Dispatches from the Creation Wars

To continue the dialogue with Rusty Lopez from the New Covenant blog, let’s examine his latest posting. I’m going to do this one a bit differently so as not to lose the threads of each specific point of dispute. I’m going to divide this post by those areas and label them as such, and I will put my original argument in plain type, then Rusty’s response in italics, then my new response in plain type again. That way each issue can be followed as the argument has developed.

1. The definition of testability

I had written:

“It appears that both he and Ross use what I regard as a rather anachronistic definition of “testable”. The primary focus of the article by Ross that Rusty cites as the “testable creation model” was on how to read modern scientific theories IN to the Genesis account, and the technique used to do it was to take vague statements from Genesis and read an infinite amount of detail into it so that it appears that the bible predicted what we have now found to be true.”

Rusty replied:

Ed brings up a good point in that we need to understand how RTB is using the word “testable.” Perhaps a bit of clarification is needed here. RTB is stating that if we take the Biblical record on Creation – not just the account in Genesis – but all of the Bible’s references to God’s activity of Creation, we can then compare what the data of nature is telling us to that record and we can make predictions as to what we should expect to find in various areas of future scientific research.

The important thing, for the purposes of my critique, was (and is) to point out the difference between this and the way hypotheses are tested in science. What Rusty is referring to here is not prediction but retrodiction – it’s looking back from the perspective of modern theories and reading those facts back IN to the Genesis account. In science, the initial model or theory that is being tested is used to make predictions about the nature of the evidence. A good example, ironically, is the big bang theory that is accepted by both sides in this discussion as true. As Ross himself points out many times, the big bang theory made specific predictions that had to be true if the theory was true – specific measurements of background radiation, the relative abundances of various elements, the measured density, the degree of red shift, etc. This is what scientists mean when they talk about a theory being testable and falsifiable. If any of those predictions had turned out to be false, the theory would either have had to be discarded or modified to some degree to better explain the data. Alas, they all were accurate predictions, along with others, and the theory has been confirmed.

But let’s contrast that with what is being done here. The “testable creation model” that is presented here is nothing more or less than the biblical account of creation as they interpret it (there are of course other interpretations). But no one ever took the biblical account, drew logical inferences from it in the form of predictions, and then tested those predictions against the data. They are not providing a model to be tested but rather, as Rusty said in his first resopnse, trying to prove that the biblical story is consistent with modern theories that have already been tested. From an apologetic standpoint, that may be important; from a scientific one, it is irrelevant. And it is irrelevant because the big bang theory – and evolution, I would argue – are established as successful theories solely on the basis of the evidence and not on whether they agree or disagree with any particular interpretation of any religious texts.

I’m going to skip over the issue of whether the Big Bang implies the existence of God, mostly because I don’t dispute it and it detracts from the real issue that I’m disputing. Whether one can infer theism or atheism from big bang cosmology matters very little, as they are both inferences drawn from a scientific theory and are not scientific statements in and of themselves. And also because I accept that the universe was created by god (as opposed to God), so it’s not really an issue of dispute. My main point in discussing it in the first place was simply to point out the difference in the two uses of “testable” in this discussion. So, skipping ahead a bit…

2. An unconstrained designer and complex vs simple life

Rusty wrote:

The prediction made by RTB’s model is that life, in its earliest and simplest form, will be complex. Here we are considering life in its earliest and simplest form as contrasted with life in its latest and advanced form. For example, contrast the first bacteria with modern humans – simple to advanced. Yet, and here is the catch, the structure of the bacteria is highly complex (as Ed ponders). It is this complexity that is predicted by RTB’s model. Got that? The model is not addressing, here, the issue of life going from simple to advanced; it is addressing the issue that simple life is complex.

There are several reasons why this is not a compelling argument. First, it presumes that the first forms of life that were preserved in the rocks – bacteria – were in fact the first forms of life on the Earth, that those bacteria had no precursors that were relatively simple and that the complexity built over time. There is a vast amount of research on the possible pathways that the biochemical precursors to bacteria might have taken, but it is highly unlikely that those precursors would have left behind evidence of their existence the way bacteria did.

Second, I would argue that it isn’t really a prediction that flows from the existence of an unconstrained designer at all. Why would one assume that just because a designer is unconstrained, he would automatically start with something complex? He could just as easily have decided to start with something very simple and “work his way up” because, as Rusty opines later, he was “enjoying the process of creation”. And this really is the point I’m making, and I think Rusty demonstrates it perfectly by changing his argument in this regard, that starting from the notion of an unconstrained, omnipotent designer, there are no predictions that could be made that could be falsified in any way, which makes it completely untestable. If the data appears in this way, they merely say, “God decided to do it that way”. If the data appeared completely differently – let’s say all forms of life appeared simultaneously on the planet, with humans and dinosaurs and trilobites and everything else all found in the same strata at the bottom – they would merely say, “God decided to do it that way”. The argument over simplicity and complexity masks the fact that there IS an obvious trend from the relatively simple to the vastly more complex in the history of life on earth – no one would dispute that – and that this trend MUST be true if evolution is true. Creationism can be compatible with any set of data because one could simply pass it off as the will of God. But if evolution is true, the data MUST look the way it looks. If mammals were found in precambrian strata alongside anaerobic bacteria, evolution would be dead in the water as an idea. An idea that cannot be falsified regardless of the data cannot, by definition, be tested and hence is not scientific in nature. This just returns me to the overall point that the definition of “testable” that Rusty and Ross are using is entirely different from the way it is used in science.

3. Are early earth conditions consistent with the bible?

Rusty wrote, in one place:

In other words, the text clearly states that the early Earth was without life, covered with water, and in darkness. This corresponds to our best understanding of the conditions on early Earth.

But in another place he writes:

It interesting to note that the late heavy bombardment – that time in our solar system?s history when the inner planets underwent asteroidal bombardment – concluded at approximately 3.8 billion years ago. Up to that point the surface of the Earth is either in a molten state or is subject to sterilization events during the late heavy bombardment. In other words life appears as soon as conditions permit.

There is a contradiction here, both within his statements and with the biblical text. Remember that the biblical text says:

2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4. And God saw the light, that [it was] good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
6. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

The early earth was not “covered in water”, as Rusty’s initial statement and the bible claim. The early earth was, as Rusty’s second statement implied, molten and being bombarded with asteroids. There was no water on the earth for some 600 million years, until the planet had cooled enough for water to remain in a liquid state. The Genesis account does not say anything about this vast break in time between the creation of the earth and the time when God “moved upon the face of the waters”. So in point of fact, the Genesis account does not coincide with what we know about early earth conditions.

Also, note that here again we have an example of retrodiction, not prediction, and another example of a set of data that is consistent with both explanations. It is not a prediction to say “life appears as soon as conditions permit”, as that would HAVE to be true no matter what the explanation for it is – by definition, life could not exist before the conditions for life permitted it. The difference, here again, between the mainstream scientific theories and creationist theories is that the creationist theories are compatible with ANY set of data. God could have chosen to simply create the earth without being molten at all. He could have created it to look just like it does today, without wasting 600 million years of a lifeless planet being bombarded by asteroids or having to wait for it to cool off. He could have created humans immediately and not bothered to tinker around with millions of other species, gradually making them more complex and more modern looking as he went. But if mainstream scientific theories about earth formation and the evolution of life are true, the data MUST look the way it looks. So when Rusty writes:

Further the Earth’s surface was not optimally ready for advanced life forms in that it was still susceptible to “snowball” events, did not yet have the right land to water ratio, nor the best atmosphere. One of the hallmarks of a good design is optimal timing. Research continues to show that events orchestrating the appearance of advanced life on planet Earth are optimally timed.

It seems to me that this is something that must be true if evolution is true, but could certainly be false if creationism is true. God is not constrained by the earth not being “optimally ready”, he could make it optimally ready whenever he chose to do so. So on the one hand, Rusty posits an unconstrained God, then brings up examples of “optimal timing” that are optimal only if one is constrained. If there is an unconstrained creator, then there is no such thing as “optimal timing” – it is a hallmark of “good design” only if the designer is working within constraints, not if the designer can create whatever conditions he chooses at any time by fiat.

4. The order of appearance of life on earth

Here is my initial statement:

“Fossils freeze a specific moment in time, and the fossil record as a whole (the order of appearance of the various species) can only show trends. That order of appearance, I would argue, is a very powerful prediction made by evolution… this order: fish —> amphibian —> reptile —> mammals and birds. Evolution says that they appeared in that order because they evolved in that order. If evolution is true, and each of these major animal groups split off from the previous one, then what would we expect?… the order of appearance within those groups should be as conspicuous as the order of appearance in general – if birds evolved from reptiles, then the first birds must have been very similar to reptiles… And what does the fossil record show? Precisely that…The first birds to appear are so reptile-like that they would be classified as theropod dinosaurs if not for the feathers. We now have multiple feathered theropod species to bridge the gap, and they all appear very early and share most of their traits with reptiles, not with modern birds. Over time, they diversified and became less reptile-like… If modern birds appeared all at once in the fossil record, with entirely avian skeletal structure and feathers and fully adapted for powered flight, there would be no way to link them to reptiles…But they don’t appear that way, and the order in which they do appear is precisely what evolution predicts.”

Rusty replied:

I disagree with Ed on most of these points. The fossil record although considered not complete is considered adequate. It reveals periods of stasis and then sudden appearance (or extinction). Indeed, Punctuated Equilibrium was posited to address this very issue.

This is an odd statement, because I didn’t say anything about stasis and punctuation. I was talking about the ORDER in which the variety of life forms appeared, not the RATE at which they appeared. Those are two entirely different issues. Rusty does not even attempt to address that order except to say:

Simply because animal forms appeared on Earth in a certain sequence does not mandate that they are related or transitioned from one to another. Another completely valid explanation is that they were designed that way.

But that is not the argument I was making. Of course it doesn’t “prove” that life evolved, but my argument was that this order MUST be the way it is if evolution is true, whereas creationism could explain any order whatsoever. And the order of appearance looks very much like one would expect if they are being designed by tinkering, with each successive taxa splitting off from earlier ones, being slightly different than the previous forms and, over time, becoming more distinct. If evolution is true, then the first amphibians to appear in the fossil record MUST look only slightly different from fish, and it MUST show that as new species of amphibians appear they are slightly less fish-like and more adapted to terrestrial life. And this is true of every other lineage as well, and it proves true in every single case. This is an example of a real prediction – it has to be true if the theory is true. Creationism, on the other hand, cannot make such predictions because any set of data could be explained by God just deciding to create that way.

To continue this particular issue of the fossil record, Rusty writes:

The fossil record does not show us transitional forms with regards to the dinosaur to bird sequence. Dinosaurs with feathers do not qualify. They are dinosaurs.

But remember, I didn’t mention anything about “transitional fossils”, I only brought up the ORDER in which life forms appear in the fossil record and Rusty has not addressed that at all. He can’t deny that the order exists, so he only wants to focus on a specific lineage and point out gaps in our knowledge. But my argument is based upon the overall order of appearance, which must look the way it looks if evolution is true but can look any possible way if creationism is true. Nonetheless, let’s look at the dino-bird transition in a bit more detail. Rusty says that the feathered dinosaurs are not transitional, they are simply dinosaurs. Yet creationists have been telling us for decades that they are simply birds, not dinosaurs, because they have feathers. Creationists want us to believe that there are no species that are intermediate between dinosaurs and birds, which means that every single species must fit cleanly in either the dinosaur or bird category. But if those groups were as distinct as they want us to believe, then surely they could agree on whether a particular species is a dinosaur or a bird.

Rusty continues:

They have fully formed feathers. Where are the dino-birds with scales forming into feathers? The evolutionary model predicts they will be found; the Creation model predicts they won’t.

This is simply false. Evolution does not predict that there should have existed a species with “scales forming into feathers” because that would contradict what we know about scales and feathers. Scales and feathers are separated by only a single point mutation, and reptiles that have that mutation will grow feathers (“fully formed” ones) instead of scutes. And even if there was, evolution would only predict that such a species *existed*, not that it *will be found*.

Rusty continues:

Besides, feathers are not the only requirement for a dinosaur to become a bird. The avian lung is a complete reworking of the reptilian lung. Where are the transitional forms?

Lungs are not the sort of thing that is preserved in fossils except under the most extraordinary of circumstances, so it is absurd to demand that this be shown, especially in light of all of the other traits that DO show exactly the trends I claimed.

Rusty continues:

There is also the issue of the temporal paradox in the fossils claimed to be transitional to birds. The earliest bird fossils date to around 150 million years ago – note they had complete and modern feathers. Yet the earliest dinosaur fossils that best fit into the dino to bird scenario are contemporary with the earliest bird fossils. Where are the transitional sequences? The evolutionary model predicts they will be found; the Creation model predicts they won?t.

I’m not sure what species Rusty might be referring to here when he says the “earliest bird fossils” date from 150 million years ago. The only “bird fossils” that are anywhere near that old are in fact the ones that Rusty has already declared to be “dinosaurs”. The first modern birds – without teeth and with primarily avian traits rather than reptilian traits – are from 65 million years ago. And this again supports my point about the trends in the fossil record. The earliest “birds” were very much reptilian in nature – they had teeth and not beaks, they had unfused vertebrae, a reptilian brain structure (cerebellum behind the mid-brain rather than on top), no pigostyle, and a couple dozen other reptilian traits. Between 140 million and 65 million years ago, the new species that appear are less and less reptilian in nature and more and more like modern birds, until the first birds that look like species we see living today are found. And again, this is an order of appearance that MUST be true if evolution is true. An unconstrained God could have created modern birds by fiat, he had no need to tinker with the previously existing design and “work his way up” to modern birds, but evolution can only tinker with already existing genomes. So if every lineage did not look like this, with the earliest forms looking like slightly modified versions of already existing species in just the right temporal and anatomical sequence, evolution would be falsified. The fact that we don’t know how every single modification took place does not mean we can’t assign any certainty solely on the basis of the data being the only possible set of data that could be explained by evolution.

Rusty continues:

The fossil record shows species appearing fully formed and functional with long periods of stasis – as the Creation model would predict.

This really is a misnomer. Species MUST be “fully formed” – if they weren’t, they wouldn’t survive to fossilize. Every single species must be adapted to its environment or it won’t survive. And again, it is absolutely false to say that the “creation model” PREDICTS anything with regard to stasis and punctuation – God could have chosen to create every single species all at once, so the “creation model” could predict ANY set of trends. That is exactly why the creation model is not a scientific model at all and is not “testable” by any rational definition of the term.

5. How long have humans been around?

Rusty initially claimed that the bible says that humans were created between 6000 and 50,000 years ago and that’s what the evidence shows. I said that this is false, that we have true humans dating back 120,000 years at least, or 2.5 times longer than the longest that the bible allows.

Rusty replies:

This may just be a definition issue but there is no evidence for homo sapiens (i.e., modern humans) any further back than 50,000 years ago.

I don’t think it’s a matter of definition at all, other than the question of whether a given fossil is Homo sapiens or not. The fact is that we have several fossils that are classified as Homo sapiens sapiens (modern humans) that date back 120,000 years, and we now have fossils of another subspecies of Homo sapiens (the Idaltu specimen) dated at around 160,000 years ago.

Rusty continues:

The point of my stating that humanity came from a small group (e.g., two) of individuals is to point out the fact that such an event in the evolutionary sequence is highly problematic. The chances of extinction rise dramatically with the lower the number of starting individuals. It is a prediction in that the evolutionary sequence posits that groups evolve and not individuals.

This is a statement that could easily be misunderstood. Evolution does not posit that “groups” evolve in the sense that an entire species evolves into an entirely different species – that would be extraordinarily rare. Evolution, rather, predicts that speciation almost always takes place among a small subset of a larger population that becomes reproductively isolated from the rest of their species. That group could indeed be relatively small. The mtDNA studies that Rusty is referring to do not, in fact, show that the human species originated with two individuals, a la Adam and Eve, but show that all modern humans share a relatively small group of common ancestors. And this is entirely consistent with evolutionary theory.

Rusty continues:

In reference to the Mind’s Big Bang I again will disagree with Ed. Evidence of the advent of creative expression, ritual burial practice, spirit worship, etc., is recent and can in no way be attributed to any of the primates once thought to have evolved into the human race.

This statement is entirely false. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that this isn’t even unique to Homo sapiens. Hugh Ross has long claimed that while there were big-brained bipedal hominids roaming the earth, the evidence of ritual burial and religious relics only goes back 8-24,000 years. But the evidence betrays this claim on several fronts. Homo neanderthalensis practiced ritual burial, including covering the dead with flowers and ochre. Artwork goes back even further, with the Golan Venus dating back 330,000 years or so. The neanderthals also may have practiced a form of shamanism.

Rusty continues:

The evidence shows that early primate skull size was tiny and limited in its growth over time. The human skull shows a jump in size that is not consistent with the evolutionary sequence. Bipedalism too is shown to appear suddenly and then remain constant.

I honestly have no idea where these statements come from. They are completely false. Of course “early primate skull size” was small. But that changed over time, and became gradually larger, and the adaptation for bipedalism did too. Rusty seems to think that “early primates” existed, then suddenly “modern humans” appeared. The evidence shows quite the opposite. The evidence shows a clear progression, with each successive species looking more and more like modern humans in all of the key areas – brain size, bipedal adaptation, dentition, sophistication of the tools they crafted, etc. Brain size goes from ~375cc in the early Australopithecenes to ~530cc in the late Australopithecenes to ~500-800cc in Homo habilis to ~750-1225cc in Homo erectus to about 1350cc in modern humans. Of course there are some sidelines that show some variation, but the trend of larger and larger brain sizes, with each species having a range that coincides exactly with the upper range of the previous ones and the lower range of the succeeding ones, is very obvious.

Bipedalism also shows a gradual increase, from the partially bipedal gait of the early Australopithecenes, while still retaining some adaptations to living in trees such as longer and more curved finger and toe bones, to the fully erect bidepalism of all of the later members of the Homo genus. Likewise, the enlargement of the Broca area of the brain, vital for speech ability, gradually increases in this sequence as well. Also, the dentition patterns become less and less ape-like and more and more human-like. You can also see the gradual change in shape of the face, as the skull becomes more rounded, as in modern humans, the brow ridge less and less pronounced until it is almost non-existent in modern humans, the jaw protrudes less and less, and so forth. If you lay the fossils out on a long table, you can see the obvious trends in all of these traits, backed up by the increasing sophistication of the tools they used for hunting and, in later hominid species, in the increased use of ritual and decoration, and the making of art.

All of this, again, is in exactly the order that they would have to be in order for evolution to be true. Creationism cannot make any predictions about this because it would be consistent with any possible set of data. If the fossil evidence did in fact show that there was this huge leap from “early primates” 5 million years ago to “modern man” 50,000 years ago, as Rusty seems to think, then evolution would be falsified entirely. But the evidence shows numerous intermediate species appearing in precisely the right temporal and anatomical order required by evolution. At best, the response from creationists can only be, as Rusty seems to say, “We don’t know why God chose to create in a sequence that mimics evolution. He’s God and he can do what he wants.”

The two primary points I’ve tried to make remain true. First, that creationism cannot make predictions that are testable because absolutely any set of data can be explained by reference to the whim of God. Second, that evolution can and does make specific predictions about the evidence such that, if the data showed something other than what it does, evolution would be falsified. Hence, evolution meets a rigorous standard of testability that creationism does not, and the evidence is consistently found to show exactly what it MUST show if evolution is true.