Answering the theistic evolution go-to playbook

In continuation of my post from yesterday, Jim Stump has offered me a chance to tackle a few more predictable moves in the theistic evolution playbook.

To catch people up to speed, in a facebook conversation, Stump made the statements,

“Common ancestry [here he means Universal Common Ancestry] is a multiply confirmed theory that explains the observable data in detail. So asking what kind of evidence would contradict that is about like asking what kind of evidence would it take for you to accept geocentrism.”

And,

“The fossil record continues to be uncovered, and continues to show more and more what you expect to see if common descent is true. At all of the major transitions, there are intermediates found in just the right places.”

I responded on that thread, and then decided to convert those responses into a blog. The major thrust was that multiple origins of life is a viable and growing option for many biologists, and that the fossil and genetic data are not as clear and unequivocal as he had suggested. I made no apologetics arguments, and didn’t even mention god. I just offered scientific evidences that his positions were debatable.

In private discussion with a friend (on who’s page this conversation took place), I then made a prediction:

“Personally, I just don’t think that the doubt about UCA is religiously motivated. Too many secular biologists are skeptics (and for too good of reasons). Just because UCA is false, it doesn’t follow that anyone is saying ‘god did it.’ That’s Jim Stump’s fear. They SOOOOOO fear the god of the gaps fallacy.”

It took less than a day for my prediction of Stump’s response to be validated. Rather than grapple with the examples I offered, Stump’s response was,

“I’m curious what your alternative explanation is for the Cambrian Explosion (and even more, the rest of the fossil evidence)….What I’m wondering is what you would see if a video camera had been rolling. Did God create one species out of nothing (so there was nothing there, and then “poof” we see a certain number of these organisms); and then a million years later all of those have died out, and God creates another species out of nothing that looks very similar with just a few tweeks; and so on and so on through millions of years, so there is a sequence of slightly modified species that look like a progression, but are actually not related?”

In other words, when I pointed out there is a growing number of serious biologists who are skeptical about Universal Common Ancestry (UCA), and that the fossil record isn’t as easily interpreted as he suggested, he didn’t respond with a counter to my evidences. He changed the subject to what really haunts him: the god-of-the-gaps fallacy (but see here). Of course, I hadn’t mentioned god at all. I simply tried to demonstrate that the science didn’t necessarily support his claim.

Notice how this argument works. If there is a gap in understanding, we are asked to assume that it will be filled with a naturalistic explanation. That is, we will find no evidence of God directly acting in a divine way (i.e. miraculously violating natural law). Now, it is true that saying “God did it,” doesn’t tell us how it happened. But, that’s an entirely different concern than whether or not science can detect such action. Every day, Jim Stump assumes he has the capacity for objective observation and free-willed decisions, even though science cannot explain how it is possible. None the less, the patterns produced by intelligent agents can be detected by science. So people like Stump are conflating the questions “did it happen?” with “how did it happen?” Science can work on either.

But notice the more concerning issue in this line of arguing. If Stump is incredulous about the possibility of God acting divinely, suspending natural law, then what exactly does he think God did do?[1] The conclusion is that, in order to be intellectually honest, he must assume that God has never acted to produce miracles that violate natural law. Wherever Stump inserts a claim of miraculous divine action, he is committing this god-of-the-gaps fallacy himself!

I’m going to return to this last observation in a subsequent blog, but I want to finish by discussing another go-to in the theistic evolutionist playbook: the appeal to consensus. Sadly, this is a common and well-known logical fallacy, so it’s shameful that people pull it. Consensus science is used by many to beat up and belittle anyone with a “fringe” view on a topic. Stump is no exception. His second response to my comments was,

“As I said, I know you can produce some scientists who object to evolution. But just saying that gives the impression that scientists are roughly divided on the subject, when the reality is that 98% accept evolution (and 99% of those with PhD’s in biology or medicine). So I’m guessing my 95% estimate of paleontologists is pretty safe.”

First, I’m not convinced of this number. I hadn’t made a case against evolution in its broadest sense. Only that his views on evolution were flawed. But, tucked in here, is an equivocation on the word evolution. For most polls of this sort, you only have two options: naturalism = ‘evolution,’ and supernaturalism = anti-evolution. Anyone committed to naturalism must choose some form of evolution. But, what evolution is, whether the pattern or the process, is very fluid today. For example, at a meeting of the Royal Society back in 2016, Gerd B. Müller offered no less than six different definitions for “evolution.” Even the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) believes in a form of evolution: some small number of animals got off Noah’s ark, and then diversified into what we see today. That’s evolution.

Leaving that aside, notice the appeal here. Since 98% of PhDs in biology accept “evolution,” any examples I bring to the table can be rejected out of hand. This is why Stump said that doubting such things was tantamount to believing in geocentrism. Only about a third of scientists in biology and medicine believe in God. So, if Stump’s argument was valid, it would actually harm his views. He shouldn’t be a Christian, since it’s a minority view.

But let’s knock this down once and for all.

Francis Crick shared in a Nobel Prize for making one of the greatest discoveries in the history of the biological sciences (the DNA double helix). Yet, in 1973, he and Leslie Orgel argued,

“As an alternative to these nineteenth-century mechanisms, we have considered Directed Panspermia, the theory that organisms were deliberately transmitted to the earth by intelligent beings on another planet.”

This was certainly not the consensus view. So, if Crick were alive today, what would Stump say to him? Would he call him out on some “god did it” argument? Would he pummel him with consensus science?

In Darwin’s day, everybody repeatedly described the cell as simple, referring to it as a “globule of plasm.” Today, a common textbook, Molecular Biology of the Cell, is nearly 1500 pages, and barely scratches the surface of the cell’s complexity. The consensus view was wrong.

The consensus view once supported Newtonian physics. Until relativity came along.

The consensus view once supported a steady-state (eternal) universe, until Big Bang cosmology came along.

The consensus view held that Grand Canyon was 70-80 million years old, until a few years ago, when we determined it’s just 5-6 million years old.

The consensus view held that 97% of our genome should be “junk.” Until ENCODE (and several papers since 2012) supported functionality for the majority of the genome.

The consensus view once held gradualism. Now punctuated equilibrium and catastrophism now rule the day.

The consensus view once held that Darwinian evolution (natural selection + heritable variation) was the only game in town. Since the 60s, neutral evolution has rivaled, even supplanted, Darwinian evolution.

We once thought fossilization was an extremely slow process. We now know it can happen in minutes.

The consensus was that chimps and humans were 98% genetically similar. But that is now eroding.

I could just keep going. But, you see the point. We’re not interested in whether or not a view is “consensus.” We’re only interested in whether or not it’s scientifically respectable. Is it science? Thus far, the answer is a resounding YES! For as long as there are respectable biologists offering models consistent with what I’m arguing, I am perfectly justified to hold those views, consensus or not. This is not about counting noses.

 

[1] Remember, for the theistic evolutionist, the best evidence that God is involved in everything is that He cannot be detected in anything.

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