Is there a Young Earth Creationist in your life?
If not, just wait. The civilized world is currently enjoying a good chuckle at the news that unprecedented thousands of American children are now enrolled in schools where they are taught that the world is 7,000 years old, that dinosaurs and humans once co-habitated, and that the Grand Canyon was formed in less than two months by the raging waters of the Great Flood. Disproportionate numbers of these children live in Louisiana, which became an unwitting laboratory for all kinds of hip libertarian social experiments after Hurricane Katrina flattened an already-struggling New Orleans. One of those social experiments was the radical expansion of school voucher programs, which have given unlettered individuals profound control over what their children learn in school. As a result, thousands of young Louisianans will open their “science” textbooks from the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) program this fall and read, for example:
Are dinosaurs alive today? Scientists are becoming more convinced of their existence. Have you heard of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland? ‘Nessie’ for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.
Quite a lot can be learned from that quote if it’s digested slowly, and in the proper context, and with some substantial alcoholic accompaniment.
First, note that the scholars of ACE don’t quite claim Nessie’s a settled question. Rather, they allow for the possibility of her existence, and they do so only because the presence of a dinosaur in Scotland would seem to support a recent dinosauric extinction. That is, if dinosaurs didn’t go extinct until fairly recently — say, until Noah’s Flood, which Young Earth Creationists place around the year 2,000 B.C.E. — then it’s conceivable that one or two antediluvian monsters survive today.
More to the point: if there are a few dinosaurs still roaming the Earth, then it’s absolutely inconceivable that dinosaurs went extinct 60 million years ago, as most scientists say. If Nessie’s real, and if she’s a dinosaur, then scientists are full of shit, the Earth is younger than the cave paintings at Lascaux, and evolution’s had no time to do its job.
Here, then, is the Young Earth Creationist mindset in summary: Overwhelming genetic, paleontological, and geological evidence for evolution is less trustworthy than a few grainy photographs and anecdotes about a supernaturally long-lived and terribly lonesome water-snake. And I hope you’ll be as appalled as I to realize that Young Earth Creationists don’t actually believe grainy photographs are better than DNA evidence. They’d have to be stupid to think that, and they’re not. The grainy photographs win out only because the Bible doesn’t contradict them. Which is to say, to the Young Earth Creationist, it’s not the photos of the Loch Ness Monster that lend credence to the Bible. It’s the Bible that lends credence to Nessie.
The Bible is the Young Earth Creationist’s first principle. It needs no substantiation from the external world; rather, the facts of the world receive their validity from it. And since you can’t prove evolution via natural selection with the Book of Genesis, arguments with Young Earth Creationists are lost before they’ve begun — their badly used minds have trespassed beyond the redemptive powers of even the mightiest logic.
Happily, it is almost certainly not too late to save at least some of the children now being brain-raped by the Young Earth Creationists’ textbooks. Indeed, there is a handy way to tell the thoroughly doomed from the merely damaged. If, in conversation, a young creationist should allow that the Earth might be more than 7,000 years old; or that dinosaurs may have lived millions of years ago; or that evolution could have occurred, if only it was helped along by God — then you will know your creationist has, at one time or another, known doubt. In doubt, there is hope.
Should your conversation with your creationist continue (and please ensure that it does), your creationist – let’s call him Ted – may voice what he believes to be a rational argument against evolution. Once that occurs, Ted is yours. Your interlocutor has allowed that he accepts rational thought as a basis for truth-seeking, and that allowance leads unerringly to Darwin, secularism, and sanity. Maybe not immediately — Ted may know weeks and years of heartache before he accepts what he suddenly realizes, in his heart and brain, to be true; and it’s entirely possible that he’ll eventually blot out the realization entirely.
But you may impact the odds. Here, then, are the five arguments with which your creationist is most likely to attack you, along with brief, elegant, and easily comprehensible rebuttals. Use them kindly, and use them often. The children of America need you.
Argument 1: Evolution makes no sense! If humans evolved from monkeys, why do monkeys still exist?
First of all, point out that the question assumes something about evolution that isn’t true. Biologists don’t claim, and never have claimed, that humans evolved from monkeys. Rather, they claim that humans and monkeys share a common ancestor. In fact, evolutionary science suggests that all, or nearly all, terrestrial life shares a common ancestor — and that with very few exceptions, the more similar two species are, the more recently their last common ancestor walked the Earth. (It may be worth mentioning to your creationist that both genetic evidence and the fossil record support this thesis. For example, DNA evidence tells us that apes evolved from one of several species of ancient possum-like tree-dwellers. This DNA evidence is bolstered by the fact that scientists have never found a fossil of an ape older than those of our first possum-esque progenitors. Even one exceptionally old ape-fossil would invalidate all of evolutionary theory. Alas, that fossil is elusive.)
Still, creationists may wonder: If humans evolved from apes of any kind, why are other apes still around? The question represents a profound misunderstanding of the evolutionary process, and it’s probably worth ascertaining the nature of that misunderstanding before proceeding. Ask your creationist: What do you think scientists mean when they say “evolution”? Listen carefully, don’t interrupt, and only when s/he’s done speaking should you explain where your creationist went wrong.*
Argument 2: Why are there no transitional life-forms?
This argument is also phrased as: Why are there no transitional fossils? In its grossest form, the argument may be phrased: Why do we see no fossils of a half-aligator, half-chipmunk? The gross version of the argument may be tersely dismissed by explaining that nobody’s claimed chipmunks evolved from alligators, or vice-versa.
But the more subtle version of the argument demands a subtler response. If modern homosapiens evolved from archaic homosapiens who evolved from homo erectus and so on, why don’t we find animals that are half archaic homosapiens and half homo erectus? Explain to your creationist that once upon a time, we had no fossils of archaic homosapiens, and creationists wondered why there were no intermediary forms between modern humans and homo erectus. Now that we’ve found something in the middle, creationists don’t see that a gap’s been filled. Rather, they see that two gaps have been created. And if you find intermediary fossils between these species, then there will be four gaps. And so on.
Unfortunately for taxonomists, the lines between species are often hazy, because all species are continually evolving. We are all transitional life forms. Should we die in the mud, we may all leave transitional fossils. Nevertheless, scientists have identified many, many fossils of long-extinct species that appear to bridge the divides between different categories of creatures. There is the bony Eupodophis, a water snake who’d not yet shed the hind limbs of his lizard ancestors. There’s Icthyomas, a descendent of dinosaurs with terribly sharp teeth, whose skeleton nevertheless looks exactly like a bird’s. There are the early mammals known as Miacis, whose descendants include both the caniformes (dogs, bears, ferrets) and the feliformes (cats, hyenas, civets), and who look like a cross between a wolf and a lynx. There are thousands more.
Argument 3: What about the eye/bombardier beetle/flagella/whatever?
This is the argument known as “irreducible complexity” — the idea being, some structures within animals are too complex to have evolved piecemeal. The eye, creationists contend, is comprised of many small and intricate parts, none of which function very well independently. How, then, would these constituent parts have known to evolve towards their ultimate eye-ness? Your creationist may mention the spunky bombardier beetle, which attacks its prey with two chemicals which explode when mixed, and which are otherwise stored in airtight compartments on the beetle’s back. Before those compartments evolved, creationists wonder, wouldn’t young bombardier beetles have tended to blow up? And what of the flagella, those very complicated whips with which certain one-celled organisms propel themselves through liquid? They’re made of many different protein parts — what are the odds that they just fell together, all at once?
Canny though the irreducible complexity argument is, it’s among the easiest to rebut. Tell your creationist that the eye evolved from simple photo-receptor cells, which allowed ancient animals to tell if their environment was light or dark. When, by chance, one of those cells happened to appear in a depression on an animal’s skin, the resulting shadows allowed the animal to divine the general direction of a nearby light source. Over millions of generations, the photo-receptor cells receded further and were ultimately covered by a protective membrane, which created an eye that worked as a kind of pinhole camera. Eventually the barrier sealed, and the space between the photo-electric cells filled with matter, as empty cavities within the body tend to do. The more transparent the matter was, and the more it assisted in an animal’s focusing, the more successfully the animal could see. Already, evolution had produced a rough draft of the modern human eye, and animal life had barely crawled from the sea.
As to the bombardier beetle: it once kept less-noxious chemicals in its airtight sacks. And the flagella, it turns out, most likely evolved from simple structures that had nothing to do with propulsion. (A related, though much simpler, organ is found on salmonella. The salmonella use the organ to inject Eukarya cells with toxins. It’s a kind of microscopic stinger.)
Argument 4: Evolution can’t explain why the universe is so ideally suited to life.
This is the “anthropic” argument, and it’s best defeated by noting that the universe isn’t well-suited to life at all. The overwhelming majority of the universe is unimaginably cold and dead, and most of what’s left over is a hellbroth of nuclear fusion, so fiery and violent it could vaporize civilization in a nanosecond. The rest of the universe is compressed into black holes, gravity wells of such awesome power that they rip starlight off its course through the cosmic vastness and eat it. What remains after the cold, the heat, and the crunch is an afterthought; a few meaningless dust motes in an infinite sky. These dust motes comprise the at least 100,000,000,000,000 planets in the universe. Of those, we know of one, just one, capable of supporting life.
That said, our planet really is an excellent life-incubator. And if that seems too lucky, ask your creationist to consider the numbers once more. Wouldn’t it be odd if there weren’t at least a few planets capable of supporting life in the universe’s hugeness? (It should go without saying that there’s nothing very lucky about finding ourselves on one of those life-friendly planets, since if we were elsewhere we’d be dead. Sadly, sometimes this needs explaining, too.)
Argument 5: Why doesn’t new life spring up all the time?
All life on Earth appears to share a common ancestor. The possible exceptions — odd life-forms which subsist in the sunless hells around oceanic vents — are unproven and rare. The actual genesis of life appears to be a relatively uncommon event. Nevertheless, your creationist may have taken to heart an argument like this one:
Remind your creationist that life needn’t regularly arise in jars of peanut butter in order for evolution to work. It need only arise once, somewhere. Which, please note, doesn’t mean it’s not arising in your jar of peanut butter. New life will tend to be quite small — much smaller than bacteria — and commensurately easy to eat.
And finally: It may become necessary to actually explain evolution to your creationist. If so, avoid talk of RNA and DNA and transcriptase and proteins. Use concrete images, preferably of mammals. Say something like:
All species are evolving, and they’re evolving constantly. Every baby of every species has a genetic makeup that’s a little different from its parents’. If a baby from Species X — let’s call this species the “fuzzies” — is different from its parents in a way that helps it survive and breed more offspring, then the difference is likely to be passed on to the fuzzy’s descendants. Of course, those fertile little fuzzies might not interbreed with all their fuzzy cousins. Some fuzzy families may be too far away to breed with, or separated by some natural barrier. If, after some thousands of years, the two groups of fuzzies haven’t reunited and mingled their genes, the groups may have developed some significant differences. And over many more thousands of years and many more tiny mutations, members of the one group may find themselves unable to breed with members of the other. They are now no longer fuzzies. They may have become hairies. And that other branch has been mutating, too — they may, by that time, be furries. There may be no more fuzzies anywhere in the world.
That’s it. Study up. There are reportedly 200,000 American children learning Young Earth Creationism in school. Very soon they’ll graduate, and work, and marry, and reproduce. Remember — evolution doesn’t necessarily favor the smart. It favors the fecund.