iSoul In the beginning is reality

Category Archives: Evolution

Evolution in the related senses of transformism, Darwinism, Neo-Darwinism, and evolutionism

Variation is a fact

One of the characteristics of post-modernism is the overlap between facts and theories. In modern science theories were based on facts, theories explained facts, and theories connected facts together. But post-modernism blurs the distinction between facts and theories. For example:

In science, a “fact” typically refers to an observation, measurement, or other form of evidence that can be expected to occur the same way under similar circumstances. However, scientists also use the term “fact” to refer to a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it or looking for additional examples. Because the evidence supporting it is so strong, scientists no longer question whether biological evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur. Instead, they investigate the mechanisms of evolution, how rapidly evolution can take place, and related questions. The National Academies – Evolution Resources [The National Academies is also known as the (U.S.) National Academy of Sciences.]

It is easily seen that the term “evolution” is used in (at least) two different senses. Under Definitions, the above website provides the following:

Evolution: Evolution consists of changes in the heritable traits of a population of organisms as successive generations replace one another. It is populations of organisms that evolve, not individual organisms.

That is the factual part. But there is another part, the theory part, which is obscured by not distinguishing fact from theory. For example, their entire website only mentions common descent once, and that in reference to additional resources:

With the publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Charles Darwin established evolution by common descent as the dominant scientific explanation for nature’s diversity. The National Academies – Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion

Note also the reification of nature (“nature’s diversity”) and evolution as a “gift” (as if Darwin brought it down from Mt. Science).

But in the context of Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and the modern theories of evolution, “evolution is a fact” may tend to block a full view of the major theories and the hundreds of subtheories found in the study of evolution (Lewis, 1980). NCSE – Theory and the Fact of Evolution.

What does the theory part of evolution include? U. Kutschera and K.J. Niklas list the principal propositions of Darwin’s theory:

1. Supernatural acts of the Creator are incompatible with empirical facts of nature
2. All life evolved from one or few simple kinds of organisms
3. Species evolve from pre-existing varieties by means of natural selection
4. The birth of a species is gradual and of long duration
5. Higher taxa (genera, families etc.) evolve by the same mechanisms as those responsible for the origin of species
6. The greater the similarities among taxa, the more closely they are related evolutionarily and the shorter their divergence time from a last common ancestor
7. Extinction is primarily the result of interspecific competition
8. The geological record is incomplete: the absence of transitional forms between species and higher taxa is due to gaps in our current knowledge
Naturwissenschaften (2004) 91:255–276

All of these propositions are theoretical. The modern synthesis version of evolution adds the genetics of populations to this (Systematics and the origin of species: An introductiom – Hey, Fitch, and Ayala).

So the “fact of evolution” is quite different from the propositions claimed about evolution. The fact – “changes in the heritable traits of a population of organisms as successive generations replace one another” – is better described as variation. It consists of differences observed between the generations. These are the variations that naturally occur.

The term “evolution” implies progress- etymologically, it means an unrolling. Evolution was applied by Herbert Spencer first to society. “Social progress is in fact viewed as a natural evolution”. He was “the first to work out a comprehensive philosophical system … on the basis of the principle of Evolution.” (Herbert Spencer and the Doctrine of Evolution)

But progress is not observed between the generations. What is observed is variation. It is misleading to use the word “evolution” to describe the observation of variation.

Design illustrated

This post continues thoughts about design, last posted here.

Here is a description of how cement is made from the Portland Cement Association:

In its simplest form, concrete is a mixture of paste and aggregates, or rocks. The paste, composed of portland cement and water, coats the surface of the fine (small) and coarse (larger) aggregates. Through a chemical reaction called hydration, the paste hardens and gains strength to form the rock-like mass known as concrete.

The key to achieving a strong, durable concrete rests in the careful proportioning and mixing of the ingredients. A mixture that does not have enough paste to fill all the voids between the aggregates will be difficult to place and will produce rough surfaces and porous concrete. A mixture with an excess of cement paste will be easy to place and will produce a smooth surface; however, the resulting concrete is not cost-effective and can more easily crack.

The design in this case is the proportion of ingredients in the mixture. It might happen that the ingredients formed naturally but they would be in the correct proportion only by design. That is, the particular application entails a goal, which the design meets.

Certainly concrete can and does happen naturally in aggregate rock formations. But it does not meet a need without a design. And that doesn’t happen naturally. Roads built with concrete only happen because engineers and construction crews built them. There’s nothing natural about that.

Terms for science controversies

Controversies are more difficult than they need be. I have written about this before here and here. One challenge for dealing with controversies is that terminology is misleading, inaccurate, or loaded. Here are some examples from the creation-evolution controversy.

The term ‘evolution’ originally meant an unrolling, and was applied by Charles Lyell and Herbert Spencer to the idea that there was a natural progression over time from lower to higher organisms. Charles Darwin did not originally call his theory ‘evolution’ but others prevailed on him to use the term. Ever since people have confused the idea of progress with Darwin’s theory of unguided evolution.

Historically, Darwin’s theory is one of several theories of transmutation, which is any natural sequence of changes over time from lower to higher organisms. Darwin’s particular theory was that the natural variability of generations over a long time might result in some populations of lower species transmutating into higher species. In other words, varieties could become new species, which could become new genera, and so on.

The process Darwin theorized is not an unrolling as the term evolution would imply, and even transmutation gives it a direction which is not part of the undirected process. A better term would be “variationism” because it posits that every species starts as a variety, or variation of an existing species. It’s like a chemist who asserts that isotopes can become new elements.

A naturalist refers to person who studies nature. But it can also refer to one who promotes naturalism, the teaching that nature is all there is. It would be better to call the first kind of naturalist a ‘naturist’ since it is nature, not ‘the natural’ that they study.

Naturalism is the foundation of transmutationism, including the variationism known as evolution. Some would call a change “from molecules to man” evolution but evolutionists don’t like to address the origin of life. And cosmic evolution refers to the ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It is naturalism that leads people to support stellar evolution, and other ideas in which ‘nature’ explains the whole history and condition of the universe.

Naturalism is opposed by creationism, though creationism is often paired against evolution. Creationism originally meant that God created the universe, without addressing what has happened since the creation. This is not a bad usage but what about the character of the original creation? It is not part of a natural progression, and is more than mere creation. The key issue is the creation of kinds of things, particularly populations that can vary only within created limits.

The question then is the existence of ‘natural kinds’ which are kinds of things that possess a fixed nature. To include creation in the concept, a ‘natural kind” would be a ‘created kind’. And someone who accepts ‘created kinds’ should be called a, well, ‘creationist’ in the sense that includes created kinds. At least this is not far from the common meaning today.

The term ‘scientist’ is problematic, too. It would literally mean someone who studies knowledge. That would refer to every discipline that concerns knowledge, including history, philosophy, theology, etc. But the term is meant for a restricted class of people who study empirical science. The correct term would seem to be ’empiricist’. However, empiricism is a teaching that all knowledge is based on sense experience. That usually means ‘scientism’ so we seem to be going in circles.

The solution is to broaden the definition of scientist to include all those who study the sciences, as distinct from the arts. The restricted usage would then be ’empirical scientist’. Since one does not need a license to practice science, unlike the medical or engineering professions, the term ‘scientist’ seems to be available for wider usage. So historians, philosophers, and theologians are scientists, too.

Christianity and science

A good summary of the myth of a long-running conflict between Christianity and science is in Timothy Larsen’s “War is Over, If You Want It” (September 2008). This warfare myth was invented in the 19th century by people such as TH Huxley who either should have known better or were purposely stirring up animosity. It is composed of individual myths that “support” it, such as the myth that Christians thought the earth was flat in the Middle Ages or the myth that Christians opposed the use of anesthesia during childbirth in the 19th century.

Larsen references Frank M. Turner’s “Contesting Cultural Authority” (Cambridge, 1993), as someone who “persuasively argued that the notion of a conflict between theology and science was generated as part of a campaign of professionalization by would-be scientists.” (p.150) It’s almost forgotten today, but the profession of a scientist didn’t exist until the late 19th century. Before that, science was developed by amateurs (including clerics) who had the leisure and interest. TH Huxley and others fought against such people because they stood in the way of a new class of professional scientists.

Although the warfare meme is vastly exaggerated, there are enough misunderstandings that the opposite idea of integration isn’t realistic. For example, it is said that many Christians quickly accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution in the 19th century and later. But what is overlooked is the fact that Christians misunderstood Darwin and substituted their own ideas of evolution by law or miracle.  Theistic evolution is common among Christians who either insert a law-bound version for Darwin’s undirected version or else invent undetectable miracles that make it God-directed.

Many have noted that modern science developed in a Christian matrix. If science jettisons its Christian roots, it loses a reason to expect an ordered universe that can be understood by human beings. It may either adopt a multiverse that just happens to have order in one universe or drift toward non-causal explanations in a chaotic universe.

Some scientists want to deepen the Christian roots of science rather than cut them off. They are mostly creationists or intelligent design proponents. Those who follow TH Huxley will have nothing of it. But some are willing to entertain new proposals. As the modern era comes to a close, we can expect that modern science will change into something else.

Darwin’s theory and Huxley’s science

It is common to read statements like this: “For the vast majority of biologists, the debate over whether evolution occurs took place in the 19th century and has long been settled — evolution won.” (1) The problem with this statement is that it was not a scientific position that won but a philosophical and political agenda that won.

Charles Darwin in his 1859 Origin of Species presented his “theory of descent with modification through natural selection” (later called evolution) in which he argued that universal common descent by natural selection was possible. He contrasted his theory with an alternative he called “the theory of independent acts of creation”. He was careful not to press his case too far, and basically argued that a theory of evolution was an alternative to one version of a theory of creation. Since he avoided controversy, he left it to others to defend his theory in public.

Thomas Henry Huxley is universally acknowledged as the leading defender of Darwin’s theory in the years after the publication of the Origin of Species. But he did much more. His main defense consisted in asserting that Darwin’s theory of evolution was science and the alternative theory of creation was not. He even claimed that evolution was the only possible scientific theory that explained the diversity of life.

Huxley framed his defense of the theory of evolution and put-down of any theory of creation in terms that avoided the appearance of redefining science, but that was what he was doing. He argued that science must be agnostic about non-empirical forms of knowledge, especially claims for God and the supernatural. This was an argument for what today is known as naturalism. Such a philosophy was already on the rise, with positivism, materialism, and secularism.

Not only were the alternatives to naturalism deprecated, they were considered pseudo-science. But if any theory of creation was not science, then Carl Linnaeus was not doing science when he developed his taxonomy, in which he endeavored to discover all of the created kinds of organisms. Somehow mathematics would still be available to Huxley’s science despite it being a non-empirical form of knowledge.

Another aspect of the controversy was the change in the status of the clergy. One of Huxley’s goals was to remove the clergy from influence over education. As the sciences became professionalized, Huxley was successful in keeping the clergy out. The result was that a thoroughly naturalistic science became ascendant in the universities.

Thus began the strategy of promoting naturalism under the guise of science. It was so successful that people to this day don’t know science was ever otherwise. Such is the historical ignorance of our time that such ideas reign virtually unchallenged.

Guidelines for addressing controversial issues

Controversies are a staple of today’s world, whether on the news media or the minds of people dealing with changes and counter-changes, or charges and counter-charges. In most cases reporting of controversies is very poor. Partisans have a difficult time even understanding their opponents and make points that are often irrelevant. What follows are some guidelines for handling controversial issues that draw from my experience with issues such as abortion, homosexuality, intelligent design, and the creation-evolution controversy.

Informal fallacies to avoid

Arguing against a position that your opponents don’t hold. This is surprisingly common. It may make points with your side but is irrelevant to genuine argument and confuses those on the sidelines. Check out your opponents before arguing against them.

Arguing against a position held only by fringe elements of your opponents. This is also very common. There are always those on the fringe who have foolish ideas and are easily criticized, but so what? Arguing against fringe elements may make your opponents look bad but doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. And they can make you look bad in the same way, so it accomplishes nothing.

Arguing against a position that is a poor way of expressing your opponents’ position. This is very common. People usually express their opponents’ position in their own words, which can be a way of showing that you understand the matter. But what if you’re wrong? Your opponents can simply say you’re arguing against someone else.

Insulting your opponents. Insults are so common they almost need not be mentioned. After all, what’s a controversial issue without insults? You may not even be aware of some insults, either by insensitivity or casual use of negative language. But your opponents can use the same tactic on you, and may be better at it. Trading insults accomplishes nothing good.

A good response

It is good to assume good intentions of your opponents. Much heat and little light characterize much writing and speaking about controversial issues. You may not like your opponents, you may even be suspicious of your opponents, but unless you have specific evidence of ill intent by leading advocates you oppose, don’t go there.

It is good to quote your opponents on their position, rather than only using your own words. You will need to put things in your own words but first quote your opponents so everyone can see you are not making this up. You should at least try to get their position right. This may be the most difficult part because you and your opponents see things so differently. But at least show you are trying.

It is good to focus on the most common argument that your opponents use. This is where the crossfire is focused. Whether it’s a strong or weak argument, your opponents have a favorite argument that is repeated over and over. It’s your task to take it apart and show how it is false or weak or non-persuasive.

The best response

It is best to assume the best of your opponents. You will garner good-will by assuming the best in others. For one thing it makes you look good. For another it is the right thing to do. Opportunities to speak will open up because of your gentlemanly or ladylike behavior.

It is best to quote your opponents liberally, being careful of their context. Go over something they have written and show in detail where it breaks down. Use their own words against them, without ignoring their context. That is a powerful and focused argument.

It is best to focus on the most persuasive argument your opponents have. Go after the best argument your opponents can muster and, if you can knock it down, your opponents will be permanently weakened if not defeated. Let there be a battle of your best against their best. That is the best way to settle an issue.

Seminar presentation

I’ll be a speaker this weekend at the Genesis Seminar in Bridgeville, Pa (near Pittsburgh). The keynote speaker is Dr. Andrew Steinmann of Concordia University, Chicago. The title of my presentation is History and Philosophy of the Science of Origins, in which I will try to organize a diversity of material in history, philosophy, science, and biblical studies.

I see a dialogue/dialectic between two opposites/extremes, represented by these two lists:

(a) Genealogy, generations, chronicle, narrative, diachrony, history, process, society, time

(b) Logic, principles, philosophy, theory, exact science, synchrony, structure, universe, space

Where does theology fit in this? Exegetical and historical theology fit with (a) and systematic theology fits with (b).

Where does biology fit in this? Platonic, Scholastic, scala naturae, fixed-species biology fits with (a) and Aristotle (not Aristotelian), developmental, adaptive, evolutionary biology with (b).

There is also a both-and (c) to go with this either-or of extremes:

(c) mean, moderate, combination, synthesis, duality, complementarity, space-time

In science (c) is the convergence of increasing precision, the duality of particle and wave, the synthesis of space and time.

Theologically (c) is the Old and New Testaments, Law and Gospel, direct and indirect creation, Word and Spirit, and the Trinity as a unity-of-duality.

Biologically (c) is a combination of process and structure, variation and permanence, bottom-up and top-down classifications.

The Bible is remarkably balanced version of (c).

Utility and evolution

Evolution is the ultimate theory of modern science because it’s all about utility.

Early modern scientists and philosophers of science dismissed formal and final causes in favor of material and efficient (i.e., mechanistic) causes. Galileo Galilei rejected final causes and endeavored to answer how things happened, not why. Francis Bacon spurned formal and final causes because they were “not beneficial.” René Descartes rejected formal and final cause explanations as barren and pointless. They were after utility, finding out how things worked, providing practical applications. Whatever didn’t contribute to that was discarded.

Modern science follows utility so much that is it not uncommon for scientists to deny that anything else exists. Formal and final causes are not merely useless, they are nonexistent precisely because modern science rejects them. A curious combination of forgetting the origins of modern science and becoming arrogant about the successes of modern science leads more people to dismiss anything outside modern science.

If modern science looks for utility and is only concerned about utility, then utility must be the engine of the universe. Evolution says essentially that. What works continues and what doesn’t work doesn’t continue. Fitness determines everything.

The circularity of the argument is so obvious it is amazing that anyone could fall for it but many have and continue to do so. “Nothing succeeds like success” and apologists for modern science have an abundance of examples to show its success. The fact that there are many failures gets lost in the fine print and publications that don’t happen. Who wants to read about failure? Yet failure is the key to modern science. The irony is great.

From history to nature

Over the centuries the various sciences have developed from a focus on history to a focus on nature, that is from a temporal or diachronic focus to a spatial or synchronic one. Saussure saw this in linguistics and reoriented it from a focus on historical language change to language as a system. Both have their place but historic study finds few natures, i.e., invariants, whereas the study of natures discovers many invariants.

For example, astronomy and physics in ancient times focused on cycles and the “harmony of the spheres” but in modern times focuses on a four dimensional continuum. Chemistry has developed from an alchemical focus on transmutation to a modern focus on the periodic table and compounds. Biology still focuses on temporality with its concentration on origins and history; to further develop it will need to focus on the nature of biological kinds. Geology has a similar focus on temporality so it will need to focus more on the nature of geological features.

Both History and Nature have been used by atheists as substitutes for God — in the 18th century Newton’s system was seen as Nature in control, then in the 19th & 20th centuries Darwin’s evolution was seen as History in control. So both approaches can be carried to extremes and will be by some.

Biology — whether evolutionary or creationary — needs to move from defining species or created kinds in terms of descent from original organisms to defining them in terms of their nature, e.g., as either having something in common (an essence) or a some type of interconnectivity (a topological definition).

Secular science

The word “secular” can mean simply non-religious but really means more than that; according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, secular means

“worldly, pertaining to a generation or age,” from Latin saecularis “of an age, occurring once in an age,” from saeculum “age, span of time, generation.”

The basic distinction is between matters that pertain to the age and world in which we live and those matters which are beyond it — life after death, unseen spiritual reality, etc.

Modern science has always focused on the secular in this sense, and abstained from investigating metaphysical and spiritual matters — but that should include “deep time,” too. By definition “deep time” refers to ages of time before this present age, this age of human life. No human being ever lived in deep time. Human experience does not include deep time. A scientific organization (or a government) cannot promote belief in deep time and remain secular.

Secular science should exclude everything that is not part of the age and world in which humanity lives. That means secular science must remain within recorded history, the period of time covered by written sources. This may be extended slightly by the study of artifacts for societies without writing.

Since scientific creationism stays within recorded history, it is more secular than any deep time theory.