The Backward Thinking of Creationists

puddle-thinkingThere are a few arguments commonly used by opponents of evolution to postulate the need for a god. I wrote recently about the cosmological argument, and there are a few others that are particularly annoying because they involve such backward reasoning.

The first is the argument from design, or the “fine-tuning” argument. It notes the truth that if any one of various physical constants were to change by a small amount, life as we know it would be impossible, and based on this truth assumes that those constants must have been set at the beginning of the universe for the purpose of allowing the existence of life.

Douglas Adams satirized this argument with his story of the sentient puddle. The reasoning is obviously backward; water changes shape to fit into a hole that existed before it arrived. Likewise, the physical processes that produce what we call life change to fit the environment that existed before they arrived. This is why many animals have evolved very detailed camouflage that is specific to their habitat, and why you don’t find chameleons in Antarctica or whales in the Sahara.

The unspoken premise upon which this argument rests is the assumption that life as we know it is the only possible sort of life. To claim that different physical constants would result in a lifeless universe is no more than a baseless assertion. There is no evidence or data on the matter because we don’t have a way to test universes with different constants. Different values could, for all we know, result in a completely different universe populated with forms of life that are adapted to its constants.

The same problem arises with the claim that the earth itself is perfectly set up to sustain the life we are familiar with. If the earth was a little closer to the sun, they say, we would die. But that’s because we are adapted to this world as it is, not a world a little closer to the sun. If the earth had been a little closer life could still have developed, and if it resulted in sentient beings, they might say that they would die if their world was a little farther from the sun.

We may find life throughout the universe in unexpected places, like the liquid subsurface oceans of icy moons, because even the sort of life we’re familiar with is capable of adapting to an astonishing range of environments. It is immensely egocentric to rule out the possibility of life on another planet simply because life forms that are adapted to earth wouldn’t be able to survive there.

But that’s not all. The fine-tuning argument also supposes that life on earth is the ultimate purpose for the entirety of the universe. Which, I must remind you, is a huge place that for the most part is absolutely inhospitable to life from earth. In fact, the universe seems to be “fine-tuned” much better for the existence of stars, so why should we assume that life forms from earth were the ultimate goal? It seems that this argument would more reasonably lead to the conclusion that the universe was designed to allow the existence of stars, and we are merely a strange and insignificant side effect.

And that’s precisely what we are…a strange and insignificant side effect of the existence of stars, which produced all of the material that makes up the earth and everything on it through fusion and supernovae.

A second backward argument for intelligent design cites the extreme complexity of modern life forms, particularly the necessity of many different units working together in order to keep the organism alive. Cells are held up as examples of incredible and irreducible complexity, as if the simplest modern cell is the simplest possible organism. Of course it isn’t. Scientists have already made very simple artificial cells that replicate themselves given the right environment. But the main problem with this argument is that it ignores just how badly “designed” most organisms are. Complexity doesn’t imply design by an omniscient and omnipotent designer, especially when that complexity is both unnecessary and far from the best solution.

There are fundamental flaws in many living organisms. Our eyes are amazing, until you look a little closer and see how mediocre they are compared to the eyes of some other animals. Our spines are not ideal for an upright posture, and the many bones in our feet (leftover from our tree-dwelling ancestors) contribute to numerous painful conditions and injuries.

The recurrent laryngeal nerve, in order to get from the brain to the larynx, goes down into the chest and wraps around the aorta before going back up into the throat. It does this in many animals, including all mammals, which means that in a giraffe this nerve is a ludicrous fifteen feet long. Dinosaurs most likely had it as well, meaning that some sauropods would have had recurrent laryngeal nerves in excess of ninety feet long.

Giant pandas are close to extinction partly because the females ovulate for just one to three days a year, and they have to spend so much time eating because they can’t get much nutrition from bamboo–their digestive systems are still typical of a carnivore, like their ancestors, which means they are terribly inefficient at digesting plant matter.

Plenty of flaws are shared among various species because they all descended from a common ancestor. This is to be expected from evolution, because it does not produce perfect solutions. It produces something that works, despite how awkward it might be. It also produces a lot of things that don’t work very well. Pointing to the complexity of living organisms to prove a perfect and intelligent god is backward when that complexity is so poorly constructed.

Finally, I often hear objections to evolution based on facts that are explained by evolution itself. Instead of presenting any data for an alternate hypothesis, most creationists focus on ridiculing evolution, asking incredulous rhetorical questions like “how could something as complex as a human evolve by chance?”, and remaining oblivious to the fact that most of their questions have already been answered with physical evidence and decades of experiments and research that all confirm the answer. (Hint: Chance and time are not the only things involved.)

If anyone who objects to evolution wants to seriously challenge it, they will have to produce a testable hypothesis that can explain everything the theory of evolution already explains. If the hypothesis holds up against evidence and scientific tests, then further research could find areas where evolution fails but the new idea succeeds. If such cases are indeed found, and all the evidence and new research continues to support the hypothesis, then it could eventually become accepted as a new theory to replace evolution.

That’s how science works. You don’t get to tell everyone what’s true and be taken seriously when you can’t back it up with real evidence and testable predictions.

Image: Common Sense Atheist


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