Revisionist Darwinism: The Theory That Couldn't Sit Still

Some creationists claim that evolution is invalid because it is frequently improved and enlarged as research and knowledge are improved.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Natural History

Skeptoid #35
March 27, 2007
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Today we're going to take a step back from the skeptic's Rock of Gibraltar, evolution, and examine whether it truly has any value as a theory, since we keep having to revise Darwinism.

Darwin's original theory of evolution was generally correct, but it was highly incomplete and has been growing and evolving (no pun intended) as we've learned new information since The Origin of Species was published in 1859. No evolutionary biologist doubts the fundamentals of evolution, which are essentially as Darwin described them, even though there are numerous minor points that are still under debate or still incomplete. This hardly invalidates the entire theory as a whole. Every significant major point of evolution is proven correct by the evidence. The fact that evolutionary biologists are still employed at their jobs, and still doing research and learning about our world, leads many Young Earth Creationists to use the term "Revisionist Darwinism", as if the theory's ability to incorporate new knowledge is a weakness.

Let's go back to Skeptoid episode #10, An Evolution Primer for Young Earth Creationists, where we discussed the definition of the word theory. Among the requirements for an idea to qualify as a theory is that it "must allow for changes based on the discovery of new evidence. It must be dynamic, tentative, and correctable." The central strength of the scientific method is that we allow our theories to be improved as new information is discovered. This is why the theory of evolution is a hundred times more rock solid now than it was 150 years ago. This is why modern medicine has doubled the average human lifespan in just the past century. This is why Moore's Law allows us to double the speed of computers every two years. This is why we fly around the world in airplanes. When we learn new information, we accept it, and adapt our theories of the world to accommodate it.

When Young Earthers say "Revisionist Darwinism", they think they're shooting holes in the theory by pointing out that we have to keep revising evolution to accommodate new information, like some worldwide game of whack-a-mole. This is not the way to criticize science. The ability to improve a theory as knowledge improves is the central strength of science. Revisionist Darwinism? You're damn right, we revise and improve it every day. That's called doing science.

Pseudosciences and faith-based belief systems, on the other hand, do not accept new information. Let's compare what scientists did and what creationists did in the mid-1900's when DNA was discovered. For evolutionists, the discovery of DNA and the understanding of genetics, unknown in Darwin's time, was a huge windfall. Whole chapters of proposed mechanisms were thrown out of the evolution textbook, volumes of new chapters were added, and unanswered questions were explained by the thousands. The theory of evolution improved immeasurably. Genetics was the single most important discovery in the history of biology. What did creationists do with that information? Did anyone go back and improve Genesis? Did they add a footnote or a verse to explain how the thing with Adam's rib worked, given the new understanding of genetics? No. They did nothing. The most important and significant discovery in the history of biology was completely 100% ignored by the creationists. In creationism, the process of learning is taboo. This explains why when evolutionists embraced genetics, Young Earthers saw it as a weakness and they made up condescending terms like "Revisionist Darwinism".

There is another irony that's all over Young Earth arguments against evolution. One thing we hear a lot is that to accept evolution, you have to believe in the fossil record, you have to believe in what other scientists tell you, you have to believe what radiocarbon dating machines reveal — in short, that evolution is all about belief, and that it's therefore faith-based. In fact, that Darwinism is just another faith-based religion. That's my favorite irony: Young Earth Creationists criticizing evolution by calling it a faith-based religion. And creationism is ... what again? However, this comparison is completely invalid. Creationists are confusing faith with trust. When we accept or believe the results of a radiocarbon dating test, or when we accept and believe the fossil record, that's trust, not faith. Trust is when you accept what well-sourced evidence tells you. Faith is believing in something despite evidence to the contrary. When I compute a figure on my RPN calculator, I don't have faith in the answer. I trust the answer. I have good reason to accept that answer as fact. Calculators have been shown to be reliable to so many 9's that it's hardly worth mentioning. Now, if my calculator was usually wrong or if the results of every computation were of unknown validity, then faith would be the right description for my acceptance of the answer. Trust is when you accept what well-sourced evidence tells you. Faith is believing in something despite evidence to the contrary. Evolution is not a faith-based religion, but nice try, fellas.

Recently we talked about homeopathy and reflexology on this program. Both of these systems were developed many decades ago, before the advent of modern medicine, when almost nothing useful or true was known about the human body. The state of medical science sucked. Paranormal explanations were proposed by the founders of homeopathy and reflexology, in honest attempts to understand medicine during a time when no good information was available yet. In all the years since, many of the true workings of the human body have been learned. Medical science adapted and improved. Call it "Revisionist Medicine" if you like. Modern medicine is being revised and improved at least as fast as any other branch of science. But not for homeopaths and reflexologists. Their techniques have not accepted what science has learned about the human body; rather, they remain entrenched in the same ancient worldviews in which they were developed. Homeopathy is still fundamentally about balancing the four basic bodily humors, and reflexology is still about a mystical energy field called "life force" that's centralized in your feet and hands. To accept homeopathy or reflexology, you must believe in it despite evidence to the contrary. That's faith. To believe in modern medicine, you need only accept what well-sourced evidence tell us. That's science.

History is full of examples of mankind's collective knowledge improving. We used to think the world was flat, and was supported on the backs of giant tortoises. Later we thought that the Earth was the center of the universe. Some people accept what we learned through scientific research, and some people don't. Most people accept some of it and deny some of it. Some people say that since we used to think the world was supported by tortoises, all of modern cosmology and astronomy must be invalid. It's a logical fallacy, but that's what a few people believe nevertheless. By the exact same logic, some Young Earthers consider evolution invalid because biologists employ learning to improve their knowledge. It's another logical fallacy, but again, everyone's entitled to their opinion. Some are just more correct than others.

 

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Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Bethell, Tom. "A New Beginning—Darwin revisionism goes mainstream." The American Spectator. 1 Sep. 1996, Volume 29, Issue 9: 16-17.

Moran, Laurence. "Evolution is a Fact and a Theory." Talk Origins. Usenet newsgroup, 22 Jan. 1993. Web. 12 Jan. 2010. <http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/evolution-fact.html>

National Center for Science Education Staff. "Project Steve." National Center For Science Education. Stage 2, 17 Oct. 2008. Web. 12 Jan. 2010. <http://ncse.com/taking-action/project-steve>

Prothero, Donald. Evolution: What the Fossils say and Why it Matters. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. 87-118.

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things. New York: MJF Books, 1997. 13-61.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Revisionist Darwinism: The Theory That Couldn't Sit Still." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 27 Mar 2007. Web. 1 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4035>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 665 comments

Because the Bible is the only book ever written with a proposition for Intelligent Design? Oh wait, I meant to say every ancient religious text from every major cultural group.

Matt W, Greenville, SC
October 28, 2010 12:16pm

Why can't we revise the Bible? Look at an English translation of the Codex Alex Andrinus, Vaticanus, Sinaticus The Vulgate and your King James Bible. Yeah, there's some pretty serious revision going on there. It could use a good update. Making it match science is as good a reason as any of the other reasons the book has been revised.

Craig, Washington DC
October 28, 2010 12:22pm

"Because the Bible is the only book ever written with a proposition for Intelligent Design? Oh wait, I meant to say every ancient religious text from every major cultural group."
But Joe, like a lot of YEC supporters is quite specific about WHICH god they believe created the universe and when.

"Why can't we revise the Bible? Look at an English translation of the Codex Alex Andrinus, Vaticanus, Sinaticus The Vulgate and your King James Bible. Yeah, there's some pretty serious revision going on there. It could use a good update. Making it match science is as good a reason as any of the other reasons the book has been revised."
And look also at the controversy such actions, or the Reformation for example caused.

Either way, it does not Creationism a science, or any claim it is "science based" less dubious. You can interpret science in terms of your faith, but you can not expect science itself to interpret your faith as a "fact" or evidence, or theory.

Tom H, Kent, UK
October 28, 2010 12:55pm

Ahh, very good then. The Old Testament is much more fun to read in the original Hebrew anyway.

Matt W, Greenville, SC
October 28, 2010 1:29pm

Tom, you still don't get it: creation ESTABLISHED science, as we both see it. WE establish a model for this view, and see if science indicates it (which it does). It is NOT double standard, considering empirical science alone cannot (nor ever can) explain the Beginning. We aren't here to explain that beginning, but the processes thereafter.

Marius has finally said something (in part) I absolutely agree with: " Bastardized science is not science, Craig. It is something altogether more odorous. Same as there is no bad science. There is just science." Trouble is, he doesn't practice that. And Tolkein was a Christian contemporary partner of C S Lewis, one of my favourite writers. You have all arbitrarily discarded any references I made to true science - including AIG etc - so don't bray your laments about me ignoring science. It is clear that the world's leading education institutes have been hijacked by atheists/evolutionists over the past 200 years. You have a lot of gall to accuse creationism of being unscientific, in the light of your pseudoscience and refusal to explain to us why (in pure science) your theory can hold any water!

Tom, let's make a deal: I'll read that NHM book by Prof. Fortey if you will read (fully) a book recommended by me in turn…CONSIDER you COULDN'T answer my Q: what started everything? YET you think because I comment that God's methods cannot be explained (He's God, remember?), you say I HAVE A DOUBLE STANDARD!!!!!

Matt, tell us more...

Joe Boudreault, Hanover, Ontario
October 28, 2010 6:07pm

It's not as if you can produce evidence for creationism. Even if you were to falsify ToE you still can't prove there's a god and you can't prove a young earth.

Of course you can't because there's such a vast amount of evidence of TOE. Like all those transitional fossils out there. We also have observed speciation events and genetic evidence supporting common ancestry.

Again your opinion of ToE has no impact on the facts of evolution. This is just the way the world is, deal with it.

How is it coming finding the bunny?

Craig, Washington DC
October 28, 2010 8:51pm

Brian, I love reading your stuff because you are usually so fair. But in this article you fail in a very basic thing -- you changed the definition of a word. Faith is not belief in something despite evidence to the contrary, it is belief in something without proof. Changing a definition to support your case is naughty!

It is true that some people claim faith as a reason for believing in things that have evidence to disprove them, but that's not what the word itself means.

Cassie, Germany
November 11, 2012 9:02am

I am personally a big opponent of the creationist theory, because it is based on faith (as you mentioned in the episode), but on the clearly philosophical level, do you think that humans where "created" as a tool by the universe to understand, study itself. It is like a person can't study itself and since there is no other universe that we aware of it needs an external entity (human) that is intelligent enough and willing to study itself.
I know it sounds crazy, but it is just a philosophical experiment.
And by the way "Moore's Law" is not really a Law or theory, it was just a statement made by Gordon Moore and found to be accurate enough to predict digital evolution in VLSI industry.

Konstantin, Melbourne
June 13, 2013 10:28pm

Konstantin, Lawrence Krauss jokes about this in some of his lectures.

Clearly the universe didn't "set out" to create astronomers.. but its a great tag line for conference chuckles.

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
June 21, 2013 4:47am

Regarding the discovery of DNA, Brian says the following in his article: “The most important and significant discovery in the history of biology was completely 100% ignored by the creationists.” Perhaps true 50 years ago, but today creationists thoroughly welcome genetic research. Discoveries in the area of genetics over the past decade are actually in FAVOR of creationism.

There’s no question in my mind that things are starting to look bleak for evolutionists. ALL their eggs are in the ‘beneficial mutation’ basket. Keep in mind that natural selection, although a part of the evolution model, only REDUCES genetic information. It’s only through (accidental) beneficial mutation that new features of life appear. Given that all of this has to be done in a trial-and-error, continual false-start, randomly try something new approach means that there needs to be a HUGE number of ‘beneficial mutations’ occurring. But now that we can track beneficial mutations, researchers are finding it rather difficult to come up with very many; most of which are really only slightly beneficial, many having harmful side-effects. In reality, genetic research is showing that life is actually just as likely to get WORSE as it is to get better.

Bottom line: The ‘beneficial mutations’ are not sufficiently being observed.

Yes indeed, the discovery of DNA and all the genetic research makes me very glad to be a creationists. I’ll say it again, things are looking bleak for the evolutionists.

Jeff, Alabama
December 10, 2013 10:13am

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