In a video entitled “Bill Nye: Creationism Is Not Appropriate For Children” released on YouTube by bigthink on August 23, 2012, Bill Nye, known most popularly for his hosting of a children’s science-themed TV show (“Bill Nye the Science Guy”), shares his thoughts on Evolution and, specifically, deniers of evolutionary science. It doesn’t seem to be scripted, and it lasts only 2 minutes and 32 seconds. The video has gained immense popularity in the few days since it was released (“Bill Nye” was #1 in Yahoo!’s search terms when I watched it, almost a week later), and it has been featured on numerous news blogs and stations nation-wide.
It should be said immediately that Bill Nye is not a philosopher, and it shows. The video brings little more to the table than the popular, shallow rhetoric concerning the creation/evolution debate, wrapped in shiny red cellophane instead of the convenience-store plastic bag with the smiley face that we’re accustomed to. After all, Nye is a celebrity, and so we’re supposed to expect something unique. I don’t know. Due to the brevity of the video itself, it was difficult to expect anything substantial in the first place. The publisher provides the transcript of the video under the description, so I’ll be drawing from that.
Nye begins by stating the following:
Denial of evolution is unique to the United States. I mean, we’re the world’s most advanced technological—I mean, you could say Japan—but generally, the United States is where most of the innovations still happens. People still move to the United States. And that’s largely because of the intellectual capital we have, the general understanding of science. When you have a portion of the population that doesn’t believe in that, it holds everybody back, really.
I’m going to assume he means “unique” in the sense of “ironic” (i.e. a “unique phenomenon”) because otherwise he’s saying denial of evolution doesn’t happen anywhere else. I suspect poor wording at this point. According to Nye (and I have no reason to question his assessment here), most of the advancements in science happen here in the United States, and he says this is a reason people still emigrate here. We are either an Intellectual Capital or else we possess a great amount of “intellectual capital,” which is difficult to define, but his meaning is clear, either way. Tons of us be’s a bit learn-ed. He goes on to say that we’re generally knowledgeable of “science.” Next, he makes a rather curious assertion regarding a portion of the population that doesn’t believe in “that.” It’s an ambiguous “that” that elicits very different implications, depending on the way it is read, and it seems as though the ambiguity, if not outright equivocation, is intentional. That is, if you deny evolution, you deny science in toto. We’ll see hints of this later.
In what way were those who came before Darwin, for instance, being “held back”? They didn’t have as detailed a theory as we have today. His statement is vague enough that nothing in particular is in view. Only on the assumption that scientific “progress” is equivalent to further developing a particular theory of biological history can it be said that to deny evolution is to be held back (or hold others back). His implicit allegation is that only once one embraces evolution can he progress in any “life science” in particular. A cursory glance into the history of philosophy and the development of the scientific method, taking note of the people involved and their religious alignments, is sufficient to dispel such mythology.
Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology. It’s like, it’s very much analogous to trying to do geology without believing in tectonic plates. You’re just not going to get the right answer. Your whole world is just going to be a mystery instead of an exciting place.
Does he mean to say that Evolutionary Theory is the foundation of all of the life sciences? Granted, Historical Geology and Evolutionary Biology are very closely intertwined (as I suppose we should expect), and secular takes on science will reflect secular takes on science. But then he says, “You’re just not going to get the right answer,” as though he has access to some absolute standard of right and wrong with respect to observations in nature. Apparently the “right” answer is the answer that agrees with his own espoused ideology. And my world, consequently, is wholly mysterious and unexciting. Because evolution solves the Münchhausen Trilemma, the Problem of Induction, and other problems in metaphysics and epistemology, not to mention the trifecta of Morality, Truth and Logic…right? Moving on.
As my old professor, Carl Sagan, said, “When you’re in love you want to tell the world.” So, once in a while I get people that really—or that claim—they don’t believe in evolution. And my response generally is “Well, why not? Really, why not?” Your world just becomes fantastically complicated when you don’t believe in evolution. I mean, here are these ancient dinosaur bones or fossils, here is radioactivity, here are distant stars that are just like our star but they’re at a different point in their lifecycle. The idea of deep time, of this billions of years, explains so much of the world around us. If you try to ignore that, your world view just becomes crazy, just untenable, itself inconsistent.
“Why not?” he asks. Simple answer: Because, as currently formulated, evolution denies the truths of the Biblical account of Creation, historically understood. Indeed, the entire edifice seems to have been built upon explicit denial of Biblical truths, or else implicit denial by way of an alleged neutrality regarding observations of nature. Should we really be that willing to capitulate to the musings of men driven by a sinful suppression of biblical truth so readily? Can that really be considered responsible? By God’s grace even sinful men can get things right, in spite of their sinfulness, but I think I’ll wait until it sounds less antithetical to Biblical truths before I jump on board. Once again he asserts that the world of evolution deniers becomes incredibly complicated. Thankfully, those of us who deny evolution haven’t outgrown our imaginations, so we can construct scientific theories when we need to, and rationalize our observations in light of a fundamental truth we do have access to.
Dinosaur bones, fossils, radioactivity, distant stars: these are all observations of nature that require a paradigm through which to make sense of them. “Billions of years” seems out-of-place there, as no one can really observe “billions of years.” Observations themselves don’t explain the world around us, explanations of observations explain the world around us. “If you try to ignore that, your world view just becomes crazy, just untenable, itself inconsistent.” Again, what is “that”? I would agree that denying what one sees results in inconsistency and untenable craziness. But denying an observation is not the same as denying a particular person’s explanation of an observation. I won’t deny a pencil that I see on the table, but if you tell me that the ancient tribal Pencil People planted Pencil seeds in that spot that have now grown into a full, nicely sharpened pencil, I may look at you a little strangely.
And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can—we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.
Here is probably where the clearest example of presuppositional bias can be seen. Our world, he says, is “completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe.” I agree. The way I view the world is very inconsistent with the way he sees the world. Who cares? It’s completely consistent with everything I observe in the universe. Of course, he means to pass his observation of the universe off as the only correct observation of the universe. This is why I began by saying he’s not a philosopher. There is little self-reflection in his words.
He is so dogmatic on this point that he even wishes that children separate themselves from the teachings of their parents in order to embrace evolution. “[D]on’t make your kids do it,” he says. He implies that, otherwise, there will be no “scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future,” and no “engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.” Is this a fair statement? Are we really to believe that there are no engineers, no educated taxpayers and voters that don’t believe in evolution, or that only by being “literate” in evolutionary theory can one vote or pay his taxes effectively? I personally know engineers, taxpayers, and voters who deny evolution. So where does that leave his statement?
It’s just really hard a thing, it’s really a hard thing. You know, in another couple of centuries that world view, I’m sure, will be, it just won’t exist. There’s no evidence for it.
If I didn’t know better (and I guess I really don’t), I’d say he was reading the headlines on the r/atheism page on Reddit. His glorious eschatological realization – his Pie in the Sky – is that one day, very soon, “that world view” which denies evolution (at the very least) won’t exist. In spite of the millenia-length adherence to the Biblical worldview by many in history, a couple hundred years and it’s gonzo. Yes, it really is a hard thing.
To his credit, he never does mention “Creationism” or any of its relatives, as the title of the video implies. He never mentions Christianity. But he does characterize all evolution-denying “world views” as untenable and crazy. Is he really saying we have no reason to hold to our worldview? Last I checked, it’s the Bible that informs the Christian worldview. Or is he saying there is no evidence on earth to support a Christian worldview? It pains me to point out that “world” in “worldview” refers precisely to the observations of the…yup, the “world” in which all the evidence exists. He is saying that there is no evidence for our explanation of the evidence. He has not thought this through.
At any rate, all we have here is a brief sermon by a dogmatic preacher of evolution. He is preaching to his own choir. It’s the equivalent of a popular, visiting pastor, saying nothing but what the church expects him to, but with a certain intrigue due to his popularity. I envision atheists sitting on the very front row wearing their equivalent of suits and neckties, standing on their chairs waving their 2-ton Bibles and shouting “AMEN!” to the top of their lungs. Nothing to see here. Move along.