Replying to Evolutionists at the Creation Debate

Buzzfeed published two lists of questions from people at the creation debate.  One from Creationists to Evolutionists, the other from Evolutionists to Creationists.  This morning, Adam Rutherford published a list of mostly mocking replies to the creationists.  I find this to be a non-constructive approach, and by and large not even that funny.  Mockery, especially from a position of power is a form of bullying.  A biologist with a PhD and a substantial background in science communication bashing people who may not have had any serious background or even interest in the creation-evolution controversies prior to this debate seems only to confirm that kind of behavior.

So I’m starting a list of replies to the questions by evolutionists for creationists, from what I understand to be the perspective of Ham and the Creation museum.  I’m not endorsing these answers as true, my interest as a historian is in trying to fairly represent ideas, right or wrong. And I’m also interested in pointing out that (evidence of mockery to the contrary) most people are neither willfully wrong not internally inconsistent.  As I tried to explain in my post about the debate, the sides have differences about the nature of knowledge, in addition to the specific knowledge claims that they make.

1. If my Great Great Grandpa Rode Bareback on a T-rex, Why Can’t I?

A. Is your question really asking why did Dinosaurs go extinct, or why were dangerous carnivores once safely cohabitating alongside man? First let’s clarify several assumptions.  Dinosaurs went extent several thousand years ago.  Probably not long after the Flood and the Ark.  So we’d have to add a few more greats to your question.  Secondly, while it’s true that during Eden there was no carnivory, and it might have been safe for Adam and Eve to ride on dinosaurs, the dangerous nature of beasts was part of the punishment for the fall.  To answer the question, it’s because you’re a sinner.  We’re all sinners.

2. How do you explain the fossil record and the established science of geology?

A. Young earth creationist geologists and old earth evolutionist geologists look at the same fossils, but we disagree on how to interpret them.  The argument for an old earth comes from the presumption that the age of fossils is determined by the age of the rock strata they’re found in, and that those strata are very old. But young earth geologists argue that dating rock strata is based on a clock that has been misread.  Old Earth geologists believe that the rate of radioactive decay that we see in the world today is the same as what it has been in the past, that if we see a clock running at a normal rate now that it didn’t run faster or slower earlier on.  But we’ve seen evidence from across the sciences that suggest that some of the constants of natural law change.  Old earth cosmologists used to presume that the speed of light was a constant, something that they’re now calling into question.  If radioisotope decay hasn’t been the same throughout earth history, we can’t use it to reliably measure ages of rock strata or the fossils therein.

3. What’s with all the raping and pillaging, God?

A. We don’t condone raping and pillaging, but let’s first keep it clear that you’re asking a moral question, not a science one, even though there are some evolutionists who have argued that rape was a natural result of evolutionary psychology.  Our position is that the morality of actions are defined by God, not by what humans today find fashionable or repelling.  We also understand that the people of the Bible after the fall were sinners, especially before the redemptive promise of Jesus.

4. If there’s no such thing as evolution, how come snakes have legs, but evidence of once having legs?

A. Honestly, there’s an account in the Bible of the serpent losing its legs for its role in the temptation of Eve in Eden.  A legless snake is probably the worst example you could pick.  But lets take another legless animal with a vestigial pelvis: Whales.  Some people have argued that the whale pelvises serve a function in regulating its balance.  More generally, evolutionary scientists are coming to the conclusion that organs they once regarded as useless and vestigial may have functions that are not yet known.  We would argue that this is one of the best reasons for creationists to do science: We ought to discover more about these structures.

5. Does God get bored with Finches of Galapagos every few generations? Mix it up?

A. Perhaps you’ve heard the song “His Eye is on the Sparrow?”  That song is drawn from the Gospel of Matthew (10:29) “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” So we might say that God has an especial interest in birds.  We think that God is as attendant to all his Creation and doesn’t get bored.  But perhaps you’re asking if God is the cause of mutations and changes.  We think that ultimately God is the cause of everything, but we also believe in the divergent evolution of finches from some initial population of finches.  We think that variation within natural kinds, roughly what biologists refer to as families, has happened, allowing for great diversification since the flood and the ark.

6. How can you ignore evolution as a theory if there are entire disciplines devoted to it?

A. You know, there’s a famous incident a few years back.  When philosopher Keith Ward was appointed to the Regius Chair of Divinity at Oxford, Richard Dawkins published an open letter claiming that there was no subject as theology and that as such no one could be an expert in it.  There have been people identified as theologians for centuries, indeed it was one of the very first academic disciplines and there are several subdisciplines devoted to it.  So we could easily ask why anyone should ignore theology for the same reason.

But a better answer to your question is that we don’t ignore evolution; we disagree with it.  There’s been plenty of cases of scientists disagreeing over which scientific theories best fit the data.  We also reject the implication that the truth about nature is known with certainty simply because certain ideas are more or less popular among people.  The truth is out there in creation, not in our fallible human minds.  Just because there’s a large scientific opinion in favor of evolution doesn’t make it right.

7. Why do you believe carbon dating is so unreliable?

A. We appreciate that this question attempts to understand some of the scientific reasons we give for our view of the age of the Earth.  I think this has mostly been answered in #2, but to add some more thought.  As Bill Nye himself said during the debate, it used to be thought that the age of the sun could be determined by predicting how long it had been doing what it was doing.  At first, scientists thought this was a chemical reaction (like burning) but the size and estimated heat flow rate suggested that if that were the case the sun would be much younger than geologists thought the Earth was.  Later, scientists thought that maybe the light and heat was given off by gravitational collapse (the matter from the outer parts of the sun being drawn in—falling—towards the center, and the energy of that fall being converted to light and heat.) but that still only gave estimates of millions, not billions of years.  It wasn’t until the 20th century that nuclear fusion was seen as a possible source of the sun’s shine (Note, even They Might Be giants released a new song updating their hit “Why Does the Sun Shine?”  Because sometimes scientific theses are rendered invalid!)

At the same time, geologists began to reject the idea that all change is purely the very gradual accumulation of changes—that uniformitarianism was in fact unnecessary.  We think that this history raises the need to be aware that scientific theories are subject to change.  We use facts to determine scientific theories and—this is important—theories to interpret new facts.  But sometimes the theories aren’t just determined by facts, but by the beliefs of scientists.  Stephen Jay Gould argued that uniformitarianism was formulated by geologists who were trying to work “unencumbered by Bible preconception”, and that this desire led to strong resistance to abandoning it when the facts became increasingly difficult to fit.

We believe that the revealed Bible is an independent source of knowledge that gives us an age of the earth, and that it can guide our search for theories that we can test scientifically.

8. How can you deny microevolution (i.e. evolution in action?)

A: We don’t! In fact we think that it’s a necessary component to understanding the diversity of variations that we see in the world today, because only a pair of each kind (biological family) was present on the Ark.  All the cats (ocelots, panthers, grumpy cats, Garfield, etc) are descended from the pair of cats on the ark, diversified through microevolution.

9. Show me the facts: how can you possibly find evidence that an omniscient being created everything? 

A: When it comes to looking at nature, we use the same facts that all scientists use.  The difference is in how we interpret them.  But we don’t say that we have to look to the facts of nature for evidence that God created everything.  We claim that there’s a source of evidence and knowledge that is superior to looking at nature, and that is the direct knowledge that comes from God and that is personally witnessed, or revealed through Scripture.  In fact, if it weren’t for God, we wouldn’t have any right to assume that the things we see with our imperfect eyes and interpret with our fallible human minds were accurate at all.

This is a big different between the creation view and, for example, the view put forward by what’s called “intelligent design.”  ID says that you start by looking at facts from nature and use those as evidence of a designer (who they often won’t acknowledge is actually God).  From the perspective of Creation science, this is misguided.  Our imperfect understanding of nature can never get you certain knowledge of God.  We say that the evidence that an omniscience being created everything comes from divine inspiration and Scripture, and then we use evidence from nature to understand more about his Creation.

10. I require my textbooks to be newer than 4000 years old.

A: Good for you! Though I imagine that in your college philosophy classes you might have read some Aristotle or Plato, which are over 2000 years old.  So where’s your cutoff?  More to the point: if you mean science textbooks, we also agree.  That’s why we think it’s necessary to do science—within the framework of creation— and to teach the facts of nature within that interpretation.  That’s why we are continuing to engage in new research confirming and elaborating on the creation!

11. Science Rules!

A: We agree, though we understand nature to be the work of God and the human capacity for making sense of nature (science) also to be the work of God.  So we’d probably prefer to express it as “God Rules!”

12. If you accept religion as truth, why is your religion “more true” than all of the others.

 A: If you think that religion is a choice like choosing from a menu at a restaurant, then you’ve understood “religion” in a very different way that we do.  In fact the idea of “religion” as this category that includes lots of different beliefs and practices was largely the creation of Europeans exploring and conquering other parts of the world and trying to make sense of the people they encountered.

This has had the effect of trying to reduce religion to something that can be understood by an outside observer, like a social scientist.  It presumes that fallible human reason can make total sense of religion and pass judgement upon it.

We don’t take the view that  religion is something you chose by using your own interpretations and judgement.  We think that religion comes from God and that “faith” is more about God acting upon you than you making a rational choice to believe or disbelieve.

So we’d say that the only ideas that God inspires people with are true ones, and the other ideas, what some people call other religions, are the works of human invention.  Even though their adherents may be well meaning and even though they might be attractive to us, we don’t accept that their ideas come from God or that they’re true.

13. Assuming that the Flintstones was a documentary, what was Jesus’s role in having dinosaurs in the workplace? They seem like a safety hazard for Mr. Slate.

A: The Flintstones is an imaginative rendering, and we certainly don’t take it as representative of the era when humans and dinosaurs coexisted on the earth.  In fact we think that dinosaurs may have inspired many of the legends of dragons that folklorists have collected all around the world.

You raise a really interesting question about how Jesus might address concerns about workplace safety.  Considering that evolutionists believe that birds descended from dinosaurs (not a position we agree with) ww might consider this passage about animal labor (Matthew 6:26) “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.”

14. How did Noah’s Ark Stay afloat even with termites on the Ark?

A. The Bible says that Noah brought food and provisions for all the animals on the ark.  This presumably means that the termites had food, that wasn’t the ark itself.  But the Bible also tells us that God brought the animals to the ark.  We understand this to mean that during the period of the Flood, the behavior of the animals was being controlled by God (lest the wolves devour the lambs, or be attacked themselves at the Red Wedding)

15. What is your explanation of the human genome that was found dating back 40,000 years?

A: Genome dating is estimated based on estimated rates of changes or divergence within a population.  The more divergence, the longer ago evolutionists believe divergence happened.  The ages of divergence are inferred by calibrating them against other old earth interpretations, like the geological dating discussed earlier.  But we don’t directly see divergence, we see difference.  Divergence presupposes the idea of common ancestry.  Now we completely accept the common ancestry of all human beings, but we don’t accept that the rate of divergence has been constant or can be easily understood from the way mutations occur in nature or the lab today.  And we also don’t accept the calibration of the genomic calendar by use of an old earth geological calendar.  In fact, just like geologists once believed the Earth to be older than astronomers thought the sun was, using their dating techniques, there’s disagreement among scientists trying to correlate genomic and geological/radiological dating techniques.

16. Explain Rock layers and plate tectonics.

A: There’s certainly evidence of tectonic plate movement today.  The inference that we can somehow extrapolate backwards from this movement to reconstruct a “Pangea” of billions of years ago, however, assumes that the change that we are observing now has been going on uniformly over time.  But if there were sudden changes, an upheaval such as a global flood, the impact of that water and the hydrological pressure caused by it would have quite completely reshaped the landscape, pushing landmasses around and causing the surface to be scoured.  As the waters receded  and the sediments began to sink, sediments containing different composites of chemicals, minerals and animal and vegetable matter precipitated or were deposited at different rates.  Although the comparison is inexact, you might look at how water draining from a bathtub leaves different layers.

Like old earth evolutionists, we believe that there are instances of rock layers being deposited in a sequence, but we believe that that sequence came quite rapidly, during and immediately after the flood.

17. How do you explain fossils that are millions of years old?

A: We’ve mostly addressed this before.  The fossils don’t give direct indications of their ages.  We use the evidence of the rock layers that they’re found in.  As mentioned before, dating rock layers to be millions of years old is an interpretation that is based on the presumption that those layers could only have formed gradually. (And that radiometric methods are calibrating using similar presumptions.)

18. Do you really believe in a talking snake!?!

A: We’re not Parselmouths, if that’s what you’re implying! But we know that animal behaviors can be influenced in unique ways.  Just like God altered the behavior of the animals that he brought to the Ark, the Deceiver influenced the behavior of the snake (or serpent) that spoke to Eve.

19. Keep Religion out of my science class

A: We understand.  That’s why we want to emphasize that creation science is a science.  Religion tells us that the Bible is true, and it gives us inspirations for scientific hypotheses.  We then do science to confirm, or to learn more about the natural world.  Evidence from nature that there are signs of a worldwide flood, or that radioisotope decay occurred differently in the past is scientific evidence.  It’s inspired by religion, but it’s not religion itself.

We might also observe that there’s a ‘religious’ element to belief in evolutionism as well.  Not only does the supposition that human observation and reason make a religious claim that we consider humanism, but the idea that the observable world is only permitted to be explained through natural law, that the miraculous is ruled out from the very beginning, is a religious principle, not a scientific one.

20. Creationists and Pastafarians—We’ve got to stick together! Won’t you support our religious right to have our Pastafarian story in science classrooms as well?

A: We disagree with Pastafarianism; we know that it was not divinely inspired and in fact was invented by humans to mock Christianity.  But we have supported the rights of teachers and students to practice their religions in schools.  While we may disagree with your strainer hat, we accept your religious right to wear it.  And many of us love pasta, just not religiously.

21. Read more than 1 Book.

A: We only accept one book as being divinely inspired and we only accept that one book as being a direct source of truth from God, but we read and engage with many different books.  Did you know there are over 300 books for sale in the Answers in Genesis bookstore?

22. Jesus Riding a Dinosaur? Nuff said?

A: Dinosaurs were on the Ark but they went extinct sometime after the Flood.  There’s certainly no indication that they were still around in Jesus’s day.  In fact, according to the Gospel of John (12:14), when Jesus did sit upon an animal, he chose the humble donkey to ride into the city of Jerusalem.

A ‘Forgotten Evolutionist’ – Alfred Russel Wallace at the National Museum of Wales

I had the opportunity to go to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff this week and to see the new exhibit “Alfred Russel Wallace: Forgotten Evolutionist?” which just opened this past week.  I’m not a Wallace scholar, but I am a historian of evolution and biology, so I came to this with a fair bit of knowledge about Wallace’s ideas and some of his discoveries. But I must admit I didn’t know much about his early life.  I was pleasantly surprised by some of the information the exhibit contained.  At the same time, there were a few frustrating errors in the presentation.  And in one instance, there was even material which I found offensive and racist.  The result was a better knowledge of Wallace than I’d previously had, but a conflicted view of the museum’s curatorial choices.

(note – the Museum expressly prohibits posting photographs of exhibits online, so I will not put any up on this blog.)

While I certainly understand that Wallace gets much less public attention than Darwin, this idea of the “forgotten” Wallace seems to be a bit of overstatement—yet it is the rhetoric that the Natural History Museum and the National Museum of Wales has been employing and which the press has picked up on in this 100th anniversary of his death.

The exhibit is laid out in a single room with several alcoves.  An anti-clockwise progression takes us through Wallace’s early life, to some of his voyages and discoveries, to his connection to Darwin and Darwinism and the fallout from their similar theories, and finally to his public persona by the end of his life.  In the center there are two video screens with headphones.  There are also a few cases of specimens that Wallace collected during his voyages.

There’s a bit of subtext that the collective Wallace-amnesia might be due both to the class differential between him and Darwin’s circle, and also perhaps the tendency of Wales (with only 5% of the UK population) to be ‘forgotten’ within the larger context of Britain.  At one point, the exhibit recounts his collecting voyages and publications with the pithy conclusion: “Not bad for a self-educated man from Usk in Wales!”

It’s not surprising to see the National Museum of Wales emphasising the Welshness of a famous son such as Wallace. But the exhibit does suggest that Wallace’s Welshness wasn’t mentioned just for the sake of patriotism; it actually mattered to his progression in science.  It was the economic and technological circumstances of Wales at the time of his upbringing that led Wallace to employment and background as a land surveyor (although the exhibit also hints at a social activism by claiming that Wallace recognised that much of the surveying was being done to take the land away from local control into national and private economic interest—land surveying as the vanguard of economic and cultural hegemony at the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.)  The point is made that Wallace’s experience and training as a land surveyor was critical to his ability to precisely map the locations and distributions species, and made possible his understanding of biogeography.

That was perhaps the best of the exhibit.  Although there was also some very useful discussion of the rather famous scene where Wallace sent his paper outlining an evolutionary theory to Darwin, leading to the joint presentation of the two’s theory at the Linnean society and the resultant publication of the Origin of Species.  The exhibit slyly suggests that there’s more to this story:

So ends a scientific fairy tale? Two men from very different backgrounds arrive at the same cutting edge idea separately? Maybe not.  Some scholars question these events, arguing that conspiracy robbed Wallace of his proper credit.

What do you think?

I find the – What do you think? –  rhetoric a bit disingenuous.  It’s not as though the exhibit gives its audience the evidence necessary to decide this and relegates historical interpretation (you know, using facts) to be reducible to gut opinion.  Moreover, contrasting Wallace receiving “proper credit” with a “conspiracy that propagated a “fairy tale” to “rob” Wallace certainly slants the story.  There was also the suggestion that his beginnings in a “lesser social class to the ‘eminent men’ of English [of course not Welsh…] natural history like Darwin.” This meant that “Wallace didn’t have a reputation to lose!” The implication is that this made Wallace a bolder naturalist than the overly-cautious, reluctant-to-publish Darwin.

But ultimately because “Wallace was prepared to champion unpopular causes without regard for his own reputation,” his legacy suffered.  The exhibit suggests that this very boldness and willingness to be unpopular was responsible for the quick fading of his fame after his death.  By contrast, “Darwin was remembered thanks to his popular book ‘On the Origin of Species’ whilst Wallace remained in the shadows.”

This has the feeling of trying much too hard.  The effect is one of creating a Darwin who was: cautious of publishing to the point of cowardice (pushed forward only because of Wallace); socially privileged and part of a good old boys club of Victorian scientific elite—and of course English; who usurps Wallace’s rightful legacy because he wrote a ‘popular’ book.

While the exhibit presents some of the important aspects of Wallace’s thought and does so in ways that are not too technical, it doesn’t always do a good job explaining how Wallace’s ideas fit into the broader conversations about evolution.  We are told that Wallace’s evolutionary idea “suddenly flashed before him” “while suffering from malarial fever.” This depiction of a disease-induced hallucinatory revelation doesn’t really fit with the earlier idea of Wallace as a hard-working “self-educated man from Usk.” So is it the case that scientific discovery is the result of a lifetime of hard work or a brief moment of insight?

Wallace is described as having reached “the same brilliant idea” as Darwin.  Elsewhere in the exhibit, points of difference between the two’s theories, such as the development of the human mind and human ancestry are mentioned.  There’s a brief and somewhat distorted presentation of previous evolutionary ideas, which seems to conflate aspects of Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin.  It also includes the unfortunate phrase: “Lamarck came up with an early theory for evolution called Lamarckism.”  There’s a very simplistic mention of the so-called eclipse period, which states simply that evolutionary ideas fell out of favour in the early 20th century, before experiencing a revival in the 1930s.  There’s been some good criticism of this idea (first put into print by Julian Huxley as a narrative to advance his own ‘modern synthesis’) of the Darwinian eclipse (such as this article by Mark Largent).  The exhibit doesn’t explain the causes for this apparent eclipse but seems to suggest that Wallace’s having died at the peak of it might have further led to his quick forgetting.  Unlike the beatification of Darwin that led to his entombment in Westminster Abbey.

The presentation of Wallace’s theory of biogeography is generally much better, and more directly tied to the claims that his experiences as a land surveyor (and his Welsh background) informed his scientific discoveries.  And there’s a good presentation of the discovery of different species on opposing sides of the “Wallace Line” through Indonesia.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t presented as clearly as it could be.  The line is illustrated against a map of the Malay archipelago.  The Wallace line is projected as a thick red line on a pane of glass mounted several centimetres in front of the actual map.  This makes it hard to tell exactly where the line runs through the map.  The actual Wallace line runs through the Lombok strait, between the islands of Bali and Lombok.  But depending on the angle, the line either covers Lombok (not a large island) entirely, or even appears to put Bali and Lombok on the same side, with the Wallace line appearing to wrongly traverse the Alas strait, dividing Lombok and Sumbawa.  (A map of the three islands here)

There’s a few other odd curatorial choices.  Towards the end of the exhibit there’s a cast of a Homo rudolfensis skull found in East Africa in 1972.  This is given as evidence of the human evolution that Wallace championed.  It’s perhaps unfortunate that the same week the exhibit opened, details of new skull finds in Georgia cast doubt of the existence of Homo rudolfensis as a distinct species from Homo erectus.  But moreover, this is a strange choice of skull.  It’s not one that Wallace would have been associated with in any way, having been discovered long after his death.  And it’s not even from a part of the world where Wallace explored.  Yet within Wallace’s lifetime, fossils of Homo erectus were found in Java, an island that Wallace himself explored.

But the most outlandish thing in the entire exhibit is a serious of biographical cartoons depicting stages in Wallace life.  These are done in a style that could have been from Wallace’s own era, however these are quite clearly not nineteenth century depictions of the naturalist, but present-day ones.  They’re all done by the same artist, and they include events (like young Wallace looking for insects whilst surveying land as a teenager) that certainly wouldn’t have attracted any attention for caricature.

In general the use of cartoons to depict biography is accessible, and easily digested.  It’s also child-friendly and humorous.  I have nothing against the medium.  But it’s precisely because the medium is so accessible, and might be the only part that some children really look at, that the cartoons need to be careful about what messages they reinforce.  Unlike some of the other visuals, (like the biogeography map) this doesn’t really require reading the further text to take away a message, and unlike the video, this doesn’t require wearing headphones or waiting a while for a point to be made.  For many people this is the quickest explanation of Wallace the man.  And that’s why I found them so troubling.

A few are harmless attempts at tongue in check irreverence (Wallace on a sinking ship on return from the Amazon, crying out “Women, children, and rare beetle specimens first!”).  The final one, showing the ghost of a deceased spiritualist Wallace hovering over his grave exclaiming “I was right!” seems a bit disrespectful to Wallace’s religious beliefs.

Two of these cartoons, however are quite blatantly racist and inappropriate.  I can’t post photos of them here, so I’ll just describe them.

One shows a bespectacled and kitted up (backpack, butterfly net, etc) Wallace greeting a person in the Malay Archipelago.  Wallace says: “I’m a collector!” In reply, a dark-skinned man wearing nothing but a loincloth, with a hut behind him filled with skulls, replies “Me too!”

The next one shows Wallace reclining under a lean-to, writing in his journals.  Next to him a well-muscled (topless, also in a loincloth) dark skinned man states: “I tell you what – only the fittest survive out here!” and Wallace replying “Waaaait a minute…”

If these were actual Victorian-era cartoons, the depiction of natives of these lands as naked primitives might be expected.  If these were themselves historical artifacts that showed how Wallace was perceived at the time then they might have a place in the exhibit.  But to newly create and reinforce these stereotypes and to present them as humorous depictions of Wallace’s travels is appalling and inappropriate.  In an otherwise clever, if not flawless, exhibit, what in the world are they doing there?