A message from a geologist to people who believe in “overlapping magisteria”

In the ever persistent spirits of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, Bill Nye the “Science Guy,” and Ken Ham, president of the Creation Museum, had a good old-fashioned evolution vs. creationism debate earlier last month. However, this “debate” that Nye and Ham have once again re-ignited is futile, seeing as there can never actually be a winner. Science is no substitute for religion, and creationism certainly isn’t any replacement for science; but that doesn’t mean that only science or religion has to be right. I’d now like to introduce you to a little concept called “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA) coined by the incomparable Stephen Jay Gould. NOMA essentially states that science and religion each occupy their own legitimate teaching domains, and there is no need for these two domains to overlap.[1]

Great danger arises when creation stories are taken literally as replacement for actual scientific fact, with religion invading science’s own legitimate domain. (The same can also be true for when science attempts to answer moral truths of religion’s domain). Nowhere recently has this problem been more evident than in BuzzFeed’s “22 Messages from Creationists to People Who Believe in Evolution.”[2] As these people take the word of the Bible to be the one literal truth, they are arguing for “overlapping magisteria,” if you will, and therefore discrediting actual scientific theory. It is worth the time to provide answers to a few of these “messages,” allowing science and evolution to explain the questions that rightfully belong to their domains.

#15 – “Because science by definition is a ‘theory’—not testable, observable, nor repeatable. Why do you object to creationism of intelligent design being taught in school?”

            It’s kind of amazing how accurate of a definition this person gave for what a scientific theory is. In following the scientific method, scientific theories are testable, observable, and repeatable. Say you wanted to find out: does adding sylvite (KCl, a salt) to water make the water warmer or colder? You could test it by adding a measured amount of sylvite to water, observe it by having a thermometer in the water reading the temperature change, and then repeat it, because every time you add sylvite to water, you will lower its temperature. Even though when people say “theory,” such as the “theory of evolution,” there seems to be an implied uncertainty, but there is nothing unsubstantiated or speculative about it. Creationism does not fit any requirements of a scientific theory, and people object to creationism being taught in schools because doing so instantly implies “overlapping magisteria,” as you’re trying to make intelligent design a replacement for science itself. For which it is not.

#9 – “If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance?”

            In understanding how life on Earth originated, it’s essential to understand exactly what it is about Earth that makes it hospitable to life. Earth has kind of a perfect combination of original attributes (such as the time when it was formed and its distance from the sun) and practices that were developed later on (such as plate tectonics and the water cycle). However, there likely won’t ever be one time when we can point out, “There, right there, is when and where life originated.” Instead, there was probably a continuum between abiogenic to biogenic chemical processes, and there does actually seem to be a decent amount of chance involved. As the raw ingredients for getting life started (lipids, carbohydrates, proteins, and nucleic acids) were widely available, it might not have actually been all that difficult to get life on Earth started (you just need the convergence of many, many factors). After all, there have even been amino acids found in carbonaceous chondritic meteorites, and amino acids themselves are the building blocks of proteins. The true difficulty lies in being able to sustain life for billions of years, which Earth has been remarkably good at.

#18 – “Why have we found only 1 ‘Lucy,’ when we have found more than 1 of everything else?”

            “Lucy” is in fact the name of the most famous and complete most complete fossilized skeleton found of the species Australopithecus afarensis, dated to 3.18 million years old. There have actually been many, many A. afarensis fossils found, but I guess you could technically say that there has only been one “Lucy” in the sense that there is only one “Sue” (the most extensive T-rex fossilized skeleton ever found, currently at the Field Museum in Chicago, IL) because they are only one individual/animal. “Lucy” should not become synonymous with the entire species of A. afarensis, which are the best known early hominid species. The second part of this question is extremely vague, because “more than 1 of everything else” implies that there has been at least one fossil found for every other species that has ever existed. While the fossil record can be extremely useful, just because something dies does not mean it will become a fossil. Sometimes conditions are just right at the time of an organism’s death to create great preservation (such as with the Burgess Shale in Canada), but more often than not, an organism won’t leave a physical trace behind, as Earth’s processes (ie. erosion, plate tectonics) work toward rejuvenation.  

#22 – “If we come from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?”

            First of all, humans are not descended from monkeys; rather we share a common ancestor. You can likely blame the widespread popularity of the graphic depicting a linear evolution from monkeys to a fully upright, bipedal man for this common misconception. There is in fact no straight linear evolution at all.Stephen Jay Gould distinguishes between two perceived modes of evolutionary change as “ladders” (which do not represent evolution) and “bushes” (which do).[3] As much as we’d like it to be simple, evolutionary ‘sequences’ aren’t like rungs on a ladder but are more like a labyrinth of branches on a bush.[4] Species even remain relatively the same for vast amounts of time, with evolutionary change actually accumulating during very rapid events.[5] It was likely between 5-6 million years ago when we last shared a common ancestor with chimps and gorillas, and by the time of “Lucy” and A. afarensis, we were already fully bipedal.[6] It would almost be futile to outline human evolution in a list, because doing so would imply a clear progression from all Australopithecus species to all Homo species to Homo sapiens (us), for which there is none.

#20 – “How can you look at the world and not believe someone created/thought of it? It’s Amazing!!!”

This person is definitely correct in the fact that the world is amazing. Isn’t it absolutely fascinating and wonderful to know that the earth is 4.6 billion years old? I mean, that’s absolutely unfathomable and amazing. I don’t know if there’s anything that can make you appreciate your existence more than science and evolution and realizing where we’ve come from.  As Charles Darwin says at the very end of The Origin of Species, “There is grandeur in this view of life…whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”[7] The natural world is freaking amazing, and we have the ability to go out and explore it. Let us all go out and be NOMA crusaders!

*This piece was originally written as a homework assignment for GEOL 210*

[1] Gould, Stephen Jay. Rocks of Ages. (New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999): 5-6.

[2] Stopera, Matt. “22 Messages from Creationists to People Who Believe in Evolution.” BuzzFeed. N.p., 5 Feb. 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2014. 

[3] Gould, Stephen Jay. Ever Since Darwin. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1977): 57.

[4] Ibid, 61

[5] Gould, Stephen Jay. The Panda’s Thumb. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1980): 127.

[6] Ibid, 132

[7] Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. (New York: Signet Classics, 2003): 507.

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