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Only a Theory?

This begins hopefully a series of posts that features the perspective of a current or former “true believer”. By this term I mean someone who either has given up, or still relates to, a particular ideology or pseudoscience. In this post, I will be featuring the stories of Joey L., a college student who was brought up in the Lutheran church for most of his life. More specifically, we will be discussing how his Lutheran upbringing treated the teaching of evolution. Let me get any perceptible “bias” out-of-the-way. I put bias in quotes because as I said in a previous post, any bias that I pander to is the idea that a vetted consensus of scientific opinion is scientific truth. Therefore, my bias concerning evolution, that I’m sure will be apparent here, is that evolution is as close to scientific fact as it gets, and I will discuss why later on.

The following monologue has been edited only slightly to take out the parts that refer to us talking (because that is boring), and all of what you read concerning evolution, religious education, and what he was taught is Joey’s word verbatim. I will labor explain why what he was taught is simply fiction, in order to show the palpable desperation of religious institutions to fight science when it contradicts their “sacred” stories. So what did Joey have to say?

Less Like Class, More Like Scopes Monkey Trial

The following is Joey’s recollection of just some of the inadequacies in the religious portrayal of evolution and natural history.

“I unfortunately don’t remember all of what they taught me in detail (or would that be fortunately?), but I’ll give you what I remember.

From 8th grade all the way through my senior year they took a very interesting approach to teaching evolution. Like I had mentioned to you in the car, they spent just about as much time telling us that it was all ‘only a THEORY,’ which meant that it carried no weight and was, in their opinion, just a myth. We were basically just taught the bare minimum about evolution because the state required it to be at least covered briefly.

I was told that, ‘evolution taught that people came directly from apes, which was a terrible idea because it implied that people have no value.’ They never explained it as being more of a bush than a tree like you did. Natural selection was mentioned but only briefly and never explained well. They taught us that if an animal was born with a mutation of some kind, that it would almost always be to their disadvantage and that it would work against them so that it wouldn’t be passed on.

EVERY science class would include a Kent Hovind video too. I would say that if you want to know precisely what they are teaching that you check him out more too. They almost taught directly from his videos in many cases.

The last thing that really stands out in my mind was the fact that they told us that carbon dating was a completely unreliable way to date things and that it allowed scientists to pretty much make things up with no legitimate backing. That went along with the whole belief that the world is only a couple thousand years old because, ‘a world that’s millions or billions of years old couldn’t possibly be true.’ I don’t remember the specific reasons they gave for that but I do remember that they came directly from their good buddy Kent.

I hope that’s helpful for you. I wish I remembered more of those crazy stories, but for now I gotta work on getting the real facts.”– Joey

I counted at least seven misconceptions about evolution and natural history, how about you? Regardless, many of these misconceptions are woefully common among the religious folk, and I will deal with them here. Before I go on, if there are any religious people reading this, did you know the last two Popes accepted that evolution was fact? This is not to say that just because the Pope believes something that you should too, that would be falling prey to the argument from authority fallacy. He simply accepts, as all people should, that the evidence is irrefutable. This is something to keep in mind while we explain the numerous contradictions found in Joey’s monologue.

God of the Gaps

As I mentioned above, many high-ranking religious officials agree with evolution. However, the many who do not, I believe, refuse to listen to evidence because of three main points, let’s call them the three points of disbelief:

  1. A legitimate lack of knowledge on the subject (like in Joey’s case).
  2. Taking scripture literally, and not allegorically, as most modern theologians do.
  3. Evolution, and science in general, makes humans seem, to them, less special.

Upon the dissection of Joey’s monologue, I will try to relate these reasons back to the misconceptions associated with evolution.

What a Theory Really Is

Let’s begin with Joey’s first problem, his teachers claiming evolution is only a theory. This is a very common mistake that many people make. If you mistakenly interpret the theory of evolution as just a theory, as defined in layman’s terms as an educated guess of sorts, then you begin to associate that with less scientific ideas. However, science uses a different definition of theory than the common interpretation.

The scientific definition of a theory is: A scientific theory comprises a collection of concepts, including abstractions of observable phenomena expressed as quantifiable properties, together with rules (called scientific laws) that express relationships between observations of such concepts. A scientific theory is constructed to conform to available empirical data about such observations, and is put forth as a principle or body of principles for explaining a class of phenomena.

Translation: a scientific theory is a collection of rules, observations, and relationships, all based upon numerous and verified lines of evidence, that explains a natural phenomena. In no way is the theory of evolution just an educated guess or hypothesis or myth or anything like that. It is based upon mountains of evidence, laws, and facts, and is the best explanation (because it has not been disproven) for how all organisms developed on Earth.

This argument relates back to disbelief point number one. At the heart of this argument, opponents simply do not understand the terms that they are so vehemently opposing. The infuriating problem is, however, that they don’t care what it really means, they have already made up their minds. Is it impossible to get through to these kinds of people? Pretty much. I will focus on the people like Joey, where a little clarification was all he needed to realize that he was being taught by people with an intellectual firewall already in place. I don’t think Joey knew it at the time, but the moment that he was presented with evidence, evaluated it, and reasonably changed his mind, was the moment he became a true critical thinker and skeptic (liberating I’m sure).

If Humans Evolved from Apes, Why are Apes Still Around?

This is another one of those very common mistakes about evolution. I blame, in part, the many graphics that you see of an ape (really a chimpanzee) slowly evolving directly into a man. This is exactly the same graphic that I use for my logo at the top of the page, and technically it is wrong (I put it up there for someone to notice, no one has). Like Joey mentioned in his monologue, I told his that evolution is more like a bush than a tree. The graphic below illustrates my point:

This is an absolutely perfect representation of the path that evolution follows (if it was big enough to fit all the known species, which nothing really can). Not only does this chart show the approximate time lines of when all this happens, it aptly makes my point that the evolutionary path resembles a bush, and not what is commonly thought of as a tree. This bush structure basically means that at any time, two species that are related shared a common ancestor that predated them both. In layman’s terms, we (organisms) are all cousins. The reason that chimpanzees are still around is because we shared a common ancestor that long ago branched off into the two separate human and chimp species. This bears reiteration: Humans did not directly evolve from chimpanzees, we simply shared a common ancestor that, through speciation, separated into two groups, one becoming modern humans, and one becoming modern chimps.

From this we can see how then chimpanzees are still around today. Take this example:

A group of early hominids, neither ape nor man, has gathered near a valley to drink. A sudden shudder from the Earth sends a mighty earthquake that tears the valley apart, separating the group of hominids into two groups. This now imposed geographic barrier prevents the hominids from ever rejoining each other, and furthermore, the two groups cannot mate because of this barrier. Now, over millions of years, the small genetic mutations that accumulate in a population will change the groups enough to make it so that they can no longer mate with each other, even if they wanted to, because the genetics are no longer compatible. Because of this genetic impotence, the groups have become separate species, incapable of producing fertile offspring. Over more millions of years, these two new species will diverge even more, one eventually becoming modern apes, and one becoming man.

Many times this is how different species emerge, and it can be seen that chimpanzees never directly evolved from hominids, and humans never directly evolved from chimps. They all shared a common ancestor that has spilt into different species. And this thoroughly explains why chimpanzees are still around.

The second part of Joey’s statement further adds that direct evolution from chimps (as we have seen it is not), makes no sense because it makes humans less special. First of all, that is the fallacy called the argument from final consequence. This states that just because you don’t agree with the outcome or consequence, does not make the argument false. Secondly, this exhibits our disbelief point number three. To put it bluntly, science does not make legitimate the idea that humans are more special than any other organism. Why is it hard to accept that a wolf, crocodile, or sea urchin is as evolved as you are (if not more)? I find it is better to consider everything on equal ground, and to marvel at the beauty which pervades through all of life. Isn’t that special enough? Why is it me, me, me and not us, us,us? That is a more philosophical question, so let’s get back to the science.

Mutations? You Mean, Like the X-Men?

The next mistake that Joey’s teachers made was to tell him that natural selection could never work because mutations would always be disadvantageous, and therefore never be selected. This again relates to our disbelief point number one, because here the problem is general lack of knowledge. Granted, they were right to say that some mutations are not selected for, but they are wrong in saying that all mutations are never selected for. This is just simply not true, and I think that the problem is, as most people have, that they were not thinking on a large enough time-scale. Because they cling to an idea of a 6,000 year old Earth, it is understandable to see how evolution may seem unlikely. We know this is not the case. If you evaluate the evidence that says that the Earth is over 4,000,000,000 years old, suddenly those small mutations start to add up. It is simply false that mutations aren’t selected for. For an example, think of humans as natural selectors. When a dog is born that is slightly larger than the rest of the litter, we select that puppy and allow him to breed more than the other puppies. We continue to select the largest puppies for each litter, and as those mutations for a slightly larger dog accumulate, we end up with a dog something like a Great Dane, shown on the left.

There you go, that is how natural selection works! Even though the religious may deny its existence, they have all seen the products of selection, and they might even own some! Using our dog example, every dalmatian, boxer, Weiner, and husky were artificially selected by early humans from their ancestor, the wolf.

Of course some mutations will be beneficial, we do it with everything from dogs to cabbage to horses to bacteria. This is analogous to what nature actually does, it take small mutations (themselves somewhat likely) and accumulates them over vast time-scales, and the product is something that seems very unlikely indeed. But if you understand the humble beginnings of the complexity, evolution becomes that much more convincing.

Kent Hovnid: A Man Who Sincerely Wishes it was 4,000 B.C.E.

Remember when I mentioned earlier that some people have picked a story to stick to, and will refuse to consider one shred of evidence to the contrary? Meet Ken Honvid, the man whose videos were featured in almost “every one” of Joey’s classes. He is an American Young Earth creationist and conspiracy theorist famous for his creation science seminars that aim to convince listeners to reject modern theories of evolution, geophysics, and cosmology in favor of the Genesis creation narrative as found in the Bible. This fits neatly into our disbelief point number 2. While I would agree that the bible does have some good morals and stories in it (the new testament at least), it has nothing to do with the scientific reality of our world. How can you reconcile that the writers of the bible had any scientific knowledge whatsoever, when they were at least 5,000 years away from the birth of modern inquiry? Whether you believe them to be true of not, the bible stories are just that; stories. They were written at a time when people thought the Earth was flat, the Earth was the absolute center of the universe, and when what made you sick were evil spirits. Of course they had no scientific knowledge, so why does Kent Hovnid, as other creationists do, assume that these stories are the absolute truth on everything from evolution to cosmology?

As our disbelief point number two states, Kent is taking the scriptures quite literally, while most theologians today would agree that they are just metaphorical or something like it. I am certain that Kent’s belief gives him a sort of comfort that science seems to challenge. People can believe whatever they want, but refusing to look at evidence, refusing to agree with the majority of experts in all fields, and teaching children and students to blindly follow a 6,000 year old book without question (this doesn’t have to be the bible, it could be any book), is simply ignorant. In this case, fantastically ignorant to the point of creating a museum/park where humans are shown riding dinosaurs with saddles.

He has a museum where humans are riding dinosaurs with saddles.

Every scientific misconception is basically laid out in his life’s work. Fundamentalism is his driving force. As modern society tends to (in the majority) disagree with extremist views, Kent needs a whole other spectrum to describe his hatred of rationality. There really isn’t enough time for me here to dissect all his viewpoints; it would take far too long because he has a scientific vendetta. One point I would like to address however, is that he believes science to be just like a religion that disagrees with his own. Science has no bias upon the outcome of its findings. Whatever the evidence shows is what is considered to be true. Science will change its mind in the face of changing evidence, and, I can assure you, a religion never will. Which leads to poll numbers like this:

51% of Texans disagree with evolution, 30% think that dinosaurs and humans co-existed.

No evidence will sway him, no reason will get through to him, because it disagrees with one single book that he read. Look him up yourself, don’t take my word for it, but remember this when you are looking at his biography, he teaches children…and he is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for 58 counts of tax evasion and money laundering.

Carbon Dating

Joey stated above that his teachers told him that carbon dating was unreliable, and that the Earth couldn’t possibly be billions of years old. The table below is a very simplified example of how carbon dating works:

Percent 14C Remaining Percent 12C Remaining Ratio Number of Half-Lives Years Dead(Age of Fossil)
100 100 1 to 1T 0 0
50 100 1 to 2T 1 5,730
25 100 1 to 4T 2 11,460
12.5 100 1 to 8T 3 17,190
6.25 100 1 to 16T 4 22,920
3.125 100 1 to 32T 5 28,650

This is of course all based upon the amount of carbon ingested by an organism, and the constant rate of C-14 decay. It is true that carbon dating could be unreliable for fossils older than 60,000 years or so. But this is where the creationists get it wrong, the age of the Earth was not calculated using carbon dating. Scientists used a method involving uranium isotopes with half-lives of many billions of years. Not only that, but never is just one method used to verify age of something as old as the Earth. These comparisons result in an age for the Earth and meteorites, and hence the Solar System, of 4.54 billion years with an uncertainty of less than 1 percent. The age of the Earth has been determined to be 4.54 billion years (4.54 × 109 years ± 1%).This age is based on evidence from radiometric age dating of meteorite material and is consistent with the ages of the oldest-known terrestrial and lunar samples. Lunar samples were included because the formation of the moon was closely tied (100 million years after the Earth, very close in geologic time ) with the impact between the Earth and a Mars-sized celestial body.

Other Frequently Used Dating Methods:

  1. Uranium-lead dating method
  2. Samarium-neodymium dating method-Accuracy levels of less than twenty million years in two-and-a-half billion years are achievable.
  3. Potassium-argon dating method-This involves electron capture or positron decay of potassium-40 to argon-40. Potassium-40 has a half-life of 1.3 billion years, and so this method is applicable to the oldest rocks.Rubidium-strontium dating method
  4. Rubidium-strontium dating-This is based on the beta decay of rubidium-87 to strontium-87, with a half-life of 50 billion years. This scheme is used to date old igneous and metamorphic rocks, and has also been used to date lunar samples.
  5. Uranium-thorium dating method
  6. Radiocarbon dating method-The carbon-14 dating limit lies around 58,000 to 62,000 years.
  7. Fission track dating method
  8. Chlorine-36 dating methods.
  9. Optically stimulated luminescence dating method
  10. argon-argon (Ar-Ar)
  11. iodine-xenon (I-Xe)
  12. lanthanum-barium (La-Ba)
  13. lead-lead (Pb-Pb)
  14. lutetium-hafnium (Lu-Hf)
  15. neon-neon (Ne-Ne)
  16. rhenium-osmium (Re-Os)
  17. uranium-lead-helium (U-Pb-He)
  18. uranium-uranium (U-U)

My point is that science does not evaluate dates with single lines of evidence. Various methods are used to converge on the correct date. Creationists, and Joey’s teachers, fall prey again to our point of disbelief number one. They simply assume that since they’ve heard that scientists use carbon dating, they assume they use it for everything. This is of course false, because scientists would know not to use carbon dating to date something as old as the Earth, they use something with a much greater half-life (like rubidium with a half-life of 50 billion years). Creationists think that it simply cannot be true because it contradicts their stories and, because we know the fact that the Earth is around 4.54 billion years old (with a certainty of 99%, based upon the various stated methods), that is plain ignorance and close-mindedness.

Why All the Controversy?

Remembering the help of our three points of disbelief, all of Joey’s misconceptions about religion and natural history can be filed away under lack of science knowledge, taking scripture literally (as many modern theologians claim it is not supposed to be), and a plain refusal to admit that we are not the most important things in the universe. If you disagree with me, look at the evidence for yourself, and decide what seems the most likely answers to be. In the case of Joey’s teachers, they simply refused to consider any idea that did not agree with their scriptures. Is that any way to understand the world? How could someone 6,000 years ago possibly be more qualified to talk about how old the Earth is or how organisms developed, than a geologist or biologist?

This false sense of knowledge we give to those who follow scripture literally is unfounded and ignorant. Just because they have an opinion about how everything works, and they mention a god of some-sort, does not qualify them to talk about anything remotely scientific. It is OK for theologians and the religious to ponder the great existential questions, morality, and the like, but stay out of science. We have qualified people who spent their lives answering scientific questions and, in regards to Joey’s teachers, we have those answers. So thanks but no thanks, we have it covered.