When a Parody has a Point (and when it doesn’t)

An image I recently ran across on-line. It is clearly a parody of creationist arguments, applying them to the periodic table.

While browsing the internet last week, I found the image shown above.[1] Take a moment to look at it. What information is the creator of the image trying to convey?

It is an attempt at a parody of creationist anti-evolution arguments. Do you see the parallels between the statements made about the periodic table and statements creationists sometimes make about the theory of evolution? “Some scientists think…” (“Evolutionists can’t agree on…”), “They added a whole column” (“Evolutionists have had to change their ideas”), “When will it end?” (“Evolutionists keep changing their ideas”), “Chemical periodicity is (just) a theory” (“Evolution is just a theory”). After all of the objections given about the “problems” with the periodic table, we are then told to revert to a “more sure” and “truthful” table of the elements, one where the only elements are Earth, Fire, Air, and Water, because that is the one that is actually taught in the Bible.

Now, I have to agree with part of what the creator of this image is claiming. It is true that creationists have spent a lot of time picking apart the theory of evolution. And by “picking apart,” I mean running through the details with a fine toothed comb. “They used to think that mesonychids were the ancestors of whales, now they think that whales are related to hippos” or “They used to think that grass didn’t exist with dinosaurs, now they have to acknowledge that grass was eaten by dinosaurs.” These sorts of “changes” to the theory of evolution are inconsequential. Whether whales were descended from mesonychids or related to hippos, whales still evolved from something. Whether dinosaurs ate grass or not, grass and dinosaurs both evolved from something. These sort of “criticisms” do not affect the heart of the theory of evolution, just as adding columns to the period table does not change the understanding that the elements follow distinct periods.

I want to emphasize how trivial it is for scientific theories to change. What we now consider to be a landmark moment in science is often fraught with erroneous ideas. Take our understanding of the atom, for example. The concept that matter is composed of atoms, or at least the modern incarnation of it, was proposed by John Dalton. He is still cited as the founder of atomic theory. Yet, he had some erroneous ideas about atoms, such as that atoms are indestructible and they are the smallest units of matter. It was later shown that atoms are composed of subatomic particles, so Dalton’s idea had to change. The first change was the Thomson “plumb pudding” model of the atom, where the atom was thought to be a homogeneous mixture of electrons and positively charged matter. Later, it was discovered that the electrons and the “positively charged matter” had a structure to them, with protons and neutrons in a dense nucleus and the electrons orbiting around the nucleus, in the more familiar planetary model of the atom. We can go one step further and mention the quantum model of the atom where the electrons don’t simply orbit the nucleus, they only exist in certain energy shells.

Notice how the model kept changing, but with each change, one element remained. Dalton was correct that atoms are the fundamental unit of matter in the sense that elements are defined by their atomic characteristics. Some of his proposals had to changed, but the fundamental idea remained the same. The Thomson model introduced the electron, so while the “plumb pudding” model was erroneous, the idea of electrons as subatomic particles remained. The planetary model is an oversimplification, since the electrons don’t exist in specific energy shells, but it is a convenient model that is used, even today, to illustrate what atoms look like. With each step, the atomic theory grows, and while things change, the general ideas added remain the same.

That is just how science works: scientific theories are improved by tweaking the model to account for new information. We didn’t throw out all of Dalton’s ideas, we didn’t disregard everything about the Thomson model, we still use the planetary model as a simple illustration, and by the same logic, we shouldn’t disregard the theory of evolution simply because it has changed over time or because scientists disagree on a few points.

Now I must hasten to add, I strongly disagree with the theory of evolution. Do not take my statement that “we shouldn’t disregard the theory of evolution” as absolute: we should disregard it. However, we should not disregard it because it has changed or because parts of it are in dispute. We should disregard it because it contradicts the account of creation given in Genesis 1-11. My point is, take a hint from the creator of the image shown above: don’t try to disregard the theory of evolution because it has changed, disregard the theory of evolution because it runs contrary to what we know to be the truth.

On that note, let me talk about what the author of the image got wrong, and got very wrong. After “dismissing” the periodic table, the author then proposes a proper table of elements consisting of Earth, Fire, Air, and Water, because that was the way Jehovah created things in 4004 BC. You probably see the problem: nowhere in the Bible are Earth, Fire, Air, and Water given as elements. Ironically, it was actually the ancient Greeks who believed that these were the four elements. So what the author of the image claims is a “Biblical” idea is actually an extra-Biblical idea.

Interestingly, creationists have been caught up in this accusation before. There is an idea that originated with the Greeks but is mistakenly attributed to the Bible, and anti-creationists like to hold it over our heads as an example of religion leading to false science. I am referring to the idea that the Sun orbits the Earth.

You know the story of Galileo. He discovered that the Earth orbited the Sun (technically, Copernicus proposed the idea, Galileo found support for it and promoted the idea). The Church (or more specifically, the Catholic Church), took opposition to Galileo’s idea because the Bible clearly stated that the Earth was the center of the universe. Galileo was forced to recant and was put under house arrest. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why we should not let religion dictate science.

Except that is not what happened. The Catholic Church did indeed hold to the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe and they claimed they had verses to support that idea. However, they didn’t. You can check the Bible: nowhere does it teach that God put the Earth at the center of the universe. Sure, there are some phrases that imply it, but these are phrases like our modern terms “sunrise” and “sunset.” These terms imply that the Sun is moving, yet we use them to describe the appearance of the Sun’s motion, not the actual motion of the Sun. Similarly, any phrases in the Bible that might be used to “prove” that the Earth is the center of the universe are describing appearance, not reality. So where did the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe come from?

Aristotle, a Greek philosopher.

That’s right, the Catholic Church held to the teachings of a Greek philosopher and then culled the Bible for verses to support Aristotle’s idea. Now, we creationists are told to keep quite otherwise we may repeat the travesty of the Galileo incident.

The truth is, there is nothing in the Bible that contradicts the periodic table. Thus, creationists happily accept the periodic table as legitimate because it is based on observation and reasoning, and God gave both to us as a way to learn about and understand the world that He created. It is only when a theory fundamentally contradicts the written Word of God (such as the theory of evolution directly opposing the creation events of Genesis 1-11) that we take opposition to what is taught in “science.”

Thoughts from Steven

PS. I wanted to point out one more thing, but it didn’t fit very well with the flow of thought in the main text. While pointing out that the theory of evolution has changed over time cannot disprove the theory of evolution, it does highlight that science is a limited endeavor. Why do scientific theories keep changing? Because scientists find new information that forces them to re-evaluate the ideas. Theories change because human observations are limited. You can use that observation as a critique of the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution is used to tell us about the nature of humans. We were not created in the image of God. We were instead created by natural processes from a common ancestor with the apes. Such a conclusion tells us about the very nature of humans and impacts our understanding of what it means to be human. Can we rely on such a conclusion when science, by its very nature, is limited to what has been observed? Science will always be limited. Are we willing to submit our eternal values to a human activity that will always be changing as new information is discovered?

This is perhaps not the strongest argument against evolution, but I wanted to point out that, while science changing is not a bad thing, in and of itself, the fact that science does change goes to show that science is limited in application. Evolutionists pretty much want everything to be explained by science, leaving no room for any other facts.

PPS. Some of you may have caught on to something. “There is a difference between atomic theory and the theory of evolution. Atomic theory is operational science while the theory of evolution is historical science. Historical science is less certain than operational sciences, so we can accept the atomic theory but we cannot accept the theory of evolution.” I deliberately avoided that argument because I do not believe that there is a significant difference between operational and historical sciences. Fundamentally, both are limited by what has been observed. I plan to illustrate this common limitation in the next post.

[1]I found the image on GraphJam.com. I am not sure from where it originated. There is a label that appears to be re-Discovery Institute with the website http://www.re-discovery.org. If so, then it may be more of a parody of intelligent design than creationism specifically.

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