Evolution on TV- March 2004
by Do-While Jones

Super Millionaire Evolution

What does ABC know that we don't know?

The “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” quiz show has evolved into “Super Millionaire”, with a maximum 10 million dollar prize. The $500,000 question on the February 27, 2004, broadcast was:

Most scientists believe that life appeared on earth approximately how many years ago?
A) 10 billion years B) 4 billion years ago
C) 500 million years ago D) 6 million years ago

The contestant didn’t know, so he used the “Three Wise Men” lifeline. The Three Wise Men were given 30 seconds to confer, and said life appeared 500 million years ago. The contestant took their advice, and lost. The “correct” answer was 4 billion years ago.

Fact, or Majority Opinion

Consider the difference between these two questions: “When was the Declaration of Independence signed?” and “When do most historians say the Declaration of Independence was signed?” The phrasing of the question affects how the answer is proved to be true or false.

If one gives the answer “1776” to the first question, one merely needs to cite the date on the document as proof. If one gives the answer “1776” to the second question, then one needs to cite a survey of historians. In the second case, it doesn’t matter if the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 or not. All that matters is how many historians think that it was signed in that year.

On the Newlywed Game TV show, men were asked questions like, “What will your wife say is the first gift you ever gave to her?” It doesn’t really matter what the first gift was. All that matters is that the answers match. If both say the first gift was a car, even if the first gift was actually a dozen roses, their answers are correct.

The Super Millionaire contestant was not asked when life appeared on Earth. The contestant was asked to guess the results of a survey of scientists. It doesn’t matter if the scientists are right or wrong. All that matters is the majority opinion.

If the question had said, “When did life appear on Earth, according to a survey of scientists taken in 1920?”, then we are pretty sure that the correct answer would have been much less than 500 million years ago because scientists generally accepted Arthur Holms’ booklet, The Age of the Earth, in which he said that the Earth was only 500 million years old. Life could not have appeared on Earth before the Earth was formed!

If the question had said, “When did life appear on Earth, according to a survey of scientists taken in 1960?”, then we are pretty sure that the correct answer would have been 1.2 billion years ago because that was what was in the geology textbooks of that day. 1

But that is all ancient history. What do modern textbooks say?

The oldest fossils are 3.5 billion years (Gyr) old and they are similar to modern bacteria, including the photosynthetic cyanobacteria. 2

Some of the oldest known fossils are stromatolites. … Stromatolites that are more than 3 billion years old have been found on the shores of Australia. 3

The oldest actual fossils of bacteria date back to 3.5 billion years, about 350 million years after the earliest chemical signs of life. These fossils, discovered in the 1970s in western Australia, consist of delicate chains of microbes that look exactly like living blue-green algae (otherwise known as cyanobacteria). … The evidence for the oldest eukaryotes doesn’t come from traditional fossils, which only date back 1.2 billion years. It comes again from molecular fossils. … In the mid-1990s a group of geologists led by Jochen Brocks of Australian National University drilled 700 meters down into the ancient shales of northwest Australia to formations that have been dated with uranium and lead to 2.7 billion years ago. Inside the shale, the geologists found microscopic traces of oil that contained sterols. Because eukaryotes are the only organisms on Earth that can make these molecules, Brocks’s team concluded that eukaryotes--probably simple ameba-like creatures--must have evolved by 2.7 billion years ago. 4 [emphasis supplied]

But those textbooks are three years old, or older! In our December, 2003, Evolution in the News column we reported on articles from Science and Science News which said that the 3+ billion-year-old Australian microfossils might not be fossils at all. They might just be natural geologic formations that look like bacteria. Researchers were able to produce identical “fossils” in the laboratory using lifeless conditions that could easily have occurred in nature.

There is serious disagreement in the evolutionary community about the time when life began. We won’t even mention the many scientists who believe life began less than 10,000 years ago. (By the way, why didn't ABC include 6,000 years as one of the choices? Was it because they thought there might actually be more scientists who believe 6,000 years than 4 billion years?)

The Three Wise Men on Super Millionaire were a trivia buff, an entertainment editor, and a psychology professor; so only one of the three qualifies as a “scientist.” But 100% of the scientists on that panel (all one of them) said that life began 500 million years ago. Of course, a sample of one isn’t statistically significant, but it disproves the statement, “Every scientist knows life began 4 billion years ago.” Millions of people saw that there was at least one scientist that didn’t know that.

We admit we don’t know what the majority of scientists believe today, but we really want to know. Presumably, the ABC television network has some data upon which they based their question. So, within an hour of the broadcast we sent an email to ABC asking for the reference. Part of our email said:

I have had a hard time finding accurate, recent surveys of what “scientists” believe about the origin of life. So, I am very interested in the research you based your question upon. Did the survey include engineers and physicians as well as college professors in the definition of “scientists?” When was the survey conducted? What were the choices offered to the scientists? What percentage of the scientists accepted the 4 billion year hypothesis? Was this survey part of a longitudinal study? If so, how dramatically has the number of scientists who believe in evolution decreased in the duration of the study? Who conducted the survey? Which hypothetical origin of life scenario did most scientists accept?

(I wish I had thought to ask, “What were the choices given in the survey?”)

As of March 25, ABC has not answered us. Could that mean that they didn’t really have any data to base their question upon? Did they just assume that most scientists still believe the 4 billion year speculation? If ABC sends us an answer, you will be the first to know.

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1 Garrels, A Textbook of Geology, 1951, says the oldest known rocks are 2.4 billion years old on page 305. Table 22.1 on pages 384-385 shows 1st fossil algae at the beginning of Proterozoic (1.2 billion years ago). (Ev)
2 McKinney, et al. Current Perspectives in Geology (2000 Edition) page 227 (Ev)
3 Oldershaw, Atlas of Geology and Landforms (2001) page 46 (Ev)
4 Zimmer, Evolution (The triumph of an idea), 2001, Page 66 (Ev)