Pseudoscience / Science Education

Darwin Day: What It Means to Be a Scientist

Bill Nye used mathematics to disprove creationism.

It was only one tool in a rather large box, a box that might as well be bigger on the inside. The bow-tied man did a rapid calculation to help show the incredulity that should follow the claim that evolution is wrong and that the Bible got it right the first time around.

Unless you’ve been living under a radioactively-dateable rock, you are aware that Bill Nye, the Science Guy, debated Ken Ham, the CEO of Answers in Genesis, on February 4th. The question: is creationism a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era.

Ken Ham claims the Great Flood of the Bible occurred 4,000 years ago. This cataclysm is said to have drowned every living thing on Earth except for the 7,000 “kinds” Noah saved on his ark (“kinds” not being dissimilar to taxonomic “families”). How did we go from 7,000 families of living organisms to the number of species we see today? It is conservatively estimated that there are 8.7 million species in the 21st Century*. If we subtract the 7,000 preserved species from this number, we get 8,693,000 species which need to arise over the course of 4,000 years.

This equals to almost six new species appearing every day of every week of every month of every year for the past 4,000 years.

Are you still on board with the premise of creationism?

To be a scientist means to follow the evidence no matter where it takes you. It means attempting to cast away your biases or, failing that, account for them, work around them, and leave subjectivity to the emotional recesses of your mind. It means reminding yourself, “I am not my ideas”, so that your preconceptions can be adequately challenged by reality. And, in Charles Darwin’s case, it meant turning his back to the Church when his observations failed to fit in with the religious doctrine of the fixity of species.

Religions claim unerring truths arrived at by supernatural revelation. One can read in the Bible, for example, that the “moving creatures that hath life”, “fowl”, “great whales”, “cattle”, “creeping thing”, and “beast of the earth” were created by the Judeo-Christian god in two days, followed by his creation of Man. (This account from chapter 1 of Genesis is of course contradicted by the very next chapter in which the order of creation of animals and Man is inverted.) The concept of “fixity of species” derives from the Biblical scripture: all families of living organisms that exist now were created by an omnipotent being a few thousand years ago. This is what Charles Darwin was taught.

It took rigour to make the observations he made throughout his life and it took courage in his later years to induce from this research a theory that flew in the face of a domineering religion. What Darwin saw was not stasis but change. He observed not fixity but evolution.

The blind insects living in otherwise similar caves in Europe and North America were broadly similar but differed quite radically in their “design”. Why would a Creator eschew parsimony? Darwin observed that some aquatic birds lacked webbed feet whereas other, mostly terrestrial birds possessed these fleshy membranes which help in water. Habits changed without a corresponding change in structure. How could one reconcile this with a single act of omniscient creation? Moreover, the living organisms of the Galapagos Islands had greater similarities to their American counterparts despite the climate of the Galapagos Islands being comparable not to mainland America but to the Cape Verde archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, a series of islands whose animals and plants bore striking similarities to those of nearby Africa. If a Creator wanted life to be adapted to its environment, why not populate both archipelagos with similar forms of life given their related climate and geological nature?

The necessary inference to the best explanation is not Special Creation followed by the parenthetical platitude “(God works in mysterious ways)”. The explanation which requires the fewest assumptions is that of natural selection of the fittest species. Modern knowledge of genetics has allowed scientists to complete the scientific theory of Darwin by isolating genes as the units of inheritance and mutations as the primary source of variability leading to evolution. Mutations occur randomly because the protein in charge of replicating DNA is not perfect and occasionally makes mistakes. Most of these mistakes will be neutral in their effect; some will be deleterious; yet a few others will confer an advantage to the organism that possesses them. These advantages may ease the organism’s quest for food or confer protection against diseases or predation: thus, the organism has a higher chance of reproducing and passing on the beneficial mutations. Hence the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.

It is fairly astounding that a scientific theory which has been around for 155 years at least in its elementary form and which is accepted by the vast majority of scientists has its validity debated in an epic broadcast of the sort we have seen a few days ago. If a scientific theory, like germ theory, does not walk all over the coattails of religion, it has a better chance of escaping from the kind of unfounded criticism that was evident in the February 4th debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.

Bible literalists like Ken Ham surround their core argument with a swarm of mirrored distractions which can be summed up by the playground insult, “I know you are but what am I?” At seven years of age, the retort to “You’re ugly” is “I know you are but what am I?” The cleverness of children. Grown-ups like Ken Ham clearly have not evolved beyond this immature rhetoric. When we claim we do science and they use religion, they turn to their audience and say they are the ones doing science and our “science” is religion. When we say we look at evidence, they are the ones with the evidence and accusing us of taking things on faith. When we speak of indoctrinating children in pseudoscience, they say “I know you are but what am I?”

The core of Ken Ham’s creationist argument, however, put in full display his lack of scientific skills. He believes first and foremost that the Bible is the literal word of an infallible god. Everything must thus agree with this assumption. When asked if anything could change his mind about the truth of creationism, he had to answer that he could not be convinced the word of his god is wrong. This is emphatically not science. Science does not presuppose assumptions based on personal revelation. Science changes in light of new evidence. There is no one science for the present and one “science” for the past, as Ham claims. The tools of observation, induction, deduction, critical thinking, and analysis are not limited to discovering the current state of affairs; rather, they are equally valid to probe the past. If they were not, a book written by uneducated Iron Age scribes, cobbling together hear-says and orally transmitted mythologies, would not serve as an iron-clad replacement.

On the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, we are reminded of what it is to be a scientist. It means to observe the world around you and revisit what you think you know. It signifies to cast aside assumptions and indoctrination to find out for yourself what reality tells you. It means to wonder, to question, to challenge, to investigate, to live in a constant state of relative knowledge: what I know today may change tomorrow in the light of new, reproducible evidence. To be a scientist is to accept uncertainty and humility in saying, “Today, I don’t know”.

To be a scientist is to be constantly amazed at the vastness of the universe, the diversity of life, the puzzling contradictions of the subatomic world, the simplicity of mutagenesis, the unforgivingness of natural selection, and the elegance of evolution.

Today, I raise my cup to both Charles Darwin, for his courage, and to Bill Nye, for his patience, class, and restraint. Cheers!

*In the debate, Bill Nye used a seemingly arbitrary inflation of the number of known species. He stated that 8.7 million species was a conservative estimate and that a more likely guess would be 50 or 100 million. He then took what he called a “reasonable estimate”: 16 million. I contend that even using the conservative estimate would have gotten the job done. Choosing a random number in the spectrum of estimates looks like your point is weaker than it really is and the number needs to be inflated for the end result to be convincing. I have thus redone the calculation in the article using his initial conservative estimate of 8.7 million.


If you are brave enough to watch the entire two-and-a-half-hour debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, head over here.

If you want to see an entertaining, five-minute recap of Ken Ham’s only argument, consider watching Tim Minchin’s performance of “The Good Book”. Warning: the song requires a boot.

To hear two wonderful guests discuss evolution and creationism with me and Andrew Cody, check out episode 101 of our podcast, Within Reason (also available on iTunes).

I would be remiss not to mention Alfred Russel Wallace who was, in many ways, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution and whose death one hundred years ago was commemorated last November. For more on Darwin and Wallace and how deductive and inductive reasoning led to the theory of evolution, you can read another article of mine entitled “Sherlock Has His Hat on Backwards: The Evolution of Deduction and the Induction of Evolution”.

(Feature picture is a painting by John Collier available through WikiCommons)

6 thoughts on “Darwin Day: What It Means to Be a Scientist

  1. Excellent. All points touched on. I also applaud Mr. Nye for his ability to converse without condescension and his appeal to data for support of all facets of the discussion. I was nervous when the ‘debate’ started, but wound up very pleased by the result. I may actually be becoming a fan of the science guy (I was too old when he was originally on TV).

    by the way…
    “To be a scientist means to follow the evidence no matter where it takes you.”
    that says it all. Way to sum it up.

    • I was also a bit uneasy at the start of the debate, as Bill Nye sounded nervous and Ken Ham felt more in control (and had more polished slides). What was interesting was noticing the shift as the debate progressed, with Bill Nye gaining in confidence and Ken Ham retreating into the only argument he had: I believe in this holy book.

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