Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A creationist talk in Portsmouth

I've been suffering a surfeit* of creationism recently, which reminded me that I'd not written up the creationist talk I attended locally back in April. It was put on by Creation Ministries International and hosted by Portsmouth Christian Fellowship at the Drayton Institute, which is a community centre cum church hall within walking distance of where I live. (Though I've not written about this before, I did talk about it on Skepticule Extra episode 25.)

The talk was given by Dominic Statham, a name vaguely familiar to me — and more familiar once I realised I'd blogged about an article he wrote on last year's riots. Statham is a good speaker; he has his delivery down pat and "gives good Powerpoint". He sounds British, and is apparently an engineer, not a biologist. His talk was titled "Darwin's Theory: Good Science?" and appears to be one of several he gave throughout a UK tour — apparently he was giving another talk in Plymouth the next day.

His talk in Drayton was well attended; about 50 chairs were laid out, and most were occupied. I arrived in plenty of time and got a good seat near the front.

Dominic Statham
Statham began by stating (in words and on screen) that "Microbes to Man" is contrary to the Bible, and went on to explain the basics of Darwin's theory. This was OK as far as it went, though he slanted his explanation with typical creationist doublespeak. He talked about "survival of the fittest" as if it meant only that the stronger win out over the weaker, but this isn't what Darwin exclusively meant, as I'm sure Statham is aware. "Fittest" in this context means most closely adapted to prevailing conditions, as in "fitting its environment". Statham's implied meaning was "fittest" as in "most fit and healthy", which is clearly a skewed interpretation if not a downright distortion.

Mentioning education, Statham referred to "so-called" science classes, showing his bias, and such loaded language was evident throughout his talk. As part of his explanation of evolutionary theory he said ordinary chemicals "just happened" to come together to form living organisms. His overview of evolutionary theory was specifically set up to be easily knocked down. He described two "steps" to evolution: number one, chemicals evolved to single-cell organisms; and number two, cells evolved to man. That's a very lopsided division, but it enabled him to claim, correctly, that science currently has no proven explanation of abiogenesis, and therefore, even before we begin to discuss evolution from microbes to man, half of evolutionary theory is speculative hypothesis unsupported by evidence. But this is a straw man; abiogenesis is not part of evolutionary theory, and Darwin had little to say about it.

There was no mention of plants in Statham's explanation of evolution, though my understanding is that all plants are part of the evolutionary tree of life. There was mention of "variation within kinds" — but my understanding of "kind" is that it's a biblical term with no scientific validity.

Statham soon moved on to some technical aspects of evolution, beginning with homology — animals sharing similar body plans (same number of limbs, digits, etc., laid out in similar patterns). Despite what evolutionists infer, Statham claimed, homology does not point to common ancestry. He gave three reasons for this:
  1. Embryonic development in homologous animals is different. For example, in comparing human hands to frog hands, human hands develop in the womb by the death of cells between the fingers, while in frogs the digits are formed by sprouting new growth. I took this at face value, but later, consulting the Talk Origins archive, I discovered the reason for this is that frogs have webbed feet, which cell-death between the digits would not allow.
  2. Similar structures (such as limbs) in homologous animals grow from different segments of the embryo. Again, a bit of research reveals that this is by no means universal — some homologous structures grow from the same embryonic segments, some grow from different segments. Statham was presenting this as cut-and-dried disproof of evolution when it isn't.
  3. Similar structures are controlled by different genes, therefore homology doesn't prove evolution. Statham merely quoted an authority for this one, giving no examples.
At the time, of course, Statham's confident statements sounded convincing, and if I'd been on the fence I would quite likely have taken what he said at face value and come away with the idea that evolution wasn't true. Clearly that was his intention, and no doubt it was effective with some of his mostly Christian audience (if they weren't already creationists).

So, having shown to his satisfaction that evolution is insufficient to explain the diversity of life, Statham stated his own explanation: a designer. He went on to state that "software encoded in DNA" is how cells work, and showed a computer animation of the highly complex structures within a cell, with the clear implication that this was all too complicated to have happened by chance. And such it might be, but it's not by chance alone that evolution works. Variations resulting from faulty copying of genes (mutation — aka the "random chance" part) coupled with natural selection, whereby those organisms less suited to their environment tend to die out before reproducing while those more suited (by virtue of their different genetic information) survive, is mostly how evolution works. As for the complexity of the cell, I would guess that the earliest cells were very much simpler than shown in the animation. The complexity of present-day cells is the result of eons of evolution — but nevertheless creationists want to say it was put there, ready made, by God.

Statham went on to cite ATP Synthase and the bacterial flagellum as examples of complexity. I know nothing of ATP Synthase, but the flagellum is a favourite of creationists in general, and of engineer-creationists in particular — and Statham is one such. We know, despite the best efforts of Michael Behe that the flagellum is not "irreducibly complex". But if you deny stepwise refinement, as Statham apparently does, the development of such structures must be highly mysterious. He quoted Michael Denton describing the complexity of the cell, and then edged into conspiracy-theory mode, claiming that academics are not free to voice doubts about evolution. He promoted the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, understandably omitting to mention that it's pretty much outright lies from start to finish.

Having already appealed to authorities, Statham quoted several more. Prof Sir Ernst Chain FRS apparently said that evolutionary theory had "…no evidence and was irreconcilable with the facts," (though I'm unable to verify this quote). Statham put up a slide with big letters reading "Evolution is a Faith" and stated that if the Bible is not right about creation, people will question it about other things. Well, yes, that's the logical thing to do. It's not logical to believe something is true just because you don't like the consequences if it's false.

Statham moved on to yet another authority, this time William Provine of Cornell University. The quote on screen contained lots of ellipsis, which immediately set alarm bells ringing — creationists are notorious for quote-mining. Back home I looked up the quote and found something a bit strange.
"Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear … There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end for me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either."
That's pasted directly from CMI's website, and yet it isn't what Statham showed. Looking at the screen he explained that when Provine says "modern science" he means "evolution". But Provine doesn't say "modern science", he says "modern evolutionary biology". I've no idea what's going on here.

Still quoting, now from the Bible; Romans 1:20:
"For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."
This is basically, "Look around you, of course there's a creator!" (We'll leave aside the inherent problem of clearly seeing qualities that are invisible…)

Then Matthew 7:13-14:
"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."
Creationists, thankfully, are in the minority.

Rounding off this trinity of Bible quotes we have 1 Peter 3:15:
"But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,"
This is the apologists' verse. (Too bad some of them forget the last sentence.)

Statham suggested members of the audience might like to subscribe to the quarterly Creation magazine — a year's subscription would get you an extra issue; a three-year subscription would get you an extra issue plus a DVD. (But only if you paid in full on the night.) Statham showed several examples of the articles in the magazine — on, for example, "modern science" — though here that doesn't necessarily mean "evolution", apparently. Another article was on refuting Richard Dawkins — which I was pleased to see. Dawkins got several mentions in Statham's talk, indicating that the infamous god-hating militant evolutionist baby-eater is still rattling cages.

Then it became a bit farcical. Statham showed some testimonials for Creation magazine — after all, you wouldn't simply take his word for how great it is, would you? The first testimonial was from that well-known arbiter of all that's worthwhile in scientific literature, the comedian Peter Kay. The second was from someone named Pat F. The third … there was no third — we have two testimonials: a comedian, and anonymous Pat F. (I'm convinced — here's my credit card.)

Finally before the break, Statham promoted the website (Creation.com) and a book titled The Creation Answers Book by Batten, Catchpoole, Sarfati and Wieland, disturbingly suggesting it could be bought for teenagers setting off for university.

During the break I looked at the merchandise, of which there was plenty: books and DVDs, including the despicable Expelled.

There were six questions in the Q&A, all answered by Statham with confidence, giving me the impression that there was nothing he hadn't heard before. He even had additional Powerpoint and videos to address specific questions — almost as if the questions were planted (but I don't think they were). I've paraphrased Statham's responses below, and added appropriate links.

Q1: Darwinism is bad science — why is it still taught?
  • Because animals are observed to change. But this is micro- not macro-evolution. Genetic information for micro-evolution is already present.
  • Evolutionists are committed to philosophical naturalism.
  • Secular scientists say natural processes today means natural processes for origins.
  • They are looking for reasons not to believe in God.
  • The Intelligent Design movement is doing a lot of good, but they don't present an alternative. We do; the alternative is Christ.
Q2: There's lots of evidence for the Earth being older than 10,000 years.
  • Yes there is evidence for an ancient Earth, but dating methods are unreliable. Carbon 14 dating shows the Earth is young. [My understanding is that radiocarbon dating is good for up to 60,000 years, so it can't be used to prove an old Earth, but neither does it show the Earth is young.]
  • The Moon's orbit is increasing, but at the rate it is, for an old Earth it ought to be farther away by now.
  • There's not enough salt in the sea for an old Earth.
  • Dinosaur remains are evidence for a young Earth. In Montana, dinosaur bones (not fossils) have been found with organic soft tissue still in evidence, which should have decayed if they were millions of years old.
  • Science cannot tell us how old the Earth is.
  • An old Earth conflicts with the Bible. Statham recommended another book: 15 Reasons to Take Genesis as History.
Q3: Where are dinosaurs in the Bible?
  • Dinosaurs were made on the same day (the sixth) as Man.
  • Dinosaurs were on the Ark, and lived contemporaneously with Man.
  • Dinosaurs were called dragons, and some were fire-breathing.
  • Carlisle Cathedral has a picture of a dinosaur on the tomb of Richard Bell, dating from 1496.
Q4: Has the universe been around longer than the Earth?
Q5: Did Darwin have a deathbed conversion?
  • Probably not, but either way it makes no difference.
Q6: How were the fossils created?
Statham made that last point (or rather, assertion) as his final comment to the final question at the end of the evening. There was no opportunity to challenge him on it before the organiser from Portsmouth Christian Fellowship got up to thank him for his talk and to lead the congregation — pardon me, the audience — in a prayer, after which I made my escape.

What did I learn from this talk? I learned that a creationist lecturing to a sympathetic audience can sound very convincing. Dominic Statham was quite clever in not stating some things outright; instead he let the audience infer what they wanted to believe from his tacit implications. I recognised his use of loaded language immediately, but only because I've heard such disingenuous slanting before. Creationists, however, are at least open about what they're up to — they want God back in our culture, and have no truck with secularism. The Intelligent Design crowd on the other hand are more insidious in their aims, all the while claiming that ID has nothing to do with religion.

*Watch this space...
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