Response to R P: Evolution & Equivocation

R P over at Why Things Are The Way They Are has a long post which is basically his ‘closing argument’ in an ongoing discussion we’ve been having on evolution, creation & science. I’ll be responding to his post in ‘chunks’ over the next week or so in what will amount to my own ‘closing argument. It’s not that we’ve resolved anything – we’re just getting weary of going ’round and round’.

First up is evolution and complexity. In our previous discussion, R P wrote (all emphases mine):

And bad design doesn’t disprove ID because bad design is still design, that there was “corruption” of an initial order leading to persistent and consistent inherited morphological change within a species (which frankly sounds alot like evolution).

To which I responded:

Good point, but there is a crucial difference: Evolution posits increasing order and complexity, requiring the generation of new biological information while the creation model hypothesizes the shuffling around of and degeneration of existing biological information. The two models’ ‘development paradigms’ are headed in diametrically opposite directions.

In his last post, R P replies:

First off, evolution does NOT posit increasing order and complexity. It posits change. I have no intention of throwing sticks and stones (truly), but I do prefer to be honest with you – I would really challenge anyone’s understanding of it if they miss something that basic. The definition is, change in the distribution of alleles in a population over time. Evolution is very different than abiogenesis or natural selection. They are not the same things and to lump them together is to get it wrong. For example, the theory says evolution can occur by genetic drift (rather than natural selection) in animals that were created artificially.

Some changes will likely be more complex, some less. Both kinds, if adaptive, will become stable, so the *range* of complexity tends to widen over time. But that is not a goal. To say, as you did, that ‘developmental paradigms’ (whatever those are) are going in opposite directions belies a fundamental misunderstanding. In fact we have been discussing one way that organisms get less complex – they lose parts. I actually wrote on this last week over in my neck of the woods. It’s a common misconception even among your opponents.

Acutally, R P and I have no disagreement here. I did not claim that evolution posits only increasing order and complexity; if I had R P would have a point. To clarify my statement, evolution posits, among other other changes, increasing order and complexity. This is nothing more than R P’s saying that ‘the *range* of complexity tends to widen over time.’ On the other hand, in the first quote above, R P shows a misunderstanding of creation theory that I believe goes straight to the heart of the creation-evolution debate. To my point that creation theory holds that the initial (perfect) design of all things has suffered progressive and permanent corruption and decay, R P responded that that  ‘…frankly sounds a lot like evolution’. This assertion makes sense given R P’s broad definition of evolution (a fairly common one among evolutionists) as ‘change in the distribution of alleles in a population over time.’ But not even the stanchest creationist would dispute the reality of such ‘evolution’; if this is all there were to it, there would be no creation-evolution controversy.

The problem is that such a broad definition is a gross over-simplification that glosses over important distinctions. The concept of biological development/change is conceived of in the respective models differently (this is what I meant by ‘developmental paradigms’); the difference being the ‘quality’ of change that is possible. Evolutionary theory entails all three general types of change: increasing complexity, decreasing complexity and lateral (neither increasing or decreasing). Creation theory only allows for the last two: decreasing complexity and lateral change. Thus, on the subject of biological change, it is only in regard to changes of increasing complexity that creationists and evolutionists disagree. [ed. this is what I had in mind when I wrote that ‘the two models’ ‘development paradigms’ are headed in diametrically opposite directions’ – a misstatement by way of oversimplification] This being the case, it is at this point that the debate must be focused. R P’s broad definition obscures these distinctions and therefore muddles the debate precisely where clarity is needed.

So why the overly-broad definition of evolution? Anyone paying attention knows that the dispute between creationists and evolutionists isn’t over something as mundane as ‘change in the distribution of alleles in a population over time.’ There are (at least) two pieces that I think shed light on this question. The first comes courtesy of evolutionist Larry Moran. Over at his blog, Moran has a helpful post entitled What Is Evolution? wherein he refers to a general definition very much like R P’s as the minimal definition. After a lengthy discussion on the subject, Moran makes a critical point any creationist would endorse (last paragraph at link, all emphases mine):

The amazing thing about the minimal definition of biological evolution is that it doesn’t carry any baggage concerning the history of life or its future. As soon as we try to define evolution in terms of the historical record, we run into all kinds of problems because we confuse evolution as a process with evolution as a history of life. The scientific definition attempts to describe the minimum thing that might be called evolution.

Here’s the rub: ‘evolution as a history of life’ is the very crux of the origins debate.

Moran concludes:

We know that the history of life is more complicated than this and we know that evolutionary theory encompasses other things such as the formation and extinction of populations. There is no conflict between the minimal definition of evolution as a change in the genetic composition of populations and macroevolution.

I agree wholeheartedly. However, while there is no conflict between the ‘minimal definition’ and macroevolution, the former does not necessarily entail the latter. You can have ‘change in the distribution of alleles in a population over time’ without macroevolution. As such, it is critical to acknowledge and abide by the distinction Moran makes if one wishes to have an honest and fruitful discussion. Strangely, Moran sees it differently; he writes earlier in the same post:

Anti-evolutionists often claim scientists are being dishonest when they talk about evolution. The anti-evolutionists believe that evolution is being misrepresented to the public. The real problem is that the public in general, and anti-evolutionists in particular, do not understand what evolution is all about. Their definition of evolution is very different from the common scientific definition and, as a consequence, they are unable to understand what evolutionary biology really means. Scientist are not trying to confuse the general public by using a rigorous definition of evolution. Quite the contrary, saying that evolution is simply “a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations” is a way of simplifying discussions about evolution.

This seems inconsistent. On the one hand, Moran warns that ‘we run into all kinds of problems’ when we gloss over the distinction. On the other, he insists that doing so is a valid way of ‘simplifying discussions about evolution.’

It doesn’t simplify, it confuses.

I suspect that what Moran has in mind is that such ‘simplification’ makes ‘evolution as a history of life’ easier to sell to the public.

Creationists often refer to ‘evolution as a history of life’ as ‘molecules-to-man evolution’ or ‘from goo-to-you-via-the-zoo’. While these phrases are somewhat whimsical, they are used for an important reason: to make the very distinction Moran makes – and for the very same reason. To ignore the distinction is to confuse the issue, intentionally or not. What typically happens is that creationists challenge evolutionists on ‘evolution as a history of life’ and evolutionists respond with an example of ‘change in the distribution of alleles in a population over time.’ Examples of this abound: antibiotic and pesticide resistance, peppered moths, finch beaks, stickleback spines, etc., all of which are proclaimed by evolutionists as ‘evolution in action’. Of course, such evolution is that of the ‘minimal definition’ and is not in dispute; evolutionists are dodging the issue when they do this.

The second piece, Dealing With Anti-Evolutionism by Eugenie Scott of the NCSE, shows similar inconsistency (all emphases added). In several statements, she uses or refers approvingly the ‘minimal definition’:

Help your colleagues to understand that scientists do not debate whether evolution (change through time, descent with modification) took place, though they vigorously argue how it took place; the processes, mechanisms and details of evolution.

[…]

Similarly, the California Science Framework and the curricula of most other states require evolution to be presented. (Some disguise it as “change through time,” and confuse ontogeny with phylogeny by referring to evolution as “development”).

[…]

A colleague in physical anthropology teaching a small college in the Southeast told me she was teaching a class of freshmen college students and found that none of them had ever studied evolution or even knew what evolution was. When they found out, they found the concept exciting and intellectually challenging, and they clamored for a special course on the topic. Their response, in her words, was “Of course species change through time! You mean that’s evolution?!” Sometimes finding out what evolution actually is (or more precisely, replacing erroneous ideas about evolution) in itself reduces students’ reluctance to learn about it. A proper definition of evolution is important to helping students understand the concept.

Note that in the last paragraph above, she implicitly approves of her colleague having taught her students that evolution is simply ‘species changing through time’ and that this is a ‘proper definition’ of evolution, one that ‘replaces erroneous ideas’ about the same. This, despite the fact that in the previous quote, she acknowledges that such a definition is a ‘disguise.’ Scott continues:

The word “evolution” is defined and used in many different ways, some more useful and accurate than others. Embedding evolution in a wide range of sciences requires a broad definition. What unites astronomical, geological, and biological evolution is the concept of change through time. But “change through time” can also refer to phenomena like the water cycle, or the rotation of the earth around the sun, or the passage of energy through a food chain, or the metamorphosis of insects. Not all change is evolution, so we must distinguish evolution as being cumulative change through time. The evolution of a star from white dwarf to supernova is one such cumulative change.

When we discuss organic evolution, we must be especially precise. Here I part company with many of my colleagues: I do not find the traditional “evolution is changes in gene frequencies through time” to be a useful definition, even if it were modified to be “cumulative changes in gene frequencies through time.” Especially at the beginning of a course, who knows what a gene frequency is? The genetically-based definition of evolution is useful in understanding the major constituents of evolution (genetic variation, adaptation, reproductive isolation/speciation), but if a teacher waits until students understand all of the related concepts, it will be the end of the semester. If evolution is to be taught as the organizing principle of biology, we shouldn’t wait until the end of the semester to let them in on the secret! I find that even college students lose track of the relationship of evolution to biology using this genetically-based definition, and I am sure high-school students will, also.

What do we want students to know about organic evolution? The “Big Idea” is that living things (species) are related to one another through common ancestry from earlier forms that differed from them. Darwin called this “descent with modification,” and it is still the best definition of evolution we can use, especially with members of the general public and with young learners. Descent with modification makes biology make sense. We can study and understand the workings of evolution using genes, cells, fossils, ecology, taxonomy—you name the biological subfield, and evolution is there.

This all rather muddled. On the one hand, Scott approves of her colleague using the ‘minimal definition’ in teaching her students about evolution. On the other hand, she rejects the ‘minimal definition’ as not all that useful, insisting that ‘[w]hen we discuss organic evolution, we must be especially precise’ so as to make certain students understand that evolution is the organizing principal of biology. Scott then brings clarity to her seemingly inconsistent assertions:

It’s been my experience (and perhaps yours too) that most non-scientists think evolution means “man evolved from monkeys,” which is an exceedingly narrow definition. It is both scientifically accurate as well as strategically wise to embed evolution within the broadest scientific context possible. Evolution isn’t just about humans, or even about living things. Astronomers do, after all, study cosmic evolution. Geologists and geophysicists study the evolution of the planet earth, and evolution is the organizing concept of earth science just as it is for the life sciences. Biologists and biochemists study the change through time of living things. Rejection of evolution doesn’t mean merely rejection of “man evolved from monkeys,” but rejection of principles relevant (and in some cases crucial) to modern science.

Like Moran’s position, it all has to do with strategy: how best to sell macro-evoluiton to the public. Start with such a broad and expansive definition of evolution that no one, not even a creationist, would take issue with it. Then, after the reality of evolution – broadly defined – has been established in the student’s mind, shift the discussion to ‘The Big Idea’ of common descent, all the while implying that ‘it’s all the same thing; to reject common ancestry is to reject any and all conceptions of evolution. Not only is this a non-sequiter, it is a particularly stark example of equivocation – both logical fallacies.

In short, Scott advocates disguising ‘The Big Idea’ of common descent as simple ‘change through time’ in order to sneak it past unwitting students. As they say, a spoonful of ‘sugar’ helps the ‘medicine’ go down. Now I believe that most evolutionists – Moran and Scott included – probably do this with the best of intentions; they sincerely believe evolution to be the truth and seek to help students ‘see the light’. That said, this is a dishonest and disingenuous approach to education and public discourse and it should be rejected.

No one disputes ‘change in the distribution of alleles in a population over time.’ The origins debate is over whether populations of organisms are capable of changes of increasing complexity such that, over time, a microbe can become a man. To confuse the two is to obfuscate and equivocate.

Next up, Vestigial Organs and Junk DNA.

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Published in: on February 22, 2011 at 9:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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