Mailbag: Creationism and Moving the Goalposts
Time to respond to yet another reader feedback email! If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page. For more answers to feedback emails, see the mailbag category.
When we last saw Joe, he had sent me a feedback email were he deployed some common creationist complaints about the mainstream science of modern evolutionary biology: chiefly the equivocation of the “theory” concept, faulty appeals to the second law of thermodynamics and the “random chance” gambit. I explained the flaws in these assertions in greater detail here. After my previous response to him was posted, he decided to send me another feedback email. He starts off by thanking me for my response:
Firstly, I would like to thank you for answering my previous questions. I would like to ask a couple more questions.
Joe thanks me for answering his previous questions. Yet he neither address any of the arguments I made, nor does he state that he now accepts that his creationist objections to modern evolutionary biology are wrong. Instead, he wishes to ask more questions. This is a classic creationist debating strategy: never accept that your arguments have been debunked and keep moving onto other alleged creationist “problems” with evolution. Never retreat, just advance in a different direction. The intellectually honest approach would be to accept that those arguments were wrong and never use them again in any discussion about evolution. However, the typical creationist complain about evolution is very old: the same arguments (like the equivocation of the “theory” concept or appeals to the second law of thermodynamics) are often recycled over and over.
How does evolution propose life came into existence?(excuse my ignorance of evolutionary doctrine) Whatever the first life-form was, the amoeba or something, how did it “evolve” from nothing? In short, what is the First Cause proposed by evolutionists?
The first problem is that Joe likens modern evolutionary biology to “a doctrine” and calls people who accept the mainstream scientific account of the origin of biological diversity “evolutionists”. However, this is just as absurd as calling the atomic theory of matter, the germ theory of disease, or general relativity “a doctrine” or calling medical doctors “Pasteurists”. These are well-supported scientific explanations to the world around us, not “doctrines”. This mindset is based on the common creationist view that “evolution” or “humanism” is an alternative worldview to Christianity. This makes as little sense as thinking that classical mechanism is somehow an “alternative worldview” to a religion. They are two separate things entirely.
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Modern evolutionary biology is a strongly evidence-based explanation to the origin of biological diversity. It explains how species form, change over time and become extinct. In other words, it has nothing to do with the origin of life (abiogenesis) per se. That is a separate scientific field. So in that sense, evolution does not include any proposition on the origin life, just like the atomic theory of matter or germ theory of disease does not provide any proposition on how life arose. This moving the goalposts is a common creationist tactic: once the attacks on evolution fail, demand that proponents of evolution explain the origin of life.
As far as abiogenesis is concerned, we do not know as much about that as we do about the evolution of life. There are a couple of competing models (the RNA world, the iron-sulfur world and others), but most of them involve the existence of self-catalytic RNAs (which were the result of chemical reactions billions of years ago), which can work as enzyme and information-carrier before proteins and DNA took over the work. For more information about e .g. the RNA World, check out Understanding Evolution and Molecular Biology of the Cell.
Also, the origin of life is not the same as “first cause”, by which Joe presumably mean the origin of the universe. Although there will always be things about the world we do not understand, the Big Bang model states that, in the very distant past (~13.8 billion years ago), the universe was a lot smaller, denser and hotter than it is today. Since then, the universe has expanded. There is a lot of evidence for this model, including enormously precise confirmations about predictions about the cosmic microwave background radiation. More about the evidence for the Big Bang model can be found at the Talk.Origins Archive.