Thursday, March 31, 2011

Creationism Notes Refuted, Part 4

Last time I covered arguments favoring YEC and intelligent design. In this final installment I'll deal with alleged scientific persecution and the "evils" of evolution—much of which comes from the anti-evolution, pro-ID propaganda film Expelled.

Scientific "Persecution"

I first want to stress that if IDists could provide solid evidence for their views, they would be accepted by the scientific community. But when scientists do bad science, they have to deal with the consequences. I doubt that even IDists would object to such punishment for promoting geocentrism or perpetual motion devices based on faulty evidence, and the same principle applies here.

Notes: Richard Sternberg was fired for publishing an ID article.
Answer: No he wasn't. He had turned in a letter of resignation 6 months beforehand, and even then he still remained on at both of his jobs.

N: Caroline Crocker was fired just for mentioning ID in the classroom.
A: Doubly wrong. She taught several completely discredited creationist claims as fact, and she wasn't fired despite having misrepresented evolution.

N: Baylor shut down Robert Marks' research site due to his link to ID.
A: A blatant distortion of the truth. The site itself had ID material that Baylor didn't want to associate itself with. They even tried to negotiate with Marks, but things didn't work out, so he simply moved his site to another server.

N: Guillermo Gonzalez was denied tenure due to his work in ID.
A: There's no clear evidence that this is the case—lack of scientific publication is a more likely explanation—and even if ID was the reason, that's perfectly appropriate if his work on that topic was flawed.

N: Pamela Winnick was fired by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette just for covering ID.
A: Once again, doubly wrong. She didn't just cover ID, she uncritically portrayed it as a credible, scientific movement. And not only is there no evidence she was fired for that reason, but she continues to occasionally write for the paper.

N: The Discovery Institute only wants to fairly discuss the issues.
A: As the wedge document showed, their agenda is to promote Christianity by teaching creationism under a different name.

Random Evolution Criticism

N: According to Dr. Egnor, evolution is irrelevant in the field of medicine.
A: As some winners of the essay contest Egnor was responding to pointed out, evolution is important in medicine for understanding phenomena such as antibiotic resistance, genetic disorders and vestigial features, and supports the use of animal testing and epidemiological techniques.

N: The Miller–Urey experiment didn't create life.
A: That was never their intention. What the experiment actually did was create many of the amino acids essential for life. And one paper concluded that the amino acids created in this and similar experiments appeared more often in the oldest parts of the genome.

N: Natural selection can only reduce information, not add it.
A: A truly baffling claim that ignores the very mutations that natural selection acts upon. For example, one major source of added information is the accidental duplication of genes.

Evolution as "Evil"

This entire section is a giant pile of association fallacies. Allegations that evolution is associated with bad things have no bearing on whether or not it's true. And many of the allegations are false anyway.

N: Evolution is bad because it promotes eugenics.
A: Anyone trying to use evolution to support eugenics commits the fallacious appeal to nature. Evolution describes the way the world is, not the way it ought to be. Darwin himself condemned eugenics as resulting in "overwhelming evil." On top of that, much of eugenics is based on bad biology, and the concept is quite compatible with creationism.

N: Evolution removes all basis for morality.
A: This is completely nonsensical. Evolution says absolutely nothing about morality one way or another. This objection even seems to ignore the existence of theistic evolutionists—do creationists think they have no basis for morality either?

N: Evolution is the basis of humanism, racism and communism.
A: So much BS condensed into so little space. Racism predates evolution by millennia, and if anything, evolution is an argument against racism since humans are so genetically similar. Marx did compare the struggle between classes to the struggles in nature, but that was about it. The Communist Manifesto made no mention of evolution and was published 11 years before The Origin of Species. And it has absolutely nothing to do with humanism—I'm not even sure what the argument could be made here.

N: Humanists teach that humans are supreme beings.
A: Ohhh... okay then. I see. One teensy problem, though: neither humanism nor evolution teaches that humans are "supreme." If anything, evolution is against this view: humans don't represent a pinnacle, but are simply one out of millions of species that have existed in the past, exist currently, and will exist in the future. Humanists value human characteristics such as reason and focus on human problems, but generally don't say humans are inherently superior. It's worth noting that humanism isn't necessarily secular—for example, Christian humanism exists as well.

N: Columbine shooter Eric Harris wore a shirt that said "natural selection."
A: One tragically misguided student says precisely nothing about the validity of evolution. If anything, this is an argument for teaching more carefully in schools that natural selection describes what is, not what should be.

N: A biology textbook says that humans are animals and are related to earthworms.
A: Both of those statements are true, but they hold no more negative implications than the Bible's teaching that we were made from dust.

N: Roe v. Wade ruled that the unborn aren't people, resulting in 45 million abortions.
A: First of all, this has nothing to do with evolution. Second, it only ruled that abortion is legal until the fetus is viable (at 6–7 months). And third, the body miscarries naturally extremely often—perhaps God doesn't care so much about the unborn after all.

N: Darwin thought inbreeding would result in better genes.
A: Just the opposite: because he married his cousin, he often worried about the negative effects of inbreeding on his children.

N: Darwin said that more civilized races would exterminate less civilized ones.
A: He also explicitly condemned such extermination. True, Darwin held some racist views, but so did nearly everyone in the mid-1800s—even Lincoln, the Great Emancipator himself, said that he wasn't in favor of racial equality and believed that whites were superior to blacks. Darwin was in fact far less racist than most, arguing that human races were all one species and strongly opposing slavery.

Evolution and Hitler Were Bestest Pals!

This fallacy is so common that it has its own nickname: reductio ad Hitlerum. The bottom line is that all of this is irrelevant to the truth of evolution, but even so, such statements are often highly misleading and deserve to be cleared up.

N: Hitler and the Nazis used evolution to further their views.
A: Not nearly as much as creationists would have us believe. Sure, they abused a few concepts here and there, but they did the same thing with other scientific fields. They also banned writings about "the false scientific enlightenment of Darwinism," and much of their motivation was religious.

N: Hitler's Mein Kampf promoted evolution.
A: The text is freely available for scrutiny here. It mentions biological evolution only rarely, and in fact promotes God and Christianity to a far greater extent.

N: Hitler hated Christianity and called it a "fatal, seductive lie."
A: This is totally irrelevant to evolution. And to take this quote on its own ignores Hitler's complex and seemingly contradictory views towards religion. For example, he also privately said that "I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so."

N: Hitler said, "Let me control the textbooks and I will control the state."
A: Obviously textbooks will tend to influence people, but this is a good thing if they reflect reality—and the teaching of evolution is based upon mountains of verifiable evidence. In contrast, creationists have repeatedly tried to pollute the textbooks with ridiculous falsehoods, including many of the lies I have debunked throughout this series.


That's it for these notes. I must say that I learned a lot while researching these claims—especially about the extent to which creationists are willing to distort the truth in order to peddle their madness. I'm sure that most of the people who teach this stuff are true believers who aren't even aware of their massive biases, but there are almost certainly some creationists who willingly tell lies, believing it a small price to pay to advance their agenda.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Fate of Innocents

One major question within Christianity is this: What happens to the innocents who die before they are morally responsible for their actions and intellectually capable of becoming Christians? There are several possibilities, and below I will explain why none of them are acceptable.

The Question
It's hard to understate the extent of this issue for Christianity: it includes not only young children, but also the mentally handicapped and the unborn. The latter case is especially significant; I recently came across two statistics that should absolutely devastate anyone who believes that personhood begins at conception. This includes the many Christians who think that even fertilized human eggs (or zygotes) are imbued with an immortal soul. First, about 60 percent (one source says 30–70%; another says 60–80%) of all early embryos fail to implant themselves into the wall of the uterus and are lost. And second, a birthrate study recorded that only 126 out of its sample of 189 implanted embryos resulted in live births—one third were miscarriages.

Taken together, these two statistics mean that about 73.3% of all zygotes do not result in births. Let me put that another way. By the Christian definition of "person," nearly three times as many people have died naturally in the womb as have been born. Why would God let three quarters of all humans die before they even get a chance to live? And what happens to them afterward?

The problem is not limited to God merely allowing children to die; at times he is explicitly responsible for those deaths. He personally drowned millions of children in the Genesis flood (Genesis 7:21-23). In the tenth plague of Egypt he sent "the destroyer" to do his dirty work (Exodus 12:21-30). And on several occasions (e.g. 1 Samuel 15:1-9) he commanded the Israelites to kill children of rival nations along with adults.

As I've shown, countless billions of innocents throughout human history have died without having an opportunity to be "saved" by the usual means. Clearly, the question of their fate is one of the most important issues that Christians must face.

The Possible Answers
One possibility is that innocents go to hell. However, to punish them based on circumstances beyond their control is obviously repugnant and inconsistent with a good God. Second, they could meet some neutral fate—for example, they could simply cease to exist. This is a fairly sensible option, but it seems to contradict the idea of eternal souls, and (as we'll see later) at least one biblical passage opposes it.

Third, perhaps God knows what these children would have chosen if they'd had the chance and places them in heaven or hell accordingly. But this would entail sending them to an eternal reward or punishment based on decisions that they never actually made. And if God was somehow justified in doing this, then what is the point of this world in the first place? He could have simply placed everyone directly into heaven or hell and skipped the formalities.

Fourth, God might let these innocents choose whether to accept him after they die. But how exactly would this take place? Do they gain any direct knowledge of an afterlife or God himself? If so, why didn't God give all of us this evidence? Does God somehow provide them with only the sort of evidence they would have received on earth? If so, then once again, what is the point of our world in the first place? This scenario accomplishes the same goal in a much simpler manner.

Finally, maybe all innocents go directly to heaven, as many Christians believe. They speak of an "age of accountability" at which children become responsible for their sins. While there is nothing about this in the Bible, they often cite 2 Samuel 12:13-23, in which David implies that he will one day join his dead child in heaven. Of course, there's no particular reason to assume David's belief was justified, so this passage is inconclusive.

The Problems
But beyond that, there's a serious problem with this view: Christians think this world exists to give people a chance to freely accept or reject God. They clearly believe that God greatly values this free will, as it's one of their most common defenses for the problem of evil (God allows evil so that people can freely choose good). If innocents who die before they can accept or reject him automatically go to heaven, they have made no such choice at all. The purpose of God's creation has been significantly undermined!

Another major issue is what heaven would be like for these innocents. Would an infant keep its limited mental capacity and do nothing but crawl around and drool? Would God miraculously grant them intellectual maturity? And if so, where would their personality come from, since it wasn't shaped by a lifetime of experiences? Christians might say that this newly matured being would retain the same "soul," but how could they be considered the same person as the drooling infant in any meaningful sense? What God would really be doing is creating a person from scratch.

In his omniscience and omnipotence, God should have been able to design our world such that everyone freely chooses to accept or reject him, without resorting to some other method to catch those who slip through the cracks. Yet he has both directly and indirectly robbed billions of innocents of their freedom to make that decision—in fact, far more have been deprived of that freedom than have actually used it. Based on this, I must conclude that the Christian system of salvation is flawed, makeshift, cobbled-together, and wholly inconsistent with the God who supposedly came up with it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

I Love When Religions Make Testable Predictions

Because when they're in any way significant or interesting, they pretty much always fail. A small faction of Christians has announced that, based on some arcane biblical calculations, the rapture will occur on May 21st of this year. Their leader is an evangelical radio broadcaster named Harold Camping. He had previously predicted that the second coming would occur way back in 1994, but this time he's sure of it. No, really, he's gonna get it this time. He promises.

I actually e-mailed them last September to ask a few questions. I got two responses from a woman who I'll call Ms. M. She was generally very polite, although her responses showed me just how difficult it is to reason with people like these. Here's my first e-mail:

I am very interested in your claim that judgment will come on May 21, 2011. In particular, I have three questions for you:

1. Are you aware that hundreds of dates have been predicted for the Rapture, judgment, etc. in the past, all of which have turned out to be wrong?

2. What makes you so certain that your prediction will succeed when all others have failed?

3. What would you do if your prediction turned out to be wrong? Even if you feel this is very unlikely, you must admit that it is at least possible. Would you claim that your prediction had been fulfilled, but in a different way than you had originally thought? Would you claim that you had somehow miscalculated, and then set a new date for judgment? Or would you simply admit that you were wrong? I ask this because these are some of the ways that others have reacted when their predictions turned out to be incorrect.

Please understand that I mean no disrespect by suggesting that your prediction may be wrong. I hope you can understand my skepticism, given the number of incorrect predictions made in the past. Thank you very much, and I look forward to answers to these questions.

Instead of answering my questions, Ms. M directed me to a few links on their web site and said that their prediction could not be wrong because the date was appointed by God. There's an obvious problem with this view, and I told her as much in my reply:
Dear Ms. M,

Thank you very much for your response.

I understand your belief that because the date of 5/21/11 is appointed by God, there can be no possibility for error. However, to point solely to God on this matter misses a crucial point: any revelation from God must inevitably be interpreted by man. Human interpretation is always subject to error, and thus you cannot rule out the possibility (however unlikely) that this date could be a misinterpretation of God's word. Even if you believe that God is guiding you so as not to make any errors, this belief could itself be mistaken. Since many past predictions that were also based on God's word failed due to human misinterpretation, I think it makes sense to give this point serious consideration.

In light of this possibility, please reconsider the third question from my previous email.

She seemed to understand my argument. By appealing to human fallibility, which Christians have a strong tendency to focus on, I may have actually made a slight dent in her dogmatic armor. But she quickly recovered by comparing their situation to that of Noah: everyone thought he was wrong, but he knew he was right because God had revealed the truth to him. I suppose I could have pointed out that the failed doomsday prophets of the past could have advanced this argument just as easily, and they were still wrong. But I don't think I would have gotten any further with her using that line of reasoning; we probably would have ended up talking in circles. Instead I closed with this:
Dear Ms. M,

Thanks again for your response.

I see that nothing I can say will convince you that your belief may be misguided. Although I disagree with you, I can appreciate why you feel the way you do. However, I do have one last request for you:

Should it happen (and I realize that for you this seems like an impossibility) that May 22nd rolls around and no judgment has taken place, re-read the third question I gave you, and think calmly and carefully about what option to choose.

That shouldn't be a difficult request, since if you are correct you won't need to fulfill it anyway.

I doubt she'll actually do it, but I figured it was worth a shot. My concern is that the true believers won't lose their faith after May 21 has come and gone. On the contrary, there's a good chance that it will grow even stronger than before.

I'll be sure to do a follow-up post once the big day has hit. (Update: here it is.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Creationism Notes Refuted, Part 3

The previous section of notes covered dinosaurs, dating methods, and the age of the earth. Next up are arguments in favor of young earth creationism and intelligent design.

Young Earth "Evidence"

These claims are generally meant to line up various measurements of the age of the earth with the time of the flood.

Notes: The Sahara is growing too fast (it's about 4,000 years old)!
Answer: The desert itself is young, but not the earth.

N: Methuselah, the world's oldest tree, is just 4,300 years old!
A: Wrong on multiple levels. It's older than that, it's not the oldest, and individual trees are the least of YEC's problems.

N: The Great Barrier Reef is under 4,200 years old!
A: No, no, no. It's way older than that, and once again it's not even the oldest.

N: Oceans could get from fresh to saltwater in under 5,000 years!
A: Nope. And even if they could, millions of freshwater species would have to very quickly evolve a tolerance to saltwater.

N: Stalactites in Carlsbad Caverns could have grown really fast!
A: Wow, they're using a lot of Hovind's stuff. Anyway, nope.

N: Earth's continents would erode away in just 14 million years!
A: Yeah, totally... as long as new land masses were never formed ever.

N: The first writing is 5,000 years old, fully developed, and found in Mesopotamia!
A: So they've taken to proudly admitting problems with their worldview now? Their precious flood was supposedly about 650 years later than that. And even leaving that aside, they're still completely dead wrong.

N: The Chinese calendar starts in 2700 BC!
A: Look, it should be obvious that this is terrible evidence, but in case it isn't, here's a link.

N: Who did Cain marry? His sister, of course! Problem solved!
A: Except that such tiny population sizes create a huge genetic bottleneck that we could easily observe today. The post-flood starting population of 6 (Noah and his wife had no more children) is an even more recent issue.

Design Arguments

Most of these are arguments take the form "I don't know how it happened, so it couldn't have happened." This is fallacious because it assumes we will never figure out how something happened—a very poor assumption given that scientists are constantly learning more about the world around them. Unlike incredulously asking questions, doing real science takes time, especially since there are so many evolved features to study. And even so, many of the examples below already have plausible explanations.

N: The bombardier beetle's chemical system couldn't have evolved.
A: Yes, it could. One model for how it could have come about is given here.

N: The woodpecker's tongue couldn't have evolved.
A: Yes, it could. This claim stems from a misunderstanding of woodpecker anatomy.

N: The gecko's suction cups couldn't have evolved.
A: First, they're actually tiny hairs called setae. Second, I don't know how they evolved, but it doesn't seem all that difficult. Creationists seem to think that tiny things are harder to evolve, perhaps because it would be difficult for us to make them due to our size. But evolutionary processes have no "size" and thus work just as well on a small scale.

N: Spiders' different types of webbing... couldn't have evolved?
A: It wasn't quite clear what was meant by this. Certainly various web-spinning strategies evolved and diversified to fill different environmental niches, though. It even seems that spiders themselves diversified based on differences in silk. Here is an entire book on the subject.

N: Ears couldn't have evolved.
A: Not only could they have evolved, but we have detailed fossil evidence of how mammalian ears evolved from reptilian ones.

N: Eyes couldn't have evolved.
A: Not only could they have evolved, but a model for their evolution was proposed 150 years ago in The Origin of Species.

N: Lizard "salt sneeze" glands... couldn't have evolved?
A: Again, not quite sure what was meant here. Here is a book chapter on salt gland evolution, though.

Intelligent Design

N: Intelligent design (ID) bases its assumptions on science, not the Bible.
A: ID is unscientific because it is unfalsifiable and does not propose any testable hypotheses; its nebulous designer can be molded to fit any set of facts. Furthermore, most of its proponents are creationists who are merely hiding their religious motivations in order to appear legitimate.

N: Michael Behe has found irreducibly complex (IC) systems.
A: First, many of the systems he's claimed to be IC are not—that is, they can have parts removed and retain partial function. And second, paradoxical as it may seem, even truly IC systems (as Behe defines the term) can evolve in multiple ways. See here for a great list of articles on the subject, and here for a 10-minute YouTube video efficiently summarizing the problems with IC.

N: The bacterial flagellum is IC and thus couldn't have evolved.
A: Yes, it could. It probably began as a Type III secretion system. One possible model is summarized with this graphic.

N: Entirely new structures like wings and eyes couldn't have evolved.
A: The reasoning behind this is unclear. In general, though, either they're created from scratch (e.g. eyes began as patches of light-sensitive cells), or new features are added to existing structures (e.g. wings are modified theropod forelimbs, and feathers likely evolved from scales).

N: DNA is a complex code and couldn't have evolved.
A: It most likely came from RNA, which in turn came from even simpler molecules.

N: Specified complexity suggests an intelligent agent.
A: This idea basically ignores the proposed mechanisms for abiogenesis and evolution altogether. Many have criticized this concept as flawed or even incoherent.

N: SETI searches for recognizable patterns of signals as a sign of intelligence.
A: One huge problem with this analogy is that there is no known mechanism by which such signals could be generated naturally.

That's all for this batch. The next one will thankfully be the last.