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Creation or Evolution Analysed

 Chapter 2:

Science, the Bible and Wrong Assumptions

Evolution or Creation Booklet Analysis Verdict
The theory of evolution, long taught in schools and assumed to be true by many in the scientific community, is increasingly questioned by scientists and university professors in various fields. Okay, so it is just the opening shot, but it contains much in the way of assertion and rhetoric. 

Firstly, evolution is both a fact and a theory. It is a scientific fact that all life on earth is related by what Darwin termed 'descent with modification', and the theory of evolution is, like all scientific theories, the bundled set of mutually compatible hypotheses which, taken together, seek to explain the fact. Further discussion of this here.

I make this important point so early because it may well prove relevant when what these "scientists and university professors" are allegedly questioning emerges. Call me suspicious.

Secondly, evolution may be "assumed" to be true by those outside the field (because it is only tangentially relevant to them... though it must mesh with other areas where it intersects), but it is not merely assumed by those who study it, for they see and work with the evidence every day.

Thirdly, note that these "scientists and university professors" are in "various fields". Does this sound any alarm bells, in the way that quoting Wernher von Braun did? Well, we'll see.

And fourthly, there is clearly a lurking misunderstanding of how science works. Evolution is "increasingly questioned", is it? This should hardly come as a surprise, since science is fundamentally a questioning enterprise. At every level, it asks 'is this right?' Scepticism is a cornerstone of the scientific method: don't just accept something, but demonstrate it! So finding that people raise questions and objections about some aspect of it is not a concern: it is a good thing!

Dubious rhetoric 
Why do questions arise? Because that is what science does. It is a truism that in science, answering one question does little more than raise a complete new set of questions.   
It is because as scientific knowledge has increased researchers have not been able to confirm basic assumptions of the evolutionary theory—and in fact some have been refuted outright. I hope they are going to substantiate these assertions. It is too early to call them 'lies' just yet, but we can hold it in reserve. Assertions
As more scientists and educators become aware of flaws in the theory, they are more carefully assessing it. Flaws? Mere assertion. Unanswered questions and unresolved problems, perhaps, but that is in the nature of science... and that is probably conceding too much. I suspect the authors really are considering some things to be flaws. Let's see them!

Note that, as before: why on earth would "educators" know the first damned thing about it? Maybe they do, but it is not unreasonable to wonder how well placed to evaluate scientific claims a teacher is.

Furthermore, everyone should carefully assess anything they are told. But that is what scientists do for a living. The implication is that those closest to the subject -- those who work in biology, genetics and palaeontology -- are all making fundamental errors and are ignoring the alleged flaws... despite the fact that, as scientists, they do carefully assess their data and theories!

And scientists do this because the peer review process means that if they don't, someone else will catch them out. When a paper is submitted to a peer-reviewed journal such as Nature, the manuscript is sent to other scientists anonymously, with express instructions to rip them to shreds if they find any weaknesses, before it is decided whether it is worthy of publication.

So the suggestion here is that all those who overlook or ignore these 'flaws' are engaged in... well, is it cock-up, or conspiracy? Or... could it be...? Maybe it is those claiming flaws who are the misguided ones?

 
In the United States some states' educational boards have become aware of the mounting scientific evidence against evolution and have begun to insist the theory be emphasized less or treated more evenhandedly in the classroom. False. They have become aware (that is, they have been on the receiving end) of a political and social campaign that claims there is mounting evidence against evolution.

Education board members naturally want children taught correct science. But being, like most normal people, not necessarily great experts on biology and palaeontology, they are easy victims of spin, slur and half-truth.

And note the weasel word "evenhandedly". Who does not want to be even-handed? It appeals to our sense of decency, fair play and honesty. But there is a problem with it...

It sounds so reasonable, doesn't it? Such a modest proposal. Why not teach "both sides" and let the children decide for themselves? As President Bush said, "You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes." At first hearing, everything about the phrase "both sides" warms the hearts of educators like ourselves.

One of us spent years as an Oxford tutor and it was his habit to choose controversial topics for the students' weekly essays. They were required to go to the library, read about both sides of an argument, give a fair account of both, and then come to a balanced judgment in their essay. The call for balance, by the way, was always tempered by the maxim, "When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly half way between. It is possible for one side simply to be wrong."

(Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, 'One side can be wrong'. The Guardian, 1 September 2005, [emphasis added] [link] )

Similarly, there is mounting evidence that the Holocaust never happened (or at least is wildly overrated). This should be "evenhandedly" dealt with in history class, and education boards are remiss not to say so. One might argue that they are also rather negligent in not insisting on the inclusion of the demon theory of disease causation, and the stork theory of babies.

 
Yet there is a powerful insistence by many in the scientific community not to question the theory,

I'm not sure if this is merely an assertion, or foolishness (or both). As I have pointed out above, science is all about questioning the validity of claims. Practically every paper is testing the theory's component hypotheses!

It is firmly believed that ancestral primates were nocturnal, with nocturnality having been maintained in most prosimian lineages. Under this traditional view, the opsin genes in all nocturnal prosimians should have undergone similar degrees of functional relaxation and accumulated similar extents of deleterious mutations. This expectation is rejected by the short-wavelength (S) opsin gene sequences from 14 representative prosimians.

(Tan et al, 'Evidence from opsin genes rejects nocturnality in ancestral primates'. PNAS vol. 102 no. 41, 14712-14716, 11 October 2005 [emphasis added] )

 

It has commonly been thought that snakes underwent progressive loss of their limbs by gradual diminution of their use. However, recent developmental and palaeontological discoveries suggest a more complex scenario of limb reduction, still poorly documented in the fossil record. Here we report a fossil snake with a sacrum supporting a pelvic girdle and robust, functional legs outside the ribcage. The new fossil, from the Upper Cretaceous period of Patagonia, fills an important gap in the evolutionary progression towards limblessness because other known fossil snakes with developed hindlimbs, the marine Haasiophis, Pachyrhachis and Eupodophis, lack a sacral region. Phylogenetic analysis shows that the new fossil is the most primitive (basal) snake known and that all other limbed fossil snakes are closer to the more advanced macrostomatan snakes, a group including boas, pythons and colubroids. The new fossil retains several features associated with a subterranean or surface dwelling life that are also present in primitive extant snake lineages, supporting the hypothesis of a terrestrial rather than marine origin of snakes.

(Apesteguêa and Zaher, 'A Cretaceous terrestrial snake with robust hindlimbs and a sacrum'. Nature 440, 1037-1040, 20 April 2006)

And even after a paper has passed peer-review (no mean feat in itself), other experts are more than happy to attack the paper's content. Here is an example (note that these are only the abstracts, and much more detail is presented in each 'comment'):

Martin et al, Science Technical Comments Vol. 312. no. 5776, p. 999 (19 May 2006)

Comment on "The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis"

Endocast analysis of the brain Homo floresiensis by Falk et al. (Reports, 8 April 2005, p. 242) implies that the hominid is an insular dwarf derived from H. erectus, but its tiny cranial capacity cannot result from normal dwarfing. Consideration of more appropriate microcephalic syndromes and specimens supports the hypothesis of modern human microcephaly.

 

Falk et al, Science Technical Comments Vol. 312. no. 5776, p. 999 (19 May 2006)

Response to Comment on "The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis"

Martin et al. claim that they have two endocasts from microcephalics that appear similar to that of LB1, Homo floresiensis. However, the line drawings they present as evidence lack details about the transverse sinuses, cerebellum, and cerebral poles. Comparative measurements, actual photographs, and sketches that identify key features are needed to draw meaningful conclusions about Martin et al.'s assertions.

Does these sound like people unwilling to question a theory? Do they sound like people engaged in a conspiracy, or too dim or deluded to notice a problem?

For the sake of space these are just a couple of currently recent instances, but they are entirely representative of the way science is conducted in its trade magazines -- pop along and browse Nature, Science, PNAS or similar at your local library if you do not believe me.

False assertion
for much is at stake. So scientists are hushing up the evidence so as not to rock the boat?

Here is a thought to ponder: has anyone won a Nobel prize for 'Stating the Bleeding Obvious'? Are grants awarded for 'Upholding the Status Quo'?

There is no surer route to fame and fortune (or at least grant money) in science than overturning some well-established idea, doing something new, coming up with some cutting edge approach. Yet we are to believe that "there is a powerful insistence by many in the scientific community [ie just about everyone in biology and palaeontology] not to question the theory"?

Assertion

Fallacy: Circumstantial Ad Hominem

Phillip Johnson, law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, And therefore a relevant expert, obviously.

Once again, let me stress that talking outside one's field does not disqualify one from commenting, nor that such a person may not be right. But it should set off those alarm bells, especially if the claimant is saying things that go against what the actual experts in the field are agreed upon.

Fallacy: Inappropriate Authority
has written several books about the evolution debate. He approaches the evidence for and against evolution as though evaluating a legal case.

And note that even creationist Terry M  Gray concludes his review of Johnson's Darwin on Trial with:

In my view Phillip Johnson has not succeeded in his attempt to unseat the theory of evolution as the dominant view of the development of life on earth.
 
He notes the strong vested interests involved in the debate: "Naturalistic evolution is not merely a scientific theory; it is the official creation story of modern culture. The scientific priesthood that has authority to interpret the official creation story gains immense cultural influence thereby, which it might lose if the story were called into question. The experts therefore have a vested interest in protecting the story . . ." (Darwin on Trial, 1993, p. 159).

Cutting through all the loaded words and blather, there are several errors here.

First, all science is naturalistic; so much so that it defines the enterprise. As creationist Gray notes:

Evolutionary biology is not the only science that uses its conclusions to support a naturalistic worldview. The motions of the planets and other objects are well explained by Newton's laws. The behavior of matter is understood in terms of atomic and molecular theories. Models in molecular biology and biochemistry are very successful in accounting for inheritance, disease, much physiology, and other biological phenomenon. [...] Even the weather, once thought by all to be in the domain of God's providence, is now being modeled with sophisticated computers with some degree of success. Why don't we get uneasy when chemists say that perfume diffusing from an open bottle to all parts of the room does so as a result of random, mechanical collisions between perfume and air molecules? (Interestingly, the 17th century theologians rejected the atomic theory on the basis that atomic explanations of matter were mechanistic and left no room for God.)

Secondly, unlike any other "creation story", science's version is verifiable by anyone willing to put in the time to understand the evidence that led scientists to suggest it in the first place, and it is constantly being revised in light of new evidence.

It seems a funny way to go about protecting a story, publishing new, sometimes critical stuff about it all the time, and explaining the evidence and reasoning at any opportunity. But then, I'm not a lawyer.

Thirdly: oddly, many in this "scientific priesthood", who allegedly have a vested interest in protecting this naturalistic story, are... ardent Christians. 'Atheist evolutionists' may have a motive for protecting the story (though see next paragraph), but what's all these Christians' excuse?

Finally, we have an 'Appeal to motive' fallacy. They have a vested interest? Okay, if you say so, Mr Johnson. Remind me again how that makes the claim false?

Put it this way: if we should reject evolution because it is a "scientific priesthood" (read: a bunch of atheists, allegedly) who make the claims for its accuracy, then I can summarily dismiss the authors' quote by Wernher von Braun on the basis that von Braun was a Nazi.


As a side note, I ought to point out the origins of this rhetoric's power. It comes from the language of religion! We need remove but one word from Johnson's quote to see that it applies, a fortiori, to religion: The priesthood that has authority to interpret the official creation story gains immense cultural influence thereby, which it might lose if the story were called into question. The experts therefore have a vested interest in protecting the story!

As the author of the Skeptic's Annotated Bible has noted:
When I was a Christian, I never read the Bible. Not all the way through, anyway. The problem was that I believed the Bible to be the inspired and inerrant word of God, yet the more I read it, the less credible that belief became. I finally decided that to protect my faith in the Bible, I'd better quit trying to read it. 

I think most Bible-believers find themselves in that position -- although few will admit it. Not even to themselves. 

The most popular solution to this problem is to leave the Bible reading to the clergy. The clergy then quote from the Bible in their writings and sermons, and explain its meaning to the others. Extreme care is taken, of course, to quote from the parts of the Bible that display the best side of God and to ignore those that don't.

Now admittedly, this point is veering rather close to being a tu quoque fallacy. Nevertheless, did not Jesus say (Matt 7:3, NIV):

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

At the very least, the moral here is that the authors are not surveying the evidence dispassionately. They have a vested interest in protecting their story.

Is it too much to speculate that their real gripe is actually with the fact that their own world-view does not have "cultural influence"? No, I'm being too cynical, obviously.

Fallacy: Circumstantial Ad Hominem
Professor Johnson critically examines the logic and reasoning evolutionists use in the debate. He likens the carefully protected theory to a warship that has sprung a leak. "Darwinian evolution . . . makes me think of a great battleship on the ocean of reality. Its sides are heavily armored with philosophical barriers to criticism, and its decks are stacked with big rhetorical guns ready to intimidate any would-be attackers.

Empty rhetoric. Similarly, I can say that creationism is a rusting hulk on the sea bed; it was holed below the waterline long before Darwin, and sank sometime around 1860, but some people seem determined to raise the thing and get it doing weekly crossings of the Atlantic, despite it no longer having an engine or rudder.

Like such a vessel, however, this sort of talk doesn't get us very far.

Empty rhetoric  
"In appearance, it is as impregnable as the Soviet Union seemed to be only a few years ago. But the ship has sprung a metaphysical leak, and the more perceptive of the ship's officers have begun to sense that all the ship's firepower cannot save it if the leak is not plugged. There will be heroic efforts to save the ship, of course . . . The spectacle will be fascinating, and the battle will go on for a long time. But in the end reality will win" (Johnson, pp. 169-170).

More rhetoric and assertions from a lawyer.

"it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
"

Empty rhetoric
But what is behind the debate?

A socio-political agenda? Certainly not science, anyway. While scientists do indeed debate the validity of many issues within their discipline, the fact of evolution is not one of them. In fact, as far as evolution itself is concerned, there is no scientific debate. In just the same way as nobody in astronomy or cosmology debates a heliocentric solar system.

So here we have a disingenuous weasel-word. Creationists want there to be a debate, because that makes it seem, to Joe Public, that there is something to be debated! There isn't, not on evolution in general at least. Talk of a debate, and you make it seem that where there's smoke, there's fire. Nonsense. Where there's smoke, there's smoke. Or in this case, smoke and mirrors.

This is why both Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins always refuse(d) to enter into such 'debates'.  See 'Why I Won't Debate Creationists'.

 
How did an unproven theory

It's amazing how two simple words can reveal such mangled understanding of science. You see, nothing in science is ever proven!

The point here is so well known (except by creationists) that it even has an aphorism: Proof is for mathematics and alcohol.

You can only have absolute proof if you have (as mathematics does) defined the universe you are talking about at the start. In maths, as they say, two plus two equals four only for certain values of two.

In the real world, we are not defining the universe beforehand. Instead, 'what it is like is the very thing we are trying to find out! Describing and explaining the universe is what science is for, is what it does. And there being uncertain things is what makes it worth investigating at all: we don't have all the answers, but we are working on it! The fact that we are in an empirical universe means that the best we can hope for is to approach certainty.

So nothing in science is ever absolutely proven, because new information could, potentially at least, come to light to overturn even the most basic statement, at least in principle. Something may be very, very likely true, but because we do not pretend to know every last thing, it might be wrong. Hence, as Stephen Jay Gould put it:

In science "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.

See the full discussion of the term here.

So much for "unproven". As for "theory"... well, prefixing it with "unproven" suggests that the authors are using what Gould there refers to as the American vernacular definition. But science uses the term rather more precisely: it is much more than a hunch or a guess...

In science, a theory is an explanation that binds together various experimentally tested hypotheses to explain some fundamental aspect of nature. For an idea to qualify as a scientific theory, it must be established on the basis of a wide variety of scientific evidence. Its claims must be testable and it must propose experiments that can be replicated by other scientists.

[Link]

Therefore, what we have here is misunderstanding and equivocation. Nobody ought to be surprised that evolution is an unproven theory. But nor should they take that to mean it is just some educated guesswork supported only by "philosophical barriers to criticism". 

Whether the equivocation is deliberate, or the accidental result of ignorance, is hard to tell. But I have my suspicions, and my earlier suspicions turned out to be justified...

Fallacy: Equivocation 
[How did evolution] gain such wide acceptance?

By accumulation of evidence. Here's some.

 
How did alternate [sic] theories come to be summarily dismissed without a hearing?

They didn't. They had their chance, and blew it. Perhaps the authors are unaware of the hundred years and more of discussion that took place prior to Darwin's book? The alternative theories have been rejected for not fitting the evidence, but only total ignorance of the history of science could lead someone to think this happened "summarily" and "without a hearing".

 
How did the biblical account of the origin of the universe and man lose so much credibility?

Lack of evidence? To be scientifically credible, an idea must be testable and supported by evidence. But maybe we will get to the bit where the authors detail their evidence later.

And note that what lost credibility was only a literal interpretation of Genesis. Who says it must be read literally? Certainly none of the main churches!

It does seem an odd thing to do, given that, no matter how inspired, the Bible was undoubtedly written by fallible humans.

Personally, I fail to see why God would not describe his creation to a bunch of Bronze age goat herders in the sort of way we find in Genesis... confident in the knowledge that we'd work out how he really did it later. One imagines Him laughing His divine arse off at those who take what he told 'those ignorant folks back then' literally today!

 
The roots of the battle between evolution and the Bible go back centuries.

Note again that many theists -- most, outside the US -- do not even consider a battle to be required.

 
Differing interpretations of the Bible

It is a shame that scientists and religious figures alike have perpetuated many myths about creation and nature. In the past few centuries, science has refuted some religious notions about nature and the universe that religious leaders mistakenly attributed to the Bible. Sadly, this has caused some religious leaders and institutions to take unnecessarily dogmatic stands that were only harmful in the long run.

So far so good!

I wonder if interpreting Genesis literally would be considered unnecessarily dogmatic, though...?

 
At the same time misunderstandings about what the Bible does and does not say have led some on all sides of the debate to accept wrong conclusions.

Assertion, but okay for now.

But... do I catch a whiff of an up-coming No True Scotsman fallacy...?

 
For example, in late 1996 Pope John Paul II shocked both Catholics and non-Catholics when he mused that the theory of evolution seemed valid for the physical evolution of man and other species through natural selection and hereditary adaptations.

I'm not sure that a message delivered to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences could be referred to as his 'musings', but yes, it was shocking. Shocking that it might take so long for the Catholic Church to catch up with science. Not that it ought to shock: it took them long enough (until 1981) to come to terms with Galileo.  

 
How did this startling declaration come about? What factors led to this far-reaching conclusion?

One has to wonder why the authors consider it that startling.

 
Time magazine commented on the pope's statement: "[Pope] Pius [in 1950] was skeptical of evolution but tolerated study and discussion of it; the statement by John Paul reflects the church's acceptance of evolution. He did not, however, diverge at all from Pius on the question of the origin of man's soul: that comes from God, even if 'the human body is sought in living material which existed before it.'

"The statement is unlikely to influence the curriculum of Catholic schools, where students have studied evolution since the 1950s. Indeed, taking the Bible literally has not been a hallmark among Catholics through much of the 20th century.

Where is this leading?

Someone more suspicious than I am might wonder... we know the answer to the question 'Is the Pope a Catholic?'... but are they suggesting: Is the Pope a True Christian™ ?!

 
Asked about the pope's statement, Peter Stravinskas, editor of the 1991 Catholic Encyclopedia, said: 'It's essentially what Augustine was writing. He tells us that we should not interpret Genesis literally, and that it is poetic and theological language'" (Time, international edition, Nov. 4, 1996, p. 59).

The Catholic theologian Augustine lived 354-430. The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes him as "the dominant personality of the Western Church of his time, generally recognized as the greatest thinker of Christian antiquity." It adds, "He fused the religion of the New Testament with the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy" (15th edition, 1975, Micropaedia Vol. 1, "Augustine of Hippo, Saint," pp. 649-650).

Augustine wrote:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

(St Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim (The Literal Meaning of Genesis))

[Link]

 
Little did Augustine realize he was doing his followers a grave disservice by viewing parts of the Bible as allegorical while simultaneously incorporating into his teaching the views of the Greek philosophers. For the next 1,300 years, covering roughly the medieval age, the view of those pagan philosophers became the standard for the Roman church's explanation of the universe.

 

So Augustine is to blame for the demise of Genesis being taken literally? All he actually said was: beware of talking demonstrable nonsense, because it brings the whole of Scripture into disrepute.

How, exactly, is such apparently sensible advice doing anyone a disservice?

But then, it seems the authors are unaware of both the actual quote, and of its meaning. Or as Augustine himself put it:

[...] they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

(ibid.)

 
Furthermore, ecclesiastical leaders adopted the earth-centered view of the universe held by Ptolemy, an Egyptian-born astronomer of the second century. "It was . . . from the work of previous [Greek] astronomers," says the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "that Ptolemy evolved his detailed description of an Earth-centered (geocentric) universe, a revolutionary but erroneous idea that governed astronomical thinking for over 1,300 years . . .

Okay... but note the phrase "ecclesiastical leaders adopted the earth-centered view". Fine, provided they are not implying that previously they had been supporters of heliocentrism, an expanding universe, singularities and cosmic background radiation... and ditched it all in favour of geocentrism on the say-so of Augustine.

 
"In essence, it is a synthesis of the results obtained by Greek astronomy . . . On the motions of the Sun, Moon, and planets, Ptolemy again extended the observations and conclusions of Hipparchus—this time to formulate his geocentric theory, which is popularly known as the Ptolemaic system" (Britannica, 15th edition, 1975, Macropaedia Vol. 15, "Ptolemy," p. 179).

I guess that as long as they just keep quoting Britannica they shouldn't go too far wrong...

 
The Bible and the universe

Thus it was not the biblical perspective but the Greek view of the cosmos—in which everything revolved around a stationary earth—that was to guide man's concept of the universe for many centuries. The Roman Catholic Church made the mistake of tying its concept of the universe to that of earlier pagan philosophers and astronomers, then enforced that erroneous view.

   
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     

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