported notion.).
This is why you find the Creationists completely disengaged in the actual science of macroevolution and make the claim that it hasn’t been adequately explained. If you dissect their claim, what they are really saying is ‘We haven’t read any books on it (there are many), read any of the papers, engaged in the actual debate, examined the evidence, however, based on our ignorance of the arguments we say it’s a problem and so it is.” Why engage with evidence when you don’t have to heh? In fact, their argument can be boiled to, “I will believe macroevolution when I see it happening. Since no one has seen it in action (an impossibility given the time scales necessary) it isn’t true.” No standard evidence from numerous collaborating stories in every discipline from geology to biology, will be accepted. Confirmations of the grand story of evolution on earth macro and micro are ignored.
The absurdity of their position becomes clear if one looks at galaxy formation and evolution. We cannot watch a galaxy grow age and such. The time scales are too vast. But we know a lot about how they evolve by catching varying stages of formation and piecing together what happens between. So we have very nice sequences from very young galaxies to very old ones that have evolved in various ways. However, there are gaps. We don’t have a continuous sequence. We make inferences from one stage to the next based on what we do have in the sequence. Where we are missing data, we know of no magic that needs to be evoked to get from one to the next.
Just as we do in the fossil record.
ID Creationists are OK with this because there is no implicit idea they are reading back into it of the great chain of being , e.g., that galaxies form an immutable ‘kind’ of galaxy. Therefore it makes sense, even to them, that galaxies evolve into their various kinds from simpler and less developed galaxies.
To biologists species are not immutable. They are formed by DNA and developmental forces that are, in fact very, malleable. There is a large debate going on right now in biology if ‘species’ is even a useful idea. It is clear that any boundary of one species becoming another must be instantiated in the DNA and there just isn’t any. Like the galaxies above we have tons of evidence that macroevolution is not only easy to explain using basic evolutionary theory, but there is a massive amount of evidence supporting it. If you disagree attack the science as it is being produced, don’t run around saying, I won’t believe it until I see it happen in real time. If that’s your goal, hone your skills on galaxy formation. There is way less evidence about that than there is for the macroevolution of life on earth.
The ID notion that macroevolution presents a problem to evolutionary theory is just based on a refusal to confront what actually has been done in the field. An argument from ignorance