Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Few Thoughtz: Darwin on Trial, pt. 1

"I do not think that many scientists would be comfortable accepting Darwinism solely as a philosophical principle, without seeking to find at least some empirical evidence that is true. But there is an important difference between going to the empirical evidence to test a doubtful theory against some plausible alternative, and going to the evidence to look for confirmation of the only theory that one is willing to tolerate. We have already seen that distinguished scientists have accepted uncritically the questionable analogy between natural and artificial(e. g. intentionally breeding species to increase chances of survival) selection, and that they have often been undisturbed by the fallacies of the "tautology" and "deductive logic" formulations (e. g. the fittest of species are those who survive/evolve, and the reason why they survive/evolve is because they are the fittest). Such illogic survived and reproduced itself for the same reason that an apparently incompetent species sometimes avoids distinction; there was no effective competition in its ecological niche."

- Johnson, p. 28-29 (words in parentheses are mine)

Peace and blessings,

One of my professors often emphasizes the importance of scientists (social, physical, electrical) to having a default orientation towards theories and ideas (including their own) that is skeptical. In other words, he says that the purpose of our research is not to seek to confirm our theories and ideas; but to dis-confirm them. One of my favorite TV shows is "CSI" (Las Vegas), one of the reasons being due to the importance they give to evidence and its ability to reveal "truth." Although there are exceptions and there are times when even the evidence may be misleading in certain situations, for the most part, the path to truth lies in following the evidence. As a Christian, there are all kinds of evidence that I witness (first and second hand) that reveal the truth of the presence and sovereignty of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. while the evidence sought on CSI requires the use of our physical eyes and for Christians the evidence of God is seen both through our physical and spiritual eyes (e. g. our ability to see things in the spiritual realm and the things we are assure of through faith), the idea is the same: one of the best ways to seek truth is to follow the evidence.

In Phillip E. Johnson's book, "Darwin on Trial" (1991), he applies this relationship between evidence and truth within the context of Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection. As with any issue that is controversial and/or involves academic/intellectual inquiry, it is important for those involved to acknowledge potential personal biases and to do their best to check them. Johnson does this from the jump:

"I am a philosophical theist and a Christian. I believe that a God exists who could create out of nothing if He wanted to do so, but who might have chosen to work through a natural evolutionary process instead. I am not a defender of creation-science, and in fact I am not concerned in this book with addressing any conflicts between the Biblical accounts and the scientific evidence....My purpose is to examine the scientific evidence on its own terms, being careful to distinguish the evidence itself from any religious or philosophical bias that might distort our interpretation of that evidence. I assume that the creation-scientists are biased by their pre-commitment to Biblical fundamentalism, and I will have little to say about their position. The question I want to investigate is whether Darwinism is based upon a fair assessment of
the scientific evidence, or whether it is another kind of fundamentalism." (p. 14)

As a law professor, Johnson approaches Darwin's theory not from a scientific perspective, but from a legal one. Therefore, the book is sort of organized like a quasi-court case, where Darwin's theoretical formulations and concepts are each outlined and examined in terms of its related evidence, and the conclusions Darwin made and his proponents made and continue to make, based on this and other evidence. In addition, he discusses Darwin's theory on a more ideological level, and poses the question of whether or not the popularity of the theory as well as the potential "power" it could yield if it were actually true, work to shape/create dominant interpretations of the evidence so that anything that could potentially be evidence is treated as valid and anything else treated as not valid.

Of the many aspects of Darwin's theory addressed in the book, I will only mention a couple of them here. The first is Darwin's notion of natural selection, which is pretty much the meat and potatoes of Darwin's theory. This notion has two related parts. The first part holds that new species exist as modifications of old species , and that this trend can be evidenced throughout life's history. The second part holds that such evolution with modification can account for pretty much of life on earth, because all life originated from common ancestors. One of the points Johnson (1991) raises is that a necessary piece of evidence needed to strongly support this notion are transitional fossils, which are for the most part absent from scientific findings. A very simplified example of a transitional fossil is the following: If it is true that humans evolved from fish, then there should exist fossil evidence of a fish-man. To elaborate on this point, he asserts,

"The question is not whether natural selection occurs. Of course it does, and it has an effect in maintaining the genetic fitness of a population. Infants with severe birth defects do not survive to maturity without expensive medical care, and creatures which do not survive to reproduce do not leave descendants. These effects are unquestioned, but Darwinism asserts a great deal more than merely that species avoid genetic deterioration due to natural attrition among the genetically unfit. Darwinists claim that this same force of attrition has a building effect so powerful that it can begin with a bacterial cell and gradually craft its descendants over billions of years to produce such wonders as trees, flowers, ants, birds, and humans. How do we know that all this is possible?" (p. 16)

The other issue I wanted to briefly touch on was the fossil problem. Johnson (1991) notes how that the famous "Piltdown Man," which was believed to be a pre-human fossil and thus groundbreaking evidence for Darwinian thought, was a hoax (it turned out to be nothing more than a modern human head placed on the body of an orangutan). Further, he notes that the "Nebraska Man," which was was claimed to have included a pre-human fossil tooth turned out to be a misfire, as the tooth actually belonged to a kind of pig. Darwin's theory claimed that (pretty much) all life could be traced to common ancestors and classified according to those ancestors. However, the Burgess Shale fossils contain 15-20 fossils that cannot be related to any known group, and should be classified as separate phyla (i. e. a level of species classification). Lastly, he mentions two characteristics of most fossils that appear to not support Darwin's theory. The first is "stasis," or the fact that most species exhibit no directional change while on earth, therefore their fossil record shows very little change if any. The second is "sudden appearance," which is the fact that in any local area, species appear all at once and fully formed, therefore not exhibiting any evidence of transformation (evolution) from earlier ancestors.

Overall, Johnson (1991) concludes that to be so widely supported in many scientific circles, Darwin's theory has not appeared to be subjected to the same rigorous scientific testing as other theories are normally (and should) undergo. Why the easy pass and wide acceptance without conclusive evidence? Johnson suggests that Darwin's theory represents not just a theory, but an ideology. Further, it is the only "contender" against the belief in divine creation. In this sense, hardcore supporters of his theory without conclusive evidence and/or despite evidence to the contrary is no less a demonstration of fundamentalism and close-mindedness than the religious fundamentalists the theory contends with.

What do you think? Any thoughts on Darwin's theory? Divine Creation? Similarities/differences between the two? Take care, God bless, and speekonit...

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