The View from the Top of the Mountain


Am I paranoid?

Everywhere I look lately, creationism seems to be springing up from cracks in the pavement like the pernicious weed that it is. Back in March, there was a kerfuffle in Hampshire about attempts to push it into the classroom (read about it here), a case worryingly similar to oh so many, from the Scopes trial of 1926 to the Kitzmiller vs Dover School District trial in 2005 (an excellent documentary on this can be viewed here). Every five minutes, random evangelical preachers seem to burst forth from their woo-cocoons to badmouth ‘Darwinists’ and ‘Evolutionists’ as being part of some scientific anti-truth cabal.

In July, the British Humanist Association felt compelled to organise twenty-six of the country’s leading scientists to write a letter to the Secretary of State for Children, Ed Balls. This was in response to the new Primary School science curriculum having no mention of evolution whatsoever. No fossil hunting expeditions for primary school kids anymore, then. I’m not saying this was due to any influence by creationists necessarily, but things like this, combined with glimpses of creationism’s beady eyes staring through the curtains of reason (Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, anyone?), are enough to make me paranoid. Or at least become paranoid about being paranoid. As Marsh recently blogged in ‘Texas Versus History’ (it’s always Texas!), even history lessons aren’t safe now. It’s a conspiracy, I tell yers! Those creationists are trying to steal our education!

Except this is nothing new. And it hasn’t been new for a long time now.

In recent years, Richard Dawkins helped stoke the pot with the publication of The God Delusion, his comprehensive and occasionally tactless obliteration of the God Hypothesis. Although not specifically aimed at creationists, it is them who screamed the loudest as they have the most to lose by the advocation of reason over superstition. This was 2006. I’ve already mentioned the Scopes trial. It was only two years later that the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote Why I Am Not A Christian. This was in 1927. As Mike recently pointed out to me in a discussion, both books make exactly the same arguments. Nothing has changed in almost a hundred years. The arguments are sound, too; creationists do not have an intelligently-designed leg to stand on.

Not that it has ever stopped them.

In the early sixteenth century, Leonardo Da Vinci was hanging about on an Apennine mountaintop (as you do) when he found a fossilised shell. The common thinking of the time (and of young-earth creationists today) was that the only way fossilised shells could be found in such places was because they were deposited there during the Great Flood. You know, that flood. Where God gets pissed off with his favourite species (even though he made them himself) and murders them all horrifically except his mate Noah (what Eddie Izzard calls the ‘etch-a-sketch end of the world’). Not impressed with this argument, Da Vinci decided to do some sums (regarding rainfall over fourty days and nights, height of mountains, that kind of thing) and came to the not very astonishing conclusion that it was a load of old pants. In addition, he even proposed the idea that maybe the shells were there because the mountains pushed their way upwards from the oceans over extremely large (and biblically-problematic) periods of time. He was right. Not that anyone listened to him.

That was four hundred years ago! Can creationists really be that stubborn? All the evidence gathered over the years, from multiple scientific disciplines, has repeatedly shown the arguments of creationism to be weak, unsupported and just downright wrong. Yet the same arguments keep cropping up, even the one about the shells. Why is this?

I believe it is political. Creationism used to be the norm once upon a time. A large chunk of the world was built around the ideals of the Abrahamic religions, and this included all the beliefs that went with it. Science existed quite happily within this system until every now and then it discovered things that went against the beliefs of the established institutions. These institutions would sense a threat to their power, and the matter would usually end in somebody’s execution. Nowadays, we don’t do that kind of thing (honest), and in secular countries like our own, the survival of the government is in no way dependant on what we know about the age of the universe (hint: it’s a bit more than 6000 years, and slightly less than the time it took me to finally get around to posting this blog). But creationism is still around, and in places like the American mid-west it still has some sway on those in charge. And it wants to survive, like a Dawkins meme from hell. But there is only one way it can do this in our enlightened age. And that is stick its fingers in its ears, and go: “LALALALALALALALALALALALALA!!!!!”

Because what else can it do? The moment it lets in a little bit of reason, the moment it admits that scripture might be wrong even in the tiniest way, it has lost. It will dissolve like an alka-seltzer in a god-sized glass of water. That is why it uses the same old arguments. It’s not trying to win, it’s just trying to preserve the status quo. Most of us, confronted by the random collection of scientific tidbits and out-of-context quotes that creationists throw up in debates, have to go away and research what the hell they’re on about before we can even begin to argue. Creationists then chalk this up as a point for them. Even scientists find it difficult to argue with creationists. Imagine you’re a physicist arguing with a creationist about the speed of light. The physicist is arguing that the speed of light proves the universe is billions of years old. The creationist is is then trying to argue that God could have made the speed of light slower in the past (yes, they really do argue this). The physicist scoffs. Suddenly, the creationist says: “Ah, but what about the bombardier beetle?”. A complete change of tack. The physicist is stumped. He quite understandably might have no idea what the creationist is on about. He’s not a biologist. He may not have even heard of the bombardier beetle. Even if he is familiar with the argument of irreducible complexity, which is what the creationist is here shoe-horning into the debate, he may not know how it connects to the bombardier beetle. If this is a live tv or radio interview, his hesitation will come across as another win for the creationist.

There’s no room for well-rehearsed, objective debate with a creationist, they’re just trying to catch you out. It’s of-the-moment point-scoring. In debates you can win by being clever with words and emotional appeals. You don’t have to be right. (A court room on the other hand is a different matter, as you have to provide positive evidence of your claim, not just catch the other person out. The video of the Kitzmiller vs Dover School District trial linked at the beginning of this blog is the perfect example of this, and I recommend it heartily).

Anyway, I’m digressing. My point is that creationism survives not by proposing a rational argument, but by keeping people ignorant while at the same time seeming smart enough to get away with it. The only way to combat it is to keep educating people as much as possible. It may seem futile when people such as Bertrand Russell and Leonardo Da Vinci have failed to completely decredit creationism, but it was because they tried that creationism is a fringe movement, not the controlling power. The moment we stop educating ourselves is when creationism finally slips through the cracks and goes from the sidelines to the top of the heap. The trick is to be able to fight their arguments rather than just see through them. Most people know creationism is rubbish, but confronted directly by its quote-mined randomness cannot necessarily argue against it. We Skeptics are perfectly placed to help people do this. This is what we do after all! So I’m planning on posting some common creationist arguments on this blog over the coming months, and demolishing them as best as I can by showing up their flaws. What do you reckon? Good idea?

Before I go, I’ll make a first stab with what I think is a great example of how beautifully an argument can be dismantled. It was not written by me. I used to often argue with creationists on internet forums (a terrible habit, I know), and after a while it became very apparent that the same arguments were coming up over and over again. One member of these boards decided to write a catch-all ‘misconceptions of evolution’ post, and just post it whenever someone made the same arguments again. I’d like to thank Chris Mango of New Jersey for allowing me to quote from him.

It is a rebuttal of the common creationist argument that while ‘micro’-evolution is real (adaptation at or within the level of species), ‘macro’-evolution (the changing of one species to another) is not, and has never been proven: –

Creationists try to split evolution between micro-evolution and macro-evolution (this is a fallacious argument, however; accepting micro-evolution but not macro-evolution is like accepting that seconds exist but not whole minutes). Even Creationists agree that micro-evolution exists, but they claim that macro-evolution does NOT occur.

Here’s an analogy as to why micro-evolution is the same as macro-evolution (just on a much shorter time scale):

AARDVARK (original word)

AASDVARK (one micro-mutation, changing one letter)

AASDVARL (one micro-mutation, changing one letter)

AASDBARL (one micro-mutation, changing one letter)

AASEBARL (one micro-mutation, changing one letter)

AASEBALL (one micro-mutation, changing one letter)

BASEBALL (one micro-mutation, changing one letter; new word!)

To go from AARDVARK to BASEBALL, six micro-steps took place in between the two real words. However, the first six “words” could be labeled as A-species, while the last word could be labeled as a new B-species (based off of the first letter of each “word”). Therefore, A-species to B-species could be considered a macro-evolutionary step, while the little “in-between” steps are micro-evolutionary.

It should be noted that macro-evolution HAS been observed.

(copyright: Chris Mango)

Perfect, isn’t it? Well done, Chris! Especially the last comment. So many creationists will say that macro-evolution (a term they pretty much invented anyway) has never been observed, without even knowing that they’re repeating an outright lie. That’s what happens if you go to a school that doesn’t teach evolution, I suppose! Hopefully some of the kids on the forums learnt something from Chris’s post.

The whole ‘macro-evolution’ fallacy is simply the shell on the mountain scenario all over again. If you’re on the mountain looking only at the shell, and refusing to listen to new knowledge, you’ll only ever come to the same old conclusions. The trick is to look up from the shell, and see the entire view. Creationism made perfect sense in a relgious era that knew nothing of palaeontology or plate tectonics. But the view from the top of the mountain is so much wider now. So why not look up from that shell and take in the whole picture?

Colin H

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