This is something that’s been annoying me recently.
If you’ve ever had a discussion with a creationist (not, like, a run-of-the-mill creationist whose only argument is “evolution is false because my pastor says it is”, but a creationists who thinks his views are defensible), chances are that at one point, they said something like “evolution is false because it can’t even explain how life began”, or something along those lines.
And if this was on a public forum, chances are also good the very next reply was from a non-creationist, saying that evolution doesn’t deal with the origin of life, only with how life behaves when it’s already there, and that what he’s thinking of is abiogenesis, and this has nothing to do with evolution one way or the other.
That possibly annoys me more than the actual creationist, because it shows that the person either doesn’t understand evolution, or that he’s copping out.
Evolution isn’t separable from abiogenesis; it doesn’t have to be. This is because evolution doesn’t just apply to living things (unless you specifically define life as “that which evolves”, which is probably too permissive a definition, in my opinion), and there is no clean break between life and non-life anyway.
The break between evolution and abiogenesis is artificial and contrived.
How do you define (Darwinian) evolution?
There have been many definitions over time, but for the most part, they require randomly variable heritable traits on the one hand (genes, for example), and a (non-random) selection process on the other.
Does something have to be alive for evolution to apply to it?
When you’re talking about life, viruses always seem to come up.
By most accounts, they aren’t alive. They’re strands of genetic material in a simple protective coat of protein. They don’t eat, they don’t drink, they can only reproduce by literally being copied by a host cell’s copying apparatus, which is a relatively simple chemical reaction.
They’re large but simple aperiodic crystals, and they aren’t alive.
But evolution obviously applies to them. They grow resistant to medication used against them, they adapt to changing host environments, and they even speciate (though virus speciation isn’t entirely comparable to speciation of higher organisms, because they’re so damn simple).1
Abiogenesis is simply about evolution applying to prebiotic molecules similar to viruses (but even simpler) and the chemical reactions they go through.2
It’s not something that magically happened before evolution kicked in. It’s inextricably intertwined with evolution, and evolution is a very important tool in understanding how it worked.
Now, it’s true that if we didn’t have any clue how abiogenesis could possibly have happened, evolution is still a fact, in the same way that umbrellas don’t stop working because we don’t know where rain comes from, but that’s no reason to claim rain and umbrellas are unconnected.
I can see the appeal of separating them. It catches the creationists off guard, and often destroys their entire argument. They don’t have a logical basis for their beliefs, so they often can’t adjust to that new bit of information by themselves.
It also gives theistic evolutionists something to feel good about, by allowing God to move into another gap. “See, evolution is real, but God still created life!”
However, when creationists say evolution is false because it can’t account for the origin of life, the mistake they’re making isn’t that they’re conflating evolution and abiogenesis—it’s that they assume we don’t have a clue how life started.
If you don’t want to explain the whole thing to them, or you don’t know enough about the whole thing to explain it to them in the first place, saying they should be separated is a handy cop-out, but a cop-out is all it is.