Strategies for defending evolution

Clearly, there is enough evidence to convince a fair-minded, unbiased person of the antiquity of the universe, cosmological evolution, and biological evoluton. I am already familiar with the evidence. But what about those thoroughly entrenched on the other side? Can the evidence by itself overcome all biases to the contrary?

Once upon a time, I was sufficiently naive to assume that all I had to do was clearly present the evidence to the creationist, who would then promptly become an evolutionist. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Many individuals hold the truth of scripture (and a literal interpretation thereof) to be axiomatic. This presents a difficulty, because they then conform their interpretation of the rest of the world to fit their a priori commitments. Quite ironically, these religious memes shape the decision-making faculties of the individual such that they cannot give the evidence a fair hearing. Thus, presenting all the evidence in the world will not convince them. Even more, many have a “conpspiracy theory” attitude which leads them to believe that all evidences against them are Satanic seductions, and they know a priori that these are evil. So no matter how convincing they would be, they find a way to disregard them. In fact, the more convincing the evidence, the more it supports their view that the devil is skillfully attempting to lead them astray.

This is why it is so difficult to fight ignorance.

Many creationists believe this to be a closed case, no further reconsideration necessary. So, what do you think is the best way to convince others to take a step back, “re-open” the case, and reconsider the evidence? How do you lead someone into giving the evidence a fair hearing?

It seems like throwing more evidence at them is not enough, until they already have come the point that they will give the arguments a fair, reasonable, and unbiased consideration.

[Note: this is not supposed to be a creation/evolution debate. The debate is this: what is the best way to prepare creationists to give the evidence a fair hearing.]

I think you’re looking at this completely the wrong way, and the reason should be obvious to you because you stated it. It might be a matter of being unable to see in yourself what you see in others:

Just reverse the positions of science and scripture, and you have exactly the way they see you.

It’s a waste of time and it’s obnoxious. It’s another form of prosletyzing to try and “convert” a creationist. Just be glad that your children will be competing in the job marketplace with them.

It depends on the creationist. If it’s just someone who’s got a few honest questions, coming at his/her views from simple naivete–and evolution can be pretty counter-intuitive–Then simply answer their questions and point them to some books or the Talk-Origins site.

If it’s someone set in their ways, why bother?

Generally I follow a tit-for-tat appproach in real life. I leave creationists alone, but if they start prostelytizing, I’ll argue with them, more for the benefit of passers-by rather than in any real hope of convincing them.

Regarding general strategies for formal debates, this is something I posted about 4-1/2 years ago in a GQ thread. I think it’s pertinent here, and it still helps me.


I’ve been fairly successful in explaining evolution and natural selection to Christians who have bought into the ICR’s arguments. I can’t recall that I’ve ever talked to anyone who didn’t come away at least agreeing that Gish and company have misinterpreted key data. The biggest obstacle I’ve encountered with Christian arm chair creationists is that they are terribly gun-shy about discussing the topic with evolutionists who, for the most part, have come across like Libertarian Party presidential candidates, extremist zealots who make a lot of fun of other people but can’t take a joke.

We need to realize that we are not arguing against ghosts here. We are arguing against real people who have won the trust and confidence of the people we’re trying to convince. And the people we are trying to convince aren’t stupid just because they’re Christians. They know that “evolution which is so blindingly obvious that even creationists cannot deny it has taken place” is not creationist jargon but evolutionist extremist jargon. The Christians have just as much access to the ICR’s material as we do. We don’t help our cause when we do exactly what Gish et al say we do, namely, misrepresent them.

We need to follow the example of Dr. Eugenie Scott and others who debate the creationists quite successfully fair and square. Scott doesn’t stand at a podium and call her opponents “notoriously vague”. She doesn’t refer to them as “fanatics”. Instead, she uses temperate, measured language as she dispassionately addresses their points one-by-one, all the way from the Second Law flaw to observed speciation. Before she came into the picture, some evolutionists, like David Rice, had resigned themselves to avoiding a debate with creationists altogether because they had decided they could never win!

And no wonder! Look what Rice says:

“Creationists allow themselves wild speculation, baseless assertions, lies, deciet (sic), and a belief in magic to defend their dogmas.”

“Creationists discard every piece of data that does not mesh with their pre-conceived (sic) dogmas.”

“Creationists DEPEND (original emphasis) upon the ignorance of their audience. They avoid properly set up debates in front of real scientists.”

Man, when you’re reduced to nothing but ad hominem attacks, you’ve really shot the whole wad. According to Rice, not only are the ICR scientists morons, so is everybody in the audience! Is this what we expect politicians to take to their constituents in order to fight against creationism in the schools? We damn well better wake up or we’re going to find ourselves being looked upon as a bunch of science terrorists. Those are voters out there in that audience.

There are ways to debate against creationism and win. First and foremost is to become as savvy as the ones we accuse of being ignorant. Understand what is at stake here. Every debate matters. It’s hard to recover when you blow it. With that in mind, I offer Lib’s Ten Commandments for debating creationists based largely on what I’ve done and what I’ve seen Eugenie Scott do.

[ul][li] **1. First and foremost: Respect your opponent. ** You will not, repeat, will not win a debate by hurling insults at the ICR scientists. Acknowledge their credentials. This establishes that you take the argument seriously. They are mistaken, not uneducated. Nothing makes a debator look sillier than pretending that his opponent’s argument lacks any validity whatsoever. You leave your audience with the impression that you didn’t understand some of the creationist’s points. (Remember that even lurkers here are an audience.)[/li][li] 2. Don’t dodge the questions. Yes, you do have to explain how human beings can arise from hydrogen. The audience understands that there has been a continuum of sequence from the Big Bang to the present day. You can’t just act like you’re exempt from dealing with the bigger picture just because natural selection deals only with biology. Show the flaws in the probability statistics offered by creationists. Explain how “remarkable” it is that a poker player is dealt a 3S-5H-7C-JS-KD hand.[/li][li] 3. Don’t misrepresent your opponent’s position. The more you do this, the worse it gets. And it is the very thing you’re accusing them of doing. See how silly this looks to the audience? You leave them scratching their heads and going, “Gish didn’t sound vague or fanatical to me.” Their positions are a matter of public record. You’ve lost when they can replay the tape and show that they did not, in fact, define macroevolution the way you say they did.[/li][li] 4. Don’t get lost in the details. You aren’t teaching for a pop quiz. What you see as vagueness in the creationists is what you need to master. Generalize. Don’t make your audience’s eyes glaze over with post doctoral scientific jargon. Don’t spend precious time citing the particulars of twenty-seven speciation observations. Just say, “There have been more than two dozen documented observations of speciation which are detailed in the hand-outs I’ve provided to you and to Dr. Gish.” Then sit back and let Gish spend the next half-hour rebutting each of them.[/li][li] 5. Don’t act like you have a grudge. Be folksy. Gish is a master of this. Don’t seem desperate. Keep your cool and select your battles wisely. If you don’t do this, you end up looking like you are trying to settle a score. Don’t use sarcasm. Don’t glare at your opponent, physically or verbally. Don’t let the audience think that your blood pressure is high, or else you’ll end up looking like a soaked-face Nixon debating against a cool and suave Kennedy.[/li][li] 6. Respect your audience’s faith. Remember that your target audience is Christian. If it comes to a choice between their God and your science, they couldn’t give a rat’s ass about your science. This is utterly unnecessary, and guarantees you an opposing voting block in perpetuity. And be careful how you word this. Don’t say, “Evolution has nothing to do with God.” Say, “Many scientists find that evolution is compatible with their faith.” Do you see the difference? The first one sounds like Madalyn Murray O’Hair on steroids; the second one sounds deferential and respectful.[/li][li] 7. Don’t pile on. Give your audience credit to know when you’ve won a debating point. It is tempting, once you’ve caught Gish in a trap, to go in with guns blazing. DON’T DO THIS. You look like you’re kicking a man when he’s down. Instead, give him a gracious out and then let him deal with it. Say, “Dr. Gish, I’m sure you didn’t mean to say so-and-so. Given this study I’ve cited, could you clarify your point?” This makes Gish look fallible and you look gracious and merciful. Your audience will make the connection that you have taken on the attributes of Jesus, Whom they adore. Gish, having taken on the role of fallible mankind MUST now humble himself before you of his own accord, else the audience will connect him with an unrepentant Pharisee. (See how this stuff works?)[/li][li] 8. Don’t act holier than thou. This is closely related to number 1, but differs in that, even though you acknowledge your opponent is not an idiot, you act like you yourself can do no wrong. You can’t win every point. Sooner or later, Gish is going to catch you unaware, or make a point that is tough for you to refute. (Remember, not every point they make is baseless.) You’ll be in a lot better position if you can humbly laugh at yourself than if you find yourself like a deer caught in the headlights. The taller your pedestal, the further you will fall.[/li][li] 9. Don’t carry baggage. Leave your agenda at home. Don’t come in like the crusader who is trying to save the world. Don’t tell them that their children will be destroyed by creationism. History and common sense testify differently. This is simply not as important to them as it is to you. The more nonchalant and less impassioned you can be, the better. You aren’t pushing evolution on them because it is morally right; you are presenting evolution to them because it makes sense. Don’t waste time insisting that evolution is a fact while creation is a myth, unless you are prepared to pass around a fly that they can watch evolve into something else. Gish and company are absolutely delighted when you start stomping your feet and screaming, “Those are MY cigarettes, Nurse Ratchet!” Simply say calmly, “I didn’t witness the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but I can see the signatures.”[/li] 10. Know your enemy. Be prepared. There is a myth afloat that creationists are rigid dogmatists who never change their positions. Believe that at your own peril. You will be submarined when Gish calmly states that the data has convinced them that new species can come from old species and that they now hold the position that microevolution occurs within a higher order than species. Bang, you’re dead. Half of what you had prepared as argument is now out the window. Don’t let them sneak up on you by using old notes. Go straight to the horse’s mouth, the ICR. Browse their website. Read their latest press releases and papers. Don’t think you’re dealing with a bunch of fools.[/ul]

Actually I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. As a group, creationists use different strategies for evaluating the truth of a proposition. They begin with a belief and expect the evidence to support that. They will not readily change their belief if the evidence appears to point in another direction. That’s because evidence is not the first consideration - scripture is.

So you’re stuck. You have to attack the authority of scripture if you want to make a dent.

(Now I’m talking as a group - clearly their are inflexible evolutionists whose belief is based on blind faith. But as a belief system, creationism per se is based on scripture, is not open to revision and is not based on natural “evidence.” Evolution understands itself as based on natural evidence and is open to revision and refutation.)

Dearest Lib, I was about to say that I don’t see the situation that way, but then you might say that (of course) I cannot see the log in my own eye.

Many of my friends are young earth creationists. As far as I know, my view of science is somewhat different than their view of Scripture. I don’t see how the situation is symmetric. Can you explain more about how I’m looking at it the wrong way?

You are right, though, in characterizing how they see me, but I am certain that that is not how you, Lib, see me.

In my view,

(1) Science is useful only for falsifying hypotheses; and as such, it cannot absolutely verify anything as true knowledge.
(2) Science (unlike their sola Scriptura view) is not a super-epistemology to which everything else must bow; it has limited scope.
(3) Science is non-dogmatic: it is tentative and subject to revision in light of further evidence. If it ever ceases to be tentative, it ceases to be science.

Okay, I suppose all three are saying the same thing, but oh well.

As a non-dogmatic Christian, I try to use a situationally-appropriate epistemology. The things of science are known by science, the things of the mind are known by the mind, the things of the heart are known by the heart, and the things of the spirit are known by the spirit.

Dan, I don’t see myself as “proselytizing” in the sense of arbitrarily kidnapping unsuspecting creationists and initiating the discussion. Rather, many of my fellow Christian friends accuse me of “false doctrine,” being a “bad Christian,” etc., so I have to defend myself. I always try to be curteous and respectful. I’ve tried carefully explaining myself, including the us of talk-origins. Sometimes they can see the points, but their commitment to a certain exegesis of Genesis overrides it. (I don’t think this last statement is an ad hominem, is it?)

Why would I “waste my time” trying to help one of my friends in his pursuit of God’s Truth? Because I strive to love my neighbor as myself. If I were in their position (and I was), I would want someone to help me. In the past, caring individuals have put a supererogatory effort into helping deliver me from ignorance. I am thankful for their effort, and I’m sorry that I was so stubborn.

Will I, after the manner of the priest or the Levite, pass by the one afflicted with ignorance, because helping him is too difficult? May it never be.

Lib, thank you for your post on debating insights.

Evolution doesn’t need “defending,” any more than gravity or chemistry does.

Just because some folks don’t want to accept the facts doesn’t make it any less factual.

**Liberal ** that’s a well-written extremely valuable post. And useful for any argument - not just evolution-creation.

My problem with it though is it assumes that you can persuade a creationist by using natural evidence. I don’t think you can, since natural evidence is not their guide. It’s like expecting to persuade an atheist by citing scripture.

This is not an slam on creationists. It’s an aknowledgement that creationism is not a rationalist position and the tools of rationalism are not necessarily relevant.

What a creation-evolution argument too often is reduced to is the evolutionist having to “prove” evolution and in fact all of science itself. No one so omniscient that they can shore up every conceivable hole in the story of evolution to the satisfaction of someone who fundamentally believes in the authority of scripture. And in fact the areas that are still poorly understood are precisely where the intelligent designers attack and call it evidence that the theory has “failed.”

I think that this is a myth. Those of us with strong opinions who like to post things in forums like this tend to project the strength of our convictions on those who disagree with us, mainly because the ones we hear from are usually those who are most entrenched. There are a lot of people out there with a “casual creationist” attitude that could be persuaded away from literalist scripture by logic. You don’t hear from them in debates or in the media or on the Internet, but I think that they exist. And I think that they may be persuaded on any issue, regardless of whether it is supposedly set in stone by the Bible.

You seem to be defining yourself out of an answer. The people you describe are so dogmatic about their beliefs, that they are impervious to logic. Somehow, and I don’t know exactly how, you have to convince them that science and religion are two completely different ways of thinking. Science doesn’t answer religious questions (what is the purpose of life, etc) and religion doesn’t answer scientific questions (eg, what is the distant between the earth and the moon).

One wouldn’t use the Bible to build and airplane or a rocket, why would one use it to understand the geology of the earth or the mechanisms of biological change?

OK, good point. So maybe it’s a spectrum and the less a person is of a creationist, the more they’ll be susceptible to rationalist arguments. I don’t think that changes the fact that creationism as a belief system is inherently impervious to rationalism and your best bet is to acknowledge that fact.

I guess if I were to approach the argument the first thing I’d do is ask the person “where should we look to find out what really happened?”

To add to Lib’s useful guidelines:

Try to stay on topic. Evolution is a massively broad topic; it’s far too easy to find yourself (or your opponent) skipping from one topic/theme to another, without ever addressing any of them in any depth. If it’s a proper debate it’s vital to set the bounds of that debate before you start.

Don’t change the subject; don’t let your opponent change the subject; If a great weight of positive evidence is presented, it’s too easy for the creationist to argue that the interpretation of that evidence is prejudiced by presuppositions; if the debate is about presuppositions and methodologies, it’s too easy for the creationist to argue that there’s no evidence anyway. I’m sure there are situations where the pro-evolution side might also do this sort of thing.

In my experience, whether the topic is evolution or anything else, following Liberal’s guidelines are not useful unless the other side agrees to the same rules… and it is extremely rare outside of highschool debate class to see both sides agree to a set of rules.

I would not have taken your for a relativist, Liberal. Interesting.

Liberal did say “that’s how they see you,” which is probably true, and doesn’t mean he sees it that way himself.

I think there is a difference between defending evolution and convincing someone that it can and does occur. The former is something that often occurs in evolution vs. creation debates, and is really just a matter of having one’s facts straight and clearing up misconceptions held by the opposing party. Convincing someone that evolution occurs is a much more involved undertaking and requires starting from the beginning, as it were.

It sounds to me like the OP wishes to convince, rather than defend. Sometimes, all it takes is a discussion of the logic behind natural selection as a creative force. Sometimes, one must be convinced of “deep time”. Others need to be convinced that the scientific method is a valid form of inquiry. And so on. Depending on just how much the other person is willing to accept up front, the task can be relatively straightforward, or monumental in scope (in which case, it may well be better to point them in the direction of a good book on the material, rather than try to formulate an argument from scratch).

One major hurdle that must be overcome is the notion that evolution (or the scientific method in general) is “anti-God”. Get past that, and the task is undoubtedly much easier.

My favorite tactic (not that I’ve actually used it in the field) is to compare anyone who thinks that evolution is wrong to those who think that O.J. Simpson is innocent.