Respectful Insolence

Reply to a 14 year old creationist

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgWhile I am on vacation, I’m reprinting a number of “Classic Insolence” posts to keep the blog active while I’m gone. (It also has the salutory effect of allowing me to move some of my favorite posts from the old blog over to the new blog, and I’m guessing that quite a few of my readers have probably never seen many of these old posts.) These will appear at least twice a day while I’m gone (and that will probably leave some leftover for Christmas vacation, even). Enjoy, and please feel free to comment. I will be checking in from time to time when I have Internet access to see if the reaction to these old posts here on ScienceBlogs is any different from what it was when they originally appeared, and, blogging addict that I am, I’ll probably even put up fresh material once or twice.

Blogging tends to be a rather immediate, short-term activity. Posts that are more than a few days old might as well be ancient history as far as blogging is concerned. Yet, every so often, a post will provoke a reaction long after I’ve forgotten I had even written it. So it was last week, when in my e-mail I found a comment about a post I had made over a month earlier. The post in question was a bit of ridicule directed at Frank Peretti, a writer of Christian-themed novels, who had recently written a horror novel whose theme was that “evolution makes us monsters.” My beef with Mr. Peretti was the utterly incorrect statements he made while promoting his book, among which was his claim that there are no “beneficial” mutations. Here is what the comment said:

A 14 year old Creationist (and proud of it!) said…

I agree with Frank Peretti and his statements. I also agree with his beliefs on evolution and its “evidence” of mutations. Evolutionists practically contradict themselves by saying that mutations support their theory of evolution. (That’s right, evolution is a theory, not a fact!) By definition the word mutation means an error in the genetic code. The word error as defined by the Webster Dictionary means a mistake or inaccuracy with a negative effect (notice the key word ‘negative’). It is a scientific fact that negative effects have negative results. Therefore the human race, by the Theory of Evolution, is a negative effect to the universe. I find that a little depressing and inaccurate. Don’t agree? Visit www.arky.org and complain some more.

Hmmmm. How should I handle this? I asked myself. Should I even handle it at all? If this really is a 14-year-old, I don’t want to treat him or her as roughly as I did Mr. Peretti. To see where he was coming from, I clicked on the link he mentioned, heading to the “Who We Are” section. It’s pretty hard-core young earth creationist stuff, stating: “We believe Biblical Truth first, scientific theory second, especially since it defines itself as always changing.” Would I be wasting my time replying? Probably, but I still felt that I had to try to get through, even if there is little hope of changing this young mind. So, here goes:

Dear 14-Year-Old Creationist (And Proud of It!):

I received your comment. I’m guessing you’re probably a fan of Mr. Peretti. I’m further guessing that you probably found my blog through a Google search on his name. In way of a reply, let me first start by emphasizing that my post was not meant to disparage Mr. Peretti’s religion or yours. Rather, it was intended to criticize him for making statements about evolution that are incorrect while promoting his book. Although your writing suggests that you’re probably a pretty smart kid, I hate to tell you this, but in your comment you too made some comments about evolution that are incorrect. I realize that you’ve probably learned these ideas from your parents, your school, and your church, all of whom you trust. Consequently, I also realize that it is unlikely that you’ll change your mind based on a reply from a semi-anonymous blogger like myself, but, believe it or not, I feel a responsibility at least to try to persuade you. I care about the education of our youth, and I don’t want to see someone as apparently smart as you say such things without being exposed to a careful explanation of the “other side.”

You state that “evolution is a theory, not a fact!” You are half correct in this statement. In actuality, evolution is both a theory and a fact. It is a fact in that evolution has definitely occurred. Indeed, one reason that creationism “evolved” from its original Biblically literal young earth variety to its current “intelligent design” concept is because the evidence that living things evolve is so overwhelming that even most creationists were ultimately forced to acknowledge that evolution has occurred. Evolution is also a theory in that it is a set of ideas that attempts to explain how and why evolution occurs. However, I’m wondering if you are aware of what the word “theory” means to scientists; in science the meaning of the word is different than it is in colloquial use. To most laypeople, the word “theory” in essence suggests an “educated” guess. Indeed, the famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said this about the “just a theory” claim about evolution: “Creationists make it sound like a ‘theory’ is something you dreamt up after being out drunk all night.” That they do so (often, but not always, unknowingly) is mainly because of the more rigorous meaning that scientists give to the word “theory” compared to its more common meaning.

You must understand that, to scientists, the word “theory” has a much more specific meaning. To scientists, the word “theory” means a supposition or statement of ideas intended to explain a natural phenomenon (such as the “theory of evolution”). But it is more than that. To scientists, the word “theory” implies that the supposition or statement of ideas at present best explains the available data, has utility as a conceptual principle, and makes predictions regarding the behavior of natural phenomenon. To be recognized as a “theory,” such a statement of ideas must be supported by an enormous quantity of data, so much so that scientists at present cannot think of a better set of suppositions that explains the data and makes predictions of natural behavior. So it is with the Theory of Relativity, and so it is with the Theory of Evolution. No other set of ideas comes close to explaining the wealth of fossil, observational, experimental, and molecular biological evidence regarding how species adapt and evolve and how species come to be. Creationism, regardless of whether it’s the “intelligent design” or Biblical “young earth” variety does not come close and even contradicts much of the known evidence. That is why scientists do not consider creationism to be a theory. Also, to be useful to scientists, theories must be falsifiable. That means there must be evidence that, if found, would prove the theory incorrect. Creationism fails as a theory in that respect as well, because there is no way any scientist could ever prove that there is no God. That is one reason why scientists consider creationism to be religion or philosophy and not science, and thus not properly part of the teaching of biology. The problem with creationism, as far as scientists go, is that the explanation for unanswered questions becomes, in essence, “God did it.” That answer may be fine as a matter of faith, but it does not help science progress.

Because it is a theory, does that mean that the theory of evolution is set in stone? Of course not! Scientific theories are always subject to revision as new evidence is discovered and new experiments yield results that the old theory does not explain. However, such changes must always continue to explain the wealth of old data and old experiments that have been done, which means new theories almost always encompass the old theory somehow. One example is the Theory of Relativity. Einstein didn’t prove Newton wrong. He simply showed that Newton’s Laws of Motion described the special case of bodies traveling at velocities that are very small fractions of the speed of light. He also showed that his theory described the motion of such bodies more accurately when velocities approached the speed of light. Given that Newton had no way to measure the motion of bodies traveling that fast, his Laws were the best that could be derived at his time. If any new theory of evolution rises to replace the present one, something similar will almost certainly happen, and the new theory will not invalidate the old theory. Rather, it will likely show that the present theory is incomplete.

Next, it is true that mutations are changes in the genetic code that come about during DNA replication. You can view them as “mistakes” in DNA replication if you like. However, it is not true that all mutations have a negative consequence. Most are neutral in that they either change one amino acid to another in the protein the gene encodes without significant functional consequence or they occur in areas of DNA that do not encode any proteins. Some mutations are, of course, harmful, although rarely in the “monstrous” way Mr. Peretti fictionalizes. Contrary to what Mr. Peretti says, some mutations are beneficial. For example, did you know that some Scandanavian people carry a mutation in a gene called CCR5 that makes them highly resistant to infection by the AIDS virus? It’s true. If that’s not a beneficial mutation, I don’t know what is. This same mutation probably became prevalent several hundred years ago because it also confers resistance to the bubonic plague. There are also other beneficial mutations. One more example is a mutation in a gene called apolipoprotein AI, carriers of which have a much decreased risk of heart disease due to clogged arteries. The list goes on.

I do have to admit one thing. I’m rather intrigued by your inference that “the human race, by the Theory of Evolution, is a negative effect to the universe.” Although the theory of evolution implies no such thing, it is a rather interesting philosophical question whether humanity is, on balance, a positive or negative effect on the universe. I like that you’re thinking about such things, but I have to tell you that such questions can’t be answered by the theory of evolution or even science itself, because deciding whether something is “negative” or “positive” is largely a value judgment. But keep thinking about such issues. It’s good for your intellectual development.

Finally, given that you seem to be trying to think for yourself, even if the conclusions you’re coming up with aren’t scientifically correct, perhaps you’d like to contemplate the relationship between religion and science, specifically the science of evolution. One self-described “Bible-thumpin’” minister recently commented on my blog:

Those who use the Bible to disprove evolution obviously do not understand how to read and interpret scripture. The Bible is not a book about the “how” of creation, but of the “who” of creation. Leave the “how” to the scientists and the “who” to the Bible.

To me, this sounds like very reasonable advice. In addition, many other highly religious people have decided that there is no inherent conflict between their belief in God and accepting the theory of evolution. These clergy, for example. Even the highly conservative late Pope John Paul II stated that evolution is not incompatible with Catholicism. Similarly, although it is a common misconception even among Mormons that Mormonism mandates belief in creationism, there is no such requirement in the Mormon religion. As has been pointed out here:


Science can never prove nor disprove the existence of a God. The argument is circular. If a higher power created the universe and established its rules, it could choose to remain forever anonymous.

Do you see the truth of that statement?

I’d like to leave you with a few questions to ponder: If, as you almost certainly believe, God is indeed the source of all truth, why would He leave so much evidence scattered about His creation showing that the earth is billions of years old and that animals and plants evolved into different species over hundreds of millions of years if it were not the truth that this is so? Why would He endow humans with the intellect and desire to delve deeply into the mysteries of His creation to try to learn what His natural laws are, if the truth of creation and His natural laws are not the same as what His creation tells them? As a Christian, does it not make more sense to conclude, as the minister above (and others) do, that God set things in motion and evolution was His preferred mechanism to produce all the diversity of life on this planet?

Ponder these questions, and I hope that you will start to see why faith does not necessarily have to be incompatible with science. I hope I’ve also shown you that creationism is based on incorrect understandings of what the theory of evolution actually says. After all, if your faith depends upon believing something that can someday be shown to be untrue, than it is on shaky ground indeed, and each new scientific discovery could put it at risk.

Sincerely

Orac

P.S. Also, check out this comment from Dan S., who made some good points in answering you.

This post originally appeared on the old blog on June 8, 2005.

Comments

  1. #1 Amy Alkon
    August 29, 2006

    I only wish your blog were required reading for creationists, especially the 14-year-olds. I love that you’re posting these old posts, and I can’t wait to link to this one. I also appreciate the care you took with this kid. Maybe he won’t change his mind today, but maybe you made a little crack in his irrationality and have set him up for an opportunity for rational thought in the future.

  2. #2 Robster
    August 29, 2006

    One of my favorite sets of mutations are those that cause hemochromatosis (if only I could get a pack of mutation cards at the corner store, and trade them with the other scigeeks). Iron overload disease is one of the most (if not the most) common heritable diseases, concentrated in individuals of northern European descent. The affected individual absorbes more iron from their diet than the average person. This can lead to many ailments, and is a likely contributor to some cases of adult diabetes. The treatment is simple. Blood donations to remove excess iron from the body.

    So what positive effect could this otherwise damaging genetic disorder have, other than increasing the number of blood donors?

    Individuals with an iron poor diet (northern Europe for most of human history) and hemochromatosis thrive where non affected individuals would have difficulty. In a world with iron rich, enriched, and supplemented food, this selective advantage would become a selective disadvantage except for the fact that the more serious effects occur later in life.

  3. #3 Chris
    August 29, 2006

    A very well written reply, and one that’s likely to make him think. You took exactly the right approach here.

    In the big picture, I disagree with the assertion that faith and science are compatible. I’ve learned, though, that it’s best not to argue with those who choose to isolate one part of their belief system from the same kind of scrutiny they apply to the rest of the world. As long as they aren’t preaching creationist lies and pushing their bullshit on others, I’m happy to coexist with religious folk.

  4. #4 Prup aka Jim Benton
    August 30, 2006

    A really great reply, not condescending, as too many people are when talking to someone of that age. However, wouldn’t it have been goond to answer his ‘all mutations are harmful’ by pointing out that the mutation rate is such that all of us have several mutations in our own DNA — I think the average is thirty. The rate might be low for any single replication, but the number of genes we have is so high that mutations are not isolated rarities.

  5. #5 Amy Alkon
    August 30, 2006

    I’m with you Chris, about the incompatibility of science and faith (a polite way of saying “voluntary stupidity”). I always find it pathetic when scientists confess to having “faith” — which, to me, means sequestering some part of their brains for irrational thought.

  6. #6 lost_erizo
    August 30, 2006

    Dear Orac,

    Thank you for re-posting this. My sister forwarded it to me knowing I would be interested. I was impressed at the fact that while you obviously gentled your tone due to the youth of the person you were responding to, you didn’t “dumb down” your response and respected her obvious, if misguided, intelligence.

    I was also absolutely appalled (though unfortunately not surprised) at the comment on the original post by the medical student, Alice, who seemed to think that evolutionary principles are not necessary to the good practice of medicine. This is the same sort of doctor who will probably over prescribe antibiotics for childhood ear infections and end up “creating” a resistant strain of bacteria. As someone who has TA’d for a lot of those introductory biology courses you mentioned in your response, I know just how little evolutionary biology pre-med majors get. A biology concentrator at (name of Ivy League School redacted to preserve my anonymity) when I was there could potentially graduate after having exactly two weeks of evolutionary biology instruction. And yet we grad students in the Biology department were constantly told that it wasn’t possible or necessary to increase the amount of evolutionary and population biology required. Well, Alice is the end product of that sort of attitude.

    Although to be fair, at the state university where I got my Bachelor’s degree, Genetic and Evolutionary Biology was a required course for all biology majors. I guess the Ivy Leagues don’t have a monopoly on good education. ;-)

    …adding your blog to my surf list…