Monday, December 31, 2007

Criticizing evolution

I don't understand why any individual amateur would choose to criticize evolution. Any amateur is hopelessly outnumbered, probably by a factor of 10,000 or 100,000 to 1. Scientists have been working on the various hypotheses and theories under the evolutionary paradigm for more than fifteen decades. Even if they were completely, egregiously wrong, the attempt to prove them wrong seems a Sisyphean task for any individual, much less an amateur. Of course it doesn't help that organizations such as the Discovery Institute, Answers in Genesis and Harun Yahya have been so frequently caught in inexcusable sloppiness and outright lies. But amateurs do try to criticize evolution, so it's worthwhile going over some basic points.

First, The Barefoot Bum is a philosophy blog, not a science blog. Although I'm scientifically literate, I'm not a professional scientist: I'm a professional engineer and an amateur philosopher. Professional scientists such as PZ Myers, Shalini and the denizens of the IIDB Evolution/Creation forum (and many others) have forgotten more biology than ten people like me will ever learn. If you want to discuss evolution here, I'm much more interested in discussing things like scientific epistemology, metaphysical naturalism, and the ethical implications of evolution. Still, I am scientifically literate, and I'm willing to discuss the science of evolution.

If you're going to criticize what scientists say, it's very important to criticize what scientists actually say, rather than what you want them to say. I understand that demolishing a straw man is easy and satisfying. But straw men are not only fallacious: evolution and its criticism have been around long enough that there is simply no excuse for misrepresenting the scientific position. Misrepresentation is justifiably characterized as a lie.

There's also the pernicious practice of quote mining, taking a statement made by a scientist or philosopher out of context and thus changing its meaning to be critical of evolution. Any time an advocate of evolution seems to say something deeply critical of the endeavor, any reasonable person must be suspicious that something is amiss. Quote mining is lying.

I have better things to do with my time than correct lies about evolution. If you want to lie, do it on your own blog or in a more appropriate venue; I refuse to publish lies.

Here are some specifics:

Evolution is not a scientific theory about the origin of terrestrial life. The origin of terrestrial life is an interesting scientific field in itself (all the more interesting because the evidence is buried under billions of years of history), but it has nothing to do with evolution. Even if the first living thing were intentionally created by a space alien, a deity or the systems administrator of the computer we're all inhabiting, evolutionary theory would not change at all.

No scientific theory in the field of evolution says that the characteristics of modern organisms arose by chance alone. All evolutionary theories discuss the interplay between chance changes to organisms and natural selection; natural selection is driven by physical law, the opposite of chance.

Yes, there have been instances of scientific fraud as well as honest mistakes. Science is an error-correcting endeavor, precisely because errors do arise. What "error" actually means and how errors are corrected is an interesting topic of philosophical inquiry, but Piltdown Man and Haeckel's embryology are not by themselves probative of anything... except perhaps in the sense that scientists have actually discovered and corrected such errors.

Scientists have actually observed speciation.

Radiocarbon dating is accurate to only tens of thousands of years. Scientists employ other methods, including other types of radiometric dating, to establish ages on the order of mega- and giga-years. The validity of radiometric dating is established primarily by nuclear physics and quantum mechanics.

Charles Darwin was not baffled by the eye. His "bafflement" in The Origin of Species was a rhetorical device: he goes on to explain how the eye actually did evolve. This assertion is probably the most famous instance of quote mining. Nor did Darwin renounce evolution on his deathbed. This claim is an outright lie.

Regardless, science is not theology, and no scientist is an authority. Nothing in science is believed just because some scientist, however well-respected, has asserted it. Even Newton, Einstein, Darwin and Feynman had to show their work, and the idea stands or falls on its own merits, independent of the reputation of the person. Darwin himself made mistakes, and those mistakes have been discovered and corrected.

The attitude of scientists and scientific philosophy regarding the "supernatural" is not unique to evolution. I'm more than happy to discuss scientific philosophy, methodological and metaphysical naturalism, in as much (or more) detail as you wish, but philosophically, any argument concerning naturalism applies to all science, not just the sciences of biology, archeology, paleontology, genetics, ecology, etc. which adopt an evolutionary paradigm.

In general, I'm going to evaluate any criticism of evolution by first investigating what Talk.Origins has to say about it. I don't demand that anyone accept Talk.Origins uncritically or at all, but you will save us both a lot of time if you examine their arguments before you comment, and address them within your comment.

And, lastly, the complaint that scientists and advocates of science tend to bury criticism in a flood of information is a non-starter. Rational people settle these sorts of arguments by evaluating the evidence. If there's a ton of evidence against your position, boo hoo, too bad for you.

1 comment:

  1. "natural selection is driven by physical law, the opposite of chance" I am confused, my understanding of natural selection is that chance mutations that are beneficial to survival are more likely to survive. Whilst this is subject to physical laws I don't quite see how chance is excluded.


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