Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Surprising Opinion

I met a professional paleontologist recently. We seemed to share some similar opinions on the Texas State Board of Education. But we parted views when I heard that he has presented before to Evangelicals, and that he has told them, when confronted, that he cannot comment on the validity of the theory of Intelligent Design.

“Really?” I asked. “You can’t assess the validity of ID as a theory? But it’s not falsifiable—it makes no predictions.”

He said that Evolutionary Theory makes no predictions. And this stunned me. He qualified it by restating it “makes only contingent predictions.”

We were walking as we talked, and had to quickly part ways based on where we were each headed, but I decided to look up his statement to see the meaning of “contingent prediction.” It appears that this means that it doesn’t make predictions along the lines of a physics formula—mathematically precise. I found this odd, because this, to me, would be an irrelevancy whether true or not true.

The actual concern, in my view, is that we do know there are things about this world that would be very different, indeed—demonstrably so—if evolution were not a reality. And the same cannot be said for Intelligent Design—because the mechanism—the intelligent designer—is not examinable. Evolution as a mechanism, on the other hand, is very much examinable.

If evolution were untrue, for example, I would not expect to have successful domestic breeding programs. How would breeding individuals with certain, specific phenotypes even hope to produce increased numbers of offspring that also demonstrate those phenotypes, if phenotypic data is not relayed by reproduction in some fashion? If humans did not observe or discover that you can relay traits from one generation to the next with increased frequency by artificially selecting for them in breeding—domestic breeding would never have even been attempted. Evolution through artificial selection is tried and true. Who could possibly deny it?

Or, what if we had discovered that organisms of different species, at a genetic level, bear no evidence of relationships to one another? What if my biology was incomparable to that of a chimpanzee? As distantly related as to a squid or a fly? Or what if none of us appeared to be related at all? Why should some animals be more or less “like me”? Why would we do medical testing, for drugs or treatments ultimately intended for use in humans, on animals like rats and chimpanzees and pigs, rather than spiders or goldfish? Would you feel as safe using a drug that was tested on a spider prior to use in humans, rather than on another mammal?

Or, how is it that, in digging for fossils, field scientists can predict the types of life forms one will find in a given area at a given depth representing a specific point in our Earth’s history? Would you think it a good prediction that we would find human fossils digging in a location known to represent the Mesozoic Era? Why not?

How has speciation been observed in both natural and laboratory environments—if it doesn’t occur naturally via evolution? How did it happen?

Any of these things, and I’m sure many others not mentioned, would be a problem for Evolutionary Theory if it had turned out to be different than it was. That is because Evolution does predict a particular type of reality that can absolutely turn out to be different than predicted.

But what does Intelligent Design predict? What sort of world is not the type of world an intelligent god would produce? Would horrid birth defects throw a wrench in it? Would flightless birds? Blind fish with residual eyes? Volcanoes? Tsunamis? Earthquakes? Plagues? Famine? Pestilence? Utopia?

Seriously—what is the difference between a world nature and natural laws would have generated without an intelligent designer, and one that a god—or intelligent designer—would have produced? What would falsify Intelligent Design? Evolution has put its cards on the table; and, over the decades, the findings have only upheld Darwin’s core concept: Populations absolutely change over time due to variation in information that is passed from one generation to the next.

Evolution is a reality—a fact anyone can observe. We all understand—or should by this time—that we don’t find the exact same sets of animals going back through the fossil record, as the ones we have today. The changes have been demonstrably grand, resulting in very different life forms in our modern world than what existed long, long ago.

I wish I would have had time to ask on what grounds a man of science scoffs at the Texas State Board of Education for it’s handling of biology textbooks, if he truly believes that science cannot assess the validity of something like Intelligent Design, and also that it offers no more in the way of falsification than Evolution? Since he and I agree the Board mishandled the biology standards—what is his basis for his view, if religious “theories” are just as valid, in his professional opinion as a paleontologist, as demonstrated models used in modern biological research?


  1. Not sure if this is the right place to comment, but I'm really curious about your opinion regarding the following article:

    ...I must confess that I am no biologist and, to be truthful, I don't understand all of the arguments in the article linked above (although the main point is clear)...would love your comment/response

  2. JimmyJ, abiogenesis is a red herring when it comes to the theory of evolution. There's plenty of room to speculate about the origin of life. However, there's overwhelming evidence that demonstrates what happened once life began. Using abiogenesis to argue against evolution is just slight of hand, or rather, slight of mind.

  3. Granted that there is overwhelming evidence for evolution once life began...what does atheism have to say about the origin of life? (I'm sure you've covered this before, so feel free to post links to articles...would love to read them)

  4. I don't understand you conversation partner either. But then, I must say, I have never quite understood why so many people insist on calling creationism or ID "not science" or pretending that it did not make any predictions. Yes, you can formulate ID in a way that it is basically Last Thursdayism, fair enough. But if they say, if ID is true, then they expect to find irreducibly complex organs, multi-strata fossils or whatever, then that is a testable idea. Trouble is, it has been tested plenty, and failed. So the problem with creationism or ID is not, the opinion of some judge in the USA notwithstanding, that it is not a scientifically valid enough idea per se, but that it is a scientific idea that was completely blown out of the water ca. 150 years ago - just like miasma was a scientific concept when there was no better explanation around but is not acceptable any more today because we have a better one.

  5. @JimmyJ

    what does atheism have to say about the origin of life?"

    Nothing at all. An atheist is someone who does not believe in a god. That's all.

  6. That's like asking what does comunism have to say about the Atomic Theory.

  7. Well, you're kind of misstating the question, JimmyJ. "Atheism" doesn't really have anything to say on the origins of life. Atheism just refers to our nonbelief that there were any gods involved. Science is the discipline we look to for origins information, and for a basic rundown on what real scientists have to say on it, try here.

  8. | what does atheism have to say about the origin of life?

    Exactly nothing.

  9. Atheists are comfortable with the idea that we don't know exactly how life began. We will research and study everything we can, and perhaps someday we'll find out. Really though, _how_ life began doesn't change the truth about evolution.

  10. Wow...lots of responses...thanks everyone. See, I was under the impression that atheists believe that there is a naturalistic theory for the origin of the universe and all life which therefore rules out the possibility of any intelligent designer or first cause creator. At least that seems to be the general thrust of the argument (other than shooting down obvious fallacies made by deists). [comments on this would be certainly appreciated]

    I liked Matt's comment...we really don't know how life began...and I am fascinated by the journey to find out. Still, there does seem to be some wiggle room there for deists...the complexity of DNA without an explanation for how it came to be seemed to convince Anthony Flew to be a deist...although (while I am more than a little afraid to contradict Flew), I'm not so sure that the existence of DNA without a naturalistic explanation for it can really be used to prove the existence of might only go so far as to raise the possibility. Also, another question that comes to mind is whether the truth about evolution is incompatible with a first cause creator?

    Appreciate the link Martin...I will have a read through....I'll need some time process those articles. Also, you have any articles that can give me a little more background on your response?

    Sorry for being a little slow with all this everyone...this is a new path of thought for me so I have a considerable amount of catching up to do...I'm appreciating all the responses.

  11. "See, I was under the impression that atheists believe that there is a naturalistic theory for the origin of the universe and all life which therefore rules out the possibility of any intelligent designer or first cause creator."

    That would be ontological naturalism. While a lot of atheists hold to methodological or scientific naturalism, most don't hold ontological naturalism.

  12. Only contingent predictions? I call red herring. Is there any prediction made in any field of science that is really non-contingent?

    Even equations in physics are true if and only if a set of criteria are fulfilled:
    Lets assume that we have this frame of reference, lets ignore this and that effect and lets say this and that equals 1 and yada yada yada....

  13. Jimmy:

    >what does atheism have to say about the origin of life?

    Short answer is that atheism doesn't make claims. "Atheism" has no position on the origin of life--or on evolution for that matter. The fact is that the study of abiogenesis is ongoing. Currently _no one_ knows the answer to what generated life on Earth. However, theists put forward unsupported assertions (i.e., lies), rather than admit they don't know any better than anyone else.

    If real inquiry and investigation can't yield an honest answer, then the only honorable statement is "We don't have a definitive answer." Theists, dishonestly assert an answer where they actually have no evidence to support their "answer."

    Additionally, claiming god did it--without explaining what the mechanism "god" is, or how it functioned to produce life, is not an "answer." It's no better than saying, "X did it," and then accepting that as an explanation.

  14. To add:

    >See, I was under the impression that atheists believe that there is a naturalistic theory for the origin of the universe and all life which therefore rules out the possibility of any intelligent designer or first cause creator.

    No, atheism is one position on one question:

    Question: Do you believe god exists?

    Atheist Answer: Anything but "yes."

    There is no such thing as an "atheist position" on any other matter/question. Raelians and Buddhists are often atheists. Buddhists often have no input on origins. And Raelians believe life on Earth was seeded here by someone/something else.

    Atheism makes no claims.

  15. Lastly:

    >I liked Matt's comment...we really don't know how life began...and I am fascinated by the journey to find out. Still, there does seem to be some wiggle room there for deists...the complexity of DNA without an explanation for how it came to be seemed to convince Anthony Flew to be a deist

    The argument from ignorance is no reason to accept unsupported assertions. It's a fallacious basis. I can't just say "Leprechauns are responsible" any time I don't immediately have an answer to a question. For some reason, however, saying "god is responsible"--which is just as fallacious--seems respectable to many people who would reject that same reasoning if I inserted any other magical entity as the explanation. In other words, even theists/deists know their reasoning is ridiculous--but when the term is "god"--they seem to lose sight of how ridiculous it is...?

  16. "the complexity of DNA without an explanation for how it came to be seemed to convince Anthony Flew to be a deist"

    Except we do have an explanation for the complexity of DNA. It's what makes sense from a chemical/physical POV. It's not in that shape just to LOOK pretty people, the shape serves a purpose. Engineers don't give cars 4 wheels just for the symmetry.

  17. They asked Dawkins if there's some discovery that would make him doubt Theory of Evolution. He said "Bunnies in the pre-Cambrian, parhaps?"

    Because - that's exactly one of the predictions that evolutionary theory makes - you will find less evolved creatures in older strata and more evolved creatures in younger strata.

    That should be really basic knowledge for a paleontologist.

  18. Contingent predictions eh?

    It sounds like he is just trying really hard to be accommodating to the religious. Either he does not really understand the scientific method, or what a theory is, or he is so invested in accommodation that it is skewing his judgement.

    I suppose that contingent prediction can mean whatever he wants, since he made it up, but really all predictions are contingent. At least until they are observed to occur.

    As for predictions in physics being more precise in some way, that really seems like bullshit. For example the Standard Model predicts the Higgs boson, but it does not predict the precise conditions in which we should be able to observe traces of the Higgs. It predicts ranges of conditions in which we should be able to observe traces. Portions of the ranges predicted have already been searched, to no avail, but physicists still consider it possible for traces of the Higgs to be found in the predicted ranges that have yet to be searched.

    Compare that to the prediction by Shubin and his team that an animal exhibiting certain physical traits common to both fish and early tetrapods should be found in rock formations of a certain age and in a certain environment (the environment during the time that the fossil creatures in the formation where extant).

    Besides all that, contingency is what science is all about. Absolutes are what religion deals in, not science.

  19. I don't know if it's the right place to ask, but Tracie, when are we going to give us a new Atheist Eve comic strip? I am growing impatient here.

  20. JimmyJ:

    Flew fell victim to an Argument from Ignorance: He could not conceive of a way that DNA could form through naturalistic means, and so he assumed it was impossible and then posited an answer, which he called god.

    Great post, Tracie.


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