Creationism, Part 1: It’s a fight over science, not facts.

Last year I became a movie star.  Well in truth, I became an extra in a biblical docudrama exposing evolution and proving the existence of God.  Yes, I was one of the Feckless Four: Professors unable to answer the simple question of, “Give me one piece of evidence for evolution”, asked by A-Little-Man-Off-The-Street (hereafter: ALMOTS).

We actually spent hours discussing a lot of evidence for evolution.  None of that made it into the film – it was either “lost” or left on the cutting room floor.  As ALMOTS opines, all that “other stuff” was totally irrelevant.  None of it counts as evidence and would just have given the false impression that evolution is true (although somehow my thoughts on blasphemy disprove evolution enough to be in the film!).

Well alright then!  I’ll return the favor by neglecting to mention his name or irrelevant fictional epic.  Funny thing, though, I really like ALMOTS.  He is charming, funny, kind and smarter than the character he plays on film.  (Indeed, I’m embarrassed to say as an evolutionary biologist, I’d probably enjoy lunch with him more than with Richard Dawkins, who seems more interested now in accolades than in scientific debates.)  Anyway, my disappointment that our repartee over evolution will never be aired led me to reprise my arguments across websites reviewing the unnamed film. The learned professor was going to educate the public about evolutionary biology, but turns out, he got educated!

I eagerly presented sets of irrefutable facts … and they were never refuted.  Indeed, no one had any interest in refuting them.  Are creationists simply too dumb to understand fossil records, astrophysics, geology, molecular biology, genetics, etc, etc?  No, absolutely not.  If you don’t believe me, please read “Among the Creationists” by Jason Rosenhouse.

Creationists know the facts.  They understand them. And most surprisingly to me, they know that creationism is not the better explanation.  Let me repeat that – everybody who has studied life on earth agrees it better aligns with an evolutionary explanation than with “God did it”.  Scientists at places like Answers in Genesis are not fools.  They know they have a weak case, but still entirely reject Darwin and evolutionary biology.  How?

It is easy enough to understand if one believes the bible to be the literal word of God.  Thus, when a Ken Ham or Dr. Georgia Purdom is directly asked as to what would convince them of evolution, the answer is always “Nothing”.  In their minds, contradictions of Genesis will eventually be shown as false and the bible will be validated.   I have no issue with such faith.  We are all free to believe, or disbelieve, whatever gets us through the day.  If you can live with the contradictions to reality of a 6000 year old universe, a worldwide flood, a Tower of Babel, men surviving days in fish stomachs, and all humans descending from Adam and Eve; then more power to you.  The truest test of faith may be to believe what sense and logic scream is false.

Placing the requirements of faith above the rules of logic and evidence is, however, fatal to honest scientific pursuit.  A very basic rule of science is, if there are multiple explanations for a phenomenon, we must favor the one most consistent with facts, experiments and observation.  If a scientific hypothesis requires a miracle in order to make it true, then it is false. 

Given the entirely miraculous requirements of creationism, how can any ‘scientist’ view it as an equally valid explanation for life on earth as Darwinian evolution?  The good folks at AIG do so by demanding a redefinition of the very basis of science so as to devalue inference and deduction!

The attempt to change the rules of evidence was displayed most virulently in the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.  Ham repeatedly raised the canard of historical versus observational science.  In his dichotomy, real science addresses only phenomena that happen in the here and now.  Anything occurring in the past requires a point of view that renders inference and deduction suspect.  Obviously that means all of evolutionary biology is merely opinion and no better or worse than opinions based on religious texts written thousands of years ago.  Professors like Jerry Coyne can write wonderful books rich in irrefutable fact and logic (“Why Evolution Is True”), but they are dismissed as no more than ‘opinions’ of biased atheists pushing an anti-God political agenda rather than science.

To fundamentally reject that we can infer past causes from present-day consequences is dangerous.  It denigrates science far more broadly than whether or not we descended from Adam or Australopithecus.  For example, why can’t someone believe both that the Earth is 6000 thousand years old and that we are hugely responsible for polluting it?   Yet anti-evolutionists are also often anti-climate change, anti-environmental, anti-conservation, and anti-vaccination.  None of these are religious faith-defining issues, but the common thread throughout is the fraudulent proposition that “historical” science is invalid.  That which cannot be seen, touched, or replicated in a lab is just opinion.  Thus, the fight against creationism is more important than a parochial dispute in biology over a falsified idea.  It is about what it means to be a scientist, how to do science, and what we can learn about our wonderful universe.

But let me close my first piece for the School of Doubt on a different note.  Yes, I was taken aback by the other side’s complete imperviousness to evidence.  The thing that most appalled me, however, was the online tenor of some of my ‘teammates’.  I ask you, has any argument been won or a mind changed by opening with, “You are a stupid, illiterate, inbred hick!”  That is as effective as reading bible scripture to skeptics.  Not long ago there was a famous admonition to our communities: “Don’t be a dick!”  So I shall try above all to achieve non-dickness in future postings by not vilifying, harassing, or gratuitously insulting anyone; friend or foe.  The first step in changing people’s minds is to get them to listen without wanting to punch you afterwards!

UP NEXT: Creationism is science (and so history)

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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

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