A Judicious Hitchslap!

Christopher Hitchens - A judicious Hitchslap

A Judicious Hitchslap


Religion is institutionalized superstition. Quite simple really. – PravNJ

Denial – A reply to a creationist

I had an interesting discussion with a creationist a few weeks back and I thought I should write up a post. This is more or less what I said to my friend on twitter a few weeks back. Quite a back and forth it was !

Evolution is a fact. Not a theory. Most people think that evolution (“gradual change in phenotype”) is synonymous with the theory of Darwinian Natural Selection. Evolution has been demonstrated by humans for centuries. This is known as “artificial selection”. We bred dogs from wolves, we create new types of roses and orchids everyday and we created crops like rice wheat and maize from certain species of grass.

Gregor Mendel was able to demonstrate this phenotypic change by choosing pea plants that have short lifespans (so that he may observe many generations over a relatively short period of time) and thus established evolution as an observable fact. He hinted that there could be some kind of driving mechanism behind this phenotypic change (which we now call the geneotype) but came short since DNA was yet to be discovered and its structure unlocked by Crick and Watson. Darwin was quite aware of these developments and hypothesized that nature could play the same role that man played in breeding wolves and pea plants (a “natural” selection as opposed to an “artificial selection”). If anything this theory should support the claims of the intelligent design camp (nature ensures that species evolve, and nature = the creator, could be their central thesis – but no they are too asinine for this kind of simple logic).

One could argue that Darwin was essentially motivated by human tinkering of species and wanted to know if nature could do it and whether it has been doing it all along. The ID camp is woefully uninformed with regard to how evolution (the fact) connects with natural selection (the theory). At first glance the ID camp seems to fall into several categories (deniers of evolution deniers of natural selection and all flavors in between) but when you confront them with the facts they push themselves into a corner and go so far as to claim that evolution (the fact) is a lie!

Current research indicates that evolution (changes in phenotype), natural selection, DNA and the field of genetics are intimately linked. This is why we are able to come up with things like genetically modified food and new types of crops by tinkering at the genetic level and lets not forget cloning – quite routine these days. We seem to understand the mechanics of genetic manipulation and its phenotypic effects (to some degree). Push the ID camp and they will tell you that the fact of evolution is a myth and is a blatant lie. What they don’t realize is that by making this claim they ipso facto deny the existence of dogs, pets, livestock, new types of crops, new types of drugs based on genetic research, rice, maize, wheat, corn… the list goes on and on.

Man has been tinkering with nature for thousands of years and will continue to do so with its newfound knowledge of how the genotype functions. Denying one fact (evolution) or the validity of a theory (natural selection) means that you deny the existence of DNA and how information is propagated from one generation to another thus effectively denying “artificial selection” and what humans have been doing routinely for thousands of years. The whole thing is one big tapestry linked together. It is not a haphazard collection of rags sitting on the floor. Sure we patch the quilt every now and then and sew in new pieces of fabric but thats science for you!

Heres a fantastic article on New Scientist. A primer if you will.

Himal K has an excellent post on Buddhists and how some of them deny evolution over here.

Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design – Alive and well in Sri Lanka?

Creationism is the belief that the universe and hence life on earth was created by some sort of supreme being. Seems harmless enough right? Christians, Muslims and Jews have maintained this belief for centuries and it is their central explanation and world-view as to why things are the way they are, all their other beliefs are derivative of this central belief. “God created everything we see around us and he has a plan for all of us…”  this pretty much sums up all three of the so called “great monotheistic” religions.

The creation myths of these religions are documented in their respective holy texts and thus is one of the main sources cited by priests and believers. All three versions of the creation myth are quite similar and basically talk about Adam and Eve and the fall from grace.

Mistranslations and confusion aside believing in  the Abrahamic creation myth will lead you to some alarming conclusions like:

(a) The “world” and everything in it (the universe ?) was created in 7 days

(b) The world as we know it is about 6000 years old

(c) Snakes can communicate with humans

(d) Men and women don’t have the same number of ribs… etc

You see my point. The problem with the myth is that (aside from being written thousands of years ago by some contemporary scribe who translated into the written word, a series myths carried down through many generations by word of mouth), well its quite vague. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The “mainstream” view – at least amongst Christians and Catholics was that these  myths are merely metaphorical and should not be interpreted as being a literal account of creation (This position has always been called the “moderate” position, however Richard Dawkins provides an excellent analysis of this position and points out that religion as practiced by the masses indeed does not operate this way).

Serious scientists have always maintained that these are nothing more than creation myths, seen in many cultures around the world from the ancient African tribes to the Polynesians, and thus the Abrhamic myth is nothing “special” and is just another creation myth. The influence of the Abrahamic religions (at least on the educated general public) has been falling over the years (see the British social attitudes survey of 2007)

Thus we get a spectrum of beliefs amongst the religious with regard to how the universe came to be, from the fundamentalist position to the so called “moderate position”.

Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection which he claimed to be an explanation of the empirically determinable fact of evolution (Gregor Mendel established the fact that species evolve over time by careful observation of several generations of fast growing varieties of pea plants) was undoubtedly the final nail on the coffin of the Abrahmic creation myths. Physics and Astronomy had rendered the creation myths obsolete several centuries ago but when life itself (often thought to be mysterious and possessing some ethereal quality) came under the scrutiny of science and could henceforth be explained to some degree by a set of laws, the educated public were made fully aware that the Abrahmic myths were nothing but a feeble (but albeit important in a historical context) account of how the universe came to be and that these myths were constructed based on many superstitious claims and assumptions.

Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians (notably in the United States) were somewhat threatened by these enlightened claims made by men of science and learning and sought to disrupt the advancement of scientific inquiry into domains traditionally believed to be the domains in which religion was considered to be the supreme authority. Thus the modern “creationist” movement and the “anti-evolutionist” (yes, they somehow seem to deny that evolution, an observable phenomenon  happens at all!) was born. The movement took off in the 1920’s  in – yes you guessed it – the American midwest.

Modern day creationist have attempted to gain some sort of credibility by doing three things:

(a) Engaging serious scientists/intellectuals in public debates and forums

(b) Trying to sound more “scientific” by proposing a “theory” called Intelligent Design

(c) Influencing government policy (especially with regard to policies on education)

As Richard Dawkins points out in the Devil’s Chaplain :

What they [creationists] seek is the oxygen of respectability, [we] give them this oxygen by the mere act of engaging with them at all.   Creationists don’t mind being beaten in an argument. What matters is that we give them recognition by bothering to argue with them in public.

The claims of “young earth creationists” (they interpret the book of Genesis quite literally and believe that the earth is 6000 years old) have been met and challenged by many great scientists and public intellectuals over the years and I won’t go into detail with regard to “the debate” between creationists claims and science. What concerns me is that there have been a number of attempts to bring this kind of pseudoscience to Sri Lanka. The Jehovahs Witness Church (watchtower.org) and the Assembly Of God church in Sri Lanka have been instrumental in spreading creationist nonsense by way of pamphlets, magazines and public events for over a decade now.

Amidst a rapidly declining congregation the Methodist Church (which I erroneously considered to be a little more enlightened than its modern counterparts) has now joined the chorus.

Dr Lalith Mendis (MD) has been visiting schools around Colombo on the pretext of talking about “sexuality and the modern teenager” and has been lecturing students on creationism and intelligent design. He makes all the standard claims made by fundamentalist evangelical Christians (evolution is false – Darwin was wrong, dinosaurs coexisted with humans, homosexuality is a sin etc ).

How does a professional who practices and teaches medicine (yes shocking) reconcile the infantile claims of the creationists and his scientific education? perhaps the late Stephen J. Gould was wrong. Science and religion may not be “non overlapping magisteria”  or perhaps this is a classic case of cognitive dissonance? One could also point out that the inherent weakness in the local education system with regard to teaching science (memorizing facts as opposed to thinking critically) might possibly be to blame. Perhaps it is a result of all of these factors, but my bet is that the education system had a large role to play. A colleague of mind had the opportunity to speak to Dr Mendis and when his creationist claims were challenged by my colleague Dr Mendis resorted to a the classic albeit base and disgusting tactic of reductio ad ridiculum (“are you a medical professional? what authority do you have?”). It may seem counter intuitive but having contradictory viewpoints is not that uncommon amongst professionals and scientists (the vast majority however do not believe in creationism or God for that matter). For example, Bill Lear Jr. (son of Bill Lear – the inventor of the Lear jet ) maintained that the US government researched on “alien technology” until his death and spoke of “anti gravity drives” and the like despite being a pioneer test pilot for the US Air Force. John Polkinghorne – the famous quantum physicist is also a priest, and we all know that Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy!

The lesson to take away from all of this is that the era of engaging creationists is over and done with. When a serious scientist/person engages a creationist he lends undue credibility to a belief system that died (for all practical purposes) many centuries ago. As Christopher Hitchens eloquently puts it:

I am generally tolerant, I love to take part in arguments and teach  but in this case there is no argument – creationism vs evolution, it [the debate] is OVER

I leave you with some Mark Twain and a motivational poster I just cooked up:

Further Reading

1.  With regard to the mistranslations of the Bible from Hebrew to Greek , Latin, English and related questions I refer you to an excellent and thoroughly researched book called “The Uncensored Bible” – however the authors are quite apologetic

2. The creationist museum – makes the extraordinary claim that dinosaurs coexisted with humans – worth a visit!

3. Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free – an excellent book examining how the most powerful nation in the world  is being hijacked by crackpots and crazies, deals with creationism and has an interesting take on how so called “experts” in pseudo scientific fields (astrologers,  healers  etc)  come to gain instant  notoriety and how the checks and balances that kept these individuals in check have eroded over time. Quite relevant in the Sri Lankan context. In the same vein perhaps someone could analyze “Idiot Sr Lanka” ?

4. The First Three Minutes by Nobel Laureate Professor Steven Weinberg – One of the chief architects of the successful electroweak theory, Professor Weinberg turns his attention to examine the early big bang universe.  While much has changed since the 1970s (the first appearance of the book) this remains a modern classic and a good starting point if you’re interested in learning more about the current theories on the origin and evolution of the universe. The book starts off with a Norse creation myth and then quickly moves onto examine how far we’ve come since the ancients in establishing how the universe came to be. This book gave me a much more thorough appreciation of the laws of thermodynamics and how they relate to cosmology than all the textbooks on thermodynamics I read during my first year!

Top 10 Creationist Arguments

The thinking atheist is one of my favourite youtube channels. The guys at the thinking atheist have come up with a list of  their top 10 favourite creationist arguments. Have a gander. Well worth your time!

Warning: watching this video may induce fuming fits of rage for those of you who are scientifically inclined and/or have a scientific background (includes the author of this post). Side effects may include loud swearing and screaming “NO NO NO!” into your screen