thats_wild (2007-03)

Sorry, it’s not that easy

One, Two, Three, Life!

by Rikki Hall

Some readers found the previous installment of this column technical and confusing. Perhaps I should apologize for trying to tackle a subject as complex as the origin of life in 800 words, but I had an ulterior motive. I wanted to demonstrate the difference between a scientific discussion of that mystery and the pseudoscience of Creationism or its politically-correct bastard child, intelligent design.

A Creationist has no trouble explaining the origin of life: “God did it; I believe it; that settles it.” The relevant passages in Genesis are just a few hundred words, but even the Bible does not say God created life. It says He commanded the earth and waters to bring forth life, so maybe there is room for science lurking in that explanation.

For an intelligent design advocate, the story is also short and simple: “Life is too complicated to be an accident, so some intelligent agent must have created it.” Don’t bother asking for details about this agent or how it works its magic. There are none.

A scientist trying to explain life’s origin examines the geological evidence, cellular components, seawater chemistry and the laws of physics, then carefully weaves together the clues, subjecting him or herself to peer review all the while. For their trouble, scientists wind up with a rich and detailed story most people lack the patience or education to fully appreciate. Even biologists who routinely use evolutionary theory in their work might lack the knowledge of organic chemistry or geology or mathematics it takes to understand how the primordial seas spawned living cells, and even if they do, they likely won’t be able to communicate such intricacies in a public forum.

The sound-bite world of popular culture gives Creationists an advantage. It’s a leg up conservatives exploit on many topics. The models we use to predict how emissions might alter the climate are incredibly complex. Government secrecy makes it hard to know what went wrong in our intelligence community during the lead-up to invading Iraq. Ignorance, however, can always shrink to fit the gaps between commercial breaks.

Creationists have a message tailor made for short attention spans and a child’s knowledge of the world. Scientists need your close attention. To appreciate evolution, you need better knowledge of life’s diversity than you can get from a trip to the zoo. To understand how living things change from generation to generation, you need to know how proteins and RNA turn our genetic blueprints into arms and legs and eyeballs. In fact, to understand macroevolution, you need to know more about genetics than we have figured out so far.

Creationists want you to believe evolution says the human eye formed by chance. They compute the probability of that happening, then use the result to disprove evolution. Trouble is, evolution posits an eye from an eye. No eyeball has ever formed by accident. Eyeballs form in wombs and in eggs with little left to chance. The tale of how the human eye formed stretches back through mammalian history into lizard lenses, squid squinters and, before that, light-sensitive cells. It’s a long story. You might want to make popcorn.

The scientific method was devised by Christians. Many early scientists were monks. The fundamental idea of science is to study only that which can be directly and repeatedly observed. Just as Creationists are certain God wrote every word in the Bible, the founders of scientific study were certain He created the world. Science gave them a disciplined way to learn from Creation. By carefully documenting observations and testing conclusions, they could eliminate human error and distill knowledge derived from the world to the same purity as Biblical truths.

They triggered centuries of progress and enlightenment. Scientific knowledge now fills libraries and hard drives all over the world. It’s much more information than any one of us can possess, and a lot of it is technical and confusing. If you don’t have the patience for the truth, there is no shortage of liars with simple answers ready to serve you. Creationists will just as soon fool you as themselves.

So you’ve got to ask yourself, do you feel like a fool? Do fossils exist to deceive us and test our faith or to teach us? Do you want to eviscerate the great questions with simple answers, or do you want a lifetime of learning? Creation is so rich with mysteries and surprises, you can experience the delight of discovery every single day, but first you must admit that you are only human, fallible and in need of guidance. Then you can ask, how did the earth and waters obey God’s command?

Rikki Hall is managing editor and publisher of Hellbender Press , a non-profit environmental education journal.