Sunday, March 30, 2008

Macroevolution vs. Microevolution

Apologists for evolution frequently cite examples of microevolution to exemplify their major paradigm of “descent with modification from a common ancestor.” Microevolution involves small scale changes within a species. Let’s give two examples. Recently I read an article on “evolutionary” research by a scientist at Max Planck Institute. His research was “laboratory evolution” of M. Xanthus bacteria. Researchers provoked the bacteria into interesting behavioral changes. Later they reversed the changes. Generously salted into the report was the term evolution for the changes in both directions.

One of my former students once inquired, “What about Darwin’s finches?” He expected me to confirm an evolutionary scenario. To his surprise, I replied, “Yes, but they’re still finches!” Recently I challenged an evolutionary scientist, asking, “When has a new species actually appeared in historic time and under what circumstances has such a phenomenon been duplicated?” His answer: “There are many examples of ‘observing’ speciation, which, because of generation times, can only occur in organisms with very fast generation times.” My research revealed that he was referring to populations of organisms greater than a quadrillion and smaller in size than one centimeter. This would include microbes like M. Xanthus bacteria. In that experiment the researchers observed one thousand generations. He suggested we know speciation occurs “via inference from the fossil record,” and directed me to Richard Dawkins’ books.

Macroevolution, by contrast, is the production of a new species from previously existing species. The same scientist who recommended reading Dawkins’ books suggested I consider purported whale speciation from four-footed herbivores. This is an unproven, notoriously bad example of speciation, especially in view of his previous mention of fast generation times, a reference to tiny microbes. Real macroevolution, he said, is supported by inference. There is no solid evidence that it occurs, or ever occurred. Microevolution, however, is acknowledged to occur even by creationists. It is a type of adaptation which favors survivability but does not produce a new species. Darwin’s finches and M. Xanthus bacteria are still finches and bacteria at the end of the day. Adaptive ability can be seen as an advantage programmed by the Creator. In light of unproven and unobserved macroevolution, we may view scripture as more than mere majestic literature containing figurative language when it proclaims, “God made the wild animals according to their kinds” (Gen. 1:25 NIV).

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Establishment of Religion?

Imagine the following as part of a discussion taking place in a public school biology class: “Each of the eleven major human body systems is so incredibly complex, efficient, functional, and seamlessly integrated with the ten other major systems, that the option of design by an intelligent agent cannot be ruled out.” Government jurists would rule (and have ruled) that permitting such discussions would be an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Any similar proposal with the faintest hint of a religious overtone would be excluded because naturalism is the only permissible investigative option in the science community. The concepts of design and supernatural cause and effect may not be involved in any challenge to naturalist proposals of evolution within our public school walls.

Now we may ask, "Could religion, or religions, be enlisted to support the teaching of evolution by an agency receiving federal funds?" The answer is a surprising "Yes." The NCSE (National Center for Science Education) receives funding from the NSF (National Science Foundation), which, in turn, is an agency funded by the federal government to the tune of $6.06 billion. The NSF supports basic scientific research. It has given $450,000 to NCSE to support a website called “Understanding Evolution.” Its purpose is to instruct teachers about how to teach evolution. The website lists seventeen major church denominations and religious organizations that endorse evolution. It encourages teachers to tell their students that “most religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution.” Religious beliefs, therefore, MAY NOT be used to question evolution, but MAY be cited in support of evolution. More astonishing, government money may be used to support the campaign.

A lawsuit to prevent such use of government funds was dismissed by controversial San Francisco federal judge Phyllis J. Hamilton in 2006, on the grounds that the internet is an Establishment-Clause-Free-Zone. In theory, therefore, the government could promote any sort of religion on the internet. The case is still in the legal pipeline. This amounts to government endorsement of particular religions - those endorsing evolution! What an irony that NCSE executive director Eugenie Scott, a self-proclaimed secular humanist and non-theist, counsels teachers to have students read statements by theologians and interview ministers!

The issue of evolution stretches beyond the scientific realm into cultural, political, and theological territory. The Christian must be thoroughly familiar with these implications, for they are among the most vital issues of our day.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Power of Endorsement

Belief in evolution is strengthened by support from religious authorities, ranging from two recent Roman Catholic popes to an array of mainline protestant clergy. In a culture where celebrities endorse commercial products and presidential candidates, we may wonder whether endorsements of a controversial theory like evolution by religious figures are effective. Discussions on this topic may rival the intensity of political exchanges.

Pope Pius XII, in his 1950 Humani Generis encyclical, stated, “The Teaching Authority of the church does not forbid that…research and discussion…take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution.” He added a clear caveat, however, saying, “The Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.” Pope John Paul II went much farther in 1996, addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, stating, “The theory of evolution is much more than a hypothesis.” He cited its progressive acceptance by researchers following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The pope said such convergence “is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory,” but reiterated the fact that “the spiritual soul is immediately created by God.”

Why did Pope John Paul II encourage the faithful to accept the theory of evolution? Because the community of science professionals had accepted it. What had they accepted, we may ask? The pope continued: “A theory is a metascientific elaboration distinct from the results of observation but consistent with them. By means of it a series of independent data and facts can be related and interpreted in a unified explanation.” He went on to say that verification and testing of the theory continues. Pope John Paul II spoke of a “spiritual soul” to set man uniquely apart, but believed man’s physical body evolved from lower life forms.

Catholics, therefore, have two levels of support for belief in molecules to man evolution: (1) The pope’s reminder that secular scientists have accepted the “metascientific elaboration” known as the theory of evolution; and (2) His sanction of the theory. These support structures should not prevent the thinking Christian from a critical scriptural and scientific truth search concerning the origin of earth’s remarkable life forms, especially man in the Image of God.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Implications of NOMA

Several years ago I initiated written communication with two well-known evolutionary scientists. Much of the discussion centered on the interaction of science and religion. I cannot report that minds were changed. It was, however, a useful and respectful exchange. At the end, we all gave each other permission to share the conversation with friends and colleagues, a most encouraging development.

We have previously spoken about Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA principle—that science and religion are separate domains and should not overlap. Evolutionary scientists guard their domain with intense jealousy lest their paradigm be eroded by the intrusion of religion. Theistic explanations undermine their belief that naturalism explains everything. Though evolutionists might acknowledge that some scientists have deep religious beliefs, a science scholar’s paper presenting evidence for theism would certainly be refused by an academic journal. This is partly because evolutionary biology academia is heavily atheistic and agnostic. Even scientists with deep religious beliefs practice their science with an overlay of methodological naturalism (9-29-07 post).

Let’s paraphrase a few points of objection made by my friends: (1) We just explain our ignorance when we inject religion; (2) Religion should not be part of scientific inquiry; (3) We should respect scientists’ right to pursue secular aspects of research; (4) Science is not charged with application of a religious doctrine; (5) Religionists may attempt to explain anything with the supernatural; (6) Intelligent design represents a dead end in a science class; (7) We don’t want to come to the science room for religious enlightenment; (8) Neither religion nor science needs validation from the other; (9) Mixing the domains insults both and works to the detriment of both; and (10) Science is not science anymore when it goes beyond the “natural.”

Thorough analysis of each of these objections demands far more time and space than we have. Some objections possess elements of truth. I submit, however, that most border on emotional, psychological appeals having little relevance to the issue of truth discovery. When “inference to the best explanation” points toward an interpretation which may run counter to modern science ideology, the science community should acknowledge that “thinking outside the box” may offer a more fruitful account of reality. In the historical sciences, few, if any, complex issues are proven beyond any doubt. Sometimes painstaking attempts at naturalistic explanations lead to a dead end. When such dead ends occur, science professionals in the future may be willing to investigate all options to explain reality. On rare occasions this may include theistic supernatural options.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The NOMA Principle

Stephen Jay Gould, the self proclaimed agnostic who helped construct many support pillars of modern evolutionary science until his death in 2002, is famous for articulating the NOMA principle. This is an acronym for “non-overlapping magisteria.” It means science and religion are distinct and separate domains (schools of knowledge). One should not impinge on the other. Science should not influence religious beliefs, and religious beliefs should not influence science. Gould’s principle does not advocate antagonism toward religious views. It merely states that scientific and religious views should be quarantined from each other.

Someone may offer, for example, a suggestion that the cell’s complexity and function points to “design” as an explanatory option. That idea must not even be granted a hearing in the context of the science lab. Why? Because the domain of science has been, by acclamation of science professionals, restricted only to natural cause and effect. Any supernatural option is seen as religion and must be viewed as an “illegal border crossing.” Scientists are obligated to continue their study of naturalistic processes forever. They may self-congratulate and claim they are finding out more and more about how things work, and indeed, they are. Their knowledge gain, however, merely substitutes for “inference to the best explanation.” Perpetual knowledge gain is not an answer for some of the recurring deeper questions. When we look at the information-laden complexity and function of bio-systems and the many examples of fine tuning in the physical cosmos which makes life possible, we sense, intuitively, that there is something deeper than naturalism to account for it.

Science and theology had a mutually supportive relationship several centuries ago. Early theistic scientists were not God-of-the-gaps theorists at every turn. Their concept of God inspired and motivated them in their discovery process. In contrast, modern scientists have locked themselves into NOMA’s philosophical box. Some naturalistic scientists like Stephen Jay Gould have attempted to claim the high ground of public opinion by appearing supportive of the domain of religion. Others are openly antagonistic. NOMA has become a clever catchword designed to preserve the naturalistic purity of modern science.

Stephen Jay Gould’s 1997 essay in Natural History codified the NOMA principle, establishing today’s “rules of the game” for the operation of science. While these rules have helped maintain objectivity in the process of science, they may shield us from a hidden agenda. Gould dedicated the essay to astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan, saying, “Carl also shared my personal suspicion about the nonexistence of souls.” Denial of the existence of the human soul should be of utmost concern to the Christian. It is crucial to our concept of man created in the image of God.

Monday, March 10, 2008

God-of-the-Gaps Reasoning

Evolutionists frequently criticize those who believe in supernatural interventions in our natural world for subscribing to the God-of-the-gaps position. Theists are accused of crediting God with a miracle whenever we can’t explain the natural causation for some phenomenon. Evolutionists rest in the confident assurance that eventually all questions will have a naturalistic explanation. They claim we just haven’t had enough time to figure things out. They say, for example, “We haven’t found enough fossils. But when we do, the mysteries will be solved.”

In my discussions with both naturalistic and theistic evolutionists, this God-of-the-gaps accusation has been made many times. In 2005 I had a lengthy exchange with a well-known professor of ecology and evolutionary science at a Midwestern university. He said, “Science…does not revert to supernatural explanations of the unknown. Rather, it prefers to wait for tomorrow’s research discoveries to turn more bits of unknown to the known.” He went on to expand the idea that scientists should NEVER give up seeking naturalistic explanations for nature’s phenomena. It’s a theme I’ve heard over and over.

Theologian Ken Samples recently made the following points in his article in Connections entitled “God-of-the-gaps…or Best Explanation?” Let’s review the highlights of his argument. Since only physical and material explanations are allowable in science, the supernatural is ruled out a priori. The future will explain all reality. This is called the argumentum ad futuris fallacy (accept this because future evidence will support it). Samples says, “Ironically it might even be called ‘naturalism-of-the-gaps’ reasoning.”

Samples states that “most sophisticated Christian theists don’t engage in a God-of-the-gaps form of reasoning. Rather, Christian scholars appeal to God as an inference to the best explanation… The abductive form of thinking yields only probable truth.” We’ve discussed abductive reasoning in the last few posts, pointing out its importance as both a starting and ending point in scientific discovery. If naturalistic scientists exclude abductive reasoning whenever theistic options are offered, they may also be rejecting the possibility of truth discovery. Some theistic scientists are currently developing scientific models which leave open the possibility of theistic explanations. It is a new approach, going beyond merely pointing out weaknesses in evolutionary theory.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Job's Epiphany

Among the many scriptural creation passages other than Genesis 1-2, the Old Testament book of Job contains a majestic epiphany expressing profound perception, sensitivity, and appreciation for the manifestation of the Creator’s power in the natural world. This is some of the finest literature anywhere, sacred or secular. The book is filled with creation references along with a narrative containing counsel from three “friends” following the tragedy which befell Job. Chapters 36-41 contain instruction from Elihu, and finally, from God Himself on the awesome beauty of nature and its creatures. As we read, we alternately marvel, laugh, and even fear as meteorological, astronomical, and biological events are reviewed.

If The Weather Channel’s “Storm Stories” fascinates you, you would also enjoy Elihu’s descriptions of mighty downpours, flashing lightning, God’s voice expressed in thunder, falling snow, ice production, frost, broad frozen waters, driving winds, heat waves, and swirling clouds, not to mention evaporation and abundant showers resulting in the production of plentiful food. Animals take cover, presaging storms. After the storm comes the bright sun, revealed after the wind sweeps away the clouds. Poetic astronomical references to the binding of the beautiful star group Pleiades and the loosing of the cords of Orion signal an understanding of gravitational attraction among heavenly bodies.

Animal Planet fans would be in their element with the prophet’s descriptions of a lioness hunting prey, mountain goats and deer birthing their young, escaped wild donkeys ignoring men’s instructions, and an untrustworthy, untamed wild ox throwing off a harness. We could laugh at the joyful wing-flapping of the ostrich who stupidly leaves her eggs to warm in the sand, treats her young harshly, but then laughs at the horse and rider because she runs so swiftly. Space prevents us from describing the antics and adventures of hawks, eagles, storks, and ravens.

Even the late risk-taking naturalist Steve Irwin would have found he was overmatched by the behemoth and leviathan. In Job 40-41, the Lord Himself challenges Job with fearsome descriptions of the beasts He created (probably the hippopotamus and crocodile). We need not tackle wild beasts in the manner of wildlife naturalists on The Discovery Channel to conclude that “inference to the best explanation” is expressed in Job's concluding statement to the Lord: "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you (Job 42:5).

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Abductive Reasoning

Evolution's explanation for life on earth is said to be "good science." Is this pronouncement sufficient to establish the truth of the tenets of evolution, we may ask? Scientists have discussed the effectiveness of various methods of science discovery for several centuries. They also discuss, and often disagree, on how to interpret their data and the results of their experiments. This is a healthy process because it enables them to correct errors. The self-correcting nature of the process of science is one of its many strengths. Books on science philosophy would fill all the shelves in my library, and many more.

If you look for descriptions of "scientific method" you will almost certainly find one, two, or all three of these terms: induction, deduction, and abduction. Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914), giant of American philosophers, placed induction and deduction into a complementary relationship as cornerstone methods of science discovery. Then he added "abduction" to the mix. This three-fold blend is a foundation of modern science, but not many non-scientists know how these terms apply to today's science.

Let's discuss a few things science philosophers write about. Abductive reasoning is "an inference to the best explanation." We observe natural phenomena, collect evidence, study facts, and organize data. Then we propose the most plausible explanation for what we see. In Peirce's three-pronged method of scientific inquiry, abduction is not the concluding activity, but rather a starting point, an initial conjecture about what is going on. This conjecture originates in the mind of the scientist, perhaps a result of his past experience, and then guides the inductive/deductive activities to follow. Therefore, the scientist's mindset or bias may drive the way he approaches and proceeds with his work, as well as the conclusions he draws.

Supporters of the concept of evolution look at the fossil record and "see" evolution. Thereafter, their research is often selectively reported and interpreted in order to support their initial concept. Charles Peirce coined the term "fallibilism," the idea that the conclusions of science are always tentative and subject to revision. In view of the self-correcting nature of science, the discovery of contradictory evidence, or in some evolutionary biology cases, lack of evidence, does not seem to tilt evolutionists away from their staunchly held views. We've spoken about fossil evidence that displays the sudden onset of many new forms without intermediate transitionals. By applying abductive reasoning at the end of the evidence-gathering process, we may rationally infer that transcendent creation events may trump evolution as the best explanation for what we observe in the fossil history of earth life.