The Creationist versus the Evolving Universe

By Sally Morem
What is the universe? Is it an unchanging reality ordained by God or is it an open process with emergent properties? In short, does it evolve? Creationists say no. They insist that their own answer to these questions are revealed truth and must be taken seriously. But their answers rest on inadequate knowledge of physical and biological processes. Let’s examine the thought processes of one particular man, a self-proclaimed expert on creationism, and see where he goes wrong. In the late Nineties, science students in the Wahpeton-Breckenridge area (twin towns set on either side of the North Dakota-Minnesota border) learned some extraordinarily bad science from a self-styled educator/scientist/geologist from Australia named John Mackay. His formal title is the International Director of Creation Research. His mission, which he chose to accept (unfortunately), is to debunk evolutionary theory in the schools and to “…prove that man did not evolve from ape-like ancestors.” According to the Wahpeton Daily News, the Twin Towns Evangelical Pastors Fellowship invited him to the area. Church interest in the man was understandable. But, what are we to make of the fact that the public schools got involved in his visit? Local high school biology teacher John DelVal was asked by the Fellowship for permission to allow Mackay to speak to his class. He gave it. As you will see, his students are going to have to relearn some major tenets of geology, biology, and genetics if they wish to pursue excellence in any scientific discipline. School administrators tried to forestall any problems with First Amendment issues by stating that they “had no problem with Mackay speaking in the high school as long as he understood the concept of separation of church and state in government entities.” However, no word was forthcoming on his manifest ignorance of many basic concepts in science. Am I being too hard on Mackay? You be the judge. The following statements in bold are taken from an article in the Wahpeton Daily News on Mackay’s talk to the high school students:

He claimed that no fossil is older than 6,000 years old. That is flat out impossible. Sedimentary rocks (in which the fossils are embedded) can’t form in such a short time. Not only that, but several very different dating methods concur on the antiquity of the many fossils gathered by paleontologists over the decades. He asked his listeners, ‘Why if we are evolving, is everything getting smaller instead of bigger? He compared fossils of 15-foot-tall kangaroos to today’s seven-foot-tall kangaroos. Here he reveals a double misunderstanding of the evolutionary process. First, bigger doesn’t always mean better. Kangaroos and other animals can become too tall to be efficient organisms. Those few humans who have grown over eight feet tall have suffered from serious respiratory and circulatory problems. Also, consider what would happen if the organism’s environment changed. For example, if the amount of available food decreased, a large animal would find itself at a serious disadvantage compared to a smaller animal that ate the same food. Second, evolution doesn’t always mean better—it means different. Evolutionary change happens if and only if a species’ environment changes. Changes in size, shape, mating instincts, feeding patterns, and survival ‘strategies’ of species occur as the importance of individual and family genetic differences are magnified by changes in climate, vegetation, populations of predators and prey, sudden geological activity, etc. The arrow of evolutionary change can gain a definite direction if a certain family’s genetic line produces a particularly effective response to the changing conditions. This could be called progress, for want of a better term. We can also admit that the overall trend of Earth’s evolutionary development is toward larger and larger aggregates of cells and organisms, as well as greater complexity of structure (such as that found in the evolutionary history of the human brain). But we cannot say in advance, without placing the organisms in their ecological and historical context, which changes will be improvements and which will be degenerative. ‘Many animals, like the kangaroo, don’t stop growing as they get older. So, the longer they live, the larger they will become.’

This is flatly untrue. The adult size of every land-based multicellular animal is regulated by its growth hormones, which are regulated by its genes. This did not apply to the human species, he said, because they have a ‘special clock in their heads’ that determine their growth. That clock is not a clock. It’s the pituitary gland. He told how it was possible for ‘a man to live over 900 years in its perfect environment.’ This is also untrue. We now know that cells divide and replace old cells for a limited number of times during an organism’s lifespan. If the organism lives long enough to reach the end of that process, its cells will age and cease to divide. Death occurs shortly thereafter. In humans, this process takes roughly 100 years. He described how a layer of water above and below the earth once preserved it in a perfect glass house. During the “great flood” the upper layer was released causing the perfect environment to gradually deteriorate. This is inarticulate nonsense. ‘Above and below the Earth?’ Does Mackay believe the Earth is flat? A layer of water above and below? What holds it up or down so that we don’t all drown? Water is a liquid. It flows where it is not impeded. A glass house? I’d hate to live in such a hothouse on the equator. Global warming advocates, call your office. Perfect environment? Earth’s environment has always varied from region to region and age to age. We’ve never had a perfect environment (especially in Minnesota). ‘As the holes get bigger in the ozone layer, life spans become shorter,” Mackay told his young charges the flood story was found in all cultures. More nonsense. Mackay connects the hole in the ozone with his ‘layers of water’ hypothesis. What does the ozone layer have to do with a layer of water? Human life spans have been growing rapidly during the time the hole in the ozone appeared and grew. Flood stories may very well occur in all cultures. But that’s because real, non-Biblical floods happen to local cultures or their neighbors at various

times in history. And the ancient stories grow more fanciful with each retelling. ‘Creatures aren’t evolving; they are devolving—on their way downhill.’ Mackay merely repeats his erroneous understanding of what evolution is. It is not better living through moral uplift. Neither is it degeneration through moral drift. Mackay rejected evidence that revealed that chimpanzees and humans share 98% of their DNA. He said that ‘man has created the DNA code just as Morse created his code. The dots and dashes mean nothing. DNA doesn’t have any meaning at all.’ Humans did not create the DNA genetic code. Watson and Crick discovered the true nature of chromosomes in 1953 when, through careful experimentation and observations through the then brand new technology of the electron microscope, they determined that DNA is arrayed in a double helix. Later, they discovered the profound importance of this shape—that its chains were composed of four nucleotides, with adenine and thymine, and guanine and cytosine always bonding in pairs across the double helix. This means that each side of the double helix can be read as a ‘negative’ of the other. And this means that as cells replicate, the bonds of the double helix can zip apart, allowing each side to replicate the other in daughter cells. This structure and sequence of nucleotides means everything. Biological evolutionists finally had what they sought since Darwin made his famous discoveries known: A mechanism for preserving and passing down genetic information from generation to generation. DNA does double-duty for evolutionary theory—in one fell swoop it explains retained characteristics and mutations in organisms. ‘DNA also makes RNA, which produces an enzyme, DNA polymerase, which moves back along side the DNA to supervise it. If the DNA makes a mistake, the polymerase acts like an editor and cuts out the mistake. Therefore the DNA has an inbuilt mechanism to stop evolution. It will only produce its own kind, like Genesis says in the Bible.’ Here, Mackay partially contradicts himself by admitting that DNA does mean something. But he gets the specifics wrong. Let me enumerate them

for you: One: DNA is indeed a template for RNA, a nucleic acid that helps build proteins in the cell. (However, uracil replaces thymine in RNA’s chain of nucleotides.) The enzyme RNA polymerase II, works double duty as a coded instruction tape and robot assembler, reading off a segment of DNA, collecting nucleotides wondering around in the cell, and building messenger RNA or transfer RNA as it goes. Two: Messenger RNA brings the construction plans (a copy of a segment of DNA) to the ribosomes (intricate structures, themselves made of RNA and protein), which use it to guide protein construction. Three: Each triplet of nucleotide ‘letters’ stands for an amino acid. Think of this system as a secret decoder ring. A simple three-on-one children’s code. Transfer RNA is made up of those triplets and uses them to carry the correct amino acids to the ribosomes to be place by them in the correct order as ‘told’ to them by code carried by the messenger RNA. Four: The cell uses similar processes to duplicate the DNA strands themselves prior to cell division. Mackay’s DNA polymerase builds up the daughter strands of DNA alongside their parent strands out of nucleotides drifting nearby. DNA stores instructions on how to replicate itself and guides the construction of RNA molecules, which carry out those instructions. In computer terms, DNA is simultaneously machine language and memory. Five: However, mistakes do happen. DNA is not completely goof-proof in the way Mackay would have us believe. Replication of the strands can never be perfect. A triplet may be cut here; a nucleotide may be switched there. The changes that do occur in the genetic code are called mutations. Six: This kind of mutation isn’t all there is to evolution. Sexual reproduction speeds up evolutionary change enormously. It does so by allowing cross over of segments of DNA into new sets during meiosis (cell division producing sex cells with half as many chromosomes as normal). You are not only a new combination of genes contributed by both of your parents; you are in a sense genetically engineered by the meiotic breaking apart of your parents’ gene segments into new patterns. Some geneticists argue that cross over had a much more profound impact historically than

mutation did in the revving up of the engine of biological evolution. “The main reason for controversy had nothing to do with science at all but the way people wanted to live. As Harvard Professor Stephen Gould said, ‘Now that we know we are not made in anybody’s image, we are free to do whatever we wish.’ If you want to understand the increase in discipline problems—there it is.” I have no idea if Gould actually said these words Mackay attributes to him. All I can say is that we humans have always been free to do whatever we wished—and free to face the consequences. Cause and effect have always ruled our lives, religion or no religion. “The issue of the origin of life is not one you can keep in science. It is all about how we want the next generation to live. If you want to teach them to believe all men have evolved with no inalienable rights, then teach them evolution only.” Moral systems may be rocked by scientific discoveries. They may even be amended permanently. But they can never be overturned or obliterated. We are moral beings, not because we believe or don’t believe in a god. We are moral beings because our ancestors for thousands of generations had to create and sustain moral systems in order to survive. Our languages, our customs, our laws are built upon these ancient strata of historical moral systems. If we believe that we have inalienable rights, it is because we have discovered that these rights are desperately needed in order for us to live together in reasonably coherent and orderly ways. It means that the bullies and the tyrants of old have become far too destructive to be tolerated. The 20th century saw the slaughter of millions of people. How can we avoid this in the future? By banning the teaching of evolution? I would hardly think so. Some societies happened to be structured in ways that make such devastation far less likely than in other societies. These societies remain open to new ideas and new ways, and yet not so open as to let just any young whippersnapper of an idea sway them. They ruthlessly test new ideas in a vast metaphorical arena known as the marketplace of ideas. These churning internal societal processes of creative destruction, so much more

invigorating and benevolent than those imposed by emperors and kings, this furious ‘natural’ selection of ideas, this life’s breathe of truly free societies, this is what we call cultural evolution. And, we value it for the same reasons we value the biological kind. Mackay is wrong, profoundly wrong about evolution. Evolution is the natural unfolding of the universe. It is not at all immoral. Neither is it progress by command, although it does tend to generate self-organizing systems of growing complexity. Particles into atoms. Atoms into molecules. Molecules into stars, planets, and life. Life into thought, poetry and song. Ideas into vast arrays of ordered matter and energy, and profoundly human mindfulness, understanding and joy. What is the universe? It is emergence.