The Years of Living Stupidly

Number 4 in a series

I’m trying to remember how this caught my attention. Most likely somebody alerted me by posting a link on their Facebook time line. No matter, here it is. It’s a nine-minute clip promoting creationism, and it compresses the Intelligent Design argument admirably. I will do a bit of analysis.

Starting off, Douglas Axe is here to explain that life is too complicated to have evolved by natural processes:

Douglas Axe is the director of the Discovery Institute-run Biologic Institute. Co-author of Science and Human Origins, Axe is also a signatory to the Discovery Institute petition A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.

Axe’s work has been hailed by the Discovery Institute as evidence supporting their views. Interestingly, even Axe himself has admitted that this is not the case.

He gives the example of today’s smart phones. They are immensely involved constructions of the most sophisticated components produced by modern industry.

However, Axe brings up the comparison to a lowly insect. The firefly is orders of magnitude more intricate and complex than a smart phone, and there is no way such a remarkable combination of parts could come together by accident. He also stresses that a firefly derives from a single cell, developing without additional assistance into an adult insect. Smart phones do not do that. They have to be constructed by people in factories.

That brings Axe around to talking about the Bible:

26 Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?

27 Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high?

28 She dwelleth and abideth on the rock, upon the crag of the rock, and the strong place.

29 From thence she seeketh the prey, and her eyes behold afar off.

30 Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is she.

40 Moreover the Lord answered Job, and said,

Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it.

Then Job answered the Lord, and said,

Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.

And that seems to answer it for Axe. We don’t understand something, but God does, and we should not question God’s omniscience and God’s omnipotence.

So this is an odd thing to me, because I have been hearing from the creationists of the second kind for years that Intelligent Design is sound science and is not meant to promote religion, especially the religion  of the Abrahamic God. So much for that.

Wayne Grudem turns the conversation toward theistic evolution:

Wayne A. Grudem is a prominent evangelical theologian, seminary professor, and author.[2] He co-founded the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and served as the general editor of the ESV Study Bible.

Theistic evolution, he explains, is the idea that God got everything going and now sits back and watches idly how the universe progresses, never touching the controls.

J.P. Moreland expands on the idea:

James Porter Moreland (born March 9, 1948), better known as J. P. Moreland, is an American philosophertheologian, and Christian apologist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University in La Mirada, California.

He says (quoting roughly):

The idea that God set up the processes in the beginning and then just let it run, that’s sort of like deism. Or, he was involved in the process of evolution, as long as there can be no way to tell that he was involved.

Stephen C. Meyer continues the thread:

Stephen C. Meyer (born 1958) is an advocate of the pseudoscientific principle of intelligent design. He helped found the Center for Science and Culture (CSC) of the Discovery Institute (DI), which is the main organization behind the intelligent design movementBefore joining the DI, Meyer was a professor at Whitworth College. Meyer is currently a Senior Fellow of the DI and Director of its Center for Science and Culture (CSC).

Meyer notes the danger of theistic evolution. At a time when neo-Darwinism is losing favor, he states that religious scientists are urging their compatriots to embrace neo-Darwinism, else they will find themselves outcasts in the scientific community.

John G. West is another of the speakers associated with the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture:

John G. West is a Senior Fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute (DI), and Associate Director and Vice President for Public Policy and Legal Affairs of its Center for Science and Culture (CSC), which serves as the main hub of the Intelligent design movement.

He cites the sad circumstance that Christians feel the need to “get on the bandwagon” with neo-Darwinism, because “the science is overwhelming.” However, he goes on to state the science is not overwhelming, because a body of the scientific community is coming to realize neo-Darwinism, random mutation coupled with natural selection, cannot explain all evolutionary development. He says “we know what evolution can do in the lab,” and he says it doesn’t work.

West, obviously no fan of evolution, states a straw man case. The hard fact is that laboratory experiments in a lab in a building are not the world in which evolution works. Evolution works on a global scale, even on the scale of a small island or a mountain region. In nature the evidence for evolution working is manifest, and there is no evidence for an intelligent agent working.

Meyer chimes in with the argument for which he is famous. Natural selection, he tells us, works only for survival of novel features. They do not account for the “arrival” of new features. Meyer has made this argument multiple times through the years, all the while failing to recognize his faulty thinking along these lines.

Along with Axe, Ann K. Gauger is associated with the Biologic Institute:

Axe received a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1990. In addition, the Biologic Institute has at least two other researchers. Ann Gauger is a zoologist with a BS in biology from MIT and a 1989 PhD from the University of Washington. As a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard she cloned and characterized the Drosophila kinesin light chain. Her research has been published in Nature, Development, and the Journal of Biological Chemistry. She also has a number of years of experience as a homeschool teacher. Brendan Dixon is a software developer and worked for Microsoft previously.

Axe, Gauger and Dixon were not among those who signed the original version of the Discovery Institute petition, “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism“, in 2001. However, Gauger appears on the March 2004 and January 2005 versions of the list. The August 25, 2007 version of the “Darwin Dissent” petition includes the names of both Axe and Gauger. Gauger’s affiliation on the August 25, 2007 version of the petition is not the Biologic Institute, but Gauger’s alma mater, the University of Washington.

She contends Darwinism is a circular argument in this way. Roughly translating, “To get the first cell you need DNA, and you also need RNA, and you need proteins, and you need DNA to make RNA to make proteins. This is a famously stale argument of the creationists, and it exhibits a simple-mindedness of astounding proportions. It ignores a body of research in the field and passes over any number of proposed approaches for the path to the first cells. She concludes that random processes coupled with natural selection cannot account for the development of primordial life.

Arguments against Darwinism (modern theories of biological evolution) continue, and  they become increasingly silly. We see Moreland arguing against the validity of the scientific approach. More specifically, he speaks against the supposed superior authority of science in providing answers. He compares it to theology especially. And that is an interesting, if dismal, approach.

Theology is comparable to science, even superior, in providing answers to matters of the real world. Really? I find that to be a remarkably naive statement. Let me break it down.

  • With science we study what’s going on and develop theories to explain. We fit the theories, the explanations, to supposed consequences and see how well they match up.
  • With theology we just make stuff up. The Earth was created about 6000 years ago over a period of six days. That sounds cool. Don’t bother to test it. Any evidence to the contrary must be wrong.

Meyer launches into running down “methodological naturalism.” Methodological naturalism holds the approach that only natural processes will be considered. The supernatural is shunned by the scientific community in favor of methodological naturalism.

That sounds miserably unfair to the supernatural until you realize that the supernatural does not exist. In the entire history of the human race there has never been  a demonstrated case of the supernatural. Four of my friends and I posted an award of $12,000 to anybody who can demonstrate the supernatural. This award has been up for over 25 years, and during this time nobody has ever come close to demonstrating the supernatural. If Meyer wants us to consider the supernatural, he is going to be required to first show us a sample so we will know what it looks like.

West rejoins and cites C.S. Lewis in noting that scientists pose questions they want answered, thereby obtaining only the kinds of answers they are looking for. West goes on to state that if we want other kinds of answers (I’m assuming supernatural answers), then we are going to have to ask other kinds of questions. Grudem continues, seeming to plead that we need to be willing to accept other (supernatural?) causes if we want supernatural answers. Meyer continues the argument that scientists should be willing to accept non-materialistic hypotheses. Gauger comes clean with the matter of theistic evolution:

The thing that’s at stake with theistic evolution, the debate about it is understanding of scripture.

And that’s it. If Gauger’s take is the new line on Intelligent Design, then the wraps really have come off. Intelligent Design is a mechanism concocted to protect the holy scripture against assaults by fact and reason. Moreland:

And it’s sad to say, but theistic evolution actually undermines Christians’ confidence in the authority of scripture. The doctrine of creation and the general way that creation took place is at the very foundation of Christianity—that God created all life and that there was at least a discernible way he did it. Theistic evolution puts all that up for grabs. And as a result it takes the core of theology and severs it from history. And so theology becomes a place in what Francis Schaeffer used to call “the upper story.” In an area where theology isn’t really about facts. It certainly isn’t about things we can test or know. It’s more about beliefs and feelings. But science does the hard work. It’s really about evidence and fact. If we keep revising the Bible when science tells us we “have to” [Here Moreland holds up two fingers on each hand to make quotation marks in the air.], then at some point we are going to end up believing that the Bible may not really be a factual book in the first place.

It would appear Moreland has reached the correct conclusion. The hard truth is that science does do the heavy lifting, science does come through with verifiable results, the Bible does need constant revision as each new finding contradicts the scriptures, and the Bible is almost devoid of factual content.

Grudem:

The question is whether Christians will reject God’s authority in whole areas of human knowledge—talking about where we came from and how we got here.

Axe:

Do we take the latest scientific ideas with the textbook orthodoxy to be our ultimate authority? And if so, then we have to make it be to conform to that, including not only our reading of Genesis, but our entire reading of the scripture. Whereas if we take scripture to occupy a higher position of authority than the opinion of the scientific community, then we view things differently. Not that we’re rejecting science, it’s that we recognize that science is not the ultimate authority.

And that is some kind of statement. Readers should take note of Axe’s reference to science as the ultimate authority. This is the bugaboo with religious creationists and others who distrust science. They like to present science as some kind of authoritarian entity that weighs down on our lives, suppressing contrary views and stifling innovative thinking and fresh approaches. A reality check is in order:

  • Science is a human endeavor, carried out by people. It is not a secret society working toward nefarious ends.
  • Science is not the only agency seeking to differentiate fact from fiction.
  • Law enforcement agencies investigate anti-social activity and work to determine the facts, whether a crime has been committed and who is responsible.
  • News reporters question people close to a story and sort out fact from fiction in order to provide a true account of what went on.
  • In everyday life we work to winkle out fact from contradicting information. Is the new employee really trustworthy, a question we might answer by checking whether he has a criminal record. Did the child skip school and then lie about it? Check with the school and get the facts.

If there is an orthodoxy of fact, the it is we. Science takes the methods that have demonstrated to produce reliable results, and science applies these methods to differentiate between truth and fiction. Science is not “textbook orthodoxy,” as Axe wants to characterize it. Scientists do not get their authority from textbooks. As a practicing scientist, Axe should know better, yet he is conflating scientists with people who do receive their orthodoxy from a book, people such as those speaking in this video.

Meyer complains that he has been immersed in the issue of science versus religion (not in those words) for 30 years, and he is troubled by theologians who are coming around to accepting scientific authority over the scriptures. He bemoans there is now no consensus view except the acknowledgement that neo-Darwinism is failing. He cites:

Last November in London at the Royal Society … There was a conference that was assessing the status of neo-Darwinian theory that was called by many evolutionary biologists who have become disenchanted with the theory. We have leading people in evolutionary biology today saying that the modern form of Darwinian theory has now failed to account for the most important things that any evolutionary biologist must account for, which is: where does the new form, the new biological structure come from? The answer essentially is we don’t know, so it seems to me a very odd time for Christians who are concerned about the science-faith dialogue to be saying, “Well we need to embrace the modern form of Darwinian theory. Otherwise we’re going to be out of date.” It’s just the opposite, in fact.

I am going to assume the Royal Society conference of which Meyer speaks is this one:

The Biologists Who Want to Overhaul Evolution

A half-century’s worth of scientific discoveries since the last major update to evolutionary theory has some researchers pushing for a paradigm shift.

CARL ZIMMER 

Kevin Laland looked out across the meeting room at a couple hundred people gathered for a conference on the future of evolutionary biology. A colleague sidled up next to him and asked how he thought things were going.

Zimmer goes on to report:

Laland is an evolutionary biologist who works at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. On a chilly gray November day, he came down to London to co-host a meeting at the Royal Society called “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology.” A motley crew of biologists, anthropologists, doctors, computer scientists, and self-appointed visionaries packed the room. The Royal Society is housed in a stately building overlooking St. James’s Park. Today the only thing for Laland to see out of the tall meeting-room windows was scaffolding and gauzy tarps set up for renovation work. Inside, Laland hoped, another kind of renovation would be taking place.

We remember Carl Zimmer as the author of At the Water’s Edge, a book that traces the transition of water-living fishes to land-dwelling animals,  particularly mammals. Continuing, the book traces a mammal with hoofs to creatures living in the sea and ultimately to modern whales. Meyer may think a conference such as this, where the notion of scientific authoritarianism evaporates like a snowball in Tahiti, as a justification for his rejection of Darwinism (evolution) and for his rejection of science in general. However, a close look at the proceedings reveals no comfort for Meyer’s dreams of the supernatural:

Some studies indicate that—under certain circumstances—an epigenetic change in a parent may get passed down to its offspring. And those children may pass down this altered epigenetic profile to their children. This would be kind of heredity that’s beyond genes.

The evidence for this effect is strongest in plants. In one study, researchers were able to trace down altered methylation patterns for 31 generations in a plant called Arabidopsis. And this sort of inheritance can make a meaningful difference in how an organism works. In another study, researchers found that inherited methylation patterns could change the flowering time of Arabidopsis, as well as the size of its roots. The variation that these patterns created was even bigger than what ordinary mutations caused.

Meyer is not the only creationist finding comfort in the emerging interest in epigenetics. Creationist David Shormann operates a religious school in the Houston suburbs, and at the textbook hearings before the Texas State Board of Education in 2013 he used the study of epigenetics to attack the biology texts under consideration. His schools, he claimed, dealt with the matter, whereas the books under consideration did not. On that basis he proposed rejecting all the proposed books. It’s a curious bit of logic, and it did not pan out for Shormann, as the books he opposed were approved by the board. A video of Shormann’s presentation is available on YouTube:

Few could be happier than I am that creationists such as Meyer have decided to quit playing charades with their argument that Intelligent Design is not about religion. The speakers in the theistic evolution video go full monty in support of the Christian faith. For me, watching this video was hard to distinguish from attending a holly roller tent revival.

One thought on “The Years of Living Stupidly

  1. Pingback: The Years of Living Stupidly | Skeptical Analysis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.