Tilting at windmills

Don Quixote

September 29, 2014 is the 467th birthday of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, whose immortal Don Quixote is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of literature in any language. In fact, in 2002 the Norwegian Book Club named Don Quixote as “best literary work ever written” in their listing of the world’s 100 greatest books.

Don Quixote describes the exploits the protagonist Alonso Quixano, a semi-retired Spanish gentleman who got so carried away with his readings of chivalry and knights-errant exploits that he adopted the name Don Quixote, donned some old armor, named a friend as his squire Sancho Panza, and fancied a neighbor farm girl as his lover Dolcinea. He had come to accept every word of his books of chivalry to be literally true, even though these books were, at least in part, fiction.

Tilting at windmills

One of Don Quixote’s more memorable exploits (brilliantly played by British actor Peter O’Toole in the movie musical Man of La Mancha) was when he fancied that some nearby windmills were in fact ferocious giants: “With their spoils we shall begin to be rich, for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.” This iconic episode is, of course, the root of the well-worn English idiom tilting at windmills. One of the present authors snapped the following photo of one of the windmills in the La Mancha region of Spain thought to have been inspiration for Cervantes in writing the story:

One of the windmills thought to have been an inspiration for Don Quixote. Photo by author.

One of the windmills thought to have been an inspiration for Don Quixote. Photo by author.

While Don Quixote’s exploits are amusing, in the end he is quite pathetic — someone who time has clearly passed by, who needs to face the harsh reality that he is not a heroic figure battling for truth and right in the age of chivalry, but instead is merely, well, a semi-retired Spanish gentleman who got carried away.

Modern-day Don Quixotes

Don Quixote’s misadventures offer some clear lessons for modern-day creationists — writers who, like Ken Ham, insist that the earth (or even the entire universe) was created just a few thousand years ago, and that each individual “kind” (species?) was created separate from every other species, with no common ancestry.

Like Don Quixote, creationists (most of whom lack peer-reviewed qualifications in appropriate fields of geology, biology and physics) fancy themselves as “warriors” on equal footing with professional researchers who have devoted their entire careers to ferreting out the secrets of the natural world, which researchers are fully versed in (and regularly contribute to) the latest peer-reviewed literature in the field.

Like Don Quixote and his readings of chivalry, many creationists hold the Bible to be inerrant, “without error or fault in all its teaching,” and further to be read as a scientific textbook even more than a religious scripture. This view, which finds little if any support within the Bible itself, is rejected by the vast majority of religious denominations, even among relatively “conservative” denominations who generally accept the Bible as the “word of God.” Nonetheless it is affirmed by many creationists, including, for instance, Ken Ham.

And like Don Quixote, creationists tilt at windmills. Consider, for a moment, some of the “windmills” that creationists must confront today:

  1. A worldwide community of millions of professional scientists. Just in the U.S., there are currently 5.8 million persons employed in scientific and engineering occupations, according to a 2008 National Science Foundation report, including 320,000 in life sciences and 302,000 in physical sciences. A 2012 estimate based on UNESCO data and employing a stricter definition of “scientist,” gave 8.7 million scientific researchers worldwide.
  2. A rich peer-reviewed literature, with hundreds of thousands of new scientific papers published each year. According to a 2012 study, approximately 1.8 million scholarly peer-reviewed journal articles are published each year, of which 30%, or roughly 540,000, are in scientific fields. These figures are growing with each passing year.
  3. Rapidly advancing scientific measurement and analysis technology. Most readers have heard of Moore’s Law, the famous prediction by Gordon Moore of Intel in 1965 that semiconductor devices would roughly double in capacity and/or capability every 18 months or so, a prediction which remarkably has held up for 49 years (and still going). Needless to say, scientific measurement and analysis technology has taken full advantage of Moore’s Law, delivering equipment to research labs that is far more capable, precise, foolproof and cheaper than in earlier years.

With regards to scientific technology, it is worth pointing out that DNA sequencing technology, which is widely employed to measure the common ancestry “distance” between related organisms in the evolutionary “family tree,” has been falling even more dramatically in price than Moore’s Law. The first human DNA sequence, completed in 2003, cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Today human DNA can be sequenced for a few thousand dollars, and costs are still dropping, as illustrated in this chart:

Drop in cost for one human genome. Courtesy genome.gov.

Drop in cost for one human genome. Courtesy genome.gov.

Indeed, how can creationists such as Ham possibly think that they can overturn well-established scientific theories, or “compete” in any way with a worldwide army of professional scientists armed with the very latest technology our modern society can produce?

The Large Hadron Collider and 21st century astronomical telescopes

One item in the arsenal of modern scientific research technology is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which, at the present time, is quite literally the most technologically sophisticated single device ever constructed by the human species. In every second of operation the LHC analyzes many billions of fundamental particle reactions, searching (so far in vain) for any interaction that is not well explained, qualitatively and quantitatively, by the current standard model of physics, including quantum mechanics.

Creationists often dismiss scientists’ ages of rock samples or geologic eras, which are based on radioactivity measurements and thus on quantum mechanics. So when they do this, they are, in effect, throwing their lances at the LHC. At least Don Quixote of old might have disrupted the vanes of the windmills with his lance. But do creationists think that their “lances” will dent the LHC?

Creationists often assert that a uniformitarian assumption is inherent in measurements of geologic dates. But scientists have very good reasons to hold this assumption. For example, scientists really do possess time machines to look into the distant past, namely astronomical telescopes. Because astronomers view stars that are thousands, millions or billions of light-years away, they are looking into the past thousands, millions or billions of years. And when they see, in their telescopes, the laws of quantum mechanics (and the laws of radioactive decay in particular) being obeyed with exquisite precision, just as they are today on earth, then this is strong evidence that geologic dates are, in fact, very reliable.

At the present time, one of the world’s largest astronomical telescope systems is the twin 10-meter Keck Observatory, near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. But it will soon be dwarfed by European Extremely Large Telescope, currently under construction on a mountaintop in Chile, which will feature a 39-meter main mirror. When completed in 2018, it will quite literally be the “world’s biggest eye on the sky.” Here is an artist’s depiction of the final product:

European Extremely Large Telescope. Courtesy ESO.

European Extremely Large Telescope. Courtesy ESO.

So are creationists going to start throwing their “lances” at telescopes too?

Don’t many scientists question evolution?

With regards to the millions of scientists mentioned above, some creationists counter that many scientists question evolution. While there doubtless are some that do, it is a fact that the vast majority of professional research scientists who are actively engaged in fields relevant to evolution believe the basic tenets of the discipline to be well beyond reasonable doubt.

For example, a few years ago the Discovery Institute, which promotes intelligent design, published a A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism. The signatories of this list affirm that “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.” As of 12 August 2014, the list contains approximately 870 names. (Note, however, that their declaration offers no support for Ken Ham-style young-earth creationism).

In response to the DI list, the U.S. National Center for Science Education published their Project Steve list, which is only open to persons named “Stephen,” “Steven,” “Stephanie,” or equivalents in other languages. Its signatories affirm:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. …

As of 12 August 2014, this list has 1344 names.

One of the present authors recently did an analysis of the two lists, limiting names in both lists to only those persons who have a Ph.D. or professional position in a core field closely related to evolution. This stricter qualification is met by 55% of the NCSE list, but only by 28% of the DI list. And given that only roughly 1% of persons in North American and Western Europe are named “Stephen” or the equivalents mentioned above, it follows that at least 200 times as many qualified scientists accept that the evidence for the basic tenets of evolution is beyond reasonable doubt, as compared to those who say there is reasonable doubt.

The fall of Don Quixote

In the book (as well as in the musical), Don Quixote’s quixotic career is finally brought to an end by other “knights” who convince him that he is not really a knight-errant and that the age of chivalry is over. Dejected, he returns to his home town and soon dies.

Similarly, with each passing year, the young-earth creationist position becomes more and more untenable, even pathetic. Young people in high school or college laboratories personally perform experiments that confirm old-earth geology and evolution and refute young-earth creationism. For example, mass spectrometers, the key instrument required to measure geologic dates of rock specimens, are now available (used) on Ebay for as little a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. Will creationists not accept that the earth is old until they can measure the ages of rock samples with their own hands? That day is almost here.

Nor is the science-religion battle worth fighting anymore. All major religious denominations made their peace with modern science years, if not decades, ago. Evolution and old-earth geology are taught, without apology, at every major state-operated institution of higher learning in North America, Western Europe, Australia and Asia, and at most religious colleges and universities as well. These include, in the U.S., Yeshiva University (Jewish), Notre Dame (Catholic), SMU (Methodist), Baylor (Baptist) and BYU (LDS). In short, creationists are fighting a battle that really doesn’t exist anymore.

The current “battle” by creationists against the scientific establishment is reminiscent of the saga of Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese solider who would not accept reports that World War II was over, and instead continued to wage “war” on a remote island in the Philippines until 1974, 29 years after the Japanese surrender. He ended his “war” only when his former commander came to the island and accepted his sword.

Some may regard Onoda as a “hero” of sorts. But think of the many years he wasted in a pointless battle with an imaginary enemy. So it is with creationists — they will not prevail, but how many years and lives will be wasted in the meantime? How many more high school teachers will fear reprisals from parents if they teach evolution? How much longer will a pointless “war” rage between science and religion? It’s time to declare the war over.

Comments are closed.