Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Creation or evolution - chapter 5 - speciation, fossils and information, continued

Comparing paradigms

The major argument which Dr. Alexander relies upon as the most solid proof of Darwinism is from genetics. On page 119, he says that the importance of fossils to the case for proving evolution has been relativised in recent years, and that we are now able to reconstruct evolutionary history just from genetics.

In the event, though, the proof offered falls down once more because of the invalidity of the method he uses. Put simply, DA argues that Darwinism can give a coherent explanation of this or that, and so there it is. Again, we look in vain to find DA educating his readers as to the concept of competing paradigms, and showing that the Darwinian paradigm can give a more coherent explanation of certain phenomena than a competing one. No - it's just that Darwinism explains this bunch of stuff, therefore it must be true.

So, there's a carton of orange juice on my table. You know I visited the supermarket last week, and the theory that the carton came from that trip fits with this bit of data, therefore it's definitely true that that's where it came from. But, it's not - in fact the carton was brought by a guest who came for tea. Again, DA doesn't give us a word to explain how a creationist might explain the phenomena he describes; there's no comparison, simply the naked assertion that as his model gives a coherent explanation, therefore it's proved to be true. As the book goes on it becomes increasingly clear that DA is as much marshalling rhetorical tactics as he is actual science - don't give opposing views the oxygen of publicity, and perhaps your readers will simply believe your naked assertions instead because they don't realise there's another game in ttown.

So, DA brings out various arguments - from what is often called "junk DNA", and genetic similarities found in different species that Darwinism claims are related by common ancestry, and so on. "Junk DNA", however described, is basically an argument from ignorance; DA gives no proof that these bits of DNA have no function, he just argues from the fact that we don't know their function. He is good enough to concede that the "junk DNA" label has turned out to be unfortunate as functions aren being increasingly found for parts of the genome previously so labelled. This is a "Darwin of the gaps" argument - as our knowledge increases, so it begins to vanish.

What is much more worthy of notice, though, is the implied theological, and not scientific, argument which underlines both of the arguments mentioned above. The rarely spoken assumption behind them is that "a Creator who made these things in a short time period wouldn't have done it this way". The argument being made is "these DNA similarities between different creatures are too much to be a coincedence - if a Creator had done this without common ancestry he would be tricking us with misleading evidence: I think he wouldn't have done things this way, therefore he didn't."

Seeing as this is a theological argument and not one provable by empirical observation, it's equally capable of theological refutation. Genetic similarities can be explained through a common designer as well as being explained by common descent. If the Bible is true, then we expect the world to be discoverable - this was part of the basis for modern science. We believe that the universe operates by principles that human minds can investigate and describe, because we believe that the designer of the universe also designed human minds and did so with the desire that we should explore and subdue his creation, as the Genesis mandate states. As such, then, we might anticipate that there will be a great deal of similarity and re-use of similar principles and designs in different animals. What kind of headway could we make in exploration if each of the millions of species of animal was put together in a totally different way and required a whole new branch of science to investigate it?

Thus it's too easy and glib for DA simply to assert that genetic similarity is predicted by Darwinism and so Darwinism is proved. Genetic similarity is also predicted by creationism, which is what DA is trying to disprove. If, though, you never mention or explore the predictions of the system of thought you're trying to disprove, then you'll have to excuse reviewers like this one who don't think that you succeeded.


DA's section on fossils is a bit thin; lots of dogmatic assertions (this is 35 million years old, that happened 1.2 billion years ago), but not much by way of meat in terms of arguments. More of a summary of evolutionary claims that arguments for them. Fair enough; I suppose from the fact of DA's specialism in genetics and biochemistry that he's going to major in those areas and minor in others. Tiktaalik is given the staring role as a great example of a transitional form.

Next time: the question of information.

1 comment:

Ned Kelly said...

I am half-way through reading Denis Alexander’s Creation or Evolution – Do We Have To Choose, and already I have the same feeling that developed reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion – why am I bothering? My problem with this book is that it contains numerous distortions, exaggerations, propositions without foundation, and the regular use of straw men that is suggestive of a propaganda document rather than a reasoned treatise. At times, he also seems to reverse cause and effect. That may sound harsh, but despite his credentials, to my mind Denis Alexander (hereinafter DA) has made a poor job of presenting his case (at least so far). Even his attempts at being even-handed do not seem to come out right, even when he cautions the reader with respect to the primacy of Scripture. Let me illustrate my concerns.
In chapter 6 ‘Objections to Evolution’ DA argues that there is no difficulty in having articles published via peer review where the article challenges evolution, and goes on to claim that “it is every biologist’s dream to make discoveries that would upset some cherished theory”. This is misleading, what he is implying is generally only true within the accepted paradigm at the time, and to undertake a paradigm shift is altogether different. He then takes a swipe at those that oppose evolution theory by suggesting that they do so by going around churches rather than following “the well-established ways of carrying out a scientific critique”. Does he actually believe this, or is he being disingenuous? Richard Sternberg has documented the difficulties with peer review, and I recall similar comments by ID proponents and others. DA is very selective in what he recounts in this area and fails to acknowledge the scientific credentials of those of opposing views, giving a false impression of the nature of the opposition.
On page 148, making a point about Scripture not being scientific text, he says “There is of course the practical point that if God had chosen to give a scientific, rather than theological, account of his creation, then no one would have understood it anyway, and our Bibles would have ended up about ten times their present size!”. This is a preposterous straw man. YEC and ID proponents, and others of similar persuasion do not argue for Scripture presenting science but history. They may bring science into their arguments, but seldom if ever from Scripture. Genesis could have been written in a way that, whilst not being a detailed scientific account, the implied science at least did not cause the current controversy. DA might like to ponder further on how well Scripture presents a theological account of his creation anyway – it is rather confusing with all the unnecessary padding.
To illustrate his exaggeration, and another straw man, on page 149 is the statement, “For a start, the rejection of current dating methods means rejecting virtually the whole of current physics and chemistry, since dating methods are based on the same physical laws and principles that govern these disciplines”. DA must know that objections to the use of radiometric dating do not necessarily undermine all principles of such dating, and the objections by ID or YEC scientists in no way suggest their rejection of “the whole of current physics and chemistry”.
I have to wonder at DA’s target audience for this book – does he really expect everyone who reads it to accept his arguments as presented?
In Chapter 7 ‘What about Genesis?’ the author presents this, “Two points are worth underlining by way of preamble. The first is the primacy of the authority of the Word of God. I personally take Scripture as my final authority in all matters of faith and conduct”. He then goes on to discuss the science angle. Again, my problem with this is the regular contrasting of morals and science, as if the history of the Bible is of no account. This approach reinforces in the mind of the reader that all contention between evolution and the Genesis account is purely related to science. Maybe it is in DA’s mind, but he doesn’t offer why that is so, nor does he address the issues that others see.
I am very disappointed in the style of argument in this book, it clouds the facts that are otherwise well presented.