Response to Creationist 12

12. “There is no inbetween… the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds neccessary for an “official proof””

There are two things we can learn from 12’s claim, which is a variation on the old “missing link” objection.

The first and most obvious is that she hasn’t done any personal research on the topic. A few seconds on Wikipedia is enough to discover that Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, alone has dozens of separate fossil finds, and hundreds of individual fragments. As for the whole of “inbetween”, if she doesn’t want to shell out £70 for Walter Hartwig‘s comprehensive reference work The Primate Fossil Record, she could always have a quick scan of Wikipedia’s List of human evolution fossils. But now we’re halfway through the 22 creationists, it’s no longer a surprise to find that 12 is not in the slightest bit interested in the actual evidence she’s pretending to critique.

The second and more instructive part of 12’s statement is a new insight into the creationist belief-formation process. It’s her claim that Lucy is “only a few pieces”, whereas it’s hundreds that would be “neccessary for an “official proof””. The fact she’s wrong about Lucy (which is several hundred pieces, representing about 40% of a complete skeleton) is hardly surprising; what’s really interesting is her idea that there is such a thing as an “official proof”.

Does she imagine that there is an Office of Scientific Proofs somewhere, deciding which evidence is valid and sending out diktats to the world scientific community, telling them what to believe? Does she think that Lucy was sent to their hominid fossil department (surely the most underworked staff in history, having received only one enquiry during their entire existence) who checked the number of bones against their threshold criterion (several hundred) and issued the verdict, “not official proof”?

It’s a facetious question, but the sad thing is, that probably is roughly what 12 believes about how science works. Her comfortable use of the phrase “official proof” reveals a catastrophic misapprehension about both science and, more fundamentally, the acquisition of knowledge. Instead of looking up facts and assessing them herself, she prefers to let someone else do that work for her, and give her a verdict of the ‘official truth’, which she accepts unquestioningly. It’s an intellectual shortcut which has made her dangerously susceptible to control and exploitation by purveyors of self-serving lies – religious leaders – and since she lives in a community of people who all accept the same dogma, it’s unlikely she’ll reject it.

To understand people like 12, you have to stop thinking of the human brain as a kind of perfectly designed, rational belief-forming machine, which takes facts as inputs, processes them, and spits out the resulting conclusions. Instead, remember that it’s a lump of meat which has evolved to achieve a specific purpose: control its body well enough to survive for about 20-30 years and breed. Having beliefs is a part of how it works, and processing facts into beliefs is one of its ways of getting them, but it’s not the only one.

Another highly successful tactic for acquiring beliefs is unhesitatingly accepting them from someone else. When children’s parents say, “that’s poisonous, don’t eat it,” or, “that will hurt you, don’t touch it,” or, “there’s something dangerous coming, run!”, it was as true on the African savannah where the human brain evolved, as it is today, that the children who immediately believe the statement without further debate are more likely to survive than the ones who don’t. The brain’s pathways to belief developed as a product of this type of success.

Argument from authority is therefore a highly potent belief-forming mechanism. Even the most enlightened and sceptical of us will still fall for it frequently, accepting without question the orders of uniformed officials, even when they’re wrong.

Sadly, 12’s brain has got itself stuck in a degraded state where it unconsciously accepts authority as the primary belief-forming mechanism. She probably had authority figures early in her life who quickly reinforced their control over it by teaching her – by virtue of their authority – to believe only authority. Those grooves are now dug so deep, she’s probably incapable of ever escaping them, and being presented with opposing evidence is unlikely to encourage her to do it, because those alternative evidence-based pathways to belief have atrophied from long disuse. It’s no exaggeration to say that 12’s religious upbringing has left her with a form of brain damage. It’s going to take monumental effort, and probably a clinical, psychological approach to repair it.

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