Creationist Claims Examined
It is accepted among well-educated Americans that our country’s staggeringly high rate of disbelief in evolution is a national shame. But how many of us have really examined the specious claims of creationism?
First, a few statistics. A 2006 survey of public acceptance of evolution in 34 countries (32 European countries, the U.S., and Japan) ranked America 33rd, beating out only Turkey. Gallup polls conducted between 1982 and 2004 generally found that about 45% of Americans believed in Young Earth Creationism and 38% believed in “theistic evolution” (evolution guided by God). The percentage believing in “naturalistic evolution” increased from 9% to 13% over the course of those 22 years; this is roughly equivalent to the number of Americans who don’t believe in a personal god or don’t have a religion. Polls from 1999 and 2005 showed clear majorities in favor of teaching creationism alongside evolution in public schools, and another poll showed that about one third of primary and secondary school teachers resist or avoid teaching evolution.
Although it would make no sense for Congress to vote on whether the theory of evolution (or calculus, or the scientific method) is true, a sensitive issue about which people feel so fervently is surely to find its expression in the political arena. The area of government in which it makes the most sense to have this debate is education, and indeed public schools have been the venue for evolution-creationism disputes since at least the Scopes trial. I myself have no doubt that evolution should be taught in public schools and creationism and Intelligent Design should be kept out, and most of my acquaintances feel the same way. This is dangerous. A surfeit of unanimity among a subpopulation on a certain subject can leave members vulnerable when venturing into the outside world, where they might find their beliefs on that subject questioned for the first time by opponents, perhaps eloquent ones.
Accordingly, I will here examine some creationist arguments, as found in educational materials made available by the Creation Museum, located just over the Kentucky-Ohio border from Cincinnati. The museum is funded by the Answers in Genesis Foundation, a leading voice in conservative creationism, which also publishes a creationist textbook called the New Answers Book (available online). The textbook is very comprehensive, with chapter titles ranging from “Can Catastrophic Plate Tectonics Explain Flood Geology?” to “Is There Really a God?” That comprehensiveness, combined with its strong advocacy of fundamentalist Young Earth creationism, makes the New Answers Book a very useful resource for anyone who has ever wondered, for example, how creationists respond to Richard Dawkins, or how they discredit the evidence radiometric dating provides about the Earth’s age.
The first step in teaching or advocating creationism is often attempting to break the link between evolution and the body of scientific knowledge in general. This is necessary, or at least helpful, because creationism can make little progress by rejecting science as a whole. Children being taught science in public schools are surrounded by artifacts of scientific progress, from microwaves to airplanes. Therefore, creationists attempt to draw a distinction between the branch of science that includes evolution and the branches that produce, for example, consumer electronics. The New Answers Book separates out evolution as follows: “The science that addresses such issues is known as historical or origins science, and it differs from the operational science that gives us computers, inexpensive food, space exploration, electricity, and the like. Origins science deals with the past, which is not accessible to direct experimentation, whereas operational science deals with how the world works in the here and now, which, of course, is open to repeatable experiments.” A quick Google search for these two terms, “origins science” and “operational science,” reveals that they are used almost exclusively by advocates of creationism. This distinction belongs not to science, but to those seeking to discredit certain branches of science. The New Answers Book goes on to argue that, since “origins science” attempts to reconstruct past events to which there were no eyewitnesses, it is inherently more open to debate than “operational science.”
Another way to separate evolution from solid, tangible science is to focus on the word “theory,” which has different meanings in technical and colloquial speech, in order to suggest that the process of evolution is unproven or tentatively defined. In everyday life “theory” can mean “educated guess” or “untested explanation,” but in science it is reserved for “logically consistent statements about Nature that have withstood multiple empirical tests,” according to one definition in the journal Evolution. As an example of the conflation of these uses, a disclaimer pasted into Alabama science textbooks reads in part, “No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as theory, not fact.” This is clearly a colloquial rather than a scientific use of “theory” and “fact,” since it is no part of science that something must be personally witnessed by a human being in order to be fact.
The next step for creationists is to bring up objections to the theory of evolution, at least as it is commonly understood. Like almost all creationist organizations, Answers in Genesis is forced to admit that microevolution, evolution on a small enough scale to be recorded over the course of human history, does exist. However, the New Answers Book distinguishes microevolution from macroevolution and claims that microevolution consists only of the removal or alteration of existing genetic information. A diagram of the evolution of collies and poodles from wolves is meant to illustrate this kind of descent through loss of information.
Apparently the Answers in Genesis folks don’t think increasing cuteness is caused by an increase in information.
In support of this assertion, the New Answers Book quotes Werner Gitt, a professor (and creationism advocate) at the German Federal Institute of Physics and Technology: “[M]utations can only cause changes in existing information. There can be no increase in information, and in general the results are injurious.” Of course, this “in general” manages to disguise the rare but vital cases where mutations are not injurious. If these cases are elided, as they are in the New Answers Book, it appears that evolution can lead only to minor modifications and the removal or incapacitation of genetic traits, rather than their addition.
The next creationist argument advanced in the New Answers Book is slightly more abstract. It uses the example of a professor who takes all the letters of the Roman alphabet and places them into a hat. Three students then draw letters at random, and there is a chance that their letters will spell a word such as “bat.” But, the book notes, it is not merely that a random combination of letters produced a word in this case; “bat” is only a word to us because we speak English. Without the machinery of language, the three letters would be meaningless. “In the DNA of a cell, the order of its molecules is also meaningless, except that in the biochemistry of a cell, there is a language system (other molecules) that makes the order meaningful,” continues the book. The conclusion is that evolution may be sufficient to recombine the elements of DNA (although it cannot add any new letters), but the cellular machinery that translates DNA into proteins is necessary to even have a language. Since neither the cellular machinery nor the DNA could have existed without the other, the argument goes, they must have been created simultaneously rather than having evolved separately. At the very least, this argument attempts to lead the student into acceptance of divine creation of cellular machinery, even if evolution does have an effect on the language of DNA(1).
In the chapter entitled “Hasn’t Evolution Been Proven True?”, the New Answers Book turns to the fossil record and finds it lacking. Using the old “missing link” argument, it claims that the intermediate forms evolution should have produced are not attested: “this evolutionary account of one kind of life-form changing into another kind is not recorded in the fossils. There are many instances where variations within a kind are found (for example, different varieties of elephant or dinosaur) but there are no examples of in-between kinds.” A few paragraphs later, the book states more definitively, “The fossil record does not show the continuous development of one kind of creature into another, but it shows different kinds of creatures that are fully functional with no ancestors or descendants which are different kinds of creatures.” The phrase “fully functional” here is important, because the book appears to be differentiating between functional “variations within a kind” and defective “in-between kinds.” If the criterion to be applied to determine whether an animal is a variation or an in-between kind is functionality, in-between kinds will be extremely difficult to find for the simple reason that functional animals are much more common. Believers in evolution, of course, would reply that there is no reason why “in-between kinds” would not be “fully functional.” Nevertheless, on the surface, the absence of such broken in-between animals could appear convincing.
The final creationist stratagem I will examine here is an extremely prevalent one: the conflation of evolution with chance or accident. Evolution, of course, includes an element of chance at the level of mutations, but the other mechanisms of evolution—natural selection, mate choice—work precisely on the basis that they are not accidents. It is mostly in passing that this distinction is ignored. For example, when the New Answers Book argues that science is inconsistent without belief in God, it asks, “But if the universe were merely a chance accident, then why should logical reasoning be possible? If my brain is merely the product of mutations (guided only by natural selection), then why should I think that it can determine what is true?” Ignoring the actual claim here, let us note the equation of “chance accident” with “mutations (guided only by natural selection).” Elsewhere in the New Answers Book this equation is even more blatant, as where the book mentions that the amount of information contained in the human genome is at least equivalent to a few thousand books. It asks, “Where did this information come from? Chance does not generate information.” This is true. Likewise, if you flipped 50 coins, you would not expect to end up with all heads. However, if you kept the coins that landed heads up and threw away the rest, that is exactly what you would expect to end up with. This is known as selection.
There are a number of other interesting tidbits in the New Answers Book—see if you can find the part where they consider and reject the hypothesis that Jesus lived and died on other planets too in order to save aliens’ souls—but I think this should serve well as an introduction to the sorts of claims creationists make. Most of these claims, such as the arguments that mutations cannot produce information and that DNA and cellular machinery could not have co-evolved, are based on simple misconstructions of evolutionary theory and factual errors. Others, such as the supposed lack of “in-between kinds,” are based on faulty definitions. And still more, like the conflation of colloquial and scientific definitions of “theory” and the equation of evolution with chance, are misleading word games. Much as we all may dismiss opposition to evolution as unfounded and unworthy of serious debate, until the general public feels the same way it will be useful to expose ourselves to these kinds of arguments.
Questions for commenters: What trends do you think we’ll see in belief in evolution in America over the next few decades? Do you have any thoughts on the chapters of the New Answers Book I didn’t discuss?
(1) My purpose here is just to explain these claims and add a few notes, not to refute them. I am sure Dawkins has explained why the cellular-machinery-as-language argument is wrong somewhere. My own best guess would be that DNA and the cellular machinery that expresses it just evolved together. Does anyone want to provide a more accurate or detailed explanation in the comments?
Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.