I don’t know why I let it get to me. But the arguments of creationists just aggravate me so much whenever I see them that I feel compelled to post about it. This morning’s aggravation was a result of coming across a link to a pointed criticism of an article by Phyllis Schlafly, where she starts off with “The most censored speech in the United States today is not flag-burning, pornography or the press. The worst censors are those who prohibit classroom criticism of the theory of evolution.” The article is infuriating on many levels, but fortunately, the criticism addresses most of the outright falsehoods.

In the comments section of that post, somebody posted a link to this thread commenting on an article by Gary North, explaining that Christians should assert their majority status, and withdraw their children from any school that teaches evolution. The comments on that thread are similarly scary.

What scares me about it is that, first of all, I seem to be in a minority position. The majority of people in this country, according to a poll I saw, either believe in creationism outright, or are unsure of the evidence between evolution and creationism. I’m not sure I want to live in a country that chooses religion over science.

Secondly, I am horrified that the majority of this country apparently can not distinguish between pseudo-science and science. They accept what authorities tell them, and so they think that everybody must do the same thing; it’s just a matter of choosing which experts to believe. They choose creationists, and others choose evolutionists, and it’s just a matter of faith which you believe in. They think that evolutionists believe in evolution because a few scientists said so. They don’t appear to understand the concept of peer review, that while evolution is a theory (as is all science – gravity is a theory too, but try jumping off a cliff to argue with that one), it is a theory consistent with the vast preponderance of evidence that has been found.

Creationists like to point out holes in evolution, saying that “Oh, well, it didn’t explain this one thing, so the whole thing must be wrong.” This betrays a total lack of understanding of science. A theory which explains everything, with no exceptions, does not exist. The entire history of science is a continual evolution of ideas, where theories are tried, exceptions are found, new theories are thought up that both explain the original data and the new exceptions, etc. Newton’s laws morphing into relativity are a good example.

However, it seems like the creationists believe that a theory that doesn’t explain everything is worthless. I feel that this is only because their alternative is something that explains everything: God. God is an easy answer. Of course God explains everything. But I feel that it’s also a totally useless answer in this context. Creationism doesn’t give us any insight into how our world works, any thoughts on how we can make our lives better.

Another frustrating thing is that several of the criticisms I read this morning basically say that “Creationism is believed by the majority of this country; therefore it should be taught in schools.” Science by democracy. It’s unbelievable. Do these people think that the physical world is swayed by what people think? If that were true, the earth would still be flat, and at the center of the universe. But it’s not. Scientists like Copernicus figured that out, despite the vast majority of the people thinking they were wrong.

Scientists have to challenge the norm. If they didn’t, there would never be any progress. Challenging the status quo is one of the greatest, most honorable things to do in science. All scientists dream of finding an exception, a chink in the best current explanation, because an exception is also an opportunity, a chance to do new science. It is most certainly not a reason to throw the explanation away, as the creationists would have us do. Heck, one of the reasons I dropped out of particle physics was that it looked like most of the work for the next couple decades is going to be theory-checking; the Standard Model is good enough at this point that it explains things out beyond where we can test and verify them.

The other thing that drives me bonkers about the comments I see from creationists in these threads is that they believe that their lack of imagination means that something isn’t possible. Some of them at least concede that small changes are possible, on the order of moths changing color, or beaks changing size and shape, which is good because those are well-documented in our time. But then they say ridiculous things like “All changes lead to inevitable breakdowns of the system” (which starts by assuming that the systems are perfectly functioning to begin with), and “Well, we can see small changes, but the evolution of major changes is impossible” (meaning I can’t imagine it). They don’t have any conception of how natural selection works over hundreds of generations. The power of combinatorics and large numbers can lead to extraordinary changes.

One of the standard objections is the evolution of the eye. This is used by the creationists because Darwin himself says:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.

Creationists use that quote triumphantly, and say “Even Darwin doesn’t believe that evolution can make anything complex!” Of course, if you continue to read, as I just did with the power of Google, he says:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. No doubt many organs exist of which we do not know the transitional grades, more especially if we look to much-isolated species, around which, according to the theory, there has been much extinction. (emphasis added)

Of course, quoting out of context, and using selective reading, is just par for the course for most religionists.

Oh, and the reason I bring up the evolution of the eye is that I read about an experiment where two scientists set up a computer simulation that allowed for natural selection in an optical system (overview here). It started with a patch of light-sensitive cells, that could determine light or dark. It modified it at each step with relatively small mutations. And then it let the system evolve. At each stage, the system which could perceive an image best was “selected” and used as the basis for new mutations. In only 2000 steps, it had evolved from a flat patch that could only tell light from dark, into an eye cavity with a lens looking remarkably similar to what vertebrates have. They estimate it could have happened in about 400,000 generations or so.

This isn’t proof, by any means. But it shows that even something as complex as the eye, which looks like it must have been designed, can evolve from very simple starting conditions. Because it is better. And natural selection favors good design. If it helps organisms survive, it gets selected. Lots of little changes, accumulated over thousands and thousands of generations, can add up to huge changes. It’s a mind-blowing concept. And utterly inspiring to me, because it says that little changes can have an effect, in time.

Which is interesting, actually. Because now we’ve come across a weird congruence between religion and science. Religious folks believe that every little act matters, because God is watching, and “…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Whereas I believe that little things matter because they can add up to big things, as demonstrated by evolution, or the butterfly effect in chaos theory. I’m not sure what to make of this congruence. Maybe it’s coincidence. More probably, it’s just a consequence of each person’s search to believe that their life matters, when most of the time, it doesn’t. So we like believing in fairy tales or anything which might give our life significance.

Anyway. I just had to rant for a while. Creationism does that to me. Science by democracy is bogus. Science by fiat is, too. Pseudo-science, where they use scientific terms but fail to embrace the scientific method, is infuriating. This country is quickly heading down a path towards the Dark Ages, not because we are turning our back on God and morality, as some would have you believe, but because we are turning our back on science and reason and the Enlightenment, which helped us make more extraordinary achievements in the last hundred years than were made in all of previously recorded history. We who believe in science must fight for it as vigorously and energetically as those who are fighting for their God of ignorance and deceit and children’s tales. I don’t know how to make this happen yet. Or where it’s going to happen. But the battles lines are being drawn. And we need to have our weapons ready when it comes. Weapons of intellect, hope and propaganda. Because clearly reason isn’t enough. Okay, now I’m depressing myself, so I’ll stop here.

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