Welcome. Who are you? How did you find me?
In the past couple of days, 10% of my page hits have come from Brazil. I’m delighted. Brazil is a battleground between the acceptors of scientific reality (who can claim some support from the Catholic Church) and invading Evangelicals and Seventh Day Adventists. These last are extreme creationists, not merely science-denying but science-distorting. They maintain that the entire geological record is due to Noah’s flood, that their own position differs from the scientific mainstream only in its choice of interpretation, and that mutations can only degrade and not create information. Students of creationism will recognise here all the worst features of Henry Morris’s Flood Geology, Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, and the intellectual distortions of the Intelligent Designers. So if this blog is service anywhere, it will be of service in Brazil.
It is clear why I want to be found by Brazilians, but why should Brazilians want to find me? I did have a public exchange with a creationist on the Brazilian Airforce Academy cultural website, Letras & e-Artes, and am told that my contribution was well received, but that was 18 months ago. I also, more recently, had a tedious Facebook debate with a self-styled Adventist theologian, who presented as if new coined arguments rebutted in the 1920s, but I doubt that her followers would be beating a path to my door.
And yet, I must be doing something that is of special value to readers in Brazil. What is it, and how do I set about doing the same elsewhere?
Why only 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,
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
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 DescentYour 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.
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)