Editors Note: On February 12, 2010, I attended a dinner commemorating the 201st birthday of Charles Darwin. This led me to write this article, which is meant to be science for the nonscientist. Note that I use the strawman technique popularized by C.S. Lewis in his fantastical book of Christian apologetics, “Mere Christianity.” Lewis sets up several alternative explanations for something, then shows how the ones he doesn’t like are false, so that the remaining choice, the one he likes, must be true. I found this technique annoying and intellectually dishonest when Lewis used it ... of course when I do it, I like it just fine.

This article brought a flood of reaction, including an incoherent rant from a religious fanatic who regular writes to the newspaper, a sensible response from a spiritual sort who also regularly writes letters to the editor and two scientifically minded letters. The first dealt with the evidence for evolution, the second dealt with the nonsensical criticism that fundamentalists always make that evolution is “just a theory.” I’ve never really met a creationist who knows what the term “theory” means.


Evolutionary Biology for the Nonscientist:
Mistake or Conspiracy?

“... be on guard against giving interpretations of Scripture that are far-fetched or
opposed to science, and so exposing the Word of God to the ridicule of unbelievers.”

 — Saint Augustine

 

You wouldn’t think a dinner marking the birthday of one of history’s greatest scientists would cause anyone to react with disgust. Yet, in a country where half the population rejects the basic tenets of biology, Charles Darwin is often viewed with contempt.

When I wrote that evolution is “an established fact” (echoing a 1996 statement from Pope John Paul II), one fundamentalist friend challenged me to debate evolution vs. creationism. I declined, because, when it comes to religion, it’s better to argue with strangers than friends. And this certainly would have been a religious argument.

A debate on evolutionary biology between an English teacher and a self-described evangelist is ridiculous anyway. We’re as qualified for such a discussion as two pastry chefs who can’t do the math arguing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Because she’d once taken a creationism course from Ken Ham — a religious fanatic considered a quack and a hack by the scientific community — my friend claimed she was qualified and demanded to know why, if I “can’t do the math,” I’m convinced evolution is fact and creationism isn’t. This is actually a valid point that merits an answer.

As a nonscientist, I can’t and won’t argue the science. I leave that to evolutionary biologists, like Richard Dawkins. Like most people, I believe the Earth goes around the sun, but I don’t think I could prove it. Nonetheless, I believe in heliocentrism and evolution, and consider creationism nonsense, for reasons that don’t involve faith.

Evolution has been the prevailing scientific wisdom worldwide for more than 100 years. Every major university — from MIT, Yale and Stanford to Oxford and the University of Tokyo — teaches it as the sole rational explanation for the development of life on Earth.

Listening to the televangelists, you’d think evolution vs. creationism is being vigorously debated by the scientific community, but, at places like Caltech and Princeton, this isn’t happening, because the issue was settled many decades ago. The mechanics of evolution are being investigated, but creationism isn’t even part of the discussion, because it isn’t science, it’s primitive religious dogma.

“Creation science” is propounded only at fundamentalist Christian (and Muslim) schools. From such institutions, peer-reviewed biological research is absent, because creationism is a dead-end of scriptural mythology, without data. Christian colleges also teach the Noah’s Ark tale as literal history, and their psychology departments view demon spirits as causes of mental illness — beliefs also not taken seriously by serious researchers.

Almost all creationism advocates are fundamentalist Christians. Few, if any, prominent or credible nonfundamentalist scholars deny evolution or support creationism. The impetus behind creation science is religious, rather than scientific — faith, not facts.

Young Earth Creationists believe that Genesis mandates the universe must be between 6,000 and 7,000 years old. If this is true, almost all modern science, including geology, astronomy, anthropology and paleontology, is wrong, because these disciplines are contradicted by scripture. So, what do fundamentalists believe about the scientific establishment, which, according to a 2009 Pew Research poll, supports evolution by a margin of 97% to 3%? I’ve asked creationists, and there are only two answers.

Some believe the 97% of scientists who believe in evolution are simply wrong. This includes the astronomers and cosmologists, who estimate the ages of stars in the billions of years; the paleontologists, who use carbon dating developed by equally mistaken physicists to analyze the age of fossils; the anthropologists, who trace mankind’s development; and the geneticists, who map DNA from primitive life-forms to today’s human genome. It’s hard to imagine that nearly every scientist in every field is mistaken.

Others think scientists know evolution is a lie, but are conducting a massive cover-up that crosses all the major disciplines. This conspiracy, aimed at destroying people’s faith, includes atheistic evolutionary biologists, as well as the marine biologists, who are lying about the age of coral deposits that took millions of years to form Pacific atolls, and the misguided and/or satanic geologists who’ve determined that it took millions of years for the Colorado River to carve out the Grand Canyon. Such a widespread plot, in fields in which a scientist could gain instant fame by convincingly disproving evolution, is ludicrous.

Just one science example to back up my point: Astronomers observe stars billions of light years away. A light year is the distance light travels in one year; hence, the light from these stars must have traveled for billions of years to be visible here on Earth. Are astronomers lying about the distances to these stars or have the physicists, such as Einstein, knowingly lied about the speed of light, just to make the Young Earth Creationists look dumb?

The choice is between the overwhelming majority of the scientific community and the creation scientists, who also believe Noah’s homemade boat once held two each of the millions of animal species now living. And, by the way, how did the koala bears swim from Australia to the Ark and then back again?

I’m not ready to jettison Einstein, Darwin and natural law in favor of mythologies written by primitives just out of the Bronze Age. It’s not that evolution should be taught in the public schools just because it’s been so completely established as scientific fact. It’s also that the alternative proposed by its opponents is so totally and embarrassingly absurd.


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