Micheal Cobley

Interstellar Tactics




Creationism And The Strain Of Civilisation

Bill Hicks got it right. When faced with Christian fundamentalists who believe that Earth is 12000 years old (or 6000 or whatever), the appropriate, single-word question is ‘Dinosaurs’. To which the fundies answer ‘Dinosaur fossils? God put those here to test our faith!’

 Why do fundamentalists believe and say what they do? I think it’s to do with what Karl Popper called ‘the strain of civilisation’, mainly the confusion and fear felt when new situations are confronted, and when difficult, complex questions have to be faced. And there are subcultures in all societies, not just western society, which are intrinsically incapable of dealing with such predicaments. This is why the human race has evolved that intellectual construct known as democracy, which in ideal terms should be a system for dealing with change and allowing our critical and compassionate faculties to guide us through the problems that we face.

 Creationism, and its new media-gloss variant Intelligent Design (doncha just love the verbal repackaging? I bet the same crowd could rebrand racism, maybe as New Pigmentism or somesuch), are manifestations of the fundamentalist reaction to the strain of civilisation. Now, many people who have a scintilla or ten of real intelligence, along with a mote or twenty of critical rationality, have opposed creationism/ID publically and vociferously, manning the barricades of Darwinian evolution against the invader. But evolution is not and cannot be the main target of the creationists, regardless of what they say or claim. Evolution is a theory, which means that it has to stand or fall according to the logical, rational consistency of its proposals and its correspondence to verifiable reality. It is entirely possible that another, more detailed evolutionary theory will come along in the future, thus superceding the Darwinian model, but for now it meets the requirements set down by the scientific method. And it is the scientific method which is the creatonists’ real target.

 Evolution is a special case amongst the theoretical sciences because it deals with partial evidence of past events and long, drawn-out processes. Darwin’s theory of natural selection goes a long way to explaining the changes observed in the fossil record, whose stages are confirmed by verifiable dating methods. Intelligent Design asserts that certain features of the universe and living things are best explained by the involvement of an intelligent designer, the implication being that the designer is God. Of course, why should we take their implication as being the only possible option? The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is an actually existing parodic church whose ‘followers’ argue against the God-o-centric subtext of the Intelligent Design believers. My own personal favourite for the role of Intelligent Designer are the Pink Lollipop Men From Venus; in fact, you could have a TV game show based on this, Intelligent Design Idol, or Intelligent Design Factor, or Strictly Intelligent Design…

 Er, moving right along.

 Speculating about the activities of unknown entities or deities at the dawn of creation falls outside the boundaries of verifiable science, and therefore cannot be admitted as having anything to do with the scientific method. The argument over the fossil record, they claim, is equally speculative, which is, frankly, bollocks. Speculation about unseen beings is like grappling with fog; speculation about fossils involves actual existing real-world objects which can be subjected to scientific testing. It’s not impossible that the Pink Lollipop Men from Venus (or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or God) were involved in the inception of life, the universe and everything but there is no way to test that hypothesis. So until such incontrovertible ID evidence comes along (something like discovering the words God(™) buried in the depths of human DNA would be fairly conclusive), we stick to what can be verified, and what is rational.

 And if anyone is still in two minds about it, consider this – when forensic scientists examine a body at the scene of a murder, do they ever consider the possibility that the victim was struck down by Pink Lollipop Men from Venus? Or do they follow the evidence?

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  1. Gary Gibson Says:

    October 27th, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    I’ve heard it said that one of the best arguments against the particular strain of fundamentalism that denies either that the Earth is older than six thousand years or that dinosaurs are a trick to test faith is to ask the person concerned what precisely it is that their car runs on. Similarly, you supposedly don’t find any creationists in the oil industry, even in the States – at least not amongst those concerned with drilling for and locating supplies of oil.

  2. rockitboy Says:

    October 27th, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    There is a guy (name escapes me), an astronomer who has been arguing with the creationists on their explanation for the light that reaches us from distant galaxies, and the aeons that it takes to do so. Creationists’ response is outlandish and contrived, namely that Earth is surrounded by a shell of wormholes which brings the light to Earth from stars and galaxies which are a lot closer than we think…just totally barking. I`m sure there is an Intelligent Duh-sign explanation for oil reserves which would boggle the mind.

  3. poobaa Says:

    November 26th, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Intelligent Design and Evolution can happily co-exist, as can creationism and science. It’s only the petty dogma on either side that renders this an argument about narrow definitions of certainty. If science tells us anything it is that we know a lot less than it is possible to know.

    And Gary should know that cars run on faith!

  4. poobaa Says:

    November 26th, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    Here’s an interesting take on this from the osmic Ancestry web site.

    Only a Theory, by Kenneth R. Miller, springs from the federal trial in 2005, when creationism/ID lost its bid to become part of the public school curriculum in Dover, Pennsylvania. Miller links that case to a “broader assault on scientific reason” that he believes to be underway. But before opening that discussion he must rebut, once again, claims that that Darwinism is not a sufficient scientific explanation of evolution. This rebuttal is what interests us.
    As many do, Miller exploits the ambiguous meaning of “evolution.” He cites (a) the history of life on Earth [which virtually everyone accepts] and (b) examples of adaptation [or microevolution, which proponents of ID accept] in support of (c) the Darwinian mechanism behind macroevolutionary innovation [which is the main issue, for which a & b are irrelevant]. Fortunately, he also looks more closely at a few examples of Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity.”

    One of those examples is the evolution of the immune system in jawed vertebrates. For Behe it is too complex to have been composed by Darwinian mutation-and-natural-selection. Miller rebuts Behe by citing studies which …reached their climax in 2005 when the exact transposon from which the immune system evolved was conclusively identified (p 73). Miller’s reference for this climactic identification is an article by a pair of geneticists at the Genetic Research Information Institute in Mountain View CA, published online by PLoS Biology in June 2005. We have now studied that paper. Its abstract states:

    The V(D)J recombination reaction in jawed vertebrates is catalyzed by the RAG1 and RAG2 proteins, which are believed to have emerged approximately 500 million years ago from transposon-encoded proteins. Here we show that the approximately 600-amino acid “core” region of RAG1 required for its catalytic activity is significantly similar to the transposase encoded by DNA transposons that belong to the Transib superfamily. This superfamily was discovered recently based on computational analysis of the fruit fly and African malaria mosquito genomes. Transib transposons also are present in the genomes of sea urchin, yellow fever mosquito, silkworm, dog hookworm, hydra, and soybean rust….

    Miller thinks the perception of this scenario has elucidated the evolution of this key part of the immune system. (Here again, Miller’s “evolution” is ambiguous.) Actually, the scenario affirms that the critical parts of the system were encoded by transposon-related genes that must have already existed in more primitive species lacking this kind of immune system. By some means of gene transfer, the jawed vertebrates acquired the genes. After acquisition, some assembly and optimization followed. But most of these facts have been known since 1998.

    In no way does this evidence show that the needed genes incrementally “evolved” by darwinian mutation-and-natural-selection. Instead, they were alerady available before they were expressed. Thus, the scenario presents a jarring puzzle for darwinism: How could the essence of this genetic program come into being before it could be affected by natural selection? But darwinians ignore these logical gaps, hoping the rest of us will grow weary and welcome a change of subject.

    Eventually Miller argues that creationism/ID’s alternative for explaining complex genetic programs is not clear. We agree. We think both programs, darwinism and creationism/ID, are flawed. We wish a third alternative such as cosmic ancestry would get consideration

  5. rockitboy Says:

    November 26th, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    Quoth Poobaa:
    “Intelligent Design and Evolution can happily co-exist, as can creationism and science. It’s only the petty dogma on either side that renders this an argument about narrow definitions of certainty.”

    Uh, nope, not a chance. The scientific method has developed over the centuries to exclude petty dogma and to focus on the evidence and our rational and creative attempts to theorise about the workings of the cosmos. Creationism/ID is irrational, narrow-minded and indeed is ALL petty dogma. And as to the matter of transpose-encoded proteins, well this is an argument in favour of the scientific method rather than sitting back and saying `shucks, I guess big ol` Nobodaddy in the sky dun it`. Yes, Darwinian theories of natural selection will almost certainly be proved to be inadequate as more and more evidence comes in and is analysed to a greater and deeper level, thus eventually a better theory – building on natural selection – will come along. Just as Einstein did with physics, showing that Newtonian theories, valuable as they were, turned out to be applicable under special conditions rather than across the spectrum of actual reality.

    Darwinism may be flawed, matey, but Creationism/ID is little more than tarted-up pre-scientific skygod worship.

  6. poobaa Says:

    November 27th, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Interesting rebuttal.

    I’d be interested to hear what scientific experimentation could be done to establish the veracity of the God theory. Post here if you know of any such.

    It isn’t appropriate for non-scientists such as yourself to use science to refute the existence of God, any more than it is appropriate for the advocates of the God theory to use it to prove the opposite.

    Science and religion are not mutually exclusive. Plenty of people have encompassed both successfully. All that it takes is an understanding that science has nothing useful to say about God, and God has nothing useful to say about science.

    On a point of order, when you say

    exclude petty dogma and to focus on the evidence

    Can you demonstrate that this always happens? I don’t think so.

    Remember the ozone layer? The bird flu crisis? The millions who would die as a result of Chernobyl? The latest global warming nonsense? Following hard on the heels of the impending ice age? Any number of public health fiascos? Cold fusion?

    Science is made by humans and is fallible, riven by division and petty concerns that have nothing to do with the science itself. It is in its own way as flawed as religion is.

  7. rockitboy Says:

    December 4th, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    Whoa, hold on there, hoss.

    “It isn’t appropriate for non-scientists such as yourself to use science to refute the existence of God.”

    Well, firstly, I would never have the temerity to attempt to refute the existence of God; all I am saying is that it is scientifically unprovable or provable at this stage of our techno-cultural evolution. Secondly, what’s with the ‘non-scientist’ crack? – I may not be a scientist with letters after my name but I have studied engineering at university level and have had a life-long enthusiasm for technology and science, tempered by reasonable doses of critical rationalism and skepticism.

    As for the last point, that list of Science’s Biggest Goofups – I have to say that the 1st 4 are actual events that have or are taking place. Yes, holes appeared in the ozone layer; yes, bird flu led to mass culling and the deaths of humans; yes, Chernobyl laid waste to a huge area of northern Ukraine and caused many many cancers; world climate is changing and not for the better (the degree of human involvement exists, I would suggest) – the point I would make is that erring on the side of caution in global events like this is better than, I dunno, tossing a coin or throwing a dice, wouldn`t you say? Sure, the consequences may not have been as dire as the speculation, but we were right to worry – we only have the one planet, at the moment!

    As for the imminent ice age (I think that was conjectured by that well-known clinical thinktank, Hollywood), public health fiascos (politics corrupted by corporate greed, usually), and cold fusion (wishful science), those are on the fringe of what could be considered rational science. I certainly agree that scientific theory is made by humans; our scientific conjectures and hypotheses spring from our intellectual creativity and are similar to those other creations of the mind, great symphonies and novels, except that theories are tested against the hard facts of reality while symphonies are tested against the demands of cultural aesthetics, if not of this age then of one to come.

    The scientific method is a method for arriving at theories and testing them; it is only as flawed as the data that is gathered and the scientists and researchers who work with them. Case in point: for some 30-40 years western nutritionists and dieticians have been relentlessly promoting the notion that weight loss can be attained through lowfat, high carbohydrate diets allied to exercise. This has been repeated and cycled endlessly throughout every corner of the media and the culture. Yet the clinical data and nutritional trials do not support this popular view, and there is a considerable body of evidence and data which directly contradicts the lowfat diet doctrine. For an exhaustive analysis of this, see the Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes – it finally lays bare the awful truth that the doctrine of lowfat etc is an unsupported fallacy, and that those nutritionists and dieticians who defend it are not scientists but a priesthood. Because that’s what a priesthood does – it latches onto an idea, ignores contradictory evidence, and protects the idea forever.

    In fact, I have a great graphic illustrating the different between science and faith. Must post it sometime.

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