Pro-Evolution IV: The Nature of Science

EVOLUTION IV: THE NATURE OF SCIENCE

Science is not a simple discovery of truth.  It is a human process, a cultural process.  There have been scientific “truths” that generations of scientists have ardently believed.  Ideas such as phlogiston (although this can cut both ways; see the anti-evolution spin on phlogiston in this post) have convinced scientists and elbowed other ideas out of the realm of science.  This notion that science is somehow a social construction as much as a deduction of objective truth has led some evolution opponents to hope that evolution might be only a fashion among scientists rather than a basic truth about life on earth.  But even this understanding of the nature of science points out the fundamental truth of evolution.

Real science means continual skepticism.  The most ardent searchers for holes in the theory of evolution are not creationists; they are evolutionary scientists.  Any scientist who could come up with a big new theory that displaced evolution would be made an instant celebrity.  His or her career would be made forever.  It leads again to the question of the most likely: Which is more likely, a conspiracy of thousands of scientists over generations to keep a false theory as established science in order to undermine Christian faith (one of the implicit arguments of many creationists) or thousands of ambitious, aggressive scientists who have hammered evolution theory with every test imaginable, looking for a hole that would make their careers?

Take just one example to illustrate.  Stephen Jay Gould was one of the leading evolutionary scientists of the late twentieth century.  His writings attracted large appreciative audiences among both scientists and lay readers.  Yet he was also one of the fiercest critics of mainstream thinking about the nature of evolution.  Along with fellow evolutionist Niles Eldredge, when Gould found a weakness in standard scientific thinking about evolution, he pounced.  In 1972, Eldredge and Gould published a paper critical of the notion that species gradually evolved.  Rather, the fossil record seemed to argue for long periods of equilibrium punctuated by periods of rapid species change.  Rapid, of course, must be understood relatively.  Gould and
Eldredge did not argue—in spite of claims by later anti-evolutionists—that such change happened in sudden catastrophes.
They did not argue that there were no transitional fossil forms.  Rather, they argued that the pace of evolution must be understood to vary substantially over time.  The periods of change, Gould suggested, likely came in windows of between 50,000 and 100,000 years.  Nevertheless, their notion of punctuated equilibriums was a major criticism of contemporary thinking about the nature of evolution.  And it was suggested not by anti-evolutionists, but by evolutionary scientists themselves.  Far from conducting a campaign to enforce an evolutionary orthodoxy, scientists such as Gould and Eldredge continually probe the weaknesses of evolution.

The nature of science also tells us something about the origins of modern evolutionary thinking.  The idea of evolution is bigger than Charles Darwin.  Darwin gets the credit for introducing the modern notion of evolution with his 1859 book Origin of Species.  And he deserves a lot of credit.  His book spelled out a notion of changing species that could actually work.  But Darwin was not by any means the first to suggest that species had evolved from one another.  That idea was as ancient as Western culture itself.  Nor could Darwin claim all the credit for the notion of natural selection as the mechanism by which species changed.  Darwin finally published his book in 1859 after decades of working on it.
He was pushed to finally get it out into the public sphere by similar work by a man named Alfred Russel Wallace.  The fact that the two scientists came up with the notion of natural selection independently shows that the idea did not come from the unique genius of just one man.  Rather, it was an idea whose time had come.  Darwin’s patience in waiting for twenty years to publish his book and his elegant prose went a long way toward making his ideas credible.
But even without Darwin’s clout among the scientific community and his impressive style, the truth of natural selection would have made an impression on both scientists and regular readers.

Science is a competitive process.  It does not fit well with ideas of conspiracies.  It does not even fit well with ideas of ideology.  Scientists hope to establish themselves by proving something new.  If they smell a problem with the theory of
evolution, they will rush in to poke holes in it.

EVOLUTION IV: FURTHER READING

The TalkOrigins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy; http://www.talkorigins.org/; Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Anniversary Edition (New York: Signet, 2003); Stephen Jay Gould & Niles Eldredge, “Punctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered,” Paleobiology 3:2 (1977): 115-151; Niles Eldredge, Time Frames: The Evolution of Punctuated Equilibria (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985);  Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002).

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Anti-Evolution II: The Argument against Closedmindedness

ANTI EVOLUTION II: CLOSEDMINDEDNESS

One of the most convincing intellectual weapons in the arsenal of evolution supporters is that evolution has won over scientific opinion.  This is the argument that convinces me, for instance.  I admit that I don’t really understand the deeper science behind evolution, but when I see that every mainstream scientist endorses the idea, I am willing to be convinced.  But if we step outside that consensus, it is easy to see that such a consensus can actually be an argument against the simple truth of evolution.  And for the purposes of this blog, remember that I am not trying to convince or convert committed evolutionists to the opposite point of view.  All I hope to do is to show that there are respectable reasons why people might hold that opposite point of view.  I would like each side only to acknowledge that those on the other side might not be wicked, ignorant, or crazy.  In the case of the scientific consensus about evolution, it is easy enough to see how such a consensus can be proof of the
untruth of evolution, as much as it can be proof of its truth.  Here’s what I mean:

For most regular people, science is still understood to be a matter of deducing the objective truth about the nature of life and humanity.  Something is more scientific, in this view, when it comes closer to that objective truth, and less scientific as it edges away.  Thus, if evolution is
science, then those who oppose evolution must oppose science.

But scientists and those interested in the nature of science offer a much more complex view, especially since works like Thomas Kuhn’s
influential 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Since that time, the nature of scientific truth has been understood to be more of a social construction.  To create scientific truth, scientists engage in a social process that constructs an orthodoxy.  The word Kuhn used has made it into everyday usage: scientists construct a paradigm that guides their explanations.  Those who fall outside that paradigm must be forbidden from calling their work “real” science.  However, due to the nature of this process, the next scientific revolution can only come from those at the
outer boundaries of the current dominant paradigm.  Only by challenging the existing paradigm can scientific revolutions take place.

To clarify this process, consider an example that Kuhn himself used.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European scientists agreed that combustibility resulted from an ineffable substance they called phlogiston.  When something burned, it was the phlogiston in that material being released.  This concept guided their research.  They argued about phlogiston’s nature; they disagreed about the implications of experiments in which different elements were burned in the air or under glass lids; they created a scientific consensus about the nature, meaning, and  implications of phlogiston.

By the end of the eighteenth century, a scientific revolution had rejected the idea of phlogiston.  Until that time, however, any notion that contradicted the dominant scientific paradigm would have been rejected.  Why did some materials gain weight, for example, when they rusted and supposedly emitted phlogiston?  During the reign of the scientific consensus about phlogiston, such disconfirming evidence was explained within the paradigm of phlogiston.  Scientists wondered if phlogiston might have negative weight, for example.  But they generally did not consider the idea that phlogiston itself was utterly imaginary.

The implications of this understanding of scientific truth are obvious.  In the case of evolution, the fact that mainstream scientists all agree on evolution does not prove the merit of evolution.  Rather, it only proves that such evolutionary scientists are trapped by the intellectual
constrictions of that dominant paradigm.  They do not need to be wicked, ignorant, or insane to do so.  In fact, most of them would love to come up with a powerful new idea that would revolutionize scientific knowledge.  Most of them would drool at the thought of having their name ranked up there with the other scientific revolutionaries, Lavoisier, Newton, Darwin, Einstein.  It is not that they are trying to enforce an orthodoxy.  Rather, they are fundamentally unable to think beyond the restrictions of their current paradigm.  They cannot think of ideas, in other words,
that build on ideas they do not think.  It will not be until a scientific revolution overhauls current understandings that scientists will be able to see the flaws in their evolutionary thinking.

Perhaps the example of phlogiston is too far removed from current thinking, however.  It might be easy to acknowledge that scientists back in the seventeenth century would fall prey to such unscientific notions, but to take solace in the idea that more recent science would not do so.  An
example from the twentieth century, then, might be more convincing.  For a few decades at the beginning of the twentieth century, one dominant idea was that of scientific racism.  Experts explored the differences between different types of humanity.  Races were graded on a scale from robust, vigorous, intelligent Anglo-Saxons at the top, to indolent, brutish Sub-Saharan Africans at the bottom.  The qualities of each race were
scientifically delineated.  Readers were told that such notions had been agreed upon by a consensus of leading scientists.  To doubt it would be to
express ignorance and reactionary stubbornness.  The policy implications of this kind of science were obvious.  If there were greater and
lesser races of humanity, it made sense to avoid cheapening the better races with the traits of the lesser.  Breeding between different races would lead to a deadly downward spiral of stupidity and weakness.  It made sense to promote racial eugenics, the discouragement of breeding of less advanced races and the utter prohibition of breeding between races.  The people who promoted these ideas were not cranks or outsiders.  They included scholars such as Madison Grant, who testified as an expert before US Congress as they debated passing newer, stricter immigration laws in 1924.

Before such ideas were kicked out of mainstream science by scholars such as Franz Boas, they dominated thinking about the nature of man
and society.  It took people with a previous commitment to an alternative understanding of humanity to challenge that view.  Among those challengers were evangelical Protestants.  James M. Gray, for example, in his career as president of the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago
(1904-1934), challenged the notion of scientific racism, just as he challenged the notion of human evolution.  For Gray, both ideas conflicted with the truth of Biblical teachings.  The Bible, Gray believed, described a common origin for all of humanity in the Garden of Eden.  Thus notions that some races were higher or lower contradicted God’s teaching.  The fact that scientists with impeccable credentials scoffed at Gray’s supposed
intellectual naiveté didn’t deter him.  He was able to think outside the dominant paradigm because he was committed to his understanding of an inerrant Bible.  Indeed, he was forced to think that way.  He could not have accepted the ideas of scientific racism, just as he could not accept the idea of evolution.

It is easy enough for some to reject the logic of Bible-based anti-evolutionists, but such rejectionists should be humbler in their assertions of confidence in the scientific consensus.  Such consensuses have in the past bound mainstream scholars to reprehensible ideas such scientific racism, or incorrect ideas such as phlogiston.  Simply because there is a consensus doesn’t make something true.

Those who support evolution often make another criticism of their opponents.  They point out that creationists’ claims violate the most fundamental principles of modern science by requiring a supernatural cause.  Such arguments, evolution supporters insist, go against the nature of true science, in which supernatural causes are rejected in favor of digging out the true material causes of things.  Science, at its heart, must reject such explanations, or else risk falling into a muddle in which every event can be explained away as the result of divine activity.  Take a simple example.  Thunder can be explained as the noise made when angels are bowling.  Such an idea is comforting to young children frightened by the noise of a storm.  But if adults were to seriously contend that thunder might in fact be caused that way, it would require fundamental violence to the notion of science.  Scientists know that thunder is really caused by the rapid movement of air to fill the void left by electrical discharges of lightning.  What if the Bible declared that thunder were caused by angels bowling?  Then anti-thunderists might declare that scientists arrogantly assumed that every roll of thunder was caused that way, when in fact some of the thunder might be due to angels bowling.  There is no proof, they could say, that angels did not bowl some of the thunderbursts.  No scientist could ever prove the cause of every single thunderburst.

But those who oppose the idea of evolution are not talking about thunder.  Their case is much stronger.  Thunder is observable.  Thunder can be studied as it happens.  In the case of the origins of life, evolutionists will admit that they have no direct proof of what occurred.  They infer from a body of evidence what they think makes sense, but in doing so they privilege an enormous package of pre-existing ideas about the notion of causation.  In other words, when they look at evidence from fossils and embryos, such evidence confirms their evolutionary hypothesis.  But in order for it to do so, evolutionary scientists must assume that there is only a material cause.

So, for example, evolutionists note that the basic structure of human hands is very similar to the bone structure of a bat’s wing, or a whale’s flipper.  From that they conclude that each of these mammals must have evolved from a common ancestor.  Makes sense.  But that conclusion has already assumed a material, evolutionary cause.  Consider, for instance, what can happen when you open your mind to consider a divine cause.  The conclusion of divine creation makes just as much sense.  Take a look underneath the hood at the engines of a Ford, a Toyota, and a Hyundai.  You will see very similar structures.  Each of them uses very similar mechanisms for generating power and translating that power into movement.  Each of them also has some similar additional parts, such as a reservoir for windshield-washer fluid.  Does that mean that they were not designed?  Of course not.  It means that the designers worked with structures that worked well.  If we assume a designer for life on earth, then we might conclude that the designer found that the same basic structure worked well for whales, bats, and humans.  The point is that evolutionists put the cart before the horse.  They assume a material, evolutionary cause for life, then when they look at evidence, they find their assumption confirmed.  At the very least, if we assume a divine, intentional cause for life, we can find our assumptions similarly confirmed.

ANTI EVOLUTION II: FURTHER READING

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); Jerry Bergman, The Criterion: Religious Discrimination in America (Richfield, MN: Onesimus Press, 1984); Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race (New York: Scribner’s, 1916).