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"Scientist" as a Single-Word Oxymoron

May 13, 2007

If you've been waiting for scientists to use science to defend evolution from its critics, a new book has arrived this year.  Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism is, according to its own dust jacket, a "remarkable new work" that examines "anti-evolution in America".

According to the editorial reviews on Amazon.com:  "The 16 articles include contributions from some of the biggest names in the anti-creationism field".  It "demolishes the concept of complexity".  It "eviscerates the new assault on evolution".  It presents "overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution".  It is "a ringing and lasting refutation".

Remarkable.  Powerful.  Demolishes.  Eviscerates.  Ringing.   Overwhelming scientific evidence.

Not quite.  If this is the best that science has, then the theory of evolution is in serious trouble.

Frankly, I never had doubts about the theory of evolution until I heard a scientist defend it against the straw man of young-earth creationism.  This book, instead of demolishing those doubts, increased them.

First, of the book's 16 articles (441 pages), only seven (176 pages) even attempt to address the science of evolution or anti-evolution.  That is, about 60% of this book addresses the history, culture, philosophy and education issues involved.  So 60% of it offers no evidence at all, much less of the scientific or overwhelming variety.

For the sake of argument, assume that those remaining seven articles are absolutely correct.  What could we then believe?  The following paragraphs summarize the primary arguments of each of those seven articles.

Physics, Cosmology, and the New Creationism was written by Victor J. Stenger, a professor of physics and philosophy.  If Stenger is correct, William Dembski made a bad assumption in his formula defining information.  Also, attempts to use probability to argue for inferring the design of anything, from flagella to the universe, are simply not logical.  Why?  Because "the probability for some pattern of heads and tails in 500 tossed coins (or any number of tosses) is 100 percent!"  So anything we see is "staring us in the face" and therefore, he implies, must have come about randomly.  By implication, we should not infer that, say, Michelangelo's David was caused by anything other than random erosion effects unless there is other, non-probabilistic, evidence such as a written historical record.

The Ages of the Earth, Solar System, Galaxy, and Universe was written by G. Brent Dalrymple, a geologist.  If Dalrymple is correct, the earth is older than 10,000 years.

Creationism and the Origin of Life: Did It All Begin in a "Warm Little Pond"? was written by Antonio Lazcano, a professor of biology.  If Lazcano is correct, then "work on the appearance of the first life forms should be regarded as inquiring and explanatory rather than definitive and conclusive" and "it is unlikely that the origin of life will ever be described in full detail; at best, a sketchy outline will be constructed".  In other words, we don't know and we'll never know, but we're working on some reasonably good guesses.

"Transitional Forms" versus Transitional Features was written by Kevin Padian and Kenneth D. Angielczyk, both biologists.  If they are correct, the fossil record does have gaps, but so what?  The concept of "missing link" is "archaic" and "outmoded".  The new thinking involves "transitional features", the "phylogenetic approach" and "cladograms".  With such modern paradigms and tools they can demonstrate, for example, "the famous Archaeopteryx ... appears to have no features that bar it from being an ancestor of more derived birds", and "that is the most that can be said about any fossil proposed as a potential lineal ancestor".  Get it?  The best you can do with the fossil record is not prove that something did not evolve from something else.

Biological Complexity was written by Robert Dorit, an associate professor of biological sciences.  If Dorit is correct, "for many complex features of organisms, the mission [of understanding the evolution] is almost accomplished".  Anti-evolutionists are wrong "in their conviction that because we do not have all the answers, we must be on the wrong track."  He counters Michael Behe's concept of "irreducible complexity" with the example of the eye.  That is curious, because Behe himself did not use the eye as one of his five examples of irreducible complexity.  In fact, nowhere in this article does Dorit discuss, much less explain away, any of Behe's specific examples of irreducible complexity such as blood clotting.

Logic and Math Turn to Smoke and Mirrors: William Dembski's "Design Inference" was written by Wesley R. Elsberry, an "information project director at the National Center for Science Education" according to the book's bio.  (The bio does not list Elsberry's degrees, but Wikipedia calls him a "marine biologist" and says he earned a PhD in "wildlife and fisheries sciences".)  If Elsberry is correct, Dembski's concept of specified complexity "has been critiqued in detail and found wanting".  And even if you correct Dembski's math, such approaches "still do not lead to an inference of design".

Human Emergence: Natural Process or Divine Creation? was written by C. Loring Brace, an anthropologist.  If Brace is correct, "the picture [of human evolution] produced by the evidence is completely consistent with the operation of natural processes."

And there you have it.  Seven "powerful" essays that "demolish" any smidgen of doubt about neo-darwinism.

Let's review.  First, two of the essays (Dalrymple's and Lazcano's) do not even address biological evolution since the first life forms.  That leaves all of five essays, or less than one third of the book, that even obliquely addresses the science and evidence for biological evolution.

Of the remaining five, three (Stenger's, Dorit's and Elsberry's) address the mathematics and logic of concepts such as probability and complexity in biology.   If we believe them, there are flaws in some anti-evolutionists' math and logic, specifically those of William Dembski and Michael Behe.  (Sir Fred Hoyle, another anti-evolutionist, Nobel-winning astronomer and author of Mathematics of Evolution, remains unmentioned.)  But Stenger, Dorit and Elsberry do not defend neo-darwinism directly.  At best, they found flaws in the intelligent design hypothesis, but based on logic rather than fossil evidence, examples in micro-biology, or even calculations on real biological processes.  In short,  the evidence of evolution was neither "scientific" nor "overwhelming"; in fact it was non-existent.

That leaves the book with only two essays that genuinely address biological evolution.  And both these essays have very weak conclusions.  Padian and Angielczyk admit that the best you can do with the fossil record is not prove that something did not evolve from something else.  (Logically, showing that A cannot be proved false is not the same as proving A is true.  Making that jump would be the logical fallacy of "argument from ignorance".)  Brace claims that human development is consistent with natural explanations, but offers nothing but a high-level description of man's development, including his culture, over time.  Both of these essays simply weave plausible narratives of how some organisms might have evolved.  Plausibility is not proof, and they do not even claim it is.

In fact, Padian and Angielczyk tacitly admit that the theory of evolution is not falsifiable, at least from fossil evidence.  Not to put too fine a point on it, that would mean neo-darwinistic evolution is not even a valid scientific hypothesis, much less a theory, law, or fact.

As the Introduction states, "There will be questions that perhaps will never be answered, simply because it is unlikely that we will ever uncover enough evidence - the great diversification of invertebrate life at the beginning of the Cambrian period, more than 500 million years ago, being one possible example."  The essay on the first life forms also admits we'll never know how the first life forms originated.  The essay on complexity says the evolutionary explanations of "many organisms" are "almost accomplished".

Life's origin - unknown and unknowable.  Cambrian explosion - unknown and unknowable.  Detailed evolutionary explanations - unknown but "almost accomplished", on some organisms anyway.  But don't you dare question any of it.

The scary part is that these same people are now advocating that any mention of any doubt about neo-darwinism be not only discouraged, but outright unconstitutional if done in a public school.  And they are getting their way.

The preface of this book cites Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinion in Edwards v. Aguillard as one reason to write the book.  Scalia wrote that the people of Louisiana are entitled to have "whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools".  This apparently alarmed the authors.  The preface goes on to call the phrase, "evidence against evolution", a slogan.

Tell me, what other scientific hypothesis or theory cannot have evidence against it be taught in public schools?  Not even gravity enjoys such protection.  Not Newton's mechanics.  Not Einstein's relativity.  Not quantum theory.  Nothing.  Only evolution, with all its self-admitted unknowns and unknowables, enjoys such protection.

What scares them so?

Randall Hoven is an engineer, not a scientist and certainly not an evolutionary biologist; he considers himself an intelligent layman and reasonable man.  He can be reached at randall.hoven@gmail.com.