Saturday, April 7, 2012

Creationism -- Why I Never Believed It

This post actually grew out of a different post I am writing on the subject of the baffling well of ignorance that is creationism, and I decided that it would make a good introductory article.

First of all, I would like to come right out and say that my lack of belief in creationism (young earth or otherwise) doesn't really have anything to do with my lack of belief in God. After all, I knew several Christians who actually understood why evolution and other scientific theories made sense and laughed at the creationists (and Intelligent Design proponents) for exactly the same reasons as I did -- and then some.

And what are those reasons? Well, I've written several enormous blog posts about evolution, creationism and Intelligent Design, which discuss many of those reasons in detail, and I'm going to rework them and post them on this blog, along with newer material, of which I already have reams.
` The very fact that my material keeps multiplying (i.e. this post is an offshoot of another) is part of the reason it's taking me so long.

But, how did this all start in me? Why am I planning on making this a prominent subject for this blog? Why do I have such passion for the subject?
` Because, I have spent such a long time reading about what evolution is, and the claims and arguments that it makes (never even mind the evidence), and then being amazed at all the ways that creationists have failed to mention or even seem to understand them.
` Through all the earth-shattering changes that have occurred in my life, this has been one of my all-time favorite subjects to write about since the 1990's. That some people still believe in this stuff truly astonishes me. I've often wondered if they really believe it -- maybe some of the proponents don't?

So, how did this astonishment start?

Although I had a very sad and bleak existence as a child, one thing that kept me somewhat occupied was my parents' 20-volume set of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, as well as books and science magazines which often discussed evolution.
` Even though I didn't have the most detailed understanding of evolution back then, my reaction to creationist claims was often enough spot-on.

I was perhaps ten when I read a book by the famous paleontologist Bob Bakker called Dinosaur Heresies, called so because when it was first published in 1986, it was heresy to suggest that dinosaurs were warm blooded. Bakker devoted part of this book to the footprints of striding dinosaurs, called trackways, as evidence to show, for example, that dinosaurs were fast-moving and traveled in herds as warm-blooded animals do.
` I distinctly remember Bakker's illustration of a predatory dinosaur crouched like a lioness stalking her prey. This illustration was how he imagined certain dinosaur footprints to have been made, as the three toes were visible, but so was the entire length of the foot, sometimes down to the heel.
` These footprints were common in the Paluxy Trackways in Texas, although many of them had somewhat dim toe markings, as the toes were sometimes eroded or had become partly filled in by mud shortly after they were made.
` Back in the 1910s, some locals had assumed that these seemingly toe-less imprints were "moccasin" tracks of giant Native Americans who walked alongside dinosaurs, apparently not understanding the implications of this idea. (They also misinterpreted the tracks of sauropods as being from elephants!)
` Ironically, this led to a few locals carving both human and dinosaur footprints in pieces of stone, some of which ended up in a New Mexico trading post in 1938, where paleontologist Roland T. Bird noticed them. He wondered why anyone would be inspired to carve dinosaur (much less human) footprints in stone, so he went on a little detour to their point of origin (Glen Rose, Texas), and the rest is paleontological history.
` However, this wasn't the last of the claims that these were human footprints.

Some time later, my aunt handed me a book called Tracking Those Incredible Dinosaurs (And The People Who Knew Them), casually explaining to me that paleontologists might have been completely wrong about dinosaurs and humans not living at the same time.
` Really? I thought. Actual scientists think this? Excited by this prospect, I began reading, only to find that these were the same footprints I had read about in Bakker's book. I was deeply confused as to why the author, John Morris, kept accusing paleontologists of claiming that all these "man tracks" were things like "tail drag marks" or "carvings", when it was obvious that they weren't.
` No, I kept thinking; the paleontologists claim that these were just crouching dinosaurs, walking down on their heels.
` I wondered why Morris didn't seem to think that these were just those dinosaur footprints that had erosion issues with the toes. Then I looked at the publication dates on the books and found that Morris' book was from 1980 while Bakker's book was published six years later, and concluded that Morris just didn't know any better.
` But then, I couldn't figure out why anyone would also talk about God in the way that Morris did. I don't remember what he said, exactly, but part of it had something to do with humans having a lot of pride in thinking they knew better than God or some such. I couldn't make heads or tails of that.
` As far as I knew, Christians were like Bakker, who I now know is a Pentacostal preacher, not having any problem whatsoever with the universe having a long history before humans, and that we are a product of historical processes, the most recent being our evolution from a series of smaller-brained, bigger-jawed ancestors.

In other words, I didn't realize that this Morris was a creationist, or even what creationism was. I just knew that he didn't seem to understand that paleontologists actually think that those are dinosaur tracks. (I later learned that certain other isolated holes that vaguely looked like a human footprints are actually just things like natural geological features, and one purported to be 'toe marks' is actually an invertebrate burrow.)

For the longest time, I kept Morris' book under my bed, thinking that in some way it had to have made sense, even though it clearly didn't. You see, my insane dad would always be telling me that my own subjective experiences and thoughts and emotions were not real, among other things, and would force me to believe contradicting, logically inconsistent things.
` Therefore, believing that something was both true and false at the same time was normal for me, and I had just thought that being able to do so meant that I had an open mind. The more things I believed, I had thought, the more open-minded I was. Thankfully, as I found later, this is not what 'open-minded' actually means.

A few days back, I decided to do some follow-up, just to see whatever happened to old Morris, and one of the things I found was a thorough essay by Glen Kuban (link below), an important researcher on these flat-footed dinosaur tracks. He documents their history of use by creationists as evidence of "man tracks", even after his fairly conclusive observations:
Within individual trackways one could see typical digitigrade dinosaur tracks, distinct metatarsal tracks (with a well defined "heel" and three clear digit marks), as well as indistinct (mostly mud-collapsed) metatarsal tracks that appeared more humanlike. The site (which has since been named for Al West) clearly illustrated that a single dinosaur was capable of making multiple track types, including elongate prints similar to ones called "human" elsewhere. It also demonstrated that certain dinosaurs would sometimes alternate between a digitigrade and plantigrade (or quasi-plantigrade) walking gait (Kuban, 1986a, 1986d, 1986e).
As for Morris, as well as Baptist minister Stanley Taylor (who had made a film on the subject), Kuban showed them his own findings all around the Paluxy trackways in 1985, and guess what? They agreed with him:
Taylor stated that he would stop circulating Footprints in Stone, and Morris indicated that he would probably stop selling his book. Although they insisted on uncovering some Taylor Site tracks under water and mud along the north bank (which we were able to view using an aquarium pushed through the water), they afterward agreed that all the tracks viewed at the site showed evidence of dinosaurian origin."
Although they stopped circulating their propaganda, they later backpedaled when presenting to the public, claiming that after careful research (mostly by themselves) they had decided that the tracks were now "in question", and that the dinosaur interpretation relied on surface stains. Notably, neither of these guys even mentioned the fact that they had been made aware of dinosaur toe prints. It was as though their tour with Kuban didn't even happen.
` This is precisely the type of dishonesty that leads me to wonder how much creationism proponents actually believe and how much they realize that they are lying to their audience. If you'd like to read this entire essay, and see photos that clearly show the three-toed dinosaur metatarsal tracks, please do check out On The Heels of Dinosaurs.

Twelve was the age in which I started what would be nearly six years of near-seclusion from the outside world. I was not interested in any reading material except for books on animals and science magazines, so that was the extent of my education.
` The only biology textbook that was available to me (as an alleged 'home schooler') was a Beka Books textbook (probably God's Living Creation), where I was formally introduced to the idea of 'creation science'. My mom said to skip over that stuff, and I had to agree:
` I could neither make heads nor tails of its strange claims, which not only included things like, "Darwin was a fraud", but also that "DDT is good for you" and "Armored dinosaurs (ankylosaurs) had a shell like a turtle's". It elicited many blank stares from me, needless to say, and I only wish that I could remember more.

A few of its most ridiculous illustrations still linger vividly in my mind. After all, once you see a serious illustration of a molecule that is not constructed of atoms, but of creepy, spherical smiley-faces, you cannot un-see it.

One illustration concerned the proposition of how a bat could have evolved. Well, I thought, how could a bat evolve? First, you'll need a furry, tree-climbing mammal that jumps from one tree to the next, like a squirrel does. Second, it needs to evolve a membrane between its arms and legs in order to increase its ability to jump from one tree to the next.
` Not only is that a much more energy-efficient way of travel, as well as a life-saver if one should fall, but it's also a great way to escape predators. The more that a species would have to rely on just a bit of loose skin on its sides, the more the trait would be exaggerated over the generations: The individuals with the most extensive membranes, even if small, would survive and pass this trait onto their offspring, until individuals were born with quite extensive membranes.

Because of this need, at least five lineages of tree-climbing mammals have evolved such gliding membranes; two of them are squirrels; two of them are marsupials; and one lineage is the lemur-like colugos, or "flying lemurs", which have the largest possible gliding membrane of any mammal, including webbing between its fingers like a bat.
` It is not a stretch to say that a bat's ancestor would have been colugo-like. The more elaborate the membrane, the better control it would have had when gliding. Individuals who had larger hands, or who were able to flap their arms in order to propel themselves would have had a real advantage in the gliding department because they could glide farther.
` If this was an important-enough adaptation, there would be nothing stopping these webbed, long-fingered arms from becoming more exaggerated in further generations, thus evolving into a bat's wings. All the while, the animal would still be able to climb, as bats can, but would also become more and more prone to hanging upside-down.

This textbook, however, claimed instead that if you proposed that a bat evolved from say, a rat (which it couldn't have since rats are distinct, modern species), then that would mean a transitional species -- a "brat" (nice!) -- would need to have 'half a wing'.
` A gliding membrane is just that; you can't quite fly with it, but it does keep you from falling! However, the book merely went on to say that 'half a wing' would be useless to an animal, being neither leg nor wing, and so therefore it could never have been naturally selected.
` I just couldn't understand why this was supposed to make sense. I stared and stared at the drawing of the rat, the bat, and the "impossible" "brat", trying to understand how someone could come up with such a strange idea as a useless "half-a-wing". Maybe they just didn't know better?

Another illustration was supposed to somehow show that there was something wrong with the way biologists classified species. It featured an ant saying to a bee "Say, bee, aren't we cousins?" and a cobra saying "Ssssorry, bee, but my venom meanss that you're related to me!"
` Of course, a bee's venom is mostly identical to an ant's venom, and very different from a snake's venom, just as an ant itself is mostly identical to a bee (as both are actually specialized groups of wasps), whereas a snake has all the characteristics of a vertebrate.
` So, a snake has a completely different type of venom than a wasp -- therefore that's a sign of kinship? That's like saying that since insects and birds both have wings (composed of completely different body parts), then it is a sign that they are related.

I just remember sitting there, flabbergasted at how someone could miss these obvious facts. Venom, whether it's exuded from the reproductive organs of a bee, or from the teeth of a snake, occurs in animals as diverse as jellyfish and platypuses, but the actual structure of the venom is limited to being a derivative of the secretion it originally evolved from, and so different lineages of animals have different types of venom based on what their first venom-bearing ancestors had.
` For example, bee venom is clearly a type of wasp venom, and the same goes for ants -- even though most groups of ants have lost their stings, many still produce toxic secretions. Wasp venom is just a modified reproductive fluid, which was originally needed in paralyzing caterpillars so that their eggs could be laid inside. On the other hand, insects with a venomous bite evolved their venom from digestive juices.
` As for snakes, their venom history can be traced together with the history of every other part of them, and one thing is clear -- snake venom evolved in snakes, and the different components come from different organs in the snake's body. This all was extensively mapped by Bryan Fry -- you can read his research paper here.
` Part of the purpose of figuring all this out is not just to find out how snakes are related and how their venom evolved, but for medical reasons, as well. A 2005 New York Times article described it this way:
Just this February, Dr. Fry and his colleagues filed a patent for a molecule found in the venom of the inland taipan that may help treat congestive heart failure.

Understanding the evolution of snake venoms will speed up these discoveries immensely, Dr. Fry predicted. "You need a good road map to get your research going," he said.

Tracing the venoms' relatedness from one species to one another greatly speeds up this process. And later on, the article says of certain venom molecules:

Because they have evolved from proteins that only act on the heart, they probably will not pose a risk to other parts of the body.

"If you want to use a venom for some kind of drug, you'd better look back and see where it came from," Dr. Kochva said.

The fact that understanding how something evolved often has useful medical implications and applications is generally not known to the public, and yet it is ubiquitous, from the study of venoms, plant toxins, bacteria, not to mention the various components and systems found in humans and other species.
` I'd go on about this subject, but it deserves its own post.

My point with this post is to describe my earliest, if dim, memories of being introduced to creationism, as unsatisfyingly sketchy as these recollections may be now.
` A few years after these encounters, I had even forgotten that any of this had been called 'creation science', and so when I heard the term, I had assumed it really was science and thought it was terrible that anyone was suppressing it -- that is, until I checked it out and saw that it was the same silly games that I'd seen before.
` That was when I started to write a little about the subject, especially since I had since encountered Christians who didn't know what evolution was, but condemned it because it was Obviously Satanic.
` Since then, I've read all sorts of creationist material, and a great deal of the "Intelligent Design" propaganda, finding the same distortions and logical fallacies over and over again. Although the claims may be different, the method of disguising them as science is the same.

One of my first blog posts was a series on bird evolution and creationist nonsense opposing it, pointing out that the people arguing against evolution haven't actually ever learned what it is they're supposed to be arguing against. It's actually quite thorough, and I thought, not a bad thing to update and post here as well.
` I've been asked how I can believe that living things have evolved. In writing, at least, I can show things from my perspective -- to look at the actual science, and then show how the creationists' claims never actually address it.

Even today, not only do I live with a follower of kooky creationist conspiracy theorist Kent Hovind, but I meet various types of creationists all the time. For example, in the first day of Spanish class (April 2), one of the exercises was to give our opinions on statements about biotechnology.
` Never minding the fact that many of them didn't even make sense (as this is Spanish class, not science class!), one of the statements was (translated to English); "Genetics has gone too far. Man cannot toy with human nature. It isn't ethical and only produces suffering."
` To my bafflement, the woman sitting across from me thought this referred to the harm that "Darwinism" has supposedly done. The images of Nazis from the Intelligent Design propagandist film Expelled began dancing through my head. (I've produced a very thorough debunking of its claims, as well -- and this is after enduring it three times!)

It is ludicrous to say that evolution is false or inherently harmful to learn about. But can I get that across in writing effectively? I believe I can.

Edit: As though in answer, Robinson Bolkum commented on teh Facebooks:

"Okay, Ms. Quine. I don't read blogs, & I don't read anything that long, when it is printed on-line. However, I did read this one, of yours. I think you're one hell of a clear thinker & fine writer. Whether you'd care to continue on ahead in science or journalism or both, you're a presence to honor in whatever you undertake. Your ability to mix references with personal experiences, feelings & observations is refreshing. Have you submitted anything to a magazine for publication just yet? I think it may be high time that you start racking up those rejection letters, on your way to journalistic stardom."

And David Zimmerman added: "I concur"

Then, I said: "I've only gotten one rejection letter. I shall quest for more. Thank you, Robinson and Zimmerman. I need to hear such encouragement! It surprises me to see how much people think my writing is really good. Maybe it's not delusional to believe in myself after all?"

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