Mailbag: Creationism, Scientific Theories and Entropy

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Time to respond to yet another reader feedback email! If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page. For more answers to feedback emails, see the mailbag category.

This time, I got a feedback message from Joe who seems to have some issues with modern evolutionary biology. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the problems Joe sees with this scientific discipline is based on the same old creationist misunderstandings that have been discussed and destroyed thousands of times before: the equivocation of the term “theory”, flawed ideas about entropy and evolution, misunderstandings of taxonomy and the impact of culture on intelligence.

Let’s get to his questions right away:

Firstly, why do you write as if The THEORY of Evolution is as believable as something like gravity?

Since Joe decided to capitalize the term “theory”, it is likely that he is confusing and equivocating “theory” in the everyday sense of the word with “theory” in a scientific concept. In everyday life, “theory” means something like a speculative idea. In science, however, “theory” is a term that refers to a strongly evidence-based model. Here is how the National Academies of Science defines a scientific theory: “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses” (National Research Council, 1998, p. 5)

They also explain that creationists have a very confused approach to the term “theory” (p. 6):

Those who oppose the teaching of evolution often say that evolution should be taught as a “theory, not as a fact.” This statement confuses the common use of these words with the scientific use. In science, theories do not turn into facts through the accumulation of evidence. Rather, theories are the end points of science. They are understandings that develop from extensive observation, experimentation, and creative reflection. They incorporate a large body of scientific facts, laws, tested hypotheses, and logical inferences. In this sense, evolution is one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have.

In other words, the scientific term theory is much stronger than the laymen concept of theory. Confusing the two different definitions like many creationists do is an equivocation fallacy. Comparing evolution to the theory of gravity is one simplified way to illustrate this difference: both are strongly evidence-based explanatory models.

The second question posed by Joe revolves around another creationist favorite, namely entropy:

Especially when there are major gaps in this THEORY such as the disappearing entropy when a cell mutates and “evolves”?

This seems like a weird chimera of several distinct creationist tropes. First of all, the existence of something that is currently unexplained by modern evolutionary biology just means that there is research left to be done. The unexplained does not mean unexplainable. This is in no way an arguments against the overarching strength of modern evolutionary biology. Second, there is no contradiction between evolution and the second law of thermodynamics. Any reduction in entropy that occurs in evolving (or indeed, living) organisms is off-set by increase in entropy in other areas, such as the sun, which makes the net entropy still increasing. Finally, a cell neither mutates nor evolves. It is DNA that mutates, and it is populations that evolve.

The final question that Joe sent in was this:

Secondly, why is it that the quantum assumptions you need to make to gloss over the inconsistencies in Evolution are acceptable for evolutionists to make but not for those who believe in other mechanisms for existence, i.e. the assumption that humans are part of the animal kingdom and it is just a “coincidence” that there are no other species alive that are even within light years of human intelligence.

What alleged inconsistencies is Joe talking about? He does not say. Instead, he claims that it is a “quantum assumption” to say that humans are animals or that human intelligence is a coincidence. Presumably, Joe is confusing the laymen term “quantum” meaning large (i.e. a quantum leap is a large leap) with quantum in a scientific context (e. g. particles at the quantum level are very small). To say that humans are animals (instead of, say, plants or bacteria) is not an assumption: it is a fact of taxonomy. Today, evidence for this comes from phylogenetic trees (humans cluster among other primates, who are animals) and cell morphology (humans have animal cells). Finally, no one is claiming that human intelligence is “just a coincidence”. Rather, human intelligence is an evolved trait greatly enhanced by culture.

It never stops being strange when creationists, in a flash of apparent rhetorical arrogance, deploy a classic creationist fallacy. They really do believe those talking-points cannot be given a rational response and they could not be more wrong.


National Research Council. (1998) Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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