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Can Science Support Creationism?

Use and Abuse of the Fossil Record

Penny Higgins

February 4, 2014

I gave a talk for RIT Skeptics with the above title. This post is the analogue version of the presentation for those who couldn’t attend. It’s also a good way for me to organize my thoughts in a linear fashion.

The point of the talk is to show whether or not some ideas of ‘Special Creation’ can be supported by science. Specifically, I’ll compare the Theory of Evolution with concepts of Intelligent Design and Scientific Creationism.

In a general sense, Creationism is the idea that some supernatural power is responsible for the diversity of life on Earth. This supernatural force is responsible for our existence on this planet. This is in contradiction to the scientific theory of Evolution, which holds that the diversity of life on Earth today can be tracked back to a single common, unicellular, ancestor, and that the diversity is due to the accumulation of minute changes along lineages over billions of years.

To begin, let’s talk about what constitutes ‘science.’

How the scientific method works, from observations to falsification. If a hypothesis is falsified, the hypothesis may be modified.How the scientific method works, from observations to falsification. If a hypothesis is falsified, the hypothesis may be modified.

We’ve probably all heard at some point of the ‘scientific method.’ In short, the idea is that observations are made by the scientist.

The Bumble fell off the cliff but survived by bouncing.

The scientist then develops a hypothesis to explain the observations.

Bumbles bounce.

In developing the hypothesis, the scientist also comes up with some predictions and at least one test to check whether the hypothesis is valid.

If this is true, then every time a Bumble falls down, it should bounce.

Then the scientist runs the test.

Shove the Bumble off a cliff.

The scientist awaits the results.

Oops. The Bumble didn’t bounce.

The scientist has either supported or falsified the hypothesis. If the hypothesis is falsified, then it’s not all over. The hypothesis can be revised.

Maybe it’s not the Bumble that bounces. Maybe it’s where it falls off the cliff that matters.

Then we can test the new hypothesis.

Take another Bumble to the original cliff where the first Bumble bounced and give it a shove.

And the process goes on by asking better and more focused questions. What is it about a Bumble that makes it bounce? Can other things bounce like Bumbles? What’s so special about that one cliff?

What’s crucial here is that the hypothesis (Bumbles bounce) makes predictions (Bumbles will always bounce) and is testable (shove a Bumble off a cliff) and falsifiable (if the Bumble doesn’t bounce).

In order for something to be considered scientific, it must meet these criteria.

One other thing that science does is intentionally limit its explanations to the natural, material, observable world. But we’re going to set this aside for the sake of this discussion.

Evolution is a scientific theory. It has met the above criteria and has been repeatedly tested and has not yet been disproved. Some aspects of it are not yet understood, but on the whole, Evolution is the best scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth.

I will mention here at once, however, that the Theory of Evolution is not a theory to explain life’s origin (it assumes that life is already present), it is not a theory to explain the origin of the universe, nor is it a theory to explain the complexity of anything.

It’s really important to define what is meant by ‘Creationism,’ because it can mean a lot of things. I’m speaking specifically here of the two types of Creationism that are most often trying to be promoted as science in the United States: Intelligent Design and Scientific Creationism. Both claim to be based in science (and indeed, look kinda science-y), and proponents of each are trying to get these ideas taught in science classrooms.

So let’s talk about these things.

 

INTELLIGENT DESIGN

Intelligent Design is the idea that there are things in biology that are simply too complex to have arisen by the mechanisms proposed by Evolution. For example, you can’t have a mouse trap with fewer than eight parts. All the parts must come into existence at once, or some outer intelligence has to make those things. Another common example is the idea that if you found a pocket watch on the beach, you wouldn’t assume that it just formed there. You’d assume that someone made it.

Intelligent Design puts forward that certain mechanisms (like the flagellum on bacteria or the blood clotting cascade of enzymes) is far too complex to be the result of even billions of years of evolution. The catch-phrase for this is “irreducibly complex.” These things, Intelligent Design claims, were made by an external force, and external intelligence. In most cases, this intelligence is presumed to be the God of the Judeo-Christian bible. (It is most often, in the United States anyway,  Christians who argue for this.) Thus, an eight-piece mouse trap is irreducibly complex. A four-piece mousetrap won’t work.

It is interesting that Intelligent Design does support many of the basic arguments of the Theory of Evolution. Intelligent Design is fine with micro-evolution, the instances of evolution that we can observe, like the development of resistant strains of bacteria. This is fine, because in that case we’re not changing species of bacteria, just strains. The variety of dog breeds is fine too. Breeds or races of one species, though radically different in appearance, are still all one species.

 

SCIENTIFIC CREATIONISM

Like Intelligent Design, Scientific Creationism claims to have scientific proof that the Earth and everything on it was specially created by some supernatural force. Also, similar to Intelligent Design, it generally comes from fundamentalist Christians. In this case, the arguments go beyond an explanation for the diversity of life, but focus on the bible-literalist idea that the Earth is about 6,000 years old.

To do this, creation scientists use the same techniques the I as a geoscientist might use, but their goal is to prove that the Earth is much younger than the rest of the geoscience community thinks it is. Creation scientists in the laboratory are indistinguishable from mainstream scientists such as myself.

 

ARE EITHER OF THESE SCIENTIFIC?

We need to ask ourselves if these two ideas meet the criteria above for being scientific.

 

Let’s start with Intelligent Design.

Hypothesis – Parts of biological systems are too complex to have arisen naturally. These are irreducibly complex.

Makes Predictions -

1) Certain parts of biological systems appear all at once and abruptly in organism lineages.

2) Any part of a greater irreducibly complex feature cannot function by itself.

Testable – Find an irreducibly complex structure or mechanism. Check to see if its parts can function outside of the whole.

Falsifiable – If parts of an irreducibly complex structure do function outside of the whole, then the hypothesis is falsified and must be revised.

Well, this looks all right. Maybe it is scientific.

We can look at the bacterial flagellum and see if it’s simpler parts work (they actually do!). We can also look at the blood clotting cascade and see if independent parts of the cascade can exist in the absence of the rest of the cascade (they do!).

Does the fact that we haven’t identified a without-a-doubt irreducibly complex system in living things completely refute this aspect of Intelligent Design? Maybe not.

But let’s take a step back and think about this in practical terms. Is this a useful thing to pursue? In proving that there are irreducibly complex things then we prove the existence of the supernatural. Is that useful? Could there not be other explanations? Maybe when we find something that we all agree is irreducibly complex we can have this discussion.

In the meantime, I would point out that you can have a one-part mouse trap. A wall isn’t a very efficient mouse-trap, but it can work.

Let’s take this back to the original problem: How does Intelligent Design compare with the Theory of Evolution, in regards to the diversity of life on Earth.

 

For microevolution, they are in exact agreement.

Hypothesis – Organisms over generations can be markedly different from their ancestors in appearance and/or physiology. These changes occur in response to stresses (or selections), whether natural (weaker organisms do not survive to reproduce) or artificial (individual organisms are selected to breed with one another to convey desirable traits to the next generation).

Makes Predictions -

1) A population of organisms under stress will change when a selective pressure is put on them.

Testable – Place a population under stress. Select the stressor carefully, however.

Falsifiable – The organisms do not change.

 

For macroevolution, Intelligent Design and Evolution are quite different.

Evolution’s Hypothesis – Small, step-wise changes over great periods of time will result in the entirely of biological diversity, including the development of animals versus plants and the different, large grouping within each of these kingdoms. (And this also includes the fungi and other kingdoms of organisms on Earth.)

Prediction – In the fossil record, a continuum of organisms, including forms intermediate between large divisions of organisms may be found.

Intelligent Design’s Hypothesis – The large groups of organisms are differentiated by irreducibly complex structures and are thus completely distinct.

Predictions – No intermediate forms are possible in the fossil record.

To test either of these hypotheses, one need to dig (literally) into the fossil record.

What does the fossil record say? There are abundant transitional forms, including the transitional form between fish and amphibians. But there is yet argument (though not in the paleontological community) about whether these are truly transitional forms.

 

How about Scientific Creationism:

Hypothesis – The Earth is only 6000 years old, thus too short lived for biological evolution to have occurred.

Makes Predictions -

1) No geological materials may be greater than 6000 years old.

2) Catastrophic events from the bible, for example Noah’s flood, are recorded in the rock record.

Testable – The geosciences has all sorts of methods for assigning ages to rocks. The geosciences also have methods for identifying flood events in the rock record.

Falsifiable – The discovery of ages older than 6000 years negates the first prediction. The absence of evidence of a global catastrophic flood negates the second prediction.

Well, this seems as if it ought to be really easy to disprove and cast aside out-of-hand. I mean there are lots of dates of the Earth and geological materials that are a great deal older than 6000 years. But, if you’re not science-minded, you might not know that. You might take a man with his Bachelor’s degree in Geology at his word when he tells you that the rocks he dated were only 6000 years old.

It’s equally possible that a lay person might not realize that the lovely evidence for flooding that this same geologist is presenting is really limited in geographic extent, and is in no way global, like he’s claiming.

Creation Science in that regard is a little diabolical. The science that creation scientists are doing – their methods – are fine and fair. The difficulty is their extension into broad conclusions that overreach the results of their analyses. But you need to have a solid background in science to recognize that.

You can read more about my impressions of Creation Science in this article I wrote in 2007.

 

But how does Creation Science stack up against Evolution, with regards to the diversity of life on Earth?

Evolution’s Hypothesis – Small, step-wise changes over great periods of time will result in the entirety of biological diversity, including the development of animals versus plants and the different, large grouping within each of these kingdoms. (And this also includes the fungi and other kingdoms of organisms on Earth.)

Prediction – In the fossil record, a continuum of organisms, including forms intermediate between large divisions of organisms may be found.

Creation Sciences’s Hypothesis – The Earth is only 6000 years old. While microevolution may yet be possible, the major groups (kinds) of organisms were placed on the Earth at its formation 6000 years ago.

Predictions – The fossil record should only include fossils of modern kinds. Hypothetical ancestors could not have existed. Anything other than the modern kinds may have once existed, but did not survive the catastrophic events like Noah’s flood.

Again, to test these predictions, one need only dig into the rock record. The fossil record should be dominated by modern ‘kinds’ of animals, with animals of different kinds being buried below layers indicating some manner of catastrophic event. (It should also be impossible to find any rocks older than 6000 years).

 

So, are either Intelligent Design or Scientific Creationism supported by science?

The answer is no.

We can sure present them as science, complete with predictions. But their predictions fail. We do have rocks older than 6000 years old. We do have irreducibly complex structures that are reducible. We do have intermediate forms in the fossil record.

Time and again, science has refuted the predictions made by Intelligent Design and by Scientific Creationism.

And when they fail, both camps of creationism induce the supernatural itself, claiming that where Evolution does not yet have an answer, that’s where the supernatural resides, or contradictory evidence has been placed by the supernatural itself to deceive us.

Remember what I said early on? Science intentionally ignores the supernatural. It’s left out of the equation. Intelligent Design and Creation Science both fail as true science immediately, because of their purpose to prove that the supernatural exists.

Both Intelligent Design and Scientific Creationism support Evolution’s concept of microevolution, but not macroevolution (but for totally different reasons). Their predictions to support their concept of macroevolution (the presence of ‘kinds’) fail in the rock record.

Both Intelligent Design and Scientific Creationism are microevolution (a scientific concept explained by Evolution), plus some other ideas that have no scientific support. These other ideas do not agree with scientific observations. So if we’re going to stick to the science, we’d best stick to Evolution.

Penny Higgins

Penny Higgins's photo

Dr. Pennilyn (Penny) Higgins is a Research Associate in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Rochester. Most of her research revolves around studying the chemistry of fossil mammal teeth to learn about the environments in which the animals lived and what they might have been eating while living there. She is particularly interested in episodes of rapid climate change in the geologic record. In addition to doing research and managing a geochemistry laboratory, Penny also teaches courses in introductory geology and paleontology at the University of Rochester. When she's not in the office or laboratory, Penny can be spotted writing fiction, practicing the western martial arts, or just screwing around on Twitter.