Being uninformed is so last season
23 August 2014 03:25 (South Africa)
Opinionista Theresa Mallinson

Evolutionists vs creationists: an unequal debate

  • Theresa Mallinson
Evolution is pretty much a universally accepted theory in the scientific community. That hasn’t stopped the fundamentalists from coming up with their own crazy take on creation. It’s hard to engage meaningfully with such people because, unlike the scientists, they have an answer (twisted as it may be) for everything. So, if you ever happen to find yourself in the audience during such a debate, the only way to survive is to regard it as pure entertainment.

On Tuesday evening the Origins Centre at Wits University hosted a debate called “Creation or Evolution”. The participants were a palaeontologist, a theologian and, um, a creationist dentist. At the debate Dr Bouke Bokma, the aforementioned dentist, alerted me to several facts of which I was previously unaware. Some of what I heard was old news; c’mon, who doesn’t know that the Earth is 6,000 years old? But did you know that the dinosaurs were vegetarian? (Well, except for the naughty ones that disobeyed God.)

It makes sense: that’s why dinosaurs were able to coexist with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden on day six of creation without eating them for dinner. And it’s also why they didn’t make it onto the Ark, because God smote them down owing to their evil carnivorous ways, and then they were trapped in sediment during the flood and became fossils, but fossils don’t count because they don’t have babies.

Actually, maybe there were some dinosaurs on the Ark (presumably the good plant-eating kind); there seemed to be some confusion about this matter. So I was worried about writing all that stuff about God smiting the dinosaurs down, because the dentist didn’t actually say that, and I wouldn’t want to misrepresent his argument. (For the record, he did say that fossils don’t count; I guess he’s never heard of the watch brand.) But then I realised it didn’t matter if I made stuff up: That’s the awesome thing about being a creationist – you get to, well, create shit up all the time!

The palaeontologist, Adam Yates, has a different approach to how the Earth – and the dinosaurs, and the humans, and all the other species – came into being. In other words, he doesn’t create shit up. According to him, and backed up by radiometric dating, the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. In terms of observable and recorded evolution of species happening today, he pointed to the example of the lizards of Pod Mrcaru. In 1971 five pairs of Italian wall lizards were taken from Pod Kopiste, and introduced to Pod Mrcaru (both of these locations being Croatian islands). A mere 36 years later, the Pod Mrcaru lizards showed signs of evolution, most notably developing a caecal valve to help them better digest their new diet, which now consisted primarily of plant matter, whereas on Pod Kopiste the lizards had largely subsisted on insects. The wall lizards left behind on Pod Kopiste did not develop a new valve.

But this was just one example of many that could’ve been used. A crucial point in Yates’ presentation was that science doesn’t claim to prove anything. The theory of evolution is no exception – like the theory of gravity, it’s just a theory. But, given the mountains of geological, fossil, and evolutionary biological evidence supporting evolution, it’s by far the most plausible hypothesis we have to date.

Of course, despite the human capacity for cognitive dissonance, it’s impossible for anyone to believe in both the theory of evolution and literal Bible-based creationism – some things really are mutually exclusive. Theologians such as the third speaker, Anthony Egan (along with many religious institutions, including the Catholic Church), have a more sophisticated interpretation of the Bible, reading Genesis as a metaphor, rather than what actually happened. In fact, Egan commented that trying to make the Bible into something it is not, (for example a historical record or a science textbook), is actually misusing the holy text.

Egan views science as answering the “what” and “how” questions of existence, but sees God providing a frame to the experience, and answering the “why” question. In this position, evolution and faith are not incompatible; in fact, it’s called “evolutionary faith”.

There were more than 100 people in the audience on Tuesday evening, and I’m willing to bet that not one of them changed their position after the evening’s debate – not the creationists, not the evolutionists, not the evolutionary faithists. That’s not surprising. Everyone seems to have made up their minds already: it’s just that the scientists (and the proponents of evolutionary faith) base their position on real evidence.

The way science works is that if new evidence arises, it will be evaluated on its own merits. Scientists know they can’t explain everything, but they’re secure enough in their methodology to admit when they don’t know, and even change their minds if new evidence comes to light. The creationists, on the other hand, base their position on fabrication. When they’re presented with new evidence, they come up with pseudoscience to make it fit their theory (for example, that the sedimentary rock that contains fossils was all produced by the great flood event).

In case you haven’t guessed yet, I believe in evolution. I appreciate the concept of respecting other people’s faiths: If people want to believe in a god, that’s their call. But I don’t see why I should accord fundamentalist cant any respect when the matter being discussed rightly belongs in the scientific realm.

Still, you’ve got to give the creationists points for, well, their creativity. In their spirit, I’m going to propound my own theory: the majority of humans are the outcome of the evolutionary process; the creationists, in contrast, are the direct descendents of Adam and Eve. After all, inbreeding isn’t known to produce intelligent reasoning. DM

  • Theresa Mallinson
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