By Jeremy Fejfar, January 19, 2014
Published in the La Crosse Tribune.
This month, Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum, debated Bill Nye, best known by his TV persona, “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” The topic was whether “creation” is a viable model of origins.
It surprised many that Nye agreed to this debate. Generally scientists don’t agree to debate evolution with creationists. One reason is that having 2 individuals on stage gives the impression that both sides have valid stances, which is simply not the case on the subject of evolution. It is akin to having a geologist debate a flat-earther, or a historian debate a holocaust-denier.
Over 97% of scientists accept the truth of evolution, and an even higher percentage among scientists in life or earth sciences. The only substantial disagreement is among the general population. In 2006, a poll of 34 countries showed that the US embarrassingly ranked second to the bottom with only 40% acceptance of evolution. I find it interesting that people naturally defer to the expertise of physicists when dealing with the behavior of neutrinos and quarks, geologists when dealing with plate tectonics, or virologists when deciding which immunizations they should get, yet many think they know better than biologists and geneticists when the topic of evolution comes up. Suddenly arm-chair biologists believe they are more qualified to have an opinion on these matters than those who have spent decades steeped in the relevant science.
What is biological evolution? Simply put, it is change over time. During DNA replication, sometimes mistakes are made. This is often referred to as mutation. These can take the form of additions, deletions, or duplications to the DNA. These mutations can be neutral, disadvantageous, or advantageous to the procreation of the organism. This is called natural selection, a natural process which acts as a sieve, whereby the organisms most fit to reproduce will propagate those beneficial genes to a greater extent, and over long spans of time, these incremental changes accumulate leading to sometimes drastic changes. It’s an incredibly simple process which yields wondrous complexity.
“In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.” There are many videos available for free online that explain why it is certain that evolution occurs, and more specifically, that humans and other primates evolved from a common ancestor. Comparative anatomy, embryology, geological distribution of species, fossil record, radiometric dating, and genetics are just a few of the disciplines that use independent lines of evidence to converge on the same conclusion – that all life on this planet is interrelated, and that the variety of life observed in the biome is due to evolution over hundreds of millions of years.
All of the justifiable doubt that may have been present around the time of Darwin has now been displaced by the science of genetics. The process of mutation and natural selection leaves behind a trail in the DNA of every organism as to its lineage. In much the same way that geneticists can confirm the parentage of a child with essentially 100% certainty, so too can we do the same thing with different species. By looking at the genetic code, we know without any doubt that humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor around 6 million years ago. Genetic evidence such as the fusion of Chromosome 2, the broken vitamin C gene, shared Endogenous Retroviruses, etc., all point to the truth of our lineage.
During the debate, Ken Ham frequently argued that since nobody observed it, science cannot prove evolution or the age of the earth. It’s a good thing that police detectives don’t have the same opinion; otherwise, no murderer would ever be prosecuted in the absence of witnesses. In fact, almost every investigator you ask will tell you they would rather have genetic evidence linking a suspect to a crime than a witness.
When we look at the genetics between related species, the presence of the genetic evidence only has 2 possible explanations – either evolution is true, or some being created all organisms to look exactly like they had evolved over millions of years. These are the only two possibilities. It is not possible that the wealth of genetic markers attesting to the truth of evolution could be present by chance alone.
As prominent biologist Ken Miller, who also happens to be Catholic, wrote, “In order to defend God against the challenge they see from evolution, [creationists] have had to make Him into a schemer, a trickster, even a charlatan. Their version of God is one who intentionally plants misleading clues…To embrace that God, we must reject science and worship deception itself.”
While it is unlikely that Nye changed the minds of anyone in the audience during the debate, I do long for the day where the scientific literacy of our country is no longer the source of international embarrassment.