Just to Illustrate a Point…

I envy James McGrath a little.  Not only do people send him links to interesting articles, but he actually shoehorns the time in to write about them.  He must have some sort of professorial mutant abilities that let him compress time or type really fast or something.  I also have a lot of respect for the patience James shows pretty much all the time, even when dealing with topics that pretty clearly get under his skin.  I don’t have that kind of patience, especially when I’m already cranky.  I’m cranky now, so this post might get a little harsh and blunt.  Just giving the reader a heads up.

Anyway, yesterday James had a couple of posts up that help to illustrate some of the things I was trying to highlight in the last woodpecker post.

In the first article, Taking Darwin on Faith? , James has some comments on a recent Indianapolis Star article by Russ Pulliam titled Taking Darwin on Faith.  One of my comments in the last woodpecker article was that creationist authors often refer to the “faith of evolutionists”.   Without even reading past the title of Pulliam’s article, I could predict almost the exact content of it.  Generally, Pulliam attempts to make the case that biologists who accept evolution (which is to say pretty much every working biologist in the world) are doing so based on faith.  Or that’s what he seems to be trying to do.  His article is really plate of word salad, and he dresses it with a lot of quotes from Richard Holdeman, a Presbyterian pastor and lecturer at Indiana University.   Holdeman doesn’t seem to have any problem with evolution per se, but has some concerns with how some “followers of Darwin have taken his work and turned it into a theological treatise about the origins and purpose of the universe” (apparently Pulliam’s words, not Holdeman’s).1

Now, those particular concerns are at the heart of the whole accommodationist issue that occasionally flares up, and they’re legitimate points of discussion, but they really have very little to do with what you’d think Pulliam seems to be trying to stress based on the title of his article.

To see what Pulliam is struggling to get at, we need to unpack a few of his comments.

Scientists have taken the occasion to lament the scientific ignorance of Americans. Surveys suggest that more than half the country believes in special creation by God, as opposed to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

The occasion he’s referring to is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin.  There are a lot of surveys that Pulliam could be talking about, but he’s more or less correct in reporting that they consistently show that a disturbingly large percentage of Americans reject evolution.  Pulliam somewhat distorts the result because the surveys ask the question in a variety of ways, and it’s not always easy to sort out whether all of the people who reject evolution do so because they believe in creationism or because they don’t know enough about evolution to decide either way.  The real problem with his statement here is the term “Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection”, and the reason it’s a problem is that modern evolutionary theory encompasses a lot more than classical Darwinian natural selection.  It’s fundamentally incorrect to equate evolutionary theory circa 2009 with evolutionary theory circa 1859, yet the vast majority of anti-evolution writers do precisely that.2

Pulliam then serves up this slice of rhetorical head cheese (emphases mine):

There certainly is ignorance about science. Some of us did better in math, English and history than in chemistry or biology. It’s easy then to miss the distinction between observable data and speculation and opinion.

Yet in the debate between evolution and creation, those on the Darwinian side of the discussion often make the same error that they see in their opponents. They observe nature and evolution within species, or adaptation. From there came Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis that humans evolved from the amoebas.

Many scientists contend that the theory has been proven, or rendered undeniable, by so much research. Yet there’s a leap of faith involved in Darwinian theory.

Pulliam throws in the first highlighted comment for a good reason.  The Answers In Genesis crowd likes to play this “same evidence, different conclusions” game, where they claim that looking at the evidence of the fossil record (for example) through a Biblical lens leads one to the conclusion that the flood myth is true.  The first problem is that they aren’t looking at the same evidence – they’ll show (again, for example) an in-situ fossil of a dinosaur, and propose a simplistic explanation of how it got there during Noah’s flood a few thousand years ago.  In doing this, they completely ignore the broader geological context of the find, including the strata above and below it, as well as the chain of evidence that dates the rocks surrounding the find to millions of years old.  The fact of the matter is that AIG is doing precisely what they claim that biologists are doing – AIG is presupposing that the Biblical account is true and accurate, and then attemtping to force-fit a very narrow subset of the available data into a framework to prove their presupposition.  Pulliam is attempting the same stunt here, insinuating that “followers of Darwin” are using their presuppositions and biases to arrive at unwarranted conclusions based on improper interpretation of the data.  Really, Russ?  Really?  It couldn’t possibly be that the data from geology and physics and chemistry and biology and astronomy and history and archaeology and pretty much every other -ology support an evolutionary interpretation of the data and not a literal Biblical one?

He then repeats a very common mis-statement of the concept of descent with modification.  Darwin didn’t propose that “humans evolved from the amoebas”.  Sorry, Russ.  That’s just bullshit.  Darwin made the connection that modern organisms are modified descendants of earlier organisms.  There are bajillions of steps between amoebas and humans.  Think of it like this.  If you stand next to your biological mother, you’re very similar but there are minor differences.  Nobody will accuse you of being of a different species than your mother, but neither will anyone accuse you of being her identical twin.  Now, put her mother next to her.  Same thing.  Keep going back, say, twenty generations or so.  If you were to stand next to your twenty-greats grandmother, it’s unlikely that there will be very much resemblance.  Go back a hundred thousand generations.  Your hundred-thousand greats grandmother won’t look anything like you at all.  But it took an extremely long time to get from her to you, and the difference between consecutive generations is very slight.  If you’re going to go on against evolution, at least present evolution accurately so that others who might read your work can make intellectually honest informed decisions.3

Pulliam’s last little nugget here is intended to put acceptance of evolution in the same box with religious faith, which (again) simply isn’t the case.  Religious faith has a large (perhaps dominant) component of belief in a lot of intangibles.  The “leap of faith” required to accept evolutionary theory (I’m going to paraphrase James here, since I really like the way he characterizes it) is the faith necessary to trust in our ability to observe the world around us and draw logical conclusions from those observations.  If you don’t have that, you’ve got no science at all.  (I’ve said before and I’ll probably say many more times that biology is applied chemistry which in turn is applied physics which in turn is applied mathematics.)  You don’t have medicine.  Or computers.  Or cars.  Or high definition TVs.

Pulliam makes one last comment that I want to address:

Part of the problem is defining science, which is traditionally limited to observation and experimentation.

Um.  OK.  So, Pulliam wants us to redefine science?  Observation and experimentation are pretty much the things that underpin the whole concept of science.  Certainly some experiments are designed to obtain observations, and some experiments are designed to test predictions from frameworks developed from previous observations, but to a first order we can consider science to be an iterative process of observation and experiment.  If you get too far away from that, you aren’t doing science any more.  You’re doing some sort of philosophy.  Pulliam doesn’t make clear how he would redefine science, but based on the way he uses quotes from Richard Holdeman, he seems to want to add religious presuppositions to science, which is, frankly, wrongheaded.

That’s all I want to say about Pulliam.

Now, James had another post that is probably the single most honest statement by a creationist author that I’ve ever seen.  He quotes a blogger by name of Todd Wood (I’m not familiar with Todd myself), who makes the following statement in a post at his place (emphasis in original):

Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.

He goes on to say that he rejects evolution because of his own faith and not because of any intrinsic scientific failing with evolution.  While I completely disagree with his conclusion, I have to respect his candor in making the statement above.

I think that’s about enough on this topic for tonight.



1Rev. Ouabache at ChaoSkeptic has an excellent deconstruction of Pulliam’s article that is well worth the read.  He deals more with the Holdeman quotes than I’m going to here.

2Darwin didn’t know genetics. There are many very subtle and complex processes that go on at the molecular level that make genetics much more involved than the simple dominant/recessive trait experiments that we all saw in high school. These processes have a profound impact on evolution that Darwin simply didn’t have the tools to understand.

3This reminds me of the little stunt that Ray Comfort and Mike Seaver Kirk Cameron are gearing up for – they’ve taken a (significantly edited) version of Darwin’s Origin, slapped a badly written diatribe on the front of it essentially claiming that evolution leads to everything bad (including the Holocaust…), and are planning to give it away free on college campuses. I’m not going to spend much time on this right now beyond saying that based on Comfort’s track record misrepresenting evolution at every chance he gets, despite having been corrected ad nauseum, he’s nothing more than an ignorant liar. Cristina has a good video rebuttal here.   She’s harsh, but she makes a lot of good points.

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14 thoughts on “Just to Illustrate a Point…”

  1. More and more these days I seem to encounter creationist apologists who seem to flirt with postmodernist philosophy in their attempts to warp scientific evidence for evolution in evidence for creationism. That is to say, they repeatedly claim that the evidence points towards whatever conclusion the prism of your beliefs predisposes you to find. (I once knew a guy who would attempt to turn any theological argument he was losing into a discussion of “metaphysics” along exactly these lines.)

    The problems with this outlook are numerous, but perhaps most glaringly it seems to me that if you buy into the claim that personal perspective is the most important component in evaluating evidence, you essentially toss the idea of observer-independent reality out the window. While it can be rhetorically helpful for creationists in the short term to attempt to shoehorn the acceptance of evolution into the mold of a religion by arguing that unfalsifiable issues of “metaphysics” mean that any data set is open to -any- interpretation, it also leaves them utterly incapable of forming an evidence-based objection to any other version of human origins. Any apologist who attempts to shoot down the modern evolutionary synthesis with metaphysics and postmodern bollocks should be forced to argue against Scientology’s claims of emperor Xenu and body thetans using the same tactics. I’m suspect under that circumstance they’d find the argument unpalatable.

    * And thereby allow themselves to make the argument that “Well, since they’re using faith and we’re using faith, both of our belief sets must be -at least- of equal value”.

    1. There’s a huge spectrum of people here, and it’s dangerously easy to paint all evolution deniers with the same brush (that’s not what you did here, of course…). By and large I think most people just fall into some category of plain ignorance on the subject.

      For every Ray Comfort or Ken Ham that engages in bare faced dishonesty there are many people who have simply accepted the statements of their pastors without giving it any critical thought. (Which is a mistake, but not a malicious mistake.) I think a lot of people in this category would begin to change their views if they were able to obtain a proper education in the subject.

      There are also those who just don’t understand evolution enough to form an informed opinion on the matter, but who don’t reject it for purely religious reasons. Again education is the key.

      Now, there are certainly some obstacles to people getting that education. For now I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to identify those.

  2. “In doing this, they completely ignore the broader geological context of the find, including the strata above and below it, as well as the chain of evidence that dates the rocks surrounding the find to millions of years old. ”

    I think you are confusing the lay literature with the technical literature. The lay literature does in fact leave out a lot of technical details because it is, in fact, geared towards a non-technical audience. However, there are plenty of geologists who are working with all of the data you have mentioned in one respect or another. See for instance:


    1. Hi, Jonathan.
      I appreciate your comment. I certainly can’t disagree with the statement that lay literature tends to go lighter on the technical details than the more specialized literature. So long as the lay material lets the reader know where to look for more detail, there isn’t a problem with that.

      Now, to address the article you linked to, I need to establish some background.

      The Answers Research Journal (where the linked article was published) describes itself thus:

      ARJ is a professional, peer-reviewed technical journal for the publication of interdisciplinary scientific and other relevant research from the perspective of the recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework.

      The problem here is that it presupposes a literal interpretation of Genesis. In other words, the ARJ isn’t looking for objective research – it’s looking for writers who can force data to fit a predetermined conclusion (e.g. that the diversity of life on Earth today can be somehow traced back to pairs of animals coming off of a boat several thousand years ago). That’s not how science works. The ARJ is basically saying that they don’t want articles that disagree with their position. This is made explicitly clear in the ARJ Instructions to Authors:

      The editor-in-chief will not be afraid to reject a paper if it does not properly satisfy the above criteria or it
      conflicts with the best interests of AiG as judged by its biblical stand and goals outlined in its statement of faith. The editors play a very important initial role in preserving a high level of quality in the ARJ, as well as
      protecting AiG from unnecessary controversy and review of clearly inappropriate papers.

      Do you not see the problem here? Before we even read the article, we know what it’s going to say: “{Fill in the blank subject} supports Young Earth Creationism!” ARJ lacks even a scintilla of scientific credibility simply because they’re not publishing science. They’re publishing complicated apologetics. If you fail to understand that you simply cannot assume the truth of that which you are trying to prove, then we’re at an impasse.

      Now, Andrew Snelling, the author of the article you linked to (and the editor-in-chief of the ARJ), is an interesting character. He’s clearly got credentials, but his body of work is, to say the least, somewhat puzzling. In any event, the polonium halo canard that he’s pushing here doesn’t really hold up. It occurs to me, though, that articles such as Snelling’s have great appeal because the subject matter is sufficiently obscure and esoteric that most readers would be disinclined to dig into it further.

      Once again – you cannot presuppose the truth of that which you’re trying to prove. Science doesn’t work that way.

  3. Also, on your two links, I should point out that:

    1) it is true that Creationists regularly publish papers in secular journals that reference timeframes in the millions of years. That is simply because it is required in the secular scientific world. You simply couldn’t get a paper published if the paper expressed reservations about such things. Imagine that someone have given you a grant of X tens of thousands of dollars, you do some amazing research, and then go to publish it but no one will because it expresses doubts about ages. Should you keep the research to yourself, or share it with the rest of the community by using their wording and their assumptions? For one scientists story, see this NYT article on Marcus Ross.

    As for the T.O. page, as usual, they are cherry picking both the data and the source. In fact, Snelling is quite critical of Gentry’s usage of radiohalos in several areas, but T.O. treats them as if they were exact parrots of each other. T.O. fails to point out that the halos found along cracks are all Polonium 210 halos, which are not the ones of interest to either Snelling or Gentry (they were looking at Polonium 218 halos). Which is surprising considering that the article they cite render’s T.O.’s point #1 irrelevant and they don’t even bother to comment on it. I guess, considering that it’s T.O., it really isn’t that surprising.

    For a look at the differences between the two models, see Paul Garner’s discussion of them.

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