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40% of Americans Believe The Earth Began About The Time Human Beings Domesticated The Cat

2011 January 6

An artist's rendering of creation, though I suspect Jesus' skin color might trouble most Creationists

If one is disposed to enjoying life – for at least some of one’s meager duration – as a privilege and a pleasure, one might call it fortunate that 13.7 billion years ago the universe was banged into existence.   Considering how incredibly unlikely it was that anything at all would happen to begin with, it was awfully lucky that this great improbability in turn led to the formation of stars.  Quite beautiful things themselves, some of these brilliant plasmatic orbs became the gravitational center of their respective neighborhoods, each populated by a number of celestial bodies made from the remnants of the star’s formation.  These, of course, are planets, one of which we all inhabit.  Our own dear planet was formed by the accretion of particles left over from the formation of the Sun approximately 4.54 billion years ago.  The Moon coalesced shortly after, when an object with 10% of the Earth’s mass struck its cooling surface and pitched a vast amount of rock into orbit.  Our own existence is the consequence of a long series of unlikelihoods that followed one of the most wonderful (and invaluable, for us, at least) accidents to befall all history: the self-replication of a single molecule.  This nearly impossible event happened probably only once, 4 billion years ago, most likely in the Earth’s ocean.  Though the details of this story vary with the teller, the narrative, based upon a long history of scientific observation, has remained more or less the same for some time.  Yet, a recent Gallup poll tells that 4 in 10 Americans believe that this longest of all histories happened not only within the blink-short span of 10,000 years, but in the last 10,000 years, when apes had already evolved for so long that they were playing flutes for fun.

Gallup has been charting this discouraging tendency since 1982, when the figure was 44%.  So, to be fair, the percentage is at its lowest since 1982, but let’s not start high-fiving each other just yet.  The years 1993 and 1999 saw peaks of 47%, a percentage we almost achieved again in (I cringe to say it) 2006, though we fell just short at 46%.  Our current percentage, 40%, is a depressingly high figure considering the truly miraculous amount of delusion and ignorance it indicates in an age when any bit of this common knowledge is available in literally one second.  Those of us somehow beyond the reach of the virtually ubiquitous Internet or without the proper technological devilry to access it might just have to lumber ourselves to their nearest book purveyor or, at least, to a school, though the latter is becoming an alarmingly less dependable resource.  Access to this information and the overwhelming amount of evidence in its favor (enough that to read it all would press the limits of a human lifetime) is precisely everywhere.  However, a considerable majority believes that these facts are all rubbish and suit themselves by entertaining the rather pitiful myths of a few Bronze Age wanderers.

Young Earth Creationism posits a narrative of the Earth’s history that is almost entirely unrelated to science.  It typically goes something like this:  It took god 144 hours to create the planet.  Whether he slept at all during that time is unknown, though we are told that he took the entirety of the following day to rest; so the work, we must assume, was quite exhausting.  By the end of it the Earth looked pretty much how it does now, except that all animals (lions, Tyrannosaurus Rexes and great white sharks apparently included) were herbivores and there were only two humans to be found.  These two should have spent the difference of eternity in this alleged paradise except that the devil, cunningly disguised as a talking, legged snake, convinced one of them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, an act mysteriously forbidden by the creator.  (We are left to interpret his motivations for this charge)  Once done, the whole thing was ruined; the two people noticed they were both naked and quickly discovered what might be done about it, and meanwhile the Earth was overwrought with so much death and pain and sex that God just dashed it all and drowned the place.  Before he did, however, he told one Noah all about his disappointment and his plan to wipe the planet and start over and instructed the old man to build a ship large enough to carry on it two fertile representatives from each of the entirety of the Earth’s fauna so that we could give it another go after the flood.  Remarkably, Noah managed this constructional feat and coaxed on board as many animals as he could find (not all, apparently, which accounts for the fossil record).  The flood came and once everything living thing was sufficiently dead, god subsided the water and the ark rested (somewhat inconveniently, one might think) at the top of a mountain.  The animals presumably found their way home from there.  The rest of history goes somewhat like one might think, though at a rather accelerated pace.

Now, of course, this version contradicts a few areas of modern science; evolutionary biology, physics, astronomy, cosmology, archaeology, paleontology, molecular biology, genetics, anthropology, linguistics, neurology, climatology and geology among them.

Much can happen in 10,000 years, to be sure.  The Earth has changed dramatically in that short time.  The 8th millennium BCE marked the end of the last glacial period when the surface of the planet was largely covered with expansive continents of ice.  Our own species has come a long way since the rise of agriculture, the domestication of sheep and cats, and the beginnings of creative human expression.  It is no coincidence that the rising human population coincided with the beginning of the Holocene extinction, which has seen the obliteration of up to 140,000 species per year: an absolutely devastating number.

However, 10,000 years provides nowhere near enough time for our current understanding of Earth’s history.  The conflicts are explained away by Creationists with an almost admirable amount of blatant disregard.  Dinosaurs, it would seem, did in fact exist and did make it aboard the ark, but suffered extinction when they found the post-flood climate unsuitable.  As this would indicate, humans and dinosaurs apparently walked the earth together and, though no serious scientist would stand for it, this is allegedly attested by a few fossils found in Texas, which have long been discredited.  On what else this claim stands is unknown to me.  It seems suspiciously as though it stands merely on the desire for it to be true.

There is certainly debate about the age of the Earth.  10,000 years, however, is an unreasonable hypothesis because it contradicts literally all scientific evidence on the subject.  It is difficult to understand just how Creationists support this claim since there is no factual basis for it.  One way they’ve tried is by questioning the accuracy of radiometric dating, the method by which the age of fossils and other matter is calculated.  Radiometric dating takes various forms, but can generally be described as the measurement of the time it takes for half of an element’s atoms to decay, causing the creation of a ‘daughter’ element.  The elements for which this method works are unstable (‘radioactive’) isotopes (variations of elements with all properties preserved except for the number of neutrons in the nucleus).  The instability of these isotopes incites their decay over time, which is constant and, as we know, simply measured.  By knowing the elements that compose an object (a rock, a fossil, an archaeological artifact, etc) and the decay rate of those elements we are able to chart an object’s age by recognizing the daughter element that has been created by decay: quite an elegant way of determining age and well proven over the one hundred years since its invention.  Creationists, if they take the effort, claim that the decay rates of isotopes are not, in fact, constant; but they surely are.  Anyhow, a decay rate fast enough to validate a 10,000 year-old Earth would have melted the planet quite a long time before you or I came around to dispute it.

It cannot be overlooked that the Young Earth hypothesis (it pains me to capitalize such nonsense) comes exclusively from subscribers to the Abrahamic religions.  The authors of the Old Testament didn’t have available to them telescopes, radiocarbon dating or particle accelerators so it is understandable that they might have gotten some things wrong.  But we’ve grown up quite a bit in the last 10,000 years and one would hope that we would have moved on from such infantile mysticism.  Ridiculous claims like this are made by religious folks all the time, but Young Earth Creationism is unique because the degree to which it is false is actually quantifiable.  40% of American people believe the Earth is 4,539,990,000 years younger than it actually is, making these people 99.9998% wrong.  An astounding feat.

40% of Americans believe the Earth is no older than these Chinese flutes

Though human beings weren’t around at the creation of the Earth, they were certainly around 10,000 years ago.  This is perhaps the only part of Creationist theory that is incontrovertible.  They weren’t naked, however, and there were far more than two of them.  Five million is a more accurate figure, putting the Creationist estimation off by 4,999,998 people (a regrettable 99.9999% wrong).  Homo sapiens had been wandering the planet for at least 90,000 years at this point (with upward estimates around 240,000 years) and had accomplished a great deal in that time.  Fire had been in controlled use for 400,000 years.  Humans had settled in nearly every continent on the planet and had begun domesticating a variety of animals for a number of purposes.  Agriculture was practiced widely throughout the Fertile Crescent and the rest of the inhabited world to great effect.  Huts and granaries were being used for harvest storage in Africa.  Deliberate burials were occurring in Greece and South America.  There is also exciting evidence of the beginning of creative expression.  Flutes from this period have been found in China, decorative pottery in Japan, and clay statues in the Mediterranean.

If all of this constituted a scientific conspiracy, it would surely be the greatest and most widespread deception in the world’s history.  It is far more likely that it’s all simply true.  Incidentally, it should surprise no one that the percentages for belief in evolution are inversely proportional to those for degrees of education.  As one gets more educated, it seems one is less likely to believe unfounded nonsense.  The rates, however, are still disappointingly low.  A mere 21% of college graduates believe in godless evolution, 38% in some form of divinely guided evolution, and a miraculous 37% that humans were created by god just so at about the time archaeologists believe people were decorating pottery in Asia.  One might expect a similar correlation regarding political alliance, and one would be right to do so.  52% of Republicans believe the Creationist twaddle, 36% the god-guided process, and a meager 8% that all of this happened naturally.  34% of Democrats believe the Creationist model, 40% the deist model, and 20% the scientific one.  Lest you find these numbers confusing, let me tell you: they are all depressing.

The implications of these figures are distressing because they represent a pervasive distrust of evidence and reason.  The percentages, while discouraging, are not surprising.  Somehow, we are still debating whether baseless superstition should be taught in science classrooms and whether the freedom of speech extends to artists.  This past senate election saw an alarming number of serious political candidates denying Darwinian evolution, which was a dangerous display of willful ignorance by persons running for public office, where one may assume that critical reason is required daily.

I am happy (though perhaps this is an exaggeration) to report that the percentage of Americans who reject superstition in favor of reason has increased steadily since the 1982 Gallup poll.  Those who believe that ‘humans evolved, but god had no part in the process’ have increased from 9% in 1982 to 16% in 2010, marking the greatest change (for better or worse) in the three categories.  It is also the only category with a distinct upward trend.

Disproving evolution would be an incredibly difficult task. Precisely all available evidence supports Darwinian evolution by natural selection.  Any claim to its detriment would have to withstand 150 years of evidence that takes a vast array of forms.  We find evidence in the correlation of molecular structures, the comparison of the physical structures of contemporary and extinct animals and plants and in the geological distribution of fossil remains throughout the Earth’s continents and strata.  The distribution of fossils is unerringly as we should expect it to be if evolution were true.  When asked what might persuade him that evolution was false, the distinguished geneticist and evolutionary biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, replied: Rabbit fossils in the Precambrian.  It should surprise no one to learn that no such discrepancies have been discovered.  Evolution is as much a fact as any other fact currently known to us.

To those who doubt the validity of evolution, I sincerely suggest that you get yourself to a museum as quickly as you can.  A book would do quite well, also.  Innumerable have been written and many are supremely beautiful.  Darwin himself wrote a couple and wonderful modern accounts have been penned by no lesser scribes and thinkers than Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Matt Ridley, Jared Diamond, James D. Watson, Rachel Carson, Steven Pinker and Stephen Jay Gould.  There is no longer any excuse for believing credulous drivel, so please do yourself (and the rest of us) the great favor of getting acquainted instead with incontrovertible scientific fact.

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