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August 11, 2002

My uncle wasn't no monkey

Cut on the Bias has a post questioning evolution based on the recent hominid find in Africa. godless e-mailed her, and she responded soon enough. My post below was in response to her first blog, but let me add one thing: there are dissenters from evolution in the academy. But they are a very, very small minority (According to a 1998 survey 5.5% of National Academy of Science biologists believe in God-of these, I suspect most are theistic evolutionists rather than intelligent design proponents from personal experiences with religious biologists-though belief in God is on the order of 30-40% of biologists as a whole). They could be right, for a long time Young Earth Creationism was the dominant scientific paradigm. But intelligent design theorists overstate the case when they assert that they have a rival paradigm and numerous establishment supporters within the scientific community.

On to the post....

But wait! I thought we knew all that! It’s been taught for years as immutable truth.

Yes, if what you know about human evolution derives from the glossy sensationalist nuggets in Time and Newsweek (oh, and if you read these publications, you would think that Cosmology proves God’s existence, though most physicists seem to disagree). See the Out-of-Africa vs. Multi-Regionalist controversy to get a sample of the immutability of the “truths” of human evolution. Do paleoanthropologists agree that humans evolve? Yes. How? Well-that’s a different question, and as you know science is based on provisional knowledge, always to be overturned and revised. Scientists generally perceive this to be a strength and assume that even theories that are well established may only be approximations that fit the data at hand. For instance, Newtonian Mechanics fit the data at the time, and still works as a good model for any everyday calculations, but has been refined by Relativity around the edges. Does that make Mechanics dispensable?

Every decade or two, a fossil discovery upsets conventional wisdom. One more possible "missing link" emerges. An even older member of the hominid group, those human ancestors and their close relatives (but not apes), comes to light. Some fossils also show up with attributes so puzzling that scientists cannot decide where they belong, if at all, in the human lineage.

Hmmm… Could it also mean that several species appeared, say, all at one time through, perhaps, an intelligent design? That these modified over the years, without interbreeding or developing into something completely different from how it started?
Nah. After all, conventional wisdom is usually rig… oops. Well, at least scientists agree… oops.

Assume an intelligent designer. Now let’s apply this paradigm to physics and chemistry. If we don’t understand the behavior of a Quasar, it could be a miracle in the past by the intelligent designer. If we can’t figure out the bonding properties of a certain molecule, it could be the work of God! Why not geology while we’re at it! Perhaps earthquakes in Japan are the result of an intelligent designer that happens to be causing continental drift-is He sending the Japanese a message? My point is simple: assuming that an intelligent designer exists explains very little. Yes, and intelligent designer could exist-but insoluble problems in science tend to become soluble over long periods of time.

Scientists have to assume that God isn’t fudging with everything in sight, or they’d never get anything done. Science would just stop if it was presumed that God could work miracles every now and then and make reproducibility a dependent on His whim. Yes, perhaps God designed everything to just fit the evolutionary paradigm, but God could also be manipulating our telescopes to make it look like the Doppler Shift occurs. God could have put the fossils just where they are to test your faith! God could send you to Hell no matter what you believe or what you do. If you define God as omnipotent you can make anything happen by “what if” this or that. Of course, I grant that an intelligent designer does not have to be God, but if it is not a supernatural being, we still have to resort to naturalistic explanations.

Phillip Johnson has proposed that the possibility of a supernatural element should be introduced into science-that methodological naturalism is a sham and an extension of the religion of secular humanism. I’d like to see any scientist doing worthwhile research starting with the position “God might have done it.” Can you imagine him being questioned at the conference, “You posit that result X follows from process Z, but are you sure that God didn’t do it?” “You assert that result X implies that hypothesis Z is false, but are sure that God couldn’t do it?” It is only in certain areas that some believers have time-honored ideals where methodological naturalism is attacked-ie; human evolution, big bang theory, radiocarbon dating.

As for scientists disagreeing, few disagree about the fact of evolution. How it happens, that’s a different issue, and having multiple theories battle for primacy adjudicated by the data is how scientists reach a consensus. It took a century for Darwin to defeat Lamarck. I suspect Punctuated Equilibria will whither away with Gould’s passing (when did you last see Eldridge write up an op-ed?). The theories of hominid evolution are far sketchier than the theory of evolution-the fact of evolution. Anyone would grant this. Yes, a whole host of incoherencies in hominid evolution would present problems-but the general framework is based on the fossils on hand and the methods available. These have been improving over the past 50 years, so it follows that though the theory changes, we presume that it should be more accurate, as there are more data sets. The bones in question found in Africa are not of a large-brained tool wielding art-producing hominid. That would really cause a controversy.

We have now a very rich collection, of three skulls and three jawbones, which gives us a chance to study very properly this question" of how to classify early hominids, Dr. Lordkipanidze said…

Such bounty! Why, we’ll have the entire evolutionary process nailed down by Labor Day, I’m just sure of it.

I’ve been taught, as a social scientist, that you look at behavior, or evidence of various sorts, and ponder about it until you come up with an explanation. Then you devise a test to see if your explanation fits. If it seems to, you develop a whole theory, testing the various pieces. When obvious digressions from the theory begin to pile up, you start looking to see how the theory needs to be modified so all the pieces fit in harmony. If they don’t fit, you don’t name them something that makes them fit. At the very least, you set them aside as a "we don’t know” and work to determine whether they are outliers or a part of the center of the thing. You see, in science – and “hard” science even more so than the “soft” sciences – you are reaching for a truth. The world is - we’re trying to understand what that is is. The truth about the world isn’t going to be different because something I learn about it doesn’t fit my theory. That’s the case whether I’m an evolutionist, a creationist, or a design theorist without any attachment to Biblical creation as an explanation. You strip down the facts, release them from their interpretive pigeonholes, then reconstruct an explanation around them.

Have you heard of falsification? I’m sure you have. A few bones might matter after all-all the other evidence be damned. The “interpretive pigeonhole” you speak of is methodological naturalism. If you study behavior in social science, do you assume that demon-possession might skew your data? Do think that a person’s decision in reaction to a given option might be influenced by God’s hand effecting the response on the level of neurons? Even Michael Behe accepts descent with modification.

…If it presents a challenge to my faith, well, then, I have to think about that because, like it or not, faith is a theory just like evolution is a theory. If my faith is founded on a real truth, then the new information won’t substantially change the bones of my faith even while it possibly substantially reshapes the flesh; if my faith isn’t based on a real truth, then that’s something I want to know and the sooner the better. Again, the same should be true of evolution – if you’re going to posit it as truth, at least have the honesty to say “I don’t know” or “We could have been very wrong for a very long time, we need to rethink this without preconceptions.” But it seems to me there is no amount of information that would shake these people loose from their evolutionary canon, even when they have to twist themselves into objects of mockery to protect it.

You draw a lot of conclusions from the opinions of a few paleontologists getting excited over morphology. I’m not sure you know this-but many biochemists and geneticists have a barely concealed contempt for morphological techniques in ascertaining facts about the past. I don’t know enough about morphology to critique it-but your attacks are almost certainly only applicable only to morphology and its percieved subjectivity (the link above, and other things I've read and heard indicate to that functional morphology is becoming far more scientific and less subjective). You could come out and trumpet Behe to attack molecular biology, and I could throw plenty back at you on that front. In addition-paleontologists might be wrong about hominid evolution. They've been wrong in the past-in large part corrected by molecular biologists. But particular errors within a sub-theory don't refute the paradigm-you are correct when you assert that ascertaining hominid relationships via morphology leaves less than to be desired, but molecular biology has cleared up many issues because it is far more rigorous. Is evolution a perfect theory? No-no theory is perfect because human beings are fallible. Is it the best fit to the data? Yes, unequivocally in the eyes of the vast majority of scientists. Biologists have problems with all sorts of phylogenies. Only in humans and their line is every mistake and revision reported with such detail-as if the theory of evolution hung in the balance.

One thing will remain fixed-we will discuss evolution, because you have no positive alternative model unless you are a Young Earth Creationist. Yes-you could assert “God did it,” and I could respond, “Such a small answer to a large question. Let us keep looking.” Perhaps we will never find the answer, but the search yields results. The computer that I type on is the byproduct of centuries of Western science. Though scientists like Galileo, Newton or Descartes might have believed in God, even attempted to prove His existence, their endeavors ultimately were about the mind of man and his wonderment and puzzling over the universe-and disatisfaction with theological answers. Do the mathematical models have any accordance with foundational reality? We can never truly know foundationally, we can only presume or descend into solipsism. I presume that the hand that types on the keyboard is my hand, not the hand of God working through me as a puppeteer. These are questions of philosophy, religion and the supernatural. What has this to do with science? To paraphrase Tertullian, "What does Jersalem to do with Cal Tech/MIT/Stanford/Harvard/etc.?"

Oh, and I suggest everyone to go to Talk Origins and the Access Research Network for the two perspectives. As an "evolutionist" I would highly reccomend the 29 Evidences for Macroevolution. To get a flavor for ARN check out Origins and Design Journal. One issue has an article titled, "Design and Evil."

Follow-up: Can one be an orthodox Christian and a conventional scientist (one who does not reject methodological naturalism)? Yes, check out the site for the American Scientific Affiliation. A certain Francis Collins is a keynote speaker. Though they try to be neutral-it is known that the ASA has had long-standing problems with certain fundamentalist Christian sects because of its latitunidarianism (it comes out of the evangelical movement).

Update II: Susanna Cornett responds again. Pretty civil too-so I guess she tries to live up to her moniker. Also, on a related note-Talk Origins has an updated section-Fossil Hominids: the evidence for human evolution. It has updates based on the new findings.

Those of you coming from Bias, let me cut you off at the pass....: Observed instances of speciation here and here. But yes, maybe I'm just a lying evolutionist....

More "theories" about life and its origins: Panspermia, originally floated by Nobel Prize winning Francis Crick (smart people too believe in weird things....).

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