Look! I’m a scientist!

Who’s up for a little autobiography tied into an age-old debate?

I’ve always been something of an engineer.  My Dad enjoys telling the story of when I was barely able to walk: I fixed a loose bicycle wheel by tightening a loose screw while my Dad was busy talking to a neighbor.  When my family set up our first household computer (early 90s…oh, 386 IBM Compatible, how I miss thee), I took a few lessons from my Dad to get me going. Within weeks, I was the one handing out pointers.

So I suppose it would come as no surprise, then, that I think evolution is the best explanation we have for how life as we know it today came about.  The longtime followers of this blog may remember to point out, though: “But you’re Catholic!  And a practicing one at that!  What about the creation story?”

Well, dear readers, I have this to say about that:

evolution

Yes, I believe in the creation story.  I also believe in evolution.  And I think Texas’ recent attempt to include creation in science textbooks, were it to eventually succeed, would be a truly awful mistake.  I’ve heard two key phrases repeated (ad nauseum) to justify this move, and I will address both of them separately, though they tend to refer back to each other.

“It will encourage critical thinking”

I don’t think “critical thinking” means what you think it means.  “Critical thinking” does not mean placing two seemingly conflicting ideologies side by side and forcing young impressionable minds to choose (as an aside, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell the two ideologies will be presented coherently or equally, so an inherent bias is most certainly going to pressure said students one way or the other).  “Critical thinking” involves making coherent arguments based on verifiable evidence (or lack thereof), and considering, based on the parameters of the system, whether or not a given conclusion is viable.

Let me first say that evolution and creationism are not equivalent.  They cannot be compared side by side in such a fashion.  Creationism deals exclusively with how life came into existence; evolution, on the other hand, deals strictly with how life in its current state came to be.  There is some overlap, yes, but it’s not necessarily a question of one versus the other; they may not be mutually exclusive.  Evolution makes no attempt to explain how life initially appeared (this remains one of the unsolved mysteries of biology), and should not be construed as such.

I once had a fellow Catholic tell me he believed in microevolution (fur changing color, fins becoming more sweptback, beaks elongating, etc), but didn’t believe in macroevolution (fish sprouting legs, apes turning into humans, etc).  This would make sense if the world was only ~5,000 years old, as strict interpreters of the Bible argue.  But just for now, let’s assume that the Earth is, in fact, ~4.5 billion years old, just for the sake of argument.  Let’s also assume, then, that a microevolutionary event occurs once in a species every 2,000 years (it’s a proven fact that humans are, on average, several inches taller now than in the time of Christ).

Doing the math, that equates to well over two million microevolution events.  Two million (2,250,000 to be exact)!  I would put forth that a species would probably be utterly unrecognizeable after just a handful of such events, to say nothing of two million.  But we already know through other experiments that our DNA can mutate much more rapidly than that.  If you’ve done any studying on DNA replication, RNA transcription, and protein synthesis, you know just how significant an impact a single mutation/deletion/insertion in the DNA sequence can make.

This is certainly not proof of evolution.  But it is evidence, and a coherent argument.  And that, dear readers, is critical thinking.

“Evolution is just a theory”

Frankly, this argument screams of ignorance.  Everything is “just a theory”.  Ever heard of Hidden Markov Models?  Our entire universe is like the example of a casino that alternates between using a fair die (equal probability of any number) and a loaded die (one side is much more likely than the other five), and trying to determine what die is being used based only on the observed sequence of rolls.

We can’t possibly know the rules that govern our universe.  But we can observe that there is definitely some order and structure to how our universe operates, and try to infer rules from there based on further experimentation.  The Earth doesn’t sit still; the ocean doesn’t swap places with the sky; humans can’t flap their arms and fly.

But we do know that the Earth follows a very regular path around the sun, and turns very regularly as well (while each day is technically a couple nanoseconds longer than the previous one, we will never see a day change from 24 hours in our lifetimes, nor see a year drop below 365 days); the sky is simply a collection of light gases which possess a much smaller density than the water of our oceans, hence they float above it; human physiology prevents us from properly channeling the air to create lift.

Gravity is also “just a theory”, which you can also test anytime you want by opening your window and taking a running leap out.

gravity

Here’s the upshot:

Stop framing the debate as one or the other.  Recognize that science involves the explanation of phenomena through physical observation, experimentation, and quantifiable analysis.  Within those parameters, evolution is the best fitting theory we have to explain how humans came to be.  Also recognize that this does not implicitly disprove creationism; it simply states that science is not equipped – nor was designed – to prove or disprove creationism.  Religion espouses beliefs based on no physical evidence; hence, faith.  Science does not, cannot, and will never operate on faith, and as such will never condone the creation story.  Not because it’s not true, but simply because creationism cannot be tested or analyzed.

So teach both creationism and evolution, but teach the former in religion class, and the latter in science class, where they respectively belong.

I will, however, also point out that literally every scrap of physical evidence we have on the age of the Earth indicates a ~4.5 billion year age.  As such, I put forth the following question: would an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God quite literally deceive us by planting misleading evidence?

And yes, I am one of those pesky individuals who believes both in the story of creation, and that evolution occurs, and hence interpret the Bible not-so-literally.  What can I say, I’m an integrationist.  I think there are some things that are simply beyond humans’ ability to comprehend.  How life truly came to be may or may not be one of them, but for the time being, we simply don’t know.

I think a lolcat is in order.

funny-pictures-cat-thinks-chicken-is-beautiful

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About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
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27 Responses to Look! I’m a scientist!

  1. mcoville says:

    You stated, “Evolution makes no attempt to explain how life initially appeared (this remains one of the unsolved mysteries of biology), and should not be construed as such.”.

    Evolution defiantly attempts to explain how life initially appeared, “The last universal ancestor (LUA, also called the last universal common ancestor, LUCA, the cenancestor or “number one” in slang) is the most recent organism from which all organisms now living on Earth descend. Thus it is the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all current life on Earth. The LUA is estimated to have lived some 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago (sometime in the Paleoarchean era)”

    From reading your post you seem to have a very hopeful attitude toward what is being taught in government schools. If kids are not presented with the whole truth of evolution they will be indoctrinated to believe that evolution is the only explanation. Is it not more fair to give the kids all the information and let them come to their own conclusion? Unfortunately the government school system is set up so that kids are force fed evolution and then are expected to recent it verbatim on their final exam in order to pass. This does not teach critically thinking, this does not teach thinking of ant kind only memorization.

    I am a computer programmer and had similar experience as you had in my youth, I had a commodore VIC20 to learn basic on, and I came to the conclusion that it takes an intelligent programmer to create an application that works so it is logical to infer that it takes an intelligent designer to create the world we exist in.

    • magsol says:

      Evolution indeed stake the claim that all life as we currently know it has descended from previous species that can all be tied to some distant common ancestor (most likely some form of self-replicating RNA, but I’m guessing you know that). It absolutely does not specify how that self-replicating RNA appeared from the primordial soup. That answer remains elusive.

      The rest of your comment gives me the impression you somewhat missed my point; I made no argument (nor do I attempt to argue) about the state of schools in the US (“government” or otherwise). I simply made a claim that creationism and evolution should both indeed be taught, but in their appropriate classes: religion and science, respectively – don’t include both in the same textbook, since they don’t address the same issue. Determining the quality with which they are taught is left as an exercise to the reader.

      You’ll also find that the most devoted scientists and researchers are also among the most religious – myself included. It makes sense that, in devoting our lives to scientific inquiry, the wonders and harmonious interactions of incredibly complex systems on mind-blogglingly large (and small!) scales lends itself to an appreciation for how it all could have possibly come about. Chance alone might have thrown up the odd electron, but an entire universe with its observed rules? This wonder, though, does not preclude belief in scientific inquiry and discovery.

      As such, Intelligent Design really seems to be creationism masqueraded as scientific theory. I’m sorry if I’m stepping on toes here, but allowing “supernatural occurrences” as a viable scientific explanation for observed phenomena is ridiculous. Science is about empirical observation and experimentation. As such, there is only one good unifying theory of biology – evolution. It doesn’t discount creationism as possible, it simply states that, given the parameters of science, evolution is the best explanation we have. Which leads back to my original point that evolution and creation should be taught, but in separate classes.

  2. mcoville says:

    My stand point is that only science should be taught in science class. So any statement in the text book needs to be backed up by verifiable and testable evidence, would you disagree?

    • magsol says:

      Not at all, I absolutely agree with that statement.

      • mcoville says:

        But there is no evidence that can be verified or tested that shows that everything organism on earth is descended from 1 common ancestor. If this is not a fact it should not be taught in science class, that belongs in a comparative religion course.

  3. magsol says:

    @mcoville (this is going to be lengthy, I apologize)

    I’m not sure why your definition of “fact” requires evolution to be taught as a religion, but if you’re looking for (e.g.) fossilized proof of all species’ common ancestor, you must realize that such hard, direct proof doesn’t exist.

    Rather, the evidence comes from myriad other tests: fossil records, genetic sequence analysis, radiometric and carbon dating, cellular biology, biochemical processes…the list is endless. All the evidence points to life on this planet as having evolved from previously existing life, life which may have possessed a slightly different genetic structure (due to method of reproduction, random mutation, recombination, and so on). It is all empirically verified and similarly tested.

    The theory of creation has, quite literally, one source of evidence: the Bible. You can’t carbon date it, you can’t perform a sequence alignment on it, and you can’t mix it up in a beaker and see if it reacts to specific chemicals. There exists no physical evidence remotely pointing to a ~5000 year old Earth, a coexistence of humans and dinosaurs, or any of the other conditions that would have had to be satisfied for pure creationism to be remotely scientifically viable.

    Yes, evolution may sound like magic to the uninitiated; in a similar vein, Quantum Theory – which, in fact, has proved to be among the most accurate theories scientists have ever formulated – makes absolutely zero sense to anyone outside of PhD’s and the extremely gifted. But that does not make them any less factual or less empirically grounded. Just because I can’t make sense of triple integration of unsolvable differential equations within a zero-point energy system doesn’t mean someone else can’t either.

  4. halfsmile says:

    This comment will exist in two distinct parts:

    1. BLASPHEMY. YOU WILL BURN IN HELL. INTELLIGENT DESIGN IS THE ONLY ANSWER. THIS COUNTRY WAS FOUNDED ON GOD, AND BY GOLLY THOSE KIDS WILL SAY THE *WHOLE* PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE AND PRAY BEFORE CLASS AND … *coughahem*

    Also: BABY GOAT SQUEEEEE!!!

    2. The only way Darwin and theology can be taught in the same course is discussing 19th Century literature and the crisis of faith with the rise of empirical science. See also: Hopkins, Strauss, Dickens, Clough, Colenso, et al.

    Also, CHUCKIE RULEZ!!! [/Mr. Grimm]

    That is all. Goodbye.

  5. mcoville says:

    “such hard, direct proof doesn’t exist.”, if it doesn’t exist it shouldn’t be taught.

    “fossil records, genetic sequence analysis,….. cellular biology, biochemical processes…the list is endless” and I contend it is all empirical evidence for creation. I left out “radiometric and carbon dating” because there is enough evidence that this is not a reliable scientific process, too many assumptions need to be made in order for this to work.

    • magsol says:

      I’m going to have to be “That Guy” here and say that simply disagreeing with me isn’t a convincing argument. Your points aren’t supported by any plausible evidence, so I really don’t know what you’re getting at.

      We don’t have any hard evidence for gravity. Should we not teach that?

      We can’t pluck out a proton, hold it under a lamp, and say “that’s a proton.” Its existence is inferred through studying the behavior of homogeneous systems of molecules and their respective reactions to varying conditions and stimuli. Should we teach that everything is made out of fire, earth, air, and water?

      We don’t know if Betelgeuse still exists or if it went supernova years ago. Should we still be using it as an example of a red supergiant?

      How are all those testing methods evidence for creation? As I said previously, they all (none too subtly) point to an Earth that is 4.5 billion years old, and a tree of life with an ever-coalescing root.

      How is radiometric dating unreliable? Radioactive decay is among the most reliable physical processes known; unstable isotopes decay at highly predictable rates, allowing for very accurate timeline inference.

  6. matt.roe says:

    I would reccoemnd the book: “The Language of God”

    http://www.amazon.com/Language-God-Scientist-Presents-Evidence/dp/0743286391

    He proposes a theory called BioLogos or “theisitc evolution” which maintains the following points (from the wikipedia article on the book):

    1. The universe came into being out of nothingness, by the hand of God, approximately 14 billion years ago.
    2. Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.
    3. While the precise mechanism of the origin of life on earth remains unknown, once life arose, the process of evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity over very long periods of time.
    4. Once evolution got under way no special supernatural intervention was required.
    5. Humans are part of this process, sharing a common ancestor with the great apes.
    6. But humans are also unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history.

    Francis Collins, the author, has impeccible credentials (he’s an MD/PHD who was in charge of the human genome project). My former rommate, also a devout Catholic and now a crazy-smart med student at Vanderbilt, loved the book and said that Collins really knew his stuff. It’s far too difficult for me to understand.

    • magsol says:

      That pretty much nails my beliefs on the head. I need to check this book out. Thanks!

      • mcoville says:

        But ‘theistic evolution’ only succeeds in changing God’s word to fit man’s science. If you believe Genesis 1:1 is true, then why is it hard to believe that God created everything in 6 literal days?

  7. matt.roe says:

    Bla, that last post was riddled with spelling errors, that’s what I get for typing with frozen fingers…

  8. magsol says:

    @mcoville

    That’s a fundamental difference between us, then: I believe in a less-than-literal interpretation of the Bible. I believe it is man’s word inspired by God, and as such the lessons in the book and many of the events are completely true, but it also contains historical errors (that may or may not have been purposeful). As such, I don’t see “theistic evolution” changing God’s word, nor do I believe everything was created in 6 literal days.

    I suppose another point then is: why would God create everything in 6 literal days, then leave behind troves of physical evidence for us to discover leading us to conclude that humanity is the bottom rung of a 3.8 billion year evolutionary ladder? Seems almost like lying.

  9. mcoville says:

    If you believe the bible is man written and has any error, what hope do you have that the promise of redemption is true?

    This question is more important than what follows, but to continue the discussion I will answer your statement made.

    “…leading us to conclude that humanity is the bottom rung of a 3.8 billion year evolutionary ladder?”, a correct statement is that it leads you, and other evolutionists, to that conclusion. The evidence that has been found leads me, and other creationists, that there where a lot of creatures killed by a global flood as a result of God’s judgment on man’s sin.

    • magsol says:

      I should think the answer to that question would be obvious by now: the more I discover through science, the more my faith grows with the wonders I uncover. No random event could have possibly spawned all this order and structure. Furthermore, equating a non-literal biblical interpretation with total agnosticism is a gross oversimplification. Catholicism by its very canon seeks to learn and enact the teachings in the Bible and of Jesus, but recognizes that it was written by humans and is thus prone to factual error, satirical fudging, and metaphorical exaggeration; i.e., the moral of the story is more important than the story itself. After all, Jesus spoke in metaphors. It doesn’t make any of the lessons or hope for salvation any less true.

      The evidence that has been found

      I ask again from a previous comment: what evidence? If your evidence consists exclusively of events dictated in the Bible, then the debate is closed because, as I said before, science can’t confirm or deny theories based solely on sentences in a book.

  10. mcoville says:

    “what evidence?”
    First and foremost…. creation. But more specifically, lets look at the fossil record. As I stated in the last post, the fossil record shoes “that there where a lot of creatures killed by a global flood as a result of God’s judgment on man’s sin.”

    But evidence of creation is not going to convince you of anything because you have a belief in evolution that you interpret scientific evidence with. What is more important is that you seam to call yourself a Christian and do not follow Christ. Check out this post as the writer took the time to address the fact that Christians and Darwinian evolution do not mix. He uses a lot of Bible verses, and I know you do not believe in the Bible as an authority, but give it a try anyways. Sola Scriptura.

    • magsol says:

      Fossil evidence gives no indication of a global flood at any point in history. There is evidence of localized catastrophic flooding at roughly the point when Noah was theorized to have lived, but conjecturing upon the cause of the flood as God’s wrath upon the sinful is outside the scope of this debate.

      As for the rest of your comment, it is evident to me that this debate is over. Calling into question my devotion to my faith – a 24-year journey at this point – on nothing more than my espoused belief in a harmony of scientific theories and religious beliefs reeks of unChristlike judgment, condemnation, and frankly, narrowmindedness.

      Your link provides a perspective on creation under the assumption that the Bible should be taken literally. As I have mentioned already, the entire Catholic Church interprets the Bible as a spiritual guide, not a literal historical document. And once again you oversimplify – the Bible is indeed an authority, just not the kind that fits into your definition of a true Christian.

      You obviously have your beliefs, and I have mine, and I enjoy a good theological, scientific, philosophical debate with those who believe differently than I. Discussing beliefs and the reasons therein is one thing, and I know I am as far from a perfect Christian as one can be, but questioning those beliefs for the simple reason that you believe differently signals the end of any meaningful discourse.

  11. mcoville says:

    Sorry I touched a nerve there. But knowing you are a Catholic explains a lot of your stance on sola scriptura. Read some of Martin Luther’s reformation writings, they can shed some light on the subject.

    “Fossil evidence gives no indication of a global flood at any point in history”, fossilized clams on top or mount everest.

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  13. BOB MAZZANTI says:

    SIR OR MADAM, HAS ANY INTERMEDIATE FORM OF LIFE BEEN FOUND? EVIDENCE OF A CREATURE EVOLVING INTO ANOTHER .PERHAPS , MORE
    ADAPTIVE FORM, CAPABLE OF SUSTAING ITS SPECIES.? I HAVE NOT READ OR HEARED OF SUCH A BOMBSHELL. ENLITEN ME, BOB

    • magsol says:

      (switch off your capslock, please)

      The evidence to which you refer is everywhere. There is nothing in the theory of evolution that requires species evolution to be strictly linear; in fact, it embraces the idea that multiple branches of a single species can appear, and furthermore that these branches can exist in parallel.

      Hence, there is no “intermediate form of life”, no snapshot of “a creature evolving into another”; evolution posits that homo sapiens are a specific subgroup within the broader primate family, and as such we share evolutionary traits with gorillas, apes, chimpanzees, and extinct species like homo erectus. It is widely hypothesized that erectus and sapien existed side by side, but the evolutionary advantages of sapien far outweighed erectus, hence the latter died out.

      If you’re looking for some sort of half-man, half-fish organism, then I implore you to recognize that you have an incorrect perspective on what evolution teaches. It refers instead to the minute variations in every generation of a particular species, variations that may very well confer a survival advantage over other variations, allowing a subgroup of the species to endure in the population and spread over hundreds of generations. It never has, does not, nor ever will state that man popped out of a single-celled bacterium overnight.

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