Friday, March 26, 2010

Francisco Ayala Wins Templeton Award, Discovery Institute Responds

Francisco Ayala, the genetics and evolutionary biology professor at UC Irvine and former Dominican priest, has won the 2009 Templeton Award, given for work in "affirming spirituality." The story, by Mitchell Landsberg of the L.A. Times, notes:
As a young doctoral student in the 1960s, Francisco J. Ayala was surprised to learn that Darwin's theory of evolution appeared to be less widely accepted in the United States than in his native Spain, then a profoundly conservative and religious country.

Ayala brought a unique sensibility to the topic, because he had been ordained as a Catholic priest before undertaking graduate studies in evolution and genetics. What he believed then, and has spent his career espousing, is that evolution is consistent with the Christian faith.

On Thursday, Ayala, an acclaimed researcher at UC Irvine, won the 2010 Templeton Prize, awarded annually in recognition of achievements in affirming spirituality. The prize is worth $1.6 million, which Ayala said he would give to charity.
Ayala's work is very thought-provoking and deeply moving. He is an a brilliant geneticist and evolutionary biologist and has embraced both his faith in God and the science of evolution. He is also not supportive in any way of Intelligent Design. Recently, he wrote a review of Stephen Meyer's book Signature of the Cell, which appeared on the BioLogos page. His comment, in that review, is currently being echoed in Steve Matheson's ongoing review over at Quintessence of Dust. Ayala wrote:
The keystone argument of Signature of the Cell is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms. I agree. And so does every evolutionary scientist, I presume. Why, then, spend chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages of elegant prose to argue the point? It is as if in a book about New York, the author would tell us that New York is not in Europe, and then dedicate most of the book to advancing evidence that, indeed, truly, New York is not in Europe.
His award reception has caught the attention (of course) of the Discovery Institute's David Klinghoffer, who has responded. He writes:
Advocates of a supposedly religion-friendly Darwinism have seized on the idea of God’s acting through secondary causes. In his book Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion, Ayala argues that since God acts through intermediate causation to create geological features (mountains, rivers), why may the same analysis not be applied to the evolution of life? In the latter context, he insists that the idea of God’s acting through “specific agency…amounts to blasphemy.” For such direct control would imply that God bears responsibility for all the cruelties, pains, and dysfunctions that have accompanied the unfolding of life’s history.

But there is a real and important difference between secondary causation of the kind that results in the formation of rivers and mountains, on one hand, and that which, according to the evolutionary model, results in life in all its forms. The operation of geological forces follows paths described by physical laws. Whatever role chance plays, the overall process is predictable. The religious believer may reasonably picture God, having authored those laws, as the creator of geological features, having planned and foreseen what those features would be. Similarly, He is the author of those laws that govern patterns in the weather, in the alternation of the seasons, of day and night, and so on. God could thus confidently tell Noah that “So long as the earth exists, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (Genesis 8:6).
Here, you can sense that Klinghoffer is setting up a dichotomy between what is real science (geology) and what is fake science (evolution). Here again is this meme that every scientist in all organized disciplines have gotten everything right and are performing honest science EXCEPT those evolutionists, who have gotten everything wrong. He even makes a point of mentioning that these geological laws are predictable. Then he brings down the hammer:
But life — including human life — is different. If Darwin and the vast majority of his modern advocates are right, then the path of life's evolution was inherently unpredictable — not wholly random, since natural selection plays its role, but generated by chance and governed by no plan, design, or teleology. Ayala himself has said this very clearly: “It was Darwin’s greatest accomplishment to show that the complex organization and functionality of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process — natural selection — without any need to resort to a Creator or other external agent.”
This is so basically wrong as to be almost unbelievable. The sheer force of evolutionary theory is the means by which it is able to predict results. It was predicted (by Darwin) that the earliest human precursors would be found in Africa because that is where our closest relatives (gorillas and chimpanzees) live. That is exactly where they were found. It was predicted that a tetrapod intermediate would be found in the shallow-sea Devonian deposits of the Canadian arctic because that is when such a creature should have arisen. In 2005, Neil Shubin found Tiktaalik. It was predicted that the likely explanation for the chromosomal number discrepancy between the higher apes and humans would be the discovery of two fused chromosomes in humans. that is exactly what was found. The examples are almost endless. Life is not different from geological processes. Both derive from environmental changes.

A short aside on semantics: He comments that evolution is controlled by "no plan, design, or teleology." How does he know this? Did he have a "road to Damascus" moment? In this, he has confused randomness and stochasticity, a critical mistake that seems to be common in attacks on "neo-Darwinism." A process that is random is truly random—there is no plan at all. Stochasticity means that a process is non-deterministic. There might or might not be a plan but we cannot discern it. The two are very different. All evolutionary creationists agree that God is behind evolution but that it might not be possible to determine exactly what His plan is or why. Under Klinghoffer's definition, there can be no God involved at all.

But that is not the real problem here. The problem is that evolution is not random, just as geological processes are not random. The same physical laws that govern how the terrain is going to behave under the influence of wind, water and temperature govern evolutionary changes. There is measured directional selection in organisms that live in different environments, just as there are measured directional changes in those environments over time. One does not happen without the other and both yield predictions, not just about what one will see in the future but what was present in the past. Because we know what shallow-sea environments look like today, we can spot them at geological periods in the past. Because we know that there were fish in early and middle Devonian shallow-seas and tetrapods in late Devonian shallow seas, we can predict what we will find in between.

Darwin wasn't showing that there was no God. He was showing that in trying to explain "descent with modification" of animals, the same physical laws that govern geology govern biology as well. The changes could be quantified in a biological sense and the theory could be used to answer hypothetical questions. This was exactly contrary to the message of William Paley, who argued that some things could not be explained in any other way than by production through divine fiat. This is, almost to a 't' the modern message of Intelligent Design. Klinghoffer continues:
The theistic evolutionary view of those like Francisco Ayala and Kenneth Miller (when he is in that mood) is just a revived variant of Gnosticism. According to that ancient heresy, a hidden, alien, passive Supreme Being coexists with a creator Demiurge, a blind watchmaker (to borrow the title of Richard Dawkin’s book), unconscious, indifferent, and morally irrelevant.
Klinghoffer plainly hasn't met any "theistic evolutionists" (or is it "evolutionary creationists?"). If he had, he would know this is just nonsense. No EC that I am familiar with is bashful about his worship of Jesus Christ or of incorporating that faith into his or her life and including the science as well. Does Klinghoffer know the intimate details of Ayala's and Miller's relationships with God?

So Orchids to Francisco Ayala, who has shown that his Christian faith and his science can walk hand in hand and onions to David Klinghoffer, for another Discovery Institute hatchet job.

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  1. I was quite pleased to see Ayala's receipt of the Templeton Prize. The response of the DI confirms to me that they are more interested in preserving an ideological construct than in engaging in any meaningful dialogue on the issue. But of course I'm not at all surprised by that. Setting up straw men as your opposition is as old as human beings it seems. By the way, I think you hit a home run with your analysis. You cut through the ambiguous language to show what separates the views. Good job.

  2. Thanks for the commentary. It's certainly a different take than you see at UncommonDescent! Or for that matter, BioLogos, by (I presume) the ID folks that contribute to the comments.

  3. Yes. I have been reading Steve Matheson's frustrations with Reasons to Believe. It seems that both the DI and RTB are engaging in not-so-subtle distortions of the truth. Sad. I lost my respect for the DI long ago.

  4. It really is sad. There's something sick about the DI, though, that I don't smell at RTB. The DI seems to be completely corrupt, whereas I see the possibility of reform at RTB. But I've always been an incurable romantic.

    Excellent analysis.

  5. "There is something sick about the DI, though, that I don't smell at RTB."


    If they continue to allow Fuz Rana to do their evolutionary analysis, they will quickly lose all of the credibility that they have strived for. One of the purposes of organizations like BioLogos and Reasons to Believe is to provide an alternative to the obviously wrong-headed young earth creationism sites like ICR, CMI and AIG. Hugh Ross took great pains to make his philosophical viewpoint separate from that and offer the good science of a published astronomer.

    If, however, they allow bad biological science in the back door, which they seem to have done and been quite happy to do so, all is lost. I would be very surprised if they respond positively to any constructive criticism of their pieces that promote anti-evolutionism.

    But that is not going to stop me from writing them anyway.