When you’re talking to evolution deniers, for the most part, you’re not talking to people who are motivated or otherwise intrinsically inclined to reason, rationality, logical consistency, or scientific skepticism. That is not what evolution denial is about.
It’s about faith. Biblical literalists understand implications. Genesis 2 says “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”
In other words, man was not an ape descendant, or a monkey descendant, or a reptilian descendant, as is explicitly posited in evolution. He was put here, in current form, and that placement was performed personally by the hand of god.
Evolution violates the first words of the bible, and this is significant. To the staunchly religious, the choice is to either believe the scientific consensus, or to believe the bible. The two are diametrically opposed.
Scientific consensus won’t protect them from the perceived threat of eternal hellfire, so the biblical interpretation of humanity becomes the safest bet, just like in Pascal’s wager.
But what do you do when you practice an ideology that has clear logical and practical deficiencies? After all, it’s perfectly clear that evolution happened (and is happening).
For religious zealots, there is only one answer: Science must be wrong. How else could the bible disagree with such obvious reality? Science must be wrong, otherwise…it’s just too much to grapple with. For evolution deniers, either there is a scientific conspiracy, or scientists couldn’t be sure about how old those fossils are, or maybe the devil put those fossils there to confuse people so they would be lead astray to the dark side.
Don’t expect to sway anti-science evolution deniers. When someone is indoctrinated to reject science and logic, they are by definition, (at least partly) irrational. Some evolution deniers even have a tangled web of sciencey-sounding facts that allows them to overcome the objections of lay-people reasonable enough to believe evolution occurred, but who might not have the toolset to successfully debate the matter.
This does not mean there is no value in debating evolution-deniers; on the contrary, I think it’s very important to strenuously push back against evolution deniers, particularly when there’s a chance that their nonsense will be heard or seen by people who are on the fence about the matter – you see, the truth of the matter is that most people don’t care very much about this topic. But when this sort of ridiculous non-sense goes on unchecked, it allows people to believe that it’s a reasonable and evidence-based position that evolution did not happen, which allows evolution-denying politicians to get elected, and might eventually lead to deterioration of our social secular underpinnings, and then to theocracy-inspired pseudoscience to guide our educational, scientific, and social directions.
You might read that and think that it’s a slippery slope I’ve created, but frankly, it’s clear at this point that this is exactly the agenda of young earth creationists, and other like-minded yahoos.
Below is a list of strategies and tips I’ve collected in order to debate with evolution deniers, either online, or in person:
1. Understand that we’re losing right now
The fact that all this data exists, yet 40%+ of Americans don’t believe evolution happened is bad news. We need to be more clever, more well-informed, and more effective at responding to this nonsense. As I wrote earlier, when a lot of people deny evolution, it allows politicians to exploit their constituents’ ignorance to implement all sorts of theocratically-tinged lunacy.
2. Choose your battles.
If there aren’t many people paying attention, don’t waste your time. The point is to make maximum impact for people who might be on the fence. If no one who is listening or viewing a comment thread is on the fence about the matter, there’s no point to engage. Wasting time in a small and isolated conversation does nothing, and only serves to make your evolution denying counterpart more adamate.
3. Arm yourself with knowledge.
Learn about radiometric dating, mass spectrometers, and the general theory of relativity.
Be familiar with hominid evolution Australopithecus, Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, Homo Ergaster, Homo Heidelbergensis.
Understand cells. Know the difference between the nucleus and the mitochondria.
Understand genetics. It’s the basis for everything – genes, chromosomes, dna, chromosome 2 fusion in humans (telomeres, centromeres), haploids, etc.
Understand scientific theory, scientific hypothesis, lay-person theory, scientific method
4. Be prepared to provide quick responses to common arguments.
It’s just a theory.
Microevolution happens, but macroevolution does not
If humans came from apes, why are there still apes?
That’s observational science, not historical science
Why don’t new life forms keep forming, if they formed once before?
5. Don’t get personal.
When you start making ad hominem attacks against the evolution denier, you’re certainly not going to change their mind, but more importantly, you might turn off people open to your point of view.
6. Don’t frame it in terms of theological implications.
Plenty of religious folks recognize evolution occurred. There are plenty of theological workarounds to bypass the original sin issue.
7. Frame your arguments in terms of questions.
The Socratic method
is often effective at revealing logical inconsistencies. Consider asking questions like, how do you explain the telomeres in the middle of the 2nd chromosome?
8. Know that every argument they have is canned, and is already well-answered by science
The most sophisticated evolution deniers have a collection of canned scientific-sounding arguments that, in my experience, always reveal themselves to be entire bullshit. Nevertheless, they often take time to research and understand.
But scientific consensus exists about evolution because it’s so obviously clear at levels much more complicated than the typical lay person could possibly fathom, and that is the reason why the theory of evolution is the foundational concept in biology. As Bill Nye puts it, “it’s very much analogous to doing geology without believing in tectonic plates. You’re just not going to get the right answer. Your whole world is just going to be a mystery instead of an exciting place.”
9. Avoid too much appeal to scientific consensus
It’s already clear evolution deniers don’t care about scientific consensus. So don’t spend a lot of time on its merits, because they just don’t give a shit, but more importantly, people on the fence might lose interest.
10. Watch out for red herrings
One common strategy for evolution deniers is to link evolution with the big bang theory. Although both are very well supported by science, it is difficult to simultaneously debate biology and cosmology, and it’s even more difficult to do both effectively, because they both require a tremendous amount of knowledge to discuss with any authority. Another common tactic for evolution deniers is to try to bring abiogenesis into the mix; although Miller-Urey
and other experiments concerning abiogenesis are interesting and compelling, they are irrelevant to the matter of whether evolution occurred. Avoid topic changes like these.
11. Watch out for disguised ad hominem
Charles Darwin was an imperfect dude, and so were some of his early adherents. Trying to defend 19th century social ideologies (particulary, social Darwinism and its inherent racism) is a losing battle, and altogether irrelevant to the matter of whether or not evolution occurred. Luckily, we don’t need Charles Darwin, or his contributions, to know evolution happened. Science was already arriving at this conclusion, and would have certainly discovered it within the next couple decades. In fact, the genetic evidence makes evolution remarkably clear. Darwin’s major contribution was to posit a mechanism by which evolution occurs, namely natural selection.