The Worm Turns

Those poor, primitive creatures we call creationists have to live their lives in spite of many difficulties, and one of the most significant is language. If you have ever tried to read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as written by Geoffrey, or a speech by Sarah Palin as written by anybody, you will know that a language can look sort of like English but be completely meaningless. Words like "intelligent design," "Darwinism," "dinosaurs," "mutation," "fossils," "species," and "random" have conventional meanings to you and me, but to your average, ten-commandments-in-courthouses, Jesus-loves-AK47s, humans-rode-dinosaurs creationist, they have other meanings, and that confusion in language leads to much misunderstanding in the real world. But never fear, gentle reader. I am always available to attempt a translation for you.

Take a very common example. Whenever I or anyone else writes about evolution on Huffington Post or elsewhere, you don't need to be a psychic to know that some commenter will always say, "Huh, all very well to talk about Darwinism, but you atheists can't explain the origin of life with evolution, can you, now?" Now at this point most writers on evolution play with paper clips on their desk in an embarrassed sort of way and say something like, "Oh, dear, no, evolution has nothing to do with origins of life, quite a different department deals with all that, ahem."

I think this is a huge mistake. I have had a go at one alternative response which envisages a process of "natural selection" assisting in getting inorganic chemicals towards being organic and then self-reproducing, but back in those primitive days of my early attempts at translation I had misunderstood the question entirely, and other approaches are needed. You see, when someone talks about the "origin of life," a scientist has an image in mind of experiments aimed at reproducing possible conditions on Earth, say, four billion years ago: playing with combinations of organic molecules, different temperatures, different salinity, different substrates, with or without electric discharges, and so on. In addition, scientists think about the earliest life forms found as fossils, the age and type of rocks they are found in, the relationships between simple life forms in existence today, possible analogs for early ecosystems around submarine volcanic vents, or in deep caves, or in extreme environments, and so on. So faced with that sort of comment a scientist will say, "Yes, you are right, evolutionary biology doesn't have much if anything to do with the origins of life" -- but because it is so obvious, they leave unsaid, "But so what? That is a field of research involving geology and chemistry and cosmology and physics and paleontology."

On the other hand, our mentally fossilised creationist isn't in fact asking anything of the kind; this person knows nothing, and cares less, about the different disciplines that make up scientific research. Isn't checking on whether the evolutionary biologist has also studied abiogenesis. Has no mental image of the conditions on Earth four billion years ago, or of what early life forms might have been like. Isn't asking (and this is another misapprehension of the hapless scientist dealing, as gladly as possible, with idiots), "How do you know that God didn't get life going four billion years ago and then provided the mechanism of evolution to keep it all ticking along?" Isn't saying, "Huh, you think you are so smart studying your Darwinism, but God tricked you by creating life in the first place, and just let you think you were finding out something worthwhile. Try being an atheist now, Mr. Smartypants Scientist."

No, they are not saying these things, because those things would make no sense at all in their language. They don't think God started things off four billion years ago by "breathing life into" some simple unicellular organism that then began to speciate and evolve to produce all of the subsequent biodiversity of this planet. Of course not; what kind of a wimp do you think their god is? Does the Bible mention stromatolites? No, they think that their god created the life forms we see today. Intelligently designed all of them to fit into their own niche and serve humans. Wiped out a few, accidentally, when he somehow flooded the whole surface of the planet to more than the depth of the highest mountain, while saving others by putting them, each with the most limited genetic diversity possible, on a boat, and then, when the water somehow disappeared, putting them ashore to go forth and multiply. And all this happened not five billion years ago but 5000, give or take a king or two.

These are people who not only have less sense of time depth than a two-year-old child but who have absolutely no ability to imagine a world any different to the one they see now, looking out the back door in, say, Kansas. The vision of the past that I have -- where an ever-increasing, ever more diverse range of plants and animals evolves through time in various directions, suffering major setbacks along the way with massive extinction events, succeeded by new bursts of speciation, and all occurring against an ever-changing backdrop of different plant communities, different climatic conditions, and different arrangements of continents and varying sea depths -- would be a vision as likely to be had by a creationist as the vision of America having a decent health care system or sane gun laws.

So when you are asked whether evolution accounts for the origin of life, don't think bacteria, or stromatolites, or yeast, or amoebae, and say, "Oh, no, of course not." Think cats and dogs, birds, worms, frogs, snakes, pine trees, gum trees, petunias, and, yes, great apes and humans, and be the worm that turns -- say, "Yes, of course it does." Your average, barely-literate creationist hears the first answer as "scientist admits evolution didn't happen, accepts creationist proof of reality of God." The second answer would come as a shock, and it may be a second or two before they totally reject it, but in that time you can reiterate how evolution (combining, of course, natural selection and speciation), not creation, gives rise to those life forms. And one day, maybe, you can educate a creationist so much that they will accept the reality of evolution (and pigs may have evolved wings) and begin to explore with you the fascinating investigation into the origins of life on Earth.

Next week's translation: "How did the first male dog that evolved find a mate?"

I make monkeys of creationists every week on The Watermelon Blog.