Friday, May 27, 2016

ON BEING FRUSTRATED BY CREATIONIST ARGUMENTS

Creationism is still a problem in the United States.  According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 42 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their current form within the last 10,000 years.  Sadly, this percentage hasn’t changed much over the past three decades.  Encouraging, though, is the fact that the percentage of Americans who believe that humans have evolved through natural processes and without intervention by a theistic god has more than doubled over that time period and now stands at nearly 20 percent.  Of course, Western Europe is way ahead of us in this regard.

Evolution is an area where the conflict between science and fundamentalist Christianity is most acute.  Creationists have not been able to reinterpret their beliefs regarding the origins of life and of humans in the same way that they have regarding such matters as the age of the universe or the age of the earth.  That is because they haven’t found any way to concede generally accepted evolutionary processes and still maintain belief in the Genesis creation story.  Instead, creationist apologists have been reduced to denying the facts of evolution and to posing a number of arguments intended to refute evolutionary theory.
 

These anti-evolutionary arguments are simply wrong, and in discussions with creationists I have repeatedly explained why they are wrong.  It’s not that there are observations or interpretations about which reasonable people can disagree.  Rather, these arguments are flat-out misstatements about what evolution is or how it works.  I find very annoying that these arguments keep cropping up, so I thought I would make another effort to explain and expose a couple of them.  (There are others also, but perhaps those can be addressed in another essay.)

(1) The first argument relates to the question of what evolution is about.  Creationists argue that evolutionary scientists cannot explain how life began on earth; therefore evolutionary theory is wrong.  Well, no.  Evolution addresses how life—once begun—has progressed from earlier and more primitive lifeforms to the complex, abundant, and diverse variety of life that we observe today. The question of how life originated on earth simply is not one that evolutionary theory addresses.   

The earth was formed around 4.5 billion years ago.  The first evidence of life—of single-celled organisms—in the fossil record extends from about 3.5 billion years ago.  We have not yet discovered any record of how life actually began, most likely in the form of self-replicating molecules.  And that is because it is virtually impossible to recover that information from the fossil record.  Ultimately, it is likely that the evidence will need to come through experiments demonstrating the mechanism by which self-replicating molecules can form.  

In discussions with creationists I have repeatedly pointed out that evolution simply doesn’t address the question of how life first originated on earth.  Therefore, the fact that we do not yet know how life began on earth has no bearing on the validity of evolutionary theory.  Nevertheless, this has not prevented creationists from continuing to make the “origins of life” argument, even after this is pointed out.  Maddening.  This has led me to wonder if this is an instance where creationists find it impossible to reconsider their denial of evolution and just have nothing else to offer, so they just repeat the same erroneous argument.

I might add that, even were the origins of life on earth to remain a mystery, that would not have any bearing on the validity of the evidence for evolution, which is overwhelming across multiple disciplines.

(2) The second creationist argument concerns how evolution works.  It goes something like this: Because evolutionary changes are claimed to occur randomly, the probability that those random changes would result in the enormously complex and interrelated biological systems that we observe in nature are so remote that they could not have happened without the intervention of a master designer.  Therefore evolutionary theory is wrong.

The argument is akin to the metaphor about the chances of a monkey typing randomly on a keyboard and somehow coming up with a perfect copy of a complete Shakespearian play.  I agree that the odds against the monkey coming up with Hamlet are so astronomically great as to be essentially nonexistent.  But the analogy to evolution is a false one because evolutionary processes are not random.

Two of the key components in evolutionary processes are (a) variation in the traits of offspring and (b) natural selection of those traits by reason of competitive advantage or disadvantage.  Variation in genetic traits is largely random.  But natural selection, the process that determines how likely those traits are to be preserved in subsequent generations, clearly is not.  Think about it.  If some members of a species have an inherited trait that puts them at an advantage in terms of survival and of having offspring to carry on that trait, then that trait will become more prevalent in the overall population of that species.  Likewise, a trait that puts a member at a competitive disadvantage will tend to disappear over successive generations.  This is not a random process.  Instead, it follows a selective process, an algorithm, if you will, that results in cumulative changes in the species over time.  

But try to explain this to creationists.  When I have pointed out the nonrandom quality of natural selection, their reply may again refer to the fact that they cannot accept that the web of life that we observe could have been the result of random processes.  Therefore, there must have been an “Intelligent Designer.”  Again, maddening.  

I’m sure most are familiar with the demagogic device of continuing to repeat a false statement despite its having been denied or refuted.  Eventually, the demagogue’s followers, because they want to believe and because the falsehood keeps getting repeated, come to accept it as truth, and not just truth but irrefutable truth.  I’m beginning to believe that the same processes are at work in the realm of creationism.

There.  Now at least I feel better.  


© 2016 John M. Phillips

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