iSoul In the beginning is reality

Tag Archives: Evolution

evolution as a general idea (e.g., Spencer) and as a particular theory (e.g., Darwin)

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.

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).

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.


A dual biology

Evolutionists argue that, in general, homologous (similar) structures or genes are evidence of common (joint) ancestry between the species. They also argue that vestigial (useless) features show common ancestry between the species and a similar species in which they are functional.

Critics of evolution can equally well argue that, in general, heterologous (dissimilar) structures or genes are evidence of disjoint ancestry between the species. They can also argue either that alleged vestigial features are in fact useful or that our lack of knowledge about their utility does not make them useless.

These two groups could go back and forth ad nauseum, or they could call an armistice and accept that in some cases one of them is right and in other cases the other is right. What would biology look like in that case? Biology would admit a dual explanatory regime.

What would this dual biology look like? It would look like a common classification problem to determine for each pair of objects whether they are in the same class or in different classes. The answer is not: all objects are in the same class. Nor is it: each object is in a different class. The correct classification is somewhere in between.

Why is this so difficult for biologists? Perhaps because there are so many organic species that a simplistic answer to their relationship is better than no answer. But in that case it would be best to have both groups compete for the best answer. Don’t give a monopoly to one group (i.e., the evolutionists) but encourage their critics to give a better answer. Ironically, that’s close to where biology was before evolutionists took over.

Unfortunately, the academic world doesn’t do well with competition. So academic science tends toward monopolistic science. The competition takes place outside the academy, in independent research institutes. That’s where the cutting edge of biology is.


The problem with “evolution”

The first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species published in 1859 did not contain the word evolution (though evolved was the last word). By the sixth edition the word evolution was used 15 times, yet it was not defined. Nor did he specify what he called “the great principle of evolution”. Alas, it is much the same today. One might say (in the manner of Mark Twain on the weather), “Everyone talks about evolution but no one defines it.”

Intelligent design proponents have noted several uses of the word evolution:

  1. Change over time — small-scale change in a population of organisms over time, often called “microevolution”.
  2. Universal common descent — the view that all organisms are related and are descended from a single common ancestor.
  3. Natural selection and random mutation as the main cause or mechanism of change during the history of life — the idea that an unguided process of natural selection acting upon random mutations is sufficient to produce the new forms of life that appear during that history as well as the appearance of design that living forms manifest.

Only definition #3 fits that of a scientific theory. Definition #2 has to do with the scope of a theory of evolution. Definition #1 is a very general and trivial statement, which is often used to make critics of evolution seem to oppose a truism.

Critics of evolution most commonly criticize the adequacy of definition #3. Definition #2 is actually the most deficient: it confuses a scientific theory with its scope.

Compare Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation. He did not claim that gravitation was by definition universal. Instead, he claimed that the scope of the law that he developed was universal. However, since the emergence of relativity and quantum mechanics, Newton’s law of gravitation is known to be limited. It is not universal.

Newton’s laws of motion are an example of what Werner Heisenberg calls a “closed theory.” While it was superseded, it is still valid within certain limits. An “open theory” is what he calls a theory whose limits are unknown.

In The Origin of Species Darwin proposed universal common descent by a general, basically philosophical, argument:

Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction. We see this even in so trifling a circumstance as that the same poison often similarly affects plants and animals; or that the poison secreted by the gall-fly produces monstrous growths on the wild rose or oak-tree. Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.

Natural selection was the only mechanism he proposed to explain universal common descent, as if it were sufficient. Darwin was indirect in asserting the connection between natural selection and universal common descent, all the better to avoid arguing directly for its sufficiency. But evolution as universal common descent is not established by any mechanisms. They are independent assertions and must be established independently.

Science progresses from open to closed theories in Heisenberg’s sense. Every mechanism has its limits, which eventually will be discovered, though the limits of each mechanism are rarely admitted by the scientific community. Meanwhile the search for more mechanisms goes on, and the search for alternative theories is derided.

Falsification or limitation?

Karl Popper made falsification the key to scientific legitimacy. But as others have pointed out, scientists do not spend much time trying to falsify theories. Instead, they work to confirm and extend theories. Moreover, an observation that goes against a theory doesn’t falsify the whole theory; it creates an anomaly that can be dealt with in various ways–for example, search for hidden factors, modify the theory slightly, or discount the observation.

It is only when a superior theory arises that explains anomalies and everything else an older theory explained that scientists take note. So there can be a period of instability as some people question the theory and others try to defend it. This has happened many times in the history of science, from the geocentric-heliocentric debate, to the origins debate of today.

What I’d like to suggest is that falsification shouldn’t be the motivation regarding a theory which has some evidence for it. The question should be: What are the limits to the theory? The fact is that all theories have their validity limits (as Fritz Rohrlich calls them). Why? Because theories assume simplifications of reality, construct isolated systems, and are based on limited data.

While scientists posit theories that are nominally universal, that scope is merely a default in place of the unknown limits that will be discovered later. Science is both optimistic that its theories cover a wide number of cases and open to findings of the limits of theories. Promoters of science seize on the optimistic part and downplay or ignore the limitation part.

In the 18th century enthusiastic Newtonians were very influential in making a clockwork universe the common mindset. Their mistake was taking the word “universal” in universal gravity literally as if Newton’s theory had no problems. In recent years promoters of universal common descent have been very influential in taking the word “universal” literally in evolution, even as the limits of natural selection (and other mechanisms of change) are becoming more known.

Science should search for the limits of every theory. That can be done by finding out the conditions under which it is false, or it breaks down, or works poorly. This sets the stage for a superior theory, that is, one with a larger extension. It also puts all theories on the same level: they all can have their uses but they are always limited.

Scientific theories are not falsified; they are limited, and their limits become known over time.


The creation paradigm

Creation is a fact. Creation is the oldest fact but creation as a paradigm is relatively new. Let me explain.

The word “paradigm” was used by Thomas Kuhn for “universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of practitioners.” I would characterize a paradigm as a theme or framework that relates a family of theories and a research agenda.

The ancient paradigm was Perfection. This included theories of circular movement since circles were considered perfect. It also included theories of stasis since change was considered imperfect.

The Perfection paradigm led to a world of static biological species that could not be improved on. This is where the Creation paradigm first arose: God created the perfect universe and it hasn’t really changed. So the Perfection paradigm at first incorporated a Creation paradigm.

Stasis was challenged by Copernicus since the earth moved in his theory. Perfection was further challenged by Kepler and especially Newton since ellipses and other non-circular movements were included.

The new paradigm that arose was the Mechanical paradigm. Theories under this paradigm had movements that fit mathematical curves and concepts such as force which had a mechanical analogue. Linear was in and circular was out.

But as the imperfection and changeability of species became known, a new paradigm arose called the Evolution paradigm, which was a paradigm of change and transformation over long periods of time. The extreme form of this paradigm makes change the operative principle–exactly the opposite of stasis.

Some have tried to fit the Creation paradigm under the Evolution paradigm but increasingly the Creation paradigm is seen as a paradigm in its own right. The key distinguishing features of the Creation paradigm are the existence of an original state of the universe, the presence of intelligent design in nature, and discontinuities that reflect the kinds of creation.

The Creation paradigm now incorporates change within limits. The existence of a fall or movement away from perfection is also recognized. The best aspects of the other paradigms can be incorporated into the Creation paradigm.

Science is not universal

When Isaac Newton published his Principia with its laws of motion, he asserted their universal application. Since he had unified motion on the surface of the earth with the motion of the solar system, it was a powerful argument. Nevertheless, to claim universal application excessively extrapolated and interpolated far beyond any data available at the time.

But you reply, That is how science works. Propose a theory and then test its limits. Precisely. So the limits are not known when a theory is proposed or even when it is confirmed. The limits of a theory are only known when it is superseded.

In the eighteenth century people believed Newton. The universe was believed to be a mechanical clock. Mechanistic thinking was very influential.

In the twentieth century Newton’s laws were superseded by quantum mechanics and relativity theory. Now the limits are known and Newton’s laws are not universal. Newton was wrong.

Should anyone ever have believed that Newton’s laws were universal? No. Accepting the universality of an unsuperseded theory takes science too literally. The universe is not a mechanism. The scope of even the best theories is less than universal.

Yet science operates with an optimistic methodology so the proposed scope of a theory is always beyond what the data allow. Only after a theory is tested is its actual scope eventually discovered.

Charles Darwin proposed a theory of biological evolution whose basic principle is descent with modification. That is, descendants of organisms may differ from their ancestors, so much so that new biological species develop. Such descendants are different in degree but not in kind, even if classified as separate species.

What is the scope of biological descent? As a scientist Darwin asserted that descent was universal. It is often supposed that evolution entails universal common descent, but that is a statement of its applicable scope, not of any scientific law.

While Darwin’s version of evolution has been modified, Neo-Darwinism is unsuperseded within the mainstream scientific community. Should people believe that the scope of evolution is universal? No, for the same reason that Newton’s claim of universality should never have been believed.

Certainly scientists act as though the scope of evolution is universal, but that is how science works: assume the greatest scope and search for limits. The mainstream scientific community has so far not found the limits. That is an expression of their ignorance, not of their knowledge.

The scope of common descent is the scope of the mechanisms for it. They are not two theories (contra NCSE). The result of the mechanisms such as natural selection is common descent. The extent of common descent is the extent of natural selection.

In the twentieth century people believed Darwin. The universe was believed to have completely evolved. Evolutionary thinking was very influential.

But philosophers, theologians, and others do know something about the limits to Darwin’s theory. An excellent case can be made that human beings are different in kind, not just in degree from other organisms. Mortimer J. Adler’s book The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes provides a philosophical argument. Others can point to scriptures, traditions, and evidence that support the same premise.

We do know there are limits to evolution, as there are to all mechanisms. We don’t know all of the limits, but we do know there exists at least one limit: human life cannot have evolved from non-human life. The science community should be searching for all the limits to evolution.

Science and terminology

Science is knowledge (scientia) that is systematically gained and/or organized. That entails that the terminology of science be systematic, i.e, a nomenclature rather than a hodgepodge of terms. This can make discussions about science hard since people have to learn a body of nomenclature before understanding a science. This applies to all sciences, whether natural sciences, social sciences, historical sciences, or subjects with some systematization such as systematic theology.

But a more pressing challenge for discussions of science is the use of words that have both technical and non-technical meanings. Within a science only the technical usage should apply but discussions of a science inevitably use some of the same words from general usage as well. So terms with a precise meaning within a science are used along with the same term with an imprecise or ambiguous meaning.

If this were a problem that applied only to minor terms that would be a minor problem but it is a problem with major terms and terms whose meaning is disputed. The result is that people who disagree are talking past one another, misunderstanding one another, and fail to communicate. This happens especially in cases of controversy or strong disagreement. What can be done about it?

One solution is to qualify terms so it is clear what meaning is intended. For example, instead of saying “evolution” specify “unguided evolution”, “guided evolution” or “theistic evolution”. Instead of saying “design” specify “intelligent design”, “intentional design” or “divine design”. Instead of saying “creation” specify “transcendent creation”, “special creation” or “intelligent creation”. These qualified terms should be defined but the presence of a qualifier alerts people to the more specific meaning intended.