Revisionist Darwinism: The Theory That Couldn't Sit Still
Some creationists claim that evolutionary theory is invalid because it improves as our knowledge increases.
by Brian Dunning
March 27, 2007
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.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Revisionist Darwinism: The Theory That Couldn't Sit Still." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
27 Mar 2007. Web.
17 Jan 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4035>
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>
Nye, B. Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. New York: Macmillan, 2014.
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.
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