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Evolving Standards

January 7th, 2008 · No Comments

Robert VerBruggen has a pretty shockingly unfair critique of a short book on creationism and evolution recently released by the National Academy of Sciences.

First, he complains that the document, which is quite obviously meant as a basic primer for lay audiences, “makes a number of assertions that, simply put, no one seriously disputes.” Introductory science texts tend to do that.

He then alleges that the pamphlet fails to meet evolutionary theory’s burden of demonstrating that the diverse species populating the earth arose “exclusively through genetic mutation and natural selection, with no other processes contributing.” I’m not even sure that this is a meaningful claim, let alone one evolutionists are committed to defending. What counts as an “other process” that might contribute? Is this supposed to exclude, for instance, Stuart Kauffman’s ideas about spontaneous self-organization? It is not clear to me in the least that evolutionary theorists must be precommitted to ruling such possibilities out of court a priori—nor, more generally, that they must defend the current state of biological thinking as a finished product, with no major discoveries to come. Rather, it seems to me that VerBruggen is flipping the burden here. I agree with him that it may be useful to science to have gaps or problems in current evolutionary theory pointed out, but it takes more than the observation that we do not yet understand everything—which no scientist will deny—to get to the Intelligent Design position. That requires the further step of arguing that the evidence more strongly supports the hypothesis of conscious biological design, and while I am not exactly overwhelmed by ID’s critique of traditional Darwinism, it is the very model of robustness compared with the vague gesturing that they substitute for an actual affirmative theory.

Moving to the IDer’s beloved “irreducible complexity,” VerBruggen complains that the report’s “only real argument, that scientists have found intermediate stages of the bacterial flagellum … falls far short of proving that the flagellum’s many complex parts could have come about separately and at random.” This does not strike me as a particularly fair summary of the NAS document’s treatment of the question, which alludes in general terms to a body of theory and research, and mentions the flagellum briefly by way of one concrete example. But even if it were, this again seems like rather the wrong standard to apply to a popular overview. Since he has already “looked into this to a decent degree,” he might refer himself to the more scholarly papers cited in the bibliography. This might even, eventually, disabuse him of the anti-evolutionist habit of characterizing the products of Darwinian processes as arising “at random.”

Finally, VerBruggen complains:

And after claiming that science has debunked this claim of ID, the report turns around and asserts, “Because science has no way to accept or refute creationists’ assertions, creationist beliefs should not be presented in science classrooms alongside teaching about evolution.”

It’s not falsifiable, but it’s been proven false!

This is either sloppy or disingenuous. Particular claims of “irreducible complexity”—the allegation that the eye or blood clotting could not have emerged piecemeal by Darwinian processes—can, of course, be refuted. The design hypothesis itself—that some designer orchestrated the development of life by unspecified means—is not falsifiable, especially if we allow that designer the ability to have disguised His handiwork by (say) creating an elaborate fossil record that creates the illusion of gradual evolution over many millennia. At most, one might object here that the NAS book unfairly conflates the arguments of Young Earth creationists with more respectable IDers who envision a subtle designer intervening only in cellular Eden to kick-start the Darwinian process. But the broader point holds even if we allow that objection: Even insuperable objections to the standard Darwinian picture will not convert vague hand-waving about a designer from theology into scientific theory.

Tags: Science



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