Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Some Thoughts on the Evolution-Creation Controversy

Throughout my adolescent years I went through my day to day life perfectly content with the idea that the Earth was roughly 4.5 billion years old and that life evolved gradually from different forms by means of natural selection to the variety of life we see today. Most of my knowledge on this matter came from my set of Prehistoric Zoobooks that my parents gave me one Christmas when I was in elementary school. Nicely packaged in an attractive plastic case, they made the theory of evolution easy to comprehend, even for an elementary student. It just made sense to me: slight variations within an organism can give them advantages over their peers, making them more likely to reproduce, thereby transferring those changes to the general population. Over time, enough changes result in the formation of a new species that is better suited to survive in its environment. Though the theory of evolution is extremely complex, it is remarkably simple and elegant at its core. I figured most people could see the rationality behind this concept, especially with the existence of the fossil record. I guess I assumed too much.

Being from Colorado Springs (an extremely conservative bastion within Colorado), one would think I would have run into the true scope of the Creationist movement earlier. I guess I just shrugged them off as a fringe group clinging to their comforting, yet irrational view of the world. I don't know. Anyway, my first realization of just how widespread belief in Creationism is came during my first year at college. I was speaking with a group of friends, somehow the subject turned to dinosaurs, and I eventually mentioned something about evolution. Then one of my friends (a Southern Baptist) said, "Evolution doesn't exist." I didn't know quite what to make of this. I was flabbergasted. Stupidly, I asked, "Then how do you think life came to be?" Of course, I got the "God created it" line, but it opened my eyes to a belief that millions of Americans still hold in this supposed "Age of Reason."

Before I go further, I suppose I should share my views on religion, since religious views are basically the linchpin of the entire debate. I am perhaps a casual atheist and certainly not a Christian, since I do not believe in the divinity of Jesus, and I question the authenticity of the Bible. The problem for me is that the Bible was written by human beings. No one has ever shown how its supposedly divine words were given to its writers, except that a big invisible man whispered it to a chosen individual. Sorry, but that takes too much of a leap of faith for me. What's even worse is that there are errors in translation throughout, glaring inconsistencies for a supposedly infallible document, and large parts of the New Testament have been omitted (e.g. the recently discovered Gospel of Judas). To me, that makes the Bible too uncertain to hold any divine truth. I also have a serious problem with organized religion. They are always led by mere humans, and the problem with humans is that they tend to look after their own interests. More than anything, religion is an avenue to power, making them political institutions for those involved. Furthermore, most religions preach that a person must do good deeds so they can secure their place in heaven. Therefore, the followers go out and perform good deeds to ensure their own ascension into heaven. For me, that seems extremely selfish. I think it is more important to do good deeds because it helps others, not because it ensures your own eternal bliss. I firmly believe that good things happen to good people. Whether that means a good afterlife, we have no way of knowing, so I'm not going to worry about it. Anyway, enough about my beliefs and back to the matter at hand.

First, what is the main goal of the current Creationist movement? To teach Creationism in public schools. To do this, they first try to discredit evolution through "scientific" means. The main tactic of Creationists is to look for areas within the theory of evolution that science cannot adequately explain yet. The most prominent example is when Creationists point out that science cannot explain how life first arose from nonliving materials (in science this does not actually fall under the theory of evolution, but a separate field within biochemistry called abiogenesis. However, well discuss it for the sake of argument). The only evidence Creationists have here is science's lack of evidence. Creationists say that since biologists cannot recreate the emergence of living materials from nonliving matter and have no fossil evidence for it, then obviously the entire theory must be wrong. However, lack of evidence is not evidence. That may work in a court of law, but not science. Science requires testable data to either prove or disprove something. The only evidence Creationists provide is the fact that the Book of Genesis describes how life began, and since the Bible is the word of God, it must be right. But then that becomes the problem with their argument. As I said earlier, there are glaring problems with the Bible. One of the best examples of inconsistencies comes from the story of Adam and Eve. The Bible says that Adam and Eve were the first two people, of course. But how did their children reproduce without committing the sin of incest? If the Bible really is from a divine source, then how did an infallible being make such a huge self contradiction? Certainly this, amongst numerous other inconsistencies, makes the Bible a ludicrous basis for any scientific thought.

Another problem Creationists find is the lack of transitional fossils, or fossils that show one species in the process of changing to another. Also they point out to the missing link between humans and apes. I ask: what constitutes a missing link? Archeology has discovered a clear progression from apes to humans within the fossil record. There's the clear progression from Australopithecus to Homo habilis to Homo erectus to Homo sapiens (there are also several intermediaries that I left out for the sake of brevity). There exists a clear progression within the fossil record from apes evolving into humans. However, Creationists try to counter that theres no transitional species between each of species of Homo. I think the major problem here is that Creationists ignore reality to advance their claims. Fossilization is not a simple process. It requires the plant or animal to become buried in sediment shortly after dying to prevent scavengers from scattering the corpse. This is rare by itself. Then, the fossils have to undergo the actual fossilization process without being completely obliterated by the pressures and movement within the Earth's crust. Then, they have to become exposed in a place where people can find them. Most fossils have likely eroded away or remain buried within the Earth's crust. Creationists refuse to budge until evolutionary scientists show them every single species that has ever existed within an evolutionary chain. Any rational person can see how unlikely it is to find all these species. Once again, the Creationists try to use lack of evidence as evidence. Science simply does not work that way.

Even worse than using lack of evidence as evidence is how Creationists take quotes from Evolutionary scientists out of context and twist them around to make it look like evolution is a theory in crisis within the scientific community, which it certainly is not. One of the most memorable examples is when Dr. Schweitzer and Dr. Horner, both paleontologists, announced that they had found what looks like soft tissue in the femur of a Tyrannosaurus. Creationists jumped on this as proof that the Earth was much younger than science says it is. However, they twisted the quotes of Dr. Schweitzer to make it seem like she had announced the discovery of actual soft tissue in a T rex rather than what looks like soft tissue. The soft tissue is still being analyzed, but there are certainly natural processes that allow soft tissue to be preserved for incredibly long periods of time, and it may also be fossilized with materials that are pliable but not the original tissue. Nevertheless, Creationists had a field day with this one as the scientists involved worked to clarify their findings. However, the Creationists continue to take the original quotes out of context and regard any clarifications as backpedaling. From an academic point of view, this seems incredibly dishonest coming from a group of Christians supposedly committed to integrity.

Finally, I'd like to touch on Intelligent Design. Despite that fact that the proponents of this theory try to make it seem separated from religion, it is obviously motivated by religion as a form of stealth creationism. The main scientific theory behind ID is the thought that life is too complex to have evolved the way Darwin says it did, but that an intelligent designer (read: God) must have been involved. They claim that during the transition from one kind to another, there would be certain components not yet finished that would make it impossible for the transitional species to survive. For example, in the evolution from dinosaurs to birds, ID proponents would argue that at the intermediate stages, birds would have limbs useless for flying and useless for grasping, making them terribly unsuited for their environment. However, the transitional fossils (which do exist, by the way) show birds with wings and grasping hands together. They may not have been able to fly, but they could glide and still behave like terrestrial dinosaurs, allowing them to survive just fine. Furthermore, there are countless examples of terrible design within life. Look at the human knee, for instance. For all its importance, it is severely susceptible to crippling injury. For an infallible creator, youd think He could get something as important as a knee right. Finally, just because a process seems too complicated for us to understand does not mean that we should throw up our hands and give up, leaving the unknown gaps to supernatural forces. Thats what science is for. It attempts to explain the world without the dogma that accompanies religion. Therefore, ID is not real science. It does not say: I observe X, therefore Y. Instead, it says: I observe X, I do not understand it, therefore God did it. Falling back on superstition is still superstition. More importantly, I feel ID should not be taught in public schools. Not only is it a blatant attempt to teach religion in schools, but it isn't good science. However, its lack of a direct reference to God has made it attractive to many lawmakers who are anti-evolutionists, making it useful means for bringing Creationism to public schools. Since Creationism caters to just one religious group, Christianity (and Judaism to an extent too), it seems to me like a gross violation of the First Amendment. The push for Creationist Science in schools is simply one of the Christian Right's methods for pushing religion on others.

In the end, I just can't believe how people can ignore the discoveries of science from the last 150 years. They cling to the comforting blanket of religious dogma despite the fact that science agrees that evolution is a very real phenomenon. Even then, Creationists go quote mining to make it look like there is a dissenting group within science that does not exist. Then when that fails, they turn around and accuse science of being a religion all its own that ignores open debate with other groups. But do you think Creationists would allow open debate if their beliefs were held by the mainstream scientific community? I doubt it. In the end, the Creationist movement is nothing more than a dishonest attempt to force religion upon the nation and uses their scientific debates as a pretext for wrongly discrediting honest science.


J-Dog said...

Outstanding analysis and post. Thank you.

Naomi said...

And thereby stunting the quality of education of our future scientists. There is the real crime--not just their rhetoric!

Of course, it's becoming evident that the churches are losing most of this generation. MySpace, YouTube and teen blogs, like Lacrimae Rerum from PZ Myers's (Pharyngula) daughter, Skatje, are doing much of the work in blunting the damage from IDiots--never forget how old these men are getting! Attrition will do most of our work. The xian parents and pastors are losing the hearts and minds (the most important part!) of a huge chuck of their children, who already see through the curtain that the Great Oz is a fraud.

A very good post! I stopped by on my Carnival of the Godless tour and decided to leave my $.02 worth.

Naomi, assistant to

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