Down the creationist rabbit hole

I don’t normally go to creationist blogs looking for fights, but when a church posted a little animated video yesterday, titled, “Evolution is impossible, really funny!!” temptation got the better of me. At any rate, it’s an opportunity to share something really cool (if you don’t already know about Tiktaalik roseae, the “fishapod”) and to say something about the peculiar style of argumentation that’s become common among evangelicals.

The post is here, with a video that features a cartoon fish who gets the idea to jump up on land and evolve into humans. As the fish flops around helplessly on dry land, the ‘camera’ pulls back to reveal the bones of other fish who have apparently tried the same thing.

Ha, ha! See? Evolution is impossible! A fish would die on dry land!

I rolled my eyes. I grew up with this kind of pat-yourself-on-the-back ignorance.

“Don’t comment,” I thought. “You’re never going to convince these people of anything, and you’re just wasting your time.”

But I used to be one of those people. I grew up thinking they had the answers, and that they knew better than those worldly, blinded-by-sin scientists.

A time came when I actually started reading some science, and my mind began to change. Maybe one of the church blog’s readers could be enticed into looking at science. So in the the comments I suggested this site: http://titkaalik.uchicago.edu/

It took a full day, while other comments were approved, and a follow-up post nagging them about it, but it has just appeared. It links to a site about this:

Tiktallik roseae

Tiktalik roseae

This is a 375 million-year-old fossil fish that is a transitional species between lobe-finned fish and later amphibians. It had gills, scales, and fins, but also nostrils on top of its skull, a flexible neck, and ribs and lungs. It was discovered in 2004 on Ellesmere Island, the northernmost island of the Canadian archipelago.

The discovery was no accident. Jerry Coyne writes about it in his book Why Evolution is True (p. 37):

This is where the prediction comes in. If there were lobe-finned fishes but no terrestrial vertebrates 390 million years ago, and clearly terrestrial vertebrates 360 million years ago, where would you expect to find the transitional forms? Somewhere in between. Following this logic, Shubin [the lead researcher] predicted that if transitional forms existed, their fossils would be found in strata around 375 million years old. Moreover, the rocks would have to be from freshwater rather than marine sediments, because late lobe-finned fish and early amphibians both lived in fresh water.

Which led the researchers to Ellesmere Island, which led (after five summers of searching) to this remarkable species. When I first saw it, I immediately thought of this:

darwin-fishAnd some people think evolutionists are just being snarky by putting these on their cars. The funny part is that the Darwin fish was around years before Tiktaalik was discovered. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you have a strong theory.

While I was waiting to see if my link would be posted (and writing this post), the church posted a series of comments from Allallt, a blogger whose comments I always enjoy. But although Allallt tried nobly to get the creationist to engage in an intelligent discussion, the creationist replied with crap like this:

Scripture teaches that everyone knows that God exists, but that some are just suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. This includes you. It takes more faith to believe in evolution than God. The teachings of evolutionists that at some point nothing exploded and became everything, and that everything we see came about by chance mutations, if true, is a greater miracle than any described in the Bible. Macro-evolution has not been observed. It is nothing more than a statement of blind faith based on looking at this world with illogical presuppositions.

Creationists and Christian apologists loooove to talk about presuppositions, love to caricature natural history (which they don’t appear to understand even on an elementary level, the fish video and the above paragraph being typical examples), and they love to wrap people up in meandering philosophical discussions that go nowhere and which consistently fail to address the actual evidence of science. This, unlike evolution, is by design.

Allallt and the creationist went back and forth, with the creationist dragging the discussion ever deeper down the rabbit hole… because when you don’t have science to back you up, it’s simply more effective to have tiresome discussions in which you throw around big words and write in paragraphs that are long enough to disguise the fact that you’re evading the point. The argument goes nowhere, but even against someone like Allallt, the creationist comes off looking reasonably intelligent, at least to those who are ignorant of science. (And I do think the problem is one of willful ignorance rather than lack of intelligence).

To anyone who knows even a little of natural history, the creationist’s arguments sound silly and woefully ill-informed. Allallt replied,

A word of caution, if you want to convince any intelligent people you need to understand the thing you are arguing against first.

Yes. But the point, I think, isn’t to convince anyone so much as it is to assure believers that their views aren’t an intellectual embarrassment.This is a big deal. No one wants to be a fool. Thus, their most effective style of argument is one of pseudo-intellectual distraction, characterized by a torrent of grandiose false statements and misrepresentations, held together by the repeated mantra that any part of science they refuse to accept “is a statement of faith, not science.”

It seems to boil down to, You think we believe crazy stuff on the basis of insufficient evidence? Well look at scientists! So do they! See? It’s faith vs. faith!

It’s frustrating. But I know from experience that some of the people in these churches are curious, and can’t bring themselves to dismiss evidence once they know it exists, or tolerate intellectual dishonesty once they recognize it as such. And there are other people working hard to shield them from that evidence, and to inoculate them against it in case they do see it.

But for the curious ones, the ones who don’t already know all they’re ever going to know of this world, it’s worth our time to point to the wonders of nature, such as Tiktaalik roseae, and say, “Look at that! Isn’t it cool? What can we learn from this?”

Update 2:18 p.m. – Well this is strange. The page at Opelousas Church of Christ has mysteriously vanished. The rest of the blog is there but not that page: http://opelousaschurchofchrist.com/2012/12/31/evolution-is-wrong/. I don’t know if it’s a technical glitch or if they thought the better of it once I posted this. The church had just replied: “I put the video up because I thought it was a funny attempt to show how macro-evolution is impossible and has never been observed. Whether this video misrepresents evolution from simple organisms to complex human beings is irrelevant to me. Either way, Evolution is impossible. Evolution is just sinful man’s attempt to suppress the truth of God’s existence so they can live under their own authority and do whatever they want. In spite of this suppression of the truth, it doesn’t change the fact that there will be a day in which every one of us will be judged for what we believe and practice.” I had just replied to this, thanking them for posting the link and challenging their readers to examine the evidence for themselves, “ignoring the divine gun being held to your head” (referring to his threat of divine judgment) when the page disappeared.

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15 thoughts on “Down the creationist rabbit hole

    • OK, the site you linked to cites no sources, claims inaccurately that the find consisted solely of a skull, and closes with a verse from the Qur’an. Do you have something that won’t make me laugh?

      Let me also say that this creationist trope “everyone looks at the same evidence and comes to different conclusions based on what they already believe” is bullshit. It’s just a way of refusing to consider evidence. Science is about hypothesis testing. The question is always, ‘Which hypothesis best explains the evidence?’ You have to show how creationism does a better job of explaining the observable facts than does the theory of evolution. You don’t get to just dismiss evidence with a wave of your hand and pretend that it can support all hypotheses equally well… not if you want to be taken seriously.

      By the way, since you’re from Opelousas Church – what happened to the post on your blog? Did you remove it? If so, why? Because I’m starting to think you want to shield the faithful from reading the comments posted there.

    • “The truth is, everyone looks at the same evidence and comes to different conclusions based on what they already believe”

      Very true, luckily science, unlike religion, has a very effective method for not allowing preconceived biases to muddle the sweet, clear, and decidedly chilly waters of objectivity. This is why science tends to favor the atheist, or, loosely, the deist, while seeming to contradict and humiliate all the loud, pseudo-righteous gobbledygook of the theist.
      It is only when these monotheists get involved that evidence for Yahweh-less evolution is somehow screwed into being Answers from Genesis.

      • Yes, this is a good way of explaining it – thanks for clarifying. When I called Jason’s claim bullshit, I didn’t mean that evolutionists aren’t prone to cognitive biases. We all are. It’s just, as you say, that science has developed methods to deal with this; religion has not.

      • I never questioned your cognizance of this. In fact, I find your reply intelligent and to the point. I was quoting that ridiculous childish Jason, not because you didn’t effectively smother him, but because such blatant idiocy needs to be smothered again, and I felt the impulse to do so.

  1. Like you, I also have serious problems tolerating such extreme stupidity. It seems their real problem isn’t that they don’t believe in evolution, they simply don’t understand it either.

    Happy New Year!

  2. Wow. I re-blogged that article from the church website on my site with this reply, a quote from ScienceBasedMedicine.org:

    – medicine is an applied science. It is based upon a number of basic sciences, and one of those basic sciences is evolution.

    The most obvious example is bacterial antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics place a selective pressure on a bacterial population, often resulting in the emergence of resistant strains. Understanding this “evolutionary arms race” between bacteria and antibiotics allows us to develop strategies for minimizing resistance.

    But there are less obvious ways in which evolutionary principles apply to infectious diseases. It has been known for a long time that sickle-cell trait provides resistance to malaria (the blood cells are less hospitable to the P. falciparum protozoan parasite that is one cause of malaria). This explains the persistence of sickle cell disease in populations where malaria is endemic.

    Evolutionary principles may also improve our vaccine strategy. Vaccines are another way to create selective pressures on infectious organisms. We may inadvertently target vaccines against proteins that select out less virulent strains, selecting for the more virulent or infectious strains. Understanding of this allows us to instead target vaccines against virulence without targeting less deadly strains.

    I’m sure we weren’t the only ones calling that post for what it was. They simply couldn’t take the heat.

  3. Out of curiosity, how did you feel when you were a believer and someone presented you with evidence for evolution? I’ve never been more than mildly religious and that was only until I was about 10, so I can’t put myself in the position of someone who cannot be swayed by superior logic and evidence. I suppose some people just hate losing arguments (I love losing arguments cuz I will have necessarily been enlightened in the process) but I feel that there’s more to it than just pride. Would love to hear you opinion!

    • Ooh – good question. Well, part of it is that, growing up, I learned about evolution primarily from people who opposed it. To the extent that it was taught in school, it was taught in such a way that just presumed the truth of the theory and didn’t try to persuade students by explaining the evidence. This is actually my biggest complaint about my science education in public school: science was mostly taught as a body of knowledge rather than as a process and a way of thinking. That’s a whole other discussion, but suffice to say that as a young person I knew more of the arguments against evolution than the arguments in favor (let alone direct debunking of anti-evolution arguments).

      And as a young person I didn’t seek pro-evolution viewpoints because I’d already made up my mind. I knew the Bible really well and understood at a young age that if evolution was true, then the Apostle Paul’s argument for the atonement–the central doctrine of Christianity–would be false. In other words, if death didn’t come into the world as a consequence of Adam’s sin, if death was part of life from the beginning, then the New Testament’s main theologian didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. So I had a lot riding on that issue, and in hindsight I think that kept me from pursuing the issue too aggressively. It involved a lot of cognitive dissonance.

      Nevertheless as I learned more over the years (thanks to popular articles about new discoveries – stuff that was too cool to ignore) I retreated step by step from literal creationism–soon accepting an old earth, then embracing the microevolution/macroevolution distinction as a way of kind of accepting evolution, then moving toward theistic evolution and what would soon be called Intelligent Design, then fully accepting evolution by natural selection and become genuinely interested in it. So, ultimately I couldn’t ignore the evidence, but it was a gradual process.

      • Interesting response. I wish it was just a matter of presenting the evidence and waiting for it to sink in for most people; unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case 😦 . I do understand that nobody wants to look like a fool and nobody wants to lose face while debating, but it seems like people should eventually let other superior opinions seep in and change their mind… perhaps I’m being to idealistic.

      • Thanks. I’m reminded a story that Richard Dawkins tells. I read it in one of his books, and also found it here:

        “I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artifact, an illusion. Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said–with passion–“My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip service to it as an ideal–unlike, say, politicians who would probably condemn it as flip-flopping. The memory of the incident I have described still brings a lump to my throat.”

        That’s the attitude that we need to cultivate–the idea that there’s no shame in changing your mind in the face of superior evidence, that this, in fact, is the honorable thing to do. Promoting this idea would do a world of good and would do much to undermine the excesses of religion and ideology.

  4. Pingback: In praise of flip-floppers | Pretentious Ape

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