The most recent Gallup poll on evolution, in May 2014, showed that 42 percent of the American people accept that, “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” This same question has been used by Gallup to poll about evolution since 1982 and this Creationist perspective has only fluctuated between 40 percent to 47 percent over those years.

But polls like this confuse the evolution debate and do not get to the heart of the issue. Peoples’ religious beliefs, even if they contradict natural processes and obvious evidence, are not a problem in our modern society, which separates church, state and science. Most all religious people hold beliefs that are directly in opposition to natural processes, simple observation and scientific methodology, and these beliefs present no problem for the scientifically minded priest or the deeply religious scientist. Belief in miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection, walking on water, the Earth is only 10,000 years old, heaven, hell, the infallibility of the pope, etc., are not problematic for religious people or scientists. In fact, instead of 42 percent having Creationist beliefs, it is probably reasonable to guess that most all religious Americans have some nonscientific beliefs. But it’s not a problem because in our civilized world, we have learned that the separation of church and state and science (three pillars of our society) leads to a more free and equitable society for all.

It is only when a very small number of radical proponents of a belief system seek to mix religion and science (or religion and politics) and act on those beliefs that we get ridiculous and totalitarian results. Science has no problem with Creationist or Intelligent Design (ID) believers. However, the small number of “creation science” and ID radicals who advocate that their personal beliefs are scientific, who attempt to have those personal beliefs taught in public schools, who attempt to change the definition of science to include their particular beliefs and who corrupt the political process by electing people to school boards to promote their religious agenda for textbook orders and school curriculums are the people with whom science and the Supreme Court have a problem.

With the above in mind, the following can provide the scientific considerations for some of the most common arguments against evolution and may even prompt creation “science” and ID radicals to come up with better and more scientific arguments.

1. “Evolution is just a theory.”

This argument denotes a lack of understanding about the differences between a scientific theory and a hypothesis. In colloquial speech, the word “theory” is often used when the word “guess” is more appropriate. So the detective at the beginning of an investigation might say, “My theory is that the butler did it.” The detective means to use the word “guess” or “hypothesis,” but the word “theory” is so much more significant.

Scientists use the word “hypothesis” to denote an educated guess at the beginning of the scientific investigation process. A scientific theory comes at the end of the scientific investigation process, usually after multiple lines of converging evidence confirm after years of experimentation, a broad explanation of how our world works. The theories of the chemical elements, gravity, atomic theory, plate tectonics, etc., are rock-solid scientific theories that have withstood the test of time and explain our world. Evolution by natural selection is a well-established scientific theory that has withstood 177 years (formulated in 1838 even though Charles Darwin published in 1851) of challenges … with no contradictory scientific evidence.

2. “There are gaps in the fossil record”; “Why doesn’t the fossil record show a gradual change?” and “Why are there no transitional forms in the fossil record?”

Well, there are gaps in the fossil record, which is to be expected since fossilization is a very rare process and because the entire planet would have to be excavated, deeper than the Grand Canyon, just to find the existing fossils. Gaps in our knowledge of a subject do not negate what is already learned. There are gaps in the astronomical record, in the marine biology record and in the historical record, but an extensive amount is known about these subjects.

The fossil record does show a gradual change in the development of life on Earth. It may not show a complete record of speciation for a single organism but that is, again, because fossilization is a very rare process. 

Finally, there are hundreds of transitional forms of organisms in the fossil record, and it is disingenuous for creation “scientists” and ID proponents to keep asking for “missing links” when there is an ever-increasing number of accepted scientific examples: invertebrate to vertebrate; jawless fish to jawed vertebrate; acanthodian to shark; primitive jawed fish to bony fish; fish to amphibian; primitive to modern amphibians; amphibian to reptile; early reptile to turtle; early reptile to diapsid; reptile to mammal; dinosaur to bird, etc.

3. The Intelligent Design Argument (mistaking nature’s elegance for complex design).

Minister William Paley wrote this in 1802 even before Darwin was born (in 1809), because the question of how we came to be was a hot topic philosophically and theologically long before Darwin explained it scientifically. This ID rationale defined the environment into which Darwin was born, educated and lived. Paley presented the following argument:

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever…but suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place … there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation” (William Paley, Natural Theology, 1802).

Paley’s theology is completely logical and absolutely brilliant: If a simple mechanical device like a watch had to have an intelligent maker, then a much more complex organism like a human being also had to have an intelligent maker/designer (a “God” — but they don’t want to use that word). Unfortunately, there is not a single shred of biological evidence to support Paley’s theology as scientific. But really, his analogy is quite beautiful.

4. Random chance (random genetic mutation) could never produce a complex human being.

Absolutely correct. Random chance alone could not even produce a simple mechanical device like a watch or, in the famous example, “A million monkeys randomly typing for a million years will never produce a Shakespearian play.” Except that genetic mutation involves memory or persistence of a trait down through the generations. So the monkeys are not starting from “zero randomness” each time they type a letter. The correct letters are remembered/saved and the incorrect letters go extinct, producing that Shakespearian play in a relatively short amount of time.

Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by natural selection involves five distinct natural processes, only one of which is random genetic mutation: overpopulation (the basic survival strategy of all living things), competition (survival of the fittest — due to overpopulation), random genetic mutations, adaptations (environmental selection of advantageous mutations) and isolated populations. Put these five processes together over millions of years and the result is the evolution of species by natural selection or, in Darwin’s words, “Descent with modification.”

5. The Intermediate Forms Argument. The intermediate form of an evolutionary advantage confers no benefit so why would it ever have evolved: Half an eye is of no use.

Mutations can be harmful, helpful or neutral. In the case of the angler fish fin, for example, a spine of the dorsal fin separated and moved forward for many generations but it conferred no evolutionary advantage and remained a neutral mutation. Eventually, after many more generations and mutations, it moved far enough forward to attract other fish and became an advantageous mutation.

The “half an eye is of no use” argument is a particularly poor choice for creation “scientists” because the evolutionary development of the eye actually did confer an advantage at every stage of its development. From light sensitive cells to concentrated eye spots, to eye cups, to protected eye cups (lids), to lensed and protected camera style eyes to compound eyes, the development of the eye is shown beautifully in the book Evolution’s Witness by Schwab in 2011.

6. “If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans?”

Great question, which elucidates two common misconceptions about evolution. The first misconception is that all living things are evolving into a higher or better form (like apes evolving into a “higher” level creature like a human). However, that is not the way evolution works. Evolution works only to better adapt organisms to their environment. Humans would not do well living in the ocean nor would ants do well by developing human style intelligence. Adaptation to the environment dictates the direction of evolution not some philosophical idea of perfection.

The second misconception is a real shocker. Darwin and biologists after him used to say that humans are not descended from apes but that humans and apes shared a common ancestor (which is still absolutely accurate). Biologists did this so as not to offend our religious brethren. However, with the DNA sequencing of the primate genomes, it is absolutely clear that humans are not descended from apes: Humans are apes! There are five living species of apes: gorillas, orangutans, bonobos (formerly pygmy chimps), chimpanzees and humans. Chimps and humans share 98 percent of their DNA. We are the apes that talk, use the past to plan the future and ask questions about conceptual ideas (among many other abilities).

7. “You can’t see evolution.”

Yes, we can. This argument may be an attempt to relegate the evolution “debate” to a philosophical discussion since the evolution examples that are most familiar and commonly used take millions of years. However, as scientists studied bacteria, viruses and other organisms with very short reproductive cycles under extreme environmental pressures, they observed evolution taking place right before their eyes. Two familiar examples are that bacteria quickly evolve to resist antibiotics and the flu virus mutates rapidly necessitating continuous changes in the flu vaccine.

Everyone, except those religious radicals who are not willing to separate church, state and science, understands and accepts evolution — and I can prove it right now: Parents, look into your children’s eyes and children, look at your parents’ faces. They are not perfect copies but you can see yourselves in their eyes, their hair, the shape of the nose and ears and that precious smile. You have descended, just like Darwin said, with modification. Now take those small generational changes and magnify them by thousands and even millions of years of changes and you have one species evolving into another. Life is amazing, isn’t it?

— Victor Dominocielo, M.A., a California-credentialed teacher for 37 years, is the human biology and health teacher at a local middle school. He earned his master of arts degree in education from UCSB. The opinions expressed are his own.