Jul 07 2015

Refutation of Creationist Memes

The term “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins to refer to a unit of thought, behavior, or style that spreads through a culture, as if it were a living thing like a virus. That term has also been co-opted to refer to a social media construct that usually takes the form of a picture with a pithy phrase. Memes (of the social media variety, which is how I will use the term from here out) can be humorous and when well done can convey an important idea in a pithy and witty fashion.

We often will spread skeptical memes on the SGU’s Facebook page, and so I have been paying attention to them more recently. Creating a really good meme is challenging, and often I see memes that don’t quite work. The main challenge is conveying the proper nuance in a short phrase (Twitter carries the same limitation). Meaty skeptical ideas don’t often lend themselves to the number of words that can easily fit on one small picture. But often they can convey a core idea very well.

Of course, people of every ideological persuasion use memes to convey their message. Recently I have come across a number of creationist memes, and like all such nonsense they demonstrate only that creationists really do not understand evolution. Each meme conveys a profound misunderstanding, and it occurred to me that each creationist meme therefore presents a teaching moment. So here they are, with my analysis, a random assortment of creationist memes. If you come across others feel free to link to them in the comments and I will add them to the list.

Creationist Meme #1 – Chimp-Pig Hybrid

We’ll start with an easy one (from Evolution’s Family Tree): This is an excellent example of a straw man logical fallacy – attacking a weak argument that is easy to refute (or ridicule) but that does not actually represent the position of your opponents. The notion that humans resulted from a pig-chimp mating is a real idea proposed by Eugene McCarthy.

McCarthy, however, is not a “leading geneticist” but a crank. His proposal was soundly criticized by the scientific community, who did not take it seriously for a moment. Chimps and pigs are simply too distant evolutionarily to produce viable fertile offspring, and there is no real indication of porcine characteristics in humans. McCarthy is speculating wildly from superficial similarities between humans and pigs in a classic example of crank science.

Using this crank idea, rejected by actual evolutionary scientists, to criticize evolutionary theory is like criticizing planetary astronomy because of the wacky ideas of Immanuel Velikovsky.

Creationist Meme #2: Phylogeny

Here is a more serious meme (also from Evolution’s Family Tree) that conveys a misunderstanding about the science of evolutionary theory. First, I want to note the use of terminology here. The creator of this meme uses the term “evolutionism” instead of “evolution” or “evolutionary theory.” The implication here is that belief in evolutionary theory is an ideology, rather than a scientific position, a claim that is demonstrably wrong.

They also claim that phylogenetic trees such as the one presented here are presented by evolutionary scientists as “evidence.” They are not. They are a diagram that organizes our current scientific understanding of the evolutionary relationship among a group of species, which can either be extinct, extant, or both. These trees are based upon evidence, but they are not the evidence themselves.

This is such a basic misunderstanding that I have to wonder if the creator of this meme really knows that phylogenetic trees are not presented as evidence but could not resist using that claim as a propaganda dig. Either way, it is either dishonest, or profoundly ignorant.

More importantly, however, the meme completely misunderstands the purpose and meaning of phylogenetic trees. In the example here, the diagram is showing the evolutionary relationship among a group of extant (living) fish (that is why the lines all end at the top, which represents the present). Such a diagram may be derived entirely from genetic and morphological analysis of living species. In other words – the data being summarized here has nothing to do with fish ancestors and only has to do with relationships of modern fish.

Also, the diagram is clearly a schematic. The lines represent only the order in which phylogenetic branchings occurred, not actual evolutionary lineage. This diagram is not meant to represent common ancestors, that is not the data being shown.

Even when phylogenetic trees show extinct species from fossil evidence and attempt to capture evolutionary pathways (and not just branching order), it is rare for scientists to think that they have discovered a literal common ancestor to later species. Speciation events (the branching points in the tree) tend to occur in small populations and can occur in a few thousand years, which is a geological blink of an eye. It would be statistically very unlikely for a fossil to represent an actual common ancestor population. The fossil record samples mainly from large stable populations, which likely miss the actual branching points.

Further still, the meme clearly misunderstands the concept of transitional fossils (and claims they don’t exist). All species are, in fact, transitional in that they represent an evolutionary connection between other species. When we look at extinct species from their fossil remains, we see creatures that fit well into the evolutionary pattern of life. Because they fit somewhere into this web of evolutionary connections, they are transitional. ¬†Even a fossil species that is at the end of an evolutionary dead end is still part of a larger group that is transitional between other groups. What we don’t find in the fossil record are creatures that fit nowhere in the evolutionary history of life – no true anomalies or non-transitional species.

Creationist Meme #3: The Walk of Progress

This meme is based on the common creationist claim that there are no transitional fossils. As I explained in #2, this claim grossly misunderstands what is meant by transitional, and also simply misrepresents the state of fossil evidence. In fact, there are billions of fossils sitting in museums throughout the world.

The meme takes for granted the “march of progress” icon of evolution, even though this is considered an old image that does not accurately represent evolutionary history. Evolutionary change over time does not generally occur in a linear fashion (there can be exceptions). Human history, for example, is a complex branching bush of speciation. There is also no direction in evolution. A modern hominid phylogenetic tree is much more complex than this simple image.

The primary misconception of this meme, however, is to confuse the common ancestor of chimps and humans with chimps. The meme points to the most ape-like creature in the diagram and proclaims “there are millions of these.” There aren’t. In fact, there are none. We have not discovered a creature that can be considered a common ancestor between chimps and humans. That period of time is not well represented currently in the fossil record.

If the creator of the image thought that picture was a chimp, then they are asking – why are there millions of chimps and humans (currently living species) when there are so few extinct hominids? This may have something to do with the fact that they are extinct.

A much better way to look at the evidence is this: Evolutionary theory predicted that all living creatures are actually related, which means that in the past there must have been creatures that were part way between any two closest living creatures. It seems that chimps are our closest cousins, therefore evolutionary theory predicts we will find fossils of creatures that are morphologicaly part way between humans and chimps.

This prediction proved true. There are now thousands of fossils of hominids, filling in the space between humans and chimps, with some branching off in their own direction, while others are clearly human ancestors. If evolution were not true, there would be no particular reason for any of these fossils to exist. It is interesting to see how motivated reasoning can allow someone to twist reality, and easily verifiable facts, into a particular narrative.

Conclusion

Creationist memes demonstrate that creationists do not have even a basic working understanding of evolutionary theory, or they ignore that understanding in order to score cheap propaganda points. One might argue that these memes are straw men and do not represent common creationist thought, but the fact is that they do. These types of claims are mainstream creationism.

Send me any more creationist memes that you find and I will take them down one-by-one.

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