Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bishop Robert Vasa, Not a Historian.

Bishop Vasa in his 06/14/2007 editorial "Evolution — thoughts on scientific, faith-filled positions" in the "Catholic Sentinel" attacked what he calls the "doctrine of evolution" after having spent a day long outing with unidentified "scientists." These "scientists" who ever they were, seem to have given the Bishop some very bad instruction. These fall into several general categories of error; historical, conceptual, scientific and out-right frauds.

The historical errors began with his incorrect understanding of what was called "uniformitarianism" back in the late 1700s and the timing of these scientific developments. Surveyors, and civil engineers who were laying out and constructing the canals and roadways which as much as anything else created the industrial age, learned that there were obvious differences in the rock they worked with and that when seen across large distances these rocks formed sequences. This was the direct parent of modern geology. It discovered that some of these rocks contained objects that were similar to bones and shells of living organisms. These were fossils, and years of study established that fossils were the remains of creatures that had once lived, but were now extinct. This idea that species could have died out and disappeared from the earth was objected to by two main arguments; the religious tradition from Genesis that all animals created had been saved by Noah, and the then current rationalist argument regarding the "nature of nature." This later point was expressed by none-other than Thomas Jefferson following his discovery a fossil giant sloth, "Such is the economy of Nature that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct." But, by the time 12 year old Mary Anning discovered the first fossil ichthyosaur in the year 1811, it had become impossible to still argue that no species had become extinct. This discovery was the origin of the science of paleontology.

Two types of proposals, theological and scientific, were offered to account for the apparently obvious vast ages of these fossils and sedimentary formations which towered over the world, and reached to the deep seas. The tallest mountains on earth contain fossils, as do some of the deepest ocean basin floors. The first theological response was that all of the earth's geology was created in just one year by the great biblical catastrophe of Noah's Flood. This soon had to be dumped, because the fossils showed that there had been many successions of marine, and dry land organisms, wetlands and deserts were isolated from one another. Neither forty days of rain, nor a year of soaking could produce these deposits. Further, this was repeated through-out what became known as the geological column. The new theological arguments were that the geological and paleontological facts were to be harmonized biblically by two new theological positions; the thousands of geological strata represented past creations and Genesis was restricted to the most recent, or that the first book of Genesis "days" had actually been vast ages themselves, and the second book was a nearer "creation." These are known as the "Gap" and the "Day Age" theories of biblical creation.

The nineteenth century scientific response was the work of genius, and it was quite simple; the modern earth was the product of the same sorts of events that are active today. "The present was the key to the past" became the core idea of all of geology. The geological history of earth became then a series of small catastrophes, regional rather than global, and occurred over millennia rather than a single year. Glaciers moved constantly, but their total movement was measured in years- not minutes. Lava could rush down the sides of volcanoes at hundreds of miles per hour, but eruptions were hundreds or thousands of years apart. The built-up mountains these volcanoes produced wore down slowly as it was written in the Bible: Job 14:18- But as a mountain falls at last and its rock is moved from its place, 19- As waters wear away the stones and floods wash away the soil of the land, so you destroy the hope of man" (USCCB).

Charles Lyell (1797-1875) published his landmark "Principles of Geology" in three volumes, 1830-33. During the young Charles Darwin's five year journey around the world on the HMS Beagle, he was accompanied by the first of these volumes that established the ancient creation of the earth when setting off from England, (the second of which he received after arriving in South America for the first time). This first volume, Darwin wrote allowed him, "to see through Lyell's eyes" when he landed on St Jago off the west coast of Africa.

This leads us to the second gross error foisted onto the Bishop Vasa by his "scientists." The Bishop was apparently told that, " ... a major reason for speculating about uniformitarianism is that evolution requires tens of millions of years, and so once the theory of evolution is accepted then eons of relative geological tranquility are likewise required in order to provide a suitable environment for the long and excruciatingly slow evolutionary processes." Lyell's books on geology were the first conclusive combination of facts and concepts that established the uniformitarian geology still universally accepted today by professional geologists. These books built on nearly a century of accumulated geological data. Charles Darwin did not publish his books on evolution until after 1859, nearly 30 years after the ancient earth was established as a scientific fact. Perhaps some defender of this gross error would like to present the evolutionary ideas that had preceded Darwin's. This is also invalid because these earlier concepts had no use for long periods of time, as they had been largely invented to accommodate religious teachings of their era.

Bishop Robert Vasa, RC YEC

Bishop Robert Vasa recently expressed a "certain reluctance" before essentially rejecting the scientific understanding of geology which has prevailed for over two hundred years. I should have hoped that this reluctance stemmed from a nonscientist's awareness that he lacked the background knowledge to have an informed opinion while speaking from the forceful position of trust he holds. Sadly this did not dissuade him.

Writing in the Catholic Sentinel, Bishop Vasa argues that there are materialistically valid data that support a recent creation for the earth, and even for Noah's Flood. To use the creationist's parlance, those "evidences," that he did report are simply false. They were both errors of fact and inference which I'll address momentarily. But first, I want to eliminate the notion that God is biblically represented so as to "fake" the universe. Imagine my reluctance as a scientist and agnostic to seek to instruct a Bishop on both science and biblical interpretation! In fact, I will leave biblical instruction to two Church Fathers, Aquinas and Augustine, and the Bible. Only later will I make some observations about sciences where my professional qualifications are clear.

Thomas Aquinas, c.a. 1225 - 1274, was very concerned with the ways that the expansion of human knowledge could challenge traditional patterns of belief and practice. Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theological (1273), "In discussing questions of this kind two rules are to be observed, as Augustine teaches. The first is, to hold to the truth of Scripture without wavering. The second is that since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it if it be proved with certainty to be false, lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing."

Aquinas refers to the Christian Father, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) who advised Christians trying to interpret Scripture in the light of scientific knowledge in his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim). The following translation is by J. H. Taylor in Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982, volume 41. "Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion." {Augustine here has referred to 1 Timothy 1.7}

I could easily see myself in Augustine's writing as one who opposes "mischievous false opinions" and "not bound by the authority of our sacred books." So, in honor of Augustine's perception I have inquired whether there is biblical support for ignoring science, particularly the "historical sciences" astronomy, geology, and biology. These sciences unequivocally demonstrate that the Universe is ancient, the Solar System is ancient, and that life on Earth is ancient. Young Earth Creationists (YEC) make two sorts of materialist arguments; the sciences are entirely wrong or there are some sort of material evidence that the Earth is merely a few thousands years old. They also commonly make a theological argument that the Earth and Universe were created recently with an apparent age that is ancient, and that the natural sciences are therefore incapable of representing truth. This later is asserted because the Calvinist, and savagely anti-Catholic, Bishop James Usser, determined that adding the "ages" of generations found various places in the Bible gave an age of the creation of some 6000 years. So the first question is whether the Bible states the universe is untrustworthy? In other words, should the sciences be ignored? I find there is no such biblical support. In fact the opposite should be obvious to any believer in the biblical texts. Consider the following verses (translations The New American Bible, USCCB unless noted) :

Psalm 19:
2 The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder's craft.
3 One day to the next conveys that message; one night to the next imparts that knowledge.

Psalm 85:12 reads, "Truth will spring from the earth; justice will look down from heaven. The Hebrew word translated here as "truth," emet, also is used to mean “certainty and dependability.”

Addressing his three friends, Job challenges them: “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; The birds of the sky, they will tell you; or speak to the earth, it will teach you; The fish of the sea, they will inform you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” — Job 12:7-9. (Jewish Publication Society. Compare with, "7 But now ask the beasts to teach you, and the birds of the air to tell you; 8 Or the reptiles on earth to instruct you, and the fish of the sea to inform you. " USCCB).

Job later demonstrates his geological knowledge saying, 14:18-19, "Mountains collapse and crumble; Rocks are dislodged from their place. Water wears away stone; Torrents wash away earth; So you destroy man's hope. (Jewish Publication Society. Compare with "18- But as a mountain falls at last and its rock is moved from its place, 19- As waters wear away the stones and floods wash away the soil of the land, so you destroy the hope of man" USCCB). In these verses from the ancient Hebrews, the Heavens, the Earth, and all life are presented as truthful witnesses to the Creator. In Job 14 we even see that long geological processes of erosion, and the contrasting suddenness of floods are known and used to enlighten. The sciences are how humans have discovered the facts of the creation, and the study of the creation is commended by the Bible.

What of later biblical authors? They too assert that the creation is a true testament; Romans 1:18-23 (USCCB)
18 The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
19 For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them.
20 Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse;
21 for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened.
22 While claiming to be wise, they became fools
23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes.

The "wise" in verse 22 referred to astrologers in particular, and verse 23 is reference to the worship of Roman, and Egyptian gods. Astrology linked with the nascent science of astronomy is particularly relevant to the thoughts of Augustine observed earlier. Some creationists like to claim these verses in Romans refer to "Darwinists," but of course there were no evolutionary scientists 1,900 years ago. If the creation was deceitful, or impossible to discern, then verse 20 would be especially violated. That is, unless God were a Loki-like "prankster" attempting to fool humanity. Psalm 119:160, Isaiah 45:18-19, Titus 1:2, Hebrews 6:18 and 11:6, and I John 5:6. all assert that God is trustworthy. Returning to Psalm 19, verse 8 says, "The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The decree of the LORD is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple." These verses are entirely blocking the Young Earth Creationist "appearance of age" avenue.

So the "appearance of age" is antiscriptural- not merely unattested, but contrary to scripture. The Universe and the Earth appear billions of years old because that is how they really are.

Some YEC proponents will next try the argument that the universe had to be created old or else it could not function properly. The oceans needed salt, mountains had to be worn down etc... in order for the universe to properly function as a home for humanity. and so God recently created an aged universe. This is easily countered as well because there is no "need" for the billions of fossils to exist- they make no critical contribution to geochemistry or to biochemistry which could not be generated directly by some mineral or other. Nor is there any need for the fossil remains of ancient life to clearly show sequential change over hundreds of millions of years, whether changing gradually or abruptly. So, since the Bible categorically asserts that God can be trusted, and that the creation is testament to the Creator, honest believers must reject both the "appearance of age" and the "created old" arguments.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Another University Student

Re: Evolution Doesn’t Make Much Sense

The recent creationist editorial by Mr. Jesse Nickles has provoked a discussion over his actual motivation. Some readers feel that his essay was an obvious satire and argue that no university student could be so badly misinformed. Others viewed his effort as a more elaborate hoax which attempts to make creationists appear stupid by presenting such easily refuted claims. While the later suggestion has attraction- we could feel assured that educated people associated with the university would not be so absurd- I regretfully concluded that Mr. Nickels must be assumed to be sincere. In the observations to follow I will give a number of references to easily available scientific literature, all of which is freely available to every UCI student and over the Internet to nearly anyone. I have not attempted to be exhaustive lacking both time and patience for such an amount of work.

His first paragraph presents several errors starting with the claim that the concept of "common descent" was ancient. More obviously wrong is his notion that evolution was intended as an alternative to God(s). Thomas Huxley, popularly referred to as "Darwin's pit bull," coined the term "agnostic" to characterize evolutionary theory's relationship to religion. Acts of "self creation," desperate or not, are more in tune with mythology and self-help books than either history or science.

Nickels next proposed a test. The logical failings can be swept aside by rephrasing his proposal as, "If any biological species can be shown to have 'qualities' that could not be the result of sequential evolution, the theory fails." This is actual rather close to something Darwin proposed, and we can then accept Nickels's use of humans as the test organism.

"Reason: There are no “less-developed” versions of human reason in other species."

Yes there are. For a lesson in reasoning ability I suggest Nickels starts with:

Thomas Suddendorf
2006 "Foresight and Evolution of the Human Mind" Science 19 May 2006 312: 1006-1007 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1129217] (in Perspectives)

Even the birds do it:

N. J. Emery and N. S. Clayton
"Effects of experience and social context on prospective caching strategies by scrub jays"
Nature 414, 443-446 (22 November 2001) | doi:10.1038/35106560; Received 23 July 2001; Accepted 20 September 2001

Virginia Morell
"NICOLA CLAYTON PROFILE: Nicky and the Jays" Science 23 February 2007 315: 1074-1075 [DOI: 10.1126/science.315.5815.1074] (in News Focus)

"Morality: Mankind has a universal sense of right and wrong, unique among the species."

I have been a professional anthropologist for over 30 years now and I would have to say that Nickels is sadly unprepared to participate in international relations. I know this because he has so many silly ideas about humans and their "universal morality." His most ridiculous idea is that we have one. "Thou shall not Kill" is preached by the same people who preach "Justified War" and the acceptability of "Collateral Damage." The rest of the more common lists can similarly be dismissed. But, we do in fact share with other primates certain behaviors, and apparently have some evolutionarily hard-wired" in our brains.

Dominique J.-F. de Quervain, et al
"The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment" Science 27 August 2004 305: 1254-1258 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1100735]

Gretchen Vogel
"The Evolution of the Golden Rule" Science 20 February 2004 303: 1128-1131 [DOI: 10.1126/science.303.5661.1128]

Even Monkeys do it;

Sarah F. Brosnan, Frans B. M. de Waal
"Monkeys reject unequal pay." Nature 425, 297-299 (18 September 2003) | doi:10.1038/nature01963;

Nickles's assertions regarding music and art are merely that, assertions without any evidence.

Language: The literature on language and non-humans is far too large for Nickles to have missed. Maybe his essay really was a parody.

Females: Mr. Nickles's infatuation with Stephen Colbert aside, female warthogs are the ultimate in seductiveness- to male warthogs. This is why we have baby warthogs. This is another point for the satire theory.

Domination: Nickles is very confused here. Is human welfare "evil?" Is human welfare enhanced by environmental destruction? The simple answer is no. A world in "perfect harmony" has never existed other than in soda pop commercials.

Ideology: This is merely a word to describe a justification for shared beliefs and behaviors. We use these 'norms' to identify members of our group from nonmembers. There are clear economic and even reproductive advantages to group cooperation.

Samuel Bowles
"Group Competition, Reproductive Leveling, and the Evolution of Human Altruism"
(8 December 2006) Science 314 (5805), 1569. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1134829]

Sex: Nickels has clearly never had a course in primatology, nor heard of the Bonobos (Pan paniscus). (Nor been to many spring break parties, one must suppose). Brian Hare, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has noted that Bonobos are very tolerant of strangers; when they meet they often have sex, whereas chimps (Pan troglodytes) often attack. Humans might do either. Bonobos have more frequent sex in captivity that in the wild, but even then frequently they have homosexual and heterosexual encounters and even oral and, well let's say we have nothing to teach Bonobos about sex.

Nickels finished by firing off a scatter of false statements regarding mutations, human material culture, the age of the universe, the origin of life and some standard misrepresentations of thermodynamics. This is called the "Gish Gallop" in honor of arch creationist Duane Gish. The TalkOrigins website addresses most of these at www.talkorigins.com

Gary Hurd, Ph. D. (UCI 1976)