As I’ve become more familiar with evolution (and creationist arguments attempting to refute it), I’ve often run into people who say that the issue simply doesn’t matter. “Why should anyone care?” (or some variation on that theme) is the response I most often get, many people taking something of a NOMA-approach to keeping science and religion separate. Once again I’ve gotten this response, in blog form, to a post I wrote the other day called “Combating Creationism With History.” In the post, I said that I had been reading Andrew D. White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, and I had learned much about early theological beliefs and how they essentially suppressed scientific reasoning. Indeed, I had heard quite often that the book of Genesis that kicks off the Old Testament had many of its events derived from earlier Babylonian and Chaldean mythologies, and I said that when I get the chance I’m going to try and read the translations of those ancient writings to see where the striking similarities lie. Even beyond showing the Genesis account to be derived from the mythology of another culture, other historical/archeological evidence shows that civilizations like that of the Egyptians, to name one, are far older than the Biblical chronologies Ussher extrapolated seem to allow (at the moment, nomadic people were known to inhabit the Nile Valley during the Pleistocene, which at its very youngest is over 7,000 years older than the date of 4004 B.C. creationists set as the time of the beginning of the universe). Pile on top of this the mass of scientific evidence we have regarding the old age of the earth and the evolution of life, and the case for Genesis being a myth (regardless of where it came from) is essentially open-and-shut.
Still, there are some who beg to differ. Steven Bervin of the blog Tattered Bits of Brain has posted a reply entitled “Combating creationism with science.” After a short introduction, Steven writes the following;
I guess I am curious as to why creationism needs to be combatted? Why does it so often seem that the scientifically-illuminated feel honor bound to “destroy” or otherwise “combat” the theory of creationism on a scientific basis? Is there a core belief among these warriors of science that a belief in the causality of creation rather than random chance is some sort of dangerous delusion from which people need to be rescued? Are they some sort of moralistic/scientific crusaders who see it as a mission to release people from their intellectual servitude to such antiquated ideas about the origins of our universe?
I (and probably many others) would love nothing more if we didn’t have to fight back creationism, yet it keeps showing up again and again in places were it just shouldn’t be. The entire Dover Trial need not have happened, but those who wanted to “teach the controversy” pushed ahead and forced the issue anyway. Were scientists and those concerned with education supposed to simply do nothing? Because of the hard-headed foolishness of those who wanted to introduce creationism into the classroom the school district had to pay over one million dollars in legal fees and damages, essentially waste of money that could have been put to better use. Even more recently AiG’s “Creation Museum” opened in Kentucky, receiving much media attention. Were scientists supposed to say nothing about it, consenting that the museum was scientific through silence?
I chose the term “combating” because there is certainly a culture war going on involving evolution, but I feel that Steve has overstepped my premise a bit to align me with authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I am not focusing on the Bible as a whole, saying that there is nothing accurate in the collection of works at all, but rather on Genesis, a book that has been shown to be false for many, many years. It surprises me a bit that Christians feel that they must defend Genesis by twisting theology this way and that, trying to pick bits of truth out so that an allegorical reading might become the standard view. This might work cognitively and in our own time, but during the time that the mythology was created and transcribed it was intended to be a historical account of the creation of the world. If modern science has caused us to treat Genesis as allegory, is it responsible to say that God withheld this truth from the generations of Jews and Christians before ours being that they did not access to paleontology, cosmology, biology, etc. As I’ve said before, I much prefer White’s interpretation that Genesis is a remnant and reminder of the myth and superstition that we came from, not as some ever-fuzzier truth to be clung onto desperately for fear that one’s faith will utterly collapse without the belief that the Flood really happened, among other things. In essence, all I’m arguing is that from a scientific and historical standpoint Genesis has long been shown to be drastically wrong, yet modern Christian apologetics still regards it as essential and refuses to put the childish thing away.
Then can we all just right now stop calling it the “theory” of evolution, and accept that it has, for all intents and purposes, been accepted among the vast majority of the scientific community as a natural law, akin to the Laws of Thermodynamics? And therefore, that attempting to find fault with some of the premises of evolutionary theory puts one in the “flat earther” category, calling gravity “magic” and insisting that ideas such as entropy and exothermic reactions are so much heretical nonsense?
Concerning evolution as a stable body of knowledge, I think Stephen J. Gould put it best when he wrote;
Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don’t go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s in this century, but apples didn’t suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.
Indeed, just like gravity and other aspects of physics, there is the observed factual part and the various theories and other components used to more fully explain it. Pointing out that one theory of evolution or another doesn’t work doesn’t automatically make someone a creationist, and in fact science thrives on the competition of various theories to attempt to more fully explain what we know. There is a distinct difference, however, in saying that one theory of evolutionary change or another might be wrong or need adjustment and saying that evolution does not happen at all. Those in the second category require some fiat of special creation, and that does put someone in the creationist category (although not necessarily a flat-earther; such is reductio ad absurdum)
Steve also brings up this point;
What I find interesting in these “scientific” viewpoints is the tacit assumption that our modern creation “myth” was culled together from various ancient sources and “tuned” to fit modern theology by some nameless group (perhaps the Council of Nicea?). And yet, there seems little credence paid to the idea that the Babylonians or Chaldean or whomever could have instead been influenced by a creation tradition found among many of the tribal people they conquered and/or enslaved. The Babylonians were well-known as a pollyglot of various cultural traditions incorporated from assimilated people. Why is it so far-fetched to assume that their creation mythology could have been influenced by the long-standing oral traditions of captured ancient Hebrews whose culture predated their’s by thousands of years? I’m just asking.
It might not be far-fetched to consider that the older myths were derived from Hebrews (which still doesn’t prove that the Genesis story wasn’t a myth), but such claims require evidence. I’m not an archaeological scholar and I now have much reading to do on the subject, but as far as I’ve seen there isn’t any evidence to suggest that the Babylonians/Chaldeans incorporated the myths of the Hebrews into their own system, thus being a derivation from Genesis that ultimately died out. This might be a preferred way of thinking, but merely posing the question rhetorically doesn’t make it so, and to the best of my current understanding there isn’t any reason not to believe that the Jews received very important aspects of the Genesis myth from other cultures rather than the other way around. If there is proof to the contrary I’d be more than happy to look at it, but as I said before this does nothing to actually prove that Genesis actually occurred.
Steve goes on;
I guess I take issue with the idea that simply because a concept is in the Bible, it must therefore be held as presumptively unscientific. My visits to places like the Pacific Science Center serve only to bolster my faith, not lead me to doubt it. To me, the discoveries of science only point that much more decisively towards a creative force, one deeply mirrored in the Biblical narrative. No, in many cases, not literally, but certainly conceptually.
To me, there is a great deal of scholarship out there which is summarily dismissed not because it is scientifically inviable or logically flawed, but merely because it is creationist in its context. This hardly seems to support the kind of inherent skepticism required by the scientific method.
My stance is not that “Just because it’s in the Bible, it’s therefore wrong.” This is hardly the case, and there is historical value in Bible, but that being said, the Bible is horrendously wrong about any number of topics. The world that Bible describes is very different from the one that exists in reality, and the famous lines from Joshua 10:13 are a good example. It’s written;
So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.
This is not a poetic passage but an attempt to recount history, and contradicts what we’ve known to be true about our solar system for centuries now. Even though we still use words like “sun rise” or “sun set” it’s common knowledge that the earth goes around the sun, with the moon orbiting the earth. For the account in Joshua to be true at all, the earth would have to stop in its orbit, stop rotating, and the moon would have to stop rotating and stop orbiting as well. I can only imagine the cataclysm that would befall our planet if it just stopped on a dime, but then again the writers of this passage had no knowledge of this; to them the world was small, flat, and the sun moved in the sky (even possibly entering and exiting through the “doors of heaven”). This is but one example of how the Bible is long outdated and incorrect; why should we still cling to such passages as true, other than out of comfort or preference?
As for the second paragraph, no example of such research is given. I’ve read numerous editions of the CRSQ and Creation journals and I have to admit that there is hardly anything scientific in such works. Indeed, sometimes experiments are seemingly purposely sabotaged (like trying to date dinosaur bones with carbon-14), and others are merely reviews that do not seem to follow the actual rules of scientific procedure and discourse. In fact, most of the journals seem devoted to book reviews and opinion pieces, and given that the CRSQ is a quarterly journal there seems to be little research done annually by “creation scientists.” This isn’t a case of scientists saying “Oh, you believe in the Bible so you must be wrong,” but instead looking at the claims of creationists and determining them to be inconsistent with scientific reality. In fact, many scientists seem more well-versed to creationist “research” and rhetoric than many of the creationists themselves, especially being that they’re nearly constantly subjected to e-mails, comments, and even mailings trying to get them to recognize Genesis as historical truth. Maybe some scientists and those concerned with good science do dismiss creationism and intelligent design out of hand, but speaking for myself only, I’ve spent plenty of hours I would have rather spend reading something enjoyable pouring over creationist texts and keeping up with the latest ideas from creation ministries. It would be much easier to just have nothing to do with it, but that wouldn’t be very productive.
Steve concludes as follows;
I guess I find it difficult to lend credence to those who would (and I must say, justifiably so) criticize many Creationism defenders’ reliance on the “just because” or “well, it’s obvious” defense, when the scientific evolutionists continue to refer to biological organisms adapting or reacting to changes in their evironment, without any references to the actual biological/physiological mechanism whereby genetic code is reprogrammed based on input from external stimuli. What “drove” the early amphibians to seek land vs. water? And for the love of pete, stop anthropomorhpizing “Nature” in all your freaking documentaries. An amorphous “Nature” is given the causal force behind adaptive change, without really explaining what this force is, or how it influences the genetic make-up of species to “spontaneously” adapt to new conditions.
So I guess, ultimately, it is to my mind a “pot-n-kettle” kind of argument. Don’t claim the moral and/or scientific highground if you can’t provide any better answers to the questions of ultimate causality than those wacky creationists. Science and creationism don’t have to be mutually exclusive, unless of course, that is the internally mandated and pre-determined viewpoint.
This belies an understanding of evolution as caricature rather than as a working science, as hypotheses are given to explain why things are the way they are. Let’s run with Steve’s chosen example of tetrapods. One of the most favored ideas of why tetrapods evolved was Romer’s “drying pond hypothesis,” red Devionian-aged rocks (the time during which this transition occurred) seeming to suggest a hot world, or at least one experiencing drought. Given that Romer primarily had the “bookends” of the lineage to work with (the fish Eusthenopteron and the early tetrapod Icthyostega), he suggested that the drying of freshwater ponds provided the selective pressure for the lobe-finned fish to develop limbs and crawl to other pools as to avoid death. As a professor of mine opined during a discussion of the lineage since Romer’s time, however, new fossils of tetrapods have been coming out of the ground “fast and furious,” and it is now apparent that tetrapods didn’t leave the water of quickly as earlier paleontologists thought. Equipped with gills and lungs, members of the transitional series like Tiktaalik likely pushed themselves up off the bottom with their changing limbs, which also allowed them to still move through the water. Given that the areas in which these fossils were found are extremely muddy, it may have been much better/easier to breathe air than the clog your gills with sediment. Even if I’m wrong in this case, the swamps and freshwater habitats that these organisms inhabited were becoming increasingly filled with plants on land and at the waters edge, and many people know the choking effect too much plant material can have on modern freshwater lakes. Such a strangling environment would have given creatures like the ancestors of tetrapods good reason to develop their lungs and start exploiting food along the shore than to try swimming through the thick vegetation of the water habitats. Even beyond this, however, there was an ecological change going on during this time; some of the earliest known forests were cropping up beside the bodies of water tetrapods were found in. Insects had already made the move to land much earlier, and whomever got out of the pool first (or could catch insects at the water’s edge) would have a brand new niche wide-open for exploitation. Ecological changes often change organisms, and so the transition from muddy floodplain to forest would certainly have affected tetrapods, giving them the motive and opportunity to come out of the water. The creationist response to this? These creatures were just some weird kind that God created for some reason that we can’t ascertain, and they never ever turned into anything different or had ancestors outside of their ill-defined “kind.”
Likewise, the phrase “genetic code is reprogrammed” caught my attention. Mutation, changes in development, and environmental changes provide the raw stuff (variations or changes) for natural and sexual selection to work on. The whole process is a bit more complex than this depending on population size and other factors, but the genetic code is only “reprogrammed” by those creatures who live long enough to make, causing changes to become fixed in a population over time, only to change again and again and again. Pre-existing advantages often make all the difference when ecological shifts occur, and in the case of tetrapods, they were marvelously pre-adapted by evolution to exploit a new niche; if they had been ray-finned fish lacking lungs, the transition may never have happened, or if it did its products may have looked quite different. It may be easy to use terms like “reprogrammed” when referring to the genome, but this is an appeal to agency (i.e. there was someone to do the programming outside of evolutionary change), and I think we would do well to be careful in our word choice when concerning “information” in the genome.
In any event, scientists and those concerned with evolution are often mischaracterized as being wholly dogmatic, rejecting creationist claims out of hand while adding nothing of their own. As I’ve just shown however, even if they turn out to be wrong scientists put forth hypotheses to attempt to explain why life is the way it is, and if a hypothesis is overturned for a more accurate one, all the better for science (this being an advancement, not a setback). I’m sure examples could be dug up of scientists who simply dismiss creationism and want little to do with the issue, but I’ve found that most of the vocal opponents not only are well-versed in evolution, but also in creationism and it’s history. For my own part, I’ll quickly restate what I’ve said above. Regardless of where it came from, Genesis cannot be regarded as scientifically accurate. Certain verses can be picked here and there that may correlate to our current understanding, but the interpretation that was intended for its original readers certainly does not hold today, and it seems that in most passages the Bible reflects an antiquated notion of science and nature more than infinite wisdom. While some may take contradictory verses as being allegory today, we must always ask ourselves how such writings were intended for the original readers (readers that likely thought Jesus was coming back so soon that many did not bother to accumulate knowledge or understanding of nature for some time). Natural theology, the detection of the divine in nature, is a personal experience, but likewise those who engage in it might very well play the game of making God smaller and smaller; if we are to claim that God resides in the ultimate laws of physics, but we eventually are about to naturally explain those laws, this will cause another crisis of faith for some, leaving God nowhere to run to. I am not accusing Steve of this (I do not know him well enough to much such judgements), but among those who take Genesis as allegorical but still true (in the sense that God created the universe and did it in an order) God has gotten smaller and smaller as we’ve discovered more about the world. It could be argued that even if we are able to explain what happened in nature God could be the architect behind the scenes or the ultimate cause, but shouldn’t the presence of the creator be able to be extrapolated from the creation? These questions will likely go on long after I’m gone, but even in the case of such admissions, Genesis now primarily serves as the source of mythology from which many people have drawn their view of nature, and if it has other values than I must say I’ve missed them.