science, if true,
An Up-to-Date Debate?
|By Jeanine DeNoma|
Has the creation/evolution debate been settled? Is it still relevant today? Certainly in scientific circles there is no debate that evolution occurs. Paleontologist and geologist Dr. Richard Thoms discussed historical social and scientific aspects of creationism.
Is the creation/evolution debate up-to-date? Is it relevant today? The answer is ambiguous, said paleontologist Dr. Richard Thoms speaking at the April 29 meeting of Oregonians for Rationality. The creation view thrived within scientific circles during Darwin's time; evolution was hotly debated. But within the scientific community today there is no debate. Creationism has been dead since the beginning of this century. It is highly unlikely it will ever be revived. The political debate, however, continues. From the standpoint of understanding creationists' arguments and political strategies, this topic is relevant, said Thoms.
Thoms became interested in the creationist movement after receiving literature from "creation scientists" while teaching at Portland State University in the mid-1960s. The creationists' tone implied they had discovered something new, found flaws in the scientific theories that somehow had been missed before. Upon reading their literature, however, Thoms recognized the same old lines of evidence previously trotted out in the 1920s, now dressed in new clothing and promoted with new tactics. Thoms feels it is necessary to include a historic perspective of the creationists' opposition to evolution in both his graduate and undergraduate courses in paleontology and evolution. Most importantly, he contrasts creationism with modem scientific thought and provides a context for today's political controversy.
Biblical Literalism in America
Late 19th century Christian fundamentalists in America began to criticize the sciences, especially evolutionary science, on the grounds they contradicted the Bible. This biblical literalism arose from America's early history and is generally not seen elsewhere in the world. Early American immigrants fleeing European religious persecution were largely from Anabaptist sects. These sects did not call on priests to explain scriptural meaning, but instead took the scriptures as literal and not to be interpreted.
"The problem," said Thoms "is literalists have no basis for…weighing meaning...If it is all taken at face value, then every word is just as important as every other word...How do you know when to stop?
"The vast majority of Christians have a much different approach to the scriptures and see no conflict," said Thoms. Many creationists, however, view evolution as an evil responsible for a litany of societal ills.
Creationists have developed a pseudoscience of origins. Starting from the Bible, they interpret facts in a manner which confirms their predetermined viewpoint. Their pseudoscience, if true, would overturn decades of scientific theory from biology, geology, paleontology, physics and astronomy. Thoms, using his own fields of paleontology and geology, highlighted how creationist reasoning and tactics have misled the unscientific, believing public.
Establishing the Geological Time Frame
"Creationists like to tell you that paleontologists and geologists use the fossil records to determine the age of rocks only because they are evolutionists," said Thoms. In fact, catastrophists and individuals believing in the fixity of species were the ones who first discerned the pattern in the stratigraphic record. In the 1700s scientists "began to discover certain distinct patterns to the organization of the fossil record ... it was not chaotic. They didn't find everything all mixed up together in every single stratum from the bottommost to the topmost. There seemed to be certain patterns." The amalgamation of paleontology and genetics did not occur until the 1930s, after paleontologists and geologists had used the fossil record to establish the standard geological time frame still used today.
A Single Catastrophic Event?
Geologists work from the perspective that the stratigraphic record was formed slowly from the same processes occurring today. Unlike creationists, they do not assume that what we see resulted from an unknowable, catastrophic event of great magnitude.
Creationists who claim all fossils formed in a single catastrophic event, Noah's flood, must explain how the stratigraphic record became sorted. If Noah's great flood, as recorded in Genesis, formed all stratigraphic rock, and all its layers formed rapidly in a short period of time, then why can we identify each stratum as unique? Why are the fossils of the Cambrian not found in the Cretaceous?
One creationist answer is that smarter animals are found at the top, while less intelligent ones didn't have the wits to get out of the way sooner! Even if we could measure animal intelligence in this way, Thoms pointed out, the plant kingdom shows the same pattern. Should we imagine flowering plants are more intelligent than conifers?
"The stratigraphic record is far too complicated to be explained by such simplistic approaches," said Thoms.
A Record of Extinction
Fossils are the remains of past life. The fossil record is dominantly a record of extinction. In the early 19th century, geologists believed fossil forms would be found living somewhere on the planet. Not until Lewis and Clark made the last big American land exploration did it become clear there were not enough places for all these species to still be hiding.
Species living today are not found in the fossil record, except in the very youngest strata. Most fossils are not from any species, or even any families, living today. "If Noah were true to the commandment he was given, to take specimens of every living thing, isn't it interesting that the species living now are almost all different from the species which perished during the flood. And why are the survivors from the ark species we don't see further back in the fossil record? This is pretty hard for the creationists to explain," said Thoms.
Another problem for creationists is why certain fish and marine reptiles didn't survive the great flood. Why are they incorporated into the stratigraphic record before the land mammals?
Creationists also like to claim there are no transitional forms between taxonomic categories. When Darwin published The Origin of Species, transitional forms had not yet been found, but since then many have.
"We have intermediate forms between every major class of vertebrate animal. We have connections between fish and amphibians, amphibians and reptiles, and between reptiles and birds ... We do, in fact, have transitional forms which bridge anatomical gaps between species," said Thoms. Because of the nature of the fossil record, however, and the infrequency with which dead life forms are preserved, not all transitions will be preserved, and finding them is rare, he added.
Dinosaurs and Man
For the most part creationists have given up the claim that human footprints have been found beside dinosaur tracks. Such a claim, if true, would destroy the entire structure of paleontology and the life sciences. The evidence would need to be overwhelming. Thoms pointed out there are a lot of marks in rocks that look like tracks - it doesn't mean they are. The Paluxie River tracks are nothing more mysterious than dinosaur tracks in limey mud which varied in water content. What appear to be human footprints are just badly formed dinosaur tracks, said Thoms.
Life Did Not Appear So Suddenly
Creationists have long used the argument that life appeared suddenly. In the 19th century it was a puzzle as to why fossils suddenly became so abundant in the Cambrian, while older strata had none. Since the 1960s, however, scientists have examined some of the oldest rocks and have found fossils of early microscopic, single-celled organisms. The sudden appearance of hard-shelled organisms during the Cambrian is an artifact of environmental conditions which coincide with chemical changes in the rock. Prior to the Cambrian there was probably insufficient oxygen in the atmosphere to allow for the build up of skeletal material.
"The appearance of life is not so sudden or surprising as people originally thought," said Thoms. "When we go out and look, we find more evidence. History is being pushed back. We now go back to the Precambrian. The suddenness of life is more an artifact of the way things are preserved, the sedimentation process, and the chemistry of the oceans at that time."
The Language of Evolution
Darwin and Huxley agreed that evolutionary language must be agnostic: It could not utilize divine concepts to explain natural phenomenon. This is a basic precept in science. Using a miracle to explain ignorance is not legitimate science. "Some people are still doing this ... when reason fails, their own imagination fails, or when the evidence is not sufficient." There are times when scientists must simply say, "We don't know" and leave it there, said Thoms.
"Most practicing scientists in evolutionary fields are believers," said
Thoms. "The idea that these things are dichotomous, that they are
absolutely diametrically opposed, that they can not be melded in any way,
is just not true."
|Creationists complain their "research" is not taken seriously by science.
True science, however, puts forth testable, falsifiable theories.
Are creationists willing to forsake their dogma when facts show it to be
"Scientists" joining the Creation Research Society must sign a four-point statement saying: "(1) The Bible is the written Word of God, and because we believe it to be inspired throughout, all of its assertions are historically and scientifically true...This means that the account of origins given in Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths. (2) All basic types of living things ... were made by direct creative acts of God during Creation Week as described in Genesis.
|(3) The great Flood...was an historical event, worldwide in its extent
and effect. (4) We are an organization of Christian men of science
A recent issue of Acts and Facts, the newsletter of the Institute for Creation Research, included an article titled "Is belief in the young earth necessary to be a Christian?" Their answer: One can be granted salvation without knowing "anything about the age of the earth." They go on to say, however, "Belief in the old earth ... destroys the foundation of the gospel...this is inconsistent with [a] professed belief in the Bible."
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