Thursday, 2 August 2012

Vampire cannibals versus the raiders of Noah's Ark

In the course of a recent controversy about (allegedly) Creationist-run free schools someone's raised a really good question which made me stop and think:*
But I was wondering more generally - what is it about creationism that matters so much?  We're only talking about a couple of (contradictory) chapters of Genesis here and believing these doesn't strike me as any more or less irrational than believing in the doctrine of transubstantiation, yet the Catholic Church already runs many more schools than 'creationists'.
Yes, a belief in transubstantiation certainly seems every bit as irrational as basing your notions of geology, biology, prehistory and paleontology on Genesis:
If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes will turn them into the body of Elvis Presley you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic.
Clearly, the two beliefs are every bit as bonkers as one another. But there is an important difference that makes Creationism (AKA Intelligent Design) more pernicious and disruptive in the classroom. The difference is that there are people who believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, but they don't have an organised alternative theory of 'Transubstantiationism' that sets itself up to challenge and overturn an established body of evidence-based knowledge. Let's recap what the Catholic Church has to say on the subject:
The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring:

"Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called Transubstantiation".
Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1376
Somewhere in this process, wafer and wine, apparently, becomes flesh and blood, in a way that is both literal yet also completely undetectable. After all, you don't see people at the altar rail gagging and spluttering as the taste in their mouth changes from indifferent house red to the unmistakable metallic tang of blood. Neither do they chow down on a bland wafer and sense their teeth closing on a gobbet of raw flesh. Nope, the Real Presence is both literally the body and blood of Christ, but also physically indistinguishable from plain old bread and wine:
Finally, transubstantiation describes how the physical qualities of bread and wine ‑ their color, texture, taste and whatever else is perceived by the senses ‑ remain, but they lose their substance. The qualities of bread and wine remain, but their substance is replaced by the whole Christ ... Since transubstantiation means the Real Presence of Christ, it also means the real absence of bread and wine.

An impressive trick - if you're the sort of person who'd be impressed by a stage magician who claims to be pulling invisible rabbits out of hats.

But there doesn't seem to be any elaborate theory about how God/Jesus does this stealth magic trick. It's just a mystery, a miracle. You don't get devout Catholic physics or chemistry teachers wanting to teach an alternative set of truths about the physical world and rubbish what the textbooks say about covalent bonds or the conservation of energy, in order to  push a more transubstantiation-friendly explanation of how the world works. As far as I can see, you can believe in transubstantiation and also believe that the world obeys the same set of physical laws accepted by scientists, educators and just about everybody else who paid attention in school. You just happen to believe that there's also a being who can suspend those laws at will and turn wine into blood that looks and tastes just like wine, but is absolutely, definitely, in a very real sense, blood, or make bread into flesh that that still looks like bread, but totally isn't, in a way that you can't really explain. That 'also' may be completely crackers, but it doesn't affect how you use a prism to demonstrate optics, or how you make a battery out of a lemon, or teach kids about any of the other phenomena of the non-supernatural world.

The late Stephen Jay Gould had a phrase that almost fits - non-overlapping magisteria. He believed that science and religion weren't necessarily incompatible, because "the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty)."

I've never bought into this argument myself, because, as far as I can see, religion explicitly claims to be more than just a mashup of metaphysics, epistemology and moral philosophy. As I read it, religion does make very specific claims about certain things being factually true and bases its authority and its moral teachings on those alleged truths. But, in some specific areas, there's a grain of truth in the notion of non-overlapping magisteria. The doctrine of transubstantiation, for example, scarcely overlaps with science or treads on its toes at all. It doesn't have anything to say about how the world normally works, but just makes an apparently untestable claim that there also exists an additional, inexplicable, undetectable piece of magic. Wafer and wine are somehow literally replaced by flesh and blood, but without undergoing any observable change. Unlike Creationism, transubstantiation is more or less untestable, un-disprovable and beyond the scope of scientific enquiry. Transubstantiation is just an odd conviction that exists within its own little self-contained bubble of faith, hardly impinging on the outside world or on the magisteria of science or education.

Creationism impinges big time, though. Even Stephen Jay Gould, who decided that his scientific world view didn't conflict with religion in general, got pretty riled when Creationists invaded his magisterium and parked their tanks on his lawn. Unlike transubstantiation fans, Creationists want to turn the curriculum upside down and replace a sound and successful evidence-based theory with their own bizarre attempts to make an incoherent bronze-age myth sound science-y.

And those attempts do get pretty bizarre. For example, it still astonishes me that some Creationists, in rejecting the existence of deep time and denying Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, have ended up coming up with their own idiosyncratic theory (theories?) of evolution. In their own words:
Organic evolution, as theorized, is a naturally occurring, beneficial change that produces increasing and inheritable complexity. Increased complexity would be shown if the offspring of one form of life had a different and improved set of vital organs. This is sometimes called the molecules-to-man theory—or macroevolution. Microevolution, on the other hand, does not involve increasing complexity. It involves changes only in size, shape, or color, or minor genetic alterations caused by a few mutations. Each example of macroevolution would require thousands of “just right” mutations. Microevolution can be thought of as horizontal (or even downward) change, whereas macroevolution, if it were ever observed, would involve an upward, beneficial change in complexity. Therefore, microevolution plus time will not produce macroevolution. (micro + time ≠ macro) 

Creationists and evolutionists agree that microevolution (and natural selection) occur. Minor change has been observed since history began. But notice how often evolutionists give evidence for microevolution to support macroevolution. It is macroevolution—which requires new abilities and increasing complexity, resulting from new genetic information—that is at the center of the creation-evolution controversy. Therefore, in this book, the term “organic evolution” will mean macroevolution. 
Center for Scientific Creation

I've added the bold type to highlight what I think are the key parts of this passage. Creationists know that people have undeniably seen changes in livings over time, in wheat, sweet peas, pedigree dogs, prize pigeons, fruit flies, peppered moths, bacteria and so on, so they are obliged to admit the existence of what they define (incorrectly) as 'microevolution'. They then go on to dispute the existence of 'macroevolution', (evolution by natural selection over longer periods aggregating small changes over long periods of time, leading, in combination with geographical isolation, to speciation). They don't believe in 'macroevolution' on the grounds that they can't imagine how 'changes only in size, shape, or color, or minor genetic alterations caused by a few mutations' could ever lead to increasing complexity or beneficial changes.

Their failure of imagination, though, doesn't add up to a demolition of the theory of evolution  by natural selection. It just proves that they've failed to understand the the theory. If this was because the theory was way too complicated for ordinary people to understand, I might have some sympathy. However, the basic outline they're wilfully failing to grasp here isn't advanced string theory and has been patiently explained by experts and educators time and time again, in terms that can be understood by any moderately intelligent adult with a basic education.

The Creationists' problem, remember, is that they can't imagine how random mutations could lead to beneficial changes or to increased complexity. The beneficial changes bit is easy. Mutations are random and can be harmful, neutral or beneficial, but need to pass through the survivability filter. Harmful changes will naturally tend to be weeded out because they'll make it less likely for an organism to survive and reproduce. Beneficial changes will help an organism to thrive and increase its chances of reproducing, so will tend to be passed on. Mutations that have no effect on survivability may also be passed on by default.

As for increasing complexity arising out of random changes, Stephen Jay Gould explained this one with a lovely metaphor that a child could understand. Imagine a drunk being thrown out of a bar, into the street. He's too hammered even to get himself the traditional tattoo or kebab, and can only stagger and lurch around in more or less random way. His random staggerings can take him in any direction, towards the brick wall and closed door of the bar from which he's been ejected, forward or back along the road, or over towards the other side of the street, or at any random angle to the above. If his staggers take him away from the bar, or on a path parallel with its wall, or veering away from it at an angle, he meets no resistance. If he staggers back towards the side of the bar, he crashes into the wall and can go no further.

The drunk's random staggerings represent random changes in organisms. These can randomly lead in the direction of greater complexity, less complexity, or no change in complexity. The wall of the bar is the 'wall of minimum complexity'. You start off with a simple, primordial organism, about as simple as a thing can get whilst still being independently alive. This organism can undergo random changes, but it's already about as simple as it can be, so changes can't go in the direction of greater simplicity. If it (or one of its offspring) tries to get any more simple than the simplest possible organism, it's going in a direction where it hits a wall, just like the rambling drunk. At any other point, organisms can go in any random direction - towards more complexity or less. Sometimes, ones that have already blundered far away from the wall will randomly move even further away, but there's no innate, underlying, drive towards greater complexity, just movement after movement in more or less random directions, with some happening to head towards greater complexity, a view that fits with the world as we see it, where there are a few very complex organisms a long way from the wall of minimum complexity, but the majority of lifeforms are still simple bacteria, diversifying away in their own random directions, somewhere near the wall.

Having rhetorically failed to imagine understand or imagine how evolution by natural selection might work, some Creationists then proceed to push credulity to the max with an account of what their version of evolution can allegedly accomplish in a few thousand years. For those Creationists who are also Biblical literalists, this all arises from the problem of how Noah got all those animals into his Ark. They start from the assumption that the Ark was obviously a real vessel, because it was in the Bible. They also notice that the number of terrestrial animal species that must have survived the deluge runs into many thousands.** How did Noah get them all in? Answers in Genesis kicks off by estimating the size of the ark, thus:
 The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits (Genesis 6:15)...

 The dimensions of the Ark are convincing for two reasons: the proportions are like that of a modern cargo ship, and it is about as large as a wooden ship can be built. The cubit gives us a good indication of size. With the cubit’s measurement, we know that the Ark must have been at least 450 feet (137 m) long, 75 feet (23 m) wide, and 45 feet (14 m) high. In the Western world, wooden sailing ships never got much longer than about 330 feet (100 m), yet the ancient Greeks built vessels at least this size 2,000 years earlier. China built huge wooden ships in the 1400s that may have been as large as the Ark. The biblical Ark is one of the largest wooden ships of all time—a mid-sized cargo ship by today’s standards.
Big, but still not big enough to accommodate tens of thousands of species of terrestrial vertebrates, the best part of a million insect species, plus assorted other land-dwelling invertebrates.This is where the Creationist version of 'microevolution' comes to the rescue:
In the book Noah’s Ark: A Feasibility Study,*** creationist researcher John Woodmorappe suggests that, at most, 16,000 animals were all that were needed to preserve the created kinds that God brought into the Ark.

The Ark did not need to carry every kind of animal—nor did God command it. It carried only air-breathing, land-dwelling animals, creeping things, and winged animals such as birds. Aquatic life (fish, whales, etc.) and many amphibious creatures could have survived in sufficient numbers outside the Ark. This cuts down significantly the total number of animals that needed to be on board.

Another factor which greatly reduces the space requirements is the fact that the tremendous variety in species we see today did not exist in the days of Noah. Only the parent “kinds” of these species were required to be on board in order to repopulate the earth. For example, only two dogs were needed to give rise to all the dog species that exist today. 

Creationist estimates for the maximum number of animals that would have been necessary to come on board the Ark have ranged from a few thousand to 35,000, but they may be as few as two thousand if the biblical kind is approximately the same as the modern family classification. 
Creationist 'microevolution' seems to do two things in Creationist theory (theories?). On the one hand it's a slow, difficult process that can't produce significant change and 'disproves' the Darwinian contention that evolution can ever produce immense diversity ('Microevolution ... does not involve increasing complexity. It involves changes only in size, shape, or color, or minor genetic alterations caused by a few mutations. Each example of macroevolution would require thousands of “just right” mutations ... whereas macroevolution, if it were ever observed, would involve an upward, beneficial change in complexity').

On the other hand Creationist 'microevolution' is an efficient, speedy process that produced immense numbers of new species from the limited number of 'kinds' ('families?') of animal packed into the Ark in a Noachian explosion of speciation, which happened over a mere 6,000-odd years. And these are the same folk who claim to find the idea of Darwinian evolution by natural selection over millions of years unbelievable?

Yes, and they're also the same folk who, in order to get around the problem of how Noah and his family cared for and provisioned a minimum of two thousands species for months on end, not to mention processing the inevitable tons of manure, hypothesise that the animals probably went into some form of shock-induced hibernation for the duration of the voyage:
Creation scientists suggest that God gave the animals the ability to hibernate, as we see in many species today. Most animals react to natural disasters in ways that were designed to help them survive. It’s very possible many animals did hibernate, perhaps even supernaturally intensified by God.
If you need any more convincing that these people have clearly lost their minds, these two excellent vids by 'Non-Stamp Collector', (which I've linked to before), should finsh the job:

All of this would be as amusingly irrelevant as transubstantiation, except for the fact that Creationists insist in bringing this rubbish into classrooms where important subjects are being taught. Transubstantiation is a piece of extra-curricular lunacy that doesn't interfere with teaching. Creationism is not only trying to muscle its way into how the life sciences are taught, but aims to replace the teaching of our best approximation of what is true with patent nonsense. Transubstantiation doesn't make an appearance in the classroom (except in religious education, and in the occasional historical reference,  where it belongs), so can be safely ignored. You can no more ignore people trying to push Creationism than you can ignore a delinquent teenager who persistently disrupts classes (in fact, I've more got sympathy with delinquent teens, who sometimes have valid excuses like immaturity, broken homes and raging hormones, unlike Creationists, who should be old enough to know better).

It's a distinction that all teachers should be able to get. Perhaps the fact that some don't is due to the fact that Creation 'science' doesn't impact all subjects equally. The historicity of Genesis, for example, may be highly questionable, but dodgy Near Eastern prehistory doesn't tend to put Creationists into direct conflict with history teachers trying to give kids the straight dope on Tudors and Nazis, or whatever the history curriculum consists of these days. As far as I'm concerned, an attack on one branch of knowledge is an attack on all. On that basis, I'm for excluding those delinquent Creationists from the classroom.

* Update - I've just edited and shortened the opening section of this post as the original, written in a hurry, took way too long to get to the point. As someone once said, 'I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one'.

** Well spotted, guys, but there's another thing that bothers me about your theory. There are also quite a few plant species that wouldn't survive a lengthy immersion in salt water (I'm helpfully assuming that the rising world ocean was still quite salty, as the problem of keeping relatively few fresh water species alive through a global flood would be a lot smaller than the difficulty you'd get if you had to fit the Ark with an oceanarium big enough to save all the creatures adapted to live in the salty oceans that cover 70% of the earth's surface). Yet I don't hear much about the ark as a floating garden centre. Sure, a few hardy seeds might have survived, but ask any arable farmer, keen gardener or allotment holder what chance their plants would have of surviving under several hundred metres of salty water for a few months and you can see a bit of a problem. How come pictures of the ark don't look like the floating gardens of Babylon?

*** This one must have made the short list for the world's' oddest  book title prize.