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Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Three

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July 19, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Three

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

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.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Rich - #23576

July 26th 2010


Sparrows are still well above the microcopic level at which “random” events operate.  Nonetheless, I grant your point.  The Bible can certainly be read to deny any randomness at all.  My “inconsistency” here was merely an act of generosity, to maybe allow some inconsequential randomness at the micro-level.  In fact, I’ve known Calvinists who bite the bullet and insist that every event in the history of the universe, macro or micro, is managed by God.  Thus, any random event, from our perspective, would be planned, from God’s perspective.  Thus, if God created by evolution, and evolution proceeded by mutation plus natural selection, *the mutations had to be rigged*, to guarantee that man would appear.  Darwin would never have allowed that—it would have defeated the whole point of the theory.  If God is consciously behind specific mutations, he might as well have poofed each species into existence.

Darwin consciously opposed his view to the traditional Christian understanding of Creation.  He felt a tension between the two views.  Many Darwinians since then have affirmed this tension.  The TEs deny it.  But I think it can only be denied through the equivocal use of “random”.

Rich - #23578

July 26th 2010

DNA (23569):

I’d hand your 3,000-step (or whatever) proposal over to some people I know with Ph.D.s in the relevant disciplines, and ask them to calculate the probability that, say, the whale could have evolved from the artiodactyl via those 3,000 steps within 9 million years, if the mutations were truly random and the whole thing had to be accomplished solely by those mutations, sculpted by natural selection.

Arthur Hunt - #23583

July 26th 2010


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.

Excellent!  Rich, I’m going to be in Cleveland on Oct.22 Since weather is but a matter of a few trillions (or maybe trillion trillions - whats a few orders of magnitude, eh?) of particles all moving “by chance” but still according to well-characterized rules, and since you seem so very confident in your predictive abilities when it comes to these things (as opposed to biological processes), maybe you can tell me exactly what the weather will be In Cleveland on 10-22.  If it’s going to rain or snow, a to-the-minute accounting of the precipitation would be nice, so I can plan my packing and travel accordingly.


Arthur Hunt - #23585

July 26th 2010

Re: mutation rates and improbability.  I don’t know if something like this has been mentioned, but it’s good to keep in mind that mutation frequencies are not all that low.  For example, for each and every new generation of humans, in the population, every possible base change in the human genome that can occur does occur.  Several times over, in fact.

Rich - #23589

July 26th 2010


I was using the “generic I”, not claiming personal competence.  But in fact meteorologists are now getting very good at predicting things.  Decades ago, when I was a kid, they were often wildly wrong, even about the weather two days ahead, and were the butt of many jokes.  Now, they are frequently bang-on, even a week ahead of time.

But of course you know your point is a side-jibe, not relevant to the difference between “a mass of individual lifeless particles” and “a complex, integrated organic structure”.  The two have entirely different natures. 

As for your other note, I don’t deny the frequency of mutations.  That would be factored into any calculation of the probability of any hypothetical evolutionary pathway.  You also would not deny the frequency of harmful and useless mutations.  That too would have to be factored in.  As would the number of generations, etc.

Rich - #23593

July 26th 2010


If you have a complete list of the morphological changes necessary to go from lizard to snake, and a list of the mutations that you believe could account for each of those morphological changes, then you should publish it.  Then the scientific world could attempt a probability calculation to see if neo-Darwinian processes alone could have done it in the timeframe allotted by the fossil record.

John - #23595

July 26th 2010

Gregory wrote:
“I was under the impression that evolutionary biology is one type of biology, & that Darwinism is one type of evolutionary biology. Am I confusing something?”

Very much.

Can you provide me some examples of non-polemicists using the term “Darwinism” to describe a type of evolutionary biology, Gregory? Is there a “Journal of Darwinism” or something?

HenryD - #23603

July 27th 2010

So snakes evolving from lizards would count as an example?

Arthur Hunt - #23611

July 27th 2010

Rich, a biologist is going to make a much better prediction as to the morphology of a newly-evolved aquatic mammal appearing, say, in 10 million years than a meteorologist will about the weather in Cleveland in even five years.  The biologist will be able to rule out the vast majority of possible morphological changes, while the meteorologist will not be able to rule out any of the possible outcomes that may be seen in October along the shores of Lake Erie.

As for mutations, the simple fact is that they are frequent enough that they do not offer any probabilistic hurdles.  If a coherent and viable evolutionary progression through development can be worked out by developmental, cell, and molecular biologists, then the probability of such a progression actually occurring over evolutionary time is not going to be limited by rates of mutation.  Other factors, perhaps, but not mutation rate.  If you think otherwise, then I am afraid you haven’t really thought this matter through.

Gods Own DNA - #23612

July 27th 2010


You say “I’d hand your 3,000-step (or whatever) proposal over to some people I know with Ph.D.s in the relevant disciplines, and ask them to calculate the probability that, say, the whale could have evolved from the artiodactyl via those 3,000 steps within 9 million years, if the mutations were truly random and the whole thing had to be accomplished solely by those mutations, sculpted by natural selection.”

OK, so you first ask someone to give a ball-park estimate about a question that is impossible to give even a simplified answer to. And then you want a probability theorist to calculate the odds of how good the “ball-park estimate” holds up. Imagine the number of possibilities at each step of mutation. Imagine the complexity at each step of calculation considering that the acquired trait could be a product of mutations at multiple loci in the genome. Consider the complexity of ecological evolutionary parameters. Consider the complexity of change in these parameters. Imagine the complexity at the level of geo-physical characteristic variables to consider. And to top it all, consider the complexity of any and all events bringing about natural selection.

Gods Own DNA - #23614

July 27th 2010


With all this, you get at best (ball park-estimate)^2=As good as garbage.

This because the input for the probability estimate is in itself would be an oversimplified oversimplification.

Rich - #23621

July 27th 2010


You can’t generalize about probablistic hurdles.  It’s a question of total probablistic resources versus total size of the search space; the number of mutations, however large it makes the numerator, can still be dwarfed by huger numbers in the denominator. 

Yes, it’s possible that I haven’t thought the matter through, but there are very good biologists, at least as well trained as any of those criticizing me on this list, who *have* thought the matter through, and who also believe that neo-Darwinian mechanisms aren’t nearly adequate explanations of biological form.  So your time would be more profitably engaged in debating them than in debating a biological nobody like me.  It is they, not I, who are going to change the face of evolutionary biology over the next 30 years.

Rich - #23622

July 27th 2010

DNA (23612):

I agree with you about the complexity involved.  And you’ve just made my case.  You are saying that in order to demonstrate that neo-Darwinian mechanisms can do the job asked of them, one would need a mathematical model far more complicated than neo-Darwinian theorists can currently provide.

Fine.  Then endorse my original statement about whale evolution:

““Biology cannot say that it *knows* that ‘an artiodactyl became a whale via primarily neo-Darwinian processes’; it can’t provide nearly enough detail to justify so confident an assertion.”

If you endorse that, we’re in perfect agreement, and can end this debate amicably.

Rich - #23623

July 27th 2010


You weren’t badly confused.

Evolutionary biology is a field within biology.  It focuses on understanding the process of evolution.  (As cell biology focuses on understanding cells, etc.)

Neo-Darwinism alias the The Modern Synthesis is one theory within evolutionary biology, in fact, the currently predominant theory, a position it has occupied since about the late 1930s. 

It’s not the only theory within evolutionary biology, but it’s the one overwhelmingly pushed in high school science textbooks, basic undergrad texts, popular science books, television programs like NOVA, the anti-ID blogosphere, etc.

However, it is now meeting with some challengers (beyond ID people), whose focus is on “the origin of biological form”.  Some pretty bright people think that neo-Darwinism, with its focus on random mutations and selection, cannot explain the greater part of the evolution of biological form.  And their ideas, if they prove sound, will not only reduce the importance of neo-Darwinian thinking (which doesn’t mean scrapping it entirely), but will minimize culture-war tension, by undercutting the unprofitable debate between “randomness” and “miracles” with a more rational third position.  I’m hopeful.

Gods Own DNA - #23626

July 27th 2010


Answer me this: Do you only believe a scientific theory if there is a mathematical model to predict its behavior?

Argon - #23642

July 27th 2010

Rich - #23576: Darwin consciously opposed his view to the traditional Christian understanding of Creation.  He felt a tension between the two views.  Many Darwinians since then have affirmed this tension.  The TEs deny it.  But I think it can only be denied through the equivocal use of “random”.

Let’s be clear: TEs are absolutely not philosophical naturalists.

You are yourself equivocal about ‘random’ events (Rich - #23530: 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). As a student of philosophy you are no doubt aware of the long history or arguments in this area. It’s not about microscopic vs. macroscopic (presumably, events where quantum events dominate vs. ‘classical’ physics - I think this is a nonstarter because there are any number of phenomena where events at quantum ‘levels’ affect ‘classical’ systems). It’s about knowledge and the ability of humans to discern.

Argon - #23643

July 27th 2010

Let’s go with your assumption: Perhaps some events truly are random and others (e.g. involving humans) aren’t. 99.999999% of all species past and present aren’t directly in the human lineage. Does that resolve a conflict over random events and say, whale evolution? If we think humans definitely received special, non-random attention, perhaps you would best focus Biblical ire at evolutionary science on human evoluion because as you note, ‘it does say He intended and produced man’.

As I mentioned in a different thread, the digits of pi satisfy all known tests for randomness yet the sequence is anything but random. If you think that God intended for man and especially, any particular human, to exist then you may as well charge reproductive biologists with belief in ‘embryologism’ - The idea that the odds of specific human sperm and egg coming together to create a specific person are astronomically low.

Argon - #23662

July 27th 2010

Aside: Mike Gene discusses similar issues about divine sovereignty in the comments to the
‘How could God create through evolution a look at theodicy, part 2’ post here:


Starting with Mike Gene - #23651

John - #23667

July 27th 2010

Rich wrote:
“You can’t generalize about probablistic hurdles.  It’s a question of total probablistic resources versus total size of the search space; the number of mutations, however large it makes the numerator, can still be dwarfed by huger numbers in the denominator.”

It isn’t. We know the mutation rate.

“Yes, it’s possible that I haven’t thought the matter through,…”

No, it’s certain that you haven’t.

“... but there are very good biologists, at least as well trained as any of those criticizing me on this list,…”

Wanna bet, Rich? It’s very amusing that you desperately have to pretend that training is more important than accomplishment in assessing scientific expertise, particularly when a PhD is far more apprenticeship than didactic training.

So name one of these “very good biologists” and state the amount of money you are willing to bet that his or her training—undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and sabbatical—is better than mine.

My hypothesis is that you won’t, because you are deliberately bearing false witness.

Rich - #23677

July 27th 2010


Your points are worthwhile, but the problem is that I’ve had exactly the same argument with others here, on several threads, and I don’t have time to re-state the same arguments.

TEs do of course say that they are only “methodological” and not “philosophical” naturalists, and I am sure that’s technically right, but when you work out all the implications of their position (for most of them), there is no *practical* difference, when it comes to (a) their practice of science, and (b) what they think nature is really like.  Plus, almost all of them are badly confused about the difference between “telic” causes that are *part* of nature, and divine interventions which come from outside of nature.  They think that methodological naturalism, which excludes the latter, must also exclude the former; that’s wrong.  The source of such confusions, as I’ve discovered from talking to many TEs, including some major ones, is lack of study in the philosophy of science, the philosophy of nature, and even just general philosophy.  Many of them think that just being a scientist plus being a Christian enables one to comment profoundly on the great metaphysical questions about religion and science—and it doesn’t.

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