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)

Change and stability

Evolution or alteration means change over time. Sameness over time is called permanence or stability. The study of change or the lack of change over time is called history or diachrony.

Change happens. But sameness happens, too. One easily sees that sameness happens in the natural realm much more than change. That is not the result of chance but of law, which is why natural science is able to articulate laws and predict the future. The natural future is like the natural past.

Some changes are unpredictable individually but have predictable distributions or aggregates. Many sciences from statistical mechanics to quantum mechanics to genetics are stochastic in nature.

Similar to the coastline paradox, the amount of change depends on the length of the “ruler” used to measure change. If it is a small ruler, one measures minutiae, and more changes will be found. If it is a large ruler, one measures key features, and fewer changes will be found.

The conceit of evolutionary biology is that very low rates of unpredictable change over very long periods of time can result in all the biological diversity of today. It is an appeal to the imagination more than an appeal to knowledge. Without imagination, the argument becomes an assertion of mere possibility, rather than plausibility, probability, or necessity.

But if very low rates of unpredictable change can determine what happens, how much more can very high rates of predictable stability. One does not need to appeal to the imagination to see that stability is the rule, and exceptions only prove the rule.

Organisms are similar in some respects but not in other respects. If one focuses on minutiae, there are many differences. It is part of the conceit of evolutionary biology to overstate the importance of minor differences such as color and understate the importance of major differences such as body plan.

One might hope that biologists would be working toward finding the optimum characteristics to measure biological change. Alas, they are determined to find the smallest ruler and overstate change as much as possible.

I predict that a more mature biology will seek the optimum measure of change, and will accept that some characteristics are permanent features of a body type.

Evolution for everyone

The word evolution is related to the terms evolve and evolute, and originally meant an unrolling. It acquired a sense of development in the 19th century and was associated with progress, especially as promoted by Herbert Spencer. Charles Darwin used it in print only once since his theory was not a theory of progress. “But Victorian belief in progress prevailed (and the advantages of brevity), and Herbert Spencer and other biologists after Darwin popularized evolution.” (source)

Today the basic meaning of the word evolution is change over time. That is, evolution refers to a process that changes one form into another form over time; in short, transmutation. There are various proposed means or mechanisms of evolution but they are all asserted to produce change over time.

Thus the concept of evolution is the opposite of the idea that forms do not change over time. What makes it complex is that some forms may change over time but not others. But no one today seriously alleges that there is no significant change over time. In that sense, we are all evolutionists.

Then we need terms to distinguish the different kinds of evolutionary concepts. One could simply attach the names of their originators, but their concepts are modified over time so additional terms would be required. We need simple terms to designate the main types of evolution. Three-letter acronyms would help, too.

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Variationism vs. progressivism

Broadly speaking, there are two different paradigms concerning the history of the material world. One paradigm is that the material world has always been roughly the same as it is now. An ancient version of this said everything would eventually return to the same state. This cyclic version is rare now. What became more common is the idea that things change within limits. Call this variationism, because it says that everything is a variation of what came before.

The other paradigm is that the material world was very different from what it is now; whether that is seen as better before or better now. The idea of a former golden age was common in ancient times but has almost disappeared. The more common idea is that the world was once primitive and has become complex, which is seen as better. Call this progressivism, because it says that everything progressed from something different to what it is now.

There are metaphysical and theological implications of these two paradigms. Aristotle said that the world is eternal since an origin couldn’t be determined. That is compatible with variationism since an eternal world must always be a variation on what it was in the past. Many today would say there are eternal laws of nature that have operated on the natural world over time to generate the world of today. That is compatible with progressivism since it says everything is always progressing to something different.

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Wasmann on biology and evolution

From Modern Biology and the Theory of Evolution by Erich Wasmann, S.J.

Translated from the Third German Edition by A. M. Buchanan, M.A. London, 1910

Excerpts from Chapter IX, Thoughts on Evolution (with most footnotes omitted)

Note: creatio e nihilo means ‘creation from nothing,’ a slight variation on creatio ex nihilo, ‘creation out of nothing’.

p.256

2. THE VARIOUS MEANINGS OF THE WORD ‘DARWINISM’

For over forty years a conflict has been raging in the intellectual world, which both sides have maintained with great vehemence and energy. The war-cry on one side is ‘Evolution of Species,’ on the other ‘Permanence of Species.’ No one could fail to be reminded of that other great intellectual warfare regarding the Ptolemaic and the Copernican systems, which began about three hundred and fifty years ago, and raged with varying success for over a century, until finally the latter prevailed. Perhaps the present conflict between the theories of evolution and permanence only marks a fresh stage in that great strife, and, if so, how will it finally be decided?

The contest that we have to consider was stirred up by Charles Darwin, when he published his book on the ‘Origin of Species’ about the middle of last century. The theories advanced by Lamarck and Geoffroy St. Hilaire at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries may be regarded as causing preliminary skirmishes, but Cuvier’s powerful attacks soon succeeded in overthrowing the new ideas of evolution (see p. 28). It was not until the year 1859 that the great battle began, which has received its name from the commander-in-chief of the attacking army, Charles Darwin. The warfare with which we are now concerned centres round Darwinism, so-called.

I say, so-called Darwinism. A few words of explanation are absolutely necessary. The thick smoke of the powder, which hid the battlefield from our gaze, is gradually dispersing,

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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:

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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.

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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.