Friday, June 29, 2007

Creating Excuses

I’ve been reading a lot of other blogs and postings lately regarding the theory of evolution vs. creationism/intelligent design. Anyone who’s read my archives knows my feelings on the matter. However, I’ve finally found a way to articulate the difference between the THEORY of evolution, and the NOTION of creationism.

To develop the theory of evolution, scientists looked at the facts available, and tried to imagine an explanation that would cover them.

To develop the notion of intelligent design, theists determined that a Creator was responsible for the world around them, and then identified specific facts and arguments that supported it.

That’s it. And to me, it explains so much. For instance, a lot of the IDer arguments against evolution hinge on holes in the research – gaps in the fossil record, lack of a detailed chain of alterations for a complicated survival mechanism, and so forth. The concept that a hole in the research might later be filled by new research is lost on them – to a creationist, a failure to completely explain every detail is a failure of the theory as a whole. From their viewpoint, and with their base assumptions, this might even be reasonable. After all, their theory DOES explain every detail – God did it. (For IDers, an unnamed Creator did it.)

Of course, that attitude causes the other major disconnect that leads to long useless arguments between the two sides. Creationists can ignore or minimize the importance of any contrary evidence by again turning to God. This leads me to another conclusion:

A valid test of the intellectual honesty of a person or position is to ask what it would take to prove them wrong.

For a scientist, the answer is easy – provide convincing data that contradicts the established theory. Such events have occurred in the past – the terra-centric view of the Solar System gave way to the helio-centric. The theory of a solid Earth was supplanted by plate tectonics. Newtonian physics has been replaced by Einsteinian physics, and further refined by even more esoteric theories. I note that in many cases, individual scientists failed to adapt their beliefs to new theories, but as they retired or died, the newer theories have become generally accepted as experimental or other evidence provided support. This is true of evolution, as well. The basic concepts from Darwin’s The Origin of Species have been refined over time as scientists have gained a better understanding of the mechanics of evolution.

But what would it take to prove a creationist wrong? I have yet to find any evidence, no matter how overwhelming, that can shake the faith of a committed theist. For example, the Creation Museum and its parent organization, Answers in Genesis, make the claim that hundreds of feet of rock in multiple layers were all deposited during the Great Flood. (Examples: chalk cliffs and rock and fossils.) The fact that some of those layers are igneous or metamorphic, surrounded by multiple layers of sedimentary, is conveniently ignored in favor of the idea that it all came about as a result of the Flood.

The evidence of species changing as a result of selection is fairly obvious in domesticated animals – for example, the Chihuahua and the St. Bernard. But, creationists reply, that’s merely MICRO-evolution. They haven’t completely differentiated into new species yet, because they can still interbreed! (Mind you, those puppies are unlikely to be born alive, but mere fertilization qualifies them as the same species.) Of course, the idea that such micro-evolution could eventually lead to actual species differentiation is considered absurd – there is apparently a barrier between species that cannot be broken, no matter how different the breeds become.

Other creationists cry out, “If life can form independently, then why can’t that be replicated in the lab? You can’t take a beaker of chemicals, swirl them around, and have a microbe or a virus appear…so it couldn’t have happened!” In this, they ignore the wonders of small odds vs. large numbers. We’ve been trying such things for a few years – maybe even a few decades – in some small number of labs, in some relatively small number of beakers. The universe provided a large, possibly infinite number of planets, and several billion years for a result to occur – and so far, we only have evidence that it happened once. That’s even worse than lottery odds…and yet, sooner or later, SOMEONE always ends up taking home the jackpot. But let’s take their side for a moment – does that mean that if we do at some point manage to create life in the lab, they’ll shut up?

It turns out that scientists at the University of New York at Stony Brook did just that. In July 2002. That’s five years ago. Any signs of the creationists shutting up? Well, that Creation Museum just opened this year – I’d take that as a “no.”

So…what will it take to get a creationist to admit he’s wrong?