Our Man In Ottawa: Creationism 101


MSS-member and recent émigré to Canada Chris Hassall gives us an introduction to Creationism in all it’s flavours and glory.

While there are many forms of woo that involve a warping of science, that which is closest to my heart is Creationism. While homeopathic practitioners, psychics, claim scientific support (or at least use scientific terms) when arguing their respective cases, no other variety of woo has produced so much spilled ink (as well as money for the authors) as that promulgated by “creation scientists”. I will briefly outline the two most prevalent forms of creation woo with some brief critiques and a quick guide to the leading figures in each of the movements. I’ll finish with a discussion of how we should be dealing with this particular form of woo.

Biblical Literalism

The first form of woo is that promoted by the biblical literalists. These people follow the literal Word of God (their particular version, of course) which, according to Archbishop Ussher puts the creation of the universe and everything in it to teatime on 23rd October 4004BC. Anybody who has ever been anywhere near a book will see that this instantly puts the biblical literalists at odds with the entirety of the scientific world (as well as the historical and archaeological worlds, but we won’t go into the fact that the Sumerians were busily brewing beer before this time…). The major issues that the biblical literalists have to deal with (in scientific terms, although of course there are many more archaeological and historical problems with believing the bible verbatim) are (i) the apparent age of the earth (literalists have no choice but to be “Young Earth Creationists”), and (ii) the absence of evidence for a global flood. The major developments in attempting to reconcile these issues were made by Henry Morris in his 1974 book Scientific Creationism and things haven’t really moved on much since then.

Much of the Young Earth Creationist movement is based on the abuse of philosophy of science and it is important that this vastly under-taught subject be appreciated by the masses if they are to discern woo from non-woo. Ken Ham is a leading YEC and often the arguments that his group make focus on the fact that we all have the same evidence but everybody interprets it differently. Each interpretation is therefore as valid as the next and so YECs are perfectly justified in believing what they believe. Unfortunately this is nonsense. Science works through a system of peer review during which ideas are subjected to intense scrutiny. Some work is approved for publication in scientific journals but only after highly qualified scientists have been through the study with a fine tooth comb to ensure that it is rigorous, novel and worthy. While some YECs publish in peer-reviewed journals it is almost never anything to do with young earth creationism (this is why they have their own journals – primarily Journal of Creation and Creation Research Science Quarterly).

The arguments made by creationists are myriad and vary in their quality from wrong to awful. A lot of time and effort is expended by creationists attempting to figure out just how many organisms must have been on Noah’s ark (16,000, apparently… ) and where the rest must have gone. Which astronomical phenomenon was the Star of Bethlehem? What did velociraptors eat before the expulsion from Eden (they couldn’t eat meat)? How much water must have been present at the global flood to gouge out the Grand Canyon? Which hominid fossils were people and which were gorillas/chimpanzees/orang-utans (after all, there cannot be other hominid species!)? How did dinosaurs and humans live together?

Some notable arguments include the following:

It isn’t really worth listing all of the arguments here. They encompass a huge range of fields from astronomy to quantum physics via genetics, archaeology and philosophy. All this bizarre research that is put into attempting to lend a little credibility to some things that a millennia-old books got wrong leaves them with little time to actually form any positive arguments. However, where there are arguments there is an extensive list of rebuttals at the Talk Origins archive. Failing that, posting something to the Pandasthumb website will probably get a response.

Intelligent Design Creationism

This second form of creationism is slightly more subtle and far more sinister than the happy-go-lucky kookiness of the Biblical Literalists. While the concept of intelligent design is commonly associated with William Paley and his “watchmaker analogy”, the modern movement takes a number of steps beyond this rather simple argument from incredulity. Contemporary ID was born in 1991 with the publication of Phillip Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial. This book was not designed to necessarily win the minds of scientists with its sparkling, new interpretation of the biological world. Rather, Johnson expressed a wish to gradually turn overturn not only evolutionary theory but also the entirety of “materialist science”. The goal of the ID movement is that theistic science should “permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life”.

In political terms ID was skilfully crafted. By calling itself ID rather than creationism and avoiding any mention of who/what the intelligent designer might be, the movement avoided the First Amendment of the US constitution with ensures a separation of Church and State. Furthermore there are few specifics mentioned within the movement besides the fact that an intelligent designer at some stage stepped in to create life. This leaves ID as a “big tent” within which many disparate arms of the various religious groups (both Christian and non-Christian) can come together to collaborate.

The scientific ideas that the ID movement has produced are as follows:

Irreducible complexity – This theory posits that there are come biological structures or processes that simply could not have occurred by natural selection. The argument is most succinctly put in Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box where he outlines the concept using the analogy of a mousetrap. The mousetrap, Behe says, is an example of a piece of equipment that will not perform any function unless complete. He goes on to suggest that biological structures have the same property. Unfortunately he has based most of his argument on a simple argument from incredulity, effectively stating “I cannot conceive of how this evolved and therefore it must have been designed”. However, as the subtitle of his book (“The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution”) suggests, he has some fairly obscure examples of biological mechanisms.

Fortunately most of them have been thoroughly analysed now and responses have been posted to each of his examples of irreducibly complex structures. While Behe naturally requests step-by-step processes by which each phenomenon came about naturally, this simply isn’t possible. However, we can have a pretty good go at knocking over the major issues:

I have tried to provide both peer-reviewed science and publicly accessible pages there so that everybody can read about it. Someone even went so far as to show that the mousetrap upon which Behe’s analogy is based can be reduced to a single component while still retaining function.

The strength of Behe’s approach is that he can continue pointing at things and shouting “irreducibly complex” ad nauseam (and he probably will) and, while it takes him a matter of seconds to utter those words, it takes vast amounts of research funding, time and effort to satisfactorily disprove his assertion. This kind of technique is common in ID. The argument is essentially philosophical in nature, is easy to state, requires little effort (and no scientific research) to assert and yet entails a lot of effort on the part of scientists to debunk.

Complex specified information – Michael Behe is a biochemist and, while biochemistry is a relatively complex topic, it is nothing compared to information theory. This is one of the reasons for the success of the next two areas of ID. William Dembski is an information theorist and philosopher who has been a part of the ID movement from its inception. His employment of information theory has left most of the more technical aspects of his arguments completely inaccessible to the majority of his audience (both creationists and evolutionists) and that has rendered him relatively immune from criticism. This is not helped by poor definition of the terms that he uses (sometimes changing definitions mid-argument) and unnecessary mathematical notation. I say “relatively immune” because fortunately some of the few people who understand what he is talking about have taken the time to rebut him.

Complex specified information is information (defined as loosely as you like but the genetic code is an example) that is complex (i.e. contains a large number of non-regularly order components) and specified (nobody is really clear on what Dembski meant by this). In practise, Dembski provided an “explanatory filter” which he claimed could detect design. It goes something like this:

  1. If an event E has high probability, accept regularity as an explanation; otherwise move to the next step.
  2. If the chance hypothesis assigns E a high probability or E is not specified, then accept chance; otherwise move down the list.
  3. Having eliminated regularity and chance, accept design.

Dembski uses the case of Nicholas Caputo to illustrate his concept of design. Nicholas Caputo was an election official in the USA given the task of allocating the Democrat and Republican names on the ballot sheet. It was well-known that the party at the top of the ballot sheet was more likely to get elected and so there was pressure to allocate places fairly. Despite this, Caputo placed the Democrats (his party) at the top of the sheet in 40 out of 41 elections. Dembski would propose the following “information”:

DDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDRDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD

Where D=Democrat and R=Republican. The idea behind his explanatory filter is nothing “regular” about the pattern and, if selected due to “chance” then each party should be at the top of the ballot approximately 50% of the time. The only conclusion is “design” (Caputo was cheating). Particularly scathing reviews of both the concept of complex specified information and Dembski’s explanatory filter (which, for some reason, he has never actually used to prove that anything is designed…).  A brief synopsis of the problems and links to the critiques can be found on Talk Origins.

No Free Lunch – While complex specified information may have seemed relatively straightforward in principle, this is where we get a little bit more complicated… Computational problems can be solved by setting algorithms to search for possible solutions. This is often described as sending the algorithm out over a hypothetical “landscape” (more correctly termed “phase space” and usually multidimensional rather than three-dimensional) of hills and valleys where the altitude is the “fitness” value (more correctly termed “objective function”) of that particular solution. However, the No Free Lunch (NFL) theorems state that, when averaged across all possible landscapes, the search performed of any two algorithms will be the same. Since a random search is a potential algorithm, no algorithm performs better than random at finding fitness optima.

There are some key reasons why the NFL theorems do not apply to biological evolution:

  • Fitness landscapes are constantly changing during the search
  • Not all fitness landscapes are possible as universal constants constrain their characteristics.

I probably have some of this wrong and, if I have, please tell me! For a far more thorough review, see Talk Origins and all the links from there.

Conclusion

Creationism and its poorly-disguised (and slightly sinister) cousin Intelligent Design are chock-full of poor science and abuses of philosophy. The sheer number (though not the intellectual merit) of creationist arguments may leave you gasping, but never fear as hope is at hand! The Talk Origins website began cataloguing the various creationist arguments many years ago and, while the website is now no longer maintained it still contains the fruits of those labours. Not only is there a comprehensive “Index to Creationist Claims” (www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/list.html) but there are also countless other articles which go into far greater depth on topics related to the evolution/creationism debate. The Index has also recently been published as a book which makes it ideal to carry along to debates and meetings. I’ve got a copy and it’s an absolute gem!

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  1. #1 by Michael on October 28, 2009 - 10:44

    Thankyou for that Marsh. If anyone really wants to see the way YEC is publicly demonstarted as ‘the only scientifically valid truth’ then look at some of Kent Hovind’s videos on YouTube (he is so insane). There is a featured episode on the Infidel Guy show where callers demolish Hovind’s YEC statements (especially a biochemist researching gene therapy form Northern Ireland).
    There is an article in an edited book which I own called “Scientists Confront Intelliegnt Design and Creationism” Petto & Godfrey, eds 2007, WW Norton & Co, ISBN-13: 987-0-393-05090-5.. This edition covrs three major points of the ID and creationist debacle. Part one looks at ID and creationism with papers by Ronald Numbers, Eugeine Scott and John Cole. Part two deals with the Scientific Perspectives with a demolishion job of Dembski’s design proposal by none other than Victor Stenger (He was my work password last month-now that is sad) also featured among other scientists is a missive by G. Brent Darymple and another demolition of Dembski by Wesley Elesberry. The third part looks at understanding science featuring Robert Pennock on the ‘argument from ignorance’ and Norman Johnson on Evolution “Only a theory?”. This edition is n absolute must. I will bring it to the pub on 5th November for you all to stroke it. I hope tht Mike, Marsh and Colin have posted the links to FREE down loadable books on this topic from the National Academies Press website? Which, of course, they must have absitively done. (it is http://www.nap.edu. by the way guys. Free download on the arguments for and against teaching evolution by the National Academy of Scientists education board entitled “Science, Evolution and Creationsim” is a must. It can be downloaded FREE from the site as a PDF (it also has colour pictures in it) or read online – which ever you fancy. For some books you have to register and state which area you work in (always put education). There are a lot of good science and tchnology titles available (some free some very expensive-but worth a gander). If you sign up (like I do) you get e-mailed on new releases. I have used the site since 1999 and it has much improved-believe me. Get on-line and get reading SCIENCE!!!!!!!
    Sorry what was this blog about? I seem to have gone off on one. Sorry.

  2. #2 by Michael on October 28, 2009 - 11:21

    And another thing. All these apologists of ID say that the designer is not known. Well that is odd. If you read their ‘wedge strategy’ penned by Philip Johnson, they are explicit in promoting the Christian God as the scientifically valid creator of the world. (this is odd because, according to gnostic writing at the time of baby Yesuah, the creator of our world was a lower diety and not a very good one (i.e. A stupid distant relative from the boondocks of the heavenly relm) whereas the God of baby Yesuah was from the higher relm of Barbalo (see Bart Erhman- The lost gospel of Judas Iscarriot(2008) and God’s Problem(2006)). So these badgery fcuks are trying to palm off a lower order defunct idiot creator into the school ciriccula instead of evolution. Quite odd, I think you will agree. Sorry for type-o’s but I am using a laptop and I have Homer Simpson Fingers.

(will not be published)