Why I’m not a Young Earth Creationist
July 19, 2012
Young earth creationism (YEC), in my humble opinion, is both wrong and dangerous to Christianity. I’m writing this, because of a recent conversation with a knowledgeable man, who is also a young earth creationist. Yes. We politely disagreed on whether evolution is true or not. To win the debate, he started to claim that young earth creationism was central to the gospel.
Whether or not you think young earth creationism is true, I hope you’ll agree with this is a very dangerous way to argue. The gospel is that Jesus Christ died for our sins, to restore our relationship to God. It is salvation through faith alone in God which saves us. So equating the gospel with YEC views is simply wrong.
But equating Christianity with opposition to evolution is not just wrong, it’s dangerous. If you equate being anti-evolution with being Christian, what happens when you discover there’s good reason to believe evolution is true? All of a sudden you’re convinced there’s good reason to not believe the gospel.
I won’t harp on about Christianity being compatible with evolution. There’s websites dedicated to pointing that, and they do it in a much more eloquent way that I could. I’m also partial to a series of podcasts by Thomas Hopko, which discuss it in an intelligent way. In addition there’s also several books, such as those by Francis Collins or by Karl Giberson.
What I did want to do is respond to a couple of YEC/intelligent design arguments, which I don’t think any thinking Christian should offer. The first is this
New information can never be created
This argument is, quite frankly, obviously bunk. Information increases all the time.
Since Shannon in the 1950’s we’ve known how to measure information. We measure it as entropy. Entropy measures average the number of bits (say, on your harddrive) which would need to be used to store something (be that a message or the state of a physical system).
Imagine you have a very boring, predictable message you want to store on the hard drive.
You don’t need many bits to do that. You can just store on the hard drive: “The message is always 0 one million times” and you’re done. It uses almost no space on your hard drive.
On the other hand if the signal is really random, you need lots of bits to store it. Imagine a million random zeros or ones:
If there’s no pattern all, then the best you can do is to just record the values which are sent. If the signal is something in between, then you use a program like “zip” to compress it. You’ll find the more ordered the message is, the smaller the zip file. The less ordered it is, the larger the file. Entropy is like a measure of how large the file would be with the perfect zip program.
The same concept applies to physical systems. Think of a simple physical system, which could be in one of several different states. If it is very disordered, you need more bits to store it. If it’s not disordered you need fewer bits. Entropy is what we use to measure that. If something is more disordered, it needs more bits to store it, and so has higher entropy. If something is more ordered, and needs fewer bits to store it, and so has less entropy.
So now it’s obvious the argument information never increases is just wrong. If you drop an egg on the floor, becomes more disordered. In physics, we’d say the entropy has increased. And you now know that just means the information needed to describe it has increased.
Information (or entropy) increases all the time. In any closed system it will increase. It’s such an important that we’ve made it into a physical law, the second law of thermodynamics.
So simply saying information is never “created” is simply wrong.
Specified information never increases
The next thing my YEC friend did was tell me specified complexity never increases. I’ve read and listened to enough intelligent design literature and exponents to have some idea where they’re coming from. The idea seems to be that any information which is created is always useless, and can’t have a role in producing something useful, like an eye.
Well, again, I have to simply disagree. Natural selection provides an obvious way for specified complexity to increase. We’ve already agreed (I hope) that information does increase. The question is whether that information can be useful for anything.
Before people get all annoyed – “natural selection” is not atheism. It does not imply atheism. It’s something very simple, which I hope we can all agree happens, and happens a lot.
Natural selection is simply the idea that weaker animals are more likely to die out. They’re less likely to have lots of healthy children, and if they pass on the gene that makes them weak to their children, they’re even less likely to have grandchildren. Think about it. Which is more likely to have lots of surviving children – a healthy animal or a sick one? Obviously the healthy one. That’s all there is to it. No atheism. No magic.
The simple idea is that animals which are fitter, better suited to their environment, able to run faster and further are the ones that get the chicks. They’re the ones which have lots of kids. They’re the ones that (at least on average) don’t die early. It’s not atheism, it’s just common sense.
So how does natural selection help? Well, let’s say you have an animal which has a gene for better sight. Well then that gene helps them see both predators and prey better. It helps them survive, and (on average) they have more offspring than one which has worse sight. Their children have better sight, and because they survive better, over time there’s more and more animals with good sight. Specified complexity is naturally selected for because it helps animals survive.
So we (I hope) agree new information can come into existence, and specified information can come into existence because specified information helps animals survive.
That evolution has never been observed
Finally, my YEC friend repeatedly said that what I was saying was impossible, and had never been observed in the real world. At the time I didn’t know what to say, and just pointed out that bacteria in hospitals build up resistance to drugs, and that plants we grow are very different now to their wild versions a few thousand years ago.
Next time this comes up I will be able to give better examples. Among the many excellent essays on biologos were two by Dennis Venema. He describes his path from intelligent design to evolution, and how he thought about it as a Christian. But he also gives examples of “specified complexity” coming about due to evolution which you can read here.
One example he gives is of the Long Term Evolutionary Experiment (LTEE). It started in 1988, with twelve identical strand of e-coli. E-coli (apparently) is a simple bacteria and it reproduces by simply dividing, which produces two clones of itself. That’s important, because the only changes which occur to their genetic make-up are through mutations. There’s no way you could claim “it was already there”.
As Venema describes:
Each day, each of the twelve cultures grow in 10ml of liquid medium with glucose as the limiting resource. In this medium, the bacteria compete to replicate for about seven generations and then stop dividing once the food runs out. After 24 hours, 1/10th of a ml of each culture is transferred to 9.9 ml of fresh food, and the cycle repeats itself. Every so often, the remaining 9.9 ml of leftover bacterial culture is frozen down to preserve a sample of the population at that point in time – with the proper treatment, bacteria can survive for decades in suspended animation.
So basically, grow ecoli every day for years and see how 12 different strands of it change. All twelve strands quickly adapted to their petri-dish environment (and in fact they evolved in a similar way):
All 12 populations improved quickly early on, then more slowly as the generations ticked by. Despite substantial fitness gains compared to the common ancestor, the performance of the evolved lines relative to each other hardly diverged. As we looked for other changes—and the “we” grew as outstanding students and collaborators put their brains and hands to work on this experiment—the generations flew by. We observed changes in the size and shape of the bacterial cells, in their food preferences, and in their genes. Although the lineages certainly diverged in many details, I was struck by the parallel trajectories of their evolution, with similar changes in so many phenotypic traits and even gene sequences that we examined.
And it just continued on like this. I’m sure at this point all the intelligent design people are with me. It’s just “micro-evolution”, right? The same thing for month after month, year after year. But then one day, something new happened! Lenski (a scientist who was involved in the project) writes,
Although glucose is the only sugar in their environment, another source of energy, a compound called citrate, was also there all along as part of an old microbiological recipe. One of the defining features of E. coli as a species is that it can’t grow on citrate because it’s unable to transport citrate into the cell. For 15 years, billions of mutations were tested in every population, but none produced a cell that could exploit this opening. It was as though the bacteria ate dinner and went straight to bed, without realizing a dessert was there waiting for them.
But in 2003, a mutant tasted the forbidden fruit. And it was good, very good.
Amazing! Totally new specified information. They were able to go back to the frozen samples and see exactly which gene mutations led to the ecoli being able to eat citrate. The gene that allows it actually mutated long before it was actually used. The first e-coli able to eat citrate did so very badly, but they got better very quickly. And finally, there’s essentially two strands left. One strand eats both citrate and glucose, the other just gets very good at eating glucose:
Despite the “takeover”, a fraction of the population unable to use citrate persists as a minority. These cells eke out a living by being “glucose specialists” – they are better at using up glucose rapidly and then going into stasis before the slightly slower citrate-eaters catch up.
And that, it seems to me, is an example of specified complexity evolving.
So why aren’t I into all this intelligent design stuff? Well it’s simply because the arguments they put forward are wrong. They’re wrong about the arguments they make about evolution. But perhaps more importantly, they’re wrong about why we’re saved. We’re not saved through believing in evolution or not. We’re saved through faith in Jesus Christ.