As you know, Bill Nye has agreed to engage in a debate about evolution with Ken Ham at the Kentucky Creation Museum. You may also know that I suggested that this debate was a bad idea, not so much because it is Bill Nye doing it (he’s a great spokesperson for science and science education) but because the whole idea of a debate is questionable for a number of reasons (discussed here).
Bill recently made a few comments on the debate on CNN.
Here, I’d like to list a handful of the points I’d make if I was doing this debate.
- It is not necessary or even possible to argue against “creationism” because creationism is a belief system based on faith. Science, on the other hand, is all about arguing about interpretation of observations and developing the best descriptions and explanations we can of the natural world.
- In the 18th century, western thinking, “Natural philosophy,” described and explained the world in a way that incorporated religious thinking and referred to scripture. That view is almost identical to the 21st century creationist view. “Intelligent design” is indistinguishable from Paley’s view of the natural world, which he wrote about in his book “Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity” in 1809, which is a kind of capstone for the previous century’s thinking.
The 19th century, with Darwin and Wallace and a host of others advanced modern scientific thinking and challenged the previous century’s way of thinking. There was indeed a debate at that time, and evolutionary biology won that debate.
During the early 20th century, Darwinian thinking was advanced and revised to include a huge amount of ongoing observations about nature, including the discovery of genetics. By some time early in the 20th century, what might have been a valid debate about the nature of nature itself faded away and became a political debate instead.
That political debate, not a scientific debate, between a religious belief system (creationism) and science (evolutionary biology), persisted through the 20th century and into the 21st century and has been used by a minority of religious institutions and individuals as a tool. There is no longer a scientific debate about the validity of evolution, and there has not been one for a very long time.
Many of the criticisms of evolution maintained by creationists are about the age of the earth and the way that fossils are ordered in time. That ordering in time is central to evolution because it demonstrates dramatic changes in life forms. But those criticisms are not so much about the biology, but rather, about the physics and geology.
The physics that help us understand evolutionary change over time is the same science that the United States military uses to develop and maintain our all-important Nuclear Navy. It is the same physics that underlies the development of an important part of our power grid, the nuclear power plants. It is the same physics that underlies the development of the not-so-pleasant nuclear arsenal. Before creationists complain to biologists that the science of nuclear physics is wrong, they should take their case to the Military and the nuclear power industry, because if nuclear physics is wrong, we are all in a great deal of trouble.
The geology that helps us understand the record of evolutionary change in the past is the same geology that gives us the ability to engineer safer structures, build seemingly impossible bridges, locate and exploit important resources such as minerals and, of course, petroleum. Before creationists complain about evolutionary biology’s use of this geology they should talk to civil engineers and petroleum and mining geologists about how they must have all of that wrong as well.
Evolutionary biology also underlies our medical practices. Comparative anatomy is part of the proof of evolution, and it is also the source of much of our understanding of human physiology. The study and treatment of infectious disease and epidemiology is based on evolutionary thinking. Before creationists complain about evolution they should talk to our medical professionals and inform them that the basis of their efforts to treat and prevent disease and medical disorders is all wrong.
Check out the Planetary Society, where Bill Nye is Executive Director.
More on science education HERE.
Also, check out my novella, Sungudogo, HERE. It is an adventure story set in Central Africa which ultimately turns out to be a parody of the skeptics movement.