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Jeffrey Martz
Poncha Springs CO USA

This is a blog about paleontology (the study of the history of life on Earth through the fossil record) with an emphasis on vertebrate paleontology, the study of extinct vertebrates (animals with backbones). The methodology and findings of paleontology will be discussed, as well as related issues such as evolutionary theory. The blogger is a vertebrate paleontologist specializing in the Triassic Period, the Beginning of the Age of Dinosaurs.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sorry for the long delay since my last post; I've been hella busy.  This post is going to be a long one.

I promised that we would talk about phylogenetic systematics (the method that most modern paleontologists use to determine the evolutionary relationships of organisms, as well as name groups of species).  However, phylogenetic systematics is structured around evolution and common descent (unlike Linnean taxonomy, which was invented by a creationist, even though it illustrates evolution quite nicely; we’ll get back to that later).  Therefore, it makes sense to talk about evolution before getting into phylogenetic systematics.

This first blog in the evolution series is really about creationism, and SOME of the reasons why the vast majority of paleontologists and biologists do not consider it a viable alternative to evolution as a way of explaining life in the modern world and the fossil record…or even a type of science.  Other aspects of the scientific rejection of creationism are discussed in great detail by AronRa in his marvelous series of YouTube videos on “the Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism”.

It should be admitted at the outset that I am a non-believer; however, my reasons for not believing in God have little to do with evolution.  If you really want to know, I discuss those views herehere, here (beware, PaleoErrata was my blog for venting and swearing) but I will not be advocating atheism/agnosticism in this blog, and I do not plan on having further philosophical discussions about religion here unless it is neccessary to address a particular creationist misrepresentation of evolution.  However, as creationism is driven almost exclusively by religious concerns, it is hard to discuss why scientists reject it without discussing religion.  Although it may seem at first that I am advocating atheism, that isn’t really where the following discussion is going, so bear with me.

The first thing we need to do is explain what the terms “creationism” and “evolution” mean, and how they differ.  Both concepts attempt to explain where living and extinct organisms came from, and why they possess the genetic and anatomical traits that they do.  Most importantly, both attempt to explain why organisms possess often complicated anatomical traits which clearly DO something that allows organisms to exist and reproduce.  For example, eyes clearly exist because they help organisms see (which in turn helps them survive)…but how did these structures originate?  Human eyes are complicated structures which possess several components (an iris, lens, retina) which work together to allow vision to occur.  How does such “specified complexity” (to borrow a modern creationist term) come about?

Modern evolutionary theory claims that organisms and their anatomical traits are descended from different organisms with different anatomical traits, with the changes between them taking place gradually over the course of many generations.  Evolutionary theory also claims that all organisms have common ancestors, the same way that you, your siblings, and cousins do (you are more closely related to your siblings because you have more recent common ancestors, your parents, but if you go back more generations you start sharing ancestors with your cousins as well; the same is true of all living and extinct species).  Evolutionary theory also claims that “specified complexity”, or biological traits which have a clear function related to survival and reproduction, develop through a process called natural selection.  We will discuss natural selection in the next post (probably), but an important point to make now is that it is based on real-life observations about modern plants and animals.  Mainstream evolutionary theory is materialistic; which is to say, it relies on real-world processes consistent with the laws of physics and chemistry, and having nothing to do with the supernatural.

In contrast, creationism is the belief that extinct and living organisms were deliberately designed and created more or less in the form we see today by some kind of intelligent being, and that different types of organisms were created independently from each other.  There is an important ramification to this: it means that the first individual of any type of organism that ever lived was created by an intelligent designer instead of by another organism.  For example, cats today are made by other cats using sexual reproduction.  I think that everyone agrees with this.  However, the very first cat was not created by another cat, or by anything even similar to a cat: it was created from scratch by an intelligent being.  The same is true of the first lizards, horses, frogs, and (of course) humans.

However, creationism does not ever (as far as I know) try to explain exactly HOW the creative process takes place…were cats designed using some kind of software program?  Were they assembled using welding torches?  Legos? Bricks?  Creationists are always vague on the details, and they don’t really seem to care (an odd point, since they make a habit out of trying to nit pick details of evolutionary theory).  When they do bother to explain how creationism works, they do it using a single vague, all encompassing answer: MAGIC.

Of course, they don’t CALL it magic, they call it the “supernatural”, which is a more respectable sounding word for the same thing.  “Supernatural” and “magic” are words which describe a process operating outside of known natural laws of physics and chemistry…which is another way of saying that we don’t know HOW it works.  Magic also has no limitations.  According to creationists honest about their religious motives (nearly all are Christians and Muslims who believe the intelligent designer is Jehovah or Allah), God is all-powerful and can do anything. 

Magic can therefore explain anything without explaining anything. 

There are a variety of reasons why scientists do not consider creationism to be science, but one of the most important is that science is an attempt to explain how the natural world operates by using facts to develop explanations for how things work.  In contrast, creationism doesn’t actually try to explain ANYTHING.  Creationism spends pretty much all of its time arguing that evolution can’t work (usually by lying about what evolutionary theory actually says), and then assuming that an intelligent designer (using methods which are unspecified or magical) must have done it instead.  That’s all there is to it.  No deeper understanding or details are presented…about anything.

There is an important point to make before we go on.  Although scientists tend to include a disproportionate number of non-believers, there are many scientists who continue to believe in God.  It is dishonest to claim (as creationists often do) that you cannot accept evolution and believe in God at the same time.  Such scientists tend to argue that the non-magical, materialistic world we see around us was created and set in motion by God, and that the natural processes which play out are part of the plan.  Therefore, the question is not WHETHER God creates, but HOW.  Does he use magic, or some kind of materialistic process?

Well, let’s start by taking a look at the modern world.  How does it operate?  As far as we can tell, mostly through materialistic natural laws and processes.  One may argue about whether or not supernatural miracles occur, but it is hard to deny that non-supernatural materialistic events are a more common part of our day to day routine.  So are complicated and apparently senseless events which, although non-supernatural and materialistic, drive us through our lives.  Let’s say that I trip on a curb one day and break my ankle, get taken to the hospital, meet a woman who turns out to be the love of my life, get married, go to Indonesia on a honeymoon, and get swept away and killed in a tsunami…causing my heartbroken widow to devote her life to natural disaster relief.  Many (perhaps even the majority) of believers would have no problem arguing that this complex series of non-magical events are part of God’s plan, possibly with the ultimate goal of my broken ankle being to get my widow to get involved with disaster relief (or getting me into hell, I don’t know).  As a non-believer, I think that is nonsense…but whatever.  The important point is that the idea of God working through materialistic processes is not alien or hostile to religion.  If believers can look at the messy and sometimes senselessly cruel materialistic modern world and see evidence of God’s design, why freak out at the suggestion that things worked the same in the past?

How about the creation of living things?  Although creationists often claim to have been created by God, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest they were created by humans (their parents), who were created by still other humans, all using a messy materialistic biological process.  We sometimes also see mutations occur in living things, small and apparently senseless changes in the genetic code which result in organisms expressing slightly different anatomic traits then their parents.  When these mutations occur in animals, humans can use breeding to produce slightly different types of animals (again, we’ll talk about this more in the next post), and mutations have also been observed to cause changes in wild populations.  When God (if He exists) creates life and new kinds of life, He does so using biological reproduction and mutation.

You know what we have never, ever seen?  A baby or a new breed of animal or plant magically pop into existence out of nowhere through Intelligent Design.  Evolution 1, Creationism 0.

In trying to understand what may have happened in the past, let’s start with what we can actually observe today.  After all, creationism offers no alternative except to throw up our hands and surrender to an explanation based literally on ignorance.

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Blog Comments

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Reading this post reminds me of a couple of early experiences I had with creationist whack-a-loonery.  You've inspired me to write something about that when I get a free moment.

Mike Taylor

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"Although creationists often claim to have been created by God, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest they were created by humans (their parents), who were created by still other humans, all using a messy materialistic biological process."

Silly Jeff, that's not where babies come from!  We know that because in the Bible (Psalm 139:15), David wrote "My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth".  From this, we can tell that God constructs babies in underground caverns -- presumably implanting them subsequently in wombs.

... OR this is a poetic description rather than a literal one.

... But wait!  Does that mean that Genesis 1 might also be a poetic description?

You know, I think it just might!

 


Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Hey Mike, send me an email about what messed up and I'd be glad to kick the server in the pants for you.


Suzy
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Interesting article. I honestly never read about or ever wanted to know what creationists believe. I was vaguely aware but it was enough to know that I didn't care to hear the whole story. But I can understand that as someone who studies evolution, it is important to know other theories out there, no matter how far fetched.

This was interesting for me. I'm looking forward to more of this series.

And of course everyone here knows I believe in God- I've mentioned it more than once. But my concept of God is not the same as the rest of societies concept and has no conflict with science at all.


Jeffrey Martz
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Mike,

I've always had a hard time buying that Genesis was originally INTENDED to be allegorical or poetical instead of literal, for two reasons:

1. It implies a remarkable lack of curiosity on the part of the ancient Hebrews.  People are naturally curious about where stuff comes from, and if Genesis was allegorical, it means that they didn't HAVE a literal story to explain where stuff comes from...which seems odd.  I always envision a conversation between an ancient Hebrew and his daughter as he tucks her in at bedtime:

"Daddy, where did the world come from?"

"Well, sweetheart, it was created by Yahweh over the course of six days.  He made the waters, then light to divide night and day, then the dry land, then plants, stars, the Sun and the Moon, then animals, then human beings, making man first and then woman later out of his rib.  On the seventh day, he rested."

"Really?"

"No, it's just a story."

"So what REALLY happened?"

"Who cares?  One day science will figure it out.  Go to sleep."

2. There are still millions of people today, including some surprisingly intelligent and educated people, who STILL belieive the story to be literally true today...in spite of the mountain of modern evidence to the contary.  So why SHOULDN'T the ancient Hebrews have believed it?  Even the best educated of the time had no reason not to.

Mike Taylor

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"I've always had a hard time buying that Genesis was originally INTENDED to be allegorical or poetical instead of literal."

I don't see how else it could be.  What fundamentalists on both sides of this argument ofter overlook is that there is simply no way to interpret those early chapters of Genesis literally.  You don't need to bring a modern understanding of science to the party to see this, it's right there in the text. To pick one obvious example, in Genesis 2:17, God says "You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die"; then in Genesis 3:6, they eat it; and they do not die.  Verses 16 to the end describe the consequences, and dying is not among them.  So whatever was meant by "you will certainly die", it was not literal.  And the earliest readers of the text would have understood that.

Or going back yet further, the Sun is made on the fourth day, after the light, the sky and land, and the plants.  Now speaking as scientists we know that plants cannot have existed before the sun (and by the way I have a hard time believing in any kind of agrarian society that hasn't figured out that plants need sunlight).  But that's not the point.  The point is that the meaning of the word "day" is the time it takes the Earth to rotate on its axis with respect to the Sun.  A pre-scientific society would of course have thought that the Sun was going around the Earth rather than vice versa, but that is detail: the point is that the word "day" is defined by the sun, so there is no literal meaning for those first three days.

In the kindest sense, those early chapters are "not even wrong" when considered as science.  In fact, I'd call them not even not even wrong -- they simply are not trying to answer that kind of question, and the very language of the passages makes that clear.

Don't worry, this still leaves plenty for you and me to disagree about :-)  I think that those early chapters of Genesis have a lot to teach us, just not about science, whereas you no doubt think they are completely valueless.  I'm certainly not trying to make out that we have no point of conflict here!  But whatever those chapters are, they are not a scientific account and were never intended to be.


Suzy
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Hi Mike,

I think you forget that the bible of today is a translation and that the original meaning of many of the passages were most likely much different than what they are now.

For example, when it says "you will certainly die" perhaps the original said something else that was interpreted into these words. It could have said something more along the lines of 'your soul will be lost' or 'the spirit will separate from its source' - I don't know, I'm making that up. But I think it is possible that the translation is not right. I wouldn't get caught up in the exact words.

Perhaps in the second example you mention, maybe it didn't say "day". Maybe day was inserted as a metaphor for something else.

So while there are people who take the bible very literally today, unfortunately, the translation as well as editing by the early church that occurred makes it difficult to read it today and correlate it with what people may have read 2000 years ago.

I can imagine that during ancient times, most of the time was spent surviving and making a living and there wasn't a lot of time for sitting around and pondering the origins of earth and plants and people.  People were aware of other spiritual belief systems, such as pagans and belief in multiple gods, so they had to be aware of alternative explanations for how things work and where things came from. But it was all still supernatural.

I think.


Suzy
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I have a good friend, a molecular biologist and very smart person, who believes the bible is correct word for word. When I tell her that the bible is not what it was and that the early catholic church cut things out that they didn't want people to read- like the passages about reincarnation and women's roles, she doesn't care.

She says that even if it were edited and changed, it would be under the divine guidance of god and that any changes that people made were divinely inspired and so they are correct.

It's fine, that's what she wants to believe and it makes her happy. I don't debate it with her.

But yeah a lot of people do take the bible literally - and look to it for answers. Even some scientists.


Alchemystress
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Can't wait for the next part in the series. Good Post

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