Where’s the Proof — Evolution’s “Smoking Gun”?

We are sometimes asked by a creationist for the one best piece of evidence which “proves” Darwin’s theory of evolution. By asking that question, the creationist seeks to avoid what he regards as the distasteful task of studying evolution. He’s looking for a shortcut so he can focus on only one item and perhaps refute it, hoping that this will suffice to demolish the theory. But the creationist’s question reveals not only his ignorance of evolution, but a fundamental misunderstanding of science itself.

In science, theories are never proven to be true. Proof is something that happens in geometry, not science. The only proof of which science is capable is proof that a theory is false. That will happen when something is verifiably observed that undeniably contradicts an essential feature of the theory.

The best-known recent example comes from cosmology. The discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation was predicted by the Big Bang theory, and its existence was inconsistent with the Steady State theory, which was thereby discredited. Big Bang wasn’t proven true — although one of its predictions was spectacularly confirmed — but Steady State was conclusively proven false. This illustrates a vital characteristic of scientific theories — they’re testable.

Note: Like so many other superseded scientific theories that litter the dustbin of science, Steady State may be mentioned as part of the history of science, but it’s not taught in school as a still-viable alternative to the Big Bang. It would be incredibly irresponsible to do so in the interest of “academic freedom,” allowing the children to decide which theory they prefer.

Instead of being proven true, a scientific theory can aspire only to being solidly supported by tests and observations. In science it’s the accumulation of supporting evidence that raises an untested hypothesis to the ultimate status of being a well-tested and therefore widely accepted theory. But all scientific theories are, in principle, subject to the same fate that was suffered by the Steady State theory.

To the disappointment of the creationist questioner, there is no one piece of evidence that “proves” the theory of evolution. The theory’s acceptance rests on the totality of all the evidence. Any one item, considered alone, may have many possible explanations, and to a casual observer, a non-evolutionary explanation may seem as plausible as any other. (Perhaps the questioned fossil is a fake, or a jumbled collection of several fossils, or perhaps it was accidentally dropped in the wrong place by a clumsy backpacker.) But what of all the other evidence?

The “clumsy backpacker” explanation, even if true for one item, can’t account for everything else that supports evolution. Can an alternate explanation survive the same rigorous testing that the existing theory has survived? Is it consistent with other branches of science? The theory of evolution passes those tests. No alternative explanation comes close.

That’s the problem facing evolution deniers when they attack evolution by focusing on one piece of evidence and trying to explain it away. Even if there were a bad data point (and there have been some), all the rest still stands, and the quantity is enormous. The more evidence an existing theory explains, the more difficult it becomes to find excuses for it; and it’s still more difficult to devise a credible alternative explanation for all of that evidence.

The reason there is nearly universal acceptance among scientists for the theory of evolution is that all the evidence thus far examined supports the theory — and none contradicts it. It’s not just the biological evidence from the fossil record, comparative anatomy, and DNA analysis. It’s also that the theory is consistent with other fields of science, such as geology, plate tectonics, astronomy, and physics.

Note: In all scientific fields, there are issues not yet resolved, and there probably always will be. Such items are research candidates, not contradictions or weaknesses of existing theory.

Darwin’s biggest problem, largely unnoticed by today’s creationists, didn’t come from experts in his own field, but from non-biological sciences. Darwin understood that the grand course of evolution requires hundreds of millions of years, but Lord Kelvin’s calculations of the age of the earth and the sun — before anyone knew about nuclear physics — indicated that the earth and the sun were far younger than the eons Darwin required. Later discoveries showed that Kelvin, through no fault of his own, was exceedingly wrong, and that removed the greatest obstacle to acceptance of evolution. The concurrence of several independent lines of evidence is highly unlikely unless a theory is indeed an accurate explanation of the phenomena it addresses.

It’s important to note that a theory which is supported by all the available evidence, like evolution, is not the same as a “theory” like intelligent design, which will be consistent with any evidence that might turn up. A “theory” that will always be consistent with everything doesn’t really explain anything. It may be an excellent theological doctrine, but it isn’t a scientific theory at all, because no test or observation could ever disprove it.

Although there’s no one smoking gun that proves evolution, there can be a smoking gun that disproves it, as happened to the Steady State theory. A good example would have been Piltdown Man. Creationists constantly cite this famous hoax as a “typical” example of the fraud that sustains evolution. In their supreme ignorance, they imagine that it was universally hailed as “proof” of evolution in hundreds of papers in the scientific journals — until some plucky creationist (never named) dared to challenge the scientific orthodoxy and showed that it was a fake. All of this “history” is wrong.

What the creationists don’t understand is that virtually no competent evolutionary biologist knew what to make of Piltdown Man, because it contradicted the theory of evolution. It was scientists — not creationists — who demonstrated that it was bogus. Evolutionary biologists thought that evidence of man’s ancestors would probably be found in Africa, because that’s where so many non-human primates are found. There are no non-human primates native to England, so it’s quite impossible for man to have evolved there, or on any other island with no ancestral candidates. If Piltdown man were real, Darwin’s theory wouldn’t be able to explain it.

So our answer to the creationist in search of evolution’s smoking gun is that we don’t have one for you. Instead, we have a constantly-growing mountain of evidence, and that’s what you’ll have to deal with. But if you want a simple way to prove that Darwin was wrong, go out and find your own smoking gun — the one that will contradict evolution. Fame awaits you.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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41 responses to “Where’s the Proof — Evolution’s “Smoking Gun”?

  1. The “clumsy backpacker” explanation, even if true for one item, can’t account for everything else that supports evolution.

    Ahh, but what about the malicious legion of paid stooges of the International Darwinist Conspiracy backpacker explanation?

    /Discoveroid paranoid mode

  2. Careful, Great Claw. Don’t reveal the truth again or we’ll revoke your security clearance.

  3. “cold busted.”


  4. “So our answer to the creationist in search of evolution’s smoking gun is that we don’t have one for you.”

    I suggest there’s many examples of smoking gun evidence for evolution. And any one of these examples, even if they were the only evidence for evolution, would be strong enough to call evolution a fact.

    One example are the numerous ERVs found in the exact same location in the genome of people and chimps. There’s only one possible explanation for these ERVs, they were inherited from a common ancestor, and there’s your smoking gun evidence. Of course the creationist will invoke his childish “common designer” explanation, but unless the creationist is totally brain-dead he can be made to understand the ERVs were inserted long after these creatures appeared, whether by evolution or a god fairy’s magic wand.

    Unfortunately the vast majority of creationists can’t understand the most simple concepts. That’s why they still believe in magic in the 21st century.

  5. bobxxxx, that’s why I pointed out that a “theory” that can explain everything actually explains nothing. Alas, the point is lost on creationists.

  6. Excellent. Way to write Curmy.

  7. retiredsciguy

    Now that the rest of the choir has weighed in, I’ll express my praise as well. A variation of this statement should appear in every science text printed. Extremely well-written!

  8. retiredsciguy says: “… should appear in every science text printed.”

    Posted today, forgotten tomorrow. Just electrons in the blogosphere. But thanks.

  9. retiredsciguy

    “Posted today, forgotten tomorrow.”

    It shouldn’t be. If the public had this clear an understanding of what constitutes a scientific theory, it would go a long way toward curing the dreadful lack of science literacy in this country.

    I dream of the day when we no longer hear, “It’s only a theory.”

  10. “By asking that question, the creationist seeks to avoid what he regards as the distasteful task of studying evolution.”

    This is very true. Creationists are, by my observations, very lazy. They are unwilling to do the work it takes to actually look for the answer they claim to have found. They are hypocritical in this since they insist that everyone reads their bible (which most of us have already done and already dismissed).

  11. I dunno, I do agree with most of what you speak as far as generally proving something vs all other alternatives, but when you are specifically debating a creationist, I think mention of the fossil record and without even needing radiometric dating, you can just ask them how the phylogenetic ordering of fossils from deeper in the ground all the way up to here fits in with their creationist paradigm, but does not show any evidence for evolution.
    I have only heard one argument to explain this used by creationists and that is the claim that a worldwide flood sorted animals out in order based on density and this is why they appear as such. This is clearly one of the worst creationist ideas ever concocted as fossils are not even arranged by density to begin with, so they are explaining a nonexistent phenomenon.

  12. Thank you! Thank you! Finally, someone who gets it.

  13. DrKuha, I’m not alone. A whole lot of people get it.

  14. I am seeking some understanding. If anyone can offer me the basics of evolution. I never studied beyond high school. So maybe if you keep it simple for me I promise to advance given some time with the subject. No I can’t afford a college education.

  15. karen, that’s not what we can do in this blog. It would overload the comment system. However, we have some information here that can get you started: List-O-Links.

  16. Moon Dust, I read something about this why is there so little moon dust?

  17. Jon, you’ve been reading creationist sources. Check out the Index to Creationist Claims. The moon dust claim is mentioned here: too little moon dust for an old moon

  18. I like your answer to Christians that ask the lazy ‘Give me that one best proof.’ question — “In science, theories are never proven to be true. Proof is something that happens in geometry, not science.” So, science must based on theories that are Falsifiable. This should be brought to a Christians attention at every opportunity. Very well written, interesting article. I also don’t have a religions smoking gun, (although feeling Gods Love and overwhelming Holy Spirit is the best feeling I have ever felt and pretty great proof for me personally) but, I’m gung ho about my beliefs also and less so about evolution. So, I can find some basic fault with how it is tested. We can’t go back millions of years and actually observe it happening and I really don’t think it accurately measurable. You wrote “the theory is consistent with other fields of science, such as geology…”. Geology is just the first field you mentioned and I already have some disagreement. It is commonly known Geological methods for fossil dating are not accurate.
    Poster Kevin makes a good point (ALL fossils are not arranged by density) but, flooding WILL and CAN cause larger things to shift to the bottom and smaller things to the top. A flood can sort bones or animals by size or density. Because of this, where a fossil is found in the strata is not really the best measure of the age of a fossil. The fact is that strata are “dated” by the fossils found in them and the fossils are “dated” by the strata. Kind of (well, not even kinda.. it is) circular reasoning.
    Carbon dating also is not accurate. You can (and I would bet have) read tons of articles attesting to that.
    The 14C/12C ratio has not been the same throughout the earth’s history (Industrial Revolution recently ex.). When it comes to carbon dating, a 4 thousand-year-old specimen can appear alot older than it really is. There are many more examples you are probably familiar with.
    In your blog article you write, ” A vital characteristic of scientific theories — they’re testable.”…and “instead of being proven true, a scientific theory can aspire only to being solidly supported by tests and observations.”
    But, if the basic testing methods are not solid to begin with and the observations are taking place well after the fact, it leaves a flawed theory and as you state a widely accepted one. Although I’ll admit it is a reasonable one, as a Christian I have a less capitulatory, fist pumping view about the theory and don’t take it as a gospel truth (sorry for that) and I’m sure you guessed:) I have my own ‘unscientific theory’.

  19. Lisa Leela, that post wasn’t addressed to Christians. If you want some of your misconceptions clarified, you might look at The Lessons of Tiktaalik.

  20. Always amusing having a creationist try to use science to defend Noah’s flood.

  21. actually, the theory of intelligent design would not be automatically consistant with all evidence. Any evidence for the ability or posibility of an amount of DNA that would be enough to build a living organism, to come into existance without any intelligent intervention, and then start the process of building that organism, would be very strong evidence against intelligent design as things that happen by chance are probabaly not also designed. The complex non-random patterns of DNA itself stands alone as strong evidence against the likelyhood of such an event. This should be considered a “smoking gun” and this is also why it is a legitimate request that the theory of evolution have some single pieces of strong evidence.

  22. joe, as I read your comment, you’re saying that: (1) ID is testable and could be disproved; (2) DNA is evidence of ID; and (3) there is no strong evidence for evolution.

    Am I understanding you correctly?

  23. joe, you’re being a bit vague, because you don’t know what you’re talking about (I would guess), but “the theory of intelligent design” does have the evolution of DNA covered. They could say that any evolved DNA was “front-loaded” to evolve in a certain way, or they could say that it was “poofed”, but the “poofing” looks a lot like evolution, but really it’s “poofing”.

    So even your “very strong evidence against intelligent design as things that happen by chance are probably not also designed” is no match for the “poof” factor.

    So yeah, the theory of intelligent design would be automatically consistent with all evidence. The “poof” part alone is plenty good enough for that.

  24. If we don’t get a response from joe, I’ll assume he’s one of William Dembski’s creationist students, posting at a “hostile” blog for class credit.

  25. Thanks for your responce. I don’t know who William Dembski is but I think that you’re a good thinker and I found this conversation interesting. I did’nt say that ID could be disproved but that it would not be automatically consistant with all evidence . That was in responce to the statement that ID will be consistant with any evidence that might turn up. By the same standard, darwinian evolution is hard to disprove in the eyes of it’s believers. For example, what kind of fossil could you possibly find that could’nt be explained by a theory supporting Darwinian evolution? DNA being frontloaded does not solve the issue that I’m addressing. It’s not just the existance of DNA, but the complex and non-random patterns that make it up. Evidence of DNA having the ability to generate from non-life without any intelligent intervetion would be in conflict with the idea that it was intelligently designed. After all, what has science ever shown us that can happen both by chance and by design, exept maybe the design of a random sequence, which never resembles the patterns in DNA. Before science had uncovered so much about DNA, scientists could have theorised that the smaller particles that make life were a lot less complex than we have found them to be today, and maybe could have said that It’s silly to think that life needs a designer. finally, I made no comment about evolution having no evidence but I am saying that it is legitimate to ask that some single piece of evidence be brought to the table that compares to the statistical evidence against a long complex pattern occurring randomly(the bare essentials of a DNA code necessarry to build a cell). Thank you for letting me comment.

  26. joe says:

    I am saying that it is legitimate to ask that some single piece of evidence be brought to the table that compares to the statistical evidence against a long complex pattern occurring randomly(the bare essentials of a DNA code necessarry to build a cell).

    Your “statistical evidence against” DNA isn’t evidence. There’s “statistical evidence against” virtually everything in the world. I’ve written on this already. See: The Inevitability of Evolution (I). It links to parts 2 and 3.

    Your demand for “some single piece of evidence be brought to the table” is addressed in the article you’re commenting on.

  27. For example, what kind of fossil could you possibly find that could’nt be explained by a theory supporting Darwinian evolution?

    The ubiquitous rabbit fossil in Cambrian strata.

  28. Sorry it took so long for me to respond.
    I read your article and I think that your England example would be more accurate if you calculated the odds of anything remotely like it happening without the involvement of intelligence. We don’t need just any of the of the highly improbable sequences out there. We need the long repeating pattern. So the deck of cards would have to fall in a particular order and then do it again and again because you need the DNA and then the RNA that corrisponds and the right chirality and all the engines that make it go and if you’re flipping a coin and getting whats needed only 50% of the time then you’re going to have a lot of wrong items in your sequence. They all need to be life relevent and there’s a lot of non-life relevent items that are in the deck of cards that you’re shuffeling.Ofcourse the odds are against any one order hapening, but the order thats needed has to happen in a certain time frame over and over without any destruction and then be brought to life. This is what is clearly aginst the odds. and unlike any of the examples you gave which are highly improbable on a given roll but have equal opportunity. The first cell scenario is also highly improbable but also has a heavy load of handycaps in camparisson with the other possible outcomes.
    Thanks again for taking my comment.

  29. joe, assuming that you’re sincere, there’s not much anyone here can do for you. I suggest you find some interest other than science. Basketball, perhaps.

  30. I’m sincere! How does a vast sequence of nucleotides first come together to form DNA and then all happen to be right handed,since one left handed one would ruin it, in a world that’s 50% left handed… and then also happen to be life relevent and then happen again and again.If forms gradually like your coin illistration, then how does it select only right handed nucleotides every time.How do you overcome chirality? It’s a question that deserves an answer.Please, humor me with an answer or even a theory. If you can’t support your claim with at least a good theory then how am I supposed to believe it?

  31. How can u just say that there is SO much evidence and not go into any of it? Because the evidence is not that compelling even in concert. You just wrote on and on about an arguement without argueing it.

  32. Basketball, joe. Stick to basketball.

  33. Anonymous says: “How can u just say that there is SO much evidence and not go into any of it?”

    If any of you are serious, you can begin to learn by checking out our List-O-Links. You may return when you’re able to contribute to our conversations.

  34. “joe” Chirality is overcome by the use of different reactions mechanisms, many different ways have been discovered. It is evident that nature tends to lean or “select” one chirality over another. How multiple chiralitys can be obtained in any sequence or order is done so with an algorithm. While the process is complex, the Y axis depicts an exstensive amount of time for which the process can be depicted.

  35. k ward “than to believe that my pet rock will one day write a symphony.”

    Your problem is that your pet rock is untalented. My writes wonderful music and even plays his own instruments, Unlike many modern pet rocks 😉

  36. Flakey, don’t worry about k ward. He won’t be back.

  37. Laurence Topliffe

    Dear Friends,

    I’ll give you your money back if you can solidly refute the conclusion that Intelligent Design is true. Actually, I’ll give you double your money back.

    My book proves beyond any doubt, once and for all, that intelligent design must be true. [Big deletion.]

    The Irrefutable Proof of Intelligent Design (Paperback) $18.50
    [Link deleted.]

    Laurence Topliffe

  38. Goodbye, Laurence Topliffe.

  39. I see Mr. Topliffe is making the rounds trying to sell his vanity press book. Wow, double your money back! Does that include the $5.25 economy shipping and sales tax if you live in CA, KY, NV or WA?

    Is this the same Laurence Topliffe who is big into Transcendental Meditation and goes around posting comments for people to do a search for ‘yogic flying’?