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Evolution and the Science of Creation

Bill Nye

If there were 7000 species of animals on Noah's Ark 4000 years ago, and we know there are at least 16 million species today, that means we would have to evolve 11 new species every day. Animals like kangaroo and koala had to get down off Mt Ararat and hop all way to Aust and NZ - without anyone seeing them, and without stopping to leave off breeding colonies as they went ....

Creationists imagine an Ark 500 feet long, able to hold 14,000 animals and food, and built and crewed by 8 people. The biggest wooden ship ever built in the real world was the Wyoming, built by in 1909 by trained shipbuilders. But even with iron braces, the ship flexed and leaked, and eventually sank in a storm. If the best shipbuilders in the modern world couldn't build a seaworthy 300 foot boat, how could 8 unskilled ancient people build a 500 foot boat?

Evo can only work with what it's got. The nerve that controls our voice box runs from the brain, right past the larynx, down to the top of the heart where it runs round an artery, then comes back up your neck to the larynx. In the giraffe it's the same. The distance from the brain to the larynx is about 2 inches, but the nerve connecting them does the same thing as it does in all mammals - down to the heart, round the artery, and back up the neck again - in an adult giraffe, a distance of about 15 feet.

The oldest mass extinction is called the Ordovician-Silurian and occurred 444 million years ago. At the time there was virtually no life on land, but about 85% of marine species were wiped out. The Late Devonian extinction, about 364 million years ago, lost about half the animals and plants. The worst was the Permian-Triassic extinction, 251 million years ago, when 75% of all species vanished. So we are descendants of the lucky 25% that survived. That extinction cleared the way for the dinosaurs. The Triassic-end extinction 200 million years ago took out another 50% of species, then finally the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction of 66 million years ago.

A new species of mosquito has emerged in the London Underground in just 50 years. The mosquitoes first appeared when large numbers of Londoners sheltered from German bombs and missiles in WW2. Culex pipien has become Culex molestus ('mosquito that buzzes' to 'mosquito that bothers'). The two species can sometimes breed in lab experiments, but are usually sterile. In just a few decades they will be completely unable to breed and will be totally separate species.

(NY Times)

In February, William Sanford Nye, better known as Bill Nye the science guy, stepped onto a stage in Kentucky and faced down a hostile crowd in a debate that pitted evolution against creationism. It wasn't his first time in the ring in science's corner. In recent years, Mr. Nye has transitioned from the zany, on-screen face of an educational show on PBS, which ran from 1993 to 1998, to a hardened warrior for science on cable news programs and speaking tours of colleges and universities around the United States.

In the news media, the final scorecard at the end of the science versus creationism debate was itself debated. Some said Mr. Nye won. Some suggested the in just showing up, he lost. One certainty did come from it: Mr. Nye said that it compelled him to drop everything he was doing to write a book. That book, 'Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation' has just been released.

I talked to Mr. Nye, 58, last month about bumblebees, the debate and why it made him think of death and the need to write the book. Here is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

In his new book, 'Undeniable,' the veteran television science showman Bill Nye talks about chicken knees, the importance of understanding evolution in an increasingly technologically based society and why he thinks creationists are preoccupied with death.

Q: Talk about the title, 'The Science of Creation.' It seems like clever wordplay with creation science. Is that what you meant?

A: Well, creation for me is all that we can see. It's the universe, all the stars, and I guess now the dark matter and dark energy and you and me. And I would claim that it's an older, more traditional use of the word creation. It's nature.

You bring up nature early in your book and you talk about the flight of bumblebees and how that fascinated you at a young age.

It still does. If you ever look at a bumblebee, it's a pretty big rig. It's a pretty big abdomen, thorax head situation with these tiny wings. And yet they're able to flop and fly like crazy, hover backwards and forwards, up and down, find their way to flowers, fill up the pollen basket. If you really take time and watch a bee with a pollen basket, it's full. I mean, it's carrying a load like a couple buckets of water slung over your shoulder. To me, it's remarkable.

You continue throughout the book to put yourself into the narrative. Why was it important to blend yourself into the book?

What we all want, what engages us as people, are stories. And when you tell a first-person story, it's very reasonable that it's true. When you describe how you feel, no one can argue with that. It has an authenticity. For me, evolution - it's important to understand like all of science - it affects you. It affects each of us. It affects me. So by talking about it from a person's point of view, I'm sure it's more compelling - if it's compelling at all.

From the creationist's side of things, the Bible is called the 'greatest story.' Does it seem like science has a difficult time telling a story that connects with people?

Well it never had trouble for me. I think I just had some great teachers. For me, the stories were always about people. Science is a human idea, and the people that do science, who collect a body of knowledge or execute the method of science are humans.

You say in the book that your concern is not so much for the deniers of evolution as it is for their children. Do you think the science stakes are higher now than when you started 'Bill Nye, The Science Guy' show in 1993?

Yes, because there are more people in the world - another billion people all trying to use the world's resources. And the threat and consequences of climate change are more serious than ever, so we need as many people engaged in how we're going to deal with that as possible. And we have an increasingly technologically sophisticated society. We are able to feed these 7.2 billion people because of our extraordinary agricultural technology. If we have a society that's increasingly dependent on these technologies, with a smaller and smaller fraction of that society who actually understands how any of it works, that is a formula for disaster. So, I'm just trying to change the world here.

A lot of the real action between evolution and creationism happens in the classroom, inside the schools. The scientific buffet style of your book - it takes all matters large and small when it comes to the universe and science and evolution and steps you through all of it - do you imagine a child in a creationist-friendly household managing to get his hands on the book and stealing away with it?

A man can dream! It would be great if the book is that influential. My biggest concern about creationist kids is that they're compelled to suppress their common sense, to suppress their critical thinking skills at a time in human history when we need them more than ever. By the time you're 18, you've made up your mind. It's going to be really hard for you, as they say in the Mormon tradition, to 'lose your testimony.' But if you're 7 or 8, we got a shot.

It's funny to talk about the idea of conversion, given the subject of the book. Is that something you're after?

Well, that would be the best case. But the other thing, for the book, is that there are fundamentals of evolution. There are principles. There are things about founders and bottlenecking of genes and altruism and costly signaling and just germs. There are just things about evolution that we should all be aware of, the way we're aware of where electricity comes from, or that you have cells with mitochondria. I've just met a lot of people who have very little training in evolution.

You talk a little in the book about how after the Kentucky debate happened, after you were done debating, you thought a lot about death, and that death was something that figured into your trying to understand why the creationist point of view may turn away from evolution. Talk a little about that.

I think the fear of death figures prominently in creationist thought. That the promise of eternal life is reassuring to people who are deeply troubled by the troubling fact that we're all going to die. And it bugs me, too. But I press forward rather than running in circles screaming.

You said that you're still scared of death, but understanding science doesn't help you from a fear of death.

No, if you didn't have a fear of death, you'd be dead. You would fall off the cliff. You would walk in front of the moving train. You would blow it somehow. You better have a fear of death. But there's another word I like to use, an English word: respect.

And ultimately, death is a part of evolution.

It's the key. The key is that you can pass on improvements by having kids. And there aren't enough resources for any population to go completely unchecked, whether the population is humans or crickets. There isn't enough for everybody, so you compete. And this is one of Darwin's enormous insights.

(National Geographic)

With a jaunty bow tie and boyish enthusiasm, Bill Nye the Science Guy has spent decades decoding scientific topics, from germs to volcanoes, for television audiences. Last February, the former engineer defended the theory of evolution in a debate with young-Earth creationist Ken Ham, a vocal member of a group that believes the Earth is only 6,000 years old. Nye's decision to engage Ham kicked up plenty of criticism from scientists and creationists alike.

The experience prompted the celebrity science educator to write a "primer" on the theory of evolution called Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. In his new book, Nye delights in how this fundamental discovery helps to unlock the mysteries of everything from bumblebees to human origins to our place in the universe.

Who do you hope will read this book?

Grown-ups who have an interest in the world around them, people coming of age who have an interest in science, people who still want to know how the world works.

This is the big concern of mine with respect to the organization Answers in Genesis and Ken Ham and all those guys: their relentless, built-in attempts to indoctrinate a generation of science students on a worldview that is obviously wrong.

I worry about these kids—they're part of my society. We can't raise a generation of students who don't understand the fundamental idea in all of life science, any more than you want to raise a generation of kids who don't understand chemistry or physics or arithmetic.

How and when did you first encounter creationism?

About 20 years ago. I was a member of the Northwest Skeptics, which is the Seattle-based skeptics organization. We met people who insisted that the Earth was 6,000 years old. The inanity took my breath away. When you understand anything about astronomy or have just a rudimentary understanding of radioactivity, the Earth is patently not 6,000 years old. It's silly.

It's been said that a good way of convincing people of something is to appeal to their emotions. What do you think?

That's my business! In the book, I purposely spend a lot of time in the first person. The reason is, we find stories compelling. Stories are how we remember things, how we organize things.

By telling a story in the first person, it's hard to dismiss. If I say, "I remember the time I met Ivan the gorilla," it's really difficult for the listener or reader to go, "No, you don't!"

When you say, "I feel," it's really hard for the reader to say, "No, you don't." Yes, I do. I did a lot of that in the book.

What first drew you to science? Was it the emotional connection?

When I got involved, in a very, very, very small way on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, I claim that I was the guy waving his arms, jumping up and down, saying, "We've gotta put a message to the future on this thing." And the guy who really crystallized it was the principal investigator, Steve Squyres. I had written "the thrill of discovery," and he said, "No, the joy of discovery."

He's absolutely right. What we want everybody to experience in science education and science is the joy of discovery.

And I definitely experienced that when I was a little, little kid. I watched bees and watched bees and watched bees and just said, "What's the deal? How can they possibly do this? Up and down, back and forth, hovering, filling up their pollen baskets." Pollen looks like it weighs twice what they do, and they have tiny, tiny wings. Flight has always fascinated me.

Why has there been such an assault on science in recent years?

I ponder this all the time. Our ability to share information has been fantastic, but I don't think we, as a society, have matured enough to sort out the good from the bad. If you have enough electronic influence, you can promote ideas—which, in this case, are obviously wrong. But you can do it loud and clear.

The other thing that's happened is that fossil fuel companies have successfully introduced the idea that scientific uncertainty is the same as doubt about the whole thing. This has gone from climate change to all sorts of things.

But I think taxpayers will realize that you can't remain competitive in the world, economically, without successful scientists and especially engineers—people who use science to solve problems and make things. I think people on both sides of the aisle will soon grasp that you can't be successful and ignore science.

One of the most fundamental ideas in explaining life on Earth is the theory of evolution, says Nye.

What one or two points do you want people to take away from this book?

Evolution is a discovery. We discovered evolution. Two guys [Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace], at about the same time, reached the same conclusion about nature.

The other thing is that we are all in this together—everybody on Earth. There's no such thing as "race." There are tribes and societies, but we're all one species because humans moved around the world so recently, in evolutionary terms.

Anything else?

Evolution fills me with reverence for our place within the cosmos, what I like to call "our place in space." We're the product of stardust, brought together by gravity—we're at least one of the ways that the universe knows itself. That, to me, is astonishing.

The other thing to realize is, the Earth is our home. It's all we have. This is where we make our stand, as Carl Sagan says. We ain't going anyplace else, not readily.

So, we've gotta figure this out. We've gotta take care of this place. Those discoveries come from understanding evolution.

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