Friday, March 24, 2006

Crushing Creationism (and Young Earthism)

In this post, I will dismantle the pseudoscience of creationism and the fiction of a young earth. To do so, I will rely heavily on David Mills’ Atheist Universe, which is a tremendous book that I heartily recommend. Mills makes strong, convincing arguments for atheism in the book, and to top it off, he’s proven himself to be an extremely friendly and interesting guy through subsequent email conversations. Whenever I quote Mills, it represents a quote from Atheist Universe. Forgive me if this post doesn’t have much “flow”; I’m going to cover a few arguments, one-by-one.

One of creationism’s most oft-repeated arguments is that evolution does not work because “half an eye” or “half a wing” would provide no selective benefit. Essentially, these creationists argue that, until the whole structure is present, there is no selective benefit; thus, the structure must have arisen all at once in final form, by design. This argument essentially represents Michael Behe’s notion of “Irreducible Complexity.” Let’s allow Behe to define his notion:

“By irreducible complexity I mean a single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced gradually by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, since any precursor to an irreducibly complex system is by definition nonfunctional.”
Source: Here.

The analogy Behe often uses is a mousetrap. A mousetrap has 1. A platform to serve as the base; 2. A hammer to trap the mouse; 3. A spring that is connected to the base that will hold the hammer in place, 4. A catch to release the hammer when set; 5. A bar, connected to the catch, to hold back the hammer when the trap is set. Behe argues that each part of the mousetrap works with all the other parts and that each part absolutely is necessary for the trap to function. He correctly states that if, for example, the hammer was taken out, the mousetrap would effectively cease working. So, he argues, a mousetrap is an irreducibly complex system that must have been designed, since it could not have been created through succession with modification--any precursors, he says, would be worthless.

Behe takes that argument and applies it to various biological structures, making the same design inference.

Before getting into the biology of things, let’s refute the mousetrap analogy itself. What Behe fails to realize is that functions can change over the course of time. “Mouse catching” could have been the fourth function, in a line of several. Say the base came into existence first. It could have been selected for as an effective paperweight. Then say the hammer and spring mutated into existence. Combining all three now, we find ourselves with something that can clip several pieces of paper together. And so it continues until the function of mouse catching comes to be. A selective advantage is a selective advantage; nature takes what it can get. Behe’s desire to see purpose in the world leads him to misunderstand the processes of evolution.

Now, let’s talk about biology. One of the structures often called “irreducibly complex” is the human eye. The fact that creationists choose the human eye is actually rather amusing, since it’s very easy to trace its evolutionary history by looking at nature as it exists today. Indeed, we don’t even have to appeal to the “changing functions” notion espoused in the previous paragraph.

David Mills writes, “Within nature, we find eyes in all stages of development. We find life forms with: (1) no eyes at all, (2) eyes that sense only the presence or absence of light, (3) eyes that focus light extremely poorly, such as the mole’s, (4) eyes that cannot see more than a few feet, (5) eyes that cannot see color, such as most dog breeds, (6) eyes that are humanlike, and (7) eyes that are far superior to human eyes, such as the bald eagle’s. Within nature, we find a smooth and unbroken continuum of visual capabilities among the various animal species.”

Each stage builds upon the previous one, representing a slight selective advantage over the previous stage. 46% of an eye is better than 39% of one.

Mills also uncovers a fundamental misconception among creationists: The human eye isn’t “finished,” as Behe implies with the mousetrap analogy. As was mentioned, the bald eagle has far better eyes than we have. Mills adds, “The terms ‘fully developed’ and ‘partially developed’ are relative. Bald eagles may pity human beings for their ‘partially developed’ eyesight and wonder how Natural Selection perpetuated such ‘unfinished’ organs.”

The other thing about which creationists often complain is the alleged lack of “transitional” fossils. This, of course, represents creationists ignoring science, rather than actually posing a serious argument.

Let’s hear more from David Mills:

“The fossil record unequivocally attests macro-evolutionary transition. The lobe-finned fish, which lived in water but had lungs and leg-like fins, was an intermediate between fish and amphibians. Amphibians themselves provided a macro-evolutionary transition from aquatic to land-dwelling reptilian life. Cynodonts bridged the gap between reptiles and mammals, possessing combined traits of both.

“On a separate branch of the evolutionary tree, Archaeopteryx, part reptile and part bird, is the perfect example of macro-evolution in action. Archaeopteryx was first unearthed in Bavaria in 1860. When paleontologists later realized what they had discovered, creationists became so distraught that they accused the paleontologists of gluing bird feathers on a reptile fossil. After several additional fossils of Archaeopteryx were recovered, creationists refrained from embarrassing themselves again.”

It’s also interesting that creationists often assert that microevolution is possible but macroevolution is impossible, but they refrain from explaining exactly why that would be so. I have yet to hear a single creationist explain precisely why macroevolution wouldn’t naturally arise from microevolution (as it does). The probable answer is that creationists aren’t fond of macroevolution, and so baselessly allege it to be impossible. Like a dog chewing on a bone, creationists desperately cling to the idea that creatures must stay within their “kind.” By the way, has anybody ever gotten a straight answer from a creationist about where, precisely, “kind” fits into the Linnaean Classification?

Continuing with this discussion of fossils, let’s move on to what, in all likelihood, is the deathblow to creationists: the geologic column. The geologic column is arranged as such, moving from the lowest level (oldest) to the highest level (most recent): single-celled creatures, multi-celled creatures, soft-bodied creatures, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, apes, Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo sapiens. Not so coincidentally, this perfectly reflects the evolutionary timeline.

We don’t see Homo sapiens alongside Australopithecus. We don’t see dinosaurs alongside apes. Rather, we see precisely the progression (largely from simple to complex) that evolution predicts. Forget, for a moment, about dating techniques. Forget, for a moment, about all the other arguments. The proof is in the geologic column, which provides a visual timeline of life’s progression. And the notion that Noah’s Flood precisely arranged all these creatures is laughable.

Speaking of Noah’s Flood, let’s talk for a moment about some ancient civilizations. Sadly, they were all rather stupid. Indeed, they didn’t even notice that they were in the middle of Armageddon. David Mills writes, “The Tigris-Euphrates Valley Civilization (in the Middle East), the Nile Valley Civilization (in Egypt), and the Aegean Civilization (in Greece) maintained uninterrupted written historical records extending before, throughout, and following the year 2348 BC [when the flood was alleged to have occurred]. Their written chains of history were unbroken by the flood. Peoples of these vast civilizations failed to notice their own ‘destruction.’”

But the historicity of the Bible is a topic for another day.

There’s one more thing I’d like to discuss: Pangaea. I remember learning about Pangaea in elementary school, and being amazed that the continents all used to be fused together. I was further amazed by the fact that the continents were drifting, even as I sat there. However, it was only after reading Atheist Universe that I connected continental drift with the age of the Earth. Quite literally, continental drift renders a young earth impossible. For all the drifting that has taken place to occur, many, many years are required.

Mills writes, “If our planet is only 6000 years old, how could Earth’s plate-tectonic activity separate North America from Europe, and South America from Africa, with spreading rates of only 4 inches per year? The separation of these continents took at least 200 million years.”

Are the creationists prepared to deny continental drift, as well? I think the creationists spent whatever “capital” they might have had when they chose to yell “Na-Na!” at the geologic column.

By the way, things didn’t start with Pangaea. According to the Wikipedia: Pangaea was not the first super continent. From the evidence available, scientists reconstruct that a predecessor, termed Pannotia, formed about 600 million years ago, before dividing again some 60 million years later. Another, Rodinia, apparently formed approximately one billion years ago and divided 750 million years ago.

But then, we’d better stop all this talk. The creationists’ “Na-Na!” is getting louder and louder. In all seriousness, please do consider purchasing Atheist Universe. The book taught me a lot, and what I already knew it made me look at in a different way than I ever had. Indeed, it's one of the most enlightening books I've ever enjoyed.

Addendum

An addendum, with information from Religious Tolerance.

Results of a Gallup Organization poll from 1991:

College graduates: 70.5% evolutionist; 25% creationist.

No high school diploma: 27.6% evolutionist; 65% creationist.

I must say, it’s not a huge surprise. Education equals acceptance of evolution, period.

12 Comments:

Blogger Lucretius said...

Overall your article was well-written. As someone who is also vocal about criticizing Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design, I would say you covered some main points.

Be wary though: Creationists always seem to have some sort of ad hoc hypothesis for anything, including the Plate Tectonics you mentioned. Of course, with them, the Bible comes first, the evidence second.

2:19 AM EST  
Blogger Bacon Eating Atheist Jew said...

Fundies are not interested in your post at all. Facts and science mean nothing to them.

I shy away from using the term creationist. If the creationist believes the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and understands that evolution is fact, but still wants to believe God got everything rolling, I am not going to be upset over it.

I don't know if you've seen this, but I highly recommend it. It is a fairly long video where Ken Miller, who was crucial in the Dover trial, destroys Intelligent Design.

2:50 PM EST  
Blogger Bacon Eating Atheist Jew said...

Ok. You have to click ok to launch the player application for the Ken Miller video.

3:01 PM EST  
Anonymous jason said...

FTM-

Do you know where I can find The Power of Nightmares online? Not to buy, but to watch. I'm very interested in seeing it.

Informationclearinghouse.com had it, but the link no longer works.

7:30 PM EST  
Blogger Bacon Eating Atheist Jew said...

If this is the Power of Nightmares then here it is.

10:47 PM EST  
Blogger TheJollyNihilist said...

Bacon Eating Atheist Jew...

Thanks for the link! I'll be sure to check it out. Sounds like it will be very, very interesting.

Jason...

I purchased the movie from Ebay for about 15 bucks. I've never seen it anywhere for free. But, then again, since it's about 3 hours, I wouldn't want to watch it on a computer anyway.

10:54 PM EST  
Anonymous jason said...

Thanks BEAJ!

7:47 PM EST  
Blogger Kevin Parry said...

This is a thought provoking post. Thank you!

I’m busy preparing some articles for my blog on why I don’t accept creationism. One of the reasons is that the authors of most creationist books that I have read spend most of their time and effort debunking evolution. They bring forward very little positive evidence for their position. In other words, a book on creationism has very little information on creationism – so it is actually a book on evolution!

However, if I read a book on evolution, there are only a few pages devoted to creationism. The rest of the book covers evolution: the wealth of evidence available for the theory, the history, the practical applications of the theory, etc.

The theory of evolution has much more depth and intricacy than the shallow claims of creationism.

This is a great blog. I will put it on my favourites list and visit often.

Kevin

Memoirs of an ex-Christian

3:31 AM EDT  
Blogger TheJollyNihilist said...

Kevin,

Thanks for commenting! You raise a very good point. Creationists spend very little time talking about the methods of creation because such methods are entirely hypothetical and without supporting evidence. Therefore, all they can possibly talk about are the alleged weaknesses in Evolution theory.

3:35 PM EDT  
Anonymous David Mills said...

I just want to thank you for your exceptionally well-written blog and for your generous compliments about my book, Atheist Universe. I'm delighted that you found the book helpful. I love the way you clearly and effectively summarize the issues and bring them to a pointed conclusion.

David Mills

5:10 PM EDT  
Blogger Hugh said...

Please explain Who or what created the gravity that held the theoretical singularity together before the big bang? Who or what created the singularity? Who or what caused the big bang? When the atom is rendered into its fundamental parts, where did the quarks, electrons, neutrinos, etc., come from? Who or what created them? Is everything an accident? Does youthful science have the answers?

Science, like the Bible, is proving that everything has a beginning, that our universe is created. Free choice, Biblical, allows you to believe what you want; my faith is in Yahweh. From the questions above, can you absolutely prove to me that Yahweh does not exist or is not necessary for creating our universe? I am a skeptic of accidental evolution and creation.
Hugh

4:35 AM EST  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

Hugh,

Your comment basically throws out a series of questions—ones of various legitimacy—and implies that, since you believe science cannot answer them at this moment, one must appeal to a god character as the ultimate answer: in your case, Yahweh. I suppose, if you were a devotee of the Ethereal Cosmic Catfish, you would be more inclined to ask your questions and then issue the challenge of how this or that could happen without the ECC.

You ask about the Big Bang and the "singularity" that preceded it. You ask about quarks, electrons and neutrinos. You seem to want to know their origin…asking from where they came.

In order to explain the existence of quarks, electrons and neutrinos… we must appeal to an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent creator deity who has the ability to monitor the thoughts, deeds and desires of every human who has ever existed while, simultaneously, listening to billions of prayers and, if so moved, answering them (while also, of course, reigning over heaven)? Does that not seem a tad extravagant to you? Does that not seem like a gross, gratuitous aggravation of the problem of explanation?

Even if some of these things, for instance, the "singularity," require an explanation of some type, appealing to a nearly infinitely complex deity does nothing but push the whole search for explanations back a step, while also aggravating it. Besides, given the massive frailties of the bible—including its factually incorrect creation tale, incompatibility with Darwinian evolution, manifestly fictitious prodigies and wonders, archeologically killed Exodus yarn, etc.—Yahweh is among the least likely god characters actually to have a connection to reality.

Have you heard the gospel of the Ethereal Cosmic Catfish?

3:54 PM EST  

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