Experimental Archaeology. Photo (cc) Wessex Archaeology.
I wish I was as good an archaeologist as Michael Egnor claims to be. Egnor has recently written on the Antikythera Mechanism from a creationist point of view. To be honest I disagree with some of it, the words mainly, but the spaces and punctuation on the other hand seem sound. Christopher O’Brien has given the words far more attention than they deserve, so if you want a critique of the propositions ((It took me half an hour to choose that word. Facts as the blog entry makes clear wouldn’t have been the right choice)) then it’s a great read. What I find difficult is the repeated claim by creationists that you can simply see design.
It’s a common claim. When fundamentalists Cameron and Comfort are notexhorting people to stick banana-shaped objects into their mouths they make claims like: “If you stuck a group of scientists in a room with a painting then, with nothing from the outside world, they would conclude there was a painter.” Now I don’t think they would. I cannot simply see design in complex objects, so are the creationists wrong or am I thick?
The reason I don’t think scientists with nothing from the outside world would conclude there was a painter is that they’d be bringing their own experience with them into the room. That experience would almost certainly include the experience of having seen someone paint or paint themselves. This means they have an observable process to compare it against. A similar method works in archaeology. If I find a series of blocks on top of each other in rows, I’d conclude it was a wall. The reason I’d think it was a wall is that I’ve seen people build walls and I’ve built walls but I’ve never seen a natural process that can regularly create what would appear to be a Roman villa. If I had, then I wouldn’t be able to conclude the site was designed.
An example of exactly this sort of problem can be found at Kintraw. Kintraw is a site in Scotland where prehistoric peoples may have observed sunsets. The argument is around a location with lots of stones gathered on the hillside. Were those stones intentionally put there to make a platform, or did they just gather there by natural processes? To test the idea someone had a bit of a brainwave. They looked at the orientation of the stones on site. If they were deposited by hand you’d expect them to be placed randomly. The longer axis of the stones would point in all sorts of directions. If however the stones fell there by a natural process then the long axis would tend to point in the same direction. For instance it’s easier for a brick to tumble if the long axis is perdendicular to the motion down, rather than tumbling end over end. The site was excavated and the conclusions were:
No one could really tell.
So the debate continues. I’d like it to be an astronomical site, but I can’t be certain.
Even some artefacts might be natural. Archaelogists regularly go fieldwalking and pick up anything interesting that has been ploughed to the surface. I tend to be better at spotting flint. There is often a lot of flint in a field but not all of it has been worked. Sometimes it’s easy to spot worked pieces, but sometimes a plough will whack a piece of flint and break it. Now when I find that piece how do I know if a human intentionally made it, or if it was just an accidental impact? Sometimes I don’t.
Often I do by examining the impact. This can be compared with other flint tools — but here’s the thing — they’re not ancient flint tools. There’s a branch of archaeology called experimental archaeology which specialises in trying to recreate objects from the past. So when we look at ancient artefacts we compare them with observed processes. Modern archaeology is built around experiment, observation and ethnography. It’s not enough to say something looks designed, you should also refer to why and how you think an item was created.
This is the issue that creationism ducks, because it relies on a lack of observation. No-one has seen a new species created from raw firmament and no idea of how the process works, which is why Egnor is exactly wrong when he concludes: “Although we have no direct scientific knowledge of the designers of either the Antikythera mechanism or of the nanotechnology in living cells, the inference to design, by analogy to modern human design, is reasonable and is valid scientific methodology.”