Monday, March 09, 2009

"Humans have always walked this way because that is the way we were 'designed'"

I recently wrote an online news story for New Scientist about 1.5-million-year-old footprints discovered in Kenya. I found some of the readers' comments disturbing. It took me a while to figure out why.

The research article appeared in Science on February 27, 2009. It described the discovery and study by an international team of researchers of the second oldest footprints left by human ancestors--the oldest showing unambiguous evidence of modern foot anatomy and our efficient way of walking.

Although bipedalism dates back several million years earlier, the footprints reveal that our ancestors--from foot size and shape almost certainly early Homo erectus--had evolved anatomically modern feet and a springy stride like ours by 1.5 million years ago.

At first I was pleased to see that the story generated lots of comments. It's good to know that people are reading what one writes.

The first few comments were fine, but I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the conversation quickly devolved into an exchange between creationists and supporters of evolution.

I had several reactions. The first was irritation, like finding that an uninvited guest has crashed your party. The second was frustration, even anger, at the creationists' glib dismissal of the dozen scientists who had discovered, painstakingly excavated, and carefully analyzed the footprints, not to mention a century or more of physics, geology, paleontology and, of course, evolution.

Everything was fair game, from the identification of the footprints--"The look like gorilla prints to me,"--to the dating--"1.5 million years ago? Was someone there to make a record of the date?"--to the theory of evolution as a whole--"None of which is supported by any evidence except what men decide to believe."

It was obvious that when any mere field of science got in the way of creationism, the science had to be trashed.

In the end, however, I realized that my strongest feeling was boredom. When I tried to read the creationists' comments, my attention wandered, my eyes glazed over, and I wanted to be doing anything other that trying to make sense of comments like "All features of a species have an ability to adapt to an environment . . . but that is a far cry from turning a fish into a bird."

Creationism, I realized, is God-awful boring.

Creationsim collapses the vast grandeur of the cosmos into a morality play about--you guessed it--us.

Not counting old-Earth creationists, who accept a geological time scale but still reject evolution, creationists pancake the universe's nearly 14 billion year history into a few thousand years.

Here on earth, creationists replace the chaotic creativity of more than four billion years of geological, chemical, and biological churning with six days of check-list Creation.

In the end, creationism answers every question about how we and everything we find around us got that way with, "God (excuse me, the Intelligent Designer) made it that way."

How did those footprints end up buried under layer after layer of distinct, datable sediments? God put them there.

What does it mean that, suitably measured, the ratio of argon-40 to argon-39 in the volcanic ash above the footprints is a tad lower than in the ash below them? Could it mean that the lower layer is a few hundred thousand years older? Nope. God salted those isotopes in just that way.

What can we learn by comparing these footprints to the 3.7-million-year-old Laetoli prints? Could their differences shed light on the evolution of our feet and walking style? Nah. God made the Laetoli prints smaller, wider and flatter, and these new prints longer, slimmer and more arched. Don't ask why.

What's the relationship between the increased mobility of Homo erectus that these prints confirm and the fact that it became the first hominin to leave Africa and thrive across Europe and Asia? Hmm. Must have something to do with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Check out Genesis 1:26 through 3:24 for the details.

It's not that an omnipotent Intelligent Designer isn't a good-enough answer to such questions, it's that it is way to good an answer. It's a game ending, that's-all-she-wrote, one-size-fits-all, alpha-to-omega, end-of-story, let's-all-go-gome, hydrogen bomb answer.

By answering everything, it answers nothing.

I obvioiusly don't understand the need for capital-C Certaintly and capital-T Truth that creationists seem to share. 

I'm much more curious about what the next dig will turn up, how the next fossil or footprint of flower-strewn burial will change our understanding of our past, what a more detailed understanding of the changing geology and climate of east Africa two or three million years ago will tell us about the challenges our ancestors faced and why some of them survived and reproduced (and yes, evolved), while others faded away.

I know that I'll never get Certainty or Truth from science. What excites me is what science gives us every day--new and better answers to old questions, and answers that provoke new and better questions.

God may be The Answer, as the bumper stickers and billboards tell me. Perhaps to some people and some questions, but just not to the questions that science and scientists ask.

Robert Adler
for the institute