Thursday, February 12, 2009

Thoughts on Evolution

On the occasion of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, today I went through some of the old messages in my e-mail folder labeled Evolution. It consists mostly of discussions over the past decade with a circle of old friends from the Wesley Foundation at the University of Illinois, mostly on evolution and related topics such as human nature and philosophy of science, with occasional forays into discussions of homosexuality, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies, and ancient Greek drama. I came across a lot of interesting stuff, some of which I remembered and some of which I had forgotten. I was looking for one message in particular. In 2005, when the subject of Intelligent Design was in the news, Diane Rehm devoted an hour of her radio talk show to ID. Unfortunately, the episode was hastily arranged so as to strike while the topic was hot, and she settled for second-string guests who were not really experts on evolution or ID. Both guests exhausted their knowledge of the subject before the program was half over. It was the most disappointing episode I have ever heard, and perhaps the only time I have heard Diane obviously frustrated with her guests. In my e-mail to her afterwards I wrote, "I think I could have argued both sides better than either of your guests!" I then wrote down some of my own thoughts on the creation-evolution debate that I thought might have made inspired a more interesting program. The essay that follows here is built up from that old e-mail.


I have accepted the truth of biological evolution by natural selection for as long as I can remember. I can't recall ever hearing about evolution in science class in my rural K-8 elementary school – I just picked it up on my own through my extensive reading, and it seemed to make sense. In the sixth grade I did my science fair exhibit on evolution, and as a result I suffered a brief wave of persecution – a rare opportunity for my classmates to pose as more pious than me. Obviously, I do not find evolution to be in conflict with Christianity or with divine creation of the world.

Terminology

Evolution and creation are sometimes framed as competing theories of "the origin of life," but this is a mistake. While creation is certainly about the origin of life, evolution is not. Evolution offers an explanation of how life developed and diversified into different species, but it says nothing about where the first life came from. For this reason, evolution and creation are not exactly symmetrical, competing theories – they don't cover quite the same ground. The specific aspect/theory of creation that might be seen as the counterpart of evolution is "special creation" – the notion that every species is directly created by God as a separate and distinct creation. This is what is usually meant by creationism. But obviously one can believe in God's role as the ultimate source of creation without endorsing this theory.

Like creation, the term evolution also requires some narrowing. In the broadest sense, it simply refers to the accretion of changes in forms of life over the generations. Even some self-described creationists concede the reality of microevolution – small changes within a species in response to changes in its environment – but they deny the possibility that such evolution can lead to the development of new species. Before Darwin, evolutionary theorists already believed that existing species had evolved from earlier species, but they proposed many different mechanisms by which this evolution might have occurred. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck famously proposed that parents could pass on acquired traits to their offspring. But today when we say evolution, the default meaning is the development of new species through evolution by natural selection, as proposed by Charles Darwin 150 years ago in The Origin of Species.

In the Classroom

Opponents of evolution often talk in terms of presenting "alternatives" to evolution. But there is no real alternative to evolution. This is not to say that there never can be and never will be any alternative. Nor is it to say that evolution is ready to be enshrined as a final and complete law of nature. It is only to say that there is currently no alternative on the table. Evolution has vanquished the competing theories and no new theory has yet risen to challenge it.

Some have proposed Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution. But ID is unable to explain the thing that evolution explains – the origin of species. ID does not constitute a stand-alone alternative to evolution, but, rather, a critique of evolution. By pointing to possibly anomalous data that evolution (allegedly) cannot explain, ID demands a re-thinking of the theory of evolution as currently understood.

Some advocates of evolution freak out at the very mention of Intelligent Design. But in doing so they betray themselves as proponents of science qua ideology, not science qua science. They would be more Darwinist than Darwin himself!

You see, the principle on which ID rests was introduced by none other than . . . Charles Darwin. In Chapter 6 of The Origin of Species, Darwin himself proposed a number of possible critiques of evolution. ID is, essentially, a highly developed form of one of these critiques. Darwin admitted that it is difficult to see how "organs of extreme perfection and complication," such as the eye, could have come about by natural selection, but he tried to answer this objection. Modern ID theorists have run with this critique, producing the idea of "irreducible complexity." Evolutionary biologists, in turn, have answered the critique. That is how science works.

I think this suggests one approach to the controversy over teaching Intelligent Design in the classroom. While ID cannot reasonably be taught as an alternative to evolution (because it does not actually propose a concrete alternative mechanism for the origin of species), it could be introduced as one of a number of critiques that evolutionary biology must address if evolution by natural selection is to be established as a law of nature. If Darwin himself could raise such questions, I don't see why a biology teacher should be prohibited from doing so. Working through Chapter 6 of The Origin of Species might make for an interesting high school biology lecture.

I think the fact that evolution currently faces no competion makes it especially important to raise such questions. Evolution is a strong enough theory to withstand all such questions, so I see no danger of leaving students with the impression that evolution has been refuted. Rather, such questioning would serve as an example of the scientific approach to knowledge, showing budding scientists that it not unthinkable to question even the best established of scientific theories. This should help to dispel any tendency to think of scientific theories as unquestionable dogmata.

Evolution and the Incarnation

In a stereotypical creationist-vs.-atheist debate, I have no one to root for. Both sides have already lost me before the debate even begins. Once the debate is joined, it looks like they disagree on every single point, and that is how they are usually perceived. To me, however, it seems that they agree with each other on the central premise that underlies the debate: in the provocative form attributed to Richard Dawkins, "If Darwin's cosmology was right, then theology is senseless babble." And creationists like Phillip Johnson accept the premise and join the debate on those terms. This all-or-nothing proposition, for those who accept it, validates both the conflict and the energy they expend on it.

When combatants on both sides find a rare proposition they can agree on, one is tempted to let it pass without further examination. But this premise is both illogical and heretical. It assumes that God's only purpose is to serve as a causal explanation of phenomena in the physical universe, and that if a completely natural explanation can be found for every phenomenon then we can dispense with God as redundant and dismiss the supernatural entirely. This argument might be compatible with a Deistic "God of the gaps," but it cannot be reconciled with the God of orthodox Christianity. We believe that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human – that these two natures dwelt in him without contradiction. From this orthodox Christian understanding of the Incarnation, it follows that the supernatural is not excluded by the natural; rather, the supernatural manifests itself in and through the natural. Therefore, even if science were somehow to demonstrate the truth of an entirely materialistic explanation of the universe, it could not exclude the existence or activity of God.

Therefore, from an orthodox Christian point of view, a debate premised on the mutual exclusivity of the natural and the supernatural is flawed from the outset.

Interesting Links

Here are a few interesting bits I came across in my Evolution folder.

"Special Creation" on the Left

Science vs. Norse Mythology

God and evolution: the state of the question

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

A classification of possible routes of Darwinian evolution

For Sociobiology

5 comments:

Lee Bowman said...

Where to begin. Let's first define Special Creation, Intelligent Design, and Evolution (as you have done), but go a bit further. Special Creation is the Biblical account, essentially synonymous with Genesis, which accepts creation of the universe, earth, and plants and animals, by God directly. Some creationists accept evolution as causative for speciation after the flood, lessening the burden of the ark, and explanatory of fossil remains. Apparent flaws in design, as well as disease, parasites, predators, meat eating, and death itself are the consequence of inherited 'original sin'.

Evolution is a science-based theory focusing on fossilized finds, coupled with other historical evidences like tectonic plate theory, meteor impacts, continental shifts, and their impact on species. While evidences of change in species was the prime basis for its founding, genetics is now a major component. Natural selection, posed by Darwin, is still accepted as the method of change, and the selected options are from transcriptional errors, or mutations. Unaware of genetic folding errors, Darwin leaned toward a Lamarckian source of the variants. Abiogenesis is excluded.

Intelligent Design proposes that life is too complicated to be explained by purely natural processes alone, and has variations in its concept. Although said by some to deny evolution and common ancestry in toto, and in fact to be relabeled special creation, it is not. It is a forensic examination of biology, including evolutionary change and genetics, and in my opinion, need be classified as science.

" Evolution and creation are sometimes framed as competing theories of "the origin of life," but this is a mistake."

Agreed. Evolution fits the paradigm of an 'adaptive' mechanism to aid survival, and minimize the chance of extinction.

" Like creation, the term evolution also requires some narrowing. In the broadest sense, it simply refers to the accretion of changes in forms of life over the generations."

Correct, and this 'all-encompassing' definition is where I take issue. Adaptation is not speciation.

"Even some self-described creationists concede the reality of microevolution – small changes within a species in response to changes in its environment – but they deny the possibility that such evolution can lead to the development of new species."

Both Creationists and Design Theorists deny this conclusion, which is essentially shared common ground between them. So called 'microevolution' is demonstratable, while macroevolution has not been empirically demonstrated to this day. The conflation of the two terms, one as a continuum of the other, is nonsense. While the word progression connects, the actual processes do not, being totally different. Were it not for built in mechanisms for survival (adaptive evolution), and intervention by the designer(s), the vast time periods would see total elimination of life, rather than of it building spontaneously upon itself. Words can connect as continuums of thought; but unrelated processes do not.

"Opponents of evolution often talk in terms of presenting "alternatives" to evolution. But there is no real alternative to evolution. This is not to say that there never can be and never will be any alternative. Nor is it to say that evolution is ready to be enshrined as a final and complete law of nature. It is only to say that there is currently no alternative on the table."

ID, the most viable alternative to evolution as currently defined, does in fact propose mechanisms. Rather than an 'alternative' to NDE, it could well employ a combination of embryogenesis (the 'assembly-line'), and evolutionary mechanisms to propagate species, with directed alterations of the genetic code as required, to alter morphologies (body plans).

So why deny macroevolution, given the vast time periods allowed? Random mutations as the source of novelty fail on several accounts.

1) A random mutational change seldom confers an advantage, so would not become fixed in the population.

2) The chance of an alteration for future novelty (since sucessive alterations would be necessary) would simply never be selected, not having conferred a selective advantage at the time of occurrence.

3) Intermediate alterations would likely be disruptive to existent functions, and could easily cause the demise of the resulting progeny.

"Evolution has vanquished the competing theories and no new theory has yet risen to challenge it."

This is where science has erred. Due to its apparent coherence, but with major enigmatic problems overlooked, evolution is viewed as a wonderful theory. The all encompassing, seminal foundation for all of biology! .... Now if it were only true as stated. Rather than 'vanquishing' ID, it is merely suppressing it by a fascist approach to inquiry, the so-called 'science stopper' that it purports ID to be, and your link to 'Expelled' covers that fairly well. So what is the solution to the cultural war that exists today between 'established' science, and a more open, objective and nuanced approach?

I predict that ID will be accepted as viable, but with causalities along the way. Personal humiliation and discreditation, jobs and tenure lost, grants cancelled; and we've already witnessed some of those things. But I also predict that the coming generation of scientists, having the Internet as a vast source of information, will enter college more enlightened than in the past. Having this a priori acquired knowledge, the proffs will have a tough time dealing with some of them. It only takes one per class to disrupt the even flow of established scientific dogma from being disseminated to the students, and in a way, I pity those proffs! But taken as a whole and when the dust settles, I believe that we'll see the dawning of a 'new enlightenment' era within science, and I am doing all I can to help point academia in that direction.

By the way, here's a link to a site some might view as humor, but it actually highlights many of the glossed over problems inherent in present day evolutionary theory, such as convergent and parallel evolution, as well as co-evolution. Similar to the way Ernst Mayr allowed in the concept of allopatric speciation (reproductive isolation) to be definitive as a true speciative event, and allowing evolutionists to declare that speciation is observable, these terms merely offer band-aids to the problems of actual speciation, rather than providing coherent explanations for similar homologies in unrelated lineages. Sometimes perhaps, but less frequent than put forth as explanatory. In most of these instances, 'common designer' fits the paradigm better than 'common descent.'

For some cool enlightenment and a few laughs, go here:

http://evidentcreation.com/TRM-Converg.html

The 'Convergence Concoction' is well done. Besides being a decent artist, Brett Miller appears to have some knowledge of zoology and genetics. And he's religious, as well. How's about dat!

His main page:
http://evidentcreation.com

To sum up, yes God exists, but at the top of a hierarchy of angelics, of which we have a direct lineage. David wasn't just blowing smoke when he wrote Psalm 8:5!

And not just hidden behind the scenes; there is evidence that they assist us in many of our daily activities and challenges. There is an emerging consciousness theory tagged 'dualism', which merely states that we are more than DNA. OOB experiences are well documented, and by those with no hidden agenda to lie about it. A deep dream state may be one form of OOB experience.

The bioforms we inhabit could well be vehicles for an earthly existence, perhaps a sabbatical from the spirit realm, and why not? Don't we ourselves go to theme parks for something new? And regarding the competitive and often perilous paths we follow, man has clearly demonstrated from his history here that he has a propensity for adventure. God as well, perhaps.

The creative process was likely not a 'poof' event, but has been an ongoing creative effort. The predator/ prey, and even the parasite/ host quandary could well be the result of multiple designers (MDT), either at odds with each other, or simply with the intent of producing a somewhat combative domain. If that be the case, it has certainly worked.

Some postulate Satan as responsible, and that could well be, but it's possible and even highly likely that life down here was never intended to be Utopian, but rather to be challenging in many ways. Rather than falling from Grace with the inheritance of 'original sin', our Creator would have had to have known, well in advance the consequence of imbuing men with 'free will'. But rather than sock puppets, He allowed us free enterprise, a form of secular providence. What would life be like without it?!

God the Father is 'all knowing'. Right? Can one really believe then that He was 'put off' and angered by the eating of the apple, having pre-knowledge of all things? No way. That doesn't negate the need for salvation, however, since our brand of 'providence' carries with it an inherent need for repentance. These are just things to think about, and possible refutations of some of the criticisms of religion that abound. Are you listening, David Hume?

But philosophy and theology aside, I would just ask that you consider that design activities, maintenance of same, social interaction, and of course, travel between galaxies as ubiquitous in the cosmos, and I can't think of a better way to spend a few million years!

Cheers,
Lee Bowman
biomedical engineer
Phoenix AZ

Roland said...

But taken as a whole and when the dust settles, I believe that we'll see the dawning of a 'new enlightenment' era within science, and I am doing all I can to help point academia in that direction.

Lee,

I think the key to teaching college students a properly critical view of science is to require all science majors to take a semester of either history of science or philosophy of science. When they see where scientific theories actually come from and how they develop over time, they will have to take a less worshipful view of the current state of science in their own era.

I think you might find my old post on the Neolithic Revolution interesting. And for a radically different, though fascinating, view of Genesis, see the blog, Just Genesis.

Lynn said...

Wow, I just learned a lot more than I ever wanted to. thanks, Bruce!

Anonymous said...

Great post. Strange first comment. Macroevolution simply doesn't exist: all evolutionary theory does is provide an explanation for accumulated, incremental change. Over time, we can superimpose the idea of species, but that is only a bi-product of the fact that many small changes can add up to a big difference. Evolutionary theory, like all science theory, is simply a provisional model that helps understand how actual, observed evolution occurred(/s).

Also, to point to another error in the comment: selection is not the only or at times primary mechanism of evolutionary change. For example, genetic drift can occur in a population independent of selective pressure.

ID can't be classified as science because it poses no falsifiable hypothesis: it is, at root, a criticism that amounts largely to statements of disbelief. Parts of evolutionary theory may at some time prove to be inadequate, perhaps grossly so, but nothing that I can see in ID will contribute to that development.

Orthodox Christians should stay clear of creationism in whatever form it shows up simply because it destroys credibility in a person's ability to deal with the world as it exists in fact. Better to be a Fool for Christ than a fool for fundamentalism.

Alice Linsley said...

"Orthodox Christians should stay clear of creationism in whatever form it shows up simply because it destroys credibility in a person's ability to deal with the world as it exists in fact."

I am an Orthodox Christian and a Creationist. You seem to relate Creationism to Young-Earther's unfounded assumptions. As an Anthropologist, these assumptions are easy to refute, but so are many of the assumptions of Evolutionary Theory.

http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2012/04/biblical-anthropologists-discuss-darwin.html