Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Evolution -- with a small e

Like us, Peter Wood, provost of the King’s College in New York City, rejects the notion of any contradiction between evolution and intelligent design.

In his National Review essay, he writes:

This battle (between Outraged Scientists and Unrelenting Creationists) is unnecessary and intellectually irresponsible ... in fact, evolution and intelligent design can coexist without the universe cracking asunder. All we need here is a little theoretical modesty and restraint.

A good place to start is to distinguish between the theory of evolution (without the capital E) and Evolution as a grand and, apart from a few rough edges, supposedly comprehensive account of speciation and genetic change. Small-e evolution is an intellectually robust theory that gives coherent order to a huge range of disparate facts. In contrast, capital E Evolution, is a bit illusory. Like a lot of scientific theories, on close inspection it is really a stitched-together fabric of hypotheses.

Evolutionary theory hits a wall in trying to explain what happened with the emergence of fully modern humans about 150,000 years ago.

We can give a name to what happened: with the biological emergence of modern humans came both the capacity for and the realization of "culture."

But to speak of the beginning of culture and the emergence of our species by way of some genetic mutations from anatomically similar ancestors does little to explain the profound mystery of the event. Of course, if we are convinced in advance that genetic mutation is a random, material event, the results of which are sorted out by the struggle for survival, the immense mystery dissolves into happenstance blips in strands of East African DNA, c. 150,000-200,000 years ago.

But at that point, we have moved beyond scientific evolution to doctrinaire Evolution. The randomness of the mutation cannot be demonstrated or proved; it is simply an article of belief, no different in character from a belief that an intelligent Creator nudged the adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine bases of that DNA strand into the right order.

At bottom the dispute between Evolutionists and Creationists always comes down to the question, "What is random?"

Actually, a line of argument that depends on seeing events as random is in a rather worse position than one that postulates, even if it can't prove, underlying order. In science, what's random today is frequently modeled tomorrow. To base a theory of life on ever-more-emphatic repetition of the idea that, "No, it's random," is a bit like stamping your foot and saying, "It's so because I say it's so."


Gameboys said...

I guess it's okay to convey the idea (in schools) of the possibility that creation is 'intelligent', as long as it does not get intertwined with particular ideological moorings, i.e., that of the Christian right. I think that is what most people are concerned about. WIth good reason. I don't see how they can teach 'intelligent' design in a secular way (in the Indian sense of the word ;)).
- Nanda Kishore

doubtinggaurav said...


The acceptance of pseudo theory of intelligent design is just the beginning of the slippery road, which if taken can only lead to obstructionism and obfuscation.
The debate about existence of God and divine purpose not suited for school curriculum

Kumar said...

I think Peter Wood’s article a thoroughly confused apologia for theism. Dr. Wood’s academic specialty seems to be cultural anthropology: His familiarity with physical anthropology is likely only a passing one given the confusions his piece displays.

Dr. Wood thinks evolution is just fine and dandy--only Evolution troubles the good Dr. Wood. His neologisms puzzle me but he seems to be arguing that evolution only ‘saves the appearances'. In other words, he seems to prefer an instrumental rather than a realist interpretation of evolutionary biology.

Yet he contradicts this by asserting that evolution cannot account for the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens. Muddying the waters further, he then goes on to (tentatively?) suggest that work on the FOX-P2 gene may yet clear up the alleged mystery. However, he then backtracks and seemingly suggests that evolution, in principle, cannot account for this emergence. He ends up with that old standby of spluttering creationists, the God-of-the-gaps argument. I am afraid that Dr. Wood’s ‘argument’ does not show that this ‘gap’ is unlikely to be closed by biologist, let alone that such closure is impossible in principle. In any case, I hope Dr. Wood’s faith does not rest on such a thin reed.

I want to be clear about this. The biological data at hand show no trace of anyone’s guiding hand—neither Isvara nor Allah (and, no, not even Jehovah or Zeus or the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny). Evolutionary biology, strictly speaking, entails neither theism nor atheism, but one cannot thereby conclude that the two are epistemic equals as far as the biological data goes. To do so would be to commit, along with Dr. Wood, the elementary mistake of assuming that all theories consistent with the data are epistemic equals.

To elaborate, even though a number of philosophical positions are consistent with biology, the price of buying consistency via an instrumentalist interpretation of biology is higher for theism-—it amounts to arguing that the biological data are systematically misleading. Perhaps that is the case, but theism’s reliance on an argument from silence is an epistemic vice, not an epistemic virtue.

Moreover, what should one make of his talk of the inevitable triumph of ‘models’ in science. He surely knows that there are quite a few (mathematical) models of various evolutionary mechanisms. Perhaps, in his confused manner, Dr. Wood means that the history of science suggests that theories incorporating randomness are invariably superseded by those eschewing randomness. He surely knows that radioactive decay is truly random. A century-plus and still no sign that God is tweaking particular atoms to disintegrate. Similarly with biology--a century-plus and still no sign that God is tweaking particular loci in the genome.

I am not arguing that theism is irrational--indeed, I count myself a theist (though not a propah one, I'm sure, by the monotheists' standards). There may well be other sources of support for theism—philosophical, religious or non-biological science—but I am afraid biology is a weak point in the theist’s armor.

As scientists, all we do is scrutinize the data. In biology, the data do not point to a guiding hand. Perhaps the data are systematically misleading, but we cannot really know that. Dr. Wood’s piece is, regrettably, an attempt to obscure what the data are saying.

Irrelevant aside: I suspect my familiarity with Purva Mimamsa has inoculated me against attempts to inject Isvara into biology. For those of us who take Purva Mimamsa to heart, Isvara is relatively unimportant in the (traditionalist) Hindu scheme of things.

I have to add that your enthusiasm for the mysterioso position in biology mystifies me. What underlies your enthusiasm? I hope you don't think these comments a patronizing dismissal of your view. Which is to say, I look forward to your counter-arguments.


Primary Red said...


An excellent & very well-written counter-point! It was fun to read it.

All we've said (see, http://secular-right.blogspot.com/2005/07/mindless-design-it-surely-aint.html) is that the assuredness with which evolutionary theorists dismiss theism is in itself a rather fundamentalist position.

Let's take the discussion to another context to illustrate this.

This is like people arguing that, since there is no empirical evidence of life elsewhere in the Universe, there is no life elsewhere in the Universe. Clearly, such an assertion is quite likely to be proven false over time as human capacity to probe our Universe continues its onward evolution (pun unintended!).

It would be entirely reasonable for students of science to be told that, notwithstanding such absence of evidence, they should nurture their curiosity, they should train their telescopes to the sky, they should still look for life elsewhere -- because if there was no life elsewhere, as Jodie Foster says in the beautiful film Contact, it'd be an awful waste of space.

In epistemology, evidence leads to hypothesis -- which remains true until, as Karl Popper would point out, it is falsified. The path of scince is not validation via experiment but falsification via new experiment. "Truth" -- as history tells us -- is rather an unstable concept; all we can ever be sure of is what's been proven false.

Now, you are absolutely right that evolutionary biology yields little direct evidence of theism -- so, it's OK to postulate the Darwinian process as the working hypothesis. But, why dismiss human curiosity and puzzlement that such enormous beauty has emerged out of a stochastic accident? It's quite likely that we have a great deal more to learn about how the biological Universe works -- why snuff out people's legitimate scepticism in the name of Science?

All people are asking for is for kids to be taught that evolution is indeed the working theory -- but it's somewhat unsatisfying; and that people are still searching for other answers (one of them is linked to the parallel human belief in god). That's all.

The problem here is that Science is on the defensive -- and therefore, has become very fundamentalist in being unable to concede its falliability. Isn't this a thoroughly anti-Science attitude -- the kind that theists once used to bash great ideas of Gallileo & Copernicus?

Best reagrds.

sanjay said...

I tend to agree broadly with primary red except that it is not science per se but some scientists that have become fundamentalist.

Question is why have some scientists turned defensive? Well, in 1970 Thomas Kuhn pointed out that scientific practice is shaped by deep assumptions of the worldview of which the scientist may be unaware but one which is unquestioningly (unscientifically?) shared by all scientists.

Example: reductionism states that the world can be understood by breaking it into smaller units until we arrive at a set of fundamental units. This is a basic assumption of science that is not going to be subjected to any kind of an empirical (falsifiable) tes. In fact, there is no known experiment that science has ever conducted to demonstrate that reductionism will indeed lead to some fundamental units. Thus, reductionism, by itself, constitutes an a priori belief system of the scientific community.

A proponent of Intelligent Design could very easily argue that reductionism itself is an artifact of intelligent design. how? because it is neither applied randomly to scientific experiments, nor is it scientifically proven to be valid.
Therefore, reductionism is the "intelligent design" built into all scientific endeavour.


Kumar said...

Primary Red:

I don’t think your counter-argument is persuasive. First though, thanks for the reasoned debate as well as your generous compliments.

I suspect we may be talking past each other. My view of science is borrowed from A.W.F. Edwards’ book, ‘Likelihood’. While I am no longer a likelihoodist, his concise and elegant formulation of the nature of science retains its hold on me. Briefly, Dr. Edwards sought to distinguish between the data, the model used to account for said data, the (philosophical/religious/physical) interpretation of said model
and the Truth (yes, with a capital ‘T’).

All we have in hand are data and model. Everything else is underdetermined by the data and so does not count as science. For precisely this reason, evolutionary biologists--qua scientists--do not dismiss (or support) theism. Rest assured we do not spend time on such debates in the classroom or the lab. Theism or atheism simply does not enter the discussion for a very simple reason: Such conjectures are no substitute for a model. I do not even know how to generate testable models based on either premise—they are literally irrelevant. Evolution (via natural selection, mutation, migration, drift, neutral/near-neutral mutation) does generate testable models that account quite nicely for a diverse set of data, as you acknowledge.

I think that science classes ought to teach, well, science. Teaching should focus on the data and the model(s) that best account for that data, as well as the fallibility of science in general. But acknowledgement of fallibility does not leave room for fond wishes entirely uninformed by science.

Fallibility does not entail that all logically possible theories are equally probable. There is debate over, say, the nearly-neutral theory but there is no debate over whether evolution is the best explanation at hand of the data. To pretend otherwise, and include the dreams and hopes of a particular political or religious faction, would be to give a false impression of the current state of science. An insistency on such sobriety is hardly defensive—it’s a characteristically scientific virtue.

The search for extra-terrestrial life actually argues against your thesis. Recall that this idea is a staple of science fiction. It attained some degree of scientific legitimacy in the late 20th century only after the search for extra-terrestrial life, intelligent or otherwise, attempted to confront the data (e.g., radio-telescope searches of the stars, testing the Martian soil for microbial life). The continued scientific legitimacy of exobiology rests on its ability to conduct actual tests for the presence of life on, say, Mars—not on the fond hopes and dreams of exobiologists.

ID, by contrast, literally does not speak to the data at all: There is no theory of ID. Hand-waving assertions from theologians, philosophers, engineers, and the odd biologist do not count. I challenge you to find a single instance of peer-reviewed biological research that ID necessarily underlies. Note that ‘necessarily’ is key: I have yet to see even a fruitful hypothesis necessarily entailed by ID. Only when ID manages to generate such research will the scientific community take it seriously.

By the way, the ID crowd most certainly does not acknowledge that evolutionary biology is a legitimate working hypothesis. Their demand—to teach ID as legitimate science--far exceeds your modest plea that science’s fallibility ought to be acknowledged.


reformist_muslim said...

I have to say that I completely agree with Kumar's comments.

There is Science and there is Philosophy and to teach ID in science classes would be to blur the distinction between the two at the cost of Science.

PR, I find it astonishing that you are attacking the fundamentalism of scientists as it is nothing compared to the fundamentalism of those propogating ID. Do you not find anything coincidental about the people behind ID being almost the same as those who were behind teaching creationism?

Primary Red said...


You're right -- the ID folks are plenty fundamentalists themselves. And, at the end of the day, evolution is indeed the framework we all agree with.

All we are saying is that evolution by natural selection does not contradict people's faith; natural selection fanatics (e.g., Salman Rushdie -- who we've supported in other contexts), in contrast, absurdly believe that evolution disproves God's existence.

See http://secular-right.blogspot.com/2005/07/mindless-design-it-surely-aint.html

We are OK with staying with evolution as is -- as long as atheists quit attacking faith using evolution as a weapon. That's the battle line.

Secular is not the same as Godless.

Best regards.


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