May 14, 2007
The science-religion debate
The ABC news 'Face Off'', the 'great' debate between religion and atheism, was broadcast on Nightline last week. You can see the video of the program here. (You may be able to find the video of the full debate here.)
The side arguing for God's existence was evangelist Ray "Banana Man" Comfort and his trusty sidekick Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron. The side arguing against was Brian "Sapient" (not his real last name) and Kelly, the creators of the Blasphemy Challenge and the people behind the Rational Response Squad.
The debate was initiated by Comfort who had contacted ABC News and requested it, saying that he could prove god's existence. He set the bar for himself quite high. He promised ABC News that he would "prove God's existence, absolutely, scientifically, without mentioning the Bible or faith" and added that "I am amazed at how many people think that God's existence is a matter of faith. It's not, and I will prove it at the debate - once and for all. This is not a joke. I will present undeniable scientific proof that God exists."
The video of the program shows that the 'debate' was at a disappointingly low level, although to be fair the debate lasted for about 90 minutes and only edited portions were shown. From the outset, Comfort broke his promise, invoking both the Bible and faith. But even when it came to the 'science' part of his argument, he resorted once again to the tired Paley's watch/Mount Rushmore arguments.
The shorter version of this old argument is this: "We can immediately tell when something is designed. If something is designed, it must have a designer. Nature looks designed to us and therefore must have been designed. That designer can only be god."
The operational and philosophical weaknesses of this argument has been exposed by many people, including me, so that anyone who advances it cannot really be taken seriously unless they address those challenges to it. As far as I can see, Comfort did not do this. Although Comfort had previously alleged that the banana was the "atheist's nightmare" (because it fits so perfectly in the human hand and human mouth, the banana and human hand and mouth had to have been designed that way) he did not bring bananas along as props. Perhaps he had been warned that his video of that claim has been the source of widespread merriment.
Kirk Cameron's role seemed to be to undermine evolutionary theory but the clips of him doing that showed an embarrassing ignorance and shallowness. He invoked the old argument about the paucity of transitional forms but even here he brought it up in a form that would have made even those sympathetic to his point of view wince. He seemed to have the bizarre notion that evolution by natural selection predicts the existence every possible intermediate state between all existing life forms. He showed artist's sketches of things that he called a "croc-o-duck (a duck with the head of a crocodile) and a "bull frog" (consisting of an animal that was half-bull and half-frog) and argued that the fact that we do not see such things means that evolution is wrong. Really. It was painful to watch him make a fool of himself on national TV.
Cameron seems to be suffering from an extreme form of a common misunderstanding about transitional forms. The fact that humans and other existing animals share common ancestors does not imply that there should be forms that are transitional between them as they exist now. What evolutionary theory states is that if you take any existing organism and follow its ancestors back in time, you will have a gradual evolution in the way the organisms look. So when we talk about transitional forms, we first have to fix the two times that set the boundaries. If we take one boundary as the present time and the other boundary as (say) four billion years ago when the first eukaryotic cell appeared, then there are a large number of transitional forms between those two forms. Richard Dawkins book The Ancestor's Tale gives an excellent account of the type and sequence of the transitional forms that have been found. Of course, these ancestral forms have evolved along the many descendant forms so we would not expect to see them now in the same form they were when they were our ancestors. They can only be found in that form as fossils.
The DNA sequencing shows the connections between species as well and provide further evidence of the way species branched off at various points in time. So when evolutionary biologists speak of 'transitional forms', they are referring to finding fossils of those ancestors who preceded various branch points. The recent discovery of Tiktaalik, the 375-million year old fossil that has the characteristics of what a common ancestor of fish and mammals and amphibians would look like, is one such example. So is Archaeopteryx as a transitional form.
The 'missing link' argument against evolution, although lacking content, is one that will never die. One reason is the existence of people like Cameron who use it incorrectly. Another is that it is infinitely adaptable. For example, suppose you have a species now and a species that existed (say) two billion years ago and demand proof of the existence of a missing link. Suppose a fossil is found that is one billion years old that fits the bill. Will this satisfy those who demand proof of the missing link? No, because opponents of evolution can now shift their argument and demand proofs of the existence of two 'missing' links, one between the fossils of two and one billion years ago, and the other between one billion years ago and the present. In fact, the more transitional fossils that are found, the more 'missing links' that can be postulated!
This is what has happened with past discoveries of fossils. The fossil record of evolution has been getting steadily greater but the calls for 'proof' of the existence of missing links have not diminished.
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