Will creationists ever evolve?

I remember a time when science was cool. So does my brother Jim, who fifty years ago attended the World’s Fair in New York City (I was too young to attend). NPR had a story on it today. It included predictions by the late Isaac Asimov on what 2014 would be like, most of which were wrong.

Heck, back in the 1960s not only was science cool, but engineering was cool. We were building computers and rockets to the moon and beyond. Being the school nerd wasn’t wrong. A lot of people looked up to you. The nerds may have not attracted the hottest women, but they had the best job prospects. Back in the 1960s, evolution was widely accepted too, even by most southern Baptists. They mostly just shrugged at their cognitive dissonance, like most religious people do about all sorts of things, like their duty to help the poor while cutting their food stamps.

What went wrong? Now it’s seems to be cool to be ignorant. Perhaps I am being too kind. If you are ignorant, it means you just haven’t been informed yet about a truth. Today lots of people are informed, but dismiss truth. Evolution is a perfect example. Despite irrefutable evidence, evolution conflicts with their bizarre interpretation of the Bible, so they won’t believe it. Evolution is just a theory, they are told, and any theory can be wrong. And God’s holy word must be right. Therefore evolution is wrong.

It’s true that God doesn’t say in the Bible anything specific about the year the earth was created. But by reading the Bible backwards many of these self-professed Biblical scholars think they have figured it all out. Call it 6,000 years plus or minus a few. Of course even within these devout scholars there is a lot of disagreement on the date. Archbishop James Ussher puts the start of the world at 4004 B.C. Julius Africanus in 240 C.E. put it at 5501 B.C. A. Helwigius thinks the earth was created in 3836 B.C. Considering all the holy wars we’ve had it’s curious we haven’t had this one yet.

In any event, in just seven days, creationists believe Almighty God put it altogether. He did a masterful job of it, because who but the Almighty could possibly befuddle us with so many clues that prove just the opposite: that the earth and our universe is unimaginably old. Our planet is roughly 4.54 billion years old. The universe itself is 13.798±0.037 billion years old, which means the universe went through nearly two thirds of its life before our planet formed from the detritus of star stuff.

If you are a creationist though, you have to believe crazy stuff. Like Almighty God has a sense of humor because he left all these dated fossils around which through the science of carbon dating indicates many are millions or hundreds of millions of years old. The further you go back in time the less evolved similar species appear. Almighty God is the ultimate practical jokester but he’s doing it for a good reason: he is testing our faith. I guess to actually move mountains you first have to believe the ridiculous. Curiously not even Jesus moved any mountains. I guess he was distracted. In fact, none of our holy men seem to have these sorts of powers. The best they can claim are some highly disputed events that appear miraculous. Many of us are left to conclude those reputed weeping statues of Mary that irregularly produce tears have a lot more to do with condensation than miracles. This is the best the Lord has got?

I’ll grant you that there is plenty about science that we don’t know yet. Few scientists will state conclusions without qualifications of some sort. But as far as evolution is concerned, it’s definitely not a matter of opinion. It happens all around us every day. What is different in the last few centuries is that a lot of evolution is manmade. For there are two types of evolution: natural evolution and deliberate evolution. Natural evolution, or natural selection as Charles Darwin coined it, is what happens naturally over time. Tiny chromosomal changes are introduced randomly, and some of these changes make some within a species better adapted to the current environment. These species tend to thrive. If the earth were just 6,000 years old then we would not notice a whole lot of natural selection. But over 4.54 billion years there is plenty of time for these changes to work themselves out.

Deliberate evolution is perhaps better called unnatural selection. It happens when man decides to speed up an evolutionary process. We do this for many reasons, but mainly because the nature we have is not quite the one we want. The agricultural company Monsanto is in the evolution business. It works to selectively create new versions of crops that give their new crops advantages over other crops: higher nutrition, perhaps, or more resistance to predators. Mankind has practiced unnatural selection for a long time, long before Darwin coined the term natural selection.

There is not a species of dog today that did not evolve unnaturally, unless you count the wolf, their common ancestor. We preferred the gentler wolf as a companion and nurtured those that could adapt to us, and showed disfavor or indifference to the rest. Over time we bred all sorts of dogs into breeds with different characteristics and temperaments. We can pretty much select the dog best suited to us now. Ten thousand years ago we had no such choices. God had nothing to do with all the variants of dogs around us except perhaps inventing the wolf.

We evolve nature all the time, often not very intelligently. New antibiotics often breed resistant strains of bacteria. Using bug killers often unnaturally selects bugs that can resist these sprays. We breed cats, horses, all sorts of pets and plants. We created the mule: the sterile creation of mating a horse with a donkey. All sorts of species are evolving indirectly due to our impact on the environment. Many are going extinct as we take over their habitat. Due to climate change it looks like the polar bear will soon be one of them. As we throw toxins and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, some are better adapted to these changes and will thrive, or at least not decline as fast as other species. We are evolving our world at a pace probably never experienced naturally on our planet before.

So evolution is not some abstract theory. It is all around us and it happens continuously. Much of it is created directly or indirectly by our presence, but much of it still natural. You too can practice evolution. I practiced it by getting a vasectomy after having one child, thus indirectly showing preference for non-Caucasians. You can become a molecular biologist and work for Monsanto and practice evolution by inventing tastier tomatoes. Or you can get credentials in in vitro fertilization and create some cloned animals or perhaps a new species. Or you can just spray some Black Flag around your kitchen.

So let’s call a spade a spade. Everyone is free to believe whatever he or she wants. But those who believe that the earth was created in seven days some six thousand years ago are either simple incurious and ignorant people or, much worse, ignoramuses. One wonders why they don’t try to walk through walls. For to deny that evolution is real when it is something you can do yourself is, well, nuts. And if you can do it, surely Almighty God can, and did.

The Angst of Evolution

Another day, another article in the Washington Post on the seemingly never ending evolution controversy. This latest article is more about the controversy in Cobb County, Georgia, whose school board is insisting that biology textbooks that discuss evolution have a prominent sticker on it that says evolution is a theory and not a fact.

Regular readers know that I have discussed evolution before. I will not beat the God vs. Evolution meme to death again, except to point out once again that there are two definitions to “theory”. As it applies to evolution, it more simply stated as the law of evolution. For Cobb County to declare that evolution is only a theory means they are either letting their personal biases creep into public policies, or they cannot be bothered to consult a dictionary.

Still, I have to wonder what engine is feeding all this antievolution hysteria. Religion seems to play a big role in it. However, the more I read about the issue the less convinced I am that the creation myth in the Bible and other holy books is its root cause. I think much of it is because to accept evolution we have to come to grips with evolution’s obvious conclusion that our little lives simply do not matter.

The billions of years that our planet has been around is, after all, a hard concept to get our minds around. If our planet is about 4.5 billion years old, let us wrap that timescale into something we can get our mind around: the radius of the planet. The Earth’s radius is 6378 kilometers or about 4000 miles. Divide that distance into 4.5 billion units. Let each unit represent one year. By my calculation, a year would amount to 1.42 centimeters.

Now pick up a metric ruler and look at the size of 1.42 centimeters (about .55 inches). Then imagine an airline trip of 6378 kilometers, the distance to the center of the earth. That is roughly the distance from where I live (near Washington, D.C.) to Zurich, Switzerland. In the span of a human life, say 80 years, you would travel about 113.6 centimeters, or about 3.7 feet toward Switzerland. That would not even amount to the initial bump of our airplane out of the gate!

According to scientists, it took about a billion of those 4.5 billion years before primitive life (bacteria) evolved on earth. The first mammals evolved around 565 million years ago. (Our plane, which left Washington D.C., has traversed all but 502 miles of the distance to Zurich.) Dinosaurs roamed the earth 150 million years ago. (We are 133 miles from Zurich.) The first human ancestors appeared 13 million years ago (11 miles from our destination.) 3.7 million years ago (3.28 miles away) the Australopithecus Afarensis, one of our distant ancestors, left footprints in the sands of Kenya. 27,000 years ago (1,257 feet to go!) the Neanderthals became extinct. The start of recorded history was 4000 years ago (186 feet from our destination gate).

On such timescales, all individual lives become irrelevant. A million years from now, it is unlikely that human life will even exist on our planet. In the timescale of the earth’s evolution, our species is going to be just another flash in the pan.

If we could acknowledge our insignificance in the grand scheme of things then perhaps evolution would be better accepted. However, many of us cannot. We see our lives as having purpose, meaning and most importantly some enduring value. However if we were to imagine our life as being random chance then it is hard not to embrace atheism as a religious philosophy, because it seems to be the only one that makes any sense. What is the point of anything including the belief in an intelligent and creative force to the universe if nothing we do in our lives endures?

While some part of our logical mind can accept it, our emotional side has a tough time with the knowledge. Indeed, it is hard not to even recoil at the very idea. It is no wonder then that evolution is such a flashpoint in our society. For to accept evolution at its face value we must in some sense to deny our intrinsic human feelings. Our genetics inform us that life matters, and consequently that we matter. We are a hopeful species, likely as a direct result of evolution. So for some, by our schools endorsing evolution then the government in some sense is advocating atheism and spreading hopelessness. We recoil.

Therefore, we look for any rationalization that we can find. For many we leave God to sort it out. Evolution becomes yet another big mystery in our wonderful and amazing universe. However, we are still confident that despite evidence to the contrary that our lives do have lasting meaning. For others though perhaps a pure faith-based response is insufficient. Therefore, they give it many names including “creation science” and “intelligent design”. They all amounts to the same thing: trying to use pseudo science to refute evolution’s truth. To accept evolution on some level we must also admit that we are alone in a random and pointless universe. Accepting it can lead many of us to madness. After all, our brains are biological organisms. They exist to bring order to chaos, so we can live another day. Accepting evolution then becomes something of an acknowledgement of existentialism. We feel reduced to the parts of Vladimir and Estragon, waiting endlessly for Godot to show up.

Those of us pondering metaphysics have other potentially plausible ways to reconcile the contradictory feelings. For me, as I outlined elsewhere, there is some comfort found in the simple laws of thermodynamics. For while time marches relentlessly forward and all things seem to change, while form changes matter and energy do not. They are simply transformed endlessly from one state to another. This in itself is a big mystery, and one physicists are trying to understand, but offers some feeling of hope to the rational.