Monday, 2 June 2008

Why Creationism is wrong

Okay, this is really an easy target. I've had a few good choices in mind I want to explore, but I've been busy with life so I haven't had a chance to sit down and write anything of substance in recent weeks. This is just something I've wanted to get off my mind and I can do so relatively painlessly.

As much as I loathe to even acknowledge this, despite the overwhelming evidence for common descent and an old universe, there is still a significant push by the religious for their mythology as absolute truth about the world. One thing that shocked me a couple of weeks ago as work was one of the top coders in my office going on a rant about evolution, saying such things as no new genes have ever been observed, that evolution is only a theory, and generally deriding the scientific process. He even tried telling a former evolutionary biologist just how the process works and got it so wrong. This is one of the best programmers we have, yet his religious beliefs (a baptist) got in the way of reason. It disappointed me because I really thought Australia was above this debate, evolution should be a non-issue. But somehow the beast that is creationism keeps rearing it's ugly wrinkled head to the point where instead of working out the practicalities of evolutionary theory we are wasting time and resources debating mythology.

The Cambrian rabbit
Creationists no matter how hard they push for the inclusion of evidence will never find something that will conclusively demonstrate that the world is 6000 years old. It's just simply not going to happen any more. It's important to understand the concept of a scientific theory, for it to be accepted in science it needs to not only explain the current piece of evidence being worked on, but all the evidence in that field. Not only that, but it needs to be compatible with what we know from other fields. As much as the scientific method is working out a jigsaw piece by piece, the collective knowledge forms a picture and when something doesn't fit then it is flawed. This is so important to keep in mind because without understanding why a single piece of evidence won't disprove evolution or prove creationism this whole exercise is pointless. It means that claims like the eye is too complex, even if they weren't true would not disprove evolution nor would it be proof of creationism. All the evidence must be taken into account, the fossil record, patterns in DNA, genes, diversity of life, etcetera.

It was once said that a rabbit in the Cambrian would falsify evolution. But what would really happen? Certainly it would call for a rethink of how the unifying theory of biology works. The fossil record is not the only line of evidence that holds the theory together. As stated above, evolution not only accounts for the fossil record, it accounts for genes, our DNA structure, it is backed by patterns in the DNA, by sequences in our genes. A rabbit in the Cambrian wouldn't take away all that other evidence, a new theory would have to be developed to explain it all. At this point in time it's an absurdity to even consider we'll find a rabbit in Cambrian rocks given what we know about biology, it's purely hypothetical here. Right now the fossil record is 100% consistent with the theory of evolution, just as every other line of evidence is. There are transitional fossils, transitional fossils of transitional fossils, everything lines up exactly as the theory of evolution would predict. It's not only consistent with itself, it is consistent with what we know today about species diversity.

So where does this leave creationism? Even if evolution was to be falsified, it's not automatic that creationism is a better explanation or correct in any way. It needs to stand on it's own merits and explain all that we see today including being susceptible to new evidence as it emerges. After all, that is the process of science and the foundation for our understanding of the natural world. For creationism to be true, the fields of evolutionary biology, geology, plate tectonics, stellar evolution plus many other fields would have to have a significant portion of the current evidence falsified. For the age of the earth, radiometric dating based on decay rates would have to be shown as completely faulty, or use a new technique that demonstrates a young earth. Currently the oldest earthly substance found has been dated to ~4.1 billion years, while meteorites found date to ~4.5 billion years. This is compatible with the age of the sun which is based on the rate of fusion of hydrogen into helium.

For the fossil record, the current record shows a gradual emergence and diversity of species. From the Cambrian explosion, there are fossil records that show from fish to amphibian, from amphibian to reptile, from reptile to bird and from reptile to mammal. It shows the diversity of species, some to the point where we can trace quite an exact path; the horse being a great example of this. All this information would need to either be falsified or explained by any "theory" of creationism. Saying "Goddidit" is not a scientific statement and since it's spoken without any evidence can be dismissed as such. A literal interpretation of Genesis doesn't even work for the formation of the earth, seeing as we know the sun provided the gravitational field from which the earth was formed yet the creation story asserts that the earth came well before the sun and the stars (well we came before some starts but when there's been star formation for ~13 billion years we are bound to be older than some)

It's just so important to understand that with the scientific method Creationism will never ever be accepted. Quite simply it contradicts so much empirical evidence we have gathered. By claiming the world is 6,000 years old, by claiming we were made from dirt and woman from a rib as opposed to a common ancestor, it directly contradicts what we know. And if an idea doesn't explain the facts it can never be classed as a theory. Likewise if it contradicts the data it isn't even a hypothesis. DonExodus2 on YouTube made the great point that the FSM is a better model than Creationism because it as least tries to explain why the data doesn't match a giant spaghetti monster flying around creating creatures, it's because the FSM chances the scientific data to make the earth appear old and that evolution happened. Of course this doesn't mean that the FSM is a valid theory, it's an untestable assertion. Using the principle of parsimony we can explain the process of life without the need for a supernatural being, putting one in there is pointless.

So that's why creationism is a load of garbage. It's pretty obvious stuff, but it seems to be so widespread and propagated without a 2nd thought and it seems that the main cause of that is people not understanding the scientific method. And without that understanding, it would seem a rational thought that evolution and creationism are just two beliefs; one with God and one without. But it's not a belief in the way that religious dogma is, it's a conclusion derived from empirical evidence, and one which is susceptible to change as new evidence comes to light.

Nonoverlapping magisteria
The late Stephen Jay Gould came up with the concept of nonoverlapping magisteria, a means of explaining the relationship between science and religion. It's such an important concept because it demonstrates the place that each institution has and where the boundaries are drawn. If one is a biblical literalist, then yes, their beliefs are going to be contradicted by science. But the bible is not a scientific textbook, it was written at a time by people who knew almost nothing about the universe around them. But taking it literally is absurd, the book was a bronze-age attempt at explaining the world, people who had no scientific training. An assertion made 3,000 years ago that the world was created in 6 days where the earth was created before the sun is by today's standards laughable. If it weren't for religious sensitivity and the idea of sanity in numbers, any individual who would make the claims of a YEC (Young Earth Creationist) would be thrown in a mental institution. Yet because millions believe it, it's become an acceptable worldview at least in the eyes of what we consider sane.

The bible is not a literal account of history, it's allegorical, symbolising the nature of God. Noah's Ark is a fable based on a localised flood, yet in the text it's turned into a story of punishment and redemption. Of course genetics would show that it's impossible for species to rebuild from only two of each animal, there would be no genetic diversity among species. This only goes to serve that the bible should not be read like a history book, and especially not as a science book. There is a wealth of information out there which is empirically observed and verified.

God doesn't have to be incompatible with evolution, why can't evolution be the how for the diversity of life? Just as gravity is the how for the formation of celestial bodies. Most scientists in the US believe in God in one form or another (from personal to pantheist), yet the problem with evolutionary theory is less common than the problem of holocaust denial is in the academic community. I'm going to sound like a broken record on this, but the push for creationism comes purely from believers who have little to no scientific training. There is no controversy with evolution, there is no scientific merit in creationism. The Catholic Church sees no conflict between evolution and religion, the almost unanimous majority of Christian scientists see no problem resolving evolution with their beliefs, the push against evolution is coming from those who don't understand it, those who want their beliefs to be 100% scientifically accurate; so if the science doesn't match their beliefs the science (not their beliefs) must be wrong.

The only other option could be that God made the universe look like it is ~13.7 billion years old, that the age of the earth is really just an illusion. After all, it's God. He can supposedly do anything. This idea has as much merit as it's parody; Last Thursdayism where the universe ends every week on Wednesday and is reset to look like that week had occurred. There is just no merit to do this, and it's ignoring so much of what we are able to piece together just for the sake of maintaining a broze-aged myth as a belief. It doesn't explain why we share DNA and patterns in our DNA that pertain to a common ancestor. It doesn't explain why Aboriginal culture goes back around 50,000 years, why the tracing of our last common female ancestor from mitochondrial DNA goes back 150,000 years. If it were true then God has gone to extreme and elaborate lengths to hide the fact that the earth is recently created. Why include fossils of extinct species? Why include transitional fossils? Why include genetics that just doesn't match the data? The whole idea of creationism is one appeal to ignorance, a very successful one at that where the meme is propagated without a shred of real evidence. So we get logical abortions like the Omphalos hypothesis as lame attempts to resolve an untenable belief system.

And what does it say about God? Does it make him, as Bill Hicks puts it, a prankster? Is evidence purely there to test our faith? Or was it the work of the devil, God being all-powerful but the devil managing successfully to show the universe as extremely old... This is why belief and science should be kept well away from each other. Science is there to understand the natural world around us, it makes no claims on the existence of the supernatural. So to use the supernatural to explain the natural it will be no surprise when that explanation is destroyed by new evidence. But in a society where a majority of people believe in the existence of God without question, painting science as "anti-God" is a sure way to sucessfully undermine any evidence that shows the absurdity of the Creation story.

The case for scientific understanding
Maybe Richard Dawkins has it wrong, maybe he's going about it all wrong. Instead of dedicating so much time and effort into attacking something that people cling onto like a safety blanket, maybe he should spend more time and effort promoting just how the scientific method works. He talks about evidence so much, and he's right. The evidence backs up what he's saying. The problem might just be that people don't know why the evidence is important. We shouldn't say that evolution is incompatible with belief because it's dishonest and polarises the issue. It makes people choose between their beliefs and a scientific understanding of the world. And when belief is such an emotional issue, almost everyone is going to choose their beliefs even if it means ignoring overwhelming evidence. When pushing science as a series of facts it runs the risk of being seen as just another faith, and when it's just another faith it can be dismissed without proper consideration. When there is a society who can't program a VCR, getting them to understand the facts of evolution seems to be one step ahead. Understanding how is the key, it's the basis from which all scientific knowledge is derived. Without it, we run the risk of harming our knowledge base and the future of progress.

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