Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Three

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July 19, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Three

We often hear about the virtue of “teaching the controversy” when it comes to origins. The strategy is to lay out various options to students--options on which “experts” disagree--and let them make up their minds. This proposal appeals to America’s sense of fair play. America, from the days of its founding to its dynamic entrepreneurial culture of today has always celebrated the ability to break free of traditional ideas and boldly go where nobody has gone before.

The anti-Darwinians would have us view evolution the same way the founding fathers viewed the yoke of British colonialism. Just as the heavy hand of Britain had to be removed, so the yoke of Darwin must be cast aside as well, if we are to be truly liberated to find the truth. And what better way to find the truth than to have the options laid out in front of us, like the entrees on a menu waiting to be selected, or the candidates on a ballot waiting to be elected to office?

Despite the generous tone of such a proposal, it is a recipe for the production of widespread scientific illiteracy. Sending the message that we can “choose” our preferred science from a roster of options undermines the entire concept of science for it makes science seem like politics. Science is nothing like politics. Politics, at its best, is all about trying to create a society where people will be happiest. And the criteria for that change from time to time. Once upon a time women could not vote and that seemed OK. Now it is not OK. Once upon a time, education was not universally available and now it is. Politics is all about figuring out how things should be, based on how we would like them to be.

Science is the opposite of this. Science is about finding out how the world is whether we like it or not. And the lesson of history is that science is often not what we want it to be. Galileo’s arguments for the moving earth were not greeted with a chorus of “Amens” by his colleagues in Rome. John Donne expressed the concern of that generation when he wrote that this “new philosophy casts all in doubt.” Galileo’s ideas became the consensus slowly because they were true, not because they made people happy, or got selected by the majority from a roster of options.

The same thing is true of the Big Bang theory. Countless scientists went on record opposing the strange idea that our universe emerged in some kind of transcendent explosion beyond the reach of science. The Steady State Theory was developed by some leading cosmologists specifically to oppose the Big Bang because many scientists did not like it and wanted it to be false. But facts are facts and gradually a consensus emerged that the Big Bang was true.

In a more interesting development, we have watched “scientific racism” gradually be undermined by advances in genetics. It was once believed that certain races, like Australian aborigines, Africans, or Native Americans were demonstrably inferior. The textbook from which John Scopes supposedly taught evolution made this claim explicitly. But scientific advances in our understanding of human origins destroyed the foundations of these racist notions. All scientists though, did not welcome these advances. Racism runs deep and it was hard for some people to accept that their racism was based on an irrational and ultimately immoral prejudice and not on science.

But, once again, a consensus emerged that “race” does not have a biological basis. Many scientists are justifiably proud that science has dealt such a blow to humanity’s greatest social plague. This happened, though, through the achievement of consensus, as opposing viewpoints were undermined and the reluctant holdouts gradually came on board.

The same is true for evolution. Darwin’s ideas were not met with universal and unbridled enthusiasm. In fact, his key idea of natural selection was ignored for decades because most biologists thought it was too feeble to do the work Darwin assigned to it in The Origin of Species. The consensus about evolution that exists among biologists today took about a century to achieve. Thousands and thousands of reluctant, often brilliant, frequently cranky, scientists had to “come around” to Darwin’s view.

This is the meaning of “consensus” in science. Thomas Cudworth, on the Uncommon Descent blog, describes the embrace of consensus as “prostration before a self-selecting clique of experts.” This he says, “is repugnant to good science, to good philosophy, to the ideal of the university, and to the ideal of an open, free and democratic society.”

This does not make sense to me. Tens of thousands of biologists at thousands of universities spread around the planet are hardly a “self-selecting clique of experts.” And what does “self-selecting” even mean in this context? I would love to “select” myself to a tenured position at Harvard but I am unaware that such an option is available to me. The claim that the standard methods of science are “repugnant” to a “democratic society” is, alas, completely true. If only we could “vote” on what we wanted to be true, rather than have it imposed on us by the way things are.

Science is anything but democratic. Mother Nature casts the only vote and it is the job of science to determine how she voted. She votes only once and never changes her mind.

The scientific community is filled with creative, obstinate, and highly independent personalities. Anyone who attends a scientific meeting can see this clearly. Scientists dress strangely, have irregular hair, and are often socially odd. They can be abrasive and obnoxious. They despise convention and disrespect tradition. If there is any group that would be unwilling to bow before a “self-selecting clique of experts”, it is scientists.

A scientific consensus represents a hard-won victory over every imaginable sort of opposition. We should not set aside such consensus just because a tiny group of articulate outsiders offer us some ideas that we might like better. The ID movement has people with Ph.D.s to be sure. And a few of them have conventional scientific posts. But their pleas that we set aside scientific consensus must be ignored.

Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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HenryD - #23352

July 24th 2010

Thanks for the academic background info.

Re: Whales.

Oh, I see.  We’re back to identifying each and every mutation over tens of millions of years that is in any way involved in the changes leading to whales.  I was thinking of “steps” in broader terms, like one step would be reduction of hind limbs.  I haven’t read the previous threads, because I’m a newbie here, but given how little we know about what a given change in a developmental gene would do to morphology, I’m not so sure your estimate of the number of individual steps or changes can be anything more than a very crude guess.  But I accept that you won’t yield. 

“But I can tell you with 98% certainty what will happen to a young Ph.D. inspired by Stuart Newman who applies for a job in evolutionary biology where (hypothetically) the search committee consists of Jerry Coyne, Eugenie Scott, and Richard Dawkins.”

Yeah, well, I can pull make up imaginary search committes and imaginary percents out of my behind, too.

HenryD - #23353

July 24th 2010

Sigh, let’s try again.

I can make up or pull imaginary search committes and imaginary percents out of my behind, too.

Rich - #23361

July 25th 2010

HenryD (23353):

Your objection misses the point.  The imaginary search committee was picked for people here who might know the positions of the three famous people I named better than they would know the names of less famous biologists.  The point was that evolutionary biology sub-departments are largely dominated by neo-Darwinians, or at best by people who slightly modify neo-Darwinism with bits and pieces of other fundamentally stochastic explanations of evolution. 

I don’t know your background.  I’ve spent decades in and around universities, and I know how professors operate.  By and large (there are always pleasant exceptions), they hire the like-minded, recommend the like-minded for grants, etc.  Anyone who teaches in a modern university, and does not recognize this as *generally* true, does not know where he is.

Rich - #23363

July 25th 2010


I’m surprised that you don’t grasp the import of your admission:

“... *given how little we know about what a given change in a developmental gene would do to morphology*, I’m not so sure your estimate of the number of individual steps or changes can be anything more than a very crude guess.”

Look at the first part of your sentence.  It concedes a *huge* amount that we don’t know.  My point exactly!  If we don’t know that much, then how can we possibly *know* that neo-Darwinian mechanisms are up to the job?  We’re operating within a *time frame* dictated by the fossil record.  We can’t calculate the probability of the results within that time frame without the very information you say that we don’t have!

Also, it is not up to the *critics* of Darwinism to have to guess how many steps.  It’s up to those who *endorse* Darwinism to suggest how many steps might be necessary, and how they might be achieved.  If they refuse to do this (as they always do), then their critics have no choice but to guesstimate the number of changes, and base their probability calculations on the guesstimate.  If the neo-Darwinians find the guesstimates unreasonable—let them speak!  Let’s have *their* proposed numbers.

HenryD - #23364

July 25th 2010

“Your objection misses the point.”

The point is that you no have no evidence that the Alt 16 suffered anything for their positions, so now you’re just making (hypothetical) stuff up.  None.  So you have no point.  Anyone can claim anything…hypothetically.

“By and large (there are always pleasant exceptions), they hire the like-minded, recommend the like-minded for grants, etc. “

By and large, applicants for tenure-track university jobs in science departments do best when their proposed research is more original than “derivative”.  In fact, the greatest challege faced by post-docs is showing that they are not just going to copy the work of their thesis advisors.  You don’t become famous in science by copying others. 

Look, it’s really easy to talk conspiracies and “strangling in cribs”  But it’s time that the baby puts up or shuts up.  If there’s some radical new idea out there that can withstand testing, then it will succeed.  There are plenty of examples in the history of science of new ideas succeeding when they have the goods.  There are also plenty of examples of weak ideas that failed the test and deserved to be thrown out.

HenryD - #23365

July 25th 2010

To cite a quote attributed to Carl Sagain…

But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

HenryD - #23366

July 25th 2010

“Look at the first part of your sentence.  It concedes a *huge* amount that we don’t know.  “

Yes, and that’s precisely WHY I’m NOT trying to generate pure imagination estimates of what percentage is known and not known!  Putting a numerical value on these sorts of things is a pointless exercise in ignorance.

Gregory - #23367

July 25th 2010

“My academic field is multi-pronged, but “religion and science”, with a special emphasis on the philosophical and theological underpinnings of modern science, covers some of it.” - Rich

That’s pretty cool!

Indeed, the academic field of “Science & Religion” is growing around the world (though I’m sure you’d invite philosophy too). There are now programs offered at many major universities with this name. Oxford U. is but one example.

To HenryD,

One thing you should be aware of (perhaps you are somewhat already) is use of the terms Dawinian & neo-Darwinian, Darwinism & neo-Darwinism. These are not only ‘creationist’ or ‘IDist’ terms, but also used by many, including biologists & scientistic propagandists (bahhh!) who promote atheism & agnosticism.

The young Phd (which I was not long ago) that Rich imagines would obviously be rejected. But in one sense, who cares? Find another institution where you can do your PhD! My own story on this is quite interesting, though it will not be told here.

The point is that biologists’ ‘consensus’ is strong & dissent is dangerous. S. Fuller’s “Dissent from Dissent” speaks volumes on this. Rich understands well the institutional dynamics…

Gregory - #23368

July 25th 2010

HenryD: Your quote from an illustrious skeptic & atheist, Carl Sagan, reminded me of another by J. Swift:
“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

Let me add for the record, this:
William Dembski is not a genius, is not “the Newton of information,” is not even that interesting to listen to or to speak with!

But that doesn’t mean that scientists & scholars shouldn’t be more humble & (as an ideal type) demonstrate the humility that Rich asks of them wrt the hypothetical pathways or lack thereof when it comes to whales.

To the imaginary PhD student:
“It always remains true that if we had been greater, circumstance would have been less strong against us.” - George Eliot

“What moves men of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.” – Eugene Delacroix

p.s. It would really help, HenryD, if you tell us what field(s) you represent, especially since Rich has been so kind as to tell us his. Please excuse if I missed your doing this already.

Rich - #23369

July 25th 2010


After sounding reasonable, you are now starting to sound merely combative.
I already explained that *I never claimed that the Altenberg 16 suffered anything*.  If you aren’t going to read what I write, but are just going to raise objections I’ve already answered, our conversation is profitless.

In 23364, you launch into a sermon about “science” as you conceive it, and cease to engage with my carefully-worded, specific points.  23365 is just irrelevant.  I never made any claim that would warrant it as a response. 

23366 is back on topic.  But what you don’t see if that if the Darwinians *won’t* give something like the sort of scenario I’m asking for, their mechanism is not testable for large macroevolutionary changes.  So they can have it either way they want it;  give the numbers, and let the critics calculate the probabilities; or admit they can’t provide numbers yet, in which case critics can’t test it.  This is just basic logic.

Note that I have *not* said that, if they won’t provide numbers, the mechanism is *false*.  I’ve said it can’t *command assent*.  Dr. Giberson implies that it should command assent whether they provide numbers or not, because they are the experts.  That’s not science.

Rich - #23370

July 25th 2010

Thanks, Gregory.  Your remark about Steve Fuller shows that you see the point I am trying to make.  (I wonder if any of my interlocutors here has read Fuller’s *Dissent over Descent*?)

I’m not asking anyone here to embrace ID; I’m asking for some people to question their worshipful attitude to neo-Darwinism.  I’ve mentioned the Altenberg 16 as a group of biologists who have questioned some aspects of new-Darwinism *without* embracing ID.  I thought that might make the anti-ID people here more comfortable.  But the dogmatism in favor of N-D evolution is so strong that it doesn’t matter.  We aren’t talking about the rational discussion of scientific theories here.  We are talking about the defense of an orthodoxy.  Some people here feel viscerally threatened by any critique of neo-Darwinism.  A sociologist can of course explain this very well, which is why you, Gregory, have grasped what I’m getting at.

HenryD - #23374

July 25th 2010

“I’ve mentioned the Altenberg 16 as a group of biologists who have questioned some aspects of new-Darwinism *without* embracing ID.  I thought that might make the anti-ID people here more comfortable.  But the dogmatism in favor of N-D evolution is so strong that it doesn’t matter.”

You didn’t actually offer any IDEAS from the Alt 16 group, so what is there to discuss?  How did the N-D crowd act dogmatically in this case?  All you did was offer these people as an example of a group whose ideas would be strangled, and then you failed to offer any evidence that their ideas had been strangled.  So, what do you want from the “dogmatic neo-Darwinists”?

HenryD - #23375

July 25th 2010

I’m a biologist, a member of the vast neo-Darwinian conspriracy.  Curses!  You’ve discovered the conspiracy!  The truth is out there and we’re suppressing it!

Seriously, whada ya want from scientists?  How many times are scientists required to say that we don’t know everything?
We don’t know everything.
We don’t know everything.
We don’t know everything.
We don’t know everything.


I understand your point, I’m happy to say we don’t know everything, but after awhile, this just gets tedious.  You see this as being “viscerally threatened”.  Maybe scientists are just tired of the same old unproductive ring around the rosies.  The orthodoxy has been successfully challenged many times in the past when those offering a different view had something concrete to offer. 

Now, if you have the answer, put it up there for all to see.  Until then, don’t be surprised if people don’t listen very closely or get annoyed.  Scientists are very practical people.  Give them something to new and useful to work with, and they’re happy.  Carp about how they don’t know everything, accuse them of conspiring to suppress the truth, simultaneously fail to offer a viable alternative, and they get cranky.  And “combative”.

Rich - #23377

July 25th 2010


Thanks for your admission. Some points:

1.  It is quite evident to everybody that scientists don’t know everything, and that was never the point at issue on any of these threads, anyway.

2.  It is excruciatingly obvious to everybody that evolutionary biologists don’t know everything about evolution, but even that was never the point of issue. 

3.  The point of issue was that we don’t *know* that land mammals became whales via neo-Darwinian mechanisms.  I think that you have admitted that, while mumbling some qualification about the word “know”, as if crossing your fingers.

4.  The repetition you are complaining about need not have happened.  If every biologist here had agreed to my whale statement when I first made it, two months ago, there would have been no repetition at all.  Don’t blame me if, instead of agreeing to a reasonable statement of the limits of our current knowledge, your “colleagues” here have spent the last two months insulting and abusing me for making it.

5.  You presume too much in writing as if neo-Darwinian biologists are owed the same respect as “scientists” generally.  Sorry, but the level of accomplishment just ain’t there,  whether you like it or not.  (over)

Geoff - #23378

July 25th 2010

“The point of issue was that we don’t *know* that land mammals became whales via neo-Darwinian mechanisms.”

No, but we do *know* (if that term has any many in a scientific setting it can only mean being very confident) that modern whales are descended from land mammals. Whether that happened by “neo-Darwinian mechanisms,” genetic drift, self-organization, supernaturally guided mutations, or fairies flying around inside the organisms moving bits and pieces around is something that I personally am far less interested in.

Rich - #23379

July 25th 2010

6.  That last statement concerns “neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory”, not “biology” as such, which, when it keeps its feet on the ground, instead of engaging in airy speculations, has a good track record of accomplishments.

7.  I didn’t say there a conspiracy.  I meant nothing so Hollywoodish.  I said that reigning theories in any university discipline have a tendency to try to strangle potential challengers in the crib.  This isn’t done by clandestine meetings and sabotaging the brakes on challengers’ cars.  It’s done by the hiring and promotion of the like-minded.  Mainly.  (Though recently in climate science we have seen influential scientists contemplate, at least in their wishes, the behind-the-scenes control of dissident journals.)

8.  I never claimed to have the answer to anything.  I’ve been preaching the value of skepticism toward all theories, and open-mindedness on the question whether biological origins can be explained by entirely natural means.  For a Christian scientist the latter is in principle a legitimate question.  Of course, I cannot assume that all the scientists posting comments here are Christian; I suspect that several of them are not.

HenryD - #23380

July 25th 2010

“If every biologist here had agreed to my whale statement when I first made it, two months ago, there would have been no repetition at all.”

Great.  So you’ve been fighting the last war.  Well, I wasn’t there. 

“Sorry, but the level of accomplishment just ain’t there,  whether you like it or not.”

Yes, well, that’s your opinion.  Some might differ.

I *know* that what we *know* depends on your definition of *know*.  I *know*  that you will define *know* in whatever manner is needed to make your statement about what we don’t *know* accurate in your mind.  So, we end up wasting a lot of time on semantics.

Now, if you actually want to do something constructive, as opposed to arguing about what we *know*, I would suggest that you do some research in developmental genetics. 

The point of issue…wasn’t just about whales.  You also repeatedly tried to make hypothetical conspiracies and hypothetical suppression of truth an issue, too.  And, frankly,  that was the bit that got under my skin. 

Whales?  Semantics.  Conspiracy to suppress the truth?  Better have some damn good evidence.

HenryD - #23381

July 25th 2010

“I didn’t say there a conspiracy.”

No, you didn’t.  Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Rich - #23383

July 25th 2010


You might want to have a look at Michael Denton, *Nature’s Destiny*, and also some of the ideas of Stuart Newman and other biologists who are making a special study of the origins of biological form, and are working on a number of new approaches to the subject which go well beyond the Modern Synthesis.  There are more theories on heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your neo-Darwinian philosophy.  And one of them may some day supplant that philosophy.

Thanks for the exchange on neo-Darwinian science.  I’d be interested in hearing your views on Christian theology, and how you put Darwinian evolution together with it.  Interesting metaphysical issues arise when the combination is attempted.  Various Christian scientists here have dealt with those issues in various ways.  I haven’t yet heard the ways proposed by you, DNA, Argon, John, Larry, and several others.  Sometimes the discussions here sound as if they belong on an ID vs. Dawkins web site rather than on Biologos.

Argon - #23387

July 25th 2010

I’m pretty much comfortable with the metaphysical questions as I’ve seen them discussed elsewhere.  The most interesting issue, as I see it, is the issue of free will. That’s a problem regardless of a belief in origins.

To me, proposing an ancient Earth and accepting the general appearance times of various organisms as found in the fossil record have the most interesting metaphysical issues wrt Genesis accounts, the nature of ‘evil’ and what the Fall means. Likewise, how does one interpret the story of Noah in the context of an event that appears to be regional at best?


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