The Case for a Creator: Anticuriosity

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 9

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’”

—attributed to Isaac Asimov

Although science progresses through reason and experiment, it’s fundamentally driven by curiosity. The impulse that motivates science is the same one that motivates explorers to trek into uncharted wildernesses and climb unconquered mountains, the same one that spurred ancient tribes to paddle over to the next island or cross the next river: the human desire to know, to grasp the totality of the natural world and understand the patterns and connections that flow within it. This sense of curiosity, the urge to explore for exploration’s sake, inspires a range of human activities from children digging in the dirt to astrophysicists sending probes to the outer reaches of the solar system.

This is a trait that’s noticeably lacking in the creationist movement. Rather than form hypotheses and run experiments, rather than do research and discover new evidence, the dominant attitude among creationists seems to be: it’s too hard, you’ll never be able to figure it out, don’t even bother. I earlier called this attitude “strategic pessimism”, but I think it runs deeper than that. In chapter 9, Stephen Meyer shows why.

In this part of the chapter, Meyer is talking with Lee Strobel about the Cambrian explosion. He insists on describing it as a sudden appearance of radically new, fully formed body plans, and asserts, with zero evidence or even a footnote, that the period of the Cambrian explosion was “far too short to have allowed for the kind of large-scale changes that the fossils reflect” [p.240]. I’ve already discussed Jonathan Wells’ similar confusion about the Cambrian explosion, so I won’t repeat those remarks. Instead, I want to focus on one remark in particular that Meyer makes.

“The big issue is where did the information come from to build all these new proteins, cells, and body plans? For instance, Cambrian animals would have needed complex proteins, such as lysyl oxidase. In animals today, lysyl oxidase molecules require four hundred amino acids. Where did the genetic information come from to build these complicated molecules?” [p.240]

Now, if you were a scientist, this is just the kind of question that could spur a research program. You could ask questions like: Does lysyl oxidase show sequence similarities to other proteins from which it plausibly could have evolved? If so, do these similar proteins exist in bacteria or in other species that predated the Cambrian explosion, and what are they used for in those species? You could draw a family tree of all the living species that have genes for lysyl oxidase, and see if there are any commonalities that point to the protein’s being inherited from a single common ancestor. Given this family tree, you could see if the genetic sequences that encode the protein are different in related species, and from this, you could use molecular clock methods to estimate how long ago the protein first evolved.

Answering all these questions would be a major feat of scientific legwork. Here’s most of what we know about lysyl oxidase – you can see for yourself how much effort it took just to work out the molecular structure of the protein, what types of tissue it’s expressed in, and what it does in the cell. Meyer is asking a much more difficult question, one which would require a correspondingly greater amount of effort to answer.

Of course, he isn’t volunteering to carry out this research himself. But what’s striking about this passage is that he’s not encouraging anyone else to do so either. Instead, he’s actively discouraging people from trying to find out. His question – where did the genetic information come from? – clearly isn’t intended as an honest question in search of an answer, but as a rhetorical query meant to paralyze us with the sheer overwhelming complexity it implies. It’s impossible to figure this out, he’s saying, so why even try? Just say that God did it in a miracle and then call it a day!

This is the exact opposite of the impulse that gives rise to science – not the enlightening spark of curiosity that drives us to make new discoveries, but the desire to remain in the dark and stay ignorant, to be easily discouraged by anything we don’t already understand. I don’t think English has a good word for this, so let’s call it “anticuriosity”.

Anticuriosity is the hallmark of the creationist movement. They believe that they already have a one-size-fits-all answer for any question – God did it, it was a miracle, impossible for us to explain or understand – and naturally, that mindset doesn’t encourage scientific exploration. Why would you encourage people to be skeptical and ask questions if you already possess Absolute Truth? Why encourage them to explore if you already have all the important answers that anyone ever needs to know? Why bother doing research or experiments if you already know ahead of time what the conclusion has to be? At best such activity will accomplish nothing, and at worst, it will inspire people to doubt and to undermine the all-important social order.

I’m not saying this is how Meyer consciously thinks, but I am saying that this is the attitude his interview conveys. And he’s by no means the first Christian apologist to take this position. John Milton’s Paradise Lost expresses the same view several hundred years earlier, as in this section from book 8, where the angel Raphael explains to Adam that it would be hubris for human beings to try to figure out whether the Earth orbits the Sun, or vice versa:

“This to attain, whether Heaven move or Earth
Imports not, if thou reckon right; the rest
From Man or Angel the great Architect
Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
His secrets, to be scanned by them who ought
Rather admire. Or, if they list to try
Conjecture, he his fabric of the Heavens
Hath left to their disputes – perhaps to move
His laughter at their quaint opinions…

Heaven is for thee too high
To know what passes there. Be lowly wise;
Think only what concerns thee and thy being;
Dream not to other worlds, what creatures there
Live, in what state, condition, or degree -
Contented that thus far hath been revealed
Not of Earth only, but of highest Heaven.”

You couldn’t ask for a more concise description of anticuriosity. In every era, there are religious apologists urging us to stop exploring the natural world, to stop pushing back the borders of our knowledge. Thankfully, in every era there have been freethinkers who ignored this advice and followed their curiosity – and so far, our exploration has been more than repaid every time.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    “In every era, there are religious apologists urging us to stop exploring the natural world, to stop pushing back the borders of our knowledge.”

    If I didn’t know better . . . it’s almost like they know deep down that they’re wrong, and they’re trying to prevent anyone from discovering that. That’s probably just wishful thinking on my part, though.

  • Penguin_Factory

    His question – where did the genetic information come from? – clearly isn’t intended as an honest question in search of an answer, but as a rhetorical query meant to paralyze us with the sheer overwhelming complexity it implies

    I debate with creationists regularly, and this strategy comes up all the time. The forum I post on is regularly inundated with lists of questions, none of which the author is actually expecting an answer to.

    Of course, usually the pro-evolution poster can answer them, which is always good for a laugh.

  • Ritchie

    No offence, Ebon, your reasoning and writing are up to their usual brilliant standard, but I particularly enjoyed the quotes from this article. Particularly the Asimov one and, from the last, this particular line:

    the rest
    From Man or Angel the great Architect
    Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
    His secrets, to be scanned by them who ought
    Rather admire.

  • Monty

    And people wonder why I hate creationism so much.

  • Alex Weaver

    This is the exact opposite of the impulse that gives rise to science – not the enlightening spark of curiosity that drives us to make new discoveries, but the desire to remain in the dark and stay ignorant, to be easily discouraged by anything we don’t already understand. I don’t think English has a good word for this

    “Stupidity” works.

  • Katie M

    “This is the exact opposite of the impulse that gives rise to science – not the enlightening spark of curiosity that drives us to make new discoveries, but the desire to remain in the dark and stay ignorant, to be easily discouraged by anything we don’t already understand. I don’t think English has a good word for this

    “Stupidity” works.”

    ‘Fear’ works too.

  • Paul F

    But what about the human desire to eat and have resources and land? Can we really assume that all that wandering around was just about curiosity? Can we really assume that curiosity is the norm of human behavior?

  • M.

    Actually, this is something that is very, VERY important – it is the essential creationist gambit.

    A creationist could bring this up during a debate as a point – “what about lysyl oxidase”, and draw a blank. Simply because few scientists would be able to pull up information about a random protein.

    Similarly, their readership will be unable to check this claim. Where oh where could such a COMPLEX protein come from? It must be designed!

    However, it literally takes under a minute of work to show this entire thing to be absolutely and completely idiotic – since there are thousands of lysyl oxidase precursors in primitive organisms, including bacteria.

    Let me share a simple method by which anyone with internet access can dismantle arguments like this.

    Go to PubMed site, choose “Protein” as your search. Type “lysyl oxidase” (or whatever protein the creationist mentions). Hit enter. The list of proteins will come out, from different organisms. Choose one (Homo sapiens is good, if available – which it is for lysyl oxidase).

    The screen will display the sequence information from the protein. On the right hand, there is an option that says “BLAST”. Click on that. In the “Organism” field type “Bacteria”. Hit the BLAST button.

    The whole process took me exactly 39 seconds. And it clearly showed that lysyl oxidase precursor proteins occur in tons of bacteria, from Myxococcus to (unsurprisingly) Streptomyces.

    Therefore, the protein didn’t have to evolve 400 amino acids. It had to subtly change precursors that existed for billions of years.

    The argument in the book isn’t just wrong, it is kind of wrong that can fly even for one single minute only when presented to non-expert public.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    “The big issue is where did the information come from to build all these new proteins, cells, and body plans? For instance, Cambrian animals would have needed complex proteins, such as lysyl oxidase. In animals today, lysyl oxidase molecules require four hundred amino acids. Where did the genetic information come from to build these complicated molecules?”

    You know, the same questions can be turned against creationists? Where did God get its ideas from.

    I’ve seen some creationists use the analogy that when you see a painting, you know there must have been a painter, likewise if there is a creation, there must have been a Creator. However, when a painter paints something, the painter is relying on information already known to her or him. Even abstract paintings or renderings of imaginative creatures or concepts are still based on the artist being influenced by things outside of him or herself.

    So, if we have asteroids and comets shooting through our solar system, where did God get the idea for them from? Where did the idea for volcanoes come from? Quasars? Supernovas? Malaria? Billions of galaxies?

  • http://piepalace.ca/blog Erigami

    This is the exact opposite of the impulse that gives rise to science – not the enlightening spark of curiosity that drives us to make new discoveries, but the desire to remain in the dark and stay ignorant, to be easily discouraged by anything we don’t already understand. I don’t think English has a good word for this

    I believe the term “faith” would work.

  • Katie M

    “So, if we have asteroids and comets shooting through our solar system, where did God get the idea for them from? Where did the idea for volcanoes come from? Quasars? Supernovas? Malaria? Billions of galaxies?”

    That’s something I’ve always wondered-why God would’ve bothered with all this. My stepfather said that God created the stars for us to navigate by. Fair enough-for thousands of years, seafaring people used the stars to find their way. But what about the exoplanets we’ve found? He also said God created them for us. Yet . . . he opposes space exploration. I asked him what the point was, then. He had no answer.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    Not having a word for “anticurious” is a point in favor of the creationists. It makes it difficult to charge them with it. As Douglas Adams said, the best way to not be something is to not have a word for it. There are probably plenty of other traits that creationists have that we don’t have words for. It would be a fun project to compile them and come up with new words.

  • Marshall Schreiber

    There is already a word for people who lack curiosity, ‘incurious’

    But I like ‘intellectualy defeatist’

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Katie M
    It’s a well known fact the God’s creation only spans human consiousness. In the beginning the world really was flat and stars were just points of light in the firmament. It’s only as we look further God has to create the bigger picture. That’s why religion hates free enquiry, it makes work for God :)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    And if I may add my own two cents’ worth to the word debate, might I suggest “complacent”?

  • Scotlyn

    This is the exact opposite of the impulse that gives rise to science – not the enlightening spark of curiosity that drives us to make new discoveries, but the desire to remain in the dark and stay ignorant, to be easily discouraged by anything we don’t already understand. I don’t think English has a good word for this.

    While agreeing with other words proposed – “stupidity” “fear” “faith” “complacent” – I would like to add “laziness”. Letting others do your thinking for you – especially if they really want to, is so much easier. As you say, Ebon, setting out a programme of research by means of which you might answer an interesting question looks like a lot of hard work!

    Still, the stifling of children’s natural curiosity is a process engaged in by schools, churches and families – it’s no wonder it’s hard to engage tenagers and adults in science after undergoing this process.

  • John Nernoff

    N: Yes, I was going to suggest complacency, on top of ignorance. If you can’t figure it out, sit back and let someone else do it — the priest. Also the 400 amino acid sequence conundrum is similar to the creationist claim that no wind roaring through a junkyard could assemble a 747, therefore all life was created by magic. What they fail to consider is that each piece of the puzzle, if it confers a benefit, even the slightest, is retained to be added to in succession. The immense time spans involved plus the enormous number of creatures that live, compete, and die, serve to explain complexity easily.

  • cag

    I’ll add my 2 cents – Nocturnal, because they have can not seen the light of reason.

  • Zietlos

    Imagine, if you will, two species of wild dog. Untamed ones, like dingoes or what-have-you.

    One type reacts aggressively towards everything, lashing out at anyone who tries to check on it, feed it, pet it, or even really near it. It also is prone to, in large packs, attacking small villages and killing the people and livestock, whatever they can reach. The only way to stop the hostility is to kill the animal, in general. A few tyrants have taken packs of them to sic on people for fun, but few other uses than unfocused destruction have been found.

    The other breed is patient and curious. It begins its life stealing scraps from humans’ waste bins, like a raccoon, and learns even faster. It is smaller than the other breed, and needs to hide from it lest the bigger dogs rip it apart. It gets closer to humans, knowing them to be a food source not as their flesh, but in handouts. After a while, instead of relying on humans, humans begin to rely on it; for hunting, drug-checking, helping the blind, anything, this dog is great for. It’s also helpful in the home, and great with kids.

    Which of these two breeds of dog will live longer? The first, religion, or the second, science? Well, we still have dingos, one single breed of wild dog, but the domestic dog I’d say is much more likely to survive.

    Creationists actually make really good dingos: They try to act cute and attractive to weaker minds like children, a dingo can spend days playing with a dog before luring it away and letting the pack kill it, they’re hostile if larger, smarter opponents come nearby, they cannot survive alone, only in large self-idolatry packs.

  • purpletempest

    I highly recommend a book called “In the Blink of an Eye” by Dr. Andrew Parker, who attempts to explain the Cambrian explosion as resulting from a species of proto-trilobite developing the first eye (meaning an organ that the brain uses to process an image, not just a light detector), which was quickly followed by a jump to active predation, which together caused enormous selection pressures that led to the rapid development (geologically speaking, it was still a couple million years or so) of the various differences that mark the Cambrian explosion. Don’t let my poor summary ruin you for reading it, the way he puts the theory together is worth going through.

    Anyway, he makes one point that is extremely pertinent to this post. The internal body plans that mark the different phyla were already in place by the Cambrian. They likely did evolve slowly over the millions and millions of years in the Precambrian, as it does take a lot more for the multitude of genes that code for the body plans – organs, vessels, proteins etc. – to evolve. External structures are governed by relatively fewer genes, on the other hand, and thus are easier to evolve once they had the selection pressure of animals with vision and a taste for other animals acting upon them.

    Not only is Meyer stifling curiosity, but he’s outright wrong about his initial facts to boot, not just about the protein but everything.

  • Rennyrij

    Curiosity is one of our most natural mental senses. While I agree that the Abrahamic god is a fabrication, I still can’t look at my two hands and say that this totally came from evolution. It’s like making cookies without sugar. Evolution, as a stand-alone idea, is “flat”. I, for one, can’t get past the feeling that there is some Entity, past or present, here once but perhaps gone, now, onto other things, but nevertheless an original source of thought and knowledge and ability to “start the ball rolling”. I look at my hands, palms toward me, and I have to say, “WHY?” “WHY are we here? There has to be a reason. I can accept no less.”

    It took me 67 years of trying, unsuccessfully, to fit myself into the Christian mold, to begin to sincerely question Christianity, as well as the related religions. I think we naturally and automatically search for a personage of some sort to thank, to ask forgiveness of (we never needed a bible to tell us the difference between right and wrong!), and to propitiate if we felt our misdeeds were terribly bad. An authority figure. And those who recognized this fact, took advantage of it to subjegate the rest of us. What a job they did! The question is, can we, who have opted out of this subjegation, find a way to turn things around, to gently pursuade those still in the religious fold to want to think for themselves, too?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Your argument from incredulity is duly noted. Also, your ignorance of evolutionary theory is duly noted. I suggest you actually learn more about it – it’s not “flat” as you call it. It’s actually a very powerful process that’s more than adequate to explain why you have hands. And, even if some entity “got the ball rolling” that would not negate evolution, but would rather speak to abiogenesis (hence your obvious ignorance).