Rebutting Creationism in Brazil

I have just found myself rebutting a Creationist engineering professor, on the Brazilian Air Force Academy’s cultural website.

“Scientific Creationism” is emerging as a problem in Latin America. As in the UK, it’s essentially a US evangelical import (recall that the Catholic Church accepts the historical fact of evolution). As creation-watchers may know, Henry Morris, widely regarded as the father of “Creation Science”, wrote its foundational work, The Genesis Flood,

File:The Genesis Flood.jpg

together with the theologian John C. Whitcomb, under the influence of the ideas of the Seventh-day Adventist, George McCready Price. So when the Brazilian Airforce Academy asked me to reply to an exposition of Creationism by Ruy Carlos de Camargo Vieira, Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering at the University of São Paulo and himself a convert to Seventh-day Adventism, I was very happy to do so. Here’s what I said:

Evolution is real science; creationism is fake philosophy

A reply to “O Evolucionismo e o Criacionismo à luz do Método Científico

Evolution is not an optional worldview but a fundamental scientific theory, and one of the most successful scientific theories of all time. Biblical creationism is not a worldview either, but a set of factually mistaken beliefs about the world and the Bible.

Prof Vieira argues that the present-day theory of evolution, and biblical creationism, are not in fact rival theories, but representations of differing untestable worldviews, and that the difference between them is philosophical rather than scientific. He is mistaken on every count. Evolution is a scientific theory, not only about the past, but about processes operating and observable in the present. It has made numerous successful predictions and passed many severe experimental tests. It explains facts that could not even have been imagined when, 150 years ago, the theory was put forward in its modern form. The creation story of Genesis can be tested against observation, and fails. It makes statements contrary to known fact, so that, however great its significance to us, we cannot regard it as an accurate historical narrative.

29+ Evidences for Macroevolution

The Scientific Case for Common Descent

Version 2.89

Prof Vieira claims that there is no scientific evidence for evolution. He is wrong. Two excellent books presenting this evidence, both available in Portuguese, are Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin, and Why Evolution is True by his colleague at the University of Chicago, Jerry Coyne. There is also an excellent on-line site, 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution, with hundreds of references to the primary literature, summarising the main arguments, and new findings supporting and illustrating the fact of evolution are reported every day.
 

Your Inner Fish      At the Water's Edge

Shubin’s book begins with a beautiful example of evolution as a predictive theory. Lower Devonian rocks contain no land vertebrates. Upper Devonian rocks contain plenty. Therefore evolution predicts that there should be fossil evidence for intermediate forms somewhere in the middle Devonian. The earliest known land vertebrates are amphibians, which would have required fresh water, and this and other detailed arguments suggested that rocks around 375 million years old, formed in river deltas, would be the best place to look. Prof Shubin and his colleagues mounted an expedition to a location in the Canadian Arctic where such rocks were exposed, and discovered the predicted intermediate form, a fish with a wrist, which they called Tiktaalik. Notice that if these rocks had shown a sudden transition without intermediates, or if they had been full of rabbits, dinosaurs, or fried chicken bones, this would have disproved the evolutionary account.

Coyne’s book lays out with great clarity the facts that are explained by evolution, all of them examples of the “evidências palpáveis [substantive evidence]” in support of evolution, “que possam ser submetidas ao escrutínio do Método Científico [that can undergo examination according to the Scientific Method]”, whose existence the learned Professor denies. These include (a) the way living things can be arranged in families on the basis of their anatomy, (b) copious fossil forms (of which Tiktaalik is one example) showing how different categorias biológicas  are descended from a common ancestry, (c) our knowledge of how new species arise (Prof Coyne is also an author of the more technical book Speciation), (d) the family trees deduced from DNA evidence, (e) the fact that these three independent methods – anatomical relationship, fossil record, and DNA comparison – give the same tree, or rather branching bush, of life, and (f) the examples of evolution that we see all around us. In addition (g), we can and do perform laboratory experiments that demonstrate and elucidate evolution, and (h) the whole of plant and animal breeding consists of evolutionary processes harnessed to our wishes, with artificial selection replacing natural selection.

Prof Veiera presents two kinds of reason for his claim that evolution is not science. One is the fact that it does not explain the origin of life, the Solar System, or the Universe. But this is no argument at all. Atomic theory does not explain the origin of atoms, the Solar System, or the Universe, but no one doubts that it is a scientific theory. The other one is that it does not explain the transformation of species and origin of new orders, as classified according to modern taxonomy. As we have seen, this is not true. Shubin’s book, for example, gives a very clear account of the origin of the transformation of fish to amphibians, and Carl Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge describes the transformation of land mammals to whales. But even if it were true, a theory should not be rejected just because there are things we cannot yet explain. Unanswered questions are as essential to all kinds of science as unquestioned answers are to some kinds of religion.

The whale ancestor, Ambulocetus natans, (approximately 12 feet long, coastal habitat) , courtesy Thewissen Research Laboratory

Regarding biblical creationism, this does make some very precise and verifiable claims. It asserts, for example (Genesis 1:20 – 25), that birds and whales were created before land animals. Now we know that birds are descended from land dinosaurs, and that whales (free review article here; also Carl Zimmer’s book mentioned above) are descended from terrestrial mammals. So we must infer that if, as Prof Vieira believes, God is responsible for the content of Genesis 1, He did not intend it to be used as a biology textbook. I note in passing that many Christians, including Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists, have no problem with the fact of evolution, and that only extreme Evangelical groups, such as the Seventh Day Adventists to which Prof Veiera belongs, regard Genesis as a literal historical record.

Finally, does it matter? Yes, to Brazil’s past, present, and future. Regarding the past, the mineral wealth of Brazil can only be understood using genuine science, including evolution and its companion, deep-time geochemistry. For example, the banded iron-formations of the Quadrilátero Ferrífero in Minas Gerais owe their existence to the release of oxygen by photosynthesizing bacteria more than two billion years ago, and the oil and gas of the continental shelf were formed by the decay of ancient organisms in the Cretaceous. The present includes the responsibility of managing the Amazon basin, something that can only be done wisely by respecting the evolved relationships between its many species. And all of us will need real science, and a recognition of scientific reality, as humankind faces its troubling and unsettled future.

(Acknowledgements to Jerry Coyne, Neil Shubin, Douglas Theobald, Hans Thewissen, and Carl Zimmer, whose work I cite here)

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on November 1, 2013, in Creationism, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. How did Vieira get his article onto the Air Force website?

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    • I wish I knew, especially as it functions, not just as an air force site, but as a broader cultural forum. Ask them. Let me know their answer.

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      • Our little city is in fact home to the air force head quarters and strategic space command, but I don’t know anyone high up, unfortunately. The problem here is that Brazilians are far too tolerant of religion. Far too tolerant of most things, actually, and that leaves the door open to this kind of nonsense. If you get a response let me know. I’ll make sure your translation is good.

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      • I submitted in English and letraseeartes did the translating. Unfortunately, the site doesn’t allow comments, but they told me that they got 800 hits, which for them is a lot.

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  2. I’m delighted that I was able to contribute, and continue to contribute, to this discussion in Brazil. In Brazil, as in much of Latin America, creationism is a relatively new threat, associates with the rise of biblical literalist Christian sects. It is an offence to the intellect, and must be resisted by polite but firmly expressed argument. This is what I have endeavoured to do.

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