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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Argon - #23388

July 25th 2010

As for the metaphysics of evolution as the product of ‘natural’ (small-N), consistent, physical laws, I don’t think there needs to be much more conflict than if species are separately created and released at various periods over the course of Earth’s history. If we believe that God sustains every moment of this universe then it’s hard to argue that what occurs herein is outside His domain and will. The scientific issue then becomes whether the physical laws and initial conditions are set up in such a way that could lead to life as we know it. Aesthetically, I less enamoured with the notion of God as a repeated tinkerer vs. God the pool shark who can sink all the balls at the break. There is also the issue of whether a theology that emphasizes faith is best found with a universe in which doubt remains a constant possibility. I call this an ‘ironic design’ theory and it loops back into the issue of free will.

But in any case, if I don’t discuss theological implications often, it’s probably because I’m less interested (or feel that ultimate resolution is much less likely in metaphysical discussions) and don’t see the core issues as all that dependent on the pathways life took.


HenryD - #23391

July 25th 2010

To be honest, I don’t try to put evolution together with Christian theology any more than I try to put gravity, germ theory or the periodic table together with Christian theology.  I figure that the natural world is what it is.  It’s not here to fit into anyone’s theology.


Gregory - #23394

July 25th 2010

Hi HenryD,

You wrote:
“I’m a biologist, a member of the vast neo-Darwinian conspriracy.”

Thanks for sharing that you are a biologist. Well, I realize that this response was written to Rich wrt the issue of a ‘conspiracy,’ but there is another question I’d like to ask you in all seriousness.

Do you consider yourself a ‘neo-Darwinist’ or that you are studying ‘neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory’ in your work?

I just ask because it is unclear to me how appropriate the label ‘neo-Darwinian’ actually is anymore these days. It seems that many biologists do not even ascribe to ‘neo-Darwinism’ or ‘neo-Darwinian evolution’ (probably they haven’t even read OoS cover to cover!), but of course they make use of ‘evolutionary’ theories in their work without taking a name-label.

Does my question make sense?

The IDM rails against neo-Darwinism. But it sometimes seems like they are arguing with nobody because nobody considers them-self a ‘neo-Darwinist.’


HenryD - #23403

July 25th 2010

“Does my question make sense?”

Yes, and I’m as confused as you are when it comes to figuring out what a neo-Darwinist is.  When I attached the term to my name, it was meant as a tongue in cheek reply to Rich. In practice, it’s not a term that I’ve ever applied to myself. 

It’s been my observation that few biologists refer to themselves as “Darwinists” or “neo-Darwinists”, just as physicists rarely refer to themselves as “Newtonists”.  I think British biologists are more likely to use terms like Darwinist, probably because Darwin was a Brit.  However, when I see these terms being used, more often than not, that’s usually a sign that the person using the term is opposed to one aspect of evolutionary biology or another.  Not always, just usually, especially in the U.S. 

Personally, I just pay attention to what looks interesting and promising in terms of explaining things.  For example, right now, evo-devo is looking very interesting.  Is that neo-Darwinist?  What about the concept of puncuated equilibrium (an idea that seems to be fading a bit as we find more fossils).  Who knows what “neo-Darwinism” is, and who cares?  If the theories and hypotheses are good and solid, the name doesn’t matter.


Rich - #23406

July 25th 2010

Gregory and HenryD:

Like Stuart Newman, I use neo-Darwinism to refer to “the modern synthesis”, which is associated with a whole bunch of names—Wright, Mayr, Dobzhansky, Gaylord Simpson, etc.  The two crucial points are “random mutation” (where “random” means that the mutations occur without respect to their ultimate fitness; nothing prejudices them in the direction of increasing fitness, and therefore the overwhelming number of them are either harmful or useless), and “natural selection”, whereby harmful mutations are eliminated from the population because they handicap the creature and make it unlikely that it will survive to reproduce.  A classic neo-Darwinian apologist is Dawkins, and Miller and Eugenie Scott are pretty orthodox followers.

I don’t know evo-devo well, but it has promise.  Anything that does more justice to the complexity of life than the crudity of neo-Darwinism is an improvement.  I think it’s possible that evo-devo may someday prove compatible with design theory, once anti-ID people get it out of their heads that ID requires miracles.  And some of the new self-organizational theories are potentially compatible with ID as well, as they greatly downplay “chance” which is ID’s bete noire.


HenryD - #23416

July 25th 2010

Here’s a hypothetical mechanism. 

Say that a given feature requires two mutations.  In this case, the first mutation occurs, but it has no effect on survival.  It’s neutral, but it hangs for many generations around at a low frequency by chance or genetic drift.  Then a second mutation occurs in an organism that happens to carry the first mutation, and it generates a clear advantage, and so organisms with both mutations have higher survival rates, and the frequency of the two mutations increases in subsequent generations.  The advantage gained depends on having both mutations, and the second mutation is worthless without the first mutation.  But again, the first mutation alone was neutral and occurred many generations prior to the second mutation. 

Is this hypothesis an example of neo-Darwinism”?


Rich - #23428

July 26th 2010

HenryD:

I don’t know how much value the neo-Darwinian synthesizers (Mayr etc.) attributed to neutral mutations of the kind you are talking about, but I have no problem with including neutral mutations under a broad definition of “neo-Darwinism”.  The main point about mutations in neo-Darwinism, for me, is that the mutations are unguided.  Thus, since in the neo-Darwinian scheme, major changes in form must trace back to mutations, the direction of macroevolution is not “tilted” in any way.  (By contrast, in some of the newer evolutionary views, there is a tendency for evolution to move in certain directions, because biological form is not exclusively or even primarily a product of mutations to the DNA, but is governed by more general laws.  “Chance” yields much territory to “law”.  Whether this applies to evo-devo I can’t say.)

I have no problem with two-step (or multi-step) changes of the kind you mention.  In fact, I can’t imagine how neo-Darwinism could be credible without them.  But even *with* them, I still find the assembling of the right set of mutations to produce a whale within 9 million years a daunting prospect, and without a hypothetical pathway, I see no way of testing the plausibility of the result.


penman - #23440

July 26th 2010

Rich -
<

>

The summary is intriguing - I’ll check him out!

The thing that stops me giving a very coherent immediate reply is that I got tangled up with what exactly is meant by “natural cause” & “supernatural cause”. Is the latter intended to denote a miracle in the traditional sense? As a Christian I think everything ultimately has a supernatural cause. But mediated usually through natural or secondary causes.

If the argument is that a TE must assume by unproved faith that God worked through natural secondary causes alone, otherwise you can’t embrace common descent, I doubt that pretty severely. Speaking scientifically, I think the mass of evidence considered holistically favours common descent. And THEN, post hoc, I assume that God probably worked through natural secondary causes.

I also have strictly theological reasons re the function of miracles to doubt whether God worked THAT way in pre-human history.

But as I said, I’m not ready to isolate & canonise natural selection as THE natural secondary cause. I’ll chase up your references to those who suggest self-organization!

Thanks.


Rich - #23450

July 26th 2010

penman:

Thanks for your comments.

I wasn’t endorsing Hunter’s position, only mentioning it, as he has made a specialty of arguing for the metaphysical character of all proofs of “evolution” (which he uses to cover both the process and the mechanisms, which makes his writing ambiguous in comparison with many other ID writers, who distinguish evolution as a process from “neo-Darwininan” and other mechanisms).  I think there is something to his argument, but that he pushes it too far.

TEs often confuse themselves by talking about the so-called Biblical meaning of the word “miracle”, which, they say, always has to have some revelatory significance.  But Hunter is talking more generally about supernatural action, not just about such actions as can be classed as “miracles” in the above sense.  That is, he is talking about special divine action altering the course of nature.  He’s saying that *both* atheists *and* TEs work from the assumption that God does not (outside of the recorded Biblical miracles) perform special divine actions, but works through the laws of nature.  And he’s asking how these people know that.  For it you don’t *know* that, you can’t infer that evolution works through natural causes alone.


penman - #23453

July 26th 2010

Rich,
You’ve got a point that merits debate here - the assumptions we bring to how God worked in life’s history, & the basis for our assumptions.

My point was a bit different, viz. that I think there’s a good case for common descent on the basis of all kinds of evidence, before we discuss how exactly God acted in the process. Theoretically I could say that I believe in common descent based on “scientific evidence”, but that I also invoke “special divine action” in order to give a fully coherent account of how common descent happened. In fact, maybe that’s what you are saying yourself!


Argon - #23454

July 26th 2010

So I discuss some of the those metaphysical issues which I’m told, with some suspicion, that I don’t discuss and nobody is interested.

Go figure.


HenryD - #23462

July 26th 2010

Rich,

Your defintion of “neo-Darwinism” is broader than I expected, but at least your definition is clearer now.


John - #23485

July 26th 2010

Rich wrote:
“Don’t evade this serious charge.  You accused me of having a web site.”

That’s a serious charge? No, here’s a serious charge:
“On all matters to do with evolution and ID, Wikipedia is biased and polemical garbage which cannot be trusted.”

Especially when you cower from empirical testing of your charge.

“I’d like an apology, not just for the error, but for your irresponsibilty in not checking the facts before making an assumption.”

I propose that we check the facts regarding your claim about Wikipedia, beginning with the simple fact relevant to the RNA World hypothesis.

“And also for the rage and the sneering.  Until I get unqualified apologies for all these things, you won’t get another reply from me.”

Rich, you keep threatening but you continue to reply.

“I don’t disrespect *biologists* as such.  Good empirical biologists I respect very much.”

They’re virtually all the “neo-Darwinists” you whine about incessantly. You’re pulling the creationist trope of pretending that there’s some huge gulf.

“... divert attention from the fact that they can’t explain even 1% of whale evolution in terms of their theory.”

We can explain 100% of whale evolution in terms of evolutionary theory.


Rich - #23488

July 26th 2010

Argon, HenryD:

Christians of course must try to make sense of the natural world in terms of Christian theology.  In the case of the periodic table, etc., there is no obvious difficulty.  Indeed, there is no obvious difficulty with most of modern science, provided that one is allowed to read certain passages of the Bible (e.g., those which appear to view the earth as flat) as reflecting the perspective of the author’s age.  It is not at all out of tune with Christian thinking that God would work through natural laws.  Indeed, most historians of science now accept that Christian thinking contributed to the rise of modern science through the notion of laws of nature emanating from God’s will.

However, since Darwinian evolution is largely driven by chance rather than law (for even if we call natural selection a law, the mutations are chance driven), a problem arises:  how can God guarantee any result of the process, without intervening in it?  There are various answers to this, which have been discussed on various threads here.  At one extreme, there is no problem with God working through sheer chance; at the other extreme, either Darwin or Christianity must go.

Weigh in on “God and chance”, if you like.


Rich - #23491

July 26th 2010

John:

You have grossly misrepresented my views due to the irresponsible mistake of assuming that I am someone else that you have encountered on a web site.  I have corrected this blatant error, and you still are not adult enough to retract and apologize.  I leave it up to the people here to judge your decision to continue sneering at me and baiting me, instead of retracting your words and apologizing for your tone.  I’m done with you.  I recommend that you go and post at Panda’s Thumb or Pharyngula or some other rabidly pro-Darwinian site where your argumentative tactics will be more highly valued.


John - #23498

July 26th 2010

Rich:

You said that you were not going to reply, but you did.

You claimed that “On all matters to do with evolution and ID, Wikipedia is biased and polemical garbage which cannot be trusted.” When challenged with a direct, empirical test of that claim, you run away.

So your evidence-free claim that I have misidentified you is not very credible.

And your claim that this is a “serious charge” is laughable.


John - #23499

July 26th 2010

Rich wrote:
“It is false that ID proponents are not doing current research.”

ID proponents are doing zero research to empirically test ID hypotheses. They have no faith.

“Several scientists work at the Biologic Institute…”

The fact that they work there doesn’t mean that they are doing any research.

“... and articles are starting to come out.”

But none of them contain empirical tests of an ID hypothesis.

“Watch for articles and books in 2011. “

I can predict with nearly complete confidence that none of them will contain an empirical test of an ID hypothesis.

And why not 2010?

“Also, as I’ve pointed out before, a recent ID-inspired article was published in a peer-reviewed mainstream journal.  (Of course, I was immediately told that it “didn’t count”, because it was a criticism of neo-Darwinism rather than a proof of ID.”

I’m not demanding “proof of ID.” I’d like to see that those inspired by ID perform empirical tests of an ID hypothesis. Only one real ID hypothesis has ever been advanced, and it was both laughable and wrong.

“But that’s irrelevant, because it’s still ID-inspired research, …”

Why can’t ID inspire anyone to perform an empirical test of an ID hypothesis?


Rich - #23516

July 26th 2010

For those who are interested, there is a good popular-level conversation about evolution with Stuart Newman (professor at NY Medical College and one of the Altenberg 16), in Suzan Mazur’s *The Altenberg 16* (2010).  Mazur’s book overall is a journalistic effort, not a scientific one, but it contains some good interviews with scientists, and gives one some idea of the varying notions of evolution that are in the air today.  If one reads around Mazur and focuses on what the evolutionary theorists are saying, it’s valuable.  The longer interview with Newman is in Chapter 13, pp. 121-137.

Newman says some very interesting things about the NCSE and the Dover Trial which I think are bang-on, and at one point even touches on the notorious bacterial flagellum, suggesting that the polarization between supernatural and neo-Darwinism explanations for the flagellum might be avoided if the neo-Darwinists were not so closed to self-organizational theories.  Newman offers his suggestions tentatively and modestly, not dogmatically or arrogantly, which is a refreshing change from the normal public presentation of Darwinian evolution that we get from the NCSE, Pharyngula, Panda’s Thumb, etc.


Argon - #23524

July 26th 2010

Rich - #23488: “However, since Darwinian evolution is largely driven by chance rather than law…’

Weigh in on “God and chance”, if you like.

Why focus on ‘Darwinism’? This applies to something as fundamental as atomic decay and other events under quantum mechanics. And that impinges on chemistry and physics. Even weather events (as opposed to the climate) are ‘chance’ driven. How do probabilistic events like the rain in Spain and the absorbance of a photon by a molecule fit with the notion of omnipotence and omniscience? If they can fit, why not Darwinian (or naturalistic) mechanisms involved in evolution?


Rich - #23530

July 26th 2010

Argon:

If I see a cloud of thirty billion particles, each of which moves according to “chance” (not really, but as far as I can tell), I can still predict the overall behaviour of the cloud.

That isn’t the case with Darwinian evolution.  If I start with a hippo, and add 9,000 random mutations over 9 million years, I don’t have the slightest idea whether that hippo will become a whale, or a completely different sort of sea creature, or a completely different sort of land creature, or whether the mutations will overall be ineffectual, leaving something very like a hippo in his wallow 9 million years later, perfectly suited to his niche.  “Laws of large numbers” generate predictable patterns in gross physical phenomena; they cannot explain the formation of complex, integrated, precisely honed biological systems.

On the theological side, the Bible doesn’t say that God gives two hoots over one radioactive emission or one molecule of water vapor in a cold front, but it does say that he intended and produced man.  Whatever degree of “chance” God allows, he doesn’t allow it to affect the major desired outcomes of creation.  But in Darwinism, chance *can* do so.  Read Gould.  Read Ray Bradbury, “A Sound of Thunder”.


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