Why I bother

6 08 2007

I’ve spent plenty of time over the past few days going over arguments about creationism in its weak and strong forms, and frankly I’m a bit too tired to write up another long response (nor do I think that anyone needs to read any more re-statements of my position; click the “creationism” tag if you’re really that curious as see for yourself). Nevertheless, a blogging friend with a different take on the evolution/creationism debate has posted a response to my (in)famous “Why Fight Creationism?” post entitled “Why Talk About Origins At All?.” [which has been temporarily removed for a re-write]

I’ve had some friends who have taken a similar approach, essentially employing the belief that the issue of evolution is so divisive amongst Christians that it is better-off locked up in the closest, the salvation message of the “Good News” being of primary importance. Indeed, one of my old pastors would never respond to any of my thoughts or questions about evolution/creationism when I’d e-mail him about it, and I have more than a few more conservative Christian friends/acquaintances that simply ignore the fact that evolution is what I want to study and my more favorite topic of discussion (even though they seem a bit irked when I show up wearing my “Future Transitional Fossil” t-shirt or am reading books like The Beak of the Finch while they’re around). In any case, avoiding discussions of evolution may work for churches/ministries that want to create a cohesive group more focused on belief/outreach/simply believing in Christ, but I think this cheats people a bit, making me think of the great “Wizard of Oz” who didn’t want anyone to look behind the curtain.

So why bother about origins? As a relative of mine once opined about scientists and creationists, “Why can’t people just not think about these things?” The most direct answer that I can give is that the question of origins demands an answer. I don’t expect everyone to be as interested in evolution as I am, nor to put the amount of time/money/effort into reading up on it as I or other more knowledgeable folks have, but it’s difficult for me to understand how anyone can be unconcerned with how we came to be the way we are. Everyone has an opinion, that much is for sure, and oddly enough many people seem to prefer one version of mankind’s origin or another based upon religion (or lack thereof) or what is most comfortable/intuitive. I am a bit baffled that, in this age of discovery when we have uncovered so much of our past (be it through fossils or genetics), there is so much disinterest in learning about from whence we came.

I suppose why I spend so much time thinking about and talking about a subject that many don’t seem to care very much about (or have already formed an opinion about, one way or another) is that I don’t think it’s a good thing to merely pick a version of the origins of humans (or other life) and simply close the book on the subject. This method is almost like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story, where it doesn’t really matter what we think so long as we ascribe to one belief or another. I also must admit that while religion does have its virtues, I do worry of the repercussions of allowing bad science and bad theology in the form of creationism to spread and become generally acceptable; I have the feeling that a return to the Bible as the plainly-written infallible, unchanging text breathed by God might have other unsavory repercussions. Are we to return to an era where mental illness was really possession by Satan himself? Where storms were caused by witches? Where lightning rods were shunning and plagues allowed to spread because doing anything to enhance human safety in the face of natural phenomena was robbing God of His armaments? Such things would be regarded as foolish now, but if we allow ourselves to think that belief is a higher virtue than thought, where we will end up? I really do hope that my above questions have no real basis in reality, that I have no reason to fear a return to the militant and dangerous religious funamentalism that has marked so much of Western history over the past few centuries, but I am still reminded of Mark Twain’s famous quote;

“During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after doing its duty in but a lazy and indolent way for 800 years, gathered up its halters, thumbscrews, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry.”

On the surface, this issue is about the evolution/creationism debate, and if that was all there was to it then there wouldn’t be much else to say. What concerns me, however, are some of the other attitudes that seem to come along with creationism. It seems that many creationists (and ID advocates) do not believe that Global Climate Change is a real problem, or even if it is God is coming back soon so why worry about it? Science, in general, is mistrusted unless it has some economic value to it (particularly the fields that produce new technologies and medicines), but I don’t especially think a return to the natural theology of the 18th and 19th century is going to help the natural sciences like geology, biology, ecology, etc. grow very much. This isn’t merely about whether I think a chimpanzee is an evolutionary relative of mine or not, but rather a larger way of looking at the world, choices made whether to have faith in the infallibility of a particular religious text or to let the natural world speak for itself.

As Ann Druyan noted in the introduction to the recently published Varities of Scientific Experience, “We batter this planet as if we had someplace else to go,” and I feel that much of it has stemmed, either directly or indirectly, from the Biblical command to subdue the earth. I am heartened to see some evangelicals realize that either as a gift or by luck we’ve been entrusted with the planet and abused it for far too long at our own peril, but it still seems this is a minority response to current problems. Again, this is not a blanket statement because there are notable exceptions to the problems I am mentioning here, but in general I just wonder why those who don’t care about origins (or would rather ascribe scientific questions to a religious text) are so often apathetic about ecology or other important issues, and at times I feel that many have not moved far beyond the belief that Jesus is essentially coming back any day now, so there is no real reason to care for, preserve, or understand life on earth. If people hadn’t been so easily fooled by such platitudes and false logic early on, who knows what we would have discovered or come to understand by now? Clutching to Genesis tightly, taking no time to look at “the creation” itself, has only brought humanity misery, and now that we’re finally released from those mental shackles (although still a bit sore), I would hate to see is catapulted backwards into a time of hate and superstition fueled by bad theology, there being a Bible verse to support every variety of misdeed and ignorance if only interpreted in this way or that.

In the end, though, I know feel that my time is not wasted. The questions of how we can to be how we are, and what happened to those who came before, demand answers from us, and for every one thing I learn there’s a dozen other questions that I have. The natural world is so wonderful that I can’t help but be awed by it and want to know more, even to the point of not being able to understand how anyone can be apathetic towards all the amazing things we’ve learned about it. I could function in society and make a living without knowing anything about evolution, perhaps that is true, but what sort of existence would I lead? Simply working for a paycheck, working to be comfortable, seems rather hollow; I would much rather struggle to understand even one great truth than to simply ignore nature, and at least for me, there is no greater topic that requires discussion and understanding than “origins.”


The Phrase That Pays

3 08 2007

I came across this passage in Andrew White’s A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom and thought it too good to keep to myself. It should certainly resonate with anyone familiar with evolution, at least;

“Nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of Scripture, since greater is that authority than all the powers of the human mind.” [St. Augustine] No treatise was safe thereafter which did not breathe the spirit and conform to the letter of this maxim. Unfortunately, what was generally understood by the “authority of Scripture” was the tyranny of sacred books imperfectly transcribed, viewed through distorting superstitions, and frequently interpreted by party spirit.

I’m now nearly halfway through the book (or, technically, nearly finished with Volume I), although I would have been further along if I didn’t take the past two nights to exclusively sit down with my other laptop and read scientific papers, taking notes on data/findings I’ll want to incorporate into the book I’m working on (and giving rise to the recent posts about sclerotic rings, ancient atmosphere, spinosaurs, etc.). Hopefully this weekend I’ll be able to knock out the rest of the papers or the rest of White’s tome, although I’ll probably have to pick one or the other as either way I’ll have about 400 pages to read (maybe even more in terms of the stack of papers).

As for White’s book itself, it is certainly good and well-worth the time spent, even though the book falters a bit in its discussion of Egypt and anthropology (although the subjects White covers in these sections are relatively new and don’t seem to have as much history to them as others). I also added a bunch of new books, yet again, to my amazon.com wish list, ranging from mutations in humans to the role oxygen has played in the history of life on earth, and it seems that the more I learn the more 1) questions I have, 2) realize my knowledge is inadequate, and inevitably 3) the more books I add to the ever-growing stack that I hope to read.

And, of course, The Boneyard #2 is coming up tomorrow, so if you haven’t already submitted something, get it in to me before 4 PM eastern standard time tomorrow (if it’s a little late I’ll add it later on, but sooner is better). Thanks to all those who’ve contributed so far (especially those who’ve submitted more than one post), and I hope this one will be even better than the last.

David Attenborough’s “Life of [CENSORED]”

3 08 2007

There are few things in this life that are finer than a good BBC nature documentary hosted by David Attenborough, and The Life of Mammals is, by far, my most favorite. Not everyone is quite so pleased with the documentaries being presented in an evolutionary fashion, however, and the blog Pardon My Paradox tipped me off to something fishing going on in the Netherlands. Indeed, “James Randi’s Swift” has the fuller story, and it seems that an evangelical public broadcasting corporation in the Netherlands called the EO recently aired The Life of Mammals, but removed most of the content relating directly to evolution, omitting the last program about human evolution altogether. I don’t think I need to tell you why an evangelical Christian broadcasting channel would have such problems…

Anyway, the “creative” editing of the EO was first noted on the Dutch blog Evolutie, which has some articles about the EO getting creative with a few other documentaries as well. It’s in Dutch and all the web programs I’ve used have absolutely mangled the text in translation, but if you understand Dutch go ahead and have a look.

Why fight creationism?

1 08 2007

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.

Steve continues;

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.

Combating creationism with history

30 07 2007

Reading though Andrew White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom I finally found the references I was looking for; the Genesis mythology at the beginning of the Bible is little more than Chaldean/Babylonian creation myths, just brought into a new religion. I had long known that the conflicting Genesis stories had their roots in the mythology of other groups, eventually incorporated into the Jewish faith, but I had not heard much beyond this (and now I’m going to have to read George Adam Smith’s The Chaldean Account of Genesis, among other things). The relationship between the earlier myths and Genesis has been long known (at least since White published his book in 1897), and coming across it again reminds me that (at least in my view) we should make greater use of theology and archeology in refuting creationism. Many opponents of creationism (myself included) focus on the scientific side of things; how the account in Genesis could not possibly have occurred in the way it is interpreted by groups like Answers in Genesis. Rarely, if ever, is the subject brought up that we know that Genesis is not a unique or telling story at all, linking it to earlier belief systems. Likewise, if the creationists claim that the earth was created in the year 4,004 B.C., then we should point to archaeological evidence of the people who existed and had civilizations during that time. Indeed, ancient history proves absolutely key refutations to young-earth-creationist dogma, and I think anyone who wishes to combat creationism should become well-versed in the theological and historical realities that show Genesis to be nothing more than another string of ancient thought whose sole virtue is reflecting the beliefs and thoughts of people during the time Genesis was conjured up.

Even beyond this, the Bible is a vastly outdated book, reflecting a square, flat world of relatively small size, the stars, sun and moon hung from the vault of heaven, and the Gospel having been told to every creature & every man of every land (even if there was another side to the world or the world was a sphere, theologians argued, there could be no people there as the Gospel was never preached there). Modern apologists over gloss over passages referring to this archaic world as being poetic, or try to change their meaning through wordplay, but the fact of the matter is that the natural world as described in the various books of the Bible does not accurately reflect what we now know to be true. If young-earth-creationists are going to reject Darwin, why not Newton or Copernicus as well? Truth be told, both men (and nearly any other who dared hypothesize about something that was not in line with religious orthodoxy) were vehemently opposed in their time, even though groups like AiG try to co-opt the faith that these men had to prove that the best scientists are Christian ones. Again and again, creationists prove that they do not know their own history, nor the history of science, and I think that those concerned with evolution/creationism should start using this ignorance to our advantage.

Strange silence about paleoanthropology from creationists

16 07 2007

In preparing my post on human evolution (hopefully covering the evolution from tree-shrews to apes to humans), I’ve been trying to get a handle on creationist explanations about fossil hominids and human evolution in general. Thus far, I haven’t gotten any straight answers about what to do with our numerous fossil relatives, human evolution usually considered to be incorrect a priori because the Bible says man was created from dust by God (Eve getting her start as a rib). If we are to accept this, however, then the problem becomes organizing and correctly identifying fossil hominids and apes, a task that creationists don’t seem up to. Given the importance of this topic, uncovering the origins of our species, I would expect that those who believe in a special creation for man would go out of their way to somehow explain where hominids like Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, and Kenyanthropus platyops came from (thanks for the correction Luca).

Instead of explanations, what I have generally found from major creationist groups like Answers in Genesis is an attempt to discredit any new hominid fossils, pointing to the various changes and discarded hypotheses as proof that scientists have no clue when it comes to the contrary. Indeed, while I have seen explanations for fossil hominids put into context of “confusion” at the Tower of Babel, this is usually downplayed; it is almost as if they’re embarrassed to say that they believe our closest fossil relatives were, in their view, “degenerate” lineages of people that are now extinct. I’ve seen this explanation in some of the creationist literature I have at home (I’ll sift through that when I have time this evening), but for now I’m going to focus on internet sources to see if there’s anything new when it comes to creationist claims about fossil hominids.

The largest creationist index I was able to find was the “Anthropology and Apeman Q&A” at the via the AiG website. The vast preponderance (if not all) the posts seem to primarily deal with criticisms of paleoanthropologists and evolutionary scientists, with little in the way of alternate explanations for the fossils. While some of our more distant ancestors are typically lumped in with apes, the only hominid more closely related to us that is mentioned is Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals). Given this overall inattention to fossil hominids, let’s have a look at what some of the listed articles has to say;

Man: The Image of God (1981)

In this article, Prof. John Rendle-Short proceeds to make a disjointed and largely ignorant argument that man is somewhere, spiritually and mentally, halfway between God and animals (I assume in this instance that “animals” is being used to mean “mammals” rather than all metazoans). The overall thrust of the article is that we are so unlike other animals that we can’t possibly be related biologically to them, thus meaning that we were specially created as told in Genesis, one of the key differences being “creativity.” Rendle-Short has this to say on the subject;

Animals are not creative. They endlessly reproduce a stereotyped design. A particular spider constructs a web of constant pattern. The song of a bird is species specific, or mimicry of another bird or human. No originality is demonstrated.

Apparently this man was not familiar with animal behavior or psychology at the time of writing, and I find it odd that somehow he missed the various reports of apes, elephants, and even cats that enjoy painting (I realize that many of these links were not available in 1981, although creativity in apes, at least, has been known since the 1950’s). The intellectual bias that man is somehow the only creature that exhibits any creativity has long stifled the notion that animals have emotions, can exhibit creativity, and are generally far-more complex than recognized under a strict behaviorist mindset, a bias that exists only because of our own hubris.

No Bones About Eve (1991)
This article by Carl Wieland (now of Creation Ministries International) largely says that if the genetic evidence for “Mitochondrial Eve” fits the Biblical inference of all living people being able to trace their origins back to one mother in the not-too-distant past, then creationists can accept the data pointing to such ancestry (while rejecting any data for a timeline older than 6,000 years). Other than the intellectual cherry-picking going on, the article gives us some clues as to creationist interpretations of some fossil hominids in the conclusion. Wieland writes;

Some of the ‘archaic’ skulls referred to are of the Neanderthal type. Creationists have long recognized these large-brained people as being a part of the range of variation in true humankind. Some of the other of these skulls in question, however, are classified as Homo erectus, which means that at least some of the specimens labelled in this way have to be accepted by creationists as part of the gene-pool of post-Flood humanity.

So, rather than considering Homo neanderthalensis and H. erectus as separate species, they are instead regarded as humans, the clear anatomical differences the products of regional variations that must have occurred at an astounding rate (notice that Wieland states that H. erectus would have survived the Noachian Deluge, therefore proliferating, undergoing variation, becoming extinct, and undergoing some degree of fossilization starting after the flood occurred in 2348 BC [the dispersion from the Tower of Babel is calculated at 2242 BC (figures lifted from AiG estimate)]. As would be expected, there is no actual evidence for this, the creationist assessment of the two hominid species as belonging to Homo sapiens being based entirely on the desire to avoid conflict with a narrow interpretation of the Bible.

Neandertal children’s fossils (1994)
Furthering the idea that Neanderthals were only humans that had undergone variation post-Flood, orthodontist Dr John W. Cuozzo (who is from my home state of New Jersey, no less) makes the claim that growth rates of Neanderthal children were slower than modern H. sapiens children, therefore showing that “humans” (as loosely used by creationists like Cuozzo) lived longer in ancient times. He concludes;

This whole topic is fascinating; as my book [Buried Alive: The Startling truth about Neandertal man] discusses, many of the ‘archaic’ features of some strains of ‘early man’ are very likely due to delayed maturation in early post-Flood people who still had (as the Bible record indicates) significantly longer lifespans than today.

While the article is listed as being “technical,” it is hardly that; short on scientific information and long on astonishment over the author’s proposed findings. Cuozzo’s claims are interesting to consider given the creationist model for human evolution, however, being that not only would the survivors of the Flood have to be dispersed from the Tower of Babel, but they’d have change very quickly despite delayed maturity and long life-span (dying just in time to be fossils to us).

The Caring Neanderthal (1996)
This article, by A.J. Monty White, follows in the same vein as those previously mentioned, attempting to show that Neanderthals were essentially “just like us” and not as brutish as assumed in pop culture. While Neanderthals certainly have gotten some bad press (perhaps because we ended up being the “winners” in an evolutionary sense), White goes too far when he reinforces the idea that Neanderthals were merely dispersed variations of humans;

None of this is surprising when we consider that they were not primitive evolutionary ‘links’. They were people, forced to live in harsh conditions, after the dispersal of humanity at Babel, during the great post-Flood Ice Age.

The Ice Age mention has also been something that has baffled me about creationist mythology; when did the Ice Age occur and for how long? Being that it would have had to occur in the last 4,000 years or less, it would be an awfully fast change, subsiding as quickly as it arose. Just like hominid evolution, the Ice Age is another area where creationists are conspicuously quiet. The Neanderthal explanation, however, just seems to be a variation on a previous argument that all the Neanderthal skeletons were merely H. sapiens skeletons that showed disease or were changed because of taphonomic/environmental factors, the more recent creationist articles recognizing differences but maintaining that they were well within the range of H. sapiens variation or plasticity.

AiG’s response to “Up From the Apes” (1999)
An anonymous article in response to a 1999 TIME magazine article further tries to explain away the more “primitive” tools and cultures of Neanderthals and H. erectus. The author writes;

The Bible makes it clear that all people are descendants of Adam and Eve—there are no ‘pre-Adamites’ coming before the first people. The different fossils which are distinctively human (Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, etc.) must all be descendants of Adam and Eve. It is likely that many of these specimens come from the time after the Babel dispersion. Many of the resulting small people groups would find themselves without city-building technology, so would need to resort to stone tools and finding shelter in caves—as many people do even today, although they are no less intelligent than city-dwellers.

No explanation, however, is given why some dispersed groups prospered and others did not, especially in the middle of a catastrophic Ice Age (see the discussion of the previous article). Indeed, this is merely a just-so story that has no evidence to back it up, but will be readily believed by those already predisposed to agree with the “authorities” at AiG.

The non-transitions in ‘human evolution’—on evolutionists’ terms (1999)
In a 1999 article, John Woodmorappe goes beyond Neanderthals and H. erectus to envelop even more taxa into geographic variants of H. sapiens, essentially suggesting that all “transitional forms” are either clearly apes or variations of our own species, descended from Adam and Eve. He claims;

Adam and Eve, and not the australopiths/habilines, are our actual ancestors. As pointed out by other creationists [e.g., Lubenow], Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis can best be understood as racial variants of modern man—all descended from Adam and Eve, and most likely arising after the separation of people groups after Babel.

This seems to exemplify the overall creationist strategy, lumping all the closest hominid relatives together as our own species, all others being apes. As more discoveries are made and more post-cranial skeletons come out of the ground, I expect that they are going to have to change their stance on this matter.

Where are all the human fossils? (1991)
Andrew Snelling, AiG’s new Flood geologist, wrote a rather odd article for the extinct Technical Journal in 1991. Attempting to address why we do not find fossils of humans and dinosaurs/trilobites/pterosaurs/etc. together, Snelling suggests the following;

It would seem to us unloving of God to execute such relentless judgment, but such is God’s abhorrence of sin that its penalty must be seen for what it is—utter destruction and removal of all trace. If God cannot tolerate sin (His holiness cannot ‘look’ on sin), then all trace of sin has to be removed in judgment, which necessitates utter destruction. Should human remains have been allowed to survive the Flood as fossils, then there could also have been the possibility of such remains being worshiped and revered.

This is a strange claim indeed; that God selectively destroyed the remains of any people living before the Flood (being that they were sinful) for fear that the bones would be revered. I have not come across this argument outside this old article, however, and so I assume that it isn’t a central part of modern creationist dogma (although I could be very wrong). [This article did remind me of Adrienne Mayor’s book The First Fossil Hunters, however, wherein she describes how Greeks revered mammoth, Sivatherium, and other large bones as those of dead heroes and giants.]

‘Oldest’ hominid footprints show no evolution! (1993)
The Laetoli footprints are perhaps my most favorite fossil trackway (if not one of my favorite fossils), but Alexander R. Williams claims that the footprints clearly show that man was specially created and walking upright; if these prints had been made by our ancestor (or a relative of our ancestor), the prints would have been much more ape-like. This entire argument, however, is based upon the primary assumptions already discussed (i.e. AiG’s narrow reading of Genesis is historically accurate, meaning no humans lived before Adam and evolution does not occur, meaning any tracks must be, under these assumptions, made by a descendant of Adam and therefore human), and it is clear that Williams has made no effort to actually even study the fossil in question. This issue has already been discussed at Talk Origins, and from what I can tell the prints are similar overall to our own but are not identical. I’ll have another look for myself when I see the cast of the prints at the AMNH this weekend, but there is no reason to believe that the prints were made by the descendants of the mythical Adam.

A search for the “Tower of Babel” on the AiG website did not offer up anything new; indeed, all that was mentioned was how people were dispersed because because of God’s judgment, giving almost not attention to where people went, how they got there, or what happened to them. This is a huge gap in creationist apologetics, the very events surrounding the origins of man receiving far less attention than dinosaurs. Perhaps this is not surprising given than AiG seems to give a lot of attention to bringing in children, rather than trying to convince those who are already opposed. Nevertheless, the creationist model for human origins seems to hinge exclusively on man’s special creation, all the fossil finds, archaeological sties, etc. that do not fit a 6,000 year old earth being shoehorned into one far-fetched explanation or another. Being that the special creation of Adam & Eve seems central to creationist doctrine (it is among the most central of the given assumptions), perhaps they see no need to provide evidence for one of their strongest beliefs.

Just in case anyone was wondering, this post in no way endorses the previous creationist thoughts/bare hypotheses. Rather, I am trying to more fully understand creationist apologetics so I can more effectively combat their claims, although creationists seem to be long on rhetoric but short on evidence when it comes to fossil hominids. Nothing I saw even came close to sufficiently proving that Neanderthals or other hominids had to be either apes or extinct populations of H. sapiens, thus one of the most central beliefs of creationists has no foundation in reality. Like I mentioned above, I will have a look at some of the books from ICR and AiG tonight to see if there’s anything more to be learned, but I doubt it.

Bacon on Creationism

12 07 2007

Last night I started reading From the Greeks to Darwin: An Outline of the Development of the Evolution Idea (1905) by Henry Fairfield Osborn and stumbled across this rather prescient quote from Francis Bacon;

Against [“the corruption of Philosophy by the mixing up with it of superstition and theology” – H.F. Osborn] we must use the greatest caution… Yet some of the moderns have indulged this folly with such consummate inconsiderateness that they have endeavoured to build a system of Natural Philosophy on the First Chapter of Genesis, the Book of Job, and other parts of Scripture; seeking thus the dead amongst the living” (in interests of the soul). “And this folly is the more to be prevented and restrained, because not only fantastical philosophy but heretical religion spring from the absurd mixture of matters Divine and human. It is therefore most wise soberly to render unto faith the things that belong to faith.”

It is also of interest to us that Osborn uses the phrase “Intelligent Design” to discuss the views of Aristotle and others who believed in a guided or assisted development of life, even though we’re more familiar with ID as conceived by Phillip E. Johnson as a “Wedge” not so long ago. Anyone interested in the philosophy of science regarding nature (and especially evolution) is urged to pick up this book if at all possible; it definitely reveals a much richer history of evolutionary thought than many care to acknowledge.