This article by Scientific American turned 15 this month. It’s one of the most viewed articles offering refutations to creationist beliefs, so it deserves a proper rebuttal on this site.
’15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense’ (its actual name) contains fifteen arguments, but they boil down to three basic logical fallacies:
The strawman argument consists of a false statement of the opponent’s attack, which is then refuted. In other words, it’s putting words in your opponent’s mouth.
The fallacy of circular reasoning occurs when an argument starts from one assumption, then proves that assumption by an argument based on the original assumption. For instance, consider the common argument ‘Miracles can’t exist because they’re impossible’.
The no true Scotsman fallacy occurs when the terms are redefined to fit the argument, rather than the reverse. The name comes from this exchange between two imaginary people:
‘No Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge.’
‘Well, Angus is a Scotsman, and he put sugar in his porridge.’
‘Ah – no true Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge.’
The no true Scotsman argument is a variation of circular reasoning since in this case a ‘true’ Scotsman is defined as one who doesn’t put sugar in his porridge in order to prove that no true Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge.
Now, on to the arguments:
1. Evolution is only a theory. It is not a fact or a scientific law.
The rebuttal here is a circular reasoning argument. It says that evolution is a fact because a fact is ‘an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and for all practical purposes is accepted as “true”.’ Evolution hasn’t and isn’t, but the article goes on to state that ‘the indirect evidence is clear, unambiguous and compelling’. According to whom?
2. Natural selection is based on circular reasoning: the fittest are those who survive, and those who survive are deemed fittest.
Perhaps I’m uninformed, but I don’t recall ever hearing this argument. Creationists don’t deny natural selection exists – it’s the driving force behind microevolution (which appears later in the article) – we simply don’t believe that it could cause macroevolution. The chance of any organism making enough advancements in one generation to macro-evolve is simply too low since most of our attributes rely on each other to work. Evolving ears without a new section of the brain to interpret the signals it receives or the complex system to get them through the ear canal will not help an organism at all, and thus it won’t be naturally selected. Natural selection is affirmed by creationists, however, and as such, this is a strawman argument.
3. Evolution is unscientific, because it is not testable or falsifiable. It makes claims about events that were not observed and can never be re-created.
The article goes off on a quick tangent about microevolution and macroevolution (slipping in a strong implication that creationists have only recently admitted that microevolution exists) before stating that as there is no proof against evolution, it’s got to be true. This is an argument from ignorance, and it’s at the core of arguments ranging from ‘there’s no proof that aliens don’t exist’ to ‘you can’t prove that there is no God’.
4. Increasingly, scientists doubt the truth of evolution.
Another strawman argument. I could stop there, but this section of the article is chock-full of fallacies. First, it states that all peer-reviewed biological journals affirm evolution (a no true Scotsman fallacy); then, it outright states that ‘serious scientific publications disputing evolution are all but nonexistent’ – another no true Scotsman. Finally, it heavily implies that evolutionary scientists vastly outweigh the creationists and others, which isn’t true – as I showed previously, evolutionary scientists comprise only 30% of the scientific community.
5. The disagreements among even evolutionary biologists show how little solid science supports evolution.
6. If humans descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?
Two strawmen, since creationists are typically well aware that disagreements occur in all areas of science, and the second argument is completely nonexistent. The evolutionary argument is usually very obvious in the second case, which states that monkeys exist in a less evolved state.
7. Evolution cannot explain how life first appeared on earth.
There’s not even any attempt at a rebuttal. The reply starts out ‘The origin of life remains very much a mystery…’ before stating that scientists have been able to produce amino acids. As with most mentions of the study, they conveniently don’t mention the paradox of these amino acids needing oxygen to evolve, which then immediately kills them, nor does it mention that both left- and right-handed amino acids were produced, which cannot combine to create life. The article goes on to bring in alien interaction as an example, which is getting closer and closer to the idea of God.
8. Mathematically, it is inconceivable that anything as complex as a protein, let alone a living cell or a human, could spring up by chance.
The article rebuts this by saying that it assumes nonadaptive organisms. The argument goes like this:
‘As an analogy, consider the 13-letter sequence “TOBEORNOTTOBE.” Those hypothetical million monkeys, each pecking out one phrase a second, could take as long as 78,800 years to find it among the 2613 sequences of that length. But in the 1980s Richard Hardison of Glendale College wrote a computer program that generated phrases randomly while preserving the positions of individual letters that happened to be correctly placed (in effect, selecting for phrases more like Hamlet’s). On average, the program re-created the phrase in just 336 iterations, less than 90 seconds. Even more amazing, it could reconstruct Shakespeare’s entire play in just four and a half days.’
Clever – but that’s not what evolution does. Remember, the parts of our body often – if not always – require each other to function correctly. Instead of preserving individual letters, the program should rightly preserve long, complex lines of speech, which is what evolution has to do.
9. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that systems must become more disordered over time. Living cells therefore could not have evolved from inanimate chemicals, and multicellular life could not have evolved from protozoa.
Yet another strawman. The article has a tendency to select arguments from unreputable creationist journals, rather than mainstream ones like Answers in Genesis.
10. Mutations are essential to evolution theory, but mutations can only eliminate traits. They cannot produce new features.
This is mostly true. The rebuttal says it’s not, citing Antennapedia – a gene which creates nonfunctional limbs in fruit flies – as an example. These limbs don’t work, though. There is practically no solid evidence of a mutation ever creating a positive, naturally selectable change. Fruit flies with Antennapedia would not be naturally selected, as their limbs don’t help them – rather, they’re just a dead weight, and shouldn’t exist from an evolutionary point of view, as fruit flies with the mutation would gradually filter out of the population thanks to their increased weight.
11. Natural selection might explain microevolution, but it cannot explain the origin of new species and higher orders of life.
A strawman – though not far off from the correct argument, which states that advances can not be made from – for example – fish to humans. New species can appear – we’ve even made some ourselves – but larger genus and family changes are rare if not impossible. To go from one kingdom or phylum to another is impossible.
12. Nobody has ever seen a new species evolve.
The article states that it takes too long for us to notice – it’s another argument from ignorance.
13. Evolutionists cannot point to any transitional fossils–creatures that are half reptile and half bird, for instance.
The article refutes this by bringing up the ever-popular Archaeopteryx, along with three lesser known supposed transitional fossils. That’s right – over several billion years, we have millions of fossils of animals which exist today and four of supposed transitional fossils. Shouldn’t there be…you know, a few more? As in, a few billion more?
The article then goes on the attack and claims that ‘[creationists] want evolutionists to produce a weird, chimeric monster that cannot be classified as belonging to any known group’. That’s another strawman argument, in case you’re counting.
14. Living things have fantastically intricate features–at the anatomical, cellular and molecular levels–that could not function if they were any less complex or sophisticated. The only prudent conclusion is that they are the products of intelligent design, not evolution.
The article brings up one creationist argument – the complexity of the eye – then rebuts it and acts as if the whole argument is a moot point. Nevertheless, many other complex structures exist that couldn’t have evolved – like the ear, nose, and organs.
15. Recent discoveries prove that even at the microscopic level, life has a quality of complexity that could not have come about through evolution.
And for the last argument, we have a redux on number 14. In fact, it does exactly the same thing, this time rebutting an argument about flagella (long tails stemming from a cell used for motion or eating) which it mistakenly labels ‘flagellae’, betraying a lack of knowledge on the subject. It wraps up the argument by saying:
‘Dembski’s argument contains several holes. It is wrong to insinuate that the field of explanations consists only of random processes or designing intelligences.’
Despite this – and the few, unlikely explanations aside from those two – random process are the evolutionary belief, so refuting them does if not disprove then at least discredit evolution.
The article wraps up with this phrase: ‘”Creation science” is a contradiction in terms’, which speaks volumes about the circular reasoning throughout it. Claims founded on their own arguments are invalid by any measure.
John Rennie, the author of the original post, went on to write articles about global warming and the X-Men. Scientific American seems to be lacking in science these days, which is a far cry from its once great days covering Abraham Lincoln’s patents and Albert Einstein’s relativity.
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