Friday, July 31, 2009

Cornelius Hunter on How Religion Drives Science

The Discovery Institute's newsletter, Nota Bene, has a blog post by Cornelius Hunter titled: Are Evolutionists Delusional (or Just in Denial)? That's a provocative title, so let's see just what he means. He writes:
In one moment evolutionists make religious arguments and in the next they claim their theory is "just science." Their religious arguments, they explain, really aren't religious arguments after all. Gee, that was easy. In light of such absurdity, I don't have much confidence that evolutionists are going to think more deeply about this. But it would be nice if they would stop misrepresenting science. And it would be nice if they would stop using their credentials to mislead the public. In short, it would be nice if they would stop lying.
To what is he referring when he states this? He is taking to task Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True. Coyne has engaged in the classic argument that, if Intelligent Design is the way things are, why do they look so, well, unintelligently designed? Coyne writes:
The reason why the recurrent laryngeal nerve, for example, makes a big detour around the aorta before attaching to the larynx is perfectly understandable by evolution (the nerve and artery used to line up, but the artery evolved backwards, constraining the nerve to move with it), but makes no sense under the idea of special creation — unless, that is, you believe that the creator designed things to make them look as if they evolved. No form of creationism/intelligent design can explain these imperfections, but they all, as Dobzhansky said, “make sense in the light of evolution.”
Hunter correctly points out that this is, in many ways, an argument from personal incredulity. We have no idea how God would or would not design an animal. We can only show how the animal is designed and compare that design with what came before and what comes after. There is a fabled exchange between Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr in which Einstein is reported to have said "God does not roll dice with the universe," to which Bohr remarked "How does Einstein know what God will or will not do?" However, Coyne's secondary point is not addressed by Hunter: if God designed the laryngeal nerve in this way, it sure looks a hell of a lot like evolution. I have long contended that if God did design everything in "progressive creation" fashion, He did so in such a way that it looks so much like evolution that we can't tell the difference.

But then the wheels fall of the wagon. Hunter writes:
But nature's organisms do not look as though they evolved. Except, that is, if one assumes that God would never have designed the recurrent laryngeal nerve. Again, we're back to assumptions about design. Evolutionists are so deep in their own metaphysics they don't even realize it.
The link is to a paper that Hunter wrote called Darwin's Predictions, a lengthy, sprawling paper that I will tackle in another post. Suffice it to say his principle point, that organisms don't look as though they have evolved is patently false. The reason there is theory of evolution is because that is EXACTLY what organisms look like. When Darwin and Wallace first concocted the idea of Natural Selection, it is because the creatures they were examining looked as if they had evolved. Long before they came up with natural selection, naturalists had thought that some form of evolution took place, reflecting what the natural world and the fossil record showed. It doesn't look like evolution if you refuse to accept that evolution happened. Hunter continues:
Evolution has no scientific explanation for how the recurrent laryngeal nerve, or any other nerve for that matter, evolved. It is a vacuous theory. But it knows they must have evolved because God would not have done it that way.

In fact, evolution has no solid basis for even thinking these designs are necessarily poor. This is more religion making its way into the argument, as the assumption of poor design is itself a motif of evolutionary thought. When in doubt, evolutionists assume lack of function or poor design. It is not a scientific finding so much as a consequence of the belief that evolution is true.
This is also absolutely false. Neil Shubin, in his book Your Inner Fish, describes in detail how our common ancestry with fish explains why we have this circuitous nerve arrangement. If you reject evolution, like Hunter has, then this explanation doesn't work. But given the MOUNTAINOUS amount of evidence for evolution involving all of the biosphere, Coyne, Shubin and others are simply applying Occam's Razor to the problem. If you have a ready-made explanation for something, to posit a supernatural one that carries no empirical weight is not parsimonious. Such a statement has no bearing on whether or not God exists, but rather how the nerve was designed: by evolution or by fiat. God could reasonably do either. He writes:
In fact, evolution has no solid basis for even thinking these designs are necessarily poor. This is more religion making its way into the argument, as the assumption of poor design is itself a motif of evolutionary thought. When in doubt, evolutionists assume lack of function or poor design. It is not a scientific finding so much as a consequence of the belief that evolution is true.
This is not precisely true. For example, there are twenty-three different forms of eye in the biosphere, all of them very different, with different developmental trajectories. It is relatively easy to make observations about an animal in its environment and then determine which traits help it to survive and which are disadvantageous. For instance, when the mutation for albinism occurs, it puts the person at a disadvantage because they have to stay out of the sun. That is easy enough to determine.

Some eye designs are optimized for their environment. The human eye, because of the way the optic nerve develops, has a blind spot where the nerve comes into the back of the eye. Other eye designs do not have this problem. It is very easy to determine whether or not something is designed well or poorly. However, to say "if I were an engineer, I would never have designed it this way" is not the same as saying "God would not have designed it this way." Bohr is right in this respect. Hunter continues:
Finally, Coyne makes a standard evolutionary appeal to a famous paper by evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky. Dobzhansky was one of the twentieth century's leading evolutionists and he wrote a paper entitled "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

The title itself reveals the metaphysical message and, not surprisingly, the paper was a tirade against divine creation. It is now a classic example of theological naturalism in action. The paper's title has become one of the most memorable and quoted phrases for evolutionists--another constant reminder of the theology embedded in their thinking.
This is absurd. There is nothing metaphysical about the title of Dobzhansky's paper (the phrase "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" is the title of the paper, by the way. Dobzhansky never actually says that in the paper.) In the 1700s and 1800s, naturalists were scrambling to try to figure out how all of the creatures in the world were connected. While it was certainly true that Linnaeus' classification system was devised to catalog God's creation, it soon became apparent that all organisms were related to each other. This problem was intensified when it became clear that the earth was yielding up the remains of animals that looked similar to the ones that were in existence but were not quite the same. Worse, the further down you dug, the less similar they were until you encountered the terrible lizards, to which there was no modern analogue whatsoever. Was each creature created individually by divine fiat? Or was there some mechanism by which they were all linked? As far back as Count Buffon, naturalists realized that it only made sense if the modern forms had descended, in some way, from the fossil forms. In 1856, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace provided that mechanism: natural selection and common descent.

As far as Dobzhansky's paper is concerned, the title is an observational statement. He writes:
The evidence of fossils shows clearly that the eventual end of most evolutionary lines is extinction. Organisms now living are successful descendants of only a minority of the species that lived in the past and of smaller and smaller minorities the farther back you look. Nevertheless, the number of living species has not dwindled; indeed, it has probably grown with time. All this is understandable in the light of evolution theory; but what a senseless operation it would have been, on God’s part, to fabricate a multitude of species ex nihilo and then let most of them die out!
Theodosius Dobzhansky was a devout Jesuit and firm believer in God. His conundrum, like that of so many of us, was the he could not see how it was in keeping with God's personality to create by divine fiat a species only to kill it off. To him it made more sense that He used evolution. Is this argument from personal incredulity? In a sense, yet it is. But it is also the use, once again, of Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation, all other things being equal, is usually the correct one, especially if you already have a mechanism to explain it. Dobzhansky's paper is a tirade against creation only if you accept that the earth was created six thousand years ago and there is no evolution. Is his reasoning, as Hunter states, theological? No, quite the opposite. It is empirical. Evolution can explain these things, progressive creation has a bit more trouble and recent-earth creationism cannot, whatsoever.

Hunter finishes the paper thus:
Whether evolutionists are liars, delusional or in denial is difficult to say. What is obvious is that evolutionary thought is bankrupt. Religion drives science, and it matters.
Here he has overplayed his hand. He doesn't write religion drives evolution, he writes religion drives science. Evolution isn't the problem, science is. This is peculiar coming from a biophysicist. How does religion drive his science, since by his own admission, it must? I would like to ask Dr. Hunter this question, as well as how much coursework he has had in comparative anatomy, zoology and palaeontology, but there is no mechanism by which to contact him on his blog. That is unfortunate. I would also like to know how much astronomy or astrophysics he has had, since my suspicion is that he is a young earth creationist.

If evolutionary thought is bankrupt, how does he explain the fossil record? How does he explain observable speciation in modern biomes? If "Evolutionists" use religion to drive their science, how does he explain the ERVs that we share with the higher primates? We get no hint of answers to any of those questions from this vitriolic, insulting post in which he clearly has no respect for scientists who, for the last 150 years have produced some of the finest scientific work in trying to understand how modern organisms are connected to each other and how they are connected to those which came before.

Another Discovery Institute hatchet job.

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  1. Anonymous11:58 AM

    "How does religion drive his science, since by his own admission, it must?"

    Well put. It's a bit frustrating since there's no way to dialog with the man by email or comments on his blog.

  2. Dave Wisker9:54 AM

    A good essay, but it should be noted that Dobzhansky was not a Jesuit. You may be thinking of the Jesuit scientist/priest/mystic Pierre Teilhard De Chardin-- who influenced Dobzhansky's thinking about spirituality and evolution.

  3. You are probably right. I could have sworn that Dobzhansky was a Jesuit but it seems he was a Russian Orthodox of sorts. Thanks for the heads up.