One of the people I would enjoy having a drink with is the famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. He’s a bombast, but from what I can tell he appears to be a very personable, lively, and entertaining bombast.
And although he and I are both evolutionary biologists, and would have many things to talk about, we would disagree on some things. For one, Dawkins has been very aggressive in attacking creationism. Which to my mind, is not very scientific, and is even a bit unprofessional. I’m no creationist myself, and take a skeptical view of religion.
Just like I take a skeptical view of science. In fact, I have become so skeptical of science (or at least skeptical of the universal applicability of science), that I now think of myself as a natural philosopher.
But on the creationism issue, Dawkins would doubtless want a debate. If so, I might ask Dawkins to disprove creationism. He can’t do that, of course, so he might ask me to prove it. That would be an inadequate response to my challenge, but I have admit, it would produce a draw. He can’t disprove it, I can’t prove it.
Nor do I want to prove creationism; I simply want to keep an open mind, remain skeptical. So I might point out what creationists often note, an absence of evidence is not evidence of an absence. Which is a really powerful insight far beyond this debate.
I have a lot of problems with declaring that something does not, or cannot, exist. The existence of an omnipotent God is a good example. First, we cannot exhaustively comb the universe, for God or anything else, insuring that it/He exists nowhere. Second, even if we could comb the universe, we cannot expect to find anything that our senses, our instruments – and precisely to my point here, our paradigms – are not designed to detect. But in the unlikely event that we could develop instruments to look for a Deity, we would need to train our instruments on all levels of size, from the subatomic to the supernovan, and perhaps beyond. Last, if we are dealing with an omniscient deity who prefers to be realized through faith rather than science, then He would probably still outwit us.
Next, Dawkins might ask me to disprove Darwinism. Turnabout is fair play: I would ask him to prove it. He would point to the fossil record, the genetic record, embryology, conservation of useless structures, and others.
That, I must admit, is excellent evidence. But we have to be honest, it is all entirely circumstantial, and does not begin to approach a proper scientific proof. Which points to one of the problems here: science has become conflated with the scientific method, and the scientific method has some severe shortcomings. Evolution is a good example of the conflict between science and the scientific method.
For one, the scientific method corresponds to the maxim from Peter Drucker, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Turns out that Drucker never really said that. But in too much of science, there is this idea that if you can’t measure it, it ain’t science.
You certainly can’t measure creationism. But you can’t measure much of Darwinism, either; not once in The Origin of Species does Darwin ever lay out a single metric. He performs no experiments, publishes no data, generates no statistics, presents no equations. The book is simply an examination of fascinating patterns, and those patterns suggest some intriguing possibilities which offer concise solutions for understanding much of life. But those patterns do not meet the standards of a scientific proof. A proof should have a p value.1)For the non-scientist, the p value is an estimation of how strong the trends in a data are. Evolution over a geologic time scale doesn’t have one.
Now, intraspecific or ‘small’ evolution, the variation we see among dogs, cabbages, or bacteria, is amenable to the scientific method, and easy to demonstrate. But that’s not a problem, most fundamentalists have no objections to that sort of evolution. It’s metaspecific2)Metaspecific: I am reminded of the quip from C.P. Scott about television, “The word is half Latin, half Greek. No good can come of it.” But then I thought, ‘metacarpal’ is also half Latin, half Greek. Nanny-nanny boo-boo. Darwinism, the generation of completely new and highly differentiated species, that creationists object to, and which also completely confounds the scientific method.
Sure, all observers can see the fossil record. But no observer has ever seen the process that produced the fossil record. No observer ever will. The scientific method demands reproducibility, but large-scale evolution is simply not reproducible. There are no ‘do-overs.’ Even if we had millions of years, and the power to track and observe the gazillions of organisms required to produce major evolution, we still would never get repeatable results. That’s not a minor point, it will become one of the major themes in this blog: evolution, and progress, confound science; or at least they confound the scientific method.
Of course, if we had millions of years and the ability to track a bazillion organisms, we might very well get other, fascinating results conforming to Darwinism. But that still doesn’t prove that evolution produced, in the past, what we see today. Some external agent – ‘God’ is as good a name as any – may have created it all the first time, and simply made it look like evolution. If we try it again, perhaps He would simply allow us to do it ‘our’ way the second time. Maybe He’s just tricksy that way.
Another shortcoming of the scientific method is that it assumes that all valid phenomena must be universally verifiable, to all observers, at all times. When we state it that way, we can see that we have dismissed the possibility of things that are only sometimes true. It is simply an assumption of convenience that something that is true today must be true tomorrow, and in fact modern physics has many theories that suggest this assumption may not be valid. In the first few moments of the Big Bang (as in cosmological inflation, not The Barenaked Ladies’ intro to the the sitcom) all sorts of things happened that don’t happen anymore. And physicists definitely have theories that what is true in some places is not true others; life would look very different in the singularity of a black hole.
For one thing, it would be dead. We think. (Interesting theological question: could a soul escape a black hole?)
And the assumption that a fact must be accessible to all viewers rules out phenomena that perhaps only some people experience. That may sound ridiculous, but there is absolutely no law, nor even good reason, that everyone must have the same capacities, and have access to the same experiences. It is another assumption of convenience.
Because in fact some people do experience things the rest of us do not. Some of us see colors the colorblind cannot. The reverse may also be true; I am told that during WWII, soldiers with certain kinds of color blindness could easily recognize enemy camouflage in black and white photos where people with normal vision could not. With that, we know that many animals flee to safety when a tsunami or volcanic eruption is approaching, suggesting that they have senses which humans do not. And in one of my personal favorites, all over the world dowsers still make good money locating wells, something scientists cannot explain (and therefore often reject despite the evidence, or simply ignore, making one wonder what the heck is wrong with scientists) and which seems to represent a sensory modality that only some of us experience.
In a more orthodox (and for my thesis here, more telling) example, physicists rejected the early work on X-rays, not because it violated any scientific principles, but simply because it was embarrassing. It presented untidy, un-accounted for effects, and called into question much of their preceding research. Others working in in the field hadn’t controlled for the problems that X-rays presented. They hadn’t foreseen Xrays, so they didn’t want to see X-rays.
And so they did what too many scientists do when trapped: they insisted that X-rays simply didn’t exist.
So if Joan of Arc says she heard God speaking to her, how could we possibly know that she did not? It is not even a concern of ours unless she acts upon it in ways that are harmful to the rest of us. (She did go to war, a problem for Christian ethics. It was also a problem to the enemy who died.) And even when they gave her the ultimate hot foot to shut her up, we still cannot prove that she did not hear Him talking to her.
Did evolution produce life? Dawkins and other evolutionary biologists (including me!) would argue that evolution is clearly the simpler explanation. It is, as we scientists like to say, ‘Occamian.’
‘Occam’ is the Latinized form of the last name of William of Ockham, a 14th century Franciscan friar and philosopher. He is responsible for ‘Ockham’s Razor’, which (approximately) states that the simplest explanation is the preferred explanation.
Problem is, Ockham’s Razor ain’t science. It’s clerical, bureaucratic, and even economical (it requires less vellum, hand-lettering, and book-binding). But there is absolutely nothing in science which says the simplest explanation is the truth. Nor is there any way to test such an hypothesis.
With that, our argument that evolution is even the simpler explanation is equally suspect. All we can say truthfully is that it is simpler within our pitiful understanding. It’s possible that Divine intervention is actually the simpler explanation (we’ll get to Bishop Berkeley later). To support this approach I give you the Clarke-Abraham maxim3)Produced by Joseph N. Abraham in collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, completely without Clarke’s knowledge or consent.: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, or divinity.”
So here’s the problem: there is absolutely no way to prove that God did not create the universe, and all life in it. All we can definitively say is that we can’t understand such a thing. Given the infinity of our ignorance, that should impart a little humility, not arrogance.
I would also like to point out that attacking creationists lacks collegiality, and is even rude. It is considered disrespectful to attack colleagues who disagree with us. Are fundamentalists to be treated otherwise? Are they a lesser breed of human, unworthy of the respect we give our colleagues? Remember, some of our colleagues believe some pretty outrageous things. First Lamarck was a genius, then Lamarck was an idiot, now Lamarck is starting to look pretty good again. It happens in science all the time, theories rise and fall as fast as hemlines. Which should instill us with even more humility.
It would be hard for Dawkins to argue that he does not see fundamentalists as an inferior class of humanity. At times he treats them with the same condescension, insensitivity and callous disrespect that racists show to various disenfranchised minorities.
We should not treat people, nor their ideas, disrespectfully. It violates everything education represents, and remember, science and research are subsets of education. Attacking people who disagree with us may generate headlines, but to my mind it produces much smoke and smolder, but little illumination. Attacking people never leads to submission; and submission should never be the point of education, at least not in a democratic country. Attacking simply creates a siege mentality, and more resistance, which is another argument against abusing those who disagree with us.
Finally, and by far worst of all, to reject creationism reflects a certain incuriosity. Curiosity should be the essence of all scientific inquiry, and I think that calling a scientist ‘incurious’ should be worse than insulting her mother. Worse than insulting her grandmother.
Worse than insulting her data set.
If the creationists want to challenge Darwinism, not only should we tolerate them, we should welcome them – with zeal. We should excitedly take up any new puzzles they present, we should find their arguments stimulating and engaging. They probably won’t listen to our responses, of course. But that is immaterial, because we would be listening to our responses, and generating new questions, and learning and growing as we did so.
For instance, creationists often point to bombardier beetles as a refutation of Darwinism. Oh, pooh. Let’s really give them something to talk about: Why does the human brain appear to be vastly over-designed? Why are five digits preserved through so much of the vertebrate evolutionary tree? What were the steps between inert matter and a fully-functioning cell?
Or my favorite, What possible selective advantage might consciousness serve, and how did evolution produce it?
When scientists, even profoundly important scientists such as Dawkins, begin attacking creationism, they become incurious. They become as inflexible, as closed-minded – as religious – as the people they attack. And as they do so, they abandon collegiality and educational professionalism.
Because that’s where I want to go with these next few essays. The problem I see in the world is that all the real threats to humanity are human, and those threats are packaged with arrogance, hubris, and closed-mindedness. You can see it in political debates, you can see it in corporate skulduggery. But I promise you, we can all see it in our own heads if we take an impartial look around. I certainly find it too often in my own head. The madness has to stop.
Finally – and I mean it this time – the more I read and look around, the more disappointed I am in scientists. They are no worse than anyone else, of course.
It’s just that I expect them to be so much better.
Picture, William Blake, “Ancient of Days,” courtesy Wikimedia.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||For the non-scientist, the p value is an estimation of how strong the trends in a data are.|
|2.||↑||Metaspecific: I am reminded of the quip from C.P. Scott about television, “The word is half Latin, half Greek. No good can come of it.” But then I thought, ‘metacarpal’ is also half Latin, half Greek. Nanny-nanny boo-boo.|
|3.||↑||Produced by Joseph N. Abraham in collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, completely without Clarke’s knowledge or consent.|