The Edge of Evolution: A Note from Dr. Ussery

Bookmark and Share

October 30, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's entry was written by David Ussery. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Edge of Evolution: A Note from Dr. Ussery

Editor’s Note: Over the past two weeks, Dr. Ussery has been offering his review of Michael Behe’s book The Edge of Evolution, focusing particularly on the view of evolution, mutations, and genetics that Behe puts forth in the book. However, while the first three pieces have generated some interesting discussion, not all of it has been beneficial or in line with our site’s ground rules for commenting. Before we continue with the next part of the review series, Professor Ussery would like to take a moment to address the responses to the first three parts.

There are three things I'd like to say, in relation to the first three parts that have been posted from my review.

Firstly, thank you very much for many useful comments and discussion. One good thing about this discussion is that it can be used as a teaching tool, in order to get students interested in the controversy (and hence the science) about genomic sequences and evolutionary biology. I use Meyer's Signature in the Cell in my first lecture, talking about the information in DNA - this makes a nice introduction, about exactly what it is that DNA codes for. Then from there I build up slowly a discussion about genome sequences, comparison of genomes, then metagenomics, then finally evolution of bacterial genomes, the last chapter, where I discuss Behe's Edge of Evolution. This is found both in my course schedule at DTU as well as a set of lectures I gave a few weeks at a course at Oxford University.

Last week I was at a meeting on synthetic biology, in China. It was quite fun, with discussions about how we could design life with 6 or 8 DNA bases, rather than 4, for example. Imagine “growing” computers which can replicate (and repair) themselves and can even design and build better computers. This requires a mixture of engineers, chemists, mathematicians, and even a few molecular biologists. Again, I think some of the implications of this are relevant for the discussion here. For example, there was some discussion about using rational and “irrational” design - the latter being evolution in a test tube. I think both are important and viable methods for designing new life. If one wants to think about possible limits to evolution, do a Google search with the following three words: directed evolution company. Poke around and see what the various commercial companies seem to think are the limits to evolution, in terms of novel proteins they are designing.

I talked with some of the students in my course this morning, and they've been following my posts here on The BioLogos Forum. For the Danish students it's a bit of a culture shock to see such a free-for-all discussion, particularly with religious overtones (since Denmark is quite secular). The students told me that they were surprised at some of the comments, which seemed quite personal.

Which brings me to the second point: I want to give a reply to "Bilbo" - in his comment (# 36210), responding to my complaint that he was sad to learn that I was a Christian:

Dave: “Are you REALLY disappointed to learn that I say the Nicene Creed, that I believe in Jesus Christ as the son of God?”

Bilbo: "Yes I am disappointed. First, it means that you will be held to a higher standard than an atheist at the last judgment. You will be asked why you, a supposed Christian, thought it was all right to lie about someone else. You’re replying that you can say the Nicene Creed will avail you little comfort. Second, it means that you are making the rest of us Christians look bad."

To me this sounds pretty presumptuous, to speak for God. Does Bilbo think that he knows the mind of God, and “knows” that I will be judged for daring to have a different opinion than he or Behe? I asked Bilbo what it would take to convince him maybe Behe was not always right, and all I got was a quip: "What do YOU think?"

I would have no problem if Behe made claims that are found in the scientific literature, and what he said proved to be true. If when I poke around, I find him to be truthful, then fine. I am not a materialist! I am not trying to prove Behe wrong just because he is proposing something outside of nature exists! Once again, I have to keep saying this, because the gut reaction of many seems to be that I am against Behe because I am a materialist. But I'm not! My problem is, when I look in the literature, I find things that he says should not be there. Bilbo says this is because I am an atheist, or if I'm not an atheist, maybe I should be an atheist. What about having a civil discussion here?

Take a deep breath and have a look at what's happened here. Bilbo and another commenter, PDS, say that I am distorting what Behe says (PDS even puts this claim on his own web page); then when pressed, PDS says that all he wants to see is something like a paper published where someone shows the evolution of the cilium. I produced such a paper about the evolution of the cilium, proposing that there were 8 gene duplications involved in a gradual, step-by-step evolutionary route of cilium evolution, including evidence from genome sequence data that this is a plausible route, and yet PDS still seems to think I “haven't shown anything", that this is still not enough. What, then, would be enough?

I was hoping to have a discussion about ways science and religion can get along together and am a bit frustrated that I am being attacked personally, rather than discussing the issues. Why can't we just talk about the science and religion issues, instead of attacking the integrity of anyone who disagrees?

This brings me to the last point: The question I'd like to throw out for discussion is as follows - what sort of alternative might there be to this Boolean (0,1, either/or) choice between science and religion? Is it a war? Are there REALLY only two choices? Both Richard Dawkins and Mike Behe think so. Dawkins claims science can prove there is no God; Behe thinks science can show there IS a God. But is this our only choice? What other alternatives might there be? Is science really the best (or only) tool that can be used to evaluate the truth, especially about something that, by definition, is outside nature? Does one have to choose between modern evolutionary science and belief in God?

Editor’s Note: In your discussion, it might be helpful to reflect on Ian Barbour’s four models of the science-religion relationship, put forth in his book Religion and Science. The four models are:

1. Conflict, the Boolean choice that Ussery mentions, assuming that only science OR religion can stand, not both.

2. Independence, similar to Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA theory, in which science and religion address separate, non-overlapping realms.

3. Dialogue, the idea that science and religion can share in fruitful discussions over overlapping ideas and themes despite differences.

4. Integration, the idea that science and religion both stem from the same quest for truth, with each one being able to inform the other.


David Ussery is an associate professor of comparative microbial genomics at the Center for Biological Sequence Analysis at the Technical University of Denmark and on the faculty at the University in Oslo, Norway. Ussery is the co-author of Computing for Comparative Microbial Genomics and has authored or co-authored 130 articles for science and professional journals. He is also a frequent public speaker on the topic of bacterial genomics.


View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Loading...
Page 10 of 10   « 7 8 9 10
Colin - #38725

November 5th 2010

... There never was a Roman Empire. The entire world came into existence only just beyond living memory. Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, Romansh: all these languages and their constituent dialects sprang spontaneously and separately into being, and owe nothing to any predecessor such as Latin.”


Tim - #38732

November 6th 2010

Rich,

I am not saying that people like Coyne have developed greater critical thinking skills than the rank-and-file researchers.  I am simply saying that people like Coyne might identify more with a way of thinking that is very scientific and very critical.  This isn’t to say that the skill is better, just that identifying primarily with that way of thinking is far greater, perhaps to the detriment of attending to the very personal and very subjective asthetic/spiritual evidence for God.

Clearly what you have is a greater degree of sciences among the elite ranks, both inside the life and earth sciences as well as without, that are far less theistic than the rank-and-file .  You can’t pin in on evolution, as the effect holds up across relatively across the board.  So I offered you an explanation for this.  Call it a reliance on empiricism or what you will, but I think the elite scientists are far less likely to say something like they believe there’s a God out there because they see such beauty in their daughter’s eyes than a rank-and-file scientist.

Make sense?


Rich - #38741

November 6th 2010

Tim:

Yes, now I understand you.  I needed to hear that fuller explanation from you.  It sounded at first as if you thought the difference between the greater and lesser scientists was one which was all to the glory of the greater scientists, and all to the ignominy of the lesser ones.  Now you seem to be saying more clearly that there may be losses as well as gains in the monofocus of the great.  I agree with that.

And in light of your fuller explanation, I’d say that “critical thinking” is not really the right distinction.  It would be more like your “reliance on empiricism” or perhaps a notion that all explanations must be mechanical-material to be valid.

I’d add a couple more points.  I think the monofocus you’re speaking of is often found among the rank-and-file scientists as well.  Many mediocre Ph.D.s have a narrow view of science and of truth.  And conversely, especially in physics, the great scientists are often less dogmatic and more open-minded.  And finally, I think there is something about modern biology that is reductionist and mechanistic, more so than modern physics, and I think this has something to do with the relatively greater hostility to religion among the biologists.


troy - #38762

November 6th 2010

Rich:

“I think there [1] is something about modern biology that is reductionist and mechanistic, more so than modern physics, and I think [2] this has something to do with the relatively greater hostility to religion among the biologists.”

Two very strong claims there. Can you back them up?


Tim - #38764

November 6th 2010

Rich,

“think the monofocus you’re speaking of is often found among the rank-and-file scientists as well.  Many mediocre Ph.D.s have a narrow view of science and of truth.  And conversely, especially in physics, the great scientists are often less dogmatic and more open-minded.  And finally, I think there is something about modern biology that is reductionist and mechanistic, more so than modern physics, and I think this has something to do with the relatively greater hostility to religion among the biologists.”

I think this is patently false Rich.  When I introduced critical thinking I did so for a reason.  And I of course realize that you’ve latched onto the idea of empiricism as it is easier for you to criticize and dismiss.  Scientists don’t typically start out as empiricists, and many of the rank-and-file scientists are not strict empiricists, though perhaps far more of the elite are.  Why?  Because of what critical thinking does to one’s perspective on knowledge.  Most scientists start out just the same as you or I.  Raised to believe in God.  In this country, probably raised to believe in Christianity.  But critical thinking causes them to challenge assumptions that previously unchallenged.

cont.


Tim - #38766

November 6th 2010

Rich (continued),

So scientists that are challenging these assumptions of what they accept as truth, examining them in the harsh light of whether they have warrant to believe them instead of just having been taught to believe them (this is what critical thinking is), they often start to find these assumptions wanting.  So, many of their religious and theistic beliefs fall by the wayside.  Some hold onto their beliefs, others don’t.  However, the more one identifies with thinking critically and challenging information skeptically and scientifically, the less likely a maintenance of pre-existing religious or theistic views is likely to happen.  This is what happens among most of the elites.

Now, I again don’t know why you’re singling out biology.  I have gone to lengths again and again to highlight that the biggest difference determining a drop in theism is between the rank-and-file and the elite, not between the rank-and-file evolutionary biologists and the other rank-and-file scientists.  The other difference is of course between the rank-and-file scientists and the lay public.  The effect should be obvious.

In any event, at the end of the day, you have approx. 20-30% of TEs among the rank-and-file.


Rich - #38782

November 6th 2010

Tim:

I think this discussion is becoming unproductive.  I thought we had found a large measure of agreement, and I added my comments merely as qualifiers, not as major new points.  Yet you seize upon them as if they must be beaten down at all costs, instead of recognizing my attempts to meet you in the middle.

It was you who introduced the term “empiricism,” not I.  I was agreeing that it was relevant.  Now you object to my use of it.  And I don’t have time to wrangle over its definition, as we did over “critical thinking.”  I know what empiricism is; I did graduate work on the rise of empiricist thinking in the 17th century and its philosophical roots.  I said nothing about “strict empiricism”; I merely indicated that empiricism was a factor (in agreement with you). 

(continued)


Rich - #38784

November 6th 2010

Tim (continuing):

One mark of *true* critical thinking is the ability to think against the herd, including one’s own “elite” herd.  “Top” scientists, evolutionary biologists, bankers—any group you can name—has its “herd” wisdom.  The fact that most members of group X are non-religious may not be due to “critical thinking” on their part as much as the influence upon them of the thinking of the rest of the herd.  As one with a Ph.D. who has spend most of his life around professors, I’ve found them as vulnerable to herd thinking as any other group in society, and in some respects more so.  I think your notion of “critical thinking” is based on a romantic notion of the academic which doesn’t match today’s reality.

The herd thinking among the life scientists here is quite obvious.  Against ID they man the battlements, writing column after column and comment after comment to refute it.  Even atheists with no interest in the mission of Biologos come here just to attack ID.  All seem impervious to criticism of the received idea that genomic closeness automatically implies historical closeness, and their brusque dismissals of Margulis, Newman and other non-neo-Darwinians suggests anything but open critical minds.


Rich - #38785

November 6th 2010

Tim:

I’ve already granted you that the TE numbers may be higher among rank and file life scientists than among the leading evolutionary biologists.  Neither one of us has “rank and file” figures for evolutionary biology specifically, and you won’t allow extrapolation from the polled group, so we’ll have to let that one go.

I focus on biology because the bias of modern biology towards materialism-mechanism is so obvious.  The NABT and AAAS (which do not represent “elite” scientists) have removed official statements about “unguided and purposeless” evolution only under duress.  The prejudice I’m speaking of is shared right down through the rank and file in biology.  You aren’t interested in investigating why.  That’s your business.  I think that a sociological phenomenon unprecedented in the history of mankind—the nearly complete embrace by the intellectual elite of de facto atheism, with its hard pointed edge located more among top evolutionary biologists than among any other group of academics—is worthy of an investigation powered by “critical thinking.”


John - #38825

November 6th 2010

Rich wrote:
“One mark of *true* critical thinking is the ability to think against the herd, including one’s own “elite” herd.  “Top” scientists, evolutionary biologists, bankers—any group you can name—has its “herd” wisdom.”

False. Scientists become part of the elite by successfully challenging the existing dogma—the herd.

“...As one with a Ph.D. who has spend most of his life around professors,…”

Sneaky, Rich. You started out with “scientists,” then switched to “professors.” You haven’t spent ANY significant time around practicing scientists (people who produce new knowledge), have you? That’s why you keep bragging about having a PhD, isn’t it? Because you have no significant accomplishments since then?

“I’ve found them as vulnerable to herd thinking as any other group in society, and in some respects more so.”

Of course, the set “professors” is much larger than the set “scientists,” who practice a profession designed to guard against herd thinking.

This is why you try to deceive your readers into thinking that science is like high-school debate.


Tim - #39035

November 8th 2010

Rich,

I’ve been exceedingly busy as of late so I was unable to respond earlier.  However, based on your sentiments in #38766, perhaps you really don’t care to continue this further.  Let me know either way.


Rich - #39037

November 8th 2010

Tim:

I’m not sure which points we haven’t already beaten to death.  If you can think of some angle that we haven’t already commented on repeatedly, I’m game. 

All statistics aside, it’s evident from the history of the discussion of evolution in relation to religion that a good number of people, including many highly educated scientists, philosophers, and theologians, have felt that there is some kind of tension between some formulations of evolutionary theory and some formulations of Christian theology.  I mentioned the statistics as a way of reinforcing that this tension is still felt by many evolutionary biologists and many highly placed scientists.  Regardless of whether the number of evolutionary biologists who aren’t theists is 93% or 80%, it’s still a telling number, and cries out for explanation.  And if it turns out (as I don’t believe) that evolutionary biologists show no more than the normal % for scientists, the high figures are *still* worthy of explanation.  Newton and Boyle did not feel there was any tension between world-class science and Christianity; nor did most other scientists until the late 19th century.  Something has changed, and Biologos has not grasped the nature of the change.


Tim - #39082

November 9th 2010

Rich,

Sorry, got caught up in work again.  Anyway, there is new information pertinent to your points I wanted to introduce.  It might take me a couple days to get to it, so check back periodically and I should have something up for you.


Dave Ussery - #39094

November 9th 2010

Rich wrote: Newton and Boyle did not feel there was any tension between world-class science and Christianity; nor did most other scientists until the late 19th century.  Something has changed, and Biologos has not grasped the nature of the change.

I agree with the first part of this - yes, things have changed a lot, in particular from the mid 1800s, but it has been actually kind of a slow steady decline, even starting at the time of the founding of the Royal Society - so even Boyle for example was arguing back and forth with Hobbes.  And Boyle saw that his ‘materialist’ approach - saying that matter in the world around us is made of atoms / molecules, could be taken by the atheists to mean that this is all that there is, no need for God.

I’ve actually just read a very interesting paper that I think deals with this by Ian Hutchinson - all I have in front of me is a PDF, but I think this came from someone at BioLogos - perhaps it’s on their web pages somewhere.  But anyway, I just did a google search and found one of his talks here:
http://www.veritas.org/Topics.aspx/science-vs-faith

There’s also Ard Louis, from Oxford - see a link here;
http://biologos.org/blog/reducing-irreducible-complexity-part-iii


Page 10 of 10   « 7 8 9 10