Redefining All Over Again – Response

In his response to my post, Evolution & Equivocation, RP writes:

First, it’s important to note that not all creationists make such a concession. When Wombatty says “No one disputes ‘change in the distribution of alleles in a population over time’” he is not being fair to the diversity of creationist viewpoints. It is easy to lump everyone who self-labels a particular way into one big category – all Conservatives are stupid don’t you know. Even though that strategy is just plain wrong, most people engage in it nonetheless, and we need to make sure we don’t succumb to another logical fallacy, the “no true Scotsman” rule, which is a form of reverse equivocation.


Creationists, like their opponents, have a range of beliefs from the narrow (young earth creationism, atheism) to the broad (day-age creationism, Wiccans), and although I enjoy discussing that range at length, that is not the point of this post.

I take it that R P is including any belief system that denies random, directionless, purposeless macroevolution under the banner of creationism. I don’t necessarily think this is unwarranted and he is not the only one to do it. David Sedley titled his enlightening study of the design vs. non-design debate in ancient times Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity, explaining in the preface that by ‘creationism’ he simply means

…the thesis that the world’s structure and contents can be adequately explained only by postulating at least one intelligent designer, a creator god.

~p. xvii

Indeed, all of the ‘creationists’ in his book are greek pagans. Nevertheless, the label ‘creationism’ has a rather specific connotation in modern times, especially in the United States. It is overwhelmingly used to describe Christians who adhere to one of several interpretations of the Genesis account of origins. These include young-earth, old-earth, day-age, progressive, gap-theory and ‘framework hypothesis’ creationists. That being the case, I think it is confusing to include, for instance, Wiccans in the definition of the term. Further, R P’s definition would subsume someone like Ken Miller; a label I’m sure Miller would vociferously reject.

I should clarify that when I refer to ‘creationists’, I usually have in mind those of the young-earth variety unless otherwise indicated. That distinction, though, is irrelevant here. If we reasonably confine the label ‘creationist’ to ‘Genesis origins account’ adherents of whatever stripe, R P’s ‘no true Scotsman’ charge falls flat. While there might be distant outliers, I am unaware of a creationist of any stripe that would deny ‘‘changes in the distribution of alleles in a population over time’. In fact most creationists who aren’t in the young-earth camp are vocal supporters of evolution and some even of Darwinism (i.e. undirected evolution); their position being little more than standard evolutionary theory with a coat of theological paint. If any type of creationist would be suspected of not ‘making such a concession’, it would be a young-earther and, as I’ve pointed out, they do not at all deny ‘changes in the distribution of alleles in a population over time’. I would be interested in who exactly R P has in mind when he claims that ‘not all creationists make such a concession’.

R P goes on to accuse me of confusing the noun ‘equivocation’ with the logical fallacy of the same name. He quotes me:

…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.

and then asserts

Agreed. There is no conflict. In fact, the argument from biology is that, not only is there no conflict, there is no distinction. In other words, the concepts are nested rather than distinct.

This is simply wrong; Scott and Moran don’t make the distinction for nothing. The ‘minimal definition’ is sometimes referred to as ‘microevolution’ – as distinct from ‘macroevolution’. Scott and Moran aren’t the only ones to make this is distinction. Douglas Erwin, in his review of Gould’s magnum opus The Structure of Evolutionary Theory notes:

Iurii Filipchenko, a Russian geneticist and the mentor of Theodosius Dobzhansky, introduced the term macroevolution in 1927 because he believed that the origin of the characters associated with higher taxa (those beyond the species level) required a different process of evolution. Filipchenko believed macroevolution was driven by cytoplasmic inheritance, but his general argument was consistent with other saltationists and macro-mutationists of the time, including the paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborne and the geneticist Richard Goldschmidt. These evolutionary biologists shared the view that the appearance of higher taxa necessarily involved novel evolutionary processes, although they differed over their nature. Dobzhansky introduced the term macroevolution to English-speaking evolutionary biologists in (1937) but rejected his mentor’s distinction between macro- and micro- evolution. Osborne’s orthogenesis had become sufficiently pervasive that Dobzhansky evidently felt compelled, at the dawn of the Modern Synthesis, to reject both orthogenesis and saltational views. Dobzhansky wrote:

. . . there is no way toward an understanding of the mechanisms of macro- evolution, which require time on a geological scale, other than through a full comprehension of the microevolutionary processes. For this reason we are compelled at the present level of knowledge reluctantly to put a sign of equality between the mechanisms of macro-and micro-evolution. (Dobzhansky 1937: 12)

Gould’s final testament is an argument that our level of understanding of evolution has progressed to the point where Dobzhansky’s equality can be rejected in favor of a much-expanded view of evolution.

Dobzhansky’s mentor distinguished micro from macro evolution and while Dobzhansky himself rejected the distinction, he could only do so by way of unproven assumption. Erwin then notes that Gould rejects the notion of equality between the two processes.

Gilbert et al in their 1996 paper Resynthesizing Evolutionary and Developmental Biology deal with the distinction at length, writing:

A new and more robust evolutionary synthesis is emerging that attempts to explain macroevolution as well as microevolutionary events. This new synthesis emphasizes three morphological areas of biology that had been marginalized by the Modern Synthesis of genetics and evolution: embryology, macroevolution, and homology. The foundations for this new synthesis have been provided by new findings from developmental genetics and from the reinterpretation of the fossil record. In this nascent synthesis, macroevolutionary questions are not seen as being soluble by population genetics, and the developmental actions of genes involved with growth and cell specification are seen as being critical for the formation of higher taxa. In addition to discovering the remarkable homologies of homeobox genes and their domains of expression, developmental genetics has recently proposed homologies of process that supplement the older homologies of structure. Homologous developmental pathways, such those involving the wnt genes, are seen in numerous embryonic processes, and they are seen occurring in discrete regions, the morphogenetic fields. These fields (which exemplify the modular nature of developing embryos) are proposed to mediate between genotype and phenotype. Just as the cell (and not its genome) functions as the unit of organic structure and function, so the morphogenetic field (and not the genes or the cells) is seen as a major unit of ontogeny whose changes bring about changes in evolution.


The Modern Synthesis is a remarkable achievement. However, starting in the 1970s, many biologists began questioning its adequacy in explaining evolution. Genetics might be adequate for explaining microevolution, but microevolutionary changes in gene frequency were not seen as able to turn a reptile into a mammal or to convert a fish into an amphibian. Microevolution looks at adaptations that concern only the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest. As Goodwin (1995) points out, ‘‘the origin of species — Darwin’s problem — remains unsolved.’’ (all emphases added)

In a 2001 issue of Nature, Sean B. Carroll observed that the issue is one of long-standing:

A long-standing issue in evolutionary biology is whether the processes observable in extant populations and species (microevolution) are sufficient to account for the larger-scale changes evident over longer periods of life’s history (macroevolution).

~”The Big Picture,” Nature 409 (2001), 669.

In other words, we don’t have evidence for equating microevolution with macroevolution, else the issue would not still be ‘standing’.

More recently, in his paper Biological Big Bang Model for the Major Transitions in Evolution, Eugene Koonin writes:

I propose that most or all major evolutionary transitions that show the “explosive” pattern of emergence of new types of biological entities correspond to a boundary between two qualitatively distinct evolutionary phases. The first, inflationary phase is characterized by extremely rapid evolution driven by various processes of genetic information exchange, such as horizontal gene transfer, recombination, fusion, fission, and spread of mobile elements. These processes give rise to a vast diversity of forms from which the main classes of entities at the new level of complexity emerge independently, through a sampling process. In the second phase, evolution dramatically slows down, the respective process of genetic information exchange tapers off, and multiple lineages of the new type of entities emerge, each of them evolving in a tree-like fashion from that point on. (emphasis added)

Later, Koonin has an exchange with one of the reviewers of his paper:

In the first two paragraphs of “Background” we see that the tree concept is being contrasted to a rate concept (gradualism). That problem occurs throughout the paper. One cannot easily present rates plus mechanisms (Bangs) as alternatives to shapes (the tree). I don’t really have a suggestion as to how to fix this problem of the present paper except for major recouching of the issues. But I do think that it needs to be fixed.

Author’s response: This is an important point, and I attempted to make it explicit in several places in the revised manuscript. What I mean is not just a major difference in rate but a difference in mechanism. The underlying mechanism in tree phases of evolution is vertical inheritance resulting in cladogenesis. The underlying mechanism in inflationary stages is exchange, recombination etc such that organismal lineages do not exist. The paper is not just about the fallacy of gradualism (something that, indeed, has been emphasized by Gould- Eldredge, Cavalier-Smith and others). The distinction between the two phases of evolution is not one of quantity but one of kind. I agree that this was insufficiently stressed in the original manuscript, and I attempted to rectify this in the revision. (emphasis added)

Koonin doesn’t use the terms microevolution and macro-evolution, but he is clearly addressing the same or a closely related issue. He is compelled by the state of the evidence to postulate a qualitative difference between small and large scale modes evolution.

All of this is to say that evolutionists themselves acknowledge that this issue is at best unresolved and, at worst, resolved in favor of there being a qualitative distinction between micro and macro evolutionary processes. Those, like Dobzhansky, who insist on equating the two must assume that equality. Again, while macroevolution by definition includes ‘change in the distribution of alleles in a population over time’, the reverse is not true. By analogy, all bachelors are necessarily men but not all men are necessarily bachelors.

I maintain that to gloss over the distinction between micro and macro evolution is a logical equivocation and we ‘run into all kinds of problems’ (to quote Moran) when we do so. As if such equivocation weren’t bad enough, Ms. Scott goes even further when she writes:

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. (emphasis added)

She is explicitly asserting that to reject, for instance, stellar evolution is to reject biological macroevolution. Why? Because ‘[e]volution isn’t just about humans, or even about living things.’ Her switching of definitions in mid-argument is easy to see. She is saying, with unspoken words in brackets:

If you reject that man evolved from monkeys [biological macroevolution], you are rejecting [stellar and geological] evolution.

This is about as bald an example of  logical equivocation as one can find.

R P continues:

Similarly, introducing a complex topic simply, and only later presenting more detail, is also equivocation of sorts, but it’s not fallacious. In fact, it’s the standard pedagogical paradigm for just about any subject! My nephew is learning to play the piano. The Beethoven he plays from his teacher’s sheet music is an over-simplified version of the ninth symphony. I can’t imagine a six-year-old tackling the real thing. More to the point, the parables from the Bible that my other nephew learns in Sunday school are hardly the originals, nor is Veggie Tales. That they are simplified doesn’t make them wrong.

I don’t think this analogy works. An over-simplified version of Beethoven’s ninth symphony can be thought of as the ‘core’ or ‘essence’ of the piece; it contains simplifications of those musical phrasings and progressions that are distinctive to that particular symphony. If one were to follow an analogous means of teaching macroevolution, one might teach a progression something like:


Very simplified, but it captures the essence of the theory.

Conversely, if we were to apply the method Scott (and R P) advocates for teaching evolution to teaching Beethoven’s ninth symphony, we would simply teach those general musical structures, scales & progressions (e.g. arpeggios, chromatic scales, etc.) that Beethoven employed distinctive ‘flavors’ and arrangements of in his ninth. While practicing those exercises will be helpful, they will not give the student a basic grasp of any particular piece of music, much less Beethoven’s ninth symphony. In short, those general musical structures are to Beethoven’s ninth as ‘changes in the distribution of alleles in a population over time’ are to biological macroevolution. The former simply do not ineluctably lead to the latter.

In fact one might even wish to simply teach that ‘man evolved from monkeys’, a definition of evolution that Scott objects to as ‘exceedingly narrow’ despite it being at the very core of ‘The Big Idea’ she wants students to understand:

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.

That ‘exceedingly narrow’ definition is a lot closer to ‘The Big Idea’ than is stellar or geological evolution. That she prefers to start with the latter in teaching about biological macroevolution makes sense if she is, at that point, primarily concerned with ‘disguising it as change through time.’

In closing, R P writes:

Finally, my criticism, which remains unanswered, was not that creationism (which is to say TRUE creationism, as Wombatty defines it) does or does not admit of certain kinds of evolutionary change. I appreciate the clarification, but the point of my “it sounds a lot like evolution” remark, which I inserted parenthetically, was simply to note the similarity. My criticism was that creationism ever could be a science (so defined), that allowing one class of supernatural appeals but not any others (like astrology) is at best arbitrary and at worst misleading, and therefore that referring to creationism and biology by the same label IS equivocating, and of the fallacious kind too.

Needless to say, I disagree. My response is in the works. It might be a couple of weeks, but it’s coming.

Published in: on February 28, 2011 at 9:15 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. […] those who have been following, there is another reply in my debate with Wombatty, author of the Creationist Meditations blog. The short version is that […]

  2. […] those who have been following, there is another reply in my debate with Wombatty, author of the Creationist Meditations blog. The short version is that […]

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