5 Answers for Creationists
by Ryan Haupt
I work at a Geological Museum in a small town and we recently had a Young Earth Creationist visiting lecturer stop by for a visit. I knew who this person was because they were giving their spiel on campus over the course of two nights. The first night's lecture had to do with proving that dinosaurs coexisted with humans, and the second lecture was titled "5 Questions for Evolutionists." The ideas promoted by these two lectures were distinct enough from Creationists topics previously presented on Skeptoid that I think they warrant their own treatment, so here I present: Answers to 5 Questions for 'Evolutionists'... plus dinosaurs.
The lecture presented five questions for evolutionists, but before we dive into the queries themselves I'd like to point out that no evolutionary biologists or layperson would identify as an "evolutionist." That term is often used by anti-evolution proponents to create a false-equivalence between evolution and creationism. I pointed this out the creationist lecturer and he admitted that it was a term of convenience used for the sake of his layperson audience, for whatever that's worth. The larger exception to the term, as you'll see, is that many of the questions 'evolutionists' can't answer aren't even evolutionary questions in the first place.
1. Where did it all come from?
It here refers to the universe, so definitely not a question within the realm of evolutionary biology but rather cosmology. The creationist argument is that if we all accept the notion of cause and effect, then there must be some first cause to initiate the universe. Since science hasn't yet presented a first cause other than the nebulous Big Bang, that first cause must have been God. If asked for the origin of God, the answer is that God exists outside the realm of cause of effect and therefore requires no cause to have existed in the first place. This is a classic "god of the gaps" followed up with a moving of the goal posts. If science doesn't currently have an answer, then it must be God. When asked why God doesn't play by the same rules, it's because it doesn't have to. I would say the best scientific refutation for this question is, "Yes, this is an active area of research currently being worked on and thought about, we have some really intriguing ideas and possible explanations for the origin of the universe, but probably nothing definitive enough to satisfy someone skeptical of science in general." From my own understanding of the current thinking, it's possible that time had a beginning, and 'before' that point cause and effect actually didn't apply. It's a heady concept, and oddly in line with the notion provided by the Creationists. It will be fascinating to see what science continues to say about the topic as it continues to move forward.
2. How could a Big Bang create a fine-tuned universe?
Again, this is clearly not a question for evolutionary biologists, more for theoretical physics. However, there is a deeper logical flaw inherent in the question itself, one of tautology. Since life could only exist in a universe where the basic fundamental physics of said universe could support it, to ask how that universe supports the resultant life is circular reasoning. There is no reason to believe that our universe is especially fine-tuned for life other than the fact that we know that life exists on one planet within the billions of planets out there. Further, this question relies on the assumption that our current universe is the first and only universe to exist, whereas it may be that we are merely the most recent in a long sequence of universes, or that many other universes exist alongside our own, and it could be that the universe we call home is an anomaly amongst the meta-cosmos where life happens to be possible by probabilistic circumstance, or that other strange forms of life exists based on physical laws that we don't even begin to understand. This may seem to be pushing ideas beyond the realm of science, but these are topics currently being talked about in scientific circles and will be tested if and when our ability to test them develops. The point being, the question isn't really fair, and may not be relevant anyways because however absurd an idea seems on the surface, science will strive to find a way to test it. We may not know the answer to this question yet, but that little word, 'yet', is all science needs to eventually arrive at a solution.
3. How could life come from rocks?
This is sort of a straw man, though if I were being generous it could be a gross oversimplification of actual ideas about the origin of life. A common misconception here is that the origin of life is a question of evolutionary biology, but it actually isn't. The origin of life exists at the border between chemistry and biology, because life exists as the point at which evolution emerges as an epiphenomenon of certain chemical systems. The key here is the emergent property of a system. When chemicals achieve a certain level of complexity and reproducibility, this idea called life emerges, and once it emerges it evolves, thus the ideas of evolutionary biology apply to it. But those ideas only apply once life has already arisen, so the origin of that life itself is not actually an evolutionary biological question. Economics can be thought of in a similar way: the individual interaction of shopkeep and customer do not define an economic system, but taken in concert with an entire system of those and other interactions, an economy emerges as a larger phenomenon built upon those related but distinct interactions.
As to the more specific notion of life coming from rocks, it is indeed thought that some of the earliest life used clay substrates as platforms for their existence. The physio-chemical properties of clay help bind particles together with subtle electromagnetic charges and thus provide a great surface to begin building a complex biological system. So I would say the straw man is that life came from rocks, but rocks were definitely damn useful to help life get its foot in the door.
4. How could biological systems assemble by accident?
Possibly the only question on the list actually relevant to evolutionary biology. This one may seem a restatement of the previous query, but It’s actually intended to serve as a restatement of the old idea of irreducible complexity. Creationists love to quote the passage from On the Origin of Species where Charles Darwin pondered the vertebrate eye, "to suppose that the eye... could have been formed by natural selection, seems, i freely confess, absurd in the highest degree." The first point to make here is that Victorian era authors often wrote probable criticisms of their works into the works themselves so they could deal with them in the original text. Second, this isn't a defeat of evolution by means of natural selection, it's merely Charles Darwin recognizing that his theory was incomplete and would benefit from additional study and data. Since he put this idea out into the world there has been a lot of data gathered by biologists and paleontologists documenting the evolution of the eye, from a very simple light sensing pit to determine if a predator might be swimming above you, to the far more complex eyes seen in vertebrates and cephalopods. The incremental increases in complexity are clear, and at each stage there is a reasonable idea for what functionality a simpler light-sensing organ could have served. This is of course one example of the failings of the idea of "irreducible complexity," and there are many other sources to find refutations of the other examples purported by creationists.
This question was also used to introduce misconceptions about information theory, stating that genetic mutations could not add new information to a system. Information theory is a favorite bailiwick amongst creationism proponents, but it mostly demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both what information is and how mutations in evolution work. For example, there are a series of genes called Hox genes that are like packages of genes that code for a specific component of the body. In insects, a Hox gene might code for a pair of legs. If due to a mutation or copying error this Hox gene gets repeated twice instead of once in the offspring, the insect now has a Hox gene to code for the legs it needs, and a Hox gene free to mutate and generate new information without risking the organism’s actual development. Given a long enough timeline, the copied Hox gene might end up coding for something useful, like antennae. This may sound like an absurd level of coincidence, but it isn't when considering the number of individuals and timescales involved. Granted, this does mean accepting the idea of a very old Earth. This idea has even been demonstrated experimentally by manipulating the genome of fruit flies and getting the antennae to develop as legs instead, indicating their shared heritage.
5. Why do we have a soul?
Again, this is truly not a question for evolutionary biologists, but rather one for philosophers. I don't know that most philosophers would even agree that such a thing as the soul exists, but lets be charitable and presume that the term soul here means something roughly equivalent to "mind" or "consciousness," that ineffable something that supposedly places us a tier above all other animals and life. Here I would again turn to the concept of emergence. It would seem that when enough neurons are linked together and given enough time to develop in a social environment, this thing called consciousness emerges. Depending on your definition, there are number of non-human animals that seem to display similar levels of consciousness or self-awareness, so this may not be a feature totally unique to humanity. This trait is typically tested by something called the mirror test, which was developed in the 1970s as a way to assess self-awareness by placing a mark on an animal's face then showing that animal their reflection in the mirror. If the animal reacts by examining where the dot was seen on their own body, that suggests that they recognize the image in the mirror as a reflection of themselves, and not a separate individual. So far, Asian elephants, bottlenose dolphins, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, Eurasian magpies, and humans as young as 18 months old have passed the mirror test, and this list will only expand as the number of species tested is increased and the test itself is refined. Does this answer the question of WHY we have a soul? No, but again this isn't really a question for scientists, but science is examining the origins of consciousness, and philosophy continues to explore notions like the soul and free will, but neither field is likely doing so in a way that would satisfy a die-hard creationist.
Finally, the idea that dinosaurs exist in the modern world. The claim being made by some Young Earth Creationists and parts of the cryptozoological community is that dinosaurs survive or survived into recent historical times contradicting the scientific notion of their extinction in the deep past about 65 million years ago. There is actually a lot to unpack in this claim, the first being what exactly they mean when they use the term dinosaur. Funnily enough, a creationist's usage of the term dinosaur is both too expansive and too exclusionary. The term when arguing for their continued existence includes things like flying Pterosaurs, called Ropen by cryptozoologists, and swimming Plesiosaurs like the Loch Ness Monster. In biological terms, neither of these groups are nested within the clade Dinosauria. Pterosaurs, the flying reptiles of the Mesozoic, are the sister clade to Dinosauria, so are closely related at the base but distinct from an evolutionary perspective. Marine reptiles such as Plesiosaurs are still reptiles but are even further removed from Dinosauria and Pterosauria. Dinosauria actually includes all the animals we traditionally think of as dinosaurs (Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Brachiosaurus, etc.) and all birds. The linguistic distinction used is non-avian dinosaurs and avian dinosaurs, the latter referring to animals placed in the Class Aves, a subsection of the larger clade Dinosauria. To a certain extent these distinctions are arbitrary, based on where lines are drawn by paleontologists and taxonomists, but the distinctions are based on recognized differences or similarities in the traits represented by each group, so they are meaningful in their ability to delineate between legitimately separate evolutionary trajectories in certain groups.
So, ironically, the Creationist claim that dinosaurs survived into modern times is correct, but their survival is based on evolutionary theory, not a lack of extinction, at least of the birds. As to the idea that ancient reptiles said to have gone extinct at the end of the Cretaceous survived into human times, no reliable evidence exists to support that claim, and if it did would be of immense interest to both creationists and the scientific community alike.
I want to point out that the creationist and I had a very pleasant conversation in the museum. He was polite and engaged and asked if I would be attending his lectures. I said I was hoping to, but would not if he would prefer someone so antithetical to his agenda not be in the audience. He insisted that he'd be happy to have me there, and I did go and asked pointed and critical questions of his ideas at both lectures, but did my best to be respectful and not monopolize the Q&A time. I say this to show that it is possible to be polite in these sorts of interactions on both sides of the aisle. I certainly wasn't convinced by him and he no doubt wasn't convinced by me, but it fostered some level of discussion and hopefully helped some in the audience think more critically about what they'd just been presented.
Ultimately, I don't know if any minds were changed one way or the other, and I'm not even sure that's the point. I don't have a strong opinion on whether or not creationism and evolution should engage in debates, I just saw an opportunity to better understand how the other side thinks, and offer a public rebuttal that still showed the ability of the 'enemy' to be polite in our criticisms, hopefully humanizing us in the minds of the other side who may wish to demonize us in the absence evidence to the contrary.
The nature of these sorts of events often provide far more bad evidence in need of debunking than can be addressed during a much shorter question session afterwards, so my aim here was to expand upon his erroneous ideas so that those in the path of the continued lecture circuit might be able to attend with a bit more preparation and information, continuing to ask difficult and pointed questions so the audience gets at least a taste of a cogent other side to everything just presented.
Try to be polite, and always stay skeptical.
By Ryan Haupt
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