20080811

Pangaea and creationism (part one in a series).

Part two in this series can be read here.
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Last month, Deb linked to an article at Scientific American about a DNA study tracing the migration patterns humans across the earth. The study itself was uncontroversial, merely providing additional support for something that has been known for over a century: that humans originated in Africa, and, from there, spread across the globe.

Deb was bemused and angered by some of the commenters on the SciAm article. You see, it didn’t take long before the creationist pile-on began. In only the third comment, one commenter rejects out of hand the African origin of humanity; in the next post, he or she “explains” his or her “reasoning”, in an incoherent comment which mostly revolves around oil deposits in Asia. Near the end, however, he or she makes an oblique reference to a theory that would seem out of place in creationism: Pangaea.

It may come as a surprise, but some creationists have embraced the theory of continental drift – and Pangaea in particular – to support their beliefs. To be fair, not all creationists subscribe to this idea. However, it appears to be popular enough to warrant a response from numerous creationist organizations.

According to these “tectonic creationists”, two verses in Genesis refer specifically to Pangaea and continent drift. The first of these is Genesis 1:9, which reads:

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

[Emphasis mine] This is said to refer to Pangaea. The second verse is Genesis 10:25, which reads:

And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided; and his brother's name was Joktan.

[Emphasis mine] This is said to refer to continental drift. It takes little effort to explain why all this is nonsense. The first verse cited is severely distorted by this brand of creationist, and the second is taken wildly out of context. Genesis 1:9 refers rather simply to God forming order out of chaos, a commonplace motif in Near and Middle Eastern religions. Genesis 10:25 refers not to a literal division of the terrestrial landmass, but to the social upheaval that occurred in the wake of the events at Babel.

Why creationists would embrace Pangaea and continental drift to argue against evolution? After all, neither of these concepts fits easily into the Biblical framework; they must be shoehorned in, and mutilated in the process. Just for starters, Pangaea was not the “original” supercontinent, but only the latest in a long series of supercontinents; nor will it be the last. Furthermore, plate tectonics is driven by incredibly violent energies below the earth’s crust; if these were released within the span of a single human lifetime, they would destroy all life on the planet.

It is true that creationists have been forced to mutilate other ideas in order to fit them into the fundamentalist framework. Creationists typically deny the true age of the universe by claiming that the speed of light has slowed since the time of creation. There is a difference between the speed of light and plate tectonics, however: the former is obvious, whereas plate tectonics is non-obvious and could easily be ignored within the context of a 6000-year old earth. Dragging the latter theory into the mix does the creationist no favors, and makes him look rather desperate in the process.

Finally, as I mentioned above, plate tectonics and continental drift are non-obvious phenomena, and most people could go their entire lives without having the slightest inkling that the continents move around. The evidence in favor of these theories is conclusive, but hardly the sort of evidence that demands everyday attention.

In contrast, evolution by natural selection is supported by an extraordinary amount of evidence, and new evidence accumulates daily. Evolution has successfully passed the many tests to which it has been put, and it has made reliable predictions for both laboratory and real-world settings. Furthermore, evolution is rather obvious, and Darwin’s theory was only one in a long series of theories that attempted to explain the biological similarities in nature – earlier theories that, I must add, did not result in the same level of controversy Darwin’s received.

Obviously, creationists find evolution offensive in a way that they do not find plate tectonics. The latter theory is impersonal; it says nothing about human nature. Evolution, on the other hand, does address human nature, and it was not long after the theory was proposed that one of its implication for human origins was understood. It was this implication that led to the development of modern creationism, and that drove its development for nearly a century. Pangaea and continental drift are merely the latest attempt to avoid facing that implication, one that most people accepted long ago.

I will discuss that implication in my next post in this series, but I will give you a hint: it involves blood – specifically, one drop of it.

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2 comments:

Deb said...

Ah yes, that famous one drop. That everyone has and don't want to admit it. Some days it really cracks me up the lengths that people will go to deny evolution and that it means we are all related.

Meanwhile they go the beach and burn themselves bronze, the exact shade I was born with. I smile everytime I see a blonde baking.

Jared said...

That's incredibly interesting, I had no idea that Pangaea was supported in some creationist circles. I still think that if Creationists were ever entirely successful of ridding schools of evolution, then geology would be the next to go.