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.

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