Were You There?

Jun 9, 2015

by Vanessa Wamsley

A 10th-grader perches on the edge of her chair as her biology teacher lectures on evolution. She listens intently. The years she’s spent in Sunday school and church services have prepared her for this very moment. Her hand shoots up, and the teacher calls her name. Breathless, she asks a question.

“How do you know evolution really happened? Were you there?”

I was that student, and I remember the knot that formed in my stomach whenever my high school science teacher directed class discussion toward that dreaded E-word. I remember the day I asked him if he was there when an ape evolved into a human. Some of my classmates rolled their eyes. I wasn’t even trying to make a joke about his age. For me it was a serious question, almost sacred.

Terry Wortman was my science teacher from my sophomore through senior years, and he is still teaching in my hometown, at Hayes Center Public High School in Hayes Center, Nebraska. He still occasionally hears the question I asked 16 years ago, and he has a standard response. “I don’t want to interfere with a kid’s belief system,” he says. “But I tell them, ‘I’m going to teach you the science. I’m going to tell you what all respected science says.’ ”

That’s pretty close to what he told me all those years ago. He said that he didn’t need to witness evolution to know it occurred; fossil evidence shows us that humans evolved from a common ancestor with apes. But the evidence he described in class couldn’t get past the religious block in my mind.


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37 comments on “Were You There?

  • 2
    mombird says:

    I notice that the religious have no trouble NOT being there for all the events in the Bible yet firmly believe in them. Were they there for Adam and Eve? Were they there when Jesus was apparently alive?
    When science slaps you in the face with evidence and you still won’t budge, it’s called denial with a huge dollop of obtuseness!



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  • 3
    Cairsley says:

    Indeed, Alan. And it has long puzzled me why creationists who pose this thoughtless and dialectically fallacious question (“were you there?”) fail to realize that it can be posed just as facilely in response to their own claims about creation and the Bible:

    God created the world? How do you know? Were you there?

    God authored the Bible? How do you know? Were you there?

    Nor are their claims helped by the sheer imaginariness of this God whereof they speak.



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  • 4
    mombird says:

    At some point I think they have to save face. It would be worse than end-of-days to have to admit that religion has been wrong since its inception!



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  • 6
    Cairsley says:

    Have these Christians forgotten that sombre, meditative hymn “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”? This hymn does not invite one to doubt that Jesus was crucified but, on the contrary, to reflect personally on what Christians believe him to have undergone and accomplished for our salvation. There is, however, no accounting for some Christians’ bewildering inconsistency and lack of thought.



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  • While I agree with the sentiment you express, it opens you up to the response… “So evolution and religion are equally valid as we were there for neither?”

    In my IMHO, it would be better to respond by emphasising the difference between science and religion i.e. evidence. Provide an example of an everyday experience where the person was not there that relies on evidence for them to come to a conclusion e.g. the aftermath of a car crash… and then compare that to the evidence we rely on for evolution. Of course, one could also then talk about examples of evolution observed in modern times and in the lab and the genetic mechanisms that provide supporting evidence etc.

    And then compare this to the lack of evidence for “religious beliefs”.



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  • The theory of evolution is one of the strongest in the whole of science. What really annoys me about these YEC science deniers, is that they are perfectly willing, (in most cases), to accept the benefits of the scientific method, via the latest technology, medicine etc. Without the science, their sat navs and their smart phones wouldn’t work, and wouldn’t exist either !

    At least if they are going to deny the scientific method, let them also deny themselves any benefits derived from it !

    I like America and Americans, I lived there for 3 years, but stories like this I find depressing. There are plenty of smart Americans. It’s about time you lot got this particular nonsense sorted !

    (PS, Yes I was there, but in San Francisco, not Alabama !)



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  • OP :

    I remember the day I asked him if he was there when an ape evolved into a human. Some of my classmates rolled their eyes.

    At least some of her classmates were more savvy !



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  • 10
    mombird says:

    Well technically, we are here for evolution because we have the scientific evidence for it here and now. It is in our DNA. We can examine fossils, use DNA evidence, etc. etc. Modern man’s roots can be traced back to early man and beyond. Religion has NONE of that. This is apparent and obvious. It has been shouted from the roof tops and should not have to be beaten to death because some people can’t handle it. The onus is on the science deniers not science. Let’s face it, you can not win an argument with one of the Bible literalists because they don’t think rationally. They are either brainwashed, afraid, saving face, mentally challenged, or just stubborn! They need to go away and quit impeding progress.



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  • Actually, I was there. I can look at my DNA and can replay my evolution. I can see how much of my DNA is the same as the great apes, other mammals, reptiles, births and even bacteria. I can see where all the major splits in species going back millions of years. I can even see that 7% of my DNA is dormant virus, one of which enables proteins the cross the mother / foetus placental barrier, which enabled the rise of mammals. The photo’s of my early fetal development show gill slits and a tail. My kidneys remove around 1.5 kilograms of salt from my blood, and return almost all of it, excreting only a few grams to keep my body in balance. This comes directly from my salt water fish ancestors.

    So yes. I was there. I am proof of evolution. There is enough proof just in my body to prove evolution beyond reasonable doubt. When you add in the proof of the fossil record, and real world observations, like Darwin’s Galapagos finches, and the hippopotamus’ nearest relatives, the maritime whales, the proof level of evolution passes the threshold of beyond reasonable doubt, and becomes a fact, for day to day purposed.



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  • And it has long puzzled me why creationists who pose this thoughtless and dialectically fallacious question (“were you there?”) fail to realize that it can be posed just as facilely in response to their own claims about creation and the Bible…

    Sadly, creationists can (and do) simply claim that they have the Bible as proof of all they believe and God personally spoke to their hearts to tell them the Bible is true. But, since there’s no divinely inspired book that proves evolution, nothing short of personal witness will suffice as evidence.

    It’s frustrating to have a debate when one side relies on evidence and proof and the other side claims that faith is a more reliable method of discerning truth. Rather pointless, in fact. “Scientists can’t say with 100% certainty exactly how the universe was created, but I have a book that tells me exactly how it happened and I have faith that this book is true, so therefore I win!” Feh.



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  • Creationist Ken Hamm teaches children to taunt scientists with “were you there?” to anything scientists say about the past. I suppose Hamm could similarly taunt forensic scientists who were not present when the crime was committed. There are all manner of clues about the deep past including fossilised bones, radioactivity, geological layers, meteorites from the early days of the solar system, light that from the other side of the universe that took 13 billion years to arrive, letting us look at the deep past… For the more recent past, we can find DNA inside teeth and bones, archaeology, ancient manuscripts, inscriptions, civic records…

    We could tease Mr. Hamm pointing out he too was not there, and what is worse, he has no scientific tools of any kind for probing the past. Yet he claims his knowledge of the past is infallible. There is one word that sums him up. Bullshit!



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  • From New Scientist.

    We may owe our survival and complexity to a stowaway virus that springs to life in the very first cells of human embryos. Not only does the virus seem to protect embryos from other viruses, but it also assists genes when the groundwork is under way for the body plan of a new human.

    The finding backs the controversial idea that viruses which took up residence in our DNA millions of years ago may be playing the role of puppet master, quietly influencing our existence and evolution. “We are creatures controlled by viruses,” says Luis Villarreal of the University of California at Irvine.

    Retroviruses insert their genetic material into the cells of their human or animal host. At first, this causes disease and death. Over time, however, the host evolves resistance to the virus, allowing any DNA that has embedded itself into sperm or egg cells to be passed down to the next generation. The virus is now known as an endogenous retrovirus or ERV – a permanent fixture in the host’s genome.

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27384-virus-hiding-in-our-genome-protects-early-human-embryos.html#.VXeoAlL3OYk



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  • Godzillatemple has it right. Scientists need to prove things with evidence, theists do not. They have the Bible, which trumps all other evidence, because it is the Divine Word of a vengeful, capricious, violent, vindictive bloke, whom you wouldn’t trust to design a can opener.



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  • Roedy
    Jun 9, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    Creationist Ken Hamm teaches children to taunt scientists with “were you there?” to anything scientists say about the past.

    In such circumstances, I would be inclined to answer the question with a question – of the form I used above in my earlier comment:-

    Capt. Cook landed in Australia – Were you there? Columbus landed in the West Indies. Were you there? Julius Caesar landed in Britain. Were you there? Henry Ford developed the mass produced motor car. Were you there? Abraham Lincoln was a president of America. Were you there?

    The delusional Ken Ham made up this stupid question and told gullible people to make fools of themselves asking it. Were you there?????



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  • “How do you know evolution really happened? Were you there?”

    How do you know you were born- were you there?
    Of course ‘you’ were but what ‘you’ was that? Sentient, conscious,
    fully aware of what was happening? NO!
    Your knowledge of your birth parents was at that point totally missing
    and had they died before self-awareness came to you, you’d ‘know’ of
    their existence only by historical evidence. So how can the “Were you
    there” argument have credibility?



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  • What I don’t get about the “were you there” so called argument is that the same can be said about Noah’s Ark, the crucifixion of Jesus, ANY of the biblical stories…THEY WERE NOT THERE EITHER. Yet the creationists have no problem believing them without question even though there is NO direct evidence. I wonder if this poor girl ever stopped to consider that. It’s tragic in my opinion.



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  • While I agree with the sentiment you express, it opens you up to the response… “So evolution and religion are equally valid as we were there for neither?”

    No, it doesn’t at all. Faith is based on reading a book and there are no artefacts from the past to test.

    Evolution is based on testing artefacts from the past and following hard evidence.

    No one needs to be there for either to be true. But only one of them has hard evidence on which to stand.



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  • Creationism is one aspect of the religious belief that is often inculcated in children. They are taught by people they love and respect that faith, “the belief in things not seen,” is a virtue. To fully accept the results of scientific inquiry, persons raised in this environment have to deny the worldview of those whom they love and institutions that have been central to their lives. It hardly surprises that they cling to erroneous ideas, when these ideas are so closely bound to family, friends and customs fundamental (!) to their lives.



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  • I have found the best way to answer is to echo the question. “I understand that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. How do you know? Were you there?” You believe based on faith not evidence. Science operates differently it amasses evidence and bases it’s belief based on that evidence. Skulls found at the lowest layers in the earth are ape like and progressively become more human like as the top most layers are approached.
    Evolution details the steps that were taken in bringing all into existence and leaves it up to the individual to say that it was a natural process or that it is the way God did it. Nothing in evolutionary literature eliminates God. Those that promote creationism have created a controversy where none should exist.



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  • Charles
    Jun 10, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    Evolution details the steps that were taken in bringing all into existence and leaves it up to the individual to say that it was a natural process

    Not really! Given that the Universe existed for billions of years before the formation of the Solar-System and Earth, it IS a natural process.

    or that it is the way God did it. Nothing in evolutionary literature eliminates God.

    The natural history of the Earth, eliminates numerous religious claims about Earth and humans, and kills off the claims of “miracles”. It pushes the possibility of a remote deist god so far back in time, that such a figure would be irrelevant to most religious beliefs, or supposed interactions of gods and humans.

    Those that promote creationism have created a controversy where none should exist.

    They have indeed, and even those who make claims of “Theistic Evolution”, cannot put together a credible scientific theory for their claims, or even agree among themselves on a hypothesis.



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  • Charles:

    Nothing in evolutionary literature eliminates God.

    Nor does it need to. Those who propose the god idea need to come up with real evidence, not just clever rhetorical philosophical mumbo jumbo !



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  • Don’t react to the question “Were you there?” answer it.

    “That’s a good question. How can we know anything that we are told happened before we were born actually happened?” Ask the students! I’m sure they will talk about evidence, records. Then you’ll have an opening to continue the lesson. Now, I’m not a teacher, and I am not familiar with curricula, but I would think that prior to a science class on evolution, the students would have been taught enough about geology, sedimentary layers, plate tectonics and the age of the earth to be able to introduce evolution properly. If not, the question is perfectly legitimate.



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  • By the way… we will never be thankful enough to ”god”….. for NOT having designed the can opener ! ! !

    Because, as RDawkins repeatedly says, ” if it is their ‘all-knowing’, ‘all-powerful’ and inerrant ”god” who designed the Universe, he wouldn’t even pass the selections for 1rst grade, even in the worst engineering school : galaxies clashing one another in apocalyptic oblivions, terrible human nervous system design, and so on… “

    QED.



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  • What Charles implies in his statement is logically sustainable.

    There are to ‘brands’ of theistic approaches : the one that claims that ”god did everything with his own little fingers”, from the big bang to the hair on the legs of the tiniest fly. That’s the creed of the three main ‘official’ monotheistic mythologies.

    The other one states that a ”huge deity” was at the start of everything that exists, and was content with just setting the basic frames, then let things evolve by themselves —a belief system which, you must admit, would not be disturbed by the outcome of the evolutionary laws… given that it reinforces their mental construction of a ”starting gates operator” kind of god.



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  • 31
    Lorenzo says:

    Yours is a very good comment, sir.
    I would add that the “how do you know? Were you there?” questions, and all of their declinations, are legitimate when coming from young students or people who didn’t have access to good education.

    After all, it’s not banal at all the way we did come to the theory of evolution by natural selection (the last bit is important! Never forget it!) or, say, the theory of plaque tectonics. Answering those question amounts to explain how science works.



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  • When I hear stories like this I am so glad that my first reaction to sunday school was utter incredulity – even if I had not even heard that word at the time. To me, religion was nonsense; and it has sounded ever worse since. Science was clear, sensible and understandable by contrast. Until I started to hear about quantum physics of course. But the real wonder was the ever-unfolding story of the early hominids that I grew up with as it unfolded.

    It took me years to stand up and say that I was an atheist (in about the way Richard Dawkins says it), but I was never a believer.



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  • iWill
    Jun 10, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    Don’t react to the question “Were you there?” answer it.

    Creationists prime children telling them this (and many other simplistic questions), are “show-stoppers” that will stump scientists!

    Answering the question about “how we know” – (or as I suggested earlier – asking similar questions for them to answer on other topics), develops thinking.

    Then, having established the basis of sharing (scientific) evidence from other reputable sources, there are two other aspects, where we can move to specifics.

    I recall a thread some years ago where a poster who had “read a book” by an “expert” author, who had a Bible College “degree” in “Bible Biology”. He informed us that fins could not have evolved into hands or allowed fish to leave the water.

    I promptly put on a link to a video of Mud-skippers in reply!

    In the age of remote cameras and remote probes, we can also, by proxy, be “there” in many places and multitudes of times and places, which were inaccessible to those trying to study a century ago.



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  • x-bone
    Jun 11, 2015 at 12:40 am

    The other one states that a ”huge deity” was at the start of everything that exists, and was content with just setting the basic frames, then let things evolve by themselves

    That is of course an anthropomorphic claim which fails the Occam Razor test.

    It also equates the evolution of the universe with an entirely natural process, so it does not – as Charles suggests; “leave it up to the individual to say that it was a natural process”.
    A non interfering deist god before the Big-Bang, has the same effect as a natural process, but without the infinite regression of creators.



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  • I’m always amused that these same religious people will eagerly follow the evidence that solves a crime, and understand that a criminal case is based on the clues, or evidence, that the perpetrator may have left behind (witness the popularity of TV shows like CSI) but still refuse to apply that same logic to evolution. Do they think we can’t solve crimes unless an investigator personally witnessed it? Of course not – we follow the evidence! It’s the same with evolution and other scientific theories. Only an idiot wouldn’t see that – I have to believe they’re just being knowingly obtuse.



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  • http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-33199100

    Scientists say they have the best evidence yet that there is hot lava spewing from the surface of Venus.

    The planet was known to have an active volcanic history but this is the best evidence yet for ongoing eruptions.

    Four “hotspots” in a rift region of the planet’s northern hemisphere were seen to rise and fall dramatically in temperature over several days in 2008, suggesting an active lava flow.

    The observations were collected by the Venus Express probe.

    Ah! But were you there????? 🙂



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  • Science 100 Creationists 0.

    Indeed all the Creationist players have been sent off for dishonest or inappropriate behaviour. Prominent midfielder ‘banana man’ Ray Comfort snarled that team mate striker Kirk Cameron, was too busy counting money to go for the ball. Goalkeeper William Lane Craig, was sent off for arguing with the referee about what counted as a goal. ‘Only Christians can score goals‘ he argued but in vain. Sepp Blatter had apparently run out of money to bribe the referee. Alvin Plantinga sent himself off by entering a long and tortuous discussion about the offside rule with the 4th official. John Lennox was sent off for that nasty tackle on Dawkins and he was their star player. Ken Ham was evidently too worried about his Ark project and religious discrimination to want to kick the ball. He was sent off for playing for the other side. Rick Perry was sent off for praying for rain on a fine enough day. The rules of football do not permit divine intervention. Bill O’ Reilly exited for insulting Ham in an inappropriate way. Bill comes on, Bill goes off. Can you explain that ? Juby after several warnings, was sent off for telling falsehoods. Joshua Feurestein for out shouting the crowd. Jerry Falwell’s spirit was ruled unfit to play having been cooped up in a matchbox, but Ratzinger, fresh from Germany’s World Cup triumph was raring to go, as was Mullah Omah. Ah which team will sign him next season ? Justin Welby was too worried about the City of London and its bankers to play, whilst substitute Rowan Williams was too busy writing poetry about bus stops. He was not fit for the match anyway.

    So it seems science wins !



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