email - March 2009

The Burden of Proof

Peter fails to recognize that when a scientist makes a fantastic claim, the burden of proof is on him.

Peter expects us to believe in evolution just because David Attenborough says it is true.

Subject: Evolution is not a theory
From: Peter
Date: Sat, 14 Feb 2009

As David Attenborough recently pointed out, evolution is not a "theory" any more, but rather the factual (and very beautiful) explanation of how species came to be. It is true that not everyone who believes evolution happens has acually [sic] questioned it properly, but then I have not really questioned the fact that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen either. I happily accept that it is true because I know that good scientists have long since shown it to be so. Your website is ridiculous. You might just as well have called it "Science Against Tadpoles Turning Into Frogs" or "Science Against Copper Conducting Electricity". (Feel free to use those titles for future sites by the way.)

Seriously, if you really want to argue against evolution, then you need to explain a mechanism which would STOP it from happening. That is to say, given that after meticulous research by many brilliant people we now know that life is millions of years old, that animals and plants pass on characteristics to the next generation through genetics, that environments change, that species often either move around or become isolated, and that animals or plants which are best adapted to their environment have usually got more chances to breed and pass on their genes, what on earth would hold evolution back? What force would PREVENT life from evolving and diversifying over time?

Yours with no real hope of a sensible response,


One should not believe that hydrogen and oxygen form water because some scientist says so. One should believe hydrogen and oxygen form water because scientific experiments have been done to prove it. Furthermore, chemists have discovered that when hydrogen and oxygen form water, energy is released. Engineers have been able to use this fact to design automobiles that run on hydrogen and produce water as the exhaust. So, the concept is proved not only in the laboratory, but in practical applications.

One should not believe that tadpoles turn into frogs because some scientist says so. One should believe tadpoles turn into frogs because it has been observed in biology laboratories. Furthermore, it doesn’t take a scientist to do it. Countless children have taken pond water containing tadpoles home and watched them grow into frogs.

We believe copper conducts electricity because experiments have been done which show copper conducts electricity and plastic or rubber does not. Furthermore, countless homes have been built with copper wire, covered with plastic or rubber insulation, which conducts electricity to various household appliances.

At first, it may have seemed fantastic that water is really a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Since frogs don’t look like big tadpoles, it could be hard to believe that tadpoles grow into frogs. And you can’t really see electricity flowing through wires, so that concept might be hard to accept. Each of these fantastic claims, however, has been established by experimentation, observation, or both. That's real science.

Calling the theory of evolution "science" does not make it science. The fact that science has proved that hydrogen and oxygen create water does not prove that all life evolved from pond scum just because someone says the belief is “scientific.”

There has never been an experiment in which a reptile has turned into a mammal. Nobody has ever observed a reptile turning into a mammal. Nobody has ever seen pond scum come to life. Nobody has ever done any experiment in which chemicals formed a living cell. There is no reason to believe that these things could happen (except for wishful thinking).

Whenever a scientist makes a claim, whether it is that hydrogen and oxygen make water or that methane and ammonia can make a living cell, it is the responsibility of the scientist to provide proof that the fantastic claim is true. The rest of society should not blindly accept the claim until someone proves the fantastic claim to be false.

Pence and Pounds

We were going to use an example involving pennies and quarters, but since Peter wrote to us from the United Kingdom, we will localize (oops, we mean “localise”) the example for him.

Suppose someone (a scientist who obtained a doctorate from a prestigious university, no less) claims that if a five pence coin is left on a nightstand overnight, it can (under the proper conditions) turn into a five pound coin before morning. This is a fantastic claim. How would you disprove it? How could you prove that there is nothing that prevents pence from becoming pounds?

The scientist might argue that pence and pounds obviously have a common origin. They all have a portrait of the Queen on them. Furthermore, the five pence coin and the five pound coin both have the word “five” on them, so they must be the most closely related of all British coins.

Pence and pounds are made out of metal, which can be pressed into any shape, and do change shape when sufficiently heated. So, pence could turn into pounds under the proper conditions.

The metallic composition of pence and pounds might vary, but that doesn’t matter because alchemists have long known that the Philosopher’s Stone can change one kind of metal into another. So, if the nightstand was made out of Philosopher’s Stone, the material would change as well. Nobody has ever seen it happen, but you can’t prove that it never happened!

Suppose you left a five pence coin on a nightstand in a locked room overnight, and it was still a five pence coin in the morning. That doesn’t prove coins can’t change overnight. It might take longer than one night. (In fact, it probably does!) The nightstand might not have been made of the proper material. Maybe you didn’t put the coin in the proper position. So, you try again and again, every night for 50 years with no success. That still doesn’t prove it can’t happen.

For more than 50 years scientists have been trying to make inanimate chemicals form Frankencell and come to life. Not just any old scientists. We are talking about very smart scientists who are well-funded, working in state-of-the-art laboratories. Still, they have not been able to do it.

The burden of proof is not upon us to prove that inanimate chemicals can’t come to life any more than the burden of proof is on us to prove that pence can’t turn into pounds. The burden of proof is on anyone who would make such a fantastic claim. It isn’t sufficient for them to say, “I don't know how it happens, but I know it does happen somehow. We just haven't discovered the method yet.”

So, seriously, if we really want to argue against evolution, we don’t need to explain a mechanism which would STOP it from happening. Peter is confused about who must bear the burden of proof.

Limited Variation

Peter also confuses limited variation with evolution. Certainly there is variation among individuals of any species. Some species show more variation than others; but all show variation to some degree. Although the amount of variation might be large in some species (such as horses and dogs), there is a limit to the amount of variation. The theory of evolution depends upon virtually unlimited variation and virtually unlimited time for that variation to happen. Even in our relatively limited scientific history we have discovered that there are limits to how much species can vary. Great Britain is a long way from Kentucky, so he might not know about the Kentucky Derby.

People have, no doubt, been racing horses for longer than anyone knows. We know, however, that since 1896 people have been racing 3-year-old horses over a 1¼ mile track at Churchill Downs. Since there is a lot of money and prestige involved in winning the race, some people with a lot of money to spend, and a lot of ego to satisfy, have applied evolutionary principles to producing horses capable of winning this race. Through judicious breeding and artificial selection that far exceeds any natural selection, they have tried to evolve horses that can run faster and faster. In 1897, 133 seconds was fast enough to win the race. As horses evolved, the winning times tended to get faster, until 1960. Ten years ago we published an article showing that they reached the Kentucky Derby Limit in 1960. It is still true today.

Peter might wonder, “What force would PREVENT a horse from evolving into a faster horse?” It is the same force that prevents a horse from turning into a cheetah. There are limits to variation. Scientific (and non-scientific) observations have shown there are limits. If someone wants to claim there are no limits, then the burden of proof is on them to make any species evolve without limits. Given the lack of success with horses, bacteria, and fruit flies, we aren’t holding our breath. When a bacterium becomes an ameba, or a fruit fly becomes a butterfly, then evolution becomes plausible.

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