Responding to Creationists

Sometimes, when I hear debates, I imagine how I would’ve liked to respond. Of course, in my head, I’m very fluent and never interrupted. Still, it occurred to me that some of these thoughts might be of interest to my readers.

My Internet soulmate Phil Plait recently wrote an article about a creationist state senator from Louisiana who asked for examples of evolution. The respondent (a science teacher), explained the Lenski bacteria experiment. The senator followed up by asking if “they evolved into a person.”

A person who enjoys debate might note that it’s a textbook example of shifting goalposts. In fact, in this case, the senator shifted the goalpost about 4 billion years, then stuck a straw man on it.

A person who is of sound mind, like the surprisingly patient science teacher, would shake her head and try in vain to assess the meaning of such a question.

As I was taking a walk this morning, it occurred to me that the best path for questions such as these – questions that are either breathtakingly ignorant at best or worthlessly rhetorical at worst – would be to just answer them to the best of your ability.

To that end, here’s my shot. I’m just doing a quick writeup, but I suspect hundreds of thousands of words could be written on this topic, and a lot of statistical analysis could be brought to bear:

“Just to clarify, to make sure I understand the question – you’re asking whether bacteria turned into people during a 20 year experiment? I want to make sure I get it right because it’s an unusual question, but I take it to be an honest one. Surely, someone who has concern over teaching the truth to children wouldn’t employ sarcasm in a question and waste the time of the busy people testifying here today.

The short answer is that the bacteria did not turn into people. The reason why has to do with a number of factors.”

(At this point, one would hope, the senator would protest. But hey, it was an honest question, right?)

“For one thing, bacteria are generally asexual, whereas humans are sexual. As it happens, E. Coli are asexual. So, in order for them to make a baby human, you’d have to first have them split into males and females. We know this is possible, because there are somewhat near relatives to E. Coli who conjugate.

Supposing this happens, you’d still have problems. As you may know, humans are bigger than bacteria. Assuming that E. Coli were able to act as a womb, it would have to be a very big bacterium to hold a human child.

But let’s suppose the E. Coli worked out a way to do this. It still wouldn’t have all the developmental information to make a human. It may be the case that growing up inside a massive mutant bacterium creates epigenetic problems for the baby, but this hasn’t been studied. In fact, before your very insightful question, I doubt anyone even thought of it.

Lastly, supposing even this could be worked out, there would probably be social problems for the child. It might have trouble relating to its parents, for example. They’d probably want it to carry on in the family tradition of making people vomit, whereas the child might want to be a painter or a poet.

So, for all these reasons and many more, during this 20 year experiment on a small colony of bacteria, no people were produced. Mind you, I’ve only read the paper. It’s possible Dr. Lenski actually did produce some humans, but thought the results were less interesting than the evolution of the ability to metabolize citrate.

I hope that answers your question. It’s very nice to see this level of honest curiosity in the halls of government. The public may be under the impression that senators summon citizens away from their jobs purely for political show, so that our elected officials can attempt to score political points on issues of science and education. But, let those cynics note, that though that ugliness may exist elsewhere, the Louisiana senate will ever be the dwelling place of honest seekers for truth.

I hope you found that response as useful as I found the question. It was every bit as sincere.

Do you have any more?”

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13 Responses to Responding to Creationists

  1. xiaokj says:

    None of the responses actually point to the gigantic problem that could have been solved at that moment.

    The question that the senator posted is so obviously loaded, that it makes no sense to attack it in the spirit of publishing in scientific journals, in the detached voice.

    Instead, something closer to Wiener style “You Monster” would just make it sound better.

    Of course, the teacher in question is just not the best vehicle for such a statement, because she was repeating over and over again “This is just not science.” as if repetition is all that is needed to drive a lesson home. If anything, she did not sound in any way convincing. Neither did she describe the experiment sufficiently in detail for understandable questions to be asked. Make me cringe at the thought of the level of science that would be imparted.

    Anyway, my gut response to that question would be “Can you please clarify if your meant humans in the sizes we tend to speak of, or do you mean little men? This is important because many comics portray biological experimentation as if monsters can grow out of these little petri dishes and grab at the experimenters’ throats. Such a violation of the conservation of mass is so ridiculous, that we must deduce that you are talking about something completely else.”

    “Speaking about something completely else, we would rather answer your question faithfully by asking for a reiteration, and while we are at a situation like this, we might as well save time by asking about the specific parts we think are acutely relevant to the discussion. One of the most important clarification that we would like the question to state in detail, is the relationship between evolution and the senator’s emphasis on humanity. In particular, how is it that these bacteria are perceived to be evolving towards humans in our current form? Is it a disguised question about the superiority of homo sapiens?”

    “For the record, evolution is a completely random process that, under the appropriate natural selection pressures, can generate efficient solutions to problems of survival and reproduction. Notice the inclusion of the term ‘random’, because humans are neither the desired endpoint, nor anything special within the realm of evolutionary possibilities. If anything, evolution tends to produce different outcomes. For example, the Earth has already undergone enough catastrophes such that previous masters of the planet have died out. Dinosaurs are but the most well known out of these generations, and only recently have humans climbed to the top of the hierarchy.”

    But I would have liked if the discussion never degraded to that point. For example, a lot of people put out the statement that “The scientific community / establishment is in no doubt of the correctness of evolution.” This statement should always follow at the end of a story, not as a standalone. I mean, talk about how the human’s immunity can only be understood in terms of the randomness of evolution, how it is completely senseless to work in the medical profession if this concept is not understood, with the examples of measles, flu and HIV, before issuing that conclusion! How in the world will anything in science be convincing if all that is said is the summary? And then you have so many people wondering why we have yet to win this ridiculous war against stupidity?

    Give evidence and insights, not boredom.

  2. lorimakesquilts says:

    Brilliant and appropriate answer to a remarkably ignorant question. I would be horrified to discover my representative had such a deficit in basic education. He really isn’t qualified to make judgement on any legislation regarding education and should opt out of the proceedings.

  3. Helen says:

    I like your rational response, but sometimes I wonder if there are any creationists who actually want a logical debate. The senator’s question reminds me of some of the crazy misrepresentations in my 9th grade creationist textbook. It explained that, according to the theory of evolution, a finch could evolve into an eagle. That’s silly, so evolution must be wrong! I have no idea if the book’s author actually thought evolution worked that way, or if he was just dumbing it down to indoctrinate students.

  4. That’s a very patient and competent answer. I worry that no one would really be listening. Of course, asking that from a grandstanding politician may be too much, but I also worry that there are fewer and fewer people out there who are actually committed to honest debate and analysis.

  5. Maia says:

    I think that your well-meant response is too long and would still come across as trying to make fun of the creationist (’cause you’re basically explaining why the question is inherently ridiculous). The only correct answer to the senator’s question would’ve been “not yet”.

    Then, if given the opportunity to elaborate, you remind them that the central point of the evolutionary theory is that it happens slowly over the course of many generations. The bacteria evolved a little: into different bacteria. In order to observe the evolution into multicellular organisms, we’d need to run the experiment for another million generations.

    This is how I’d reply if my six-year olds were to ask me that same question. I’m not so gullible as to think that it was originally asked with the same lack of guile as my kids would, but it’s not really the senator you should aim your reply at. It’s the people in the audience who haven’t been brought up with a scientific mindset, and for whom this seems a perfectly plausible idea: “let’s prove evolution by growing a microbe into a dinosaur, cool!”

  6. Quincy says:

    Have you sent this to the senator? I think that she might think (for once) if she sees this.

  7. Andrey says:

    Seems too long, they will loose patience listening the answer. You should speak people on their own language:
    - Are they evolved into a person?
    - Of course, they did evolved into E.coli persons.

  8. Old cub says:

    I have been listening to the audiobook “The Grand Design” by Stephen Hawkings, and even though much of it is over my head I am filled with wonder by some of the amazing propositions in it, such as the possibility that there are 10 to the 500th power of different universes in existance, and that these universes can spontanueously come into existance from “nothing.” That sense of wonder I feel hearing these propositions certainly doesnt conflict with my Christian faith, it only reminds me that nothing–not even the church or its sacred book–can contain the wonder of the Mystery. Those of us who are not Bibliolaters know that humanity keeps on pushing the envelope of what is known and what is envisioned to be real and possible…and that is how it should be, for we share in the divine propensity for growth and increased awareness and knowledge. That is a different kind of faith–faith as trust in the Mystery–than faith as assent/defense of propositions made either by ancient faith comunities or contemporary ones.

  9. John says:

    I’m not ashamed to say I’d probably ask the senator if he was stupid or something. Proceed to calmly but aggressively question his competence at leadership if he can’t understand such simple concepts. And question his motives in bringing me in to answer such bad-faith questions. If they’re looking for a sound bite, I’d give them one. At this point I’m sure I’d be in violation of decorum or whatever, but I’d hope the video or at least the tale of the encounter would go viral. These people need to be made ashamed of expressing stupid ideas out loud.

    @Maia – “not yet” isn’t the correct answer either, though. Even given 3.5 or 10 or 20 billion years, there’s no reason those E. coli should ever evolve into humans, or even anything sentient, or even anything multicellular. Those bacteria are not our ancestors. We and them have a common ancestor of some sort, of course, but they are as advanced an organism as we are, evolutionarily speaking: evolved to survive quite successfully in a particular niche in our current epoch.

  10. mick says:

    I like the pithy answer-for-a-6-year-old from Maia. Also, I agree with the concern that he wouldn’t be listening and doesn’t want an honest debate. It reminds me of the idea that liberals value debate and discovery while conservatives value tradition and faith.

  11. Dave says:

    I would have simply replied: “Yes, they did.”
    Not terribly constructive, admittedly, but the look on his face would be priceless.

  12. GK says:

    A possible response: who said that the primary goal of evolution is to create people? A few creationists that I know seem to assume that all evolution is geared toward one thing: producing human beings. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the ill-informed “but they didn’t evolve into people/humans” retort or question.

  13. Reki says:

    I also think it is, albeit being very constructive, an inherently flawed answer. The reason is that it’s just much to precise and long, and to someone who has no idea how evolution works, it sounds like “bacteria not turning into people in 20 years” is a proof against evolution, and you just try to find reasons why evolution doesn’t work as expected in this case. What they need to understand, however, is that “bacteria not turning into people in 20 years” is EXACTLY WHAT WAS EXPECTED by the theory of evolution.

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