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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Monkeying with Darwin

My left-wing friend Xerxes is always giving me ideas. His latest column is a celebration of “evolution,” as opposed to “creationism.”

It is fascinating because, although he thinks he is a Darwinist, it is clear that he is not.

He begins by saying evolution is not a theory, but a “reality.”

This depends what you mean by “evolution.” And it is a fundamentally unscientific thing to say.

If you mean the simple proposition that things, including species of plants and animals, can change over time, this indeed comes pretty close to being a self-evident truth. It is almost as obvious as saying “things change,” which few anywhere would disagree with. Parmenides, I suppose, and maybe nobody else ever.

This is not, however, a “scientific truth.” There aren’t any. Strictly speaking, science can prove nothing, and never claims to. What science does is disprove faulty hypotheses. It disproves things.

But simply because a hypothesis has not yet been disproven can never establish it as a truth. Black swans may come to roost.

To suppose otherwise is the most fundamentally anti-scientific thinking. Science is all about testing everything, repeatedly, and taking nothing on authority.

Xerxes mentions gravity as an example of a proven scientific truth. Bad call. Ironically, Newton’s Law of Gravity has been more or less systematically refuted by Einstein. As to gravity itself, the physical experience, of course people were fully aware of this and how it worked, in practical terms, before Newton. This is not science. You did not suppose, dear reader, that Newton was first to discover that apples fell, did you?

Just so, Darwin did not invent evolution in the sense of realizing that things change over time. Including dogs or horses. Everyone always thought this. Augustine assumed that species changed into other species. Aquinas assumed this. Aristotle assumed this. Ever read Ovid?

Granted, some modern Protestants deny it—but this is a very recent thing. It is a reaction to Darwin, not a traditional idea.

Darwin’s theory, the “Theory of Evolution,” was about how these changes happened; about the mechanism behind the observed experience. Darwin’s theory is that evolution occurred by natural selection of random mutations in a general struggle for survival.

This is the science. And it is and will always be at least as vulnerable to refutation as Newtonian physics. Indeed, it is all rather dubious.

Xerxes points out that “not one scientific discovery has disproven evolution.”

There is a more fundamental question: what experiment would, given a specific result, disprove it? What hypothetical evidence conclusively would?

If there is none, it is not, in fact, science. As Karl Popper pointed out, the essence of science is “falsifiability.” If you cannot conduct an experiment to test the hypothesis, you are not doing science.

This is a common charge against Darwin’s theory: that as phrased, no plausible experiment can be done, and no evidence advanced, that would disprove it. If this is so, it must either be self-evident—and it clearly is not—or it is an article of faith. And an article of faith in a sense that even, say, Christianity is not. For Christianity could indeed be falsified, theoretically, if the corpse of Jesus were ever found.

Darwin, acknowledging the issue, proposed “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.”

In response, Behe and others have cited many examples of what they call “irreducible complexity,” complex biological structures that seem indeed impossible to develop by stages, given that each intersecting stage must by itself have some survival value. But “impossibility” here is an impossibly high bar. It is almost no test at all. Who is to say it is impossible for unicorns to appear in yonder birdbath within the next five minutes?

Darwinism has always seemed to defy common sense and probability. Observe the humble giraffe: does it seem likely that he came into existence, just as he is, by a series of random chemical reactions? Does it seem likely, as the famous example goes, that a thousand monkeys, at a thousand typewriters, would sooner or later type out the complete works of Shakespeare?

“Of course,” answer the Darwinists, “given enough time.”

But are a hundred thousand years really enough? We are causing Occam some vertigo here.

Richard Dawkins, who has pretty obviously elevated Darwinism to his religion, has more recently been challenged on this point: what evidence, if ever found, would disprove Darwin? He responded with something from J. B. S. Haldane: “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.” That is, a fossil appearing in an impossibly wrong place in the rock strata.

Problem: such fossils have indeed been found, and not infrequently.

And they have never been accepted as disproving evolution.

There are, after all, always alternative possibilities―like some disturbance to the sedimentary layers in later years. Or deliberate fraud. Or the simple possibility that, “it appears that rabbit evolution was not as we thought it was.” Without touching the overall thesis.

If it is not impossible, by this bar, Darwin must be right.

This would, moreover, not even address Darwin’s actual theory, but rather the more basic contention that species change over time. Which is not Darwin’s theory, and is not generally in dispute.

So the argument begs our attention: is Darwin science?

The creationists object especially to the Darwinian claim of “randomness.” (“Natural selection of random mutations.”) How can something ever be demonstrated to be “random”? What, in scientific terms, does it even mean? Isn’t the whole point of science to discover how things happen, to discover “laws” or “rules” nature follows? Isn’t saying it is “random” just an admission of failure? Wouldn't "I don't know" be more honest and accurate?

But then, if it is not random, but follows some kind of design―this becomes strong prima facie evidence, if not itself flat proof, of creation—of intelligent design. Can you have a design without a designer? Can a design be random? Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?

Darwinism then, as Dawkins proposes it, is such a crazy idea that almost nobody really believes it.

And, clearly, Xerxes does not.

He says, in his praise of evolution here, that “evolution never goes backwards.” This presupposes that evolution has a direction, a goal, a plan: that it is teleological. Which his to say, that it is a design. For if Darwin is right, there is no such thing as forwards or backwards.

He says “evolution always moves from the simple to the complex.” This indeed seems by observation to be so, and it is indeed a remarkable fact. Because by itself it disproves Darwin. If Darwin were right, it would not be so. Mutations persist because they have survival value. There is no survival value in being complex over being simple. Ergo, given Darwinism, organisms should evolve equally often in either direction: sometimes becoming simpler, sometimes becoming more complex.

Yet, in general, as Xerxes rightly notes, they do not.

Xerxes also says “evolution never puts all its eggs in one basket. It never relies on a single solution.” He says that evolution never makes a mistake. He says that “evolution always moves toward healing.”

However you slice it, he is here personifying “evolution” and thinking of it as a designer. He is imputing a plan and an intent. He is even imputing omniscience to it, and a moral purpose. Darwin disallows this. It is theism, the awareness of a personal God, yet for some reason insisting on calling God “evolution” instead of “God.” Others have resorted to the term “nature,” “the environment,” “Mother Earth,” or “Gaia.”

In other words, literally in other words, Xerxes is a creationist, and rejects the theory of evolution. He just does not know it.

Just like just about everybody else.

What is gained by substituting the word “evolution” for the word “God”?

I think the payoff for those who do is the tacit implication that Nature, or Evolution, or whatever else you call him, her, or it, is pagan. Which implies that, unlike the Judeo-Christian God, she or he or it has no interest in sexual morality. You can just “do what nature intends,” as some might say.

This means we are justified in indulging the pleasure principle. Lots of easy sex without guilt. A big plus to a lot of people.

Unfortunately, this comes with a downside. The same denial of moral order justifies and justified the social Darwinism of the Nazis. It can just as easily rationalize murder or rape as fornication, or anything else you like. Survival of the fittest, after all, eh?

Not a primrose path down which I want to tread.

To be fair, and to be clear, there is ultimately no necessary contradiction between Darwinism and monotheism. It all depends on what you mean by the word “random.” The Catholic Church, and some scientists, if not Dawkins, understand “random” here to simply mean that the “random mutations” do not appear specifically to meet some evolutionary need; that they are instead later selected for this. It does not necessarily mean that they are random in any wider sense. They might still be pre-programmed in some way.

If so, however, Darwinism is no longer of any use to those who want to dispense with Christian morality.

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