The present is the past, the past is the present

Ken Ham is preaching about what science is again. He's accusing the secular activist Zack Kopplin of being "brainwashed" by evolutionist propaganda, and to support this claim, he once again drags out the tired proposition that there are two kinds of science, historical and observational, and that only the observational kind is valid; well, unless the historical version is based on the Bible, which in his dogma is an unassailable compendium of absolutely true facts about the past.

What’s more, Kopplin—like almost all evolutionists—confuses historical science with operational (observational) science. Operational science is indeed observable, testable, falsifiable, and so on—but none of those words describes evolutionary ideas! While biblical creation may not be provable through tests and observation, neither is molecules-to-man evolution (or astronomical evolution). And in fact, the evidence that is available to us concerning our origins makes sense in the biblical creation-based worldview, not the evolutionary one. Of course, secularists mock creationists for separating out historical science and operational science. But they do that because the secularists want the word science to apply to both historical and operational science so that they can brainwash people (like Kopplin) into thinking that to believe in creation is to reject science.

This is utter nonsense. It's a phony distinction he makes so that he can bray, "Where you there?" at people and pretend that he has refuted anything they might say about the past. It is a set of appalling lies from a know-nothing hidebound fundamentalist who knows nothing about science, and who happily distorts it to contrive support for his ridiculous beliefs.

It is false because of course I can observe the past. The present is the product of the past; if I open my eyes and look around me, I can see the pieces of history everywhere.

I live in the American midwest. I can go into my backyard and see on the surface the world as it is now; fenced and flattened, seeded with short grasses, surrounded by paved roads and houses. But it takes only a little effort to observe the past.

In ditches and pioneer cemeteries and dry unplowable ridges, traces of an older world, the prairie, still persist. I can find clumps of tallgrass, scattered forbs, rivers fringed with cattails, turtles like primeval tanks on the banks, frogs and salamanders lurking in tangled undergrowth, fragmented bits of the pre-European settlement. I can see relics of a changing human presence; there are places where flint arrowheads turn up regularly, and to the south are the native pipestone quarries. I can walk along the increasingly neglected railroads, and trace how they contributed to our presence here; small towns sprinkled along the railroad right-of-way, acting as central depots for tributaries of wagons on dirt roads, hauling corn to the granaries. It's all here if you just look; it's not a story told by fiat, poured into books that we accept as gospel. That history lies in scars in the land, observable, testable, falsifiable.

I can dig into the ground with a spade and see the rich dark loam of this country — the product of ten thousand years of prairie grasses building dense root systems, prairie dogs tunneling through it, the bison wallowing and foraging. This isn't an illusion, it's the observable result of millennia of prairie ecosystems thriving here, and it's the source of the agricultural prosperity of the region. I can sieve through the muck that has accumulated in prairie lakes, and find pollen from the exuberant flora that grew here: clover and grasses, wildflowers and the flowering of the wetlands. I can track back and see the eras when the great eastern deciduous forests marched westward, and when they staggered back. It's all in the record. It all contributed to what we have now.

We can go back and back. We can see the scattered rocky debris left as the glaciers retreated; we can see the vast depressions left by the pressure of ancient lakes; we can see the scouring of the land from their earlier advance. Seeing the landscape with the eyes of a geologist exposes its history. While the glaciers demolished the surface, we can also find places where seismic cataclysms thrust deeper layers to the surface, and there we find that millions of years ago, my home was the bottom of a huge inland sea, that diatoms silted down over long ages, burying the bones of plesiosaurs and nautiloids in chalky deposits.

Again, this is not mere historical assertion (and isn't it demeaning to treat history as something empty of evidence, too?). Open your eyes! It's all written in towers of stone and immense fractures in the earth, in microscopic drifts of long dead organisms and the ticking clock of radioactive molecules. We are immersed in the observable evidence of our past. Everything is the way it is because of how it got that way — you cannot blithely separate what is from the process that made it.

I can see it in me, too — biology is just as much a product of the changing past as is geology and ecology. I can look in the mirror and see my mother's eyes and my father's chin; I can observe myself and see my father's sense of humor and my mother's bookishness. I remember my grandparents and my great-grandparents, and looking back at me are a collection of familial traits, all shuffled and juggled and reconstituted in me.

Beyond those superficial impressions, I can have my genome analyzed and find my particular pattern of genes shared in distant places in the world. I know that my family came from Northern Europe, that in turn they migrated out of central Asia, that before that they were living in the Middle East, and long before that, a hundred thousand years ago, they were an adventurous (or desperate) tribe of people moving northward through East Africa. This is not a mere story, a fairy tale invented by ignorant scribes — my ancestors left a trail of alleles as they wandered over three continents, a trail we can follow even now.

"Were you there?" Yes. Yes, I am here, imbedded in this grand stream of history, aware of my place in it, seeing with open eyes the evidence that surrounds me. And I pity those unable to see the grand arena they are a small part of, who want to deny that history is observable.

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Beautiful read, PZ. Veritable poetry.

As a history buff, all I can say to the above is: that's eloquent.

Evidence. You keep using that word, Mr. Ham. I don't think it means what you think it means.

Where I live, there are man-made stone walls in the middle of the forest. Putting a stone wall in a forest doesn't make a whole lot of sense. However, it does make sense to place rocks that you dig out of your field in a wall along your property boundary. Years later, the farms were abandoned (poor soil, too short growing season, and better land available to the west) and forest grew in their place.

Going further back in time is a bit harder, but it can be done if somebody has the right tools and training. And it's a much more self-consistent story than the one Mr. Ham claims (incorrectly, I might add) is required to be consistent with Biblical inerrancy.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 25 Jan 2013 #permalink

PZ I did not realize you are such a poet.

By Wesley Dodson (not verified) on 25 Jan 2013 #permalink

Such lyrical writing! Splendid.

By Michelle de Villiers (not verified) on 25 Jan 2013 #permalink

Paleontologists can predict where to dig to find certain kinds of fossils, and verify their theory by finding, say, tiktaalik. Molecular biologists can predict the degree of DNA homology based on presumed ancestral relationships, and then sequence DNA to confirm their ideas. And so on.

Also, poetic post. nicely done.

I notice how he uses the label "evolutionist" as a general-purpose insult/swear word, just like authoritarian supporters who use "socialist", "communist" or "marxist" as they assemble the usual pile of empty slogans and non sequiturs as they attempt to put opponents on the defensive. It isn't working is it?

By Graham Shevlin (not verified) on 25 Jan 2013 #permalink

My comment to those who make this argument is along the line of, "well then, by your reasoning, prove that all sets of your great grand parents ever existed".

By hugh cary oates (not verified) on 25 Jan 2013 #permalink

The comment about astronomy is particularly funny. Because of the vast distances involved telescopes are, essentially, time machines. By looking at various distances we can see objects as they were at different points in time.

By Leonard Tramiel (not verified) on 25 Jan 2013 #permalink

Any fundamentalist who cites the bible as historicial is relying on the assumption that those they are preaching to have read religious texts. Sadly, for them, the god of Abraham also evolved and even a brief survey of literature tells us that the god and its laws are fundamentally different to those of 50, 500, 2000, 3000 years ago. Religion is evolving as much as anything else. Like most organisms it also will come to an end in extinction. The behaviour we are seeing is the last dying gasp of the priests of a dead myth that no longer enables the priests to wield power. It is far more effective to feel sad for them and pity their loss for they are too frightened to step forward into an exciting future without the chains of outmoded beliefs!

By Steve Flatt (not verified) on 26 Jan 2013 #permalink

Events leave evidence. This evidence can be used to test hypotheses. Hypotheses can make both predictions, about what will be found in the future, and postdictions, about what will be found in the past. Geologists make predictions, "She's gonna blow!", but mostly do postdictions. The same is true of astronomers who look at old light from the sky, "That asteroid is going to miss earth." I think geologists in particular are like the workers seen on various CSI TV programs. They examine evidence of past events, using modern scientific techniques, to test hypotheses about the nature of those events.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 26 Jan 2013 #permalink

Totally awsome!

Most (or all) of astronomy is about the past. Good analogy of reconstructing the past from current observational data.

By John Kubie (not verified) on 27 Jan 2013 #permalink

My, this almost reads like a bit of Sagan smuggled itself in there. Very nice read. Well, except for that typo of "Where you there?" of course. ;-)

Hypothetically, someone could argue that those arrowheads and railroads weren't necessarily human creations because WereYouThere?

When we apply the same silly obstinance to prehistory, the creationist canard morphs into Omphalism, an idea which has embarrassed creationists since its publication in 1857 – or rather, since its appearence ten minutes ago, along with all our forged memories here in the Matrix.

There is no legitimate distinction between "Were you there?" and "Are you here now, seeing what you think you're seeing?" Not that we should always trust our senses or intuition, of course. There's really a double fallacy here: That only direct observation is valid, and that direct observation is always valid. Ask any scientist about the first, and ask James Randi about the second.