On the weekend of September 9, I and a fellow member of the Center for Inquiry attended a creationism “conference” (I’d have called it a lecture series, but hey, whatever). My overall impression is that if this is all that creationists have, evolutionary theory is not at all in jeopardy. Of course, I never thought it was. I just wanted to experience what people who believe the Earth is a mere 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs co-existed with humans had to say. The whole thing could only be accepted by those who have drunk the Kool Aid. There was nothing convincing in anything I saw, and some stretched my credulity well past the breaking point.
The first talk we attended was given Darek Isaacs. He’s a very clean cut guy and very nice to talk to. If all fundamentalists were like him it’d be very easy to co-exist with them socially. My problem is their propensity to inject their beliefs into politics which then become de facto forced on everyone. I’ve never understood why the fervent believers have a problem with secularism. Secularism is the only way in which everyone is on a level playing field with regard to the law and society. It is not atheism. It just means that government is blind to the religious beliefs of each and every one of us. Yet fundamentalist Christians fear this. My only thought is that it is because secularism takes away the rights of Christians to run roughshod over everyone else’s beliefs. This is a right they’ve never had, and is a perception gained from Christian privalege that they have wrongfully enjoyed over the decades. But I digress….
Darek, Patrick (my colleague) and I had a really interesting discussion on the second day privately. He was kind enough to refuse his lunch to continue (I would gladly have let the poor guy eat), and I have to admit that this is the first deep interaction I have ever had with a born-again Christian. But there was much in his talk that left me with a bad taste. In trying to debunk evolution, young-Earth creationists (YECs) simply can’t seem to help themselves from using ad hominem attacks on Darwin’s character. For instance, the full title of his masterpiece, usually shortened to The Origin or The Origin of Species, is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. An unwieldy title at best, so we shorten it up for convenience. Trust a creationist to take this innocent reason for shortening the title to be something nefarious, that we who accept evolution as the explanation for speciation ignore the words “favored races”. In Darek’s eyes, Darwin was a racist.
Was Darwin a racist? Actually, he was no worse than his Christian fellows in his time, and much more progressive than most (see here for a good Pharyngula post on this). So what was Darwin saying with the title of his essay? (Yes, it was considered an essay, not a book. This was typical of scientific discourse of the time, a custom which has transformed to disseminating science to a lay audience rather than between colleagues. Sadly, scientific papers, which once read like stories and were far more entertaining, are now so dry as to require eyedrops and are even worse to write.) When Darwin used the term “favored races” he was talking about populations within a species which were better suited to survive. If we are speaking of allopatric speciation, these would be isolated populations which would then have a different evolutionary path. Today we would speak of genetically distinct populations within a species, and yes, there are such within H. sapiens. For instance, sickle-cell anemia is caused by a point mutation in the gene endoced for the protein hemoglobin. Having one copy actually gives the individual significant resistance against malaria, but individuals with two copies develop the disease and have their life expectancy shortened. The protection afforded by having this gene is of greater benefit to the population than the deaths of the individuals with two copies (who often survive long enough to pass on the mutated gene). There is no argument that this gene occurs within a geographically distinct region (Africa, India and the Middle East), and that this mutation favors the survival of this genetically distinct group with respect to malarial infection. Another interesting example is the variation of blood types geographically. There are very few people of European origin with blood type B. The plague essentially annhilated them. The distribution of blood types in geographically-isolated populations can vary quite widely to the exclusion of some.
This is the kind of thing Darwin was talking about when he used the term “favored races”, not bigotry. But what does this have to do with the veracity of evolutionary theory? Not one blessed thing. And this pisses me off. It is character assassination. Anyone that falls for it doesn’t get my respect, and those that commit this fallacy earn my contempt. Putting forward the idea the “Darwin was a great guy” as evidence in favor of evolution is no more valid than what Darek’s denegration of Dawin’s character as evidence that evolution is not true. It’s a cheap, dirty and contemptable evasion of having to actually face Darwin’s arguments for evolution, not to mention the mountains of evidence in its favor we have collected since. I wanted to get that across to Darek when I talked to him.
He also presented what he thought were good alternative explanations for the formation of the massive layering of sedimentary rock in e.g. the Grand Canyon by which it could have occurred over a very short period of time. How does he do this? Well, it was through a false analogy. He showed a picture of layering which occurred very rapidly (tens of feet) by a known process and is well documented – deposition of volcanic ash during the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s. What does the deposition of sediment by water have to do with the build up of ash? It doesn’t. He’s comparing apples and oranges. Step back for a moment and consider how stupid geologists would have to be to not see this if the analogy actually held. No, there is a lot of evidence that the layers of sediment were laid down over quite a long period of geological history and because of the complexity of its geology occurred over numerous events and a great expanse of time.
Worse was Darek’s understanding of radiometric dating. He claimed that samples taken from a very recently formed volcanic rock produced a very old age when it was radiometrically dated. Indeed it should. The age of the rock (cooled magma) was very recent. No question. So where’s the fallacy? Radiometric dating isn’t measuring the age from the time the magma cooled. It is measuring the age of the magma itself. This is what happens when someone with no training in geology tries to represent a knowledge of geology and its methods. What he says may be entirely true, but often enough it isn’t. No one in the congregation (and congregation it was) questioned this.
In essence, Darek’s strategy is similar to that of William Dembski – if they can show evolution is not true, then creationism is then true. There are two problems with this strategy: 1) this is a false dichotomy, as there may be other explanations for the diversity of life on this planet (There isn’t, and evolution is a fact. I make no apologies for this statement.), and 2) I am not an atheist because I accept evolution as having occurred and that natural selection, sexual selection and genetic drift are the factual explanations (which is what the word “theory” implies, not a wild ass guess as many seem to think) for speciation. Prove to me today that evolution was not true and my atheism would stand firm regardless.
Since this is getting a bit long, I want to stop here before I get onto some of the other of the cast of characters and my impressions of their evidence. Spoiler: they don’t come out of this well…. I may very well update this as I intend to listen to the audio to jog my memory a bit.