Monthly Archives: October 2012

Wrestling the oiled serpent

Understanding the Earth’s biodiversity is not just about knowing where organisms are currently found, their interactions and community structure, and the threats to them and how they can be conserved.  It is also about understanding the evolutionary origins of that biological diversity.  With this in mind I was interested to read a number of news reports over the last few weeks about the relationship between science and religion, including a piece on a debate between scientists and theologians on the origin of the universe, and the removal of a young Earth creationist perspective in an exhibition about the formation of the Giant’s Causeway.

Whilst religious and scientific views of the universe are not necessarily incompatible, literal interpretations of the origin of the world and its biodiversity are clearly at odds with our understanding of the diversification of life through evolutionary processes.  Reading these reports brought back memories (not all of them positive) of an event I was involved in a few years ago.

Back in 2006, Northamptonshire Creation Group (motto: “Let true science speak” [sic]) approached our former Vice-Chancellor with the suggestion that the University of Northampton might care to put forward a speaker to debate creationist versus the evolutionary world views with a prominent Australian creationist who was undertaking a fairly high profile lecture tour of the UK that year.  I was asked if I was interested in taking part and agreed because I have a long-standing interest in creationist arguments.  One of my main research areas, the ecology and evolution of plant-pollinator interactions, is claimed by some to be one of those (supposedly) wonderful examples of how God has created precise interactions between species which could not possibly have evolved.

Richard Dawkins and others have argued that scientists should not be engaging in such debates  as this because it gives creationists publicity and a credence that they do not deserve.  However my perspective has always been that creationists are not going to go away and their influence on school curricula, for example, needs to be tackled head on.

This debate, in front of an audience of about 200 members of the public, colleagues and students, was undoubtedly the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do professionally:  we were each given 15 minutes to present our case and that is a very short space of time in which to summarise 200 years of scientific research supporting the validity of the evolutionary world view.  But I gave it my best shot and pointed out at the end of the quarter hour that, had I more time, there was so much more evidence I could have presented, evidence which supports the evolutionary hypothesis.

Hopefully, I went on,  I’d convinced some of the audience of the validity of that way of viewing the world and the life it sustains, though I didn’t imagine that I’d changed my opponent’s worldview.  He was clearly a man of great energy and commitment to his cause to have sustained his point of view for 30 years.  But I wished for his sake that he’d not wasted that energy on a debate which was over long ago. which in fact Charles Darwin thought was finished when he died in 1882.

Rather than squabble over the source of biological diversity, I continued, I would rather that these creationists spent their time and energy on trying to save biodiversity.  Human activity has put enormous pressure on the species with which we share this planet and whole ecosystems are being dramatically altered even as we argued that night.  If creationists really care about God’s creation of life, why are they not furious at the way humanity treats it?  Why are they not directing their passion towards saving it?

I thanked the audience for their time and attention and passed the floor to my opponent.  What followed was not the evidence based “creation science” [sic] I was expecting (having researched his previous claims on the subject of the Earth’s age, etc.) but a rapid-fire delivery of theological arguments.  Over those 15 minutes I counted 50 PowerPoint slides, a Biblical smoke and mirrors approach to arguing evolution.  Interestingly, it was clear when he was loading up his presentation that he had about 8 different “Northampton lecture” that he could choose from, depending upon the tack that I took.  Had I gone for a theological approach to the debate, he would have argued “science” I am sure.

After our presentations we had an opportunity to ask one another one question before it was opened up to the audience.  The question that was addressed of me is one that to this day I don’t really understand.  To paraphrase he asked:

“Can you provide a single example of a species which has evolved into another species, without reference to the assumption that evolution has already occurred”

The second half of the question really made no sense to me and perhaps was designed to throw me off.  It worked: I asked my opponent to explain the question and received some heckling from nearby creationists who accused me of being evasive.  But he clarified his question: what he was really asking was, could I provide examples of species evolving recently.  I talked about antibiotic resistance in bacteria, insects which are now immune to pesticides, and also mentioned peppered moth evolution.  Then the debate was opened up to questions from the floor and the first thing I was asked (by a smirking creationist) was what the peppered moths had changed into: other moths or something different?  I explained the difference, in timescales and outcome, of microevolution and macroevolution.  But that was lost on him.

There was also a question about why peacocks and other species were so beautiful, if not for human enjoyment?  I spoke about sexual selection but my opponent countered that sweet peas in his garden were never visited by bees because they self fertilise, so why are they still attractive?  I suggested he grow some different Lathyrus species, ones which had not been selectively bred by people.

So it went on, trading example for example, neither side giving any ground, until we ran out of time .

The woman who asked me the question about beauty happened to be of Afro-Caribbean descent, and came up to me afterwards when the formal debate had ended.  She forcefully asked how I could support a theory which, according to her, stated that “black people are closer to apes and therefore lower on the evolutionary ladder than white people”.  I firmly explained that evolution says nothing about racism and “Darwinian” arguments about racial superiority were a later bastardisation of Darwin’s original ideas.  But to no avail:  the woman “knew” Darwin was a racist; everyone in her church knew that.

Another post-debate exchange with a creationist went something like:

Him:  Darwin states in Origin of Species that the fossil record was insufficient to support his ideas.

Me:  That was 150 years ago.

Him: Yes, but Darwin said it.

Me: But that was 150 years ago; as I showed, we have acquired an enormous amount of new fossil data since then.

Him:  But Darwin said it and he’s the father of evolution.

Me: But he was only one scientist and that was 150 years ago.

Him: But Darwin said it.

Etc. etc. etc.  Darwin seems to have an almost mythic, bogey-man status amongst creationists, as if everything he wrote HAS to be true and if it’s false then evolution is not true.  A weird interpretation of how science works.

At the end of the evening I went home exhausted and not a little depressed.  Wine was drunk and the evening dissected and I wrote up some notes about the event, including the title of this blog.  That phrase struck me as a suitably Biblical description of trying to have rational arguments with creationists: well greased serpents will always have a way of squirming out of the grip of logic and evidence, whilst throwing distracting coils around your limbs.  I don’t regret taking part in the debate but I’m not in a hurry to do another.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Charles Darwin, Creationism, Evolution, University of Northampton