Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Startling Claim

The latest BioLogos book project publication The Language of Science and Faith (2011) makes a startling claim. Authors Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins assert, “There has been no scientific discovery--not one--which has suggested that evolution is not the best explanation for the origin of species.”

We may comprehend this declaration only if we understand that science, as defined by the contemporary professional science community, investigates only naturalistic phenomena. Consequently, scientists may only reach a naturalistic conclusion with respect to any subject under investigation. The claim by Giberson and Collins, therefore, has constricted truth value and applies to a limited scope of reality. Many people do not understand this self-imposed restriction under which scientists work: the possibility that supernatural creation events occurred along earth’s historical timeline cannot even be considered, notwithstanding the strong evidence in its favor and weaknesses in the case for evolution.

Craig Rusbult, Editor of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) website for Whole Person Science Education, has written on these issues with insight and passion. He writes, “If design was involved in the origin of a feature but we ignore this possibility (by refusing to consider the evidence for design), a false conclusion is unavoidable.” Rusbult has clearly stated his view that on rare occasions scientists using “open science” would be willing to consider an explanation which does not force them to a naturalistic conclusion. He further explains that in “closed science” the opening assumption in any investigation is that all phenomena in the natural world are and have been natural occurrences. By this standard the science profession practices “closed science.”

Evolutionists pronounce proposals of creation and design “unscientific” for the reasons given above. For many laypersons, this statement has traction. Who would not want to be riding the bandwagon of science in this modern culture? In reality, the creationist conclusion is supported by well established methods of science discovery. Arguably, evidence for evolution is sometimes poorly explained by the “plurality of processes and patterns” swirling through the evolutionary research literature like a winter blizzard.

Some confusion in the public mind relates to the sort of “scientific” evidence offered to support evolution. Much modern science is called “operations science,” which discovers and applies physical processes taking place today. The confidence exuded by evolutionists is not grounded in the findings of operations science. Studies of topics such as evolution, the age of the earth, and distant geologic processes which molded Planet Earth, are more generally included within historical science. The methods of discovery are not identical to operations science. Historical science attempts to determine ancient conditions, events, and causes, and endeavors to explain present conditions by citing past causes for conditions existing today.

Nineteenth century historians William Whewell (1794-1866) and Charles Peirce (1839-1914) also suggested that we may discover ancient events and conditions by using clues and facts from the present. We “calculate backwards” from “manifest effects” in the present, enabling us to describe and explain past events. Peirce was a pioneer in describing “abductive reasoning,” particularly useful in the study of historical sciences. Abductive reasoning is defined as “inference to the best explanation.” Abductive reasoning often enables us to explain the cause of the phenomenon under investigation. Further, scientists desire to explain the observed phenomenon in the best possible way, ideally narrowing down the explanation to a single cause from several competing hypotheses.

Does evidence from the historical sciences, such as the repeated, explosive diversification of life forms, prove creation? Or does the fossil record of change over time prove evolution? Even though I come down firmly on the side of special, divine creation events, we recognize this discussion is woefully inadequate considering the complexity of the evidence. Thousands of authors have weighed in. Most non-scientists know little about the issues. The volume of literature is overwhelming and potentially confusing. Some authors write from a secular perspective. Others write from a Christian perspective. Scripture encourages us to “Test everything. Hold onto the good.” (I Thes. NIV) Standing apart from these scientific proposals are creation narratives of the scripture text, beginning with Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

No Debate Allowed

One popular method of elevating the case for evolution and diminishing the case for creationism/ID is to deny any debate exists or to deny there are even grounds for a debate. This method comes from some of the same ideologically mindlocked cheerleaders for evolution who sling epithets such as IDiots at the advocates of intelligent design. The blogosphere is plentifully populated with this sort of enthusiast. This public harangue is effective among many evolution supporters. Increasingly, however, they are being exposed as merely implementing damage control. The phenomenon reminds us of advice supposedly given to a preacher whose wife was asked to proofread his sermon. Next to one paragraph, she wrote, “Weak point--Shout loud.”

Is there warrant for debate over the truth of evolution? Yes, there is. With increasing frequency, even some evolutionary scientists are raising questions about long-held evolutionary beliefs. In an interesting interaction between Steve Newton, Programs and Policy Director for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and Casey Luskin, staff member at Discovery Institute, these issues were highlighted. Luskin quotes Eugene V. Koonin: ...The modern synthesis of evolution “has crumbled, apparently, beyond repair.” Lesser known biologist Gunter Thiessen states, “It is dangerous to raise attention to the fact that there is no satisfying explanation for macroevolution.” Science philosopher John Dupré says, “The evolutionary debates with creationists have also undoubtedly tended to discourage admission that major conceptual issues about evolution remain unresolved.” Nonetheless, evolutionists are intensely loyal to the creed set forth decades ago by evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Topics such as horizontal gene transfer (HGT), evo-devo, and gene expression do not help make clear to the public the simple idea that we are supposedly descended from a single-celled ancestor. These and many other complex topics are always presented as mechanisms of evolution in the available reams of literature. Newer proposals that the straightforward concept of evolution is now, instead, “The plurality of processes and patterns,” do not make evolution easier to explain or defend. The debunked ideas of gradualism and transitional species, and questions about the validity of idealized trees of life (TOL) adorning our biology textbooks, are the new elephants in the room. Perhaps the largest elephant in the room is the obvious fixity of species existing between the so far poorly explained sudden appearances of major biological transitions and new life forms.

Evolutionary biologists are uncomfortable when questions are raised by creationists and believers in ID. They publicly intone that, “There is no debate over evolution among scientists,” and that creationist and ID proposals are simply “bad science.” Among themselves, however, evolutionary scientists continually debate the hypothetical mechanisms of evolution. Legitimate science questions are publicly cast aside as having a social, political, or religious agenda. Good practitioners of science welcome robust debate on scientific questions. Evolution should be questioned on its scientific merits. The claim that there is no debate is a false claim made by naturalistic and theistic evolutionists alike.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Biology's Big Bangs

A well known sports announcer frequently punctuates his NBA basketball broadcasts with the exclamatory “Bang!” Mike Breen repeats this amusing figure of speech to report a successful shot from “beyond the arc,” taken from a minimum distance of 22 ft to 23 ft 9 in. A basket from there scores three points for the team. “Bang!” highlights the drama of the event and the sudden change it sometimes produces in the game’s direction. This exciting shot contrasts with “free throws” which are worth only one point and result in a slow change of score.

The “Bang” sports metaphor is reminiscent of the “Big Bang,” theorized to be the Genesis 1:1 initial universal creation event bringing forth the existence of time, space, matter, and energy. In 2007 Eugene V. Koonin, Senior Investigator for the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) wrote a peer reviewed article in Biology Direct entitled “The Biological Big Bang model for the major transitions in evolution.”

Koonin’s thesis poses an analogy “to the scenario of the origin of universes in the eternal inflation version of modern cosmology.” The term inflation in this context refers to the theorized “exponential expansion” in the earliest moments of our universe’s existence, and explains certain characteristics of our presently still-expanding universe as it has unfolded since that initial moment.

In the scope of the non-scientist’s inquiry into the truth of evolution, these esoteric issues are obscured in a blizzard of propaganda, such as, “Get on board with science!” Most laymen have no idea what that emotionally charged imperative means, because many origins issues are concealed within a philosophical smokescreen. That same smokescreen hides much embarrassing data about the history of life on earth--data which deflect us from the evolutionary model and tilt us instead toward belief in a supernatural creation model.

Dr. Koonin’s article is a candid admission of a startling historical phenomenon--a prickly problem evolutionists prefer did not exist. Major changes in earth life did not occur gradually; they occurred suddenly with no intermediate forms. This is a hallmark of the entire fossil record of past life on this earth--not a characteristic of theorized evolutionary sequences but rather, a predicted consequence of creation events. It is an unparalleled mystery from the standpoint of evolutionary theory. Quoted below is Koonin’s introductory paragraph:

Background: Major transitions in biological evolution show the same pattern of sudden emergence of diverse forms at a new level of complexity. The relationships between major groups within an emergent new class of biological entities are hard to decipher and do not seem to fit the tree pattern that, following Darwin’s original proposal, remains the dominant description of biological evolution. The cases in point include the origin of complex RNA molecules and protein folds; major groups of viruses; archaea and bacteria, and the principal lineages within each of these prokaryotic domains; eukaryotic supergroups; and animal phyla. In each of these pivotal nexuses in life’s history, the principal “types” seem to appear rapidly and fully equipped with the signature features of the respective new level of biological organization. No intermediate “grades” or intermediate forms between different types are detectable…”

How did the scientific community receive this startling confirmation of data long recognized but not much discussed in the evolutionary context? That depends on the individual worldview of members of that community. Fazale Rana from Reasons to Believe and Paul Nelson on Michael Behe’s Uncommon Descent blog, among others, highlighted Koonin’s article from a creationist perspective. The evolutionary community reacted with stunned disbelief, exemplified by self-described “skeptical biochemist” Lawrence A. Moran in his Sandwalk blog. Committed evolutionists have little trouble adhering to their paradigm.

Is Eugene V. Koonin a closet creationist? No, he is not. He is a committed evolutionist as are almost all in the field of bioscience. Edward O. Wilson, Harvard biologist, has stated, “People would rather believe than know.” Wilson’s statement makes an interesting study as we remember that the root meaning of science is knowledge. Readers are encouraged to make a deeper study of the precepts of belief, knowledge, and truth and how they relate to each other in terms of our core beliefs about reality, including creation events and earth history.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Family Secrets

Children sometimes reveal sensitive family secrets, to the consternation of their parents. Seasoned professional scientists also sometimes reveal information to the public which may be regarded as “inside knowledge,” tantamount to a family secret. Stephen J. Gould (1941-2002) surprised the scientific world with frequent, candid admissions of an unexpected mystery in evolutionary theory. Gould was a prolific popular science writer and commentator. He was a fascinating figure with broad knowledge, including sports and music. But he is best known for his views on biological evolution and revealing to the public a profound evolutionary anomaly.

Several decades ago Gould, with colleague Niles Eldredge, disclosed that the fossil record of earth life reveals exceedingly long periods of changelessness (stasis), followed by the sudden appearance of new species, with no intervening transitional forms. Gradualism does not characterize the fossil record. Darwin had also noticed this pattern and feared his theory would be undermined without gradualism. Today’s evolutionists are forced to hypothesize creatively regarding this phenomenon. Gould and Eldredge termed it “punctuated equilibrium.” Some evolutionists have described PE as “not a well developed theory.” Divergent explanatory theories abound.

Gould was an evolutionist who subscribed to Darwinian views of changes in life forms resulting from mutation, natural selection, and plenty of time. Nevertheless, he chose to highlight PE. This “fits and starts” phenomenon has significant implications as we judge the degree of certainty ascribed to the evolutionary process. It is vital that truth seekers acquire a clear vision of what the record of the rocks demonstrates. To that end, following are a few quotes from Stephen J. Gould:

Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they disappear.

In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and “fully formed.”

The Burgess Shale teaches us that, for the history of basic anatomical designs, almost everything happened in the geological moment just before, and almost nothing in more than 500 million years since.

Every paleontologist knows that most species don’t change. That’s bothersome…brings terrible distress…They may get a little bigger or bumpier. But they remain the same species and that’s not due to imperfection and gaps but stasis.

The absence of fossil evidence for intermediary stages between major transitions in organic design, indeed our inability, even in our imagination, to construct functional intermediates in many cases, has been a persistent and nagging problem for gradualistic accounts of evolution.

All paleontologists know that the fossil record contains precious little in the way of intermediate forms; transitions between the major groups are characteristically abrupt.

The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils. Yet Darwin was so wedded to gradualism that he wagered his entire theory on a denial of this literal record.

Darwin’s argument still persists as the favored escape of most paleontologists from the embarrassment of a record that seems to show so little of evolution.

Stephen J. Gould never abandoned his faith in Darwinian evolution even though the consistent pattern of stasis followed by sudden change is repeatedly manifest as a defining signature in the fossil record. Many evolutionists have stated their preference for a gradualistic scenario, but must devote their energies to producing imaginative hypotheses to account for the surprising anomaly. Faced with the plausibility of recognizing creation events as a causally adequate explanation they are ruled instead by their unwavering commitment to naturalism.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Evolution Inference

Belief in evolution is supported by a well established reliance on inference. Without the power of inference, the discipline of science and many other human inquiries would skid to a halt. The definition of inference ranges from drawing fairly certain conclusions based on deductive and inductive reasoning to drawing conclusions based on evidence which merely produces some degree of probability. The degree of certainty is variable.

In origins studies it is widely agreed that life forms have changed over earth’s long history. This change is observed in the fossil succession and the change is termed evolution. In this sense, and in this sense only, evolution is a fact. Evolutionists attribute the changes entirely to naturalistic causes. How the mechanisms of naturalistic evolution work has been in considerable dispute, even among naturalistic evolutionists. Whether the mechanisms of evolution (mechanisms of change) result from natural or supernatural processes is, of course, the subject of even more heated disputes between naturalists and theistic creationists.

Old earth creationists do not deny that many changes in life forms have occurred from the earliest one-celled bacterial life (prokaryotes) to the present multiplicity of life forms, encompassing all complex, multi-cellular creatures, mankind included. A surprising, under-reported fact is that numerous abrupt changes in the fossil sequence occur after lengthy periods of stasis--no change. Gradual changes are not in evidence. Evolutionists and creationists alike see the same abrupt changes: there are virtually no transitional forms in the fossil record. Evolutionists infer a naturalistic process; creationists infer supernatural creation events.

Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), popular and influential evolutionist, incurred the wrath of fellow evolutionists beginning in the 1970s by stating the surprising reality of this step-like, “fits and starts” progression of the fossil record repeatedly and explicitly. He wrote, “The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology.”

How does the evolutionary science community deal with this “trade secret?” They dismiss it as unproblematic. Gould and Niles Eldredge in 1972 proposed “punctuated equilibrium” as a descriptive term with respect to the apparent “fits and starts” character of progressive changes in the record of the rocks. But the descriptive value of punctuated equilibrium far exceeds its explanatory value. Most people who choose to believe in evolution also choose to infer that the fundamental processes of mutation and natural selection driving small changes (microevolution) in isolated populations eventually result in the production of a new species (macroevolution). Essentially, they agree with Darwin who argued that small amounts of change over a short time could produce large amounts of change over a long time.

Theistic and naturalistic evolutionists examine the fossil record and infer that the entire array of earth life was brought forth in an undirected, naturalistic process. The tree of life has one trunk, they claim; all species are related; the common origin of all earth life is inferred. At present, the commonality of DNA sequences of genomes across species causes them to infer the evolutionary relationship of all earth life. Genome similarity is the modern basis for the evolution inference.

Genome similarity is far from proof that evolution has occurred. Exciting research in this field is ongoing. Evolutionists draw confident inferences that evolution has occurred. Creationists look at the ever present past record of stasis, extinction, sudden appearance of new forms, and non-existence of intermediate forms, and make inferences that many supernatural creation events have occurred. Diverging inferences should be approached by the stakeholders with the greatest of humility and a request for divine wisdom.

Consider the advice of the Apostle James: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5 NIV)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Degree of Certainty

The choice between belief in evolution and belief in creation is a choice of utmost importance. It possesses importance on multiple levels, from personal to cultural. The importance of our beliefs about evolution and creation cannot be overstated.

Stakeholders in the discussion lobby for acceptance of their views. We often hear references to the “court of public opinion” or the “jury being out.” In a legal setting, lawyers must persuade the judge or jury of the truth of the case in order to secure a favorable verdict for their client. Along the way there are many types of arguments brought to bear which have little or nothing to do with truth or falsity. The case for the truth of evolution has been tried energetically ever since The Origin of Species burst upon the scene in 1859. According to a large throng of analysts, the verdict has been settled long ago. The frequent voicing of such a statement is but one example of a logical fallacy, a reasoning error often overlooked in the argument process, whether in personal persuasion or in a courtroom.

Logical fallacies associated with the case for evolution are extremely common. We must acknowledge that logical fallacies in the case for creation also prevail. One need only watch a few interview news shows to affirm the fact that logical fallacies--errors in reasoning--abound in human experience. The abundance of these errors may be an indicator of a “missing link” in our educational system. One of my fondest recollections as a teacher involves a wonderful group of children with whom I spent a memorable semester. Students in our school for whom the curricular offering of “French” was deemed academically inappropriate, were assigned a class clumsily dubbed “Non-French.” It was soon more appropriately labeled “Skills.” Having some freedom to choose the curricular topics, I decided to offer “Logic for Beginners.” Surprisingly, the enthusiastic students loved the course, including the Venn diagrams and syllogisms. They compassionately tagged their more adept classmates in the French class “Non-Skills.”

There are several dozen logical fallacies (errors of reasoning), many of which permeate the evolution discussion as well as other weighty discussions. One would be hard pressed to catalog all of these fallacies with respect to any one topic. Many fallacies relate to neglect of the actual truth value of an argument in deference to explicit or subtle pressure to accept the argument on other grounds. For example, in the bandwagon fallacy, people are urged to “get on board” with an idea, because so many other people are on board with the idea. This informal fallacy is no better or worse than a formal fallacy. All fallacies are problematic because they often have the appearance of being good arguments. Closely related to this fallacy are appeal to emotion, appeal to consequences, and appeal to force.   

The case made for evolution is rife with hyperboles. The BioLogos Forum publishes hundreds of blog posts under the banner Science and the Sacred from many different authors, mostly supportive of theistic evolution. Recently I read a post from Michael L. Peterson, newly appointed to the faculty of Asbury Theological Seminary as Professor of Philosophy of Religion. He stated “The findings of the sciences have converged more strongly on the truths of Evolution, such that it now has as high a degree of confirmation as anything else we know in science.” Having studied multiple issues in the field of science, including issues related to origins theories of evolution, creation, and intelligent design, I can report that there are numerous conclusions in science confirmed with far more certainty than the paradigm of evolution. I can also report that many of the “certain” science conclusions related to evolution are, indeed, not confirmed with any such degree of certainty.

Once more we must make the distinction between what science says and what truth is. We must make a bold attempt to open-mindedly discover possible errors in our methods of discovery, in our logic, in our reasoning, in our methods of argument, and in how we use our powers of persuasion. The responsibility to discover what is certain and true is our God-gifted ability and responsibility.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Truth and Theistic Evolution

The newest book promoting theistic evolution to the Christian creationist community is The Language of Science and Faith (2011) by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins. Until recently both scientist/authors were active in the BioLogos organization. The new volume is billed as a “BioLogos book project.” Once again the findings of science are invoked to support the concept of evolution as God’s method of bringing every living thing, including humans, to its present state.

Giberson and Collins, in their first chapter, propose a set of three simple, interlinked propositions defining evolution as a formal theory. It is worthwhile to review basic evolutionary theory. Following are verbatim quotes: (1) All current species have descended from common ancestors (2) Changes in species occur gradually over time as a consequence of mutations (3) Species change when beneficial mutations allow certain of them to have more offspring than others.

The authors then set forth a familiar, classic example of evolution in action. They cite an example of “artificial selection”--man’s long history of selectively breeding many different varieties of dogs in order to bring out various desired traits. Their account exemplifies what is theorized to happen by chance in nature without any input from man. Such changes occurring in nature are termed “natural selection.” In theory this selection process slowly brings about changes such as those accomplished over time by deliberate selective breeding of dogs. In nature over the long term, a new species is produced, according to the theory. Production of a new species is called macroevolution.

Use of dog breeding as supporting evidence for evolution is mystifying. There is a surprising omission in the citation of selective dog breeding by Giberson and Collins. The authors are impressed with the difference between a dachshund and a Great Dane, but at the end of the day, they remind us, they are still both dogs. The authors do not remind us that left to themselves over several generations, without heroic breeding efforts the dogs will slowly return to their original appearance. In other words, no macroevolution occurs.

The following quote (p. 45) is reproduced in its entirety because it is significant to their primary case:

There is a natural commonsense intuition that species are, on average, stable and unlikely to evolve into a new species. So, while small, microevolutionary changes certainly occur, there seems to be little evidence for large-scale, macroevolutionary changes. Scientists, however, make the confident claim that macroevolution is simply microevolution writ large: add up enough small changes and we get a large change. So what is really going on here?

The important, appropriate, and entirely reasonable question to ask is, Does the uncontroversial fact of microevolution provide evidence for the complex and controversial claims of macroevolution? In fact, we believe this particular question is really at the heart of the entire controversy over evolution.

We begin our response by noting that the distinction between micro and macro evolution is arbitrary. Every step along an evolutionary pathway is, in fact, a tiny, micro evolutionary change…

In other passages we read a few paragraphs under headings “Proof that Evolution has Occurred” and “Proof of Macroevolution?” These passages refer to the commonality of DNA sequences across various species of living things, especially genes purported to be “broken.” The “genes that are broken” reference is reminiscent of an idea evolutionists frequently used a few years ago to disparage ideas of creation and intelligent design--so-called “junk DNA”--leftovers from common ancestors. This term is not used even once in The Language of Science and Faith, because many non-coding sequences and other features of DNA whose functions were previously unknown are now known to have function. Therefore, some of the best evidence formerly cited as evidence for evolution has now been demonstrated not to be persuasive evidence.

The science supporting evolution is outlined in a brief 23 pages and is summarized above. The remaining chapters deal with other topics and read like an inspirational philosophical and spiritual pep-talk. I found some of the conversation useful. But if I were searching for an answer to the question, “Is Evolution True?” I would be unconvinced. If I were inclined to be receptive to the need to get on board with science, BioLogos-style, I might be impressed. To be fair, I realize this volume was not meant to offer exhaustive evidence.

The process of arriving at a scientific answer is enormously complex. Generally, this is not a weakness of science, but rather, a strength. The multidimensional complexity inherent in the process of science discovery also offers multidimensional opportunities for errant conclusions. By the admission of scientists, science is a subjective enterprise. Science is not an entity of truth in itself, but it helps us to discover truth. The question we should ask ourselves as we read multiple volumes on the important topic of origins is not, “Am I on board with science?” Instead, we should ask, “Am I on board with truth?”