Confusing Teens with De-evolving snakes

Recently we have hosted the Teen group from our church for their weekly bible study on a Sunday evening. I don’t sit in on it, though my wife has chosen to do so to assist the youth leaders.

After the most recent one my wife informed me that one of the Teens had asked a question linking evolution to the Fall in the Garden of Eden. The basic premise was that evidence showed that snakes evolved from a legged animal, this is visible when you examine the skeleton. Its more obvious on some species than others.

The understanding was that snakes had de-evolved (devolved?) and this was part of the cruse put on snakes in the Garden of Eden.

The first major flaw here is that there is no thing as de-evolved. Species evolve from one to another in a constant meandering sequence of generations. Losing limbs is not de-evolving or evolution in reverse, or whatever spin anyone wishes to put on it. A species will evolve to fill a niche and if you have a glut of lizard type animals and no snakes, its pretty likely that a snake will evolve from at least one of the lizard groups. There are circumstances where a snake has an advantage over a lizard.

I can’t recall where the Teen got the information from but I think it was from a Christian source. Well it would have to be to draw the Serpent in Eden link.

My wife didn’t offer an explanation, but I gave her the one above anyway and asked if she’d considered brining me in to answer that question. She didn’t because it was apparently a side comment in a bigger discussion and the subject didn’t stay on the snake for longer than it took to make the comment and acknowledge it. I asked if I should have a conversation with the Teen in question in case there was an issue with evolution. Again, this was seen as not really required.

My wife has very little interest in discussion evolution and certainly not to the depth that I like to. This is not because she disagrees with it, on the contrary, she has always accepted it without question. She just doesn’t have the same (obsessive?) interest that I do. That’s fine.

I do have a concern about the Teen in question though. Are they like the Teen me who struggles to balance evolution with faith and so is teetering on the brink of Creationism? Or are they like my Teen pre-wife, okay with the concept of evolution and will nod at discussions like this but never really take it any further?

I hope it’s the latter because my Creationist experiences do make me concerned that comments like this will confuse Teens and they could eventually default to a position of biblical authority over science. Knowing there are active Creationists in the church only adds to that concern.

I just hope I am wrong.

Zebra Stripes

Earlier this year the BBC reported on a study that some scientists did regarding Zebra stripes (http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/16944753).

The experiment is fascinating and a great example of how to do good science.

Scientists are not sure exactly why the Zebra got its stripes. Although, from reading other commentary on the subject, it does seem to be more a case of other related animals lost their stripes because the common ancestor was apparently striped.

That aside, the Zebra stands out as being striped while all those around it are not. The standard idea is its camouflage related; in the tall grass of the African plain the striped zebra is harder to see in the tall grass and long shadows. Certainly I can testify to the effectiveness of this when, many years ago, I went on safari with a video camera stuck to my face and a B&W screen in the viewfinder. However, with the benefit of colour vision, the black and white zebra can be quite easy to see when all around is green or brown.

When you consider that most other hoofed herbivores on the savannah are some form of beige, its easy to see why they are that colour because it makes them very hard to spot. So the Zebra stands out as being different.

Aha! The creationist would say, proof that God created the world as it is. This is certainly the view that I would once of taken.

Well, the study referenced above took a different tack and tested the effect of the stripes on flies. Out in the African bush, where Zebras live alongside many forms of deer and antelope, flies are a major problem and it seems the study shows clearly that the Zebra stripes are an effective disincentive to the flies.

This would certainly be an advantage to the Zebras. Especially when you consider that when you see Zebras in the wild they are very rarely on their own. By that I mean, you don’t just see a heard of Zebra. You tend to see a large heard of another prey animal, typically one similarly sized to the Zebra, alongside the Zebras. Its as though the conspicuous Zebra if using the greater numbers of another species to give it some form of predator protection and the stripes serve to ward discourage flies so that they bother the host herd animals more than the Zebra itself.

Now, I am of course speculating there, but that’s how science is done. You speculate, devise a test and see how right or wrong you are. No doubt more study will be done on this and its certainly unclear how the fly repellent features of the stripes would be strong enough to be a positive selective criteria.

Maybe there is another source to the stripes and the fly bit is merely a coincidental benefit which is now proving to be a great advantage.

Either way, the study shows an example of great science and I for one hope that more study will be done and published in the coming years.

And on a personal note, this is the kind of science that I love to read about.

Oh Science, Why do you Change so much?

One of the barriers I had when it came to evaluating the claims of science with those of creationism was the issue of the changeability of scientific claims.

Creationism offered a reliable, solid and unchanging account of how the world began and is now. God made it the way it is and our inability to understand or explain certain things was a failing of science and proof of God’s created world.

For me, reading about new discoveries and how they would change the way scientists thought about some things was evidence that scientists couldn’t make up their minds and that science was a lost cause with little ability to properly explain. Couldn’t they just read the bible and see how constant everything is and how it was all created as it should be and as it is now?

Science changing in response to new knowledge or understanding was seen as a bad thing thing.

It took a very long time for me to appreciate that a change in understanding does not automatically mean that everything beforehand was wrong. A change in understanding or a new discovery does not invalidate what has gone before, it typically clarifies. A complete overturning of previous ideas is not especially common, and it gets rarer as more is known and understood.

Learning is not linear

For reasons I can’t fully explain, my expectation of scientific knowledge was that new discoveries should confirm what we already know (a created world) and that as scientific knowledge expands, so does the validation of that. The concept of science uncovering the unexpected and leading to tangential discoveries was alien and only served to illustrate to me that science was deceivable.

Failure is always an option

I was wrong of course, but realising that took an awfully long time and was a very gradual process. Scientists of course love to be proved wrong on a theory because being wrong is still a positive scientific result and means that the premise that was used for that test can be scratched off and something new tried. This is the point of the scientific method, test something, multiple times and if your expectation is wrong then you know more work is required to get the right answer. This is not a failure of science, quite the opposite in fact. It’s a validation that science does not care what you think, it merely acts according to the rules of the universe. The object of scientific testing is to find out those rules.

This is how we know that the planets orbit the sun and how to get spacecraft to the moon. It is how we know about fluid dynamics and a whole host of other things. The process of scientific testing could also be referred to as trial and error; test stuff and respond to the results, make a prediction and see if the test confirms or contradicts.

It’s the only way to learn and to assume that we already know the right answer without that imperial proof is arrogant.

Creationists are still making the same mistakes.

I read a small number of creationist blogs and every now and then I see a post that falls into the same traps as detailed above. I recognise the thinking there and I understand why they are thinking the way they do. I was there once and I get it.

I also understand why they are wrong.

I have on occasion made a comment to try and point them in the correct direction. The reply is usually predictable, because I have been there before as well, I know the standard responses.

I have tried to use this knowledge and my experience of having been there to add a considered and accurate correcting response. I know a single comments will never change the creationist mind, but hopefully my comment will help to sow the seeds of truth and eventually it will be counted as a contributing factor.

Sometimes my attempt at helpfulness has been responded too as if I was being argumentative, that’s a shame because that has never been my position. I know how that feels and it never works out well, (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/when-friends-are-unkind/).