Creationist Meme Week, Part 7: Wrapping It All Up

Evolving Snowmen

I have run out of week before I ran out of Stupid Bad Creationist Memes, so I’ll shoehorn the last few memes into one post, if nobody minds. If you do mind, tough. Start your own snarky meme dissection blog.

Ahem, anyway. I wouldn’t expect a snowman to be particularly well-versed in evolution, and this meme does nothing to change my expectations. The speaking snowman (!) is making two critical mistakes. First: snowmen – even talking snowmen – are not people. A snowman being built up from individual flakes is not the same as humans evolving from single-celled organisms in the distant past. Therefore, you cannot use the absurdity of snowflake evolution to discredit biological evolution. Second: mutations occur by chance, but evolution does not. Evolution selects for beneficial mutations (where beneficial means bestowing a survival or reproductive advantage). It’s not that hard to get it right, unless you’re getting it wrong on purpose.

Creationism in Vietnam

Settle down, Batman! North Vietnam’s condition has nothing to do with its rejection of Creationism. I’m no expert on Vietnamese history, but I’ll bet there have been far more important events that molded North Vietnam. Why would Batman make a connection between Vietnam and Creationism anyway?

Perhaps because North Vietnam is an atheist state. Batman thinks that barring Creationism from public school science classes will make America an atheist state as well. Actually, accepting evolution does not go hand in hand with atheism. There are lots of theists who accept evolution (the Pope does), and I assume there are atheists who don’t believe in evolution. Granted, most atheists do accept evolution as a fact because they have no religious reason to reject it, but I won’t speak for all of them.

The United States is not an atheist nation, and preventing Creationism from being taught in public schools will not make us one. The United States is a secular nation, which means that we don’t favor one particular religion over another (at least in theory). And that has nothing to do with science class. We don’t teach Creationism in science class because Creationism isn’t scientific. If you combine science with religion, students will be confused about what is science and what isn’t.

Newton Vs Dawkins

Although this meme pits theist against atheist, it may as well be Creationist Vs Evolutionist, since Dawkins’s support for evolution is nearly as well-known as his atheism. I’m not sure what Isaque Newton is known for. I wonder if he’s any kin to Isaac Newton. They kind of look alike.

Whether we’re talking about Isaque or Isaac, there are a few issues that need to be addressed.

  1. I have no idea what revolve integral counting means. It sounds like it might be related to calculus (which Newton was instrumental in developing) but I’ve never heard that actual phrase before.
  2. Newton had nothing to do with the laws of thermodynamics. The memer is probably thinking of Newton’s Laws of Motion.
  3. I’m not sure how one opens a law. Perhaps with a law opener?
  4. Newton did not formulate the principle of conservation of energy. Although scientists in Newton’s time were aware of kinetic energy and were vaguely suspicious that something might be conserved, they did not know how to pull it all together. Scientists working in the mid-19th century created the first modern version of conservation of energy…more than a century after Newton’s death.

Newton did a lot of important things in his life, but you don’t help your argument by not knowing what they were. Now let’s talk about Richard Dawkins, the evil atheist and evolution proponent. It’s true that Dawkins did not study the nature of light, invent calculus (or revolve integral counting), open any major laws of physics, or become a father of modern astronomy. Then again, he didn’t have to do any of those things because they had all been done long before he was born. Are Dawkins’s opinions any less valid because he did not literally re-invent the wheel?

This meme is entirely pointless. The author wants to discredit Dawkins and all atheists (and perhaps evolution accepters) by showing that Dawkins’s list of accolades is shorter than Newton’s list, but he fails to explain why that’s relevant. Dawkins’s arguments should be judged on their own merits, and not because he hasn’t turned the scientific world upside down.

One more thing, memer: there are plenty of modern scientists who do believe in God and whose accomplishments are no more impressive than Richard Dawkins’s. Why don’t you single them out for an unfavorable comparison to Newton? Oh right, because it would reduce the strength of your argument to zero.

And so we come to the end of Creationist Meme Week. We have plenty of racist, sexist, and generally unpleasant memes that need discussing, so we’ll give the Creationists a break for a while.

Creationist Meme Week, Part 6: Uneducated Arguments

Doesnt Understand Evolution

Yeah, so there’s a bit of truth to this Stupid Bad Meme. I’ve heard too many well-meaning people actually hurt their arguments for evolution by making scientifically indefensible statements. The average Creationist who rejects evolution because his pastor told him to might not notice, but some Creationists have spent a lot of time reading the scientific literature concerning evolution. They actually have a pretty decent understanding of what evolution is (although they still reject or attempt to usurp the evidence). If you have only a passing knowledge of the basic tenets of evolution and you engage in an argument with a seasoned Creationist, you will be destroyed. The Creationist will walk away believing that he has triumphed yet again over a brainwashed evolutionist.1

Now I would never encourage anybody not to argue in favor of evolution, particularly when so many Creationists are actively trying to wedge their religious beliefs into public school curricula. But I wouldn’t send you to war with a pea-shooter. Please, before you try to do intellectual battle with a Creationist, arm yourself with knowledge. Study evolution and know its components. Learn the difference between facts, laws, and theories, and don’t ever say that theories become laws or facts when they are proven! Read the most common Creationist arguments and the responses written by people who truly understand the topic.

Like I said, there’s a grain of truth in this meme, but it’s also wrong: just as there are many evolution accepters who do not understand evolution, there are many that do understand it. And they still argue for the reality of evolution, because they have seen the evidence, and they do not have a conflicting agenda which causes them to ignore it. They know that the evidence is massive and that it all points to the same conclusion. Evolution has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen as long as there is life.

As for the poor fellow whose picture formed the background for this meme…I can’t say whether he supports or rejects the idea of biological evolution. I hope that if he does accept it, he has studied it enough to know why.

1. Honestly, the Creationist will probably think he has won anyway, regardless of the actual outcome. Just don’t make it easy for him.

Creationist Meme Week, Part 5: Hope You Kept The Receipt For Your Education

Frogs to Princes

I don’t know what university you attended, Mr Carlson, but at my university I was taught that princes (and by extension all humans) did not evolve directly from modern frogs. All modern life descends from a common ancestor. Rather than being our greatest grandparents, modern frogs are our distant, distant, distant [approximately 50 instances of the word distant deleted] distant cousins.

Mr Carlson, like so many Creationists, seems to be confused about how the tree of life is organized. He apparently views it as an obelisk, with single-celled organisms at the base and humans at the pinnacle. Falling somewhere in between are frogs, monkeys, paramecia, and every other organism which Creationists have mockingly (and mistakenly) placed in humanity’s evolutionary history. No wonder Mr Carlson mocks his understanding of evolution! I mock it also!

The tree of life, if you were to visualize it properly, would look more like…you know…a tree. A really freaking big tree. This metaphorical tree started growing when life began on Earth, and it put out its first branches as life diversified and expanded to fill all the niches available to it. The branches spread out along crooked paths, splitting over and over, pushing into new territory. Many times a branch just stops; here some species met a challenge to which it could not adapt, and perished. The tree is full of these dead-end branches but every time a branch comes to an abrupt halt, other branches diversify to fill the space going forward. No region stays unoccupied for long.

At the top of the tree are all species that are still alive, including humans, chimpanzees, and yes, frogs. If you want to see how a human and a frog are related, you have to follow their individual branches back in time to the point where they meet, but what you find there will be neither frog nor human. You won’t recognize it, because you’ve never seen anything like it, but it’s your great great great [approximately 68 million instances of the word great deleted] great grandpappy, and mine, and that of all frogs. So tell it I said hi. Or ribbit. Or whatever.

It is a mistake to think of humans as occupying a special place at the endpoint of evolution, which is why biologists don’t think that way. In fact, nobody but a Creationist thinks of evolution as a linear morphing of X into Y, where X and Y are both extant species. If you want to discredit the idea of evolution, you have to understand how it is supposed to work. If you refuse to educate yourself even to that extent, then you have little business calling one of the most well-supported ideas in scientific history into question.

I would recommend that Mr Carlson read The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins if he wishes to truly understand the relationship between frogs and princes. I would recommend that, but many Creationists begin frothing at the mouth at the mere mention of Dawkins’ name. See, they regard him as something of bully. Granted, that’s not an entirely unwarranted opinion, but at least the man understands evolution.

Creationist Meme Week, Part 4: Raptorous Ignorance

Raptor Questions Evolution

Before anybody can answer this question from an evolutionary perspective, somebody (this dinosaur, perhaps) needs to define the terms information and advanced unambiguously. Creationists won’t do that, though. They don’t actually want scientists to answer this question, they just want to be able to claim that the question is unanswerable.

What if somebody gives you the odd task of copying a cookbook for a restaurant? It’s important to be precise, because the restaurant depends on the recipes to stay in business. If you make a mistake, the restaurant’s business could be hurt. It might even have to shut down. No pressure, right?

As you laboriously copy page after page, you might start to think about the mistakes you could make. What if you left out a key ingredient for the lasagna recipe, say, oregano? This tiny deletion causes a loss of information, and that loss could be harmful to the restaurant. Perhaps its patrons will not like this new, oregano-free lasagna. (For the purposes of this story, we’ll assume the chefs are mindless automata who will not add oregano unless the recipe specifically calls for it. Not very realistic, I guess, but I’m going somewhere with this.) That’s not the end of the world, right? It’s not like you skipped the lasagna recipe altogether.

But what if you did? That could be even worse for the restaurant. That’s a lot of information gone missing. What if lasagna was the restaurant’s signature dish? The place’s reputation could be ruined. Ruined!

Are there any errors you could make that don’t involve a loss of information? Certainly. You could make an accidental substitution. The severity depends on what substitution you make, and where. Suppose you type basil when you meant to type oregano (and doesn’t that happen to everybody?). What effect would that have? Honestly…not much. It would be a silent change to the menu. The end result would be the same, without a net loss or gain of information.

Not all substitutions are harmless. You could try to type tablespoon of oregano but accidentally type pound of live cockroaches instead. Yeah…enjoy not being in the restaurant business anymore.

Are all potential mistakes bad or neutral? Are there no happy accidents? Well, maybe there are.

What if you made an accidental substitution that enhanced the flavor of the dish whose recipe you were copying? Suppose you substituted essence of pure flavor for oregano? What if people loved the change? What if your restaurant’s business boomed because of it?

What if you accidentally copied a page twice? No big deal; you just have two pages that code for the same dish. But what if you made a happy mistake on the duplicated page? Now the restaurant not only has the original dish that everybody likes; it has a new dish that everybody will love! Information has been added to the cookbook, and the restaurant is better off for it. The restaurant’s superior recipes will allow it to outdo its competitors. Your famously flawed recipe book will spread like wildfire. Nice, huh?

If you remember biology, you probably figured out where I was going with this analogy a long time ago, and you’ve been patiently tapping your pencil on your desktop waiting for me to wrap up. Thank you for your patience. If you don’t remember anything from high school, I’ll quickly bring you up to speed.

Although cells are very careful to copy their genomes precisely, mistakes happen. These mistakes are occasionally passed on to the next generation. Many of the mistakes are neutral or silent, which means they have absolutely no impact on the health of the organisms that host them. Some of the mutations are harmful, which is bad news for the bearer but it means they don’t travel much farther in a population’s gene pool. Some mutations are good; these are the ones that get propagated in the population. Occasionally the cards all fall into line: a chunk of genetic material gets duplicated more than it should, and the extra chunk acquires a beneficial mutation. Now the organism not only has the original trait, but a novel, useful trait as well.

Suppose you have a chromosome whose sequence of genes (represented by letters of the alphabet) looks like this:


During the process of gene replication, each gene is copied and wound into a new chromosome. When the cell divides, each daughter cell receives a complete copy of the chromosome. But imagine that at some point the gene sequence FGHI is over-duplicated and reinserted into the chromosome, resulting in this:


Now imagine that the new copy of gene G undergoes a point mutation – in this case, a beneficial mutation. We’ll denote the mutated G as G*. Now the chromosome looks like this:


So the host organism not only gets the benefit of having a functional copy of gene G, it also gets the benefit of gene G*. Its genome has become more advanced. It will be more successful at the three F’s – feeding, fighting, and mating – and it will leave behind more offspring than its fellow organisms that do not have the beneficial G* mutation. That’s natural selection, which leads to evolution.

I fully expect you to ask “What are the odds of this happening?” It does seem like a long shot that a gene duplication would be followed by a beneficial mutation. I won’t lie: it is a long shot. The kinds of mutations that benefit an organism might be one-in-a-million, or one-in-a-billion. But here’s the thing: that happy mistake only has to happen once – just once among the millions or billions of organisms struggling for survival within a population. Once an adaptive trait appears, nature will select it for propagation. When you consider the fact that the living creatures on Earth represent a constantly-running biological experiment to find new and improved genetic codes, the question isn’t “How could mutations produce more advanced life?” The question is “How could they not?”