Friday, January 05, 2007

On Megafaunal Extinctions and Talking To Creationists

One of the primary reasons I was so lax about posting last November is that I was making several presentations on a project I have been involved in for more than a year. Ironically, this project is related to the subject of Ed Brayton’s post sometime back on Ken Ham's response to new research from Australia suggesting Pleistocene megafauna may have survived abrupt climatic change and went extinct as a result of human predation.

This is a significant and longstanding controversy in both archaeology and paleontology. We know that megafauna species went extinct worldwide during the latter stages of the Pleistocene epoch, although the timing of the extinctions varied from continent to continent. In most cases, extinctions appear to coincide not only with environmental changes (glacial advances and retreats) but also with the arrival of humans on the landscape. The question of course, is which factor (changing environments or human hunting) bears the brunt of the responsibility for Pleistocene extinctions. This is not merely an academic question: there are significant implications for how we envision aboriginal people across the world with respect to environmental protection and conservation. There is a general public perception that aboriginal populations (in North America, Native Americans) were traditionally wise stewards of the land who had a minimal impact on the “natural” landscapes. This view has been challenged over the last decade (correctly, in my view) on the basis of new archaeological evidence. There are major implications for this view if megafaunal extinctions can be traced to overhunting by human populations.

My interest in this is also more than just academic. Not only do questions remain concerning the primary cause of Pleistocene extinctions, but there are other questions concerning which species survived the extinctions and are considered “native” to their geographic locations today. Most of the animals we know and love today (bears, deer, foxes, golden eagles – taking California as an example) were also present during the Pleistocene. Why they survived and mammoths did not is a question tied directly to the issue of Pleistocene extinctions. More to the point, most game management agencies create policies specifically designed to conserve (or preserve, in the case of the National Parks) these species for a variety of human interests (hunting, fishing, photography, environmental health, etc.) under the assumption that they are native species (i.e. found in their current ranges since the close of the Pleistocene some 10,000 years ago). “Invasive”, “exotic” or “non-native” species are those that were not present at the close of the Pleistocene and have been subsequently introduced into an area. Management practices generally see such species as “bad” for the environment and managers are directed to eradicate such species from the environment. I am directly involved in research on one supposed casualty of Pleistocene extinctions in California, the wild turkey (Meleagris galopavo). At stake is the management of this species in California, with California Fish and Game and other groups considering it a “non-native” species not present in the state until its first artificial introduction here in 1877, and the National Wild Turkey Federation arguing that it is a native species, present at the close of the Pleistocene and perhaps persisting through some if not most of the Holocene.

I will leave a summary of the current research for a later post. However, I had several experiences with members of the audience, particularly those from the National Wild Turkey Federation. This organization is comprised of men and women who are enthusiasts about turkey hunting. More than that, however, this group has one of the greatest grasps their prey’s biology, behavior and management than almost any game animal constituency group that I’ve been involved in. They are also responsible for obtaining, maintaining and rehabilitating large tracts of land for public access (any time we can keep large tracts of land out of private hands is a good thing). I really enjoy being with these folks.

Many, as you might expect, are highly conservative, particularly with regards to religion (I still haven’t figured out the causal relationship between being religious, having firearms and shooting animals!). My presentation naturally focused on the paleontology and archaeology of wild turkeys in California. As I said, I’ll leave the current results for another post, but the presentation clearly crossed tens of thousands of years – well outside the 6000 year boundary artificially imposed by advocates of Young Earth Creationism. Nonetheless, I received many compliments on the presentation. One gentleman, however, did question my feeling on the use of radiocarbon dates. I engaged him in polite conversation and came to realize two things:

First, he prefaced his statement with “As a Christian…”. I don’t think I’m going to allow folks to get away with this anymore. This is nothing more than conversational code for “I’m not allowed to believe in science if it contradicts how I’ve been told to interpret the scripture, therefore I need to question anything you say”. There is absolutely no room for considering alternative viewpoints when you start a sentence “As a Christian…”. You’ve just told me that no matter what evidence I bring forth, no matter what logic is used, you will not be able to fathom the possibility that you’re wrong and have misinterpreted (or have been mislead) about everything you understand. Moreover, there is absolutely nothing in the Christian religion that specifically requires anyone to jettison reason and logic based on centuries of developing, naturalistic science in favor of a particular interpretation of Bronze and Iron Age texts. Scriptural interpretations are inseparable from personal opinion – on that level one is as good as another.

Second, my approach with folks like these has always been to try to educate, not argue. We sat down at a table for lunch with several other folks and I continued to engage him on this topic. I pointed out that radiocarbon dates are just fine; we scientists have no valid reason to doubt the vast majority of dates that have been derived from fossils, bones, pottery shards and the like. Then I suggested to him that perhaps his reading of scripture was in error: that there was no real reason to assume “as a Christian” that the bible was not meant to tell him anything about biological origins or history, or for that matter, did not even track Middle Eastern history with much accuracy. He did admit that scripture could be read several ways and did not press the topic further and we enjoyed a good lunch together talking about turkeys and hunting methods. Whether he was convinced by my polite rebuttal is uncertain; at minimum he knew that I was familiar enough with scripture and history to understand that any further discussion would also entail critically those personal views of his that prompted him to question the science that was being presented.

While I can get very combative in my views here on Northstate Science, I still think the best approach in public is deal with the creationism/evolution debates in polite and respectful, but firm, manner. I understand that such views are important to the people who maintain them…but I also think they are wrong. I also believe that most people in an audience (or lunch group) really don’t know what they think and are willing to hear all kinds of explanations. I also try to take the tact that it’s not the hard core creationists I’m trying to reach; it’s the other 30 people in the room who are interested and need to know the creationist is not telling you the whole story.

When we broke for lunch, my creationist friend went off one way and one of the other individuals at the table said something to the effect, “I always thought that 6000 year stuff was kind of a fairytale, not meant to be taken literally. It doesn’t affect my faith and the real world is much more interesting”. Several others nodded in agreement.

See what I mean?

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