Answers to Nye-Ham debate attendees’ questions

Bill Nye in debate with Ken Ham at the Creation MuseumYou probably heard about the debate between science educator Bill Nye and creationist Ken Ham that took place at the Creation Museum in Kentucky earlier this month.  I didn’t watch the debate, but did follow some of the commentary about it in the atheist blogosphere and on my atheist podcasts; it seems as though not too many atheists thought it was a good move on Nye’s part, though the consensus seems to be that Nye quite adequately held his own.  What actually interested me was the internet meme that came about after the debate.  A number of attendees were given pads of paper and markers and had their pictures taken with questions for those who accept evolution.

Most of these questions turned out to be standard creationist talking points, and it’s a matter of opinion whether they were offered honestly or were just little attempts at zinging “evolutionists”.  But all of these questions (at least the ones that are coherently put or actually have something to do with science) are answerable, and the beauty is that you don’t have to be a scientist to answer them.  And people on the interwebs everywhere are answering them.  Some of them are snarky, others not (atheists on the internet are not immune from that sort of anonymous flaming behavior, I’m finding out).  It’s clear that since this happened after the debate was over and not before it began that none of these people had their minds changed by the debate (least of all Ken Ham himself), but these people are nevertheless putting their questions out and deserve an answer.  And it’s an interesting exercise to put in one’s own two cents and try to answer some of these oneself.

Buzzfeed showed twenty-two people with questions: I’m not going to deal with every last one, but the ones I will answer are going to get honest and non-condescending responses.  So let’s get going.

enhanced-15285-1391576908-9If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?  Humans don’t come from monkeys.  Rather, modern humans and modern monkeys, are two branches of the primate family, and share a common ancestor, now extinct.  Evolution isn’t a ladder, but a tree.  When the environment changes, or when a group of animals of a certain species moves to a different environment, different pressures lead to different changes in what genetic mutations are selected through reproductive success.  For example, our closest relatives are the chimpanzees and the bonobos.  We share a common ancestor, which branched off into three different paths that led to humans, bonobos and chimps.  By this reasoning, can ask “If many Americans are descended from Europeans, why are there still Europeans around?”

enhanced-14977-1391576919-1Because science by definition is a “theory”–not testable, observable, nor repeatable, why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?  First off, science is not a “theory”, but, in the words of my favorite YouTube atheist, QualiaSoup, the “systematic acquisition and application of knowledge about the structure and behavior of the physical universe gained via empirical evidence through observation, measurement and experimentation.”  Theory is part of the scientific method and is defined as a set of statements or principles devised to explain and predict observable phenomena.  Far from being “not testable, observable or repeatable”, that is precisely what scientific theory is for.  Scientists begin by developing testable conjectures called hypotheses, which are then tested, and tested again, and if the hypothesis survives the tests, then we call it a theory.  If new data comes to light that falsifies the theory, that is, proves the theory wrong, then it’s back to the drawing board and a new theory that fits all the data is devised.  Creationism/intelligent design doesn’t meet the rigorous standards of the scientific method; it can’t be used as an explanation for observable phenomena, can’t predict observable phenomena, and as a result, is inappropriate to be taught in school as science.  And on a related note…

enhanced-30391-1391576914-1If evolution is a theory (like creationism or the Bible), then why is evolution taught as fact?  For the bulk of the answer, see above.  But again, creationism is not a theory, because it can’t account for observed phenomena, can’t predict new observed phenomena, and can’t be falsified.  And the Bible is not theory either: it’s an anthology of writings by various authors, mostly unknown, concerning various peoples and events taking place two to four thousand years ago.

enhanced-19479-1391576850-9Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature (i.e. trees created with rings, Adam created as an adult)?  Well, yes.  But mostly, we can’t credit the idea since there is no evidence that the earth was created mature and plenty of evidence that it wasn’t.  Since humans begin as babies and grow into adults, and trees add rings as they grow, is it logical to assume that the first human was created adult, or that the first tree already had rings to begin with?

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Relating to the Big Bang theory… where did the exploding star come from?  There was no “exploding star”: the Big Bang began as a “singularity”: a period of infinite density and temperature that suddenly began to expand and cool.  The first stars began to appear some time after the expansion and cooling of the universe: about 100 million years after the expansion and cooling began.  That had to wait for the formation of hydrogen nuclei (between 1 microsecond and one millisecond into the Big Bang) and helium nuclei (between 3 and 20 minutes into the BB), and for those nuclei to capture electrons in order to form stable atoms (379,000 years into the BB).

Science can look back to about 1 Planck time (the shortest theoretically observable interval of time: about 10-43 seconds) after the Big Bang; before that the picture grows dim.  The Big Bang Theory is not a theory about the creation of the universe but an explanation of observed evidence that the universe is expanding and cooling.  Read more about it here.

enhanced-28374-1391576852-17Does not the Second Law of Thermodynamics disprove evolution?  No, it doesn’t.  I quote from the Talk.origins archive:

The second law of thermodynamics says, “No process is possible in which the sole result is the transfer of energy from a cooler to a hotter body.” [Atkins, 1984, The Second Law, pg. 25] Now you may be scratching your head wondering what this has to do with evolution. The confusion arises when the 2nd law is phrased in another equivalent way, “The entropy of a closed system cannot decrease.” Entropy is an indication of unusable energy and often (but not always!) corresponds to intuitive notions of disorder or randomness. Creationists thus misinterpret the 2nd law to say that things invariably progress from order to disorder.

The first problem with this assertion is that the earth is not a closed system: it receives more than enough energy from the sun and also radiates heat.  The second problem is that while entropy and disorder can correspond with each other, they are not the same thing.  Sometimes order can increase as entropy increases.  And a third is that low entropy in one part of a closed system can be offset by pockets of increased entropy elsewhere in the system.  But the main takeaway here is that the earth is not a closed system, so the second law of thermodynamics is irrelevant.  All that is needed for evolution to happen is reproduction, variations that can be inherited, and selection.  All of these things happen all the time, so clearly no physical laws are being broken.

enhanced-14517-1391576929-9Can you believe in “the big bang” without “faith”?  The Big Bang Theory is a scientific explanation of the empirical observation that the universe is expanding and cooling and is based on evidence, just as evolutionary theory is based on evidence.  Faith is the acceptance of a truth claim without evidence, or, as Dr. Peter Boghossian puts it, “pretending to know things you don’t know.”

There would be no reason to accept the Big Bang or any other theory as true, if there weren’t any evidence to back it up.  That’s why they’re called theories.

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How do you explain a sunset if there is no God?  Easy.  As the earth turns on its axis, the position of the sun in the sky appears to change, moving from the east in the morning towards the west in the evening.  Early hypotheses that the earth remains stationary in the universe while the sun, the planets and the stars move around it have been thoroughly discredited, as has the hypothesis that the sun is a glowing chariot drawn by flying horses through the sky every day.

The light of the sun is composed of a spectrum of colors running from red and orange at one end to blue and violet at the other.  As the light enters the earth’s atmosphere, it is scattered by the atmosphere and the particles floating in it.  At midday, when the sun’s rays have a direct shot to the observer, the sky appears blue because the molecules of the air are close to the size of the wavelength of blue and violet (and also because human eyes are more sensitive to blue than to violet–otherwise we would perceive the sky as violet), but at the same time, the sun is also beaming its rays at a more oblique angle which takes it through more atmosphere, causing more scattering of the various colors, leaving yellows, oranges, and reds.  So if the sky in the afternoon appears blue to an observer in the Rockies, the sky appears more orange and red to an observer in the Appalachians.

sunsetdiagramNEWSo, science can explain a sunset, but it can also explain our perception of it as beautiful, which I suppose was what this questioner had in mind: what is often called “the argument from beauty”.  The fact is that our aesthetic responses have evolved along with us, just as our ability to reason, to invent, to love and to laugh have evolved with us.  Christopher Hitchens tells the story in his book God Is Not Great of a teacher who tells her pupils that God made the grass and trees green, since that is the most restful to our eyes, and how awful it would be if the grass and trees were purple or yellow.  No, there is no reason that God made the sunset beautiful just to please us, and every reason to believe that our perceiving things as beautiful has to do with evolutionary psychology and neurological processing.  And understanding those completely not-Godly processes doesn’t take away the pleasure of a sunset one bit (though I’ve always preferred sunrises myself).

enhanced-17067-1391576868-1What about noetics?  What about noetics?

In philosophy, noetic philosophy is philosophy concerning mind, intellect, or consciousness (Gr. noetikos, mental from nous, mind), and is usually referred to as theory of or philosophy of mind.  There is also a bogus discipline called “noetic sciences” defined as an exploration of how the inner mind affects the physical world.

Neither of these have anything to do with creationism or evolution.

enhanced-19270-1391576914-1There 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”.  Another questioner asks a similar question:  Why have we found only 1 “Lucy”, when we have found more than 1 of everything else?  Both these folks are talking about the fossil remains of a 25-year-old female of the extinct species Australopithecus afarensis, found in Hadar, Ethiopia in 1974.  Since then other specimens of afarensis have been found, enough for us to know that they lived about 3-4 million years ago, that they were at least partly, if not entirely bipedal and walked on the ground, that they had skulls similar to modern chimpanzees but with human-like teeth, and that they used stone implements at least part of the time.  It’s simply false that there is only one specimen of afarensis and that it was simply an ape.

enhanced-16553-1391576896-6If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate?  By chance?  This question refers to a body of scientific theory called abiogenesis, which is the study of how life first formed.  Abiogenesis is only tangentially connected with evolutionary science, which does not study the origins of biological life, but with the origins of biodiversity.

It’s a common chestnut among creationists that the odds that the first living organism could have come into being by chance is so astronomically improbable as to be an argument for creation.  What they are usually arguing for is the spontaneous formation of a single-celled organism that we can recognize easily as a living thing, while not realizing that evolution applies in this scenario as well, in dividing the progress from non-living molecules into a living cell in manageable steps, and according to natural laws.  First simple chemicals, then more complex molecules, then self-replicating molecules, and so on and so forth until you get proteins, enzymes, and RNA and DNA.  I am not a biochemist, but you’ll find some simple breakdowns of abiogenesis here and here.

Well, that seems like a representative sampling of the questions posed by the people here, and although I got a little snarky there for a bit, for the most part I did what I set out to do, to take these questioners at their word and not condescend or poke fun, so let’s end here with this question:

enhanced-30002-1391576851-1Are you scared of a Divine Creator?  Well, no.  And this comes pretty close to being offensive, not only to non-believers who support science, but also believers who support science as well.

One assumption here is that evolution has as its goal the disproving of a supernatural creator.  Evolution is simply a line of inquiry into the origins of biodiversity that follows the evidence wherever it leads.  If it bumps into the beliefs of certain people that a supernatural creator created life in such-and-such a way, that’s not evolution’s problem.  That’s the problem of the people holding the beliefs.

The other assumption is that evolution supporters are afraid of a god or are in denial about it.  That’s a false assumption as well.  I can’t be scared of something that has no evidence for its existence.  If you think a god exists, and you have evidence to support it, I will change my mind.  There is evidence to support evolution, there is no evidence to support a creator god.  That’s pretty much it.  And when asked what would change the debater’s minds concerning evolution, Bill Nye said evidence, one piece of evidence would change his mind.  Ken Ham, nothing.  That’s how science works, and that’s how creationism doesn’t.

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