February 4th saw the night anticipated debate between science communicator Bill Nye (‘The Science Guy’) and young-Earth creationist and President of the Creation Museum (which comes replete with men living alongside dinosaurs), Ken Ham. There was/is lot of discussion about the merits of debating creationists and the false sense of legitimacy that comes from giving them a platform. I fall on the side of those that think creationist propaganda musn’t be allowed to go unchecked and that a high profile debate can do just as much to promote science and reason, and, if done right, do something to reach a few more people that might otherwise have closed minds.
A good science education in school, which teaches and develops critical thinking skills, is, of course, infinitely more effective for improving science literacy than a combative debate, but there might be still a few people who followed Nye’s arguments, understood them and perhaps started questioning their beliefs, and that can’t be a bad thing.
The full debate is well worth a watch.
Straight after the debate, a Buzzfeed went up from Matt Stopera who asked some creationists to write a message to the ‘other side’: 22 Messages From Creationists To People Who Believe In Evolution.
I thought it might be fun to see how I might tackle their questions and comments.
1. Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?
Yes. Bill Nye is a great science communicator, and instilling a sense of curiosity, wonder and understanding about the (true nature of) the natural world is one of the most positive things you can do for a child, or anyone for that matter.
2. Are you scared of a devine creator?
That's the same as asking if you're scared of any fictional character. I spent much of my youth having terrifying nightmares about Pinhead from Hellraiser.
3. Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature? (i.e. trees created with rings, Adam created as an adult).
No, it’s not strictly illogical. But it in order to believe that everything came into being fully formed, for which there is no physical evidence, you have to willfully ignore or misunderstand the mountains of actual evidence for the Big Bang and the natural evolution of the universe and life on earth.
4. Does not second law of thermodynamics dispute evolution?
This is a misunderstanding and misapplication of the second law of thermodynamics. I love it/find it sad when people who hold little regard for science try to use science to show why science is wrong.
The second law of thermodynamics states that the amount of disorder (‘entropy’) increases over time in a closed system. Because the universe is a closed system, the total entropy of the universe is always increasing. (As an aside, entropy still the best name for a Facebook album chronicling a night out I have ever seen.)
Creationists think that the law of entropy disproves evolution because evolution suggests increased order, but this is because they misunderstand, or ignore, the part of the law that requires a closed system. As the earth gets a continual supply of energy from the Sun it is not a closed system; order can be generated at a local level, a small part of the system, as long as another part of the system is getting more disordered. Cells create order but they are not in a closed system. The sun provides energy, which drives life on, and evolution earth but, at the same time, in emitting this energy becomes more disordered itself. I can’t remember where I read it this now, but: ‘evolution doesn’t violate the second law of thermodynamics any more than when superglue sticks your fingers together’.
5. How do you explain a sunset if there is no god?
Whilst the sun stays fixed at the center of our solar system, it appears to rise and set because of the earth’s rotation. As the earth rotates on its axis, different areas are exposed to the sun’s light. As the earth rotates towards the east, the sun rises in that direction, as you move away from the light the sun appears to set in the west. I remember a demonstration we did in primary school with a torch and a pingpong ball where it all clicked and my mind was blown.
The wonderful colours that blaze across the sky as the sunsets are due to the way different wavelengths of light are scattered as they pass through the earth’s atmosphere and to our eyes. At sunsets (and sunrises), the light has a longer pathway through the atmosphere. Shorter wavelengths of light (violets and blues) are scattered almost completely, leaving longer wavelengths of light, which we see as oranges and reds, to pass through. Simple physics, not god explains sunsets. I also recently learned that the sky appears blue not just because of the scattering effect if the atmosphere (the Rayleigh effect) but also because our eyes preferentially see blue hues. Apparently the sky is actually more violet in colour.
6. If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories.
They don’t. This is the same question and therefore has the same answer as question 4, although it’s a really oddly formulated question.
7. What about noetics?
I must admit that didn’t have a clue what noetics was before I read this question. Following a quick glance on Wikipedia, I now know that it is “a branch of metaphysical philosophy concerned with the study of mind and intellect.” I did a bit more Googling and Noetics appears to be some pseudoscientific-spiritual take on consciousness that’s big on subjective experience and mind-body dualism. Not sure it has much to do with anything, apart from being an exercise in word soup, if this explanation is anything to go by.
8. Where do you derive an objective meaning to life?
This is a deliberately misleading question that implies that there is in fact an objective meaning to life. In this case, because of the person asking it, I also take the question to mean that 'meaning' can only be derived from the standards set by god and that those that do not believe in god have meaningless live/have nothing to base their morality on.
Life as no purpose or meaning. We give our lives meaning by being creative, productive, happy, social, caring, loving, curious creatures.
9. If god did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance?
Well, sort of, yes; depends what you mean by ‘chance’. My best understanding comes from Adam Rutherford’s rather excellent Creation (which I reviewed here). One of the strongest theories at the moment - the matter is far from resolved - points to proton gradients which naturally occurred in porous underwater rocks near thermal vents under the sea around 3.5(ish) billion years ago. It was in these pores that the conditions were set for the localized order (which creationists so seem to hate) that allowed carbon dioxide and hydrogen to be converted into organic carbon-containing molecules that then formed the basis of things like amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins – and life.
10. I believe in the Big Bang Theory… God said BANG and it happened.
What actually ‘caused’ the Big Bang is one that I had the hardest time answering off the top of my head because I can’t claim to understand even a fraction of the current ideas about infinite potentials in a singularity and quantum energy fluctuations in a vacuum. I have Lawerence Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing and have bumped that up on the reading list.
11. “Why do evolutionists / secularists /humanists / non-God believing people reject the idea of their being a Creator God but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terrestrial sources?”
Total straw man. No right-minded scientist embraces the concept of Intelligent Design from aliens. Panspermia, the idea that the molecules required for life did not originate on earth but arrived here from space on the meteorites, doesn’t require that there are purposeful aliens behind it. This person is thinking of this terrible movie:
12 There is no in between… The only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds of necessary for an ‘official proof’.
This is, I think, referring to the fossil record and is a classic god-of-the-gaps argument. It’s actually quite wrong to say that Lucy is the only fossil that’s been found. Given just how few individuals die in the right place, in the right conditions to be fossilized, and just how little of the earth we have actually excavated, the fossil record human evolution is remarkably complete, even if it is still under constant revision and refinement.
13. “Does metamorphosis help support evolution?”
Yes, and it doesn’t do anything to disprove or challenge evolution, as the question might imply. Metamorphosis is the development process of a single organism as it matures. This is different to evolution, which is the macro development of species over time. A lot of insects undergo metamorphosis, which suggests that it confers a considerable selective advantage. I’ll have to delve a little further into what it might be but, from I can remember from GCSE biology, I think it’s something to do with a division of resources: because the larval form and adult form are so different, they occupy different niches in the environment and don’t have to compete for the same food etc. Whatever the reason for its evolution, metamorphosis has to be one of nature’s coolest inventions.
14. If evolution is a theory (like creationism or the bible) why then is evolution taught as fact.
This is a misunderstanding the word ‘theory’. In lay terms, theory is often used to mean guess or ideas about how something works or hangs together. As a scientific term, a theory is an explanation for a phenomenon that is based on lots of solid, connected evidence. The theory of evolution by natural selection, first proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, is an explanation of the fact (based on billions of pieces of inter-connected evidence from geology, genetics, fossil records etc.) of evolution.
15. Because science by definition is just a ‘theory’ – not testable, observable, nor repeatable’ why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?
Science by definition is not a theory. Science and the scientific method is the way by which we investigate and attempt to understand the world around us, ironically enough, based on principles of observation testability, and repeatability. Not understanding what something is doesn’t make it wrong.
16. What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?
I think this one’s an extension of the entropy argument in question 4. The simplest answer I can think of is that as well as deletion mutations, random mutations can also result in copies of regions of DNA, which would obviously ‘increase genetic information’.
17. What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in Salvation.
See answer to question question 8. Life has no purpose. If fact, I think having no purpose is infinitely more palatable than existing just to appease a god that wants me to worship him despite him/her/it being so absolutely shitty.
18. Why have we only found one ‘Lucy’ when we have found more than one of everything else?
See Question 12.
19. Can you believe in the Big Bang without ‘faith’?
Faith is believing something when you know it ain’t true (Mark Twain, I think). The good thing about science is that you don’t actually have to believe in it for it to be true.
20. How can you look at the world and not believe someone created/thought of it? It’s amazing!!!
I think this one’s called the argument from incredulity. I don’t believe in god or a creator but I find the universe and everything in it amazing too. The natural world and the awe it can inspire sometimes shakes me to my very core and leaves me feeling dizzy. Knowing how bits of it fit together and how and why things work the way they do doesn’t diminish that in the slightest. As with many things, Richard Feynman says it best:
21. Relating to the Big Bang theory … Where did the exploding star come from?
See Question 10. It wasn’t ‘an exploding star’ but an expansion of space and time itself.
22. If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys.
Humans did not evolve from ‘monkeys’; we both evolved from a common ancestor, which makes monkeys (and non-human primates more generally, which I think is implied in the catch-all term ‘monkeys’) our evolutionary relatives; they are our cousins. It’s like a family tree; it branches; it is not just a straight line. Here it is explained by the wonderful Baba Brinkman through the medium of humorous rap:
Part of the problem is, I think, the tendency to see humans as ‘more evolved’ than monkeys, which makes it seem like we are further along in our development. This isn’t the case. Evolution is just a question how well adapted a creature is to its environment, it’s not matter of stages with an end goal. At some point humans developed a level of intelligence that sparked our ability to master the environment in ways that other animals haven’t. That said, flies are going a pretty good job of surviving and they haven’t exactly got the same evolutionary advantages we humans have.
It took me two nights to write this (damn you day job) and I’ve just seen that a few other people have had the same idea. I wrote this before reading the others because I wanted to see just how I would get on in comparison. Adam Rutherford’s response is decidedly more sarcastic, and funnier, than mine; this response on the International Business Times is closer to the approach I took.