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)

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.

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.

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.