Tips on Winning an Evolution Debate

A debate is supposed to be a civil disagreement between individuals that uses facts about the topic to back up the points made during the argument. Let’s face it. Many times debates are not at all civil and can lead to yelling matches and personal attacks resulting in hurt feelings and resentment. It is important to stay calm, cool, and collected when debating someone on a topic like evolution because it will undoubtedly conflict with someone’s beliefs and faith. However, if you stick to facts and scientific evidence, there should be no doubt of the winner of the debate. It may not change your opponents’ minds, but hopefully it will open them, and the audience, up to at least hear the evidence and admire your style of civil debate.

Whether you are assigned the pro-evolution side in a debate for school, or you are talking to someone you know at a gathering, the following tips will help you win a debate on the subject at any time.

Know the basics inside and out.

Teenage girl debating. Getty/Hill Street Studios

The first thing any good debater will do is to research the topic. Start with the definition of evolution. Evolution is defined as a change in species over time. I have yet to encounter anyone who disagrees that species change over time. We see it all the time as bacteria become resistant to drugs and how human average height has gotten much taller in the last one hundred years. It is very hard to argue against this point.

Knowing a lot about natural selection is a great tool as well. This is a reasonable explanation of how evolution happens and has a lot of evidence to back it up. Only the individuals of a species that is well adapted to their environment will survive. An example that can be used in a debate is how insects can become immune to pesticides. If someone sprays pesticide on an area hoping to get rid of insects, only insects who have the genes to make them immune to pesticides will survive long enough to reproduce. That means their offspring will also be immune to the pesticides and eventually the entire population of insects are immune to the pesticide.

Understand the parameters of the debate.

While the basics of evolution are very hard to argue against, almost all anti-evolutionary stances are going to focus on human evolution. If this is an assigned debate for school, make sure the rules are laid out ahead of time of what is the main topic. Does your teacher want you to only argue about human evolution (this may the be case in a social science or non-natural science class) or is all evolution included (which is more likely to be the case in a Biology or other natural science course)? You will still need to understand the basics of evolution and can use other examples, but make sure your main argument is for human evolution if that is the topic. If all evolution is acceptable for the debate, try to keep mention of human evolution to a minimum because that is the “hot topic” that makes audiences, judges, and opponents bristle. That is not to say that you cannot support human evolution or give evidence for it as part of the argument, but you are much more likely to win if you stick with the basics and the facts that others have trouble arguing against.

Anticipate arguments from the anti-evolution side.

Almost all debaters on the anti-evolution side are going to go straight for the human evolution argument. Most of their debate will probably be built around faith and religious ideas, hoping to play off of people’s emotions and personal beliefs. While this is probable in a personal debate, and most likely acceptable in a school debate, it is not backed up with scientific facts like evolution is. Organized debates have specific rebuttal rounds that you must anticipate the other side’s arguments in order to prepare. It is almost certain the anti-evolution side will use the Bible or other religious texts as their references. This means that you will also have to be familiar enough with the Bible to point out issues with their argument.

Most anti-evolution rhetoric comes from the Old Testament and the Creation story. Literal interpretations of the Bible would put the Earth at about an age of 6000 years old. This is easily rebutted with the fossil record. We have found several fossils and rocks on Earth that are several million and even billions of years old. This was proven using the scientific technique of radiometric dating of the fossils and rocks. Opponents may try to challenge the validity of these techniques, so again it is important to thoroughly understand how they work scientifically so their rebuttal is null and void. Other religions besides Christianity and Judaism have their own Creation stories. Depending on the type of debate, it may be a good idea to look up a few of the more “popular” religions and see how those are interpreted.

If, for some reason, they come up with a “scientific” article claiming evolution is false, the best route of attack is to discredit this so called “scientific” journal. Most likely, it was either a type of journal where anyone can publish anything if they pay the money, or it was put out by a religious organization with an agenda. While it will be impossible to prove the above during a debate, it may be smart to search on the internet for some of these “popular” types of journals they may find to discredit them. Just know that there is no legitimate scientific journal out there that would print an anti-evolution article because evolution is an accepted fact in the scientific community.

Be ready for the anti-human evolution argument.

There is no doubt that if the opposing side does center their debate around the idea of human evolution that you will be confronted with the “missing link”. There are several ways to approach this argument. First of all, there are two different accepted hypotheses on the rate of evolution. Gradualism is slow accumulation of adaptations over time. This is the most well known and often used by both sides. If there is a slow accumulation of adaptations over time, there should be intermediate forms of all species that can be found in fossil form. This is where the “missing link” idea comes from. The other idea about the rate of evolution is called punctuated equilibrium and it gets rid of the necessity of having a “missing link”. This hypothesis says that species stay the same for very long periods of time and then have many quick adaptations that make the entire species change. This would mean there are not any intermediates to be found and therefore no missing link.

Another way to argue the idea of the “missing link” is just to point out that not every individual that has ever lived has become a fossil. Being fossilized is actually a very difficult thing to happen naturally and it requires just the right conditions to create a fossil that can be found at a time thousands or millions of years later. The area needs to be wet and have mud or other sediments the individual can be buried in quickly after death. Then it takes enormous amounts of pressure to create the rock around the fossil. Very few individuals actually become fossils that are able to be found.

Even if that “missing link” were able to become fossilized, it is quite possible it just has not been found yet. Archaeologists and other scientists are finding different fossils of new and previously undiscovered species on a daily basis. It is quite possible that they just haven’t looked in the right place to find that “missing link” fossil yet.

Know common misconceptions about evolution.

Even above and beyond anticipating the arguments against evolution, knowing some common misconceptions and arguments of the anti-evolution side is imperative. The favorite argument I hear all the time is that “evolution is just a theory”. That is absolutely a correct statement, but it is misguided at best. Evolution IS a theory. It is a scientific theory. This is where your opponents start to lose the argument. Understanding the difference between a scientific theory and an everyday common language use of the term theory is the key to winning this argument. In science, an idea does not change from a hypothesis to a theory until there is a slew of evidence to back it up. A scientific theory is essentially a fact. Other scientific theories include gravity and the Cell Theory. No one seems to question the validity of those, so if evolution is on the same tier with evidence and acceptability in the scientific community, then why is it still being argued?

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Scoville, Heather. "Tips on Winning an Evolution Debate." ThoughtCo, May. 15, 2015, thoughtco.com/tips-on-winning-an-evolution-debate-1224758. Scoville, Heather. (2015, May 15). Tips on Winning an Evolution Debate. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tips-on-winning-an-evolution-debate-1224758 Scoville, Heather. "Tips on Winning an Evolution Debate." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tips-on-winning-an-evolution-debate-1224758 (accessed January 20, 2018).