05 February 2014

Answering creationists' questions on behalf of Bill Nye

This Buzzfeed list has been bouncing around Facebook, showing questions posed by creationists for Bill Nye* before the recent debate he had with Ken Ham. I don't know if Nye will actually go about addressing them himself, but if I might be so bold I'm going to answer them here on his behalf. The fact that these folks made it through a high school education without learning the answers to many of these questions left me too frustrated not to respond.

*On re-reading the article it seems the questions are posed to non-creationists in general, not Bill Nye specifically, but I'll leave the title and my responses as they are.

You can see all the original images at the Buzzfeed link, and I'll just transcribe the questions for this post.

1. Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way? 

He encourages kids to use logic, think for themselves, and to get excited about the world we live in, so I'd say yes.

2. Are you scared of a Divine Creator? 

I can't speak for Bill Nye on this, but there are a couple good common responses. One is that if there is a God why would He give us logic and the ability to discern things about our world if He didn't expect us to use it? 

Another outlook is offered in this quote: “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” (It's often attributed to Marcus Aurelius, but I believe that's incorrect.)

3. Is it completely illogical that the world was created mature, i.e., trees created with rings, Adam created as an adult? 

Is that really the simpler explanation? When all the signs point to a long, gradual history, why would it make more sense to assume that all that evidence has been elaborately faked? You never saw your great-great-great-grandparents as children, so why not assume that they entered the world as adults? Because even though the journey from conception, birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and finally adulthood is a more complex answer than their sudden appearance, the latter clashes with what we know about human beings and life and general and thus makes significantly less sense.

4. Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove evolution?

It does not. The 2nd law states that isolated systems naturally move from a state of order to disorder and never the reverse, true. But the key there is isolated systems, that is, those that have no energy input from the outside. Earth is NOT an isolated system, since it is constantly receiving huge amounts of energy from that giant nuclear reactor in the sky we call the Sun.

5. How do you explain a sunset if there is no God? 

I'm no physicist, but here's how I understand it. First the simple part, on why there is a sunset: The Earth is spinning on its axis, meaning that any one point on the surface will at different times either be facing toward or away from the Sun. This gives the appearance of the Sun rising from or setting below the horizon as a point on Earth rotates toward or away from the Sun. 

The color of the sky is more complicated: It has to do with how the different wavelengths of light are selectively scattered by particles in the atmosphere. Light on the blue end is scattered more than light on the red, and during the day the sky looks blue because of that color light being bounced around high in the air (and the light that reaches you is slightly less blue than when it left the Sun). At sunrise and sunset the sunlight passes through much more of the atmosphere due to the low angle, meaning that nearly all the blue and green light is scattered away, leaving the yellow, orange, and red light to illuminate the rest of the atmosphere before it gets to you.

6. If the Big Bang theory is taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories? 

They don't. On the scale of the universe there's a net increase in disorder, but that doesn't mean it's increasing equally everywhere, or that there can't be a local trend for decrease in disorder in a system that has an input of energy, like the Earth.

7. What about noetics?  

I'd never heard of “noetics” and I'm still not entirely sure what it is, but it seems to be an ancient philosophical consideration of the mind and consciousness. While it's true that there are still questions about consciousness that science doesn't have an answer to, I doubt that there's anything in this field of noetics that seriously challenges our current understanding of neuropsychology or evolution. I'd need a more specific noetical claim for a proper rebuttal, though.

8. Where do you derive objective meaning in life? 

I'd say that most people without religion don't think there is objective meaning in life. It's all subjective. It's up to us as thinking, feeling creatures to decide how best to conduct ourselves. Just look at how morality (even religious morality) has changed over the millennia and I think it's pretty clear that it's all subjective and that we're trying to figure it out as we go along.

9. If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance? 

The exact process of life's formation on Earth isn't known yet, but that doesn't make it impossible. The “by chance” bit is intended to mislead, either by A) making it sound like a cell popped into existence fully formed on its own, or B) by confusing improbability with impossibility. 

With regards to A), there is no clean line to be drawn between non-life and life—it's all just varying degrees of self-perpetuating chemistry. Both a virus and a human being are examples of a group of chemical reactions becoming more and more efficient at perpetuating themselves and becoming gradually more complex. Both were built off of simple materials and reactions that occur naturally. 

Arguably the two most important features of cellular life are the cell membrane and the genetic material. The former is made primarily of phospholipids, the latter of nucleotidesboth of which occur naturally. There's no consensus yet on what precisely the emergence of cellular life looked like, but it could have gone something like this:

Phospholipids have one side that is attracted to water, and one side that is repelled from it. Get enough of them in a place and they'll naturally tend to form bilayers, so that the hydrophilic sides of each layer face outward toward the water and the hydrophobic sides face inward toward each other. These bilayers will also naturally tend to fold into spheres, and when these spheres get too large they become unstable and break off into two smaller spheres. That's cell division at its most basic. 

The nucleotides can form RNA, a precursor to DNA. The individual nucleotides can fit through a lipid bi-layer, but the RNA chains cannot, so once they've formed inside, they're stuck. The osmotic pressure exerted by the chains pushes on the bi-layer from within, causing them to add more phospholipids and grow in size. Thus the phospholipid spheres that contain the most nucleotide chains (and those chains that are better at self-polymerization) will grow, split, and come to out-compete the other spheres. That's natural selection at its most basic. 

These early nucleotide chains wouldn't code for proteins like DNA/RNA do, and at first would tend only toward sequences that facilitate their own growth, which would result in their phosolipid spheres to grow, split, and spread. But RNA is curious in that it can also act as an enzyme, despite not being a protein. Any sequences which resulted in enzymatic activity that benefited the proto-cells would likely start to emerge. With the gears of natural selection turning, more chemicals and their pathways that facilitate growth and proliferation would be incorporated into the proto-cells until they gradually approached the complexity of the cellular life with which we're familiar.

And as for B), do you realize the astronomical odds of the one egg cell and one sperm cell that formed you coming together? But just because your specific genetic makeup was highly improbable doesn't mean it was impossible, because the pieces were there. The same could be said of the genesis of life.

And one final point: abiogenisis (the origin of life) and evolution are two different concepts, and the gaps in our knowledge about the former don't have any effect on the mounds of evidence we have for the latter.

10. I believe in the Big Bang theory... God said it and BANG, it happened! 

That's nice. But your believing it doesn't mean that it's correct or that it should be taught in schools.

11. Why do evolutionists/secularists/humanists/non-God-believing people reject the idea of there being a creator god but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extraterrestrial sources?

Uhhh, they don't? The same evidence that makes intervention by a deity an unnecessary and complicating factor does exactly the same for aliens. I'm sure some people believe it, but to present them as the mainstream opinion is completely false.

12. There is no in-between
—the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds necessary for an "official proof." 

Just because the Lucy skeleton is the only one you've heard of doesn't mean it's the only one to exist. There have been thousands of finds of pre-human hominid fossils.

And you're off the mark with this "hundreds" minimum: when you're talking about reproducing ephemeral phenomena during experimentation then yes, repetition and replication are key. But a fossil sticks around and can be thoroughly examined, so you don't necessarily need hundreds of examples in order to gain very useful information from it. Some of the more particular statements about a species (average height, for example) would need many examples to establish with some confidence, but more general statements (how it moved, what it ate, when it lived) can be gleaned from a single or very few specimens.

13. Does metamorphosis help support evolution? 

It sits perfectly fine with it as far as I can tell. The question is really vague and I imagine the implication is that there's some aspect of metamorphosis they think doesn't jive with evolution, but without knowing what that is I can't really respond properly.

14. If evolution is a theory (like creationism or the Bible), why then is evolution taught as fact?

Evolution is NOT a theory “like creationism or the Bible.” It's a theory like gravity is a theory. In scientific usage, the word “theory” doesn't mean an unsupported guess (that's referred to as a hypothesis), it means an overarching explanation that ties together all the facts that we've observed about something. Evolution does this successfully. Creationism relies on misrepresenting the facts or ignoring the ones that don't fit.

15. Because science is by definition a "theory"
—not testable, observable, nor repeatable—why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school? 

Again, that's not what a scientific theory means. Theories are testable, observable, and repeatable, and most importantly they can be used to make successful predictions. Evolution does this. One of the more basic ones, that I believe Nye brought up during the debate, is that it predicts we won't find remains of species in wildly different layers of rock. The classic example is a rabbit skeleton from the Cambrian period. Creationism would predict that it's possible and even likely, since everything was allegedly created around the same time. But nothing like that has every been found, and in fact the more fossils we find the better it fits the predicted outcome of gradually changing lineages occupying different spaces of time.

16. What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process? 

Gene duplications and mutations are the most obvious, but there are other mechanisms I'm sure. How do you get a new gene? One gene is copied too many times, then mutates and becomes a gene for something else. Seems pretty simple to me.

17. What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in salvation? 

Again, I can't answer for Nye, but my answer would be that we started off with the purpose of all other life on Earth: simply to create more of itself. That's all life really does, and humans flourished for the same reason that any species does: they stumbled into an effective method of surviving and making more of themselves. Of course now we can ponder and make decisions—even the decision not to procreate—so we have the opportunity to choose our own purpose. And that's exactly what we have to do: choose. It isn't laid out for us. And like in question 8, it's inherently subjective.

18. Why have we found only one "Lucy" when we have found more than one of everything else? 

Well we've actually found several specimens of “Lucy's” species, Austrolopithecus afarensis. But I think a better question would be: Why would we have found even the one if creationism were true?

19. Can you believe in "the big bang" without "faith"? 

It's not a matter of belief, it's a matter of seeing all the available evidence and coming to the conclusion that it's the most reasonable explanation, even if there are aspects of it that remain unexplained.

20. How can you look at the world and not believe someone created/thought of it? It's amazing

If someone consciously created it they left a lot to be desired. The fact that the vast majority of the universe is inaccessible to us because we can't exist in a vacuum seems like a bit of an oversight. Same goes for the fact that I can't see at night because humans weren't given the reflective membrane in their eye that other animals have. Or, you know, the fact that some things have to murder other things to survive. All-in-all it's far from ideal, but I still think it's beautiful, and my sense of wonder derives from the fact that it wasn't designed.

21. Relating to the Big Bang theory: Where did the exploding star come from? 

The Big Bang wasn't a star exploding, it was all the matter and space of the universe expanding from a single point. Where that point came from is still unknown, and may never be known, but that doesn't mean we throw out the evidence of everything since then being a natural process. If you want to believe a god put it there that's fine, but Carl Sagan had something enlightening to say on the subject: “In many cultures, the customary answer is that a God or Gods created the Universe out of nothing. But if we wish to pursue this question courageously, we must of course ask the next question: where did God come from? If we decide that this is an unanswerable question, why not save a step and conclude that the origin of the Universe is an unanswerable question? Or, if we say that God always existed, why not save a step, and conclude that the Universe always existed?”

22. If we come from monkeys then why are there still monkeys? 

Aaaand here's possibly the most face-palmy challenge posed by creationists. It's complete nonsense. For one, we didn't evolve from monkeys, we evolved from monkey-like ancestors. But more to the point, those ancestors didn't all suddenly turn into apes, and then all suddenly turn into human beings. Evolution happens over generations and among populations. One of those populations of ancestors gave birth to successive generations of offspring that were gradually more-and-more ape- and human-like (in response to pressures in their environment) until they were different enough to be considered a different species from the other populations. The other populations didn't vanish just because one of them changed. It's like asking why your cousins can exist after you've been born.

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Let me just say that I don't reproach people for asking questions in general. My frustration with this list relates to the implicit failure of our schools to teach proper science, and to the smugness I think I see in some of the faces here, as though these questions are "gotcha!"s that will confound and defeat a proponent of evolution (which they are decidedly not). But asking these same questions—even the monkey one—out of genuine curiosity and a desire to learn is another case entirely. If you don't know something about evolution, or any subject, by all means ask someone who does. :)

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