Darwinists routinely put forth the fossil record as the best, most objective evidence for evolution (common descent).  They find it so compelling that they think it proves evolution happened, even if they cannot be sure of the mechanism by which it happened.  As Jerry Coyne writes in Why Evolution is True, “[T]he issue is not whether macroevolutionary change happens – we already know from the fossil record that it does – but whether it was caused by natural selection, and whether selection can build complex features and organisms.”[1]

Critics of Darwinism have often responded by asking a rhetorical question: “How do you that life evolved if you do not know how life evolved?”  In the absence of a plausible mechanism to propel macroevolutionary changes in organisms, how can Darwinists be so sure that organisms have experienced macroevolutionary changes?  As Sean McDowell wrote:

I am amazed at how frequently Darwinists admit that there is debate about HOW life evolved but not THAT life evolved. … If there is debate about the how of evolution, then what right do Darwinists have to claim that we evolved with such confidence…? Evolution is a theory specifically about how life developed. The significant debate (and lack of evidence) for the mechanism of evolution undermines the theory itself.[2]

On the face of it this line of reasoning is compelling.  I myself found it persuasive for quite some time.  When I came to examine the logic a little more deeply, however, I found the response to be fallacious.  To see the fallacy let me spell out the response in syllogistic form:

(1)    One must know how X happened before they can conclude that X happened
(2)    We do not know how life evolved
(3)    Therefore we cannot conclude that life evolved.

Premise 1 is clearly false.  Consider the following analogy: I am with my daughter at the park.  I bend down to tie my shoe when suddenly I hear a “thud” and my daughter’s subsequent screams.  I look up to see her lying on the ground next to the slide.  I immediately conclude from her position, the thud, and her screams that she must have fallen from the slide.  According to premise 1, however, this conclusion is illegitimate since I do not know how she fell off the slide.  Am I therefore not justified in concluding that she fell of the slide?  Sure I am justified.  One need not know how something happened to know that it happened; they only need to have good evidence that it happened.  So if the fossil record provides good evidence for descent with modification, and if no alternative theory provides a better explanation of the data, then Darwinists are justified in concluding that evolution occurred even if they don’t know how organisms are modified.

It goes unnoticed by many theists that they themselves will conclude that X happens without knowing how X happens.  Consider the problem of the mind-brain relationship: How does something that is non-physical cause events in something that is physical?  Most theists don’t have a clue about how it happens, but they conclude that it happens because they consider the evidence for the existence of mind compelling.  Ignorance of the mechanism does not curtail them from being confident about the reality of the mind-body relationship.  And so it is with Darwinists.  It is legitimate for Darwinists to conclude that evolution is true even if they are unsure of the mechanism, provided the evidence for evolution is compelling (personally I do not find the evidence compelling, and think an alternative model — design — can better account for the data, but that is beyond the scope of this post).

While one need not know how something happened to conclude that it happened, ignorance of the mechanism should at least cause us to hold to our conclusion with some epistemic humility.  While all the evidence led me to believe my daughter fell from the slide, it is also possible that she was never even on the slide, but was pushed simply down by the playground bully.  My initial conclusion was justified given the evidence I was aware of at the time, but I should have held to that conclusion a little more tentatively until I discovered the mechanism by which she fell.  Similarly, while the fossil evidence may point to the fact of evolution, until Darwinists can provide an adequate mechanism to explain how organisms evolve they ought to hold that conclusion a little more circumspectly than they do.


[1]Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True (New York: Viking Penguin, 2009), 133.
[2]
Sean McDowell, “Why Evolution is True”; available from http://www.conversantlife.com/science/why-evolution-is-true; Internet; accessed 18 June 2010.

Darwinists routinely put forth the fossil record as the best, most objective evidence for evolution (common descent).  They find it so compelling that they think it proves evolution happened, even if they cannot be sure of the mechanism by which it happened.  As Jerry Coyne writes in Why Evolution is True, “[T]he issue is not whether macroevolutionary change happens – we already know from the fossil record that it does – but whether it was caused by natural selection, and whether selection can build complex features and organisms.”[1]

Critics of Darwinism have often responded by asking a rhetorical question: “How do you that life evolved if you do not know how life evolved?”  In the absence of a plausible mechanism to propel macroevolutionary changes in organisms, how can Darwinists be so sure that organisms have experienced macroevolutionary changes?  As Sean McDowell wrote:

I am amazed at how frequently Darwinists admit that there is debate about HOW life evolved but not THAT life evolved. … If there is debate about the how of evolution, then what right do Darwinists have to claim that we evolved with such confidence…? Evolution is a theory specifically about how life developed. The significant debate (and lack of evidence) for the mechanism of evolution undermines the theory itself.[2]

On the face of it this line of reasoning is compelling.  I myself found it persuasive for quite some time.  When I came to examine the logic a little more deeply, however, I found the response to be fallacious.  To see the fallacy let me spell out the response in syllogistic form:

(1) One must know how X happened before they can conclude that X happened

(2) We do not know how life evolved

(3) Therefore we cannot conclude that life evolved.

Premise 1 is clearly false.  Consider the following analogy: I am with my daughter at the park.  I bend down to tie my shoe when suddenly I hear a “thud” and my daughter’s subsequent screams.  I look up to see her lying on the ground next to the slide.  I immediately conclude from her position, the thud, and her screams that she must have fallen from the slide.  According to premise 1, however, this conclusion is illegitimate since I do not know how she fell off the slide.  Am I therefore not justified in concluding that she fell of the slide?  Sure I am justified.  One need not know how something happened to know that it happened; they only need to have good evidence that it happened.  So if the fossil record provides good evidence for descent with modification, and if no alternative theory provides a better explanation of the data, then Darwinists are justified in concluding that evolution occurred even if they don’t know how organisms are modified.

It goes unnoticed by many theists that they themselves will conclude that X happens without knowing how X happens.  Consider the problem of the mind-brain relationship: How does something that is non-physical cause events in something that is physical?  Most theists don’t have a clue about how it happens, but they conclude that it happens because they consider the evidence for the existence of mind compelling.  Ignorance of the mechanism does not curtail them from being confident about the reality of the mind-body relationship.  And so it is with Darwinists.  It is legitimate for Darwinists to conclude that evolution is true even if they are unsure of the mechanism, provided the evidence for evolution is compelling (personally I do not find the evidence compelling, and think an alternative model — design — can better account for the data, but that is beyond the scope of this post).

While one need not know how something happened to conclude that it happened, ignorance of the mechanism should at least cause us to hold to our conclusion with some epistemic humility.  While all the evidence led me to believe my daughter fell from the slide, it is also possible that she was never even on the slide, but was pushed simply down by the playground bully.  My initial conclusion was justified given the evidence I was aware of at the time, but I should have held to that conclusion a little more tentatively until I discovered the mechanism by which she fell.  Similarly, while the fossil evidence may point to the fact of evolution, until Darwinists can provide an adequate mechanism to explain how organisms evolve they ought to hold that conclusion a little more circumspectly than they do.


[1]Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True (New York: Viking Penguin, 2009), 133.

[2]Sean McDowell, “Why Evolution is True”; available from http://www.conversantlife.com/science/why-evolution-is-true; Internet; accessed 18 June 2010.

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