Revisiting evolution (on the same old season ticket)

I’ve been re-reading Phillip E Johnnson’s Darwin on Trial, partly for nostalgia’s sake, since I met the guy once, and partly to re-examine some of the arguments, having been largely detached from the evolution discussion for a year or so in favour of examining dubious hegemonic scientific consensuses in other fields.

In fact, the only recent interaction I remember on the subject was in replying to a direct query to myself on Peaceful Science a little while ago, when I happened to cite the work I’d been doing on the empirical similarity of “chance” and “choice” (and of “lawlike” and “faithful”) to show how God has plenty of room to work openly, yet seem to be hiding to those with an alternative metaphysics.

I immediately got the anticipated response from one of the resident professional atheist biologists there: to admit such a thing as God would be for the sky to fall in on science. In other words, if there is a God in any way involved in “nature” (whatever that theoretical entity may be) – and particularly in the business of creating biological species – then science ceases altogether and one is merely observing the capricious whims of an unaccountable Deity.

I was reminded of that by Johnson’s clear-sighted identification of this as a purely religious argument, or perhaps even an aesthetic one. An active God would create untidiness for minds committed to austere mathematical order. Johnson points to a quotation from a famous biologist to the effect that science was founded on the assumption that the whole universe is an interlocking system of “purely natural” phenomena.

That is, in fact, an ahistorical view. There is nobody more entitled to be seen as the father of science than Francis Bacon, and he firmly believed in a God of special providence, though the early natural philosophers, admittedly, hoped that God’s “interventions” were infrequent enough to be disregarded… or in fact, Bacon hoped that patterns might even be found in special providence itself that would teach us more about God. You can only exclude God as a disorderly influence on the world if you have already found the world to be completely orderly. And biologists haven’t.

In fact, as far as biology goes, the tidiness argument holds no water at all. As the proposed begetter of all the species on earth, Neodarwinian evolutionary theory has so many lacunae and contradictory evidence that in accounting for the pageant of life its final tool is so-called “historical narrative,” which is really mythical speculation rather than anything derived from the methodology of actual historiography. When historians find documents to match archaeological artifacts and inscriptions, then you have history. But when archaeologists find an antler head-dress and conjecture that perhaps it represents shamanistic beliefs, that is speculation. Even more so is the poet’s, or the evolutionary biologist’s, construction of a pretty tale from a rock, though at least the former serves imaginative truth, but not science:

But even if we accept the Neodarwinian (or neutral theory, come to that) explanations of origins uncritically, they require a massive proportion of unpredictable chance which obviates any possibility of a truly scientific and mathematical explanation for what we see. Johnson points out what many others have before – evolution by natural selection can be used to account for absolutely any finding from saltation to agelong stasis, and provide no actual explanation whatsoever as to why one occurs here and the other there, or how.

Even in principle there is no way that population genetics would be able to explain even one species transition, any more than examining the bases on a DNA strand can predict the form and function of a mammal or bird. As an explanation it’s about as helpful as looking at a line of machine code and proclaiming: “And that’s how the Internet works!”

A personal God, though, no more sounds the death knell for science than does the existence of scientists. All it does is make biology an approximate science, and it was always that anyway. We have a world in which 7 billion or so people make unpredictable choices that affect nature, and yet science can still be done. Indeed, science can even be done on human choices, when they are studied in the abstract or for their statistical patterns. Psychology, behavioural science, or economics are all done, arguably more precisely than biology above the molecular scale, and their practitioners simply accept that “choice” can gum up their predictions, because that’s the way the world is. Looking backwards in time, that is why there can be no overarching theory of history – and yet the discipline of historiography may still be practised rationally.

No, the antipathy of evolutionary biologists towards God reveals itself every time as purely religious by their willingness otherwise to live with the messiness of biology. Long before there were humans, animals were exercising some measure of unpredictable, yet not random, decision-making – just watch a puppy deciding what to play with next. We learned at school that whilst physics experiments gave nice clean graphs (at least if you cheated), the simplest experiment in biology produces a probabilistic scatter. Every biologist knows this, and to complain because God, when he is exercising freedom rather than faithfulness, renders the world unpredictable is to complain about God himself, not unpredictability.

Unpredictability exists unavoidably in bulk in the world of biology, fighting under the banner of “chance.” My argument has long been that there is no good evidence for the existence of such chance in the world, since it can equally be described under the banner of “choice,” and be equally amenable to statistical description. Ask any pollster – or at least, those not choosing to fix polls for political purposes.

The difference in the two viewpoints is that “chance” is an entirely irrational force, and has been since the days of Epicurus, whereas “choice,” whilst it cannot be reduced to mathematical regularity, is even in humans usually a rational process. It is rational processes that best explain “complex things that appear to have been designed for a purpose.” Ergo the weight of reason is on the side of choice rather than chance.

To the supercilious atheist who says they simply believe in one less God than I do, I can reply that I simply believe in one more mind than they do, as they interact with seven billion of the things day by day.

Here’s a video about real dragons in the fossil record, as opposed to those in songs about meteorites. It’s refreshingly free of speculation about evolution, apart from describing it in aetiological terms at the start, and intentionally tickling our imaginations at the end.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Science, Theology, Theology of nature. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Revisiting evolution (on the same old season ticket)

  1. Robert Byers says:

    It is presuming evolution and discusses it. As a biblical creatuionist however I deny these are dinosaurs or there were dinosaurs.Instead the so vcalled dinos were misclassified regular creatures in thye kinds from creation week or on the ark later.
    so these dinos are in faxct just flightless ground birds or tree birds in a vspectrum of diversity. In these later days better tools have led to them realizing how birdy theropod dinos were, they had wishbones and feathers etc, and thus they say AHA birds come from dinos. in other words your singing birds are really singing reptiles.
    they are closer but still wrong. THEY WERE BIRDS. Dumb boring birds however big or toothy. A t rex was just a giant ostrich or emu.

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