Thursday, July 29, 2010

Creationist Nonsense

This clip has been around for a while but I've just stumbled on it, and it's so astounding I just had to address it here. Take a look (embedding this video was causing problems).

In all my years, I don't know if I've ever come across a more nonsensical argument against evolution. I'm just itching to write the anti-Creationism treatise I promised a while back, but for now I think I'll just stick to the facts of this case. What in the world are these people talking about?!

While this video may be the most puzzling of approaches to debunking evolution, I'm afraid it's not very far from what many people actually believe. It represents a profound failure of education and imagination, along with an unhealthy dose of blind faith.

This gentleman claims evolution doesn't happen because we don't find life spontaneously generating out of a jar of peanut butter* (a version of this argument also figures prominently in Ben Stein's ludicrous documentary on intelligent design). The implication here is that life can't just come from nowhere... which is what scientists apparently believe, right? No, of course it doesn't come from nowhere. But the situation is much more complex than these Bible-thumpers care to read about.
Experiments have shown that we can make complex organic molecules, the building blocks of DNA and RNA, simply by zapping the constituents of the early atmosphere with electricity, just as lightning would have done on the early Earth. Of course it's not proof that life arose in this way, but it does quash the notion that this sequence of events is somehow unusual or unlikely. Nevertheless, these experiments do not produce any exotic insects, or even single-celled organisms. Why? Because these life forms took billions of years to evolve! Life on Earth is thought to have had far humbler beginnings. In the primordial oceans, many scientists think, there was a rich soup of organic molecules and one day, quite by accident, a molecule arose that was able to make crude copies of itself, using the other molecules in the soup as building blocks. This would have been the ancestor of our DNA molecule.

Does that sound like magic? Well, it is pretty incredible, and it may sound like magic, until we think about the chemistry going on inside our own bodies at this very moment! We know that the DNA molecule unzips itself and makes copies of itself inside our cells. Is there some sort of miniature DNA brain at work here, directing the copy job? Of course not. It's just chemistry. And if the chemistry works today, there's no reason why it shouldn't have worked billions of years ago.

Of course, none of us were around billions of years ago to witness this, and herein may lie the trouble for these true believers (but last time I checked, no one was around to see God take the rib out of Adam and create Eve, either). How can we know these things? Well, science is an amazing thing. We can figure lots of things out, even if we can't go see it with our own eyes. We hypothesize, experiment and deduce, and this has led to some pretty dazzling discoveries. We figured out how objects move in space centuries before we had the technology to go to space and see it in action. We have figured out how to look at the light from planets, in our solar system and beyond, and determine what's in their atmospheres. And we have discovered the origin and age of our universe by discerning the motion of the galaxies and studying the cosmic microwave background radiation -- the faint echo of the Big Bang.

When it comes to evolution, we weren't around to see it all, but we have the fossil record. But we don't even need the fossils to know that evolution really happens! We see it happening all around us even today. For instance, we know that viruses arise that are resistant to vaccines that only recently were perfectly effective. Does this happen because there is some mastermind virus out there, hatching a scheme to get around those annoying vaccines humans create? Of course that's absurd. The viruses which by accident are resistant to the vaccine preferentially survive, and pass on this resistance to their progeny. As these little mutations add up over the generations, new species emerge. Sometimes viruses which once only harmed monkeys evolve to afflict humans, too, which can explain the seemingly spontaneous emergence of horrific diseases. Rather than a scourge of God, science tells us these viruses are mere accidents of natural selection.

Science is not perfect, and some of the things we think we know for sure today may be shown to be fundamentally erroneous in a few years. But science is constantly correcting itself, refining our understanding of our universe. On the other hand, you have your religious text, unchanged for thousands of years, with the marked exception of countless translations that, like the game of telephone, are sure to obscure at least some of its original meaning... perhaps with disastrous effects.

If you really believe that the Bible was dictated by the creator of the universe to an unerring stenographer, and everything within it is the literal truth, you just can't believe the Earth is billions of years old. Instead, you believe the Earth was created somewhere in the range of six thousand years ago. And if you've only got six thousand years to work with, the evolution of everything we see in this world is a pretty tall order. The Bible tells you God created all the life on Earth within one week, and the impossibility of evolution in six thousand years confirms that for you.

Well, if God exists, I think he would want us to use the brains he gave us.

*I didn't want to take up space above, but this example is littered with problems. Why on Earth should new life arise out of a jar of peanut butter, after it's exposed to only neglible heat and light, and after it was processed in a factory? What is the criteria for foodstuff to be a favorable incubator for brand new organisms? If evolution exists, why shouldn't we expect to see life emerging from, say, fresh bananas, or a jar of olive oil? This argument is based on a flawed premise -- matter sparked with energy is not necessarily going to give rise to life. Metal is matter, and we don't expect life to arise from spark plugs. Indeed, everything in the solar system is made of matter... does this mean life must arise even on the inhospitable asteroids for evolution to be proven true? That's a pretty high standard of evidence. Furthermore, why should we start with peanut butter as our early Earth analog, when all indications suggest there was no peanut butter present on Earth 4.5 billion years ago? The Miller-Urey experiment used the substances that were around back then. There is also no clue as to how long exactly we should have to wait for this peanut butter to hatch something like an ant. Hopefully the peanut butter I pick up at the supermarket is fresh enough to avoid such foolishness.

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