Bill Nye “the Science Guy” posted a video a couple of weeks ago that went viral, receiving over four million views (you can view it here). In the video, Nye states that “evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology. . . And I say to grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them.” It was this last phrase that evidently sparked an interest in Nye’s video. Creationists, especially of the young-earth persuasion, took Nye’s words to mean that adults should not teach their children creationism—it’s dangerous and holds back technological progress. This response was so strong that young-earth creationist Ken Ham evidently felt it necessary to make his own video to reply to Nye’s comments (you can view his video here).
What stands out about both these videos, however, is that Nye and Ham appear to assume a particular definition of the word “evolution” without explicitly and precisely defining it. This not only muddies the water in the debate over evolution vs. creation, but it leads Nye into fallacious reasoning and Ham to reply with his typical canned response.
Bill Nye’s Fallacy
The main problem with Nye’s video is that he does not take the time to define what he means by “evolution.” At the beginning of the video, he states, “Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology.” From this statement, Nye is evidently referring to evolution as it relates to biology, such as animals or even human beings.
The problem is that evolution as it relates to biology can mean more than one thing. It can be a reference to common descent or it could be referring to natural selection. Although both of these ideas originated from Charles Darwin, they are nevertheless two distinct ideas. Common descent, or the idea that all life forms come from one common ancestor, was a major part of Darwin’s thesis in his famous work On the Origin of Species. It was best illustrated by Darwin’s “tree of life,” which depicted all life forms branching out from one common root, or life form. Natural selection, on the other hand, is how Darwin explained the possibility of how all life forms came from one common ancestor—life forms were “naturally selected” (i.e., came about by unguided chance) to survive over other life forms based upon inherited and adaptive traits. Over time, one species would produce different varieties within that species, eventually bringing about an entirely new species. In short, natural selection was the means by which numerous species evolved from a common ancestor.
That natural selection and common descent are two distinct ideas is an important point. It is important because Bill Nye does not indicate which “evolutionary” idea he intends. If he intends merely natural selection, then interestingly Ken Ham and other young-earth creationists (as well as old-earth creationists) would have no problem affirming Nye’s definition of “evolution.” Practically no one disputes the idea that natural selection accounts for the variety of traits within certain species, like dogs (this is why there are Labradors, Schnauzers, etc., and even wolves and foxes as such). Such a view of natural selection, or “evolution,” is often referred to as “micro-evolution,” changes occurring within a species on a small scale.
If, however, Nye intends “evolution” to mean common descent, then certainly creationists of different stripes would disagree, including both young-earth and old-earth creationists. Common descent demands that natural selection operates at the large-scale level. This is often referred to as “macro-evolution,” and not many, if any, creationist (old-earth or young-earth) would subscribe to this theory because it states that mankind, for example, evolved from an ape. Nye, therefore, has really created a strawman by saying that creationists do not believe in “evolution,” precisely because he does not say whether he means common descent or natural selection (or both), with the latter actually being affirmed by both old-earth and young-earth creationists, at least at the micro level.
But Nye makes the exact same error later in his video. He says, “Your world just becomes fantastically complicated when you don’t believe in evolution. I mean, here are these ancient dinosaur bones or fossils, here is radioactivity, here are distant stars that are just like our star but they’re at a different point in their lifecycle. The idea of deep time, of this billions of years, explains so much of the world around us.” Here it seems that Nye is now saying that “evolution” is the same thing as the age of the universe being “billions of years” old. Of course, Ken Ham and young-earth creationists argue the same thing. But is this really the case? Does an old universe equal “evolution?”
It should be noted that the idea of an old earth came about before Darwin’s ideas of either common descent or natural selection. The idea that the earth was old originated in the 1700s when geologists discovered fossils in the strata of the earth and discerned they must be very old, perhaps millions of years old. These discoveries were made numerous decades before Darwin even published his On the Origin of Species in 1859. Even young-earth creationist Terry Mortenson recognizes that the idea that the earth is old came before Darwin; the subtitle of his book, The Church’s Catastrophic Mistake on Geology—Before Darwin, clearly indicates this.
The point? The idea that the earth is old is not the same as “evolution,” whether “evolution” here means common descent or natural selection (or both). It is true that Darwinism (which, remember, includes both common descent and natural selection) needs an old earth and universe, but it is not true that an old earth/universe needs Darwinism. The two ideas are distinct. In fact, this is the main difference between young-earth creationists and old-earth creationists: young-earthers believe the earth/universe is young; old-earthers believe the earth/universe is old. But both believe that God created the universe, and thus they are both creationists.
Nye, therefore, has again created a straw man by saying that creationists are wrong for not believing in an old earth/universe. Old-earth creationists do believe in an old universe, but they also believe that God created it. It is young-earth creationism that denies the earth is old. Nye unfortunately makes no distinction between these two, but lumps them together, thereby making it appear that no creationist believes in an old earth or universe.
Ken Ham’s “Canned” Reply
Ken Ham’s reply to Bill Nye is not much better. Interestingly, Ham commits the same error: he argues that “billions of years” is equivalent to Darwinian evolution. This is clear from his video when he discusses the ideas of “unguided, chance processes” and “billions of years of processes.” In essence, Ham conflates the two ideas just like Bill Nye.
Ham has argued this point for such a long time (no pun intended) that it has become, in effect, his canned reply to any kind of argument that he deems to be “evolutionary.” In fact, Ham and many young-earth creationists like him believe that belief in an old earth is the foundational problem, not Darwinism. If any kind of argument arises in support of an old earth or universe, many leading young-earth creationists immediately accuse it of being “evolutionary,” and thus resulting in undermining Christian theism.
Such a canned response, however, misfires for several reasons. First, as mentioned above, it does not seriously take into account the fact that belief in an old earth arose prior to Darwin. So, to equate old-earth with evolution is historically inaccurate.
In addition, it should be recognized (as also stated above) that Ham himself believes in evolution: micro evolution, or variation within a species by natural selection. For this point to be undisclosed adds to the muddying of the water over the creation-evolution debate: it makes young-earth creationists appear that they do not believe in evolutionary theory at all, which is simply not true. This fact, therefore, shows that Ham’s reply to Bill Nye needs refinement: Ham needs to define “evolution” more accurately and state more precisely what he disagrees with. Otherwise, Ham may as well indict himself for believing in evolution because he, too, believes in natural selection—at the micro level.
Finally, if belief in an old earth is equivalent to Darwinism, then it must be true that Christians who believe in an old earth are also Darwinists. But this is not true. Many, if not most, old-earth creationists believe in an old earth and do not believe in Darwinism. In fact, this was the position of many Christians before the rise of Darwinism. The rise of modern geology showed that the earth was old, and many Christians accepted the fact before Darwin was even on the scene. Even after Darwin’s work was published, Christians affirmed an old earth and universe while denouncing Darwinism. A perfect example is the great Reformed theologian Charles Hodge of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His work What Is Darwinism? was one of the first theological and philosophical refutations of Darwinism, showing that Darwinism was incipient atheism because it denied design and purpose of the universe.
Ham should certainly be commended for challenging Darwinism—the idea that mankind has arisen from chance, unguided processes. Such an idea is antithetical to the Christian worldview. And Ham should also be commended for challenging such a notion that appears to be inherent in Bill Nye’s video. But it is fallacious for Ham, as well as Nye, to equate belief in an old earth with “evolution.” To do so conflates Darwinism and the age of the earth, which are two distinct ideas. The best way to move the creation-evolution debate forward is to define terms accurately and precisely, and then to make arguments that may be evaluated by the evidence. As long as the term “evolution” (and the term “creationist” for that matter) is thrown about, we can expect nothing but more confusion and misunderstanding.
Peter Jay Rasor II