What do Americans think of science? What do they think of scientists? What do scientists think of science? A Pew Research Center study suggests answers.
The study, which amalgamates the results of three surveys, reveals both surprising and unsurprising results on public and professional attitudes toward science in general, scientists, science in the U.S., and more. Among the highlights:
The origins controversy was addressed in the surveys as well (no surprise). While 87 percent of scientists think that “humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes,” only 32 percent of the public does. (Another 10 percent of scientists believe humans and other living things evolved over time “guided by a supreme being,” while 22 percent of the public agrees with that statement.) Similar divides exist between the professional and the public perspectives on global warming and embryonic stem cell research, though the study does not note that the latter has more to do with moral values than it does with scientific fact.
One flaw in the study centered on a survey question that asked the public to side with either the view that humans and other living things have “evolved over time” (due to either natural processes or divine guidance) or that they have “existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Presumably this was an uninformed attempt to neatly separate evolutionists from creationists. Yet we, a creation ministry, should note that we might have answered yes to the former and no to the latter! If one defines “evolution” as simply changes in the genotypic or phenotypic characteristics of a population over time (that occurs, for example, through the observed process of natural selection), we agree. On the other hand, very few, if any, modern creation scientists believe the creatures of today are identical to the created beings. Thus, we are especially skeptical of the accuracy of that question’s results.
Nonetheless, the study concluded that both creationists and evolutionists (as well as those on the two sides of other debates) generally view science positively. On that point, we agree; Answers in Genesis is filled with and supported by individuals who love sound, observationally rooted science, which helps us understand our world better and develop new technology. Since we consider Darwinian evolution to be pseudoscience, it does not tarnish our conception or admiration of good science.
Religion and science need not be at odds. Rather, each contains metaphysical elements that cause the two to interact with each other. Many professional scientists (but not all) have metaphysical commitments (in the areas of religion and science) that compel them to accept evolution by natural processes as the sole origin of all biodiversity. We disagree with those commitments, and we disagree that evolution accounts for the origin and history of life.
Thanks to a difference in a single gene, one bird species is splitting into two. Does this mechanism illustrate how evolution works, or is it compatible with the Genesis model of created kinds?
Actually, that’s a trick question; the mechanism of speciation fits with both the evolution and the creation model. That said, we argue that the creation model better explains the types and speed of speciation we observe. A new study of monarch flycatcher birds gives us a chance to explain.
A team led by Syracuse University biologist J. Albert Uy examined two populations of flycatcher birds in the Solomon Islands. One of the populations, on the large island of Makira, have all black feathers. The other population, spread among smaller islands, have some black feathers but also a chestnut-colored underside. Coloration is the only known difference (other than habitat) between the populations.
Uy’s team needed to determine whether the all-black and black-and-chestnut populations of flycatchers were still breeding with one another. If not, then—by one definition of species, anyway—the two populations can each be considered unique.
It would have been impossible for the team to be in all places at once, confirming that members of one population never mated with members of the other. Instead, the scientists looked at territorial rivalry between males in the two populations. The males attack any potential rival that enters their territory. So, the researchers hypothesized, if the all-black flycatcher males reacted less violently to black-and-chestnut flycatchers entering their territory, that could be a sign they no longer see the other population as sexual rivals—and, thus, that interbreeding is uncommon.
Using taxidermic models, Uy and his team “invaded” mating territories—presenting (live) all-black males with both all-black and black-and-chestnut models, then doing the same to (live) black-and-chestnut males. The birds were much less likely to attack models representing members of the opposite population than those representing their own population. The team also found a genetic basis for the difference in plumage coloration: different versions of the gene MC1R, which regulates the production of melanin.
The news release describing the study emphasizes, “Speciation, the process by which different populations of the same species split into separate species, is central to evolution.” That’s true; Darwinian evolution requires a mechanism to create diverse species from a single common ancestor. But creationists believe observed speciation fits much better within the creation model for several reasons:
If the creation model explains speciation better, why is there even a debate? The problem is that both creationists and evolutionists justify their models based on the unobservable past. Creationists’ “kinds” come from Genesis 1 . At the same time, evolutionists claim the information-adding genetic changes happen only rarely, too rarely for us to have observed them in the present (they instead point to claimed transitions in the fossil record). Thus, the controversy transitions from a debate over observational science (where both creationists and evolutionists see speciation) to a debate over the interpretation of those observed facts.
In related news, scientists at the National Human Genome Research Institute have discovered that short legs across various breeds of dogs all trace back to the same genetic mutation: “an extra copy of the gene that codes for a growth-promoting protein called fibroblast growth factor 4 (FGF4).” This mutation—a corruption of information—could have happened just once, such as in a dog lineage not long after dogs stepped off Noah’s Ark. As this mutation was passed on, it eventually gave rise to all short-legged dog breeds of today.
The incredible way a turtle develops a shell—is it an evolutionary accident or part of God’s design?
A team of scientists from Japan studied turtle embryos as they developed to learn how and why their ribs grow into a hard upper shell, setting little turtles apart from, say, chicks or mice. In fact, those are the two other creatures the turtles were compared to.
Calling it an “evolutionary novelty,” the researchers learned that part of the turtle embryo’s body wall folds in on itself, causing the ribs to grow outward. The fold produces a thickening of the turtle’s skin called the carapacial disk. In the words of study coauthor Shigeru Kuratani, the folding “re-maps” the turtle’s body, preventing the ribs from growing inward. Before that point, the muscles and skeleton of a turtle embryo are in similar positions to those of a mouse or chicken embryo.
Is this “novelty” a perfect example of evolution or a perfect example of design? For starters, we should throw out the early similarities between turtles, mice, and chicks as support for evolutionary ideas. If all turtles, mice, and chickens (as with other vertebrates) begin their life as a (single-celled) zygote and grow into very different organisms, there must be a spectrum of similarity that steadily decreases during growth. The zygotes are very similar, with the stored genetic information the primary difference. By birth, the genetic differences will have given rise to a wide range of morphological differences. In other words, similarity in embryos is only a reminder of the similarity between all vertebrates, and need not be due to evolution. Additionally, Kuratani emphasized that relative to the other embryos, turtle embryos have “entirely unique [types of] connectivity” in some of their structures, such as their pectoral muscles.
If embryonic similarity does not show evolution, what about the turtle fossils we reported on last December? (Those fossils were missing a shell on top, having one only on their underside.) According to Kuratani, “The developmental stage of the modern turtle, when the ribs have not encapsulated the shoulder blade yet, resembles the (body) of this fossil species.” Yet creationists could, for example, explain the fossil just as easily as turtles whose genes had mistakes and therefore failed to initiate the upper-shell-forming fold. Or perhaps the fossils were from a separate reptile kind that were not designed with upper shells. It’s a game of interpretation: evolutionists see the incomplete shell as a halfway point in (constructive) information-adding evolution; creationists see the bottom-only shell as either intentional or as a result of (destructive) information-reducing devolution.
As for the embryonic development process itself, the scientists aren’t sure why it happens, nor do they propose how many millions of years of harmful mutations it took before the shell formed so perfectly as to be of use. Rather, Kuratani simply concluded, “Developmental changes in evolution give rise to an enormous diversity of animal forms. No matter how exquisite it may seem, as if it were some sort of magic, evolution is at most a good trick.” And ScienceNOW quotes University of Toronto–Mississauga vertebrate paleontologist Robert Reisz (whom we quoted in our March coverage), who says of the quirky turtle development, “It’s a wonderful design,” though he accepts the evolutionary explanation. (The article also states, “Turtles appear to spring up fully formed in the fossil record, which has led to a lot of debate about who their closest relatives are.”)
From the topic of embryonic similarity to the topic of how the turtle got its shell, the creation model is at least as successful as the evolution model. Both models have explanations for turtle fossils and embryonic similarity. But only the creation model can use observational science to account for the origin of turtle “design,” while the evolution model’s assertions—that this design is the product of unobserved, random mutations—are based on blind faith.
Evolutionists take another stab at answering what Charles Darwin called an “abominable mystery”: the abrupt appearance and ubiquity of flowering plants in the fossil record and on earth.
It’s a question evolutionists have addressed before, as we covered in the December 1, 2007, and May 23, 2009, editions of News to Note. Some 100 million years ago (on the old-earth timeline), flowering plants appeared in the fossil record. Next thing the old-ager knows, they’re everywhere. How did it happen?
Frank Berendse and Marten Scheffer think they have the answer: that, in the words of a news release, “flowering plants changed the conditions [of the earth at the time] to suit themselves.” The two Wageningen University ecologists suggest that as flowering plants appeared and grew rapidly—requiring more nutrients—they started a positive feedback loop with the soil. “[A]t some locations where the gymnosperms had temporarily disappeared,” the news release notes, “the angiosperms could increase so that they were capable of improving their own conditions with their easily degradable litter.”
In this case, we actually find the evolutionary explanation intriguing. Furthermore, the research paper ties the speculation in with observational science, such as rapid ecological change in western Europe’s heathlands in the past three decades. Even when evolutionists have a plausible explanation for an evolutionary “mystery,” however, it does not call into question the plausibility of creation (though the popular caricature implies otherwise). And Berendse and Scheffer conclude their paper by noting that “hard proofs of what caused a particular pattern in the far past will remain illusive [sic]”—reminding us of the difficulties of using scientific techniques to come to conclusions about the untestable past. Furthermore, the fundamental question of how flowering plants arose in the first place remains unanswered.
We’ve written before that the young-earth creation model doesn’t rise or fall on the strength or weakness of the old-earth evolution model (unless one has an a priori preference for naturalistic explanations). Tearing apart evolutionary explanations has a place, but so does recognizing the explanatory success of each model, considering how well the models stack up against observational science, and contemplating the metaphysical bases—and implications—of each model.
The New York Times–News to Note conversation continues.
Two weeks ago we responded to a New York Times article by Kenneth Chang, one of several articles that appeared in the wake of a visit by non-creationist paleontologists to our Creation Museum. Chang’s article was reasonably well written and quoted from our scientists as well as those visiting. Additionally, we commented on a behind-the-scenes look Chang provided in a Times blog, noting that Chang “seems to misunderstand our message.”
Last week, Chang acknowledged our comment (again, via a Times blog) and brought up another topic in the origins debate: whether genetics proves that humans and chimpanzees are related. We wanted to (belatedly) respond, since his entry brought a number of new visitors to our site. He writes, “My post today is not about the Creation Museum. Rather, it’s about the opposite: why are the vast, vast majority of biologists so convinced of validity of the theory of evolution?”
(Note that we have responded to the significance of the majority opinion in Feedback: Does the Majority Rule?.) Chang borrows from well-known evolutionist Ken Miller and recounts the allegation that human chromosome 2 shows evidence that it was once two simian chromosomes that fused together. Apparently, Chang believes this to be the central answer to why the majority of biologists are convinced evolutionists. Thankfully, Chang links to our answer to Miller’s suggestion.
What we want to answer is the analogy that Miller provides, showing how a seemingly open-and-shut case can actually be built upon assumptions. Chang quotes Miller, who said:
Two of my students cheated on a written assignment by submitting the same paper. And I called them in and said, “Guys, I caught you.”
They said, “Well, our papers aren’t that similar. We have different titles. We begin in a different way.”
What they had done was rearrange all of the paragraphs and put in new words and stuff like that. At superficial glance, they looked entirely different. And they said, “Our thinking is the same, because we’re roommates, of course. And we had discussed this, we talked about it, so it’s not surprising we come to the same conclusion. But look, none of the paragraphs in our two papers match.”
And they were right about that. So they said, “How would you think we copied?”
I said, “I ran your papers through a program that looks for unusual matching strings. You guys misspelled the same six words in the same six ways. And when you have matching mistakes, there is no other explanation other than a common ancestor for the paper.” And they broke down, and they threw themselves on the mercy of the court.
Miller’s analogy is full of assumptions that link back to his perspective on the origin of human chromosome 2. What if the misspelled words are all commonly misspelled or perhaps were technical terms spelled wrong in a class presentation? What if the computer program the professor mentions was flawed? Then the argument that the students cheated would center less on the controversial evidence and more on whether one presupposes that the mistakes are best (or only) explained through cheating. In the end, and without any undebatable evidence, it’s the professor’s speculation against the students’ testimonies.
Likewise, there are some topics in the origins controversy that come down to interpretation, speculation, and metaphysical commitments. On those, it’s fair to say that neither evolutionists nor creationists can convince one another with scientific arguments. For Miller (and especially given the way he frames his story), genetic similarities and common mistakes could only be due to evolution. A creationist can explain similarities through common design, and common mistakes (if they are indeed all mistakes) as perhaps due to a greater likelihood for certain mistakes to appear, or for certain mistakes to persist (such as with commonly misspelled words).
What we can say decisively is this: if Miller’s genetic-similarity story is truly “why . . . the vast, vast majority of biologists [are] so convinced of validity of the theory of evolution,” as Chang writes, then evolution is even more speculative than we thought.
Remember, if you see a news story that might merit some attention, let us know about it! (Note: if the story originates from the Associated Press, Fox News, MSNBC, New York Times or another major national media outlet, we will most likely have already heard about it.) And thanks to all of our readers who have submitted great news tips to us. If you didn’t catch last week’s News to Note, why not take a look at it now? See you next week!
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