Science & the Supernatural: Bonus

Apropos of my previous post, here is a clip of an old debate between Drs. William Lane Craig and Peter Atkins.

I almost feel sorry for Atkins. After making the surpassingly daft statement that  ‘…science is omnipotent…’ (0:53), he challenges Craig (beginning at 1:13; emphases added):

Atkins: Do you deny that science cannot account for everything?

Craig: Yes, I do deny that science…

Atkins: So, what can’t it account for?

Craig: […] I think there are a good number of things that cannot be scientifically proven but that we’re all rational to accept…

Atkins: Such as?

Craig: Let me list five:

  • logical and mathematical truths cannot be proven by science. Science presupposes logic and math, so that to ry to prove them by science would be arguing in a circle;
  • metaphysical truths. Like there are other minds other than my own, or that the external world is real or that the past was not created five minutes ago with an appearance of age are rational beliefs but cannot be scientifically proven
  • ethical beliefs about statements of value are not accessible by the scientific method. You can’t show by science whether the Nazi scientists in the camps did anything evil as opposed to the scientists in Western democracies
  • aesthetic judgements…cannot be accessed by the scientific method because the beautiful, like the good, cannot be scientifically proven;
  • and finally, most remarkably, would be science itself. Science cannot be justified by the scientific method. Science is permeated with unprovable assumptions. For example in the special theory of relativity; the whole theory hinges on the assumption that the speed of light is constant in a one-way direction between any two points A and B, but that strictly cannot be proven. We have to assume that in order to hold to the theory.

[…]

None of these beliefs can be scientifically proven, yet they are accepted by all of us and we’re rational in doing so.

Evolutionist Larry Moran dismisses Craig’s points:

I’d probably have the same look on my face as Peter Atkins. It’s not that these five things are devastating arguments against the power of science, it’s that each one would take at least an hour to explain. The audience isn’t going to wait that long so you know you’re going to have to pass and leave Craig (and Dembski) to smugly assume that he’s won.

It’s typical anti-science trickery and Atkins probably wasn’t expecting such a cheap shot in that environment.

Atkins does have that ‘deer in the headlights’ look for a bit there. Moran ascribes it to likely incredulity, as he regards Craig’s claims as not devastating, but just too time consuming to rebut in a debate format – and that Atkins would surely know that. Despite that, Moran doesn’t bother to refer his readers to any sources that can and do take the time to rebut Craig.

In any case, we can see how close Moran’s guess as to the nature of Atkins’ reaction is. Atkins’ response to Craig can be found in the following two portions of the debate. Starting at 8:45 in the first:

Atkins: But what you have to accept is that science is a network of – a reticulation – of ideas; that there’s an interaction of ideas that come from a wide variety of sources. That in order to understand the very large one has to, in fact, understand the very small. It’s a network of ideas which, where they flow together, do not annihilate each other, but support each other. Science is, in a sense, self-consistent way of looking at the world and in that sense, it gets its authority. I also disagree with [your point about aesthetics]. I see no reason why it can’t at least begin to show why we regard some sound, some chords, if you like, as attractive whereas dissonances are unattractive.

…and continuing through 2:13 in the second:

Atkins: I think it’s quite possible for us to anatomize a picture. You can see why the Golden Section is attractive, in a sense. We might not be able to look, at this stage in our understanding of aesthetics, and say that the Mona Lisa is the most beautiful thing on earth, but at least we can begin to analyze our perception of beauty. We’ll only get a full appreciation of aesthetic and religious belief and all that other stuff when one has a full understanding of consciousness, which is the most important, outstanding problem in current science.

Craig: Those are not, however, themselves aesthetic judgements that you’re talking about. Those are judgements about why we perceive something to be beautiful and ugly, but that is not itself an aesthetic judgement. It’s like an ethical…

Atkins: I think it’s quite possible to build a machine that decides whether a particular chord is pleasant or unpleasant

Buckley: But you’d have to trust the machine…

Atkins: No you wouldn’t, you would have to train it, just as we are trained, just as we live up in a world full of Western music and the Japanese grows up in world full of Eastern music. So you actually change that neural[?] network.

Buckley: We’re affected by conventional arrangements…

Atkins: But aesthetics largely comes from convention, just as ethics is largely convention..

Craig: Those are statements which are not scientific statements. Those are philosophical statements about these subjects which cannot be justified scientifically.

Atkins: But you can explore the origins of ethics. You can explore the origins, the evolutionary origins of ethics and see that they are conventions that have emerged under genetic control, in part, but also by the application of our massive brains.

Craig: At best, that would show how moral values are discovered, but it would not show that therefore moral values are invented or are mere conventions. That is…a philosophical statement .

Not only did Atkins fail to rebut Craig, his response actually proved Craig’s point. Whether or not there are cogent and valid responses to Craig here, it’s clear that Atkins didn’t have them at hand – or anywhere nearby. Atkins wasn’t incredulous at Craig’s ‘anti-science trickery’, he was blindsided. It’s painfully obvious that Atkins was fumbling around blindly for a coherent response only to come up empty-handed. He got caught flat-footed and made the best of it he could.

Moran’s characterization of Craig’s five points as ‘typical anti-science trickery’ is interesting. This interchange between Craig and Atkins can be boiled down to a very simple disagreement:

  • Atkins believes that science has no limits, that it can account for everything
  • Craig disagrees, insisting that science does indeed have limits

Moran takes Atkins’ part, claiming that to assert that science has limits is ‘typical anti-science trickery’. Incredible.

This is rank scientism. Merriam-Webster defines scientism as:

  1. methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist
  2. an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)
Atkins and Moran clearly subscribe to definition 2. The Skeptic’s Dictionary offers:

Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless. This view seems to have been held by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (1922) when he said such things as “The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science…” He later repudiated this view.In the weak sense, scientism is the view that the methods of the natural sciences should be applied to any subject matter. This view is summed up nicely by Michael Shermer:

Scientism is a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science (Shermer 2002).

On the other hand, the dictionary definition of ‘scientism’ is the attitude and method of the typical natural scientist, whoever that might be.

There doesn’t seem be much more than a semantic difference between the strong and the weak definitions above as Shermer’s ‘weak’ definition presupposes the ‘strong’ – including the belief that all phenomena and their explanations are amenable to empirical investigation and the scientific method. But, as Craig pointed out to Atkins, that very presumption is not itself capable of empirical verification.

Scientism is as much a religious faith as is Christianity; the fact of its anti-supernatural persuasion changes that not one bit. The chief difference between the two, as regards science, is that Christianity has legitimate claim to a consistent, rational justification for science while Scientism does not.

Now, while there is anything wrong with being a Scientism-ist, there is something wrong with pretending that Scientism is something that it’s not – a purely rational, faith-free approach to systemitizing data from the natural world. In a nutshell:

 Scientism ≠ Science

In any case, Scientism does not deserve to be priveleged by our governing institutions with being the sole gatekeeper of the scientific enterprise, having the authority to cast out ‘heretics’ as they see fit.

Again, this is not to say that Scientism-ists ‘can’t do science’ – they can and do, often in superb fashion. It is to say that they cannot derive a consistent, rational justification for science from their own belief system. They have to filch that rationale, knowingly or not, from the Judeo-Christian worldview. 

The full debate can be viewed on YouTube:

part 0, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4a, part 4b, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9, part 10, part 11

(h/t William Dembski @ UncommonDescent)

Science & the Supernatural Part I – Ideas & Their Consequences

In my continuing debate with R P over at Why Things Are The Way They Are, his central criticism of creationism is that it simply does not qualify as science due to its appeal to a supernatural agent. R P sums it up this way in his recent post:

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.

This is the most common – and the most effective – objection to creationism raised by evolutionists. Creationism would just be the supernatural camel’s nose in the tent; before you know it, we would be overwhelmed with astrologers and all manner of hocus-pocus in the hallowed halls of science. The grand enterprise of modern science would be reduced to a heap of superstitious rubble. Science would be dead.

To begin with, R P’s concern about arbitrary appeals to super-natural explanations is valid – they can, and often are, ‘science-stoppers’. The history of modern science bears this out. But that same history also reveals the crucial, indispensable role that non-aribtrary – that is, justified – appeals to supernatural agency have played in the scientific enterprise. This will surely sound strange, if not heretical, to many, but it is the case nonetheless. How can one justify invoking that which is beyond nature to explain nature? History shows the way…

First, consider the cornerstones upon which the edifice of modern science is built:

  • The universe is real;
  • The universe is rational, logical and predictable;
  • The human mind is capable of logic and rationality;
  • Our senses (sight, hearing, etc.) give us a reliable and accurate ‘window’ into the universe.

These are the critical and necessary axioms – unproven and unprovable assumptions – without which modern science would wither into nothing. They are so fundamental, most people just take them for granted. But they are not to be taken for granted. These axioms were – and are – an organic outgrowth of a very specific belief system and it was only when and where that philosophy formed the dominant cultural zeitgeist that science could flourish. In his book, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, Oxford mathematician and philosopher John Lennox writes:

At the heart of science lies the conviction that the universe is orderly. Without this deep conviction science would not be possible. So we are entitled to ask: Where does the conviction come from? Melvin Calvin, Nobel Prize-winner in biochemistry, seems in little doubt about its provenance:

‘As I try to discern the origin of that conviction, I seem to find it in a basic notion discovered 2.000 or 3,000 years ago, and enunciated first in the Western world by the ancient Hebrews: namely that the universe is governed by a single God, and is not the product of the whims of many gods, each governing his own province according to his own laws. This monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation for modern science.’

~Chemical Evolution, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969, p. 258

This is very striking in view of the fact that it is common in the literature first to trace the roots of contemporary science back to the Greeks of the sixth century BC and then to point out that , for science to proceed, the Greek worldview had to emptied of its polytheistic content. We shall return to the latter point below. We simply wish to point out here that, although the Greeks certainly were in many ways the first to do science in anything like the way we understand it today, the implication of what Melvin Calvin is saying is that the actual view of the universe that was of the greatest help to science, namely the Hebrew view that the universe is created and upheld by God, is much older than the worldview of the Greeks.

~p. 19

The singular and indispensable role that Christian monotheism played in the birth and rise of modern science is a theme that many historians of science have uncovered in their research*. In his book For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery, Rodney Stark writes:

In this chapter, I argue not only that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, but that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science. In demonstration of this thesis [I show that] not only did religion not cause the “Dark Ages”; nothing else did either—the story that after the “fall” of Rome a long dark night of ignorance and superstition settled over Europe is as fictional as the Columbus story. In fact this was an era of profound and rapid technological progress by the end o which Europe had surpassed the rest of the world. Moreover, the so-called Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth century was the normal result of Scholastic scholars starting in the eleventh century… Why did real science develop in Europe … and not anywhere else? I find answers to those questions in unique features of Christian theology.

~pp. 123

What are these ‘unique features of Christian theology?’ Stark elaborates:

My answer to [why science flourished in Western, Christian Europe] is as brief as it is unoriginal: Christianity depicted God as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as His personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension.

As Nicole Oresme put it, God’s creation “is much like that of a man making a clock and letting it run and continue its own motion by itself.” Or, in the words of Psalm 119:89-90: “For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven. Thy faithfulness is unto all generations: thou hast established the earth, and it abideth.” Among the scriptural passages most frequently quoted by medieval scholars is the line from Wisdom of Solomon (11:20) “[T]hou has ordered all things in measure and number and weight.”

~p. 147

Like Lennox, Stark proceeds to set this in the context of competing worldviews. The section is worth quoting at length (emphasis in original):

In contrast with the dominant religious and philosophical doctrines in the non-Christian world, Christians developed science because they believed it could be done, and should be done. As Alfred North Whitehead..put it during one of his Lowell Lectures at Harvard in 1925, science arose in Europe because of the widespread “faith in the possibility of science…derivative from medieval theology.” Whitehead’s pronouncement shocked…his audience. How could this great philosopher and mathematician…make such an outlandish claim? Did he not know that religion is the mortal enemy of scientific inquiry?

Whitehead knew better. He had grasped that Christian theology was essential for the rise of science in the West, just as surely as non-Christian theologies had stifled the scientific quest everywhere else. As  he explained:

I do not think, however, that I have even yet brought out the greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement. I mean the inexpungable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labors of scientists would be without hope. It is this instinctive conviction, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research: – that there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled. How has this conviction been so vividly implanted in the European mind?

When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems to be one source of its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality. Remember that I am not talking of the explicit beliefs of a few individuals. What I mean is the impress on the European mind arising from the unquestioned faith of centuries. By this I mean the instinctive tone of thought and not a mere creed of words.

Whitehead ended with the remark that the images of God found in other religions, especially Asia, are too impersonal or too irrational to have sustained science. Any particular “occurrence might be due to the fiat of an irrational despot” God, or might be produced by “some impersonal, inscrutable origin of things. There is not the same confidence as in the intelligible rationality of a personal being.”

Indeed, most non-Christain religions do not posit a creation at all: the universe is eternal and, while it may pursue cycles, it is without beginning or purpose, and, most important of all, having never been created, it has no Creator. Consequently, the universe is thought to be a supreme mystery, inconsistent, unpredictable and arbitrary. For those holding these religious premises, the path to wisdom is through meditations and mystical insights, and there is no occasion to celebrate reason.

In contrast, many central aspects of Christian theology were produced by reasoning.

~pp. 147-148

John Lennox, cited above, in a 2o10 Daily Mail Online article, highlights the same theme in contrast to China’s failure to nourish science:

One of the fundamental themes of Christianity is that the universe was built according to a rational , intelligent design. Far from being at odds with science, the Christian faith actually makes perfect scientific sense.

Some years ago, the scientist Joseph Needham made an epic study of technological development in China. He wanted to find out why China, for all its early gifts of innovation, had fallen so far behind Europe in the advancement of science.

He reluctantly came to the conclusion that European science had been spurred on by the widespread belief in a rational creative force, known as God, which made all scientific laws comprehensible.

In his book, The Savior of Science, physicist and historian of science Stanley L. Jaki chronicles the many ‘stillbirths of science” throughout history. He writes:

Yet a special aspect of the paradoxical if not tragic perplexity of the present generation out not to be left unnoticed. That aspect is not so much a blind spot, as a plain unwillingness to look into the most distant scientific past and ask some searching questions about it. Startling should seem the scarcity of studies about a most curious feature of the evolutionary tree of science. The vista of dead branches (to say nothing of the innumerable dead twigs) in the evolutionary tree does not fail to provoke an ongoing debate. Not so in the case of the evolutionary tree of science, although it comprises several major dead branches. The ones with readily traceable records represent the history of science in China, India, and Egypt. They also for a class all the most instructive because there is little evidence that in their respective measure of scientific creativity  they were greatly influenced by one another. Therefore the fate and fortunes of science in those three cultures may be indicative of a pattern as plain as it is telling.

~p-.21-22

Jaki goes on to discuss the worldviews and belief systems of these cultures that, by their very nature, stifled scientific inquiry. Nor was it just China, India, and Egypt. Similar philosophical handicaps hobbled a nascent scientific enterprise in the Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian and Greek cultures all the way through the Muslim/Arabian world. The case of the Muslim world having failed to sustain science highlights an important point – it was the distinctly Christian ‘brand’ of monotheism that was necessary for science to gain a foothold. Jaki explains:

The “pure” monotheism promoted by [Muhammad & Islam] was purism incarnate, in that the Creator-God (Allah) of the Koran was to remain free of any consistency which a world created freely might “impose” on Him. Orthodox Muslim scholars did their utmost to undermine the notion of a universe operating along consistent laws, calling it a taint on Allah’s absolute freedom to do whatever He wanted. The Mutakallimum, or the orthodox Muslim party, were willing to recognize in the laws of nature only some habits similar to the customary riding of the king of a city through its streets. Just as the king could break his riding habit any day, so could Allah change at any moment the pattern of any or all parts of the universe.

The Savior of Science, pp. 77-78

Whereas the Christian God is bound by his nature, character and word, Muslims regard such ‘restrictions’ on God as blasphemous. Robert R. Reilly explores this aspect of Muslim theology and history in depth in his book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.

The point of all this is that ideas have consequences. It takes ideas of a specific cast to undergird science and allow it to flourish. Christian theology is the primary, if not sole, repository of such ideas. Other philosophical systems simply do not provide the proper ‘soil’ in which science can grow.

  • Some religions, like Hinduism, teach that all of reality is illusion (Maya), that to believe in distinctions (between, for instance, your self and your object of study) is to be unenlightened and that there is no ‘graspable’ truth.
  • Pantheism/ panentheism deifies nature, discouraging efforts to probe its secrets.
  • Polytheism with its many Gods of often conflicting characters and purposes frustrates expectations of consistency and predictability
  • An ‘unbound’ Deity like Allah similarly undermines grounds for expecting a reliably predictable universe.

To reiterate, the concern over supernaturalism as a ‘science-stopper’ that R P and other evolutionists commonly express is valid. Many supernatural belief systems have, as seen above, stymied science. But one of them – Christian monothesim – in fact underwrote the scientific enterprise.

What, then, of atheism and anti-supernaturalism? Lennox, in the above linked article, points out that such a worldview doesn’t fare much better:

Despite this, Hawking, like so many other critics of religion, wants us to believe we are nothing but a random collection of molecules, the end product of a mindless process.

This, if true, would undermine the very rationality we need to study science. If the brain were really the result of an unguided process, then there is no reason to believe in its capacity to tell us the truth.

C.S. Lewis made much the same point in his book The Business of Heaven:

‘If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our present thoughts are mere accidents—the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the thoughts of the materialists and astronomers as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts—i.e. of materialism and astronomy—are merely accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true? I see no reason for believing that one accident should be able to give me a correct account of all the other accidents. It’s like expecting that the accidental shape taken by the splash when you upset a milkjug should give you a correct account of how the jug was made and why it was upset.’

~p. 97

Darwin was himself haunted by similar doubts:

“You have expressed my inward conviction that the universe is not a result of chance . But the with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or are at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

~  Charles Darwin in a letter to Mr. Graham

In short, the atheist/anti-supernaturalsit has no grounds for assuming the axioms that undergird science**. This is not to say that atheists cannot ‘do science’; many do and they do it very well. It is to say that atheists, like Hindus, Muslims and others must ‘borrow’ from the Christian worldview what their own framework lacks – a rationale for assuming a predictable, rational universe perceived with reliable human senses and minds. Thus, it is no accident of mere correlation that the giants of scientific history were overwhelmingly bible-believing Christian creationists – men like Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Linnaeus, Faraday, Joule, Maxwell, Mendel, Pasteur, Carver and Von Braun. Scott Locklin put it succinctly in his recent article When Man Invented Science:

Pope Benedict’s trip to Ole Blighty is over, and that sanctimonious gasbag Dawkins didn’t manage to arrest him in the name of secular humanism. While I’m not a believer myself, I often wonder at such professional atheists who cover themselves in the mantle of “science.” Don’t they know any history?

What we refer to today as “science” is something which was invented by humans, rather than springing forth from Jove’s forehead in some ancient time before time. There is a definite date before which there was no science and a date after which there was science. This isn’t controversial or mysterious: We know exactly when it happened, and some of the original manuscripts which invented science and modern thought still exist.

[…]

Modern atheists with no sense of history like to think of the Church and religious people as the forces of darkness, but in reality, the Catholic Church was the birth of the light of reason. Those religious people are the ultimate heroes of reason; without them, no science would have come into being.

In the next post, I’ll briefly address R P’s claim that ‘referring to creationism and biology by the same label IS equivocating, and of the fallacious kind too,’ and then I’ll make the case that atheists/anti-supernaturalists fail to measure up to their own vaunted standard of eschewing appeals to the supernatural in science.

*For further reading, see:

For a dissenting view, see:

**Alvin Plantinga has formulated an argument along similar lines- his Evolutionary Argument against Naturalsim:

For a good overview of the history of modern science and thumbnail biographies of pivotal figures in that history see:


Published in: on March 11, 2011 at 8:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Good Stuff for Free

I’m putting the finishing touches on the first installmentof my response to R P‘s assertion that creationism could never qualify as science (see last paragraph) due to its appeal to the supernatural. It’s taking a bit longer than I first thought it would. That, and I’ve been a bit lazy about it, but it’s almost done. In any case, I’ll be posting it within the next couple of days.

In the meantime, I’ve found some good free stuff I thought I’d pass along for anyone who’s interested. Apple’s iTunes U has two universtiy courses on evolution free for the downloading. The first, from Open Yale Coursesis Professor Stephen C. Sterns’ Evolution, Ecology and Behavior.

Description

(EEB 122) This course presents the principles of evolution, ecology, and behavior for students beginning their study of biology and of the environment. It discusses major ideas and results in a manner accessible to all Yale College undergraduates. Recent advances have energized these fields with results that have implications well beyond their boundaries: ideas, mechanisms, and processes that should form part of the toolkit of all biologists and educated citizens. This course was recorded in Spring 2009.

The course is available in both video and audio formats. I’m on part 6 or 7 right now and I like it; Sterns is a good teacher. On some of the genetics stuff, he is referring to diagrams and charts he has on the board, so it probably helps to have the video, but otherwise the audio has been sufficient for me.

The second course is Biology Concepts: Cells to Evolution with Kelly Carrier courtesy of Michigan’s MI Learning.

Description

These videos are introductions to the following biology concepts: Structure and Function of Cells, Reproduction of Cells, DNA, Proteins Synthesis, Ecology/Population Ecology and Evolution.

This one is available in video format only.

Enjoy…

Published in: on March 10, 2011 at 1:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Redefining Yet Again

In response to my last post, R P writes:

For 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 he is still at pains to distinguish between macro- and micro-evolution, and he thinks it is fallacious not to make the distinction. I think he thinks I am arguing that there can’t be a distinction, which I’m not – I am arguing that is the whole debate – but judge for yourself.

How did I get the impression that R P is ‘arguing that there can’t be a distinction?’ In his previous post, R P repsonded to this statement of mine:

…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.

…by saying:

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. (ephases added)

So which is it? Is there a distinction between microevolution and macroevolution or not? I interpret R P’s assertion that ‘the concepts are nested rather than distinct’ to mean that while they are not ‘exactly the same thing,’ they are necessarily related, one inevitably leading to or building on the other. If I’m right, what of his claim that he is not arguing that their can’t be a distinction?

Last, if micro and macro evolution are distinct, then I maintain that it is important to make that distinction clear in both public discourse and in the schoolroom. To gloss over that distinction would be to misrepresent – or, in Scott’s words, to disguise – macroevolution. Evolutionists claims of, for instance, pesticide resistance as ‘evolution in action’ – the clear implication being macroevolution in action- are inexcusable. There is no reason to suppose that  a simplified version of macroevolution would be any more difficult for students or citizens to understand than the notion of ‘changes in the distribution of alleles in a population over time.’ In fact, I would suggest that a 10-year old or a scientifically ignorant citizen would grasp the former much easier as it doesn’t require even a rudimentary understanding of inheritance, genes or alleles.

I was ‘at pains’ in my last post to demonstrate that [ed. – an increasing number of] evolutionists themselves acknowledge a qualitative distinction between micro and macro evolution and that the latter is not simply an accumulation over geological time of the former*. That is, they are two entirely different and separate modes of biological change. I would urge those interested to read Gilbert et al’s paper Resynthesizing Evolutionary and Developmental Biology as it provides a very informative historical and scientific overview of the subject.

 

 

*[ed. – Not all evolutionists agree. Gradualists, like Dawkins, continue to insist that macroevolution is precisely microevolution extrapolated over geoloigical time. The point is that many staunch evolutionists acknowledge serious problems with this hypothesis. Both views fall within current evolutionary orthodoxy.] 

Published in: on March 4, 2011 at 5:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

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:

Hypothesis
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:

bacteria–>worms–>fish–>amphibians–>reptiles–>mammals–>monkeys–>humans

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)  

The Plausibility of Theological Naturalism: Conclusion

In the last post, I rebutted Kirschner & Gerhart’s assertion that the biomolecular unity of life only makes sense within an evolutionary framework. A central theme in their argument was what I termed the ‘uniqueness criterion’: that if biological mechanisms are the products of design, they would all be utterly unique, sharing no underlying similarities in components of processes. Since we do find such underlying similarity, the authors conclude, a design explanation is disqualified. In this post, I’ll offer some concluding observations and miscellaneous thoughts.

Having read further into the book now, I’ve noticed a curious observation that the authors make in several places that bears on their argument against design. Recall that it is the underlying biomolecular unity of life (the ‘nature of the complexity’ referenced below) that the authors regard as the observation that decisively refutes the design hypothesis and confirms the evolutionary alternative:

All he saw in common was their complexity, not the nature of the complexity, and it is that nature that tips the balance between acceptance of evolution and the alternative deism that Paley chose. (p. 2, emphasis added)

This ‘curious observation’ seems to conflict with the assertion immediately above. It pops up in several places in just the first half of the book, so Kirschner & Gerhart clearly think it an important point worth stressing. I’ll quote just two of the passages in question. The first regards the relationship of the data under consideration to evolutionary theory:

Many of the biochemical pathways in distinctly related organisms (such as humans and bacteria) are nearly identical in the chemical transformations they accomplish. Likewise, the functional components of these pathways, the enzymes, are similar in sequence in different organisms. As rapid DNA sequencing became possible, molecular biologists began to see a nearly universal pattern: similar functions were carried out by proteins that had extensive similarity in amino acid sequence, encoded by genes of similarity in function and similarity in DNA base sequence. This association between similarity in function and similarity in DNA sequence has held up in even distantly related organisms. Therefore, these pathways are preserved much as they must have been in an ancient ancestor.

It needn’t have been this way. Function might have been conserved and the components changed, or vice versa. Instead, function and protein structure were conserved together in the core processes. Thus, evolutionary pathways may be deployed in different circumstances, but often the pathways themselves are conserved down to both the structure of the circuit and the composition of the components. (pp. 43-44, emphasis added)

Here, the authors admit that the biomolecular unity of life ‘needn’t have been this way’; it could have been otherwise. They point out that ‘[f]unction might have been conserved and the components changed, or vice versa’; interestingly, they neglected to include the possibility that neither function nor components might have been conserved, both being changed. In other words, evolutionary theory would be just as amendable to contrary data. How then can the fact of this biomolecular unity be said to favor evolution over design?

If biomolecular unity isn’t a necessary consequence of evolutionary theory, it cannot logically qualify as evidence exclusively in its favor.

Even more telling is this passage:

If we follow the path from the bacterium-like ancestor toward humans, we find repeated episodes of great innovation. New genes and proteins arose in each episode. Afterward, the components and processes settled into prolonged conservation. The existence of “deep conservation” is a surprise. To some biologists it is a contradiction of their expectations about the organisms capacity to generate random phenotypic variation from random mutation. To some, it borders on paradox when held against the rampant diversification of anatomy and physiology in the evolutionary history of animals. (pp. 67-68, emphasis added)

So, this “deep conservation” (i.e. biomolecular unity) was a surprise to evolutionists? Indeed, some regard it as a ‘contradiction of their expectations’ or a ‘paradox’ within the evolutionary paradigm? Note the progression we see in three passages above:

  1. biomolecular unity demands an evolutionary explanation
  2. biomolecular unity isn’t a necessary outcome of evolution
  3. biomolecular unity is a surprise, a contradiction or a paradox to evolutionists.

That’s a lot of ground covered in just 68 pages. The fact is, point three above is closest to the truth and to call “deep conservation” a surprise would be an understatement. Consider what Ernst Mayr, eminent evolutionist and a key figure in formulating the modern ‘Neo-Darwinian synthesiswrote in 1963:

Much that has been learned about gene physiology makes it evident that the search for homologous genes is quite futile except in very close relatives. If there is only one efficient solution for a certain functional demand, very different gene complexes will come up with the same solution, no matter how different the pathway by which it is achieved. The saying “Many roads lead to Rome” is as true in evolution as in daily affairs.

~Ernst Mayr, Animal Species and Evolution (Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 609; emphasis added

Nor is this a ‘stale’ evolutionary expectation/prediction, long ago discarded and left behind. When Kirschner & Gerhart wrote that ‘[t]he existence of “deep conservation” is a surprise’, they may well have had in mind the same research cited by Sean B. Carroll in his 2005 book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful:

Bill MgGinnis and Mike Levine had no such biases about the special status of furry animals. They had been seduced by the homeotic mutants and were working in the laboratory of Professor Walter Gerhing at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Once they found out that the fly’s homeotic genes each had a homeobox, they took for them what was the next logical step. They purified the DNA from all sorts of critters they could find around Basel or what they could beg from other labs, including carious bugs, earthworms, frogs, cows, and humans, and went looking for homeoboxes.

Jackpot.

They found plenty of homeoboxes in these animals.

When the sequence of these homeoboxes were examined in detail, the similarities among species were astounding. Over the 60 amino acids of the homeodomain, some mice and frog proteins were identical to the fly sequences at up to 59 out of 60 positions. Such sequence similarity was just stunning. The evolutionary lines that led to flies and mice diverged more than 500 million years ago, before the famous Cambrian Explosion that gave rise to most animal types. No biologist had even the foggiest notion that such similarities could exist between genes of such different animals. These Hox genes were so important that their sequences had been preserved throughout this enormous span of animal evolution.

~Carroll, S.B., Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, p. 64, 2005; emphasis added

The sum of all this is that the biomolecular unity of life is not at all decisive evidence for evolution; in fact it was a surprise to evolutionists because it wasn’t an expectation of their theory. ReMine observes:

Dobzhansky confidently claimed biologic universals are compelling evidence for universal common descent, and against creation…

However, Dobzhansky got it fantastically backwards, and his error was soon known to evolutionists who study the origin-of-life. Nonetheless, his erroneous argument is still publicized to an unwary public.

The key insight comes from the origin-of-life. Leading evolutionists acknowledge that each of the biologic universals is too complex to have been in the first life — nothing even remotely like known life could have originated by known natural processes aided by chance and the available time. The probability is staggeringly too small, even on the scale of the universe. This should have falsified evolution, but instead evolutionists compensated by making their theory unfalsifiable. That is, without any serious evidence, evolutionists now make three bold, untestable, unfalsifiable, unscientific assertions:

  1. There exists an infinitude (a very large number) of other biochemistries suitable for life. Evolutionists make this unscientific assertion in order to artificially increase the likelihood of life arising by chance. Evolutionists acknowledge the chance origin of any known lifeform is vastly too unlikely, but they claim the chance origin of some lifeform (when allowing for the infinitude of other possible lifeforms) is quite likely. They say there is nothing ‘special’ about Earthly lifeforms, instead life just happened by chance upon the type of life we see on Earth.
  2. The first lifeforms were vastly simpler than any life known today. The first lifeforms possessed essentially none of the biologic universals.
  3. Many evolutionists further assert that life may have originated more than onceon Earth, perhaps many times.

With those assertions in mind, if evolution predicts anything clearly on this matter, it predicts the opposite of what we observe — it predicts that countless lifeforms lacking all, or most, of the biologic universals must have existed on this planet.

Taken together, my previous post and the material immediately above is a decisive refutation of Kirschner & Gerhart’s argument from the biomolecular unity of life. Not only is such unity contrary to the expectations of evolutionary theory, it is potent evidence for design.

On this general point, James Patrick Holding, in his article Not to Be Used Again: Homologous Structures and the Presumption of Originality as a Critical Value, points out that ‘[i]t is only because modern persons have arbitrarily decided that a certain degree of what they see as ‘originality’ is a proper means value that the evolutionists’ argument carries any apparent force.’ Holding considers the mentality and attitudes in the ancient world and how they would bear on this topic and concludes:

To express the application directly, in the eyes of an ancient reader, homologous structures would not have been seen as a case of a designer with no wisdom, or no designer at all, but something that brought honour to the Creator and would also indicate the Creator’s authority over and mastery of His creation. (emphasis added)

This is not to say that design-theory is thus proven, just that Kirschner & Gerhart’s specific argument against it here fails. However, if we are to judge them by their own words – that it this argument ‘that tips the balance between acceptance of evolution and [design]’ – evolution loses out to design.

On the implications of biomolecular unity, Kirschner & Gerhart write:

On her worktable she quickly assembles the clocks of human beings, mice, flies, fungi, and plants. These are known as circadian clocks from the Latin circa, approximately, and dies, day. How are they constructed? Are they fashioned out of special materials, unknowable to humans? Do they work by means beyond her comprehension? Is each a unique event of creation, different from all other circadian clocks? Does their design offer clues about the designer? Does each clock so far exceed human imagination in its uniqueness, complexity, and perfection that it could never have arisen by the gradual modification of parts affected randomly by mutation and then selected? Or might there be a surprise here, an unexpected glimpse of a plausible creation by natural means? (p. 6)

I pointed out in a previous post the implicit metaphysical assumptions underlying these words; among these, that if circadian clocks were designed, they must:

  1. be ‘fashioned out of special materials, unknowable to humans’
  2. work by means beyond our comprehension

These assumptions are contrary to a creationist point of view. Why? Because God commanded man to ‘subdue’ the earth and ‘rule over it’ as a good steward. After completing the work of creation God spoke to Adam and Eve:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Expanding on this Preston Bristow, in his article The Root of Our Ecological Crisis, writes:

God entrusted humans to be the Earth’s stewards. To subdue the Earth and rule it, while not phrased in politically correct speech, is analogous to the process of gardening. For a garden to be a success, the soil must be broken up, seeds planted, the initial seedlings thinned, the young plants watered, weeds pulled, and pests controlled, but in the end there is a harvest. Gardening involves subduing and ruling a small patch of wild nature to yield a benefit useful to people. The Scriptures even tell us that it was God who planted the Garden of Eden as a home for the first man and woman (Genesis 2:8)—as if providing an example for us to follow. On a worldwide scale, subduing and ruling is like managing and administering. Humankind has been given the honor and privilege of managing and administering God’s creation, with the expectation that we will do it responsibly.

To ‘manage and administer’ the earth and its creatures as good stewards requires that we be capable of understanding God’s creation. In fact, this command to ‘subdue and rule’ has been seen by Christians, past and present, including the founders of modern science, as a mandate to ‘do science’.* In other words, to obey this command requires that we study nature so that we may understand it for it is only by doing so that we can ‘subdue and rule’ responsibly. Thus creationists would not expect that aspects of of nature, biomolecular or otherwise, be ‘unknowable’ or completely ‘beyond our comprehension’. We will likely never have a complete understanding of nature, but it is amenable to our understanding.

So where does this leave us? To recap, the authors’ pivotal argument for evolution and against design is grounded in metaphysics – a theological naturalism, if you will.

Put differently, their case against design / for evolution is not a scientific one.

This, in and of itself, doesn’t make their argument wrong; there is nothing inherently illegitimate about metaphysical reasoning. However, in order to have an open and informed discussion, there must be clarity both in terms of definitions used and positions held. Whether or not the authors are aware of the metaphysical nature of their argument is open to question – the fact of its metaphysical nature is not.

Finally, Kirschner & Gerhart make an thought-provoking remark in the introduction:

Science in Darwin’s time could not provide satisfactory answers about the nature of variation. Darwin simply chose a catechism different from Paley’s on which to base his interpretation of creation, namely, that heritable variation is generated by some means, and selection then sifts the variants for those most reproductively fit. It was an interpretation that we now recognize as modern, completely based on natural events and laws, but one that better describes improvements than it does origins. It gives us no idea of how fast or how readily things could change, or whether evolution is channeled in certain directions by the kind of variation that an organism can produce. To this day, the explanation for novelty has remained hidden within the organism. Paley went straight to an ultimate cause: a Creator about whose means of creation we can know nothing more. (p. 4, emphasis added)

Alas, despite pretensions to the contrary, Darwin’s intellectual progeny find themselves a people of great faith – reading from the same catechism and singing from the same hymnal as he did. To the extent that the authors’ case for evolution throughout the book is premised on their ‘argument from biomolecular unity’ (extensively, as seems to be the case), it is little more than a recitation from the Darwinian Catechism. This is not to diminish the scientific content of the book, of which there is quite a bit; it is the evolutionary interpretation of that data that is in question here.

In the future, I’ll have occasion to post further observations on this book as I work my way through it, particularly at the end where the authors address Intelligent Design, but this is it for now. In the next post, I will return to my review of Dawkins’ River Out of Eden.

*This theme is addressed in several excellent books. Among them:

  1. The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science by Peter Harrison
  2. The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science by Peter Harrison
  3. For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery by Rodney Stark
  4. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy by Nancy Pearcey & Charles Thaxton

The Plausibility of Theological Naturalism Part III

In part II of this series, I directly challenged Kirschner & Gerhart’s ‘killing blow’ against the design argument. Among evolutionists, it is a very common argument that boils down to a claim that if life was designed, all of its underlying biomolecular machinery would be as varied and unique as the different organisms that inhabit earth. In short, they claim that ‘God wouldn’t have done it this way!’ This is a metaphysical claim – one that they don’t even attempt to justify. The closest they get is this:

Thus, the circadian clock is not like a brass watch, where each component is made for just one purpose. The human-engineered clocks use different techniques to achieve the same result; the circadian clocks use a common set of techniques. Novelty in human clocks requires independent acts of invention. Novelty in biological clocks seems more suited to iterative modification from a common origin. (p. 7)

Contrary to this assertion, I demonstrated that the use of common sets of techniques and/or components for numerous and varied purposes is a widely acknowledged principle of design. In fact, it is recognized as an indicator of superior design:

[The practice of “commonization”] distinguishes great companies from the mediocre.

On the one hand, Kirschner & Gerhart offer no justification, reasonable or otherwise, for their position. On the other hand, I have made a positive, practical and evidence-based case to the contrary.

At this point, the authors’ pivotal argument against design and for evolution has been decisively rebutted. The underlying biomolecular unity of life does not ‘tip the balance’ in favor of evolution; in fact, a strong case can be made that this pervasive feature of life favors a design explanation. At the very least, parity is restored between these competing explanations of life and design cannot be rightly denied its place at the table.

The case for design vis-à-vis the biomolecular unity of life I made in the previous post, while metaphysical in some respects, also had a very practical aspect: employing the fundamental design principle of commonization simply makes objective sense – both in terms of economics and efficiency. We will now move on to explore other responses to Kirschner & Gerhart’s challenge that, while decidedly more metaphysical, remain focused on the central question of WHY a Designer might have designed life as we find it.

As they are apparently unable to reconcile the biomolecular unity of life with the idea of design, the likes of Kirschner & Gerhart might ask the following question:

Why would an Intelligent Designer – God* – employ commonization when He didn’t have to? He is, after all, omnipotent isn’t He?

This is a fair question; and one there are at least a couple of answers to.

One answer as to why a Designer might have designed life as we find it comes courtesy of creationist Walter ReMine. In his 1993 book, The Biotic Message, ReMine advanced his comprehensive theory of life: Message Theory. In a fairly recent post at UncommonDescent, ReMine lays out the fundamental premises of his theory:

Life was reasonably designed to meet three simultaneous goals:

  1. Survival
  2. To look like the product of one designer (or unified design team acting together as one), and unlike the product of multiple designers acting independently.
  3. To resist all other explanations of origin. (emphasis added)

The important one for our present purpose is number 2. ReMine expands on this point:

Goal 2 – design to look like the product of one designer – is a plausible goal for a message sender. Remarkably, this message was even conveyed to low-tech civilizations. For example, the ancient Greeks had a pantheon of many gods, but they allowed that only one of them created life. They saw the unity of life displayed: within the embryos of diverse lifeforms; within life’s coherent patterns of theme and variation; and within the ability of diverse lifeforms to function together as a system of life. Although numerous ancient civilizations developed in isolation around the world, I am aware of none that attributed known lifeforms to the actions of multiple designers acting independently. Our modern biochemical-genetic laboratories now make this point indubitable, and falsify the notion that life came from various interstellar astronauts (or high-tech civilizations) acting independently. All life had but one designer.

Applying that principal to the issue at hand – the underlying biomolecular unity of life – ReMine writes in a follow up post:

If you were to design elephants and yeast to look like the product of a single designer, you might try putting tusks on yeast. But that isn’t reasonable design for survival, which is another goal claimed in Message Theory. Shared complexity at the biochemical level is the only practical way to unify any two lifeforms. [Note: Where practical, the unity of life is also signaled in additional ways, including morphology and embryology.] (bolding added)

This is a powerful design-theoretic explanation for the biomolecular unity of life made all the more powerful by virtue of its being an integral part of a comprehensive alternative to Darwinism.

My own suggestion is that the Designer employed the principle of “commonization” in order to set an example for us. There is biblical precedent for this notion; God took six days to create the cosmos though He could have done so in an instant. Exodus 20:9–11 tells us why:

Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, not thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

In the course of creation, God deliberately ‘paced Himself’ so as to set a pattern for his finite creatures. He designed us for a seven day week and gave us an explicit example to follow.** In a similar way, I suggest that God tailored his creation strategy with us in mind. He created us in His image and part of that ‘image’ is the creative urge/capacity. Being the Designer par excellence, He would be in a position to set a perfect example for his creatures; having endowed them with a spark of His creative energies He would sensibly desire to provide us with such an example.     Further, God expects us to exercise good and responsible stewardship of His creation. As can be seen by the quotes above from design professionals, the principle of design commonization certainly qualifies as exercising good stewardship of resources. Thus, while God had no need to so limit Himself, He knew that we would and so set for us a supreme example to follow.

Some might object to my ‘bringing God into it’ or my quoting the bible; but remember Kirschner & Gerhart – following in the footsteps of their forebearers – have made a metaphysical argument. I am simply responding in kind. Our authors’ fundamental argument is that ‘God wouldn’t have done it this way!’ My response is ‘Of course He would have – and here are a few reasons why!’

This suggestion is less potent that ReMine’s as it wasn’t applicable before the advent of genetic and biomolecular science and is thus ‘time-dependent’. In contrast, the ‘message’ of ReMine’s ‘Message Theory’ was capable of being discerned by pre-technological peoples. Nevertheless, genetic and biomolecular science have increasingly brought the field of biomimetics (follow the biomimetic chain-links) down the to biomolecular level – with its tantalizing possibilities of  co-opting and/or mimicing the designs found as bases for our own nanotechnology. And here, as elsewhere, the Designers superb implementation of design principles – among them “commonization” – will have much to teach us.

I’m sure there are other possibilities, but these two are those that occur to me at the moment. In any case, it is abundantly clear that the underlying biomolecular unity of life is eminently compatible with, and rather favorable to, a design explanation. This is not to say that the design explanation is thereby proven, just that it is by no means disqualified by such considerations.

In the next post, I’ll wrap up this topic by considering a few of the ostensible difficulties Kirschner & Gerhart posed for a design explanation in the course of the introduction and offering a few concluding observations.

* I will refer to the Designer as [the Judeo-Christian] God for two reasons: 1) as a Christian/creationist, that is who I believe the designer to be; and 2) it is this Designer who draws the most vociferous fire of the evolutionists. Thus, I will be engaging their ‘worst-case scenario’ in my responses.

**Interestingly both France and the former Soviet Union, in the past, have attempted to abolish the seven day week, establishing ten and five/six day weeks respectively. It didn’t work.

The Plausibility of Theological Naturalism Part II

In part I of this series, we analyzed Marc. W. Kirschner’s and John C. Gerhart’s central argument against design in biology as presented in the introduction to their book, The Plausibility of Life, and found it to be thoroughly metaphysical. Following Dobzhansky, they assert that the biomolecular unity of life admits of only one explanation: ‘plausible creation by natural means’. They observe, for instance, that the same proteins are used for different purposes in many different contexts and write:

How can [the] differences of anatomy, physiology, and behavior [among widely disparate organisms] be explained when many of their genes are so similar?

The answer, the young Paley infers, lies in the multiple use of versatile conserved components. It is not the clock in particular that is so remarkable, but the multifunctioning protein components and their forms of regulation that allow them to be easily connected in many ways toward various ends. The living organism is certainly more complex than the brass watch in terms of the number of components and the variety of their interactions, but it is complex in unusual ways appropriate for versatility and modification rather than for dedicated single use. In the end, the young Paley would conclude that biological clocks do not imply a human creator or a divine Creator, but something else—call it a creation of biological novelty through natural causes. (p. 8 )

Indeed, by their own account, it is this fact of biology that decisively closes the case against design:

All he saw in common was their complexity, not the nature of the complexity, and it is that nature that tips the balance between acceptance of evolution and the alternative deism that Paley chose. (p. 2, emphasis added)

Beginning with this post, we will examine how well this argument stands the light of scrutiny. Before we begin, remember that this is not a scientific argument – it is a metaphysical one. Likewise, rebuttals to it will necessarily be, for the most part, metaphysical. Regardless, it is very telling that the ‘knock-down’ argument in favor of evolution, given by two scientists in a scientific book, is not scientific but metaphysical.

Presently, we will discuss this ‘biomolecular unity’ of life in light of design theory. Contrary to common evolutionary assertion, I will argue that this underlying unity of life is in fact strong evidence in favor of the design hypothesis.

My first defense is something I alluded to in the previous post when I observed that robust, flexible, multipurpose components capable of modular, scalable construction practically scream ‘design’. In my job as a mechanical designer, one of the first things I do when tasked with designing a new part is to search our current database of parts to see if an already existing design will do the job. If I find such a part, my task is done. The old adage applies: why reinvent the wheel? Many times, however, I find a part that is almost, but not quite, what I need. I then use that existing design as a starting point, making the necessary changes to suit the new part to its purpose. In the first instance, we would have a part serving two [possibly] different purposes in two different contexts. In the latter case, we would have two similar parts serving two [possibly] similar functions in two different contexts. Analogies to evolutionary theory readily suggest themselves; identical parts (i.e. genes) used in different contexts (i.e. organisms) call to mind ‘convergent evolution’ while similar parts (i.e. genes) used in different or the same contexts (i.e. organisms) evince ‘common ancestry’. Already, we can see that such observations are in no way antithetical to design theory.

Further, a simple Google search on design commonization or “design principles” + commonization reveals a wealth of material on the subject. For instance, a paper by Qin, Zhong, Xiao, and Zhang, Product platform commonization: platform construction and platform elements capture, states in the abstract:

Platform-based product family design is an effective means for mass customization. Platform commonization is one of the key problems in developing product platforms. Through discussion on the relevant problems of platform commonization, this article presents a framework of layered constructing platform architecture to improve commonality of platforms. Subsequently, an approach to capturing platform elements, viz. Graph theory-based clustering analysis (GTBCA), is proposed, which illustrates the construction of platforms through analyzing the commonality and standardization on a set of existing similar products of a company. The method can be used to help designers plan and design product platform rationally and develop a product family effectively for mass customization. In the end, a case study of a pumping unit product family is presented to illustrate the feasibility and validity of the approach. (emphasis added)

A Siemens PLM software whitepaper addresses a similar theme; the title itself speaks volumes: Enabling global innovation through commonization and re-use. Note that commonization and re-use are seen as enabling innovation. The subtitle continues the theme:

Maximize value creation through proactive commonization, modularization and re-use across the product portfolio.

…as does the title of the executive summary:

Proactive commonization and modularization create value across the product lifecycle

Inside the mind of Toyota: management principles for enduring growth By Satoshi Hino contains the following:

A quote from the director named to the chairmanship of the 1977 Parts Commonization Committee (Sachio Fukushima, 1978. Toyota Parts Commonization from the Parts Planning Stage, supplemental edition of the journal IE) further illustrates this commitment to Toyota’s management style:

The purpose of this committee is not limited to minimizing, through standardization and commonization, the number of parts existing at this particular time. It is to establish a system for managing the work of design so that true standardization and commonization can be accomplished on a permanent basis.
We need to satisfy the demands of performance and durability on the basis of
fundamental design principals of lightness, compactness, low cost and commonization.
Commonization should proceed from current designs. Our basic approach should be to select from what we currently have. But we should also be willing to use new designs if they result in parts that are lighter or more compact.

Words such as these can only proceed from one accustomed to developing solutions and policies.

The administrator of the Commonization Committee responded:

These [i.e. the Chairman’s] words were harsh ones, but they gave us a point of reference for making decisions in situations where we were grappling with conflicting demands. This was enormously helpful in giving designers a positive understanding of parts commonization activities.

It is obvious that Toyota’s monolithic management has taken shape on a foundation resting on this paradigm of leadership initiative. (pp. 87-88, emphasis added)

The practice of commonization was as regarded important enough to have its own committee. Futher, the ‘harsh but helpful words’ on this count are said to be those of experience.  Indeed, where I work, we have an ongoing ‘parts commonization’ project to reduce redundancy, waste and unnecessary inventory. Note particularly that commonization is listed specifically as a fundamental principle of design.

An auto-trade article on BNet entitled Common systems = common sense opens with this:

It distinguishes great companies from the mediocre. It’s strikingly simple in concept. Still, companies that haven’t been doing it regularly, however, find it extraordinarily difficult to begin and maintain. The practice is “commonization.” Commonization greatly reduces unnecessary proliferation and replication of work. While requiring more initial effort, commonization accelerates and streamlines latter routine work. Common information systems, in particular, greatly help a company act as one company. (emphasis added)

Note the bolded text.  The practice of commonization distinguishes the ‘great’ from the ‘mediocre’; it can be ‘extraordinarily difficult to begin and maintain‘; it ‘greatly reduces unnecessary proliferation and replication of work‘; it ‘requires effort‘ and ‘accelerates‘ &  ‘streamlines work‘. It also promotes [company] unity.

Thus, oftentimes commonization isn’t employed because it is difficult and it takes tremendous foresight, experience and effort. In other words, the practice of commonization displays wisdom and discipline.

Now recall Kirschner & Gerhart’s ‘uniqueness criterion’. According to this benchmark, the utility of designed objects is expected to be limited to ‘single, dedicated use’ functionality while undesigned objects are seen to demonstrate ‘flexible, multipurpose functionality. And their basis for so regarding designed objects is a limited examination of a single class of man-made objects: clocks.

In light of all of the above, their assessment is revealed for the non sequitur that it is:

[A biologist] would not find a boundless variety of completely different objects performing complicated activities, of the sort that demand a supreme Intelligent Designer to explain their origin. She would not even be tempted to follow the trail in that direction, so enthralled would she be by what organisms have managed to do with the limited cellular components at hand. (p. 7)

In the end, the young Paley would conclude that biological clocks do not imply a human creator or a divine Creator, but something else—call it a creation of biological novelty through natural causes. (p. 8 )

Indeed, contrary to what the authors imagine, perhaps ‘she would be compelled to follow the trail in the direction of design, so enthralled would she be by the wisdom, mastery and sophistication demonstrated by the Designer in what He had managed to do with the limited cellular components He chose to create’.

In the next post, we will explore the biological implications of the design principle of commonization.

The Plausibility of Theological Naturalism Part I

or, A Tribute to Cornelius G. Hunter

In the next few posts, I’m going to take a short break from reviewing River Out of Eden to make some observations on another book. I recently began reading The Plausibility of Life by Marc. W. Kirschner and John C. Gerhart. The book comes highly recommended by some evolutionists and a few creationists, so I’m really looking forward to digging into to it – plus, I like the cover art :-). On the other hand, some evolutionists aren’t all that impressed with the book.

The title of this post arises from the fact that I owe the observations I make in this post largely to having read Dr. Hunter’s three excellent books and regularly following his blog. Those familiar with his work knows that his bailiwick is exposing the theological underpinnings of evolutionary theory, past and present. Some might be taken aback by the notion that evolutionary theory is undergirded by a theological framework; for such people I heartily recommend his books and his blog. In this post I will demonstrate, as Hunter tirelessly does, that modern evolutionists are just as dependent on their theology as are those whom they dismiss (e.g. creationists, ID theorists, etc.). Now, on to the task at hand…

What stunned me is how soon – and how clearly – Kirschner and Gerhart  tip their hand. Right out of the gate they    demonstrate that their belief in evolution is firmly grounded in metaphysics rather than science. They don’t put it quite that way, but it is indeed the crime to which they confess. Following is

The introduction opens with a retelling of William Paley’s famous design argument, after which the authors write:

Paley compared the complexity of the watch, which he could understand, with the complexity of life, which in 1802 he could not, as a measure of their creators. However, such comparisons look different today. Where he would have seen an earthworm and a skylark each as a unique and complex design, we now see underlying similarities; they have the same system of heredity, the same genetic code, the same cellular makeup, the same subcellular components, largely the same metabolism, and many of the same processes of embryonic development. Paley was on a firm footing in distinguishing the stone and the watch, but not in comparing the watch and the skylark, the worm, or the eye. He had every reason to see each as an independent act of creation. (p. 2)

There is an unstated assumption in the argument here: that pervasive, underlying similarities between widely disparate organisms preclude independent acts of creation. This principle, which I shall dub the ‘uniqueness criterion’, presumes to plumb the motives, means and methods of the Intelligent Designer. In other words, they proclaim to know the mind of God (should He exist). Needless to say, this is a purely metaphysical benchmark, not a scientific one. The ‘uniqueness criterion’ is the unifying theme of authors’ argument.

The authors close this bit on Paley with the following:

All he saw in common was their complexity, not the nature of the complexity, and it is that nature that tips the balance between acceptance of evolution and the alternative deism that Paley chose. (p. 2, emphasis added)

Here, the authors deliver what they plainly regard as the ‘killing blow’ to the design argument. Kirschner and Gerhart conjure the image of a scale weighing the evidence – one the one side is the evidence for design, on the other the evidence for evolution. A crucial piece of evidence comes to the fore – the nature of biological complexity – and the scale is tipped decisively in favor of evolution. So what is it about the nature of biological complexity that demands an evolutionary interpretation? They alluded to it in the first excerpt above; the pervasive, underlying biomolecular similarities shared by all of life.

This notion is not original to these authors; in fact, it has a long and venerable pedigree in the history of evolutionary theory. For instance, see these two posts by Dr. Hunter. A fairly recent example is given by evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky in his 1973 paper, Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution:

The unity of life is no less remarkable than its diversity. Most forms of life are similar in many respects. The universal biologic similarities are particularly striking in the biochemical dimension. From viruses to man, heredity is coded in just two chemically related substances: DNA and RNA. The genetic code is as simple as it is universal

[…]

Not only is the DNA-RNA genetic code universal, but so is the method of translation of the sequences of the “letters” in the DNA-RNA into sequences of amino acids in proteins. The same 20 amino acids compose countless different proteins in all, or at least in most, organisms.

[…]

What do these biochemical or biological universals mean? They suggest that life arose from inanimate matter only once and that all organisms, no matter how diverse in other respects, conserve the basic features of the primordial life.…. But what if there was no evolution and every one of the millions of species were created by separate fiat? However offensive the notion may be to religious feeling and to reason, the antievolutionists must again accuse the Creator of cheating. They must insist that He deliberately arranged things exactly as if his method of creation was evolution, intentionally to mislead sincere seekers of truth. (p. 127)

Thus, Kirschner & Gerhart are simply reciting a long-held tenant of  faith from the Materialist Catechism.

A bit later in the introduction, Kirschner and Gerhart elaborate on the issue of biological complexity. They start by imagining a modern-day descendent of Paley. While her ancestor meditated on mechanical clocks, she contemplates the innumerable biological ‘clocks’ scattered throughout the natural world.

On her worktable she quickly assembles the clocks of human beings, mice, flies, fungi, and plants. These are known as circadian clocks from the Latin circa, approximately, and dies, day. How are they constructed? Are they fashioned out of special materials, unknowable to humans? Do they work by means beyond her comprehension? Is each a unique event of creation, different from all other circadian clocks? Does their design offer clues about the designer? Does each clock so far exceed human imagination in its uniqueness, complexity, and perfection that it could never have arisen by the gradual modification of parts affected randomly by mutation and then selected? Or might there be a surprise here, an unexpected glimpse of a plausible creation by natural means? (p. 6)

Again, the authors invoke the ‘uniqueness criterion’, along with several other baldly metaphysical assumptions – these being that if these circadian clocks were designed, they must:

  1. be ‘fashioned out of special materials, unknowable to humans’
  2. work by means beyond our comprehension
  3. be utterly unique and distinct from one another, each being a unique event of creation
  4. so far exceed human imagination in its uniqueness, complexity, and perfection that it could never have arisen by the gradual modification of parts affected randomly by mutation and then selected.

They don’t bother to tell us why these things must be true if circadian clocks were designed, they just assert it sans justification.

To underscore their point, Kirschner and Gerhart then make reference to the many unique man-made clocks (e.g. Chinese water clocks, grandfather clocks, brass watches, quartz watches, etc.) each of which employ radically different means to achieve the same end – telling time. They then point out that the inverse is true of biological clocks:

Unlike man-made clocks, circadian clocks from disparate sources share many features of design and materials. Turning to the components of the clock, the modern Paley would find that most are used elsewhere in the organism in other roles having nothing to do with clocks and are far from being unique. They are all made of proteins and most of these proteins resemble other kinds of proteins. Furthermore, when she compares the components of the circadian clock in the fruit fly with those in the mouse, she finds that many of them are the same, but some are used differently in the two circuits. The interactions of the different clock components are not strictly conserved, but they can still generate periodic behavior. It is as if the genes and encoded proteins act as individual transistors suitable for wiring in different ways in the integrated circuit timers of a mouse or of a fly.

Thus, the circadian clock is not like a brass watch, where each component is made for just one purpose. The human-engineered clocks use different techniques to achieve the same result; the circadian clocks use a common set of techniques. Novelty in human clocks requires independent acts of invention. Novelty in biological clocks seems more suited to iterative modification from a common origin.

No matter where she turned, whether to the nervous system, the embryo, or the behavior of cells, young Paley would find examples of multiple and varied reuse of the same components. The properties of components facilitate their reuse, new use, and rampant invention. (p. 7)

This passage contains the strangest premise of their argument. The authors note that the individual ‘clock’ components (i.e. proteins) are multipurpose, being used in widely dissimilar contexts for diverse objectives. This is little more than an extension of their ‘uniqueness criterion’, but the fact that they regard robust, flexible, multipurpose components capable of modular, scalable construction as contrary to the principles of design is simply mind-boggling. As a professional mechanical designer myself, I feel comfortable disagreeing strenuously with Kirschner and Gerhart here. If I came to my boss having designed an array of such components, I would be in for a big promotion.

The authors continue:

She would not find a boundless variety of completely different objects performing complicated activities, of the sort that demand a supreme Intelligent Designer to explain their origin. She would not even be tempted to follow the trail in that direction, so enthralled would she be by what organisms have managed to do with the limited cellular components at hand. (p. 7)

Here, the authors make the connection between their ‘uniqueness criterion’ and the design argument explicit. Only a boundless variety of completely unique objects would justify a design inference. Absent of such plentitude, they insist, one ‘would not even be tempted to follow the trail in that direction’. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, these are metaphysical, not scientific, considerations.

Closing out the introduction, they write:

How can [the] differences of anatomy, physiology, and behavior [among widely disparate organisms] be explained when many of their genes are so similar?

The answer, the young Paley infers, lies in the multiple use of versatile conserved components. It is not the clock in particular that is so remarkable, but the multifunctioning protein components and their forms of regulation that allow them to be easily connected in many ways toward various ends. The living organism is certainly more complex than the brass watch in terms of the number of components and the variety of their interactions, but it is complex in unusual ways appropriate for versatility and modification rather than for dedicated single use. In the end, the young Paley would conclude that biological clocks do not imply a human creator or a divine Creator, but something else—call it a creation of biological novelty through natural causes. (p. 8 )

Mark again the ‘uniqueness criterion’ – a designed object must be fashioned ‘for a dedicated single use’, as opposed to flexible, variable use. Just ask yourself: which design would take more talent, thought and skill to execute? Furthermore, the design of such broadly multipurpose components would require incredible foresight and planning; two concepts anathema to Darwinism yet inherent in design theory. I would thus suggest that what evolutionists, including Kirschner & Gerhart, regard as decisive evidence against design is in fact quite the opposite.

Let’s pause here for a moment and consider the implications of this argument. Evolutionists insist that the biomolecular unity of life is not only antithetical to the design inference, but determinative evidence for evolution. But their reasons for so insisting are thougoughly metaphysical. In short, they proclaim ‘God wouldn’t have done it this way!’ What then if we disagree with their metaphysic? What if substantive and reasoned grounds can be given for rejecting their metaphysical framework in favor of another? Would not parity between the competing claims be restored? Might the balance even be tipped back in favor of design? Whatever else may be the case, design would be [re]established as a legitimate consideration. This will be the subject of the next few posts.

As we close, note that we have pushed off from the shores of science and are sailing in metaphysical waters – all at the behest of our kind scientist-authors. I encourage you to read the entire introduction to this book, available in pdf format here, in preparation for the rest of our journey.

River Out of Eden, Chapter 1 – Gradualism & the Cambrian Explosion

I.b. How Natural Selection works across species to generate fundamentally ‘new’ types of organisms from previous ones.

Part 2 – Dawkins, Gradualism & the Cambrian Explosion

Recall that Dawkins has been laying out his Darwinian vision of life in terms of a long, ever-branching river of DNA snaking through the mists of time. Remember also that the gradual, non-momentous, non-dramatic nature of this ‘branching’ process is central to Dawkins’ vision.

Continuing on, Dawkins underscores the importance of this theme by taking to task zoologists who fail to sufficiently acknowledge it in their work, unconsciously or otherwise. Some zoologists fall into this error, he claims, because modern zoological terminology trips them up. The notions of ‘fundamental body plans’ or Bauplans (a German word meaning blueprint, which has become a technical term in zoology), have misled zoologists into thinking that the divides between major groups of animals were ‘momentous events’. He then singles out an unnamed zoologist who

…suggested that evolution in the Cambrian period…must have been a completely different kind of process from evolution in later times. His reasoning was that nowadays, it is new species that are coming into existence, whereas in the Cambrian period major groups were appearing, such as the mollusks and the crustaceans…[this author] was writing in 1958. Few zoologists would explicitly take his position today, but they sometimes do implicitly, speaking as though the major groups of animals arose spontaneously and perfectly formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, rather than by divergence of an ancestral population while in accidental geographical isolation. (pp. 10-11)

‘The fallacy is glaring!’ declares Dawkins, reminding the reader of the ‘non-momentous’ nature of splits in the river and summarizing that ‘…the major bauplans of the animal kingdom diverged form common origins by gradual degree’.

Presumably, the writer that Dawkins refers to was simply attempting to come to grips with the state of the actual evidence presented in the Cambrian Explosion. Before this ‘event’, life on earth was largely comprised of single-cell organisms. Then, during this relatively brief era of time, all of the major body plans of multi-cellular life arose very abruptly. Wikipedia’s entry on the subject begins

The Cambrian explosion or Cambrian radiation was the relatively rapid appearance, over a period of many million years, of most major groups of complex animals around 530 million years ago, as found in the fossil record. This was accompanied by a major diversification of other organisms, including animals, phytoplankton, and calcimicrobes. Before about 580 million years ago, most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells occasionally organized into colonies. Over the following 70 or 80 million years the rate of evolution accelerated by an order of magnitude (as defined in terms of the extinction and origination rate of species) and the diversity of life began to resemble today’s.

Carl Zimmer, in his book Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, attempting to soften the impact of the Cambrian Explosion, writes:

Darwin’s worries over the Cambrian turn out to be unfounded. Now that scientists can read isotopic clocks and recognize molecular fossils, they have shown that the world did indeed swarm with life for billions of years before the Cambrian, as Darwin proposed. The Precambrian, far from some mysterious prologue to evolution, actually takes up 85% of the history of life. And paleontologists now have a remarkable collection of Precambrian fossils, including bacteria, protozoa, algae, Ediacarans, burrow makers, and animal embryos. But even with a much smoother fossil record, the Cambrian period is clearly the most remarkable episode in animal evolution. No matter how long animals were already lurking in the oceans, their diversification accelerated 535 million years ago in a tremendous explosion. Thanks to precision uranium-lead dating, scientists have determined that the Cambrian explosion took only 10 million years. (p. 69, emphasis added)

To put this in perspective, humans and chimpanzees supposedly diverged from their putative common ancestor about 6 million years ago. So, while it took 10 million years to evolve all of the major animal body plans from relatively nothing, it took 60% of that time over again just to go from one primate to another. Indeed, Zimmer underscores the radical nature of the Cambrian Explosion when he later writes that

Even after the Permian-Triassic extinction, when competition dropped to nearly nothing, evolution did not invent any new phylum of animals. No vertebrate lineage evolved nine legs. After the Cambrian explosion, animals may have become too complex to be radically reworked by evolution. The new evolution that took place in the wake of these extinctions were only variations on these basic plans. (p. 156, emphasis added).

The Cambrian Explosion is thus widely recognized as just that; an explosion of new forms of life in a ‘geological instant’. Evolutionists have theories to reconcile this data with their theory (e.g. ‘genetic toolkits’, genetic duplication – see Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, pp. 122-128), but the point here is the relatively very abrupt appearance of nearly all animal body plans.

This is diametrically opposite to Dawkins’ explicitly gradualistic picture of the ‘river out of Eden’.

In fact, in the quote immediately above, Zimmer seems to implicitly agree with the writer of 1958 that Dawkins took issue with for supposing a ‘completely different kind of process from evolution in later times’ because ‘nowadays, it is new species that are coming into existence, whereas in the Cambrian period major groups were appearing’.

More recently (2007), Eugene V. Koonin proposed a ‘Biological Big Bang model for the major transitions in evolution’ which seems again to be in general harmony with the zoologist that Dawkins scolds. In the abstract of his paper by that name, Koonin writes:

Background
Major transitions in biological evolution show the same pattern of sudden emergence of diverse forms at a new level of complexity. The relationships between major groups within an emergent new class of biological entities are hard to decipher and do not seem to fit the tree pattern that, following Darwin’s original proposal, remains the dominant description of biological evolution. The cases in point include the origin of complex RNA molecules and protein folds; major groups of viruses; archaea and bacteria, and the principal lineages within each of these prokaryotic domains; eukaryotic supergroups; and animal phyla.
In each of these pivotal nexuses in life’s history, the principal “types” seem to appear rapidly and fully equipped with the signature features of the respective new level of biological organization. No intermediate “grades” or intermediate forms between different types are detectable. Usually, this pattern is attributed to cladogenesis compressed in time, combined with the inevitable erosion of the phylogenetic signal.

Hypothesis
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 writes of the Cambrian Explosion in particular

The Cambrian explosion in animal evolution during which all the diverse body plans appear to have emerged almost in a geological instant is a highly publicized enigma. Although molecular clock analysis has been invoked to propose that the Cambrian explosion is an artifact of the fossil record whereas the actual divergence occurred much earlier, the reliability of these estimates appears to be questionable. In an already familiar pattern, the relationship between the animal phyla remains controversial and elusive. (emphasis added)

The point here is not only that Koonin proposed roughly what Dawkins upbraided the ‘1958 zoologist’ for proposing (i.e. a different kind of evolution), but that he proposed it in 2007 – nearly 50 years later. Worse, Koonin’s proposition isn’t restricted to the Cambrian Explosion; he sees it as necessary to explain ‘each of [the] pivotal nexuses in life’s history‘. This underscores in no uncertain terms the fact that the evolutionary transitions between animals – THE central assertion evolutionary theory – remain, in Koonin’s words, controversial, elusive and undetectable. In other words, there is no evidence of these alleged transitions.* It was a problem in Darwin’s day (see chapter 10 of Origin of Species under On the Sudden Appearance of Groups of allied Species in the lowest known Fossiliferous Strata), it was a problem in 1958, it was a problem in 1995 when Dawkins wrote this book and it is a problem still today. This should tell us something, if only we are willing to listen.

The fact is, the Cambrian Explosion is a direct challenge to Dawkins’ explicitly gradualistic thesis and he inexcusably minimizes it. If Dawkins is going to admonish his fellow evolutionists for not toeing the gradualist line, going so far as to single out a particular zoologist for the heterodox suggestion of a ‘completely different kind of process from evolution in later times’, he needs to grapple with the evidence himself instead of blithely papering over it with mere assertion. If he is going to pick a fight, he needs to hop into the ring and throw down. Instead, he throws a punch and runs for the hills.

Here, Dawkins earns a big fat F; he fails with flying colors.

Dawkins deals with Gould & Eldridge’s theory of Punctuated Equilibrium in much the same way and that will be the subject of my next post.

*Wither, then, the theory of evolution? And what claim should it have on the allegiance of those who seek to ground their beliefs in evidence?