The fallacy of the creationist distinction between micro- and macroevolution

I’ve belabored this issue before, but there’s always a new crop of readers who might need a lesson. I’m talking about a common creationist trope: the claim that microevolution can occur, usually defined as “evolution within a species” or “evolution within a kind” (whatever a “kind” is), but that macroevolution—seen as a transition from one “kind” to another—doesn’t occur. So antibiotic resistance in a bacterial species, or a change in coat color of a mouse, is fine, because that’s just “microevolutionary change”. Ditto with the evolution of different species of cats, which is simply microevolution within the “cat kind.” And ditto for the creation of different breeds of dogs by artificial selection: breeds so different that, if they were found as fossil skeletons, some would be seen not just as different species, but as different genera. Nevertheless, creationists see that as simply change within the canid “kind”, so that artificial selection is mute about the possibility of macroevolution.

This, of course, is bullshit. Even creationists—those who lie for Jesus—are surely aware of the pervasive empirical evidence for macroevolution. Much of it is outlined in my book, including embryological development, the fossil record, and dead genes. All of these testify to a distant evolutionary kinship between members of different “kinds”. We have, for example, transitional forms between fish and amphibians, amphibians and reptiles, reptiles and birds, reptiles and mammals, and, of course, early ape-y ancestors and modern humans (to a creationist, Homo must always be its own “kind”). And those transitional forms just happen to occur at the proper time in the fossil record. Mammal-like reptiles, the transitional forms between reptiles and early mammals, occur in the sediments after reptiles were already around for a while, but before easily recognizable mammals come on the scene. It’s not just that they look intermediate, but that they lived at the right time for demonstrating a true evolutionary transition. (A “mammal like reptile” that lived 500 million years ago wouldn’t prove anything.)

“Dead genes” (stretches of DNA that don’t produce a product, but are largely identical to working genes in relatives) are likewise evidence for distant ancestry between “kinds.” Why do humans have three dead genes for egg-yolk proteins—just the proteins still produced by our reptilian and avian relatives? Why do cetaceans like whales have hundreds of dead olfactory-receptor genes? Those genes testify to a terrestrial origin of whales, with the sniffer genes no longer needed for a life underwater. That, too, shows macroevolution, for surely a whale and a deer are different “kinds.”

And of course there’s no theoretical or empirical reason we know of that sets limits to how much evolution can change plants or animals—yet such limits would have to exist to allow microevolution but not macroevolution.

So for both theoretical and empirical reasons, we can reject the macro/micro difference so beloved of creationists.

These two tweets show the theoretical weakness of the creationist argument, with “First Clown,” who defends evolution regularly on his/her Twitter site, taking down the “no macroevolution” argument in a nice way:

h/t: Barry

49 Comments

  1. Posted March 6, 2017 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    It also comes from the misconception that the taxonomic order (Kimgdon, phylum, etc) is the way in which evolution happened. Many creationists think that evolution says there was some “animal” and it reproduced and the offspring where so different that they become two different phyla.

    They don’t understand that the boxes we put things into are purely arbitrary (and wrong considering the evolutionary history of life). It’s just species becoming more and more different over time… in the same way that human families become more different the further you get from the common ancestor (say a great-great grandparent).

    • Aelfric
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      I get that a lot about the “boxes” — and I think it is exactly what happens with this micro/macro issue. Tangentially related, I will never forget a college religion class where we were discussing how we ended up with a seven-day week. One of the students present said something like “well, it’s a fact that there are seven days in a week. We know that scientifically.”

    • Jeremy Rigsby
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      You make a good point here, but I do have to quibble with the assertion that Linnean hierarchies are “wrong” because they are arbitrary— that is of course precisely what makes them so useful, so long as one understands that they don’t (necessarily) reconstruct evolutionary lineages. They aren’t meant to. Rank-based hierarchies and phylogenetic cladograms each have their uses, and their appropriate contexts, and supplement each other.

      You’re quire right though that terms like “rank” and “hierarchy” lead to misunderstanding when they are taken in their everyday sense of implying superiority and inferiority, or simplicity and complexity, and creationist types get a lot of traction by abusing the terms in that way.

      • Posted March 6, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        To me, ranking birds, a subset of dinosaur, which are subsets of reptiles, at the same taxonomic rank as reptiles, is wrong.

        But it’s a minor point.

  2. john
    Posted March 6, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I see that argument almost daily. I like the math analogy by @1stClown. Thanks for the tip.

    • Paul S
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      The math analogy is good. I’ve used a grey scale chart and asked where is the exact point black becomes white. It’s usually followed by a blank stare.

      • Posted March 6, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        Great analogy!

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted March 6, 2017 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

          Very good, as is Dawwkins’ illustration of a series of photographs of a person, her parent, grandparent, great-grandparent…

          Any two next to each other look almost identical, but two separated by thousands of generations are very different.

          Dramatized in a great scene from Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      An alternative version is distance – people can walk meters, yes, but kilometers – impossible!

    • eric
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      It’s perfect for twitter, but for a real math analogy compound interest is better for a couple of reasons.

      First, because both compound interest and evolution are exponential changes. Your account’s interest is based on how much is in it at the moment, not what you originally deposited many years ago. Likewise, your child will be a mutant version of the genes it inherits from *you,* they will not start with your great-great-great-etc. grandmother’s genes and then mutate from that.

      Second, because for both compound interest and evolutionary change, people tend to greatly underestimate the extent of change that can be accomplished in a long amount of time. Thus the compound interest analogy helps people understand why evolutionary change may seem intuitively hard to grasp; it’s because, like figuring out how much your account will be worth 30 years from now, most of us are just really bad at intuiting the true impact of exponential change over time.

      • mikeyc
        Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Evolution is “exponential change”? Please explain your reasoning here.

        • eric
          Posted March 6, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

          “Compound” change may be a better word than exponential. Meaning that daughter organisms inherit the mutations in their parents and add mutations onto that. For a toy example assuming a one-letter change each generation, it’s GATTACA -> GATGACA -> GATGACT, and so on, not GATTACA -> GATGACA -> GATTACT.

      • mikeyc
        Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        Evolution is “exponential change”? Please explain your reasoning.

        • mikeyc
          Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

          Sorry about the echo.

    • kelskye
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      I used to ask a similar problem – if you agree change can happen, what would stop those changes from accumulating over time?

  3. nickswearsky
    Posted March 6, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    I see the Micro/Macro argument often. When I point out the fossil record, they often suddenly change their definition of evidence to “nobody saw that.”

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the “were you there?” argument. Well, I wasn’t there for the nuking of Hiroshima but there’s ample evidence to show that happened too!

      • eric
        Posted March 6, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

        They typically mean “no human saw that,” because otherwise the ‘were you there’ argument would undermine the bible itself. They don’t want to do that! So they say Biblical events are ‘known’ because humans saw and recorded them. We know Hiroshima happened because humans saw it and recorded it. But deep time and the formation of the solar system aren’t like that; nobody saw them, so therefore (according to Ken Ham-type logic) they can’t be known the same way.

        • Posted March 6, 2017 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

          “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Hmmm – I wonder what Ken Ham would say if he were asked who saw the Spirit of G-d hovering over the water?
          It is interesting that Roger Bacon & Sir Francis Bacon have a good scientific reputation, whereas people named “Ham” apparently don’t.

  4. Randy schenck
    Posted March 6, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I gets very tired dealing with people who think the Flintstones is serious non-fictional documentary Television. People that parade around the country with their traveling circus dinosaur museum simply to screw around with your children’s minds.

  5. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Good gracious, the argument from 1+1+…

    Sub

  6. M&S
    Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Away from the creationist nonsense, there have historically been some interesting discussions about micro and macroevolution. Larry Moran wrote a nice essay on this a few years ago:

    http://bioinfo.med.utoronto.ca/Evolution_by_Accident/Macroevolution.html

    Douglas Erwin wrote a paper “Macroevolution is more than repeated rounds of microevolution”.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1525-142x.2000.00045.x/full

    David Jablonski has also written quite a lot on the same theme:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-4983.2006.00615.x/full

    I don’t agree with all of the above, but it certainly makes for more thought provoking reading than that provided by creationists.

  7. J. Quinton
    Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Prosecution: “…and with the matching gloves, the fingerprint analysis placing the suspect at the location, the lack of alibis, the DNA evidence left behind the scene, and the motivation to murder the victim, I think it’s highly likely that the suspect is our killer”

    Creationist Defense: “Yeah, well, were you there to see my client kill the victim?”

    Creationist Judge: “CASE CLOSED! I find the defendant innocent of all charges!”

  8. Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Cretonia Times-Picayune.

  9. Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure you have noticed that the taxonomic rank apparently corresponding to “kind” is remarkably fluid depending on the specific case being argued. If you bring up archaeopteryx, birds and reptiles are treated as kinds. But then, evolution from ostriches to hummingbirds should be OK. Moreover, Mammals (same rank) should also be a kind, letting us go from bats to elephants, not to mention humans. Similarly, if dogs and cats are kinds, then primates also should be. But, of course, for creationists, the closer you get to humans the more restrictive the definition of kind.

    • eric
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      Well it’s fluid when the geneticists start asking questions. But I think in normal, run of the mill creationism they are fairly stable – albeit it’s a very genetically arbitrary and human-centric stability. All insects are a kind because we don’t care much about the differences between them. In contrast humans are their own kind separate from chimps etc. because we care very much about those differences. And so on.

      • Whitt Staircase
        Posted March 7, 2017 at 6:24 am | Permalink

        I think this could be extended–the revival preachers I recall from my youth made fun of pointy-headed scientists simply because they went into such detail about things that a bible-believer need not know. The important thing is your relationship with Jay-EE-zuss!, not the details of the solar system or the Krebbs cycle.

  10. Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    When creationists say that “microevolution” can of course occur, they may not be so eager to note that this is itself a huge concession. In Darwin’s time, creationists were insistent on the fixity of species. Even well into the 20th century they were trying to argue that natural selection would really not change gene frequencies. They lost that argument, resounding.

    So they fell back on admitting that OK, change does occur within species, but there’s this mysterious barrier to change that would make one species into another.

    • Posted March 6, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      Typo: lost that argument, resoundingly.

    • eric
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      Yes. I also bet that prior to the discovery of DNA, you’d have found a lot of creationists stating it was absurd and unproven that humans, dogs, flowers, plankton, etc. all shared the same basic genetic inheritance mechanism (or even that there was a physical inheritance mechanism – vitalism was a thing back then).

      Creationism evolves as science progresses. Just not as quickly. 🙂

  11. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 6, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Also, whales are ungulates so I wonder how they react to that – oh there was a lot of grazing under the sea when Noah had his boat?

  12. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted March 6, 2017 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I way that I illustrate this, knowing that there are some closeted creationists in the class, is to show an evolutionary tree (which represents macroevolution), and them I make all side branches disappear so what remains is a single, zig-zaggy line to a modern species. That single line is micro-evolution all the way, from parent –> offspring, with incremental change and undetectable speciation.
    Then I put the branches back to point out that mechanistically macroevolution is really the same thing as microevolution, only with splitting — wedges of speciation splitting up the line.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      I like that.

  13. Michael
    Posted March 6, 2017 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    I never understood how creationists could possibly be honest with these claims. They literally draw an imaginary line in the sand and say, “okay, THIS much evolution can occur, but nothing after THAT point”. On what basis can they make that claim? We don’t have any reason that I’m aware of to assume that animal or plant X can’t just keep changing indefinitely. Of course part of this problem is an inability to grasp deep time. I think Dawkins made the point about us living in time scales of decades, and so we can comprehend minutes, seconds, days, weeks, years…even hundreds of years, but it already becomes difficult to comprehend thousands and thousands of years, so try comprehending thousands of millions of years! The key point though is in my “drawing a line” analogy. I feel that’s the crux of the whole problem. How dare they blindly claim that no further change can happen, as if they are an authority on the issue. They are just talking too much and making assumptions based on nothing and yet believing it.

    • Newish Gnu
      Posted March 6, 2017 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

      Well, they don’t say no more change can occur. Just not “that kind of change”. Because reasons.

      • Michael
        Posted March 6, 2017 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

        Well, I mean that they will assert no more change can happen after a certain point meaning, like, speciation for example. Or if they accept speciation, then perhaps the taxonomic rank “family” they struggle with. In any case, any amount of genetic changes can occur, so long as the animal doesn’t become some other animal altogether over generations of modification. But of course, as Jerry said, it’s bullshit.

  14. Mark Joseph
    Posted March 6, 2017 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Question to ask creationists: Are tigers and lions of different “kinds”? If so, then the “kind” is as the level of species, in which case Noah brought 40,000 “kinds” of spiders on to the ark, along with 3,500 kinds of mosquitos, etc.

    Alternatively: Are spiders all of one “kind”? If so, then the “kind” is at the level of the order, in which case (1) evolution works at lightning speed, with the original pair of spiders ramifying into 40,000 species in 3,500 years or so, and (2) makes all passeriformine birds of the same “kind”.

    If they try to sneak in tigers, lions, and spiders each “kinds”, one should point out that it is completely arbitrary to put the line at species in some cases, orders in others.

    All of these options lead to palpable nonsense.

    Of course, (1) they would never even understand such an argument (which I really need to develop more fully), and (2) what they have to offer is, as PCC(E) points out so eloquently, bullshit.

  15. squidmaster
    Posted March 7, 2017 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    ‘Species’ in Latin means ‘kind’ (of thing) or type. So, the g_dbotters are consistent. They mean by ‘microevolution’ that one species cannot transform into another species. They usually bring up examples of alligators never turning into cats or daffodils the like. It’s nonsense and distraction.

  16. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted March 7, 2017 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    “Were you there?” they asked.

    “I was.” said I (adding mentally “by proxy of others’ scientific investigation of the evidence”).

    • David Campbell
      Posted March 7, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      My response to particularly and willfully ignorant adults is, “I was.” When they try to argue that I wasn’t I challenge them to prove it with, “Were YOU there?” Sometimes, although not often, it leads to more thoughtful discussions after they stop sputtering.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted March 7, 2017 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

        This also works when you point out that they weren’t there either. But they say the bible writers were (or some such nonsense), to which you can respond, “how do you know they were there–you weren’t there!”

  17. Posted March 7, 2017 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    And yet, Creationists seem to not care. Their way of thinking is hardly rare. Many people have the tendency of wanting their preferences to also be true. They seem to be stressed out when preferences are just that.

    It’s not acceptable to them that, say, smoking causes cancer. You can still do it, but don’t pretend it hasn’t any risk attached. But they must tell themselves of the perfectly exemplary person who despite best behaviours died of cancer, and the other person, heavy smoker and drinker made it to 130 years.

    I know such people, and tell in response that people broke their legs on the sidewalk, but that skiing tends to break more legs. It’s not that they don’t know this. They just cannot accept that their preferences don’t align with what we know is true.

    However, this behaviour seems to play only a part with Serious Stuff like addiction and extremism, when something really costs them a lot, when it is “close to heart” as the article below suggests. It costs money, health, friends, is part of an identity, of daily habits and as such needs extra justification. It cannot be just preference. Now the more difficult it gets to maintain the belief, paradoxically, the more invested someone becomes to maintain it. This seems to be at the heart of the Backfire Effect, there’s a long article on this by David McRaney (also a great podcast to be found there):

    One hypothesis as to why this and the backfire effect happens is that you spend much more time considering information you disagree with than you do information you accept. Information which lines up with what you already believe passes through the mind like a vapor, but when you come across something which threatens your beliefs, something which conflicts with your preconceived notions of how the world works, you seize up and take notice. Some psychologists speculate there is an evolutionary explanation. Your ancestors paid more attention and spent more time thinking about negative stimuli than positive because bad things required a response. Those who failed to address negative stimuli failed to keep breathing.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted March 7, 2017 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

      They just cannot accept that their preferences don’t align with what we know is true.

      Very true. Unfortunately (for them), reality is not about to adjust itself to their whims.

      Of course creationists don’t change their minds. But it’s still important (at least, it seems so to me) to refute them, for the sake of the onlookers and overhearers, lest they mistakenly think that there is some merit to the creationists’ babblings.

      • Posted March 7, 2017 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

        You are absolutely right. It came out the wrong way. I didn’t mean to say it’s entirely futile or useless to debunk them. On the contrary, as you write, it’s important to be on top of it at all times.

        I only meant that address the unfortunate situation that these people are beyond reason and cannot be reached through argument, and that this condition is perhaps more common than we hope (on top of 40%+ creationists in the US).

      • Posted March 8, 2017 at 4:06 am | Permalink

        Exactly!

  18. Posted March 7, 2017 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Haven’t run across the micro/macro argument from creations very much anymore but I’ve noticed a fairly new one – “that DNA is a CODE, and only an intelligence can create a code”. My counter to this is that DNA is not really a code as such (more a templet) and further, even if it is, why can’t a code exist or evolve naturally?
    I’d advise my anti-creationist fellow debaters to prepare their ripostes for this CODE wheeze.

  19. W.Benson
    Posted March 7, 2017 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    Some creationists absolutely embrace ‘microevolution’, although not by natural selection, because of the need to explain how Noah was able to put all the kinds of land animals on earth in his little-bitsy Ark. The answer is that in Noah’s time there were not so many ‘kinds’ of animals, but afterwards they speciated by microevolution.

  20. dooosp
    Posted March 7, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    So why doesn’t the creationists present some evidence for genes marked as “kind” genes that won’t follow the rules of every other gene that’s responsible for “micro-evolution”? These “kind genes” should be relatively be easy to identify.

  21. Posted March 8, 2017 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Is it wrong that i counted all of the +1’s ?


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