One of the world’s most famous defenders of evolution, Richard Dawkins, made the following claim: “Evolution is a fact in the same sense as it is a fact that Paris is in the Northern Hemisphere.”
Though not as well-known as Richard Dawkins but just as staunch an evolutionist, Daniel Dennett claimed that “the fundamental core of contemporary Darwinism . . . is now beyond dispute among scientists. . . . The hope that it will be ‘refuted’ by some shattering breakthrough is about as reasonable as the hope that we will return to a geocentric vision and discard Copernicus.” In other words, Dennett was saying he thinks that there’s as much a chance of evolution being refuted as there is a chance of humans going back to the ancient view that planet Earth is situated at the center of the universe.
Of course, no one challenges the view that Paris is in the Northern Hemisphere or that Earth is not at the center of the universe. In contrast, millions reject the evolution that Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett so dogmatically defend. How can some people be so certain about evolution, while others, with the same certainty, deny it?
Part of the answer can, in broad terms, be boiled down to the difference between what is seen and what is not seen. More specifically, and in the context of evolution itself, this disparity arises from the difference between microevolution and macroevolution.
What are these two concepts, and how does the difference between them help explain much of the controversy surrounding the theory of evolution?
Darwin and the variation of species
One of the most consequential sea voyages in modern history was undertaken by Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle, which set sail from Plymouth, England, in December 1831 and returned to England in October 1836, just two months short of five years. During those years, Charles Darwin saw things, especially in the Galapagos Islands of of the Pacific coast of South America, that helped him formulate his ideas.
So what, exactly, did Darwin see?
Darwin noticed that certain species of wildlife varied from island to island. Finches, tortoises, and mockingbirds living on one island had slightly different traits from finches, tortoises, and mockingbirds living on other islands. For example, the beaks of finches on one island were larger than the beaks of finches on another island. Even on the same island, differences among the same species existed, depending on where they lived. Some finches lived on the ground in coastal areas; some lived inland in trees and others in bushes. Some ate one kind of food; some, another.
As a result of these different environments, the species developed different traits that enabled them to better adapt to their particular circumstances. The differences in species from island to island were obvious enough that one local governor supposedly said that merely by looking at a tortoise, he could tell which island it came from.
These differences were small, but they got Darwin to speculating about what would happen if all these small, visible changes kept happening over long ages. With various ideas germinating in his head, Darwin returned to England, where he continued his studies.
Back in England, Darwin also noticed that selective breeding could cause variations within a species. Though they had no knowledge of genetics, humans for millennia knew that they could bring about minor changes in a population of animals—dogs, horses, cows, pigeons, and so forth—by selectively mating these animals with others of the same species. Selective breeding and the changes it created helped to shape Darwin’s thinking.
In 1859, Darwin published his most famous and consequential book, On the Origin of Species, in which he theorized that the constant accumulation of these small changes within a species would eventually lead to the creation of whole new kinds of animals or plants. Darwin claimed that all these changes were caused by what he called natural selection, a process inherent in nature itself in which organisms that are better at adapting to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring, while those that don’t adapt die off.
There’s no question that these changes caused by natural selection do occur. Species, both animals and plants, can and do change, either through their natural environment or through selective breeding—and they can do so quickly enough that humans are able to observe the differences between populations of the same species while the earlier versions of the same species are still alive.
However, these changes are always, always, very small—a change in color or in the size of an appendage, or a change in a bacterium that enables it to be more resistant to antibiotics than its ancestors were. This ability of plants and animals to adapt to new environments through minor changes in their anatomy is called microevolution, and it’s critical to the survival of plants and animals as the environment in which they live changes. Living things would eventually die out if they didn’t have this ability to adapt to environmental changes.
“Microevolution,” wrote Austin Kline “is used to refer to changes in the gene pool of a population over time which result in relatively small changes to the organisms in the population—changes which would not result in the newer organisms being considered as different species.”
The point, and a very important one, is that while these species do change, the animals or plants themselves remain the same species. A tortoise with a shell of a lighter color than another tortoise is, still, a tortoise; a finch with a slighter shorter beak than another finch is, still, a finch; a pine tree with slightly longer or shorter needles is, still, a pine tree—not a stalk of wheat, a rose bush, or even a Joshua tree.
Microevolution, in and of itself, is noncontroversial: changes do occur within any given population of a species. All scientists agree on this idea, including scientists who support divine Creation for the origin of living things.
The controversy arises with the extrapolation that Darwin drew from microevolution (a term that he never used), which is the idea that through the process of natural selection, a particular species of animal or plant—given enough of these small microevolutionary changes, over long periods of time—can change into entirely different kinds of animals or plants with new and very different body parts.
This transformation is called macroevolution, and it means any evolutionary variation that transcends the boundaries of genera (which is one step up from species in the scientific classification of living things).* In other words, macroevolution occurs, the theory says, when enough of these incremental microevolutionary variations cause one family of animals or plants to change into a completely different family. Some examples where macroevolution has supposedly taken place over millions of years of time are the descent of fish from invertebrate animals of a completely different species or when the whale descended from a land mammal that had been from another species entirely.
Contemporary evolutionary theory states that all living creatures, including plants, were once different species, genera, and families. One theory states that life on earth originated almost four billion years ago through the natural processes of physics and chemistry impacting air, water, and rock; and the great variety of life on the earth now, from magic mushrooms to bald eagles to human beings, resulted from these processes of macroevolution.
The seen and the unseen
The argument that microevolution morphs into macroevolution is, however, riddled with many problems, including the big one: that all observable examples of evolution involve microevolution only, which allows for the minimal changes we can observe. The problem is that these microevolutionary changes have never been shown to lead to macroevolution; that is, one kind of animal or plant changing into another one of a totally different kind.
This leads to a crucial distinction between microevolution and macroevolution: microevolution can be seen all the time, but macroevolution, even one case of it, has never been observed by anyone, Darwin included. Darwin looked at what nature did in the Galapagos Islands, and he also observed the selective breeding that he and others did among their own livestock in England, and what he saw happening was microevolution. Then from what he did see—microevolution by natural selection—Charles Darwin extrapolated and theorized about what he didn’t see, namely, macroevolution by natural selection.
Jonathan Howard, a staunch evolutionist who is a professor of cell genetics at the Institute for Genetics at the University of Cologne in Germany, made the same point about macroevolution. He said, “Natural selection is the mechanism of evolutionary change. Unlike the process of geological change, it is not readily observable but is inferred by argument from other kinds of observation.”
Not readily observable? It isn’t observable at all! Rather, as Howard himself stated, it’s inferred from other kinds of observation, mostly from the small changes that do occur in species, namely, microevolution.
And, again, this kind of evolution is not debated. Everyone believes that it happens because everyone can see that it happens. But to argue that these small changes can lead to macroevolution is like arguing that just because the check-engine light in your Honda Civic goes on, given enough time, the Civic will turn into a Boeing 747.
Even today, in work by scientists in laboratories who intentionally try to bring about macroevolution, who try to change one species into another—all have failed. No one, for instance, has ever turned a fly into a butterfly, much less a fish into an amphibian. This doesn’t mean it can’t be done; it only means that no one has done it, despite all the efforts.
And just because no one has ever created a macroevolutionary change or because no one has ever seen one doesn’t mean that it never happened, either. It only means that the claims that it has happened are only speculation. The common assertion that fish turned into amphibians, and that amphibians turned into reptiles, and that reptiles turned into mammals, and that mammals turned into human beings is a story about supposed events that no one has ever seen, in spite of all the firm assurances by some in the scientific community that these changes are as certain as, well, the location of Paris in the Northern Hemisphere.
* Scientists classify living things from species to genera, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, and domain.
Clifford Goldstein is a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®. He is also the author of numerous books, the most recent being Baptizing the Devil. He lives in Maryland, United States of America, near Washington, DC.