Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Kitchen Sink One of the standard rhetorical tricks used by creationists to persuade people of the legitimacy of their viewpoint is to throw out, in one breath, an enormous volley of alledged challenges to the theory of evolution. Thus, one second they will be making an argument about thermodynamics, then they will switch gears to anthropology, then to genetics, and on and on. The implication is that if the hapless scientist on the other end of this barrage fails to answer even a single point, then the whole theory of evolution comes crashing down.

This is a fact many scientists have learned the hard way upon accepting debate challenges from creationists. A typical paleontologist, for example, will feel less than comfortable discussing topics in thermodynamics, just as a physicist is likely to be uncomfortable discussing genetics. Their creationist opponent can then make it appear that, in fact, no answer exists to the challenges they raise. Worse, among audiences of non-scientists, this can create the illusion that the creationist knows more than the scientist does.

You see, among serious scientists it is generally considered important to know what you are talking about. Creationists do their work unencumbered by such restrictions.

A classic example of this is the following letter to the editor, which I found at The Helena Independent Record, published on March 15 and available here. I reproduce it here in full:

If evolution is such a certainty, then where did the matter for the singularity of the "Big Bang" come from? Why does our solar system defy the law of conservation of angular momentum? If all of our solar system's planets came from the same cloud of orbiting gas, why are they all so different?

Where did all the water on earth come from? How long does it have to rain on a rock before new life forms? Where did the vast amount of information in the nucleus of the first living cell come from? What led scientists to deceive us with the fraudulent "missing links" Java Man, Piltdown Man, and Nebraska Man?

Why do we find human artifacts in coal beds that are supposed to be millions of years old? Why do we find petrified trees spanning supposedly millions of years of sedimentary strata? How did the Mount St. Helens' eruptions create petrified wood in twenty years? Why are there ancient paintings depicting man with dinosaurs? Why have so many people reported seeing live dinosaurs?

Evolution has no answers for these questions, but the Book of Genesis does: "In the beginning, God created . . ."

Mike Carroll

Mr. Carroll probably fancies himself very knowledgeable on matters scientific, but I fear all he has done is to parrot a lot of objections that other creationists have raised. For example, his opening salvo regarding the Big Bang has nothing to do with evolution, which only explains the development of life once it appears, and not where that life came from in the first place.

I very much doubt that Mr. Carroll could give a coherent description of the law of conservation of angular momentum. Suffice it to say that the solar system does not defy this law (if it did, scientists would not talk about such a law). But even if our solar system were so defiant, it would still have no relevance to evolution.

The irrelevant digression into physics continues with the next objection, that our planets are "all so different." Er, different in what sense? The theory that the planets of our solar system coalesced from the same initial cloud of stellar dust does not imply that the planets so formed must be completely identical. The planets are similar in precisely the ways suggested by this hypothesis, for example, in chemical composition and orbital direction.

Next we come to some silliness about where all the water on Earth comes from, which again has nothing to do with evolution. The idea that rain falling on a rock will eventually produce life is nothing but an absurd caricature of research into the origin of life. Somehow I doubt that Mr. Carroll has made any serious effort to understand this particular branch of science. And, at the risk of repeating myself, none of the objections so far have anything to do with evolution.

Then comes the `fraud' charge. Piltdown man was a genuine hoax, perpetrated in 1912 and discovered in the early fifties. The motives behind the hoax had nothing to do with gulling the public into accepting evolution, and had much to do with the personal glory to the discoverers, coupled with some national pride that would accrue to England for having found its own fossil ancestor (something to match the Cro-Magnon fossils of France and the Neadertals of Germany). It survived as long as it did only because modern dating methods were unavailable at that time. And for much of that time, hominid paleontology was not exactly a going concern. Most scientists at the time met Piltodown man with a shrug. The hoax was eventually exposed by evolutionary biologists who increasingly came to see the Piltdown fossils as a square peg in a round hole. Discoveries made after 1912 started to suggest that the Piltdown fossils showed the wrong amalgam of simian and human features.

Nebraska man was not a hoax, simply an overenthusiastic initial diagnosis of what turned out to be part of a pig fossil. The scientist who made this diagnosis retracted it unreservedly when his error was pointed out to him. This all happened in the nineteen twenties, by the way. I am not sure what fossil Mr. Carroll has in mind when he talks about Java Man.

I doubt he's been keeping up with modern developments in paleontology, but there are now over two dozen known species of hominids known from the fossil record. More are discovered almost daily (see my post for March 4, for example). Does Mr. Carroll think all of them are frauds?

And on and on. So much ignorance packed into one letter. As you can see, I have only written the briefest of replies to these objections, but I have already written far more than did Mr. Carroll himself. Even if I did manage to get through all of them, I'm sure he has dozens more to unload next.

Still, we shouldn't let his final comment go unanswered. He claims that the Bible has the answer to the questions he raises, namely that God created everything. What kind of answer is that? How does that explain where all the water on Earth came from, or where the matter of the universe came from? What does God's creative act have to do with supposed differences in planets or the law of conservation of angular momentum? Nothing that was formerly mysterious becomes comprehensible by invoking God.


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