Last Tuesday, Bill Nye (the science guy) debated Ken Ham (founder and CEO of Kentucky’s Creation Museum) on the question of whether a young-earth creation model is compatible with the theory of evolution. NPR posted a nice summary of the debate, along with the full video content, so I won’t go into details about the debate itself, but I will offer my response to 22 creationists.
After the debate, BuzzFeed reporter Matt Stopera asked 22 self-identifying creationists to write a message/question/note to the other side. (I was glad to see that nobody asked, “Were you there?”). Below, I offer my response to each of the 22.
Response to 22 Creationists
1. Bill Nye, Are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?
Yes, in a very positive way. Bill Nye has made science interesting–even fun–for millions of children (and adults, too). He encourages children to think rationally about the world, to ask questions, to observe, to consider evidence, and to appreciate the wonder and awe of the natural world.
2. Are you scared of a Divine Creator?
No. Asking an atheist if he or she is afraid of a divine creator is akin to asking if he or she is afraid of unicorns, Voldemort, or Sauron.
3. Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature? I.e., trees created with rings…, Adam created as an adult…
Not completely illogical, but rather improbable. This question is similar to asking whether the universe, and everyone in it, including everyone’s current memories, was just created one second ago. In that scenario, you did not actually read the beginning of this post, rather your memory of doing so was just now created intact, in your now several-seconds-old mind.
Such a scenario is not illogical. In fact, if that actually occurred, it would be indistinguishable from the more traditional model of events unfolding over time. But as an explanation of reality, it raises more questions than it answers.
4. Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove evolution?
This objection to evolution is frequently raised, but it stems from a misunderstanding of the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy of a closed system will increase over time. Entropy has a precise technical definition, but it is reasonably interpreted as disorder or randomness within the system.
The misunderstanding is the part about a closed system. The second law of thermodynamics does not apply to part of a system, but rather to the entirety of a closed system. In this case, the closed system is our universe, not part of our universe (like an individual organism within our universe). It is perfectly possible for a portion of the system to become more ordered (i.e., decrease in entropy) provided that change is offset by a decrease in order (i.e., increase in entropy) in some other portion.
There are countless examples of local decreases in entropy. The computer I am typing this on is highly ordered. But the production of this computer required work, and that work produced heat, and that heat has dissipated throughout the environment. The net effect of everything that went into the production of this computer is a reduction in overall order–an increase in entropy.
Similarly, when an organism grows, locally, it is decreasing the entropy of the molecules that make up its own body. However, in metabolizing food, it is also producing heat that dissipates into the environment.
Ultimately, if we just think about events that happen here on Earth, say for example, the evolution of species by natural selection, the second law of thermodynamics does not apply at all. Why? Because Earth is not a closed system. It receives a continual supply of energy from the Sun.
5. How do you explain a sunset if their [sic] is no God?
This is irrelevant to the question of whether a young-earth creation model is compatible with the theory of evolution, but I’ll bite.
A sunset is one of the many aspects of our natural world that so often produces a sense of awe, of beauty, wonder, and joy. For me, it is a reminder of the vastness of space and time, and of how fortunate I am to have this brief life to know, or at least, try to know, the world as it really is.
But if pressed for a mechanical explanation, I might quote Steve Ackerman, a professor of meteorology at University of Wisconsin in Madison:
The colors of the sunset result from a phenomenon called scattering. Molecules and small particles in the atmosphere change the direction of light rays, causing them to scatter. Scattering affects the color of light coming from the sky, but the details are determined by the wavelength of the light and the size of the particle.
6. If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories?
First, see my response to question #4 above, which describes why the theory of evolution is not at odds with the second law of thermodynamics.
With respect to the Big Bang, space-time began with the big bang. The second law of thermodynamics talks about changing entropy over time. It is not applicable before time began. However with the infinitesimally young universe immediately after the big bang going forward, the entropy of the universe has been increasing.
Also, as I alluded to in #4 above, the term entropy has a precise technical meaning that we can loosely think of as disorder or randomness. But more technically, entropy is a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work. At the instant of the big bang, the entirety of the universe’s thermal energy was available for conversion into mechanical work. That availability has been decreasing–and thus, entropy increasing–ever since.
7. What about noetics?
What about it? The Institute of Noetic Sciences is a pseudo scientific organisation, founded by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell. The institute’s primary focus areas are, consciousness and healing, extended human capacities, and emerging worldviews. Since its founding, it has produced nothing in the way of scientific evidence relating to the theory of evolution.
8. Where do you derive the objective meaning in life?
There is no objective meaning of life. That is, there is no meaning of life that exists “out there” independent of minds that contemplate meaning. There certainly is a subjective meaning of life–the meaning of life that we humans ponder. For me, the (subjective) “meaning of life” is the striving to improve the quality of life, not only for myself, but for my family, friends, and indeed, everyone, including those not yet born.
9. If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance?
Chance variations, usually minute in size, combined with natural selective pressures, applied over a very, very long period of time, in a space as vast as the universe.
10. I believe in the Big Bang Theory… God said it and BANG it happened!
That is a statement of faith. I have no reason to dispute that you believe what you say you believe.
For me, The Big Bang is our current best model for how our present universe came to be as we observe it through entirely natural processes. The Big Bang theory, as all scientific theories, is not absolute fact, but rather a provisional explanation based on what we have observed, repeatedly, under controlled experimental conditions. Over time, the theory will be modified–or even abandoned altogether–as new observations dictate.
11. Why do evolutionists/secularists/humanists/non-God believing people reject the idea of their [sic] being a creator God but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terrestrial [sic] sources?
Evolutionists et. al., do not “embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extraterrestrial sources.”
12. There is no inbetween… the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds necessary for an “official proof”
I’m not sure what you mean by “official proof”, but there is certainly sufficient evidence to produce a consensus among scientists on evolution. There is a fossil record consisting of literally millions of examples of life forms that support the hypothesis of speciation via evolution. And, importantly, there is not a single fossil form that does not support that hypothesis. This is why the hypothesis of evolution has been accepted as a proven theory.
13. Does metamorphosis help support evolution?
The term metamorphosis generally refers to the process of transforming an immature individual insect or amphibian to an adult individual through two or more distinct stages. Evolution does not deal with changes experienced by an individual as the individual matures. Rather, evolution is a process by which small genetic variation from one generation to the next, gradually, over the course of many generations, can produce different species of organisms.
14. If Evolution is a Theory (like creationism or the Bible) why then is Evolution taught as fact. [sic]
Evolution is a scientific theory supported by literally millions of pieces of evidence amassed over more than 150 years of scientific inquiry. It has attained “theory” status–as has gravity–precisely because the hypothesis of evolution has held up so well under scientific scrutiny.
Neither creationism nor the Bible are scientific theories. They are not falsifiable. They do not make predictions that can be experimentally verified. They are, instead, artifacts of faith.
Scientific theories are taught as fact, but provisionally so. It is understood, that if and when new scientific knowledge comes to light, existing scientific theories–and thus, facts–may be subject to change. Indeed, this happens routinely.
Artifacts of faith are different than scientifically derived facts. They are believed without (or sometimes, in spite of) evidence. Thus, the two should not be presented, in the classroom or anywhere else, as being the same kind of thing.
15. Because science by definition is a “theory”–not testable, observable, nor repeatable” [sic] Why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?
The premise here is flawed. See #14 above.
Further, to be clear, I do not object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school, provided they are taught as religious beliefs rather than scientific beliefs. But I do object to those being taught in a science class as science.
16. What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase in genetic information or evolutionary process?
Of the 22 items presented here, this is most technical, and the most legitimate sounding challenge to evolution. But still, it is a frequently used creationist propaganda talking point, rather than a serious challenge.
There are really two questions here: what scientific discoveries evidence an increase in
- genetic information? or
- the evolutionary process?
Let’s dispense with the second question first, as that is the easiest. The “evolutionary process” is explained by the Theory of Evolution, which, as noted in #14 above, is a scientific theory supported by literally millions of pieces of evidence amassed over more than 150 years of scientific inquiry.
Now let’s turn to the first part of the the question, regarding increasing genetic information. The challenge generally goes like this: evolution is driven by mutations, mutations are random, randomness adds noise rather than information. Since genes do contain information, they are not a product of randomness and thus could not have been produced by evolution. But this reasoning is flawed.
The dictionary definition of “information”, in this sense, is “what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.” In the case of genetics, information is that which is conveyed by a sequence of genes (or more precisely, the molecules of DNA that comprise the genes).
There are actually many ways to increase genetic information, but a particularly common mechanism involves gene duplication and random mutation. A portion of a longer stretch of DNA is copied, then random mutation(s) affect one of the copies. The end result is that we are left with the information contained in the original stretch of copied DNA and the different information in the mutated copy.
And there is plenty of scientific evidence for this. At the time of this writing, a PubMed (the search engine for US National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health) search for “gene duplication” and evolution produced 5658 results.
17. What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in salvation?
What relevance does this have to the question of evolution?
Still, I will answer: None.
It is narcissistic to believe the universe exists as a side effect of an overall plan for humans. The universe is what it is, and we happen to be part of it. Assignment of purpose is a product of human minds.
18. Why have we found only 1 “Lucy”, when we have found more than 1 of everything else?
“Lucy” refers to a specific incomplete female skeleton found in eastern Ethiopia in 1974. But “Lucy” is not the only notable hominin fossil that has been found. In fact, there are thousands.
19. Can you believe in “the big bang” without “faith”?
Yes. There are multiple, independent chains of scientific evidence (i.e., redshifted galaxies, microwave background radiation, mixture of elements, and looking back in time at older galaxies) that each point to a “Big Bang” origin of our present universe. Faith (i.e., belief without, or in spite of, evidence) is not required.
20. How can you look at the world and not believe someone created/thought of it? It’s Amazing!!!
Well, I agree that the world is amazing! When I look around and really think about the world we live in–the Earth and everything on it, life, space, planets, stars, and even time–I am filled with a sense of awe and wonder. I’m deeply driven to understand the true nature of the reality we live in, so I ask questions, and I seek answers.
But I want real answers. Answers that hold up to as much scrutiny as anyone can muster, now or in the future. And if an answer, after some time, fails to hold up to a new, more rigorous level of scrutiny, let’s refine the answer. Let’s make it more robust such that it now holds up to all the past scrutiny as well as the new.
A supernatural being–a god–is not a satisfying answer for at least two reasons.
First, it is not actually an answer, but rather a pushing back of the question. If a god caused everything, what caused god? If we fail to address (or even ask) that question, then how is it even an answer?
Second, humans have believed in many hundreds of gods and other supernatural beings throughout history. And, we’re clearly capable of realizing that gods can be man-made, which is evidenced by the fact that most (if not all) people don’t believe in most of those hundreds of gods.
21. Relating to the big bang theory…. Where did the exploding star come from?
The big bang theory does not describe the explosion of a star. It describes the rapid expansion of space-time from nothing. Not a star; not the vacuum of empty space; nothing.
For an accessible and fascinating discussion of this idea, I highly recommend Lawrence Krauss’ book, A Universe From Nothing; Why There is Something Rather that Nothing, or listening to one of Mr. Krauss’ online talks on the subject.
22. If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?
First, we did not come from monkeys (although we do share a common ancestor with monkeys). Humans are more closely related to modern African apes (e.g., gorillas and chimpanzees) than to monkeys, but humans did not actually come from modern apes, either. By “more closely related”, I mean that humans also share a common ancestor with modern apes, but that common ancestor lived more recently than the common ancestor with monkeys (or any other living species).
But setting aside the monkey vs. ape issue and getting to the crux of the question; our common ancestor with modern apes is no longer extant, but there is no fundamental reason why members of any species could not coexist with members of an ancestral species.
A cockapoo is a breed of dog that comes from cocker spaniels and poodles. You would never consider asking, “If cockapoos came from cocker spaniels and poodles, then why are there still cocker spaniels and poodles?” Would you? Or “If mules come from donkeys and horses, why are there still donkeys and horses?”