Field of Science

Creation thinking impedes understanding

I have become aware of something during my recent blogument with a wall creationist. Actually it was a comment left on defense of the creationist's position that really nailed down an idea I had floundering in the back of my mind. But I think a little background is necessary for those who haven't been reading some of my recent posts. The issue started over bad use of probability and ended up coming back repeatedly to the origin of life.

I pointed out that biologists do not propose that cells simply poofed into existence from a bunch of precursors. This was in response to creationists, who suggest that biologists think this, and then laugh at the ridiculousness of such a proposition. A creationist, who chose to rear his delicate sensibilities, then accused me of being a doody head for suggesting that creationists make such accusations. He then accused biologists of thinking that cells just poofed into existence. (Rinse and repeat.)

I realize that the creationist doesn't understand biology, although he thinks he does. This leaves him having to insist that biologists must accept the fact that cells poofed into existence fully formed if they accept evolution, because that's the way he conceptualizes what's going on. Based on his limited (extremely limited, I might add) imagination, the only thing he can come up with is POOF, therefore that must be the only possible solution to the problem. This is the 'if the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like a nail' fallacy.

So this is kind of where things were percolating and then I saw this comment:
I think you've entirely missed CH's point: Per "evolutionary" dogma---which doesn't allow any "teleology"---the ONLY way that a cell (=life) can come about is from "scratch", else something would be "swimming around in that warm little pond before evolution got going."
It's your point of view that forces the issue; not the non-Darwinian perspective.
Again, this person has an understanding (a profoundly incorrect one I should add) of what is going and decides that this is 'the only way' things could possibly happen. You know because nature never figured out really cool surprising ways of doing things.
Drakea pretending to be a female wasp in order to get pollinated by a male
wasp that is just trying to get laid. 
So, now we have two potentially independent people who have the same misconception that the first cells poofed into existence. Want to see an independent representation of this kind of 'thinking'? Here's a Bananaman example. Bananaman argues that evolution can not be true because the first female elephant to evolve would need to mate with a male elephant that has not yet evolved. Again the underlying assumption is that the first female elephant evolved by poofing into existence, and of course Bananaman let's us know this is absurd. (Although Bananaman is perfectly fine positing a magic megalomaniac poofed elephants into existence.) These utterances led me to wonder where this misconception comes from. I think it's because people intellectually require that things have a beginning and an end. But why do we have this intellectual bias?

Babies are not born with an understanding of object permanence, the idea that when a toy or person can no longer be sensed it no longer exists. Hence peek-a-boo can be fun or terrifying depending on the newborn. An understanding of object permanence develops within a couple of months, although peek-a-boo can still be a fun game, mostly because infants enjoy watching their parents make fools of themselves. So maybe object permanence is hardwired into our brains and that explains the need to have things poof into and out of existence.

However, I think there is another reason, at least in the US, and that is Christianity. Well not Christianity so much, but the Bible and Genesis in particular. Even if your children are not attending church regularly, they live in a Christian culture, which they cannot readily escape. Children are indoctrinated at a very young age that the Earth, Sun, Moon didn't exist and then...God poofed them into existence. One minute, no celestial bodies; next minute, they're all there. We indoctrinate infants that animals, plants, people didn't exist and then...God poofed them into existence. One minute, no giraffes; next minute, giraffes. It won't be for another ten or so years before we start teaching them that things came from earlier things, which may have been much different. I think the problem is that early in childhood we plant the seeds of an intellectual framework that becomes so deeply intrenched in our psyche that it is easy to be unaware of it as adults. Except the real world doesn't work that way. Consider the mountain. Has that mountain always been there? Did it just poof into existence? Some think the answer to both questions is 'Yes,' but the answers are of course no.

One way a mountain can form, or at least a mountain range, is when two tectonic plates slam into each other. As the plates collide, they can push each other up or one plate can be pushed up over the top of the of the other. This is an incredibly slow process, by human standards of time.
When we look at a mountain, we are looking at a snapshot in time. So when did that mountain begin? When the plates first meet, there is no mountain. As the plates are colliding or moving past each other, the land is rising, but still there is no mountain, although some hills are probably formed. Part of the problem with the question 'when did that mountain begin?' is an issue of language and the imprecise nature of words. What is the definition of a mountain? How much higher does it have to be in relation to the surrounding land to be a mountain? 500 feet? 1000 feet? Everest is ~29,000 feet. How steep does it have to be? If the elevation changed 1 inch every half mile, it would be a long, ~174,000 miles, but relatively easy walk to the top of Everest (not factoring in the reduction in oxygen here). For our purposes, let's simply say that a mountain is a land mass that rises 500 feet above the surrounding area with a minimum slope of at least 15°. When that land mass was 499 feet, it was not a mountain. When it was 499.5 feet, it was not a mountain. When it was 499.75 feet, it was not a mountain. When it was 499.999 feet, it was not a mountain. But when it gained that extra 0.001 feet (~1/100th of an inch), it instantaneously became a mountain. So I guess it did just poof into existence.

Ford Model T
Even in the artificial world things don't poof into existence. Cars are a given in this day and age. A couple of hundred years ago there were no cars. When did the first car poof into existence? Again there is the issue of language. We make ultimately arbitrary decisions on what defines a car, does it have to have four wheels? Does it have to run on gasoline? Let's say yes to both of these questions. Is the Model T the first car? No, there were earlier versions of cars. There were wind-powered cars developed hundreds of years earlier. The engines in early gas powered cars were derived from earlier engines invented for different purposes. If we take any of these early cars and say that this is the first car, ergo cars poofed into existence at this point, then someone can readily show us something earlier and legitimately argue that this is the technology that is derived into the 'first' car, ergo cars did not poof into existence.

What about life? Some argue that life begins at conception. While the genetic contingent that represents you did not come together until your parents got busy, that does not mean you poofed into existence. Did your life begin when that sperm burrowed it's way into the egg? or was it when the calcium flux occurred that prevented other sperm from burrowing their way in? or was it when the sperm nucleus fused with the egg nucleus? Were the sperm and egg not life and if not, when did they die? If the fertilized egg represents life poofing into existence, does that mean identical twins are each a half life or did life poof into existence independent of fertilization? Don't even bother to ask about asexual organisms. Maybe you think these ideas are ivory tower philosophical musings, but remember a fair number of political elections are based on these musings (usually by people that don't bother musing too much).

The point I am trying to make here is that at least some creationist thinking about evolution is locked into the creation framework. God poofs things into existence. Therefore, evolution poofs things into existence. But evolution is not simply a rebranding of the Christian God concept. No more than understanding electro-magnetism is a rebranding of the Zeus concept. They are not equivalent. This makes it nigh impossible to discuss evolution with determined creationists. They are intellectually wired in a way that makes common ground an undiscovered country.

The creationist mindset impedes understanding things in historical terms. When the human decision is made for when God did his poofing, that's it. There can be nothing earlier. That mountain was always there, cars were invented de novo, and life began at conception. It's quite sad actually when you think about all the things we understand in this universe and how this knowledge is not available to the creationist.

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