No Crocoducks, But Just as Good …(RJS)

We do have the platypus, the coqui, the bandicoot, and the tarsier. All of these are in some sense “intermediate” between major groups of living animals.

Recently I’ve been reading Robert Asher’s new book Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist. This book provides an interesting lay-level explanation of evolution. Robert Asher, Curator of Vertebrates at the  Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, is not an atheist; he does not rule out the existence of the supernatural or spiritual. He is, as he describes himself, a religious paleontologist. He is not evangelical, and like many he explicitly disavows the designation.

Chapter three of Evolution and Belief is entitled Characters and Common Descent. In this chapter Asher looks at evolutionary trees, intermediates, and transitional features concentrating on currently living species. One common argument brought up to cast doubt on the theory of evolution is the absence or paucity of intermediate or transitional forms. The following video gives one rather notorious example of the argument.

YouTube Preview Image

Now I think that Kirk Cameron was playing to the camera here, building an audience for the debate later that night. He is a comedian and knows how to get a reaction. Nonetheless the point is serious, if evolution is true there should be transitional forms in the fossil record. When I’ve asked for arguments people found convincing or would like to see addressed in future posts this issue of transitional forms, or related questions of fossils and evolutionary change, come up repeatedly. But Asher leads us to think hard about what is meant by intermediate or transitional forms in biology. Evolution is not inherently a purposeful progression from simple to complex.

… animals are not really ever in “transition.” Living things are not trying to become something else. Apes from the early Miocene did not anticipate that some of their descendent would evolve into habitual bipeds. …

Terms such as “transition” and “intermediate” are useful because they convey the real sense in which both living and fossil animals mix anatomical and molecular attributes from various parts of the Tree of Life. (p. 47)

Many animals, even those that seem to us to perfectly “normal” exhibit what might be called transitional or intermediate features. In part they are normal because evolution is not like water flowing in a river from point A to B, say the Mississippi from Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico, but more like Lake Shasta filling all available space as the water level rises. The progress of evolution enables access to new areas in the feasibility space for biological life.

The Platypus. The tree of life shown to the right is adapted from Figure 3.1 (p. 44) and illustrates the relationship between some of the species Asher discusses as “intermediate” or “transitional”. The platypus, for example, “lays eggs and has multiple bones in its shoulder skeleton (like a crocodile), but provides milk for its young, shows a single bone in its jaw, and has three ear bones (like a kangaroo).”  (p. 45)  The echidna is another less well known egg-laying mammal found in Australia and New Guinea.

Their long evolutionary past shows that neither echidna nor platypus is simply a throwback to some 160-million-year-old animal. However, it is equally clear that these animals mix anatomical features otherwise found in reptiles and mammals in just the way one would expect if Darwinian natural selection was the mechanism behind their evolution. (p. 54)

The bandicoot provides a different kind of example of evolution. Although it clearly belongs to the family of marsupials it possesses a placenta that is more like that of nonmarsupial mammals. Paraphrasing from Asher p. 56: All amniotes, animals not requiring direct access to standing water for reproduction, have four amniotic membranes. The amnion surrounds the embryo, the chorion lines the egg, the allantois stores water and waste and the yolk sac stores nutrients. Most marsupials have a placenta that combines chorion and yolk sac. In contrast placental mammals have a placenta that combines chorion and allantois. Bandicoots, unlike other marsupials, have a placenta that combines chorion and allantois like mice, apes, and other placental mammals. This feature of the placenta of the bandicoot illustrates the way that similar anatomical features can evolve independently. Asher gives some plausible explanations for why the combination of chorion and allantois doesn’t dominate in marsupials – but that is secondary to the main point.

The Tarsiers. The tarsier is a small primate found today in the Philippines, Borneo, Sulawesi and Sumatra, but found in fossil forms over a far larger range. This small primate is characterized by a small nose and large eyes. Although it is not apparent from the picture, the tarsiers share a number of features with the lemurs and galagos despite being haplorhines, primates that possess small dry noses and are more visually oriented. In fact, the tarsiers, with their large eyes, are among the most visually oriented haplorhines.

Tarsiers have a jaw structure consistent with the galagos and lemurs and other strepsirhine primates.For example …

the two halves of its jaw, loosely connected to one another in front, not solidly fused into a single, horseshoe-shaped bone as they are in an anthropoid. (p. 59)

But other features are more like the anthropoids (monkeys, apes, humans):

On the other hand, tarsiers resemble anthropoids in having a bony wall in the back of their orbit …, multiple enclosed spaces within their middle ear, a right angle defining the connection of its astralus to its fibula (comprising the ankle), and in not having the capacity to make their own ascorbic acid, or vitamin C. (p. 59)

And perhaps most interesting, like the anthropoids the tarsier lacks a tapetum, a reflective structure within the eyeball. The large eyes of this nocturnal creature compensate for the lack of the tapetum. The galagos has the tapetum and has a larger nose and smaller eyes, although also nocturnal occupying a similar ecological niche. The shiny eye in the picture of a galagos or bush baby to the left is a consequence of the tapetum.  The “eyeshine” you see from a deer or raccoon caught in the headlights is also a result of the tapetum, which is common to many mammals.

To wrap it up. This is not an exhaustive list of all “transitional” or “intermediate” forms observed among living creatures. It is only a very small selection of the cases that have been studied and documented. And some of the similarities and differences are only apparent when comparing bones, metabolism, or placental membranes. Others are only apparent when studying the DNA sequences themselves.

Asher summarizes:

Anti-evolutionists can complain that there are unsolved questions and uncertainties, and indeed a careful search of the literature will find qualifications to the generally accepted ideas concerning adaptation and evolutionary relationships that I’ve summarized above. This is the nature of any vibrant scientific field. Nevertheless, the reality is that the Darwinian process of natural selection is reasonable demonstrable as the major explanatory factor in all of the above cases. … Calling such an animal an act of “design” or “creation” simply repeats the fact that they exist. We knew that. No such claim does the hard work of specifying a mechanism by which their particular suite of characters came about in an individual, living species. (p. 62)

Asher misses part of the point here. The one who calls such an animal an act of design or creation is simply stating that God created each in largely the form they currently display. There is no reason to do harder work of specifying a mechanism. But the reason that evolutionary theory is the uncontested basis of all of modern biology is that it works to explain the broad sweep of life. It accounts for the intermediate forms that exist, for the hidden and apparently unnecessary features in many creatures, and for the variety of ways that different animals occupy their various niches. Evolution over long periods of time is not seriously disputed. That natural selection is the mechanism may need some refinement. Natural selection is unquestionably one of the major mechanisms resulting in biological diversity, but it need not be the only mechanism at play.

There is another important point here though. Evolution is not a red in tooth and claw survival of the fittest. As far as any individual animal is concerned, they simply live from day-to-day, and eventually die. The past was much like the present, with changes imperceptible to the average cat, fish, or dinosaur. Evolution works at the level of populations, and gradually populations differentiate and fill different niches in the biosphere. Even here the “intermediate” forms can and do often persist to the present. We have no crocoduck, but we do have the platypus and the echidna.

Do these creatures, for example the platypus and the tarsier, answer some of the questions about transitional and intermediate forms?

What do you expect from intermediate or transitional forms?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • Percival

    I thought dinosaurs were sort of crocoducks.

  • http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    Oh! And all along I was thinking ducks were sort of dinocrocs – silly me.

    But seriously, I like your ‘red in tooth and claw’ observation, RJS. One of the arguments I have heard repeatedly is that evolution suggests the Creator is cruel and heartless. What you have written here might diminish the fervour of such thoughts. I hope so.

    It’s not a good argument against evolution, but it has been a persistent one.

  • RJS

    Percival,

    Only some dinosaurs, like these. But today’s post was looking at living creatures not fossils, the next chapter of Asher’s book examines the fossil record.

  • T

    This article, for me, creates or reinforces more doubt in evolution as a theory to fully explain the development of complex interdependent systems, such as flight, than I had before. In sum, it makes me put more emphasis on the “theistic” side of theistic evolution. The reasons are at least twofold. The first is the statement that animals are never really in transition. They’re never trying to become something else. Given the many precise interdependent changes needed, not to mention the instinctual skill needed, for flight, I have a hard time seeing how that happens by “glorious accident.”

    The other is that none of the reasons mentioned for why evolution (absent a designer) is the default theory work any better for evolution than theistic accounts.

  • Doug

    I so often get the feeling that when Christians address the subject of evolution they inevitably ask the wrong questions, and answer questions that haven’t been asked at all.

    And I find this true of both my YEC friends and my friends who would point me to posts like this.

    While Asher correctly references

    the hard work of specifying a mechanism by which their particular suite of characters came about in an individual, living species.

    He (and others) would do well to acknowledge just how far away we really are (yes, all of us!) from specifying any such mechanism. Here is a sampling of the real science:

    http://www.voicesfromoxford.org/video/physiology-and-the-revolution-in-evolutionary-biology/184

    (and, incidentally, when RJS interjects:

    The one who calls such an animal an act of design or creation is simply stating that God created each in largely the form they currently display.

    this may be true for a majority who say such a thing, but it is not necessarily so, and it doesn’t facilitate the conversation to insist upon it)

  • RJS

    Doug,

    Most will admit that we are looking for mechanisms and that our understanding is far from complete. Often it is just baby steps in the morass of complexity.

    But I think you miss the point of my comment, or perhaps I am missing your point. If the answer is “God did it” as individual acts of special creation why would anyone look for a mechanism of transformation? Asher says they aren’t doing the “heavy lifting” but I don’t think there is any heavy lifting to be done in that case – only classification and observation.

  • phil_style

    @Doug, #5,

    I thoroughly enjoyed the video link you posted. Thanks.

  • RJS

    T,

    I expect we’d disagree on how we can know and how God acts, but I certainly think there is a lot of purpose and a lot of God in all of creation.

  • RJS

    Doug and phil_style,

    I have Denis Noble’s book – and perhaps I should post on it sometime soon as well. Bev Mitchell has recommended it on several occasions.

  • Doug

    RJS,

    It is an immense shame that “God did it” has become, on the YEC side, a fideistic battle cry, and, for the opposition, grounds for dismissal. Neither are necessary. Neither are helpful.

    The entire history of science has been “thinking God’s thoughts after him”. Kepler, Newton, Maxwell and Einstein (who all understood this principle) would have been quite perplexed to be told that it implied “why would anyone look for a mechanism?”!

    That God, in his wisdom, should design the universe in such a way that:
    – the stage was correctly set for life (crazy fine-tuning, corresponding to the first “bara” in Genesis 1)
    – life came into being (and not just life, but conscious life, corresponding to the second “bara” in Genesis 1)
    – the mechanisms inherent in His physics permitted paths to various creatures
    – one of those creatures turns out to be a Platypus (props to the Creator for that one!)
    is sufficient to make the claim that the Platypus was an act of creative design.

    Notice, however, that the mechanism is not specified (we don’t know exactly how God executed His will to achieve the design that was built into the fibre of the universe He created). Notice, further, that there is no necessary implication that “God created [Platypuses] in the form that they currently display”

  • RJS

    Sure Doug,

    But that has been my point since I first started posting on Scot’s blog.

  • Doug

    RJS,

    Funny: I rarely detect that point in any of your posts! (and no offense intended!)

  • Ellen

    A slightly OT correction: Kirk Cameron is an actor, not a comedian. And we might want to put quotes around “actor,” too. ;)

  • http://rwtyer.blogspot.com Rory Tyer

    Kirk Cameron: the best unintentionally comedic actor fundamentalism has ever produced

  • Rick

    Ellen #13-

    Whatever you may feel about his religious position(s), I do think he has won 1 or 2 Golden Globe awards for his acting.

  • RJS

    Well Doug, I don’t know how long you have been reading (perhaps a long time) but the series on Alister McGrath’s A Fine Tuned Universe or many of the other posts under Natural Theology in the Science and Faith Archive might touch on what you are looking for.

    It is true on this blog that most assume God did it (whatever the mechanism) so my emphasis has been on why evolutionary creation is my approach and view. This includes occasional posts like todays where I try to lay out some piece of the scientific reasoning.

    If I were writing in a different forum trying to make the case for God to a skeptical audience my general approach and emphasis would be somewhat different.

  • T

    RJS,

    Just to be clear, I have been persuaded, often by the things you have posted here, of several significant things on this front over the last few years. One, the internal “issues” that are within the first few chapters of Genesis point to an intent for those chapters which is contrary to what I grew up hearing. Second, the evidence for a very, very old earth (and very old life) is overwhelming. Those two by themselves require a paradigm shift of significant proportions and land me somewhere in the theistic evolutionary camp when it comes to origins–though I’m not sure where exactly.

    That said, I will likely always be a layperson on the hard sciences of every kind, as most Christians will be. Therefore, my perspective will always be much more of the proverbial forest rather than the trees when it comes to origins, and my interest more for our Story than our detailed cellular history.

    One of the reasons, I think, that typical, naturalist science and scientists are hard for Christians such as myself to trust or dialogue with most scientists (apart from the difficulty and/or unwillingness of a specialist to reason with a lay person) is the widespread failure or refusal of such scientific authorities to even consider what you are certain of, namely, that “there is a lot of purpose and a lot of God in all of creation.” Especially for someone like myself, whose routine devotional practice includes just stepping outside to let nature’s song and declaration of God strengthen me (I don’t even have to exert any effort; it’s just automatic), when someone articulates or clearly holds the “can’t be God” assumption of science, the blindness, and even the seemingly total irrationality of the assumption, still surprises me. Further, the lingering effect is mistrust, not based on any kind of moral judgment, but because my trust of someone’s expertise (when they talk or assume what God can’t have been or done) who can’t or won’t see the forest for the trees.

    The “animals are never (or always) in transition” point was another reminder of that systemic blindness. Of course animals aren’t “trying” to develop themselves into being able to fly or carry their offspring internally, or any such thing, yet they do develop these and other very sophisticated and interdependent systems, even simultaneously with other organisms for the betterment of both. And I applaud scientific work to uncover more and more of the “how” for these events. It’s the “why” that science has so much trouble with, because the method assumes away the Alpha and the Omega. The segregation of knowledge we’ve inherited in “the enlightenment” and perfected with the scientific method is beyond unsatisfying. It’s unnatural, maddening and destructive, and you probably feel this more than I! Thanks for trying to move this forward.

  • Doug

    RJS,

    You (perhaps correctly) say that the audience here assumes God did it.
    You want to present your “approach and view” to build a bridge between science and faith.
    You should be aware, then, that you often present your views in a manner with no recognizable access to your audience.
    Give your audience a hand: don’t leave your bridge half-built and give them a hard time for not jumping across the gap.
    As long as you are sufficiently secure on your science side, you have no reason to be insecure about landing firmly on the faith side.

  • http://godinthemidst.blogspot.ca/ stew

    Denis O. Lamoureux website:
    http://www.ualberta.ca/~dlamoure/

  • Percival

    Doug #5,
    That link you posted was not very understandable for non scientists like me. On the same subject was a recent Radiolab episode.
    http://www.radiolab.org/2012/nov/19/

  • http://scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    T (4) writes that [RJS's article] makes me put more emphasis on the “theistic” side of theistic evolution. The reasons are at least twofold. The first is the statement that animals are never really in transition. They’re never trying to become something else. Given the many precise interdependent changes needed, not to mention the instinctual skill needed, for flight, I have a hard time seeing how that happens by “glorious accident.”

    The other is that none of the reasons mentioned for why evolution (absent a designer) is the default theory work any better for evolution than theistic accounts.

    First of all, ‘animals are never really in transition’ is RJS’s shorthand for ‘individual animals are never really in transition’. And the same applies to plants of course. Individuals don’t change genetically during their lifetimes, it’s populations that are in transition, and then only sometimes and very, very slowly.

    Secondly, ‘glorious accident’ is a term you have introduced. Understandably so, but the point is no evolutionary biologist would claim any such thing, so you are arguing against a position that is not being suggested.

    So neither of these points should cause you to shift your position more to the ‘theistic side of theistic evolution’. If evolution is correct (and biologists are almost unanimous that it must be), then to me it is a glorious and praiseworthy thought that the Creator made a universe that has the inevitability of the evolutionary mechanism built right into it. How awesomely clever and ingenious!

  • T

    Chris,

    An honest question: if no ev. biologist would claim any thing like a glorious accident as part or all of the explanation for evolutionary change or even life itself, what would they claim? If something isn’t accidental, then it is intended by someone or something, so who or what intended these things?

    You are clearly a Theist, so I realize you, like RJS, see evolution as part of God’s purposes and choice, so you may be ill suited to answer for those who don’t think that way.

  • Doug

    stew,

    Denis and I go way back. :-)

  • unapologetic catholic

    “if no ev. biologist would claim any thing like a glorious accident as part or all of the explanation for evolutionary change or even life itself, what would they claim?”

    They do claim that science by itelf, so far, cannot detect teleology .

  • andrew

    Pasteur found that life doesn’t come from non-life.

    has anyone made something alive (and viruses aren’t alive) from dead stuff without them poking and prodding it a lot? to say that you can come up with an amino acid is a million miles from a cell coming into being with the myriad organelles within the cell all finely tuned to work together.

  • RJS

    andrew,

    The origin of life is an interesting question. But it is also one that I think is something of a red herring in most science and Christian faith discussions. Uncertainty over the origin of life doesn’t have much impact on most of the important theological questions.

    However life started the evidence for evolution once life began is still persuasive.

    However life began – it was exactly right as part of God’s plan.

  • Bev Mitchell

    RJS,

    Re: Denis Noble referred to above. I still do heartily recommend his “Music of Life”. And thanks Doug (5) for the tip on Noble’s talk. It is very good. I’ve written a longer review and will send it to RJS. Should people want to see it, she can post it if appropriate. In the meantime, here is something that I think is very important to note.

    Noble’s comments on the “selfish gene” metaphor vs. the “prisoner gene” metaphor puts genes in their place but still has function emerging “as if by magic”. Don’t run out and say that evolution, or natural selection are under any kind of threat. Evolutionary thinking is receiving here, however, a very reasonable reorientation (reformation?). This is because the evidence clearly shows that, in living organisms, information flows both down and up through the many levels of organization (see slide at 21:27). This two-way flow of information is essential to both our minute by minute functioning and to our evolution over time. The theory of evolution is made better and stronger by this emerging realization, not weaker. (Lest you think this only pertains to really complex, multi-cellular organisms, consider the slide at 19:45. Those 80% failed knockout attempts were in yeast cells! Buffering is a huge idea for both organisms and for whole environments.)

    The bottom line here is the long-standing warning of organismic biologists (this says nothing of their sex-life). Biology must eventually come back to the fully functioning organism. We love to know all the details of how the bits work, but, after all, they do work together. The full flowering of this working together is seen at the level of the organism. Then, the environmental biologist (ecologist) will rightly add another layer. The metaphysician may take you all the way to Gaia. The pantheist will take you to god as part of the universe (Noble leans this way at the end of his great little book). The relational theist will see the Spirit of God as present to creation rather than present in it, but still moved by creation. We indeed live in exciting and extraordinary times.

  • andrew

    gotcha – and the mechanism God used to create was one of death, mutation, and distortion of the genome… how exactly does that get conveyed in the genesis narrative? Using the language that would ahve been comprehensible to the people of the bronze age, you could have conveyed the idea of large periods of time, gradual changes, coming from simpler organisms to complex organisms.

    WHen exactly did God declare it all to be good in that narrative? before or after all the death and decay?

    this is to say nothing about original sin, and how that ties in with the need for a saviour.

    the push to accept evolution over and above the biblical narrative is a form of compromise to appear more acceptable to society.

  • http://scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    T (22) – I suppose it depends what one means by ‘accidental’. Known causes are not limited to the intention of a mind.

    Simple example, waves coming in on the beach are not accidental, they are caused by winds blowing across hundreds or thousands of mile of ocean. Blow across a basin of water and you’ll make ripples. If the distance is great enough you can create ocean rollers several metres high. The mechanism is well understood by physicists and oceanographers.

    Here’s another example. The Himalayas are not accidental, they are the result of the Indian plate crashing into the Asian plate. Wait ’til your bowl of porridge begins to cool and push with the spoon from one side and you’ll make miniature mountains as the stiff crust on top piles up ahead of the spoon. Again, mountain building is a very well understood phenomenon.

    The evolution of life is like that too. The mechanisms are very well known. For that reason no biologist would regard evolution of new species as any kind of accident but more as an inevitability.

    I believe in a Creator ingenious enough to design a universe with simple underlying rules that make energy, matter, galaxies, stars, planets, waves, mountains, life, and intelligence inevitable. And to me that makes the Creator seem far more amazing and awesome and loving, not less.

    Does that answer your question satisfactorily?

  • RJS

    andrew (#28)

    The questions you are raising about the intent and reading of the Biblical narrative are the important questions. But I think it is rather clear that the OT assumes ancient near eastern ideas about cosmology and then uses this to tell about the work of God. We’ve looked at several books that wrestle with this.

    I think the ones you would fine the most useful – because they come from a very clear, knowledgeable, and conservative, perspective of the Bible as God’s word – are those by C. John Collins (There are several, I did a series on his book on Adam), John Walton (Lost Worlds of Genesis One) and by Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden (In the Beginning … We Misunderstood). These are all OT or Biblical scholars looking at the meaning of the text.

  • RichardG

    It seems to me there is a problem with the word ‘explanation’. In science it can be used for a model that generates successful predictions, and so can be used to create technology – a theory like quantum physics, for instance.

    But there is another meaning, which is to show how a phenomenon fits into ones world view. Thus a satisfactory ‘explanation’ for an illness in an African village might be ‘someone cast a spell on him’, when here it would be ‘he was infected by a virus’.

    Evolutionary theory, especially natural selection, is not explanatory in the first sense (it offers no predictions), but in the second. So, if you believe the universe runs like a clock, then it is an explanation, and if you don’t, it’s not.

    Religion and science are different paradigms. Each sees the other as ‘wrong’, but the ‘explanations’ don’t apply across the paradigm divide. It’s like an ice-hockey team playing against a soccer team.

    Incidentally, if anyone uses quantum physics to ‘explain’ anything in the second sense, everyone thinks they’re crazy!

  • John I.

    Re: “it is equally clear that these animals mix anatomical features otherwise found in reptiles and mammals in just the way one would expect if Darwinian natural selection was the mechanism behind their evolution.”

    Well, at least it will until some discomfirming facts are found, which will then be held to actually confirm evolution and evolutionary theory will be adjusted for these new facts–facts that formerly would have been thought to disprove evolution.

    Evolution is not a testable theory, but rather a worldview assumption into which all facts are folded. There is no possible fact that could disprove evolution, and so conversely no fact proves it either.

  • RJS

    John I,

    Do you think the scientific method is bogus?

    You said: “Well, at least it will until some discomfirming facts are found, which will then be held to actually confirm evolution and evolutionary theory will be adjusted for these new facts–facts that formerly would have been thought to disprove evolution.”

    Evolution would be disproved if we found 1 billion year old rabbits in the fossil record. Of course then people would start to look for another explanation for everything. And most would expect the next explanation to be “natural” and account for all the data.

    But most (all so far) of the findings that seem to “disconfirm” evolution are just new data, and working within scientific method then the theories adjust to account for the new information. This is really how we move forward. Of course there are changes (large changes in fact) in our understanding of the mechanisms of evolution, this is how science works.

    The features that led to a “rejection” of classical physics were in essence new data that required a refinement of the theories to account better for small sizes and large speeds.

    If you want to claim that the scientific method is a bogus approach we should discuss that.

  • RichardG

    I think John I is absolutely right, and I don’t think he is saying the scientific method is bogus.

    In my experience the most avid supporters of science an its method have not studied the philosophy of science, which is the foundation for its claim to truth.

    An excellent introductory textbook is: Chalmers – What is this Thing Called Science, (he was head of philosophy/history of science at University of Sydney).

    Science theories of standing do not get overturned by a single or even multiple pieces of evidence. Instead the evidence is called an ‘anomaly’. For instance, anomalies in the movement of mercury were found in 1849, only to be explained 70 years later by General Relativity. In the meanwhile, Newtonian physics was not thrown into serious doubt. What made the decisive change was not the evidence, but the emergence of an alternative theory satisfactory to the scientific establishment.

    If the 1 billion year rabbit showed up, first the dating of the fossil would be called into doubt, and then foul play would be suspected. If a few more were found, then the “Rabbit Anomaly” would be born. Hypotheses would start to show up: Maybe evolution was forced into a fast-track in very special environmental conditions – which collapsed causing these freak species to become extinct. And so on.

    For a scientific theory to be a theory, it must be falsifiable (Karl Popper) – that is, it must be possible to test it. Quantum physics is a very highly predictive theory, it was born out of laboratory experiments, and is an example of how strange the world turns out to be when we actually have a chance to put it to the test. Evolution, and particularly natural selection, is not open to that kind of predictive testing. I challenge you to imagine one piece of evidence which would prove that “Survival of the Fittest” doesn’t actually happen!

    The science which ‘explains’ the origins of life, man and so on is not the same kind as that which lets us build aeroplanes and computers, or even that lets us manipulate DNA. We should not let the success of the latter type give us too much confidence in the former.

  • RJS

    Richard G,

    The science which explains the evolution of the diversity of life is exactly the same kind as that which lets us build airplanes and computers and that lets us manipulate DNA. There is no distinction whatsoever. The same principles of chemistry and physics are in operation. We can’t solve the science and faith problem by claiming some false distinction.

    I won’t claim anything about “the origin of life” because we don’t know much at all about this in particular. Certainly it is the assumption of most scientists that this has a “natural” connection as well.

    I don’t quite understand where you want to go with this though. Why is it so important to throw out evolutionary biology? What do we need to get rid of?

    Do we then get back to a 6000 year old earth?
    The special creation of every individual kind?
    Humans as completely distinct from all the animals?

    Or are you more concerned with survival of the fittest, the apparent randomness of the process, and the absence (so it seems) of a role for God in the process?

  • RichardG

    I maintain there is a distinction. It is precisely the difference between a predictive theory and an explanatory one. I agree that they teach only one set of physical and chemical laws applying to a microchip now and a living cell millions of years ago. But the difference is, the behaviour in the microchip now is backed up by predictive experiment, and the cell is speculation.

    I actually don’t feel threatened by this science. I would be equally happy if the earth is 6,000 or 4.5 billion years old. If God created the world, I don’t know how He did it – if one species slowly changed into another, it doesn’t disturb me at all.

    I was brought up as a scientist, and I remember when I was young, I had strong views about what was possible and what was not. I was a scientist, science was right – and I hated it! But I couldn’t deny the obvious success of science, so I set about finding out what scientists really know. My conclusion is that some things they do really ‘know’ and others are belief and speculation – a heady mixture, indeed! This was very important for me, to give myself the breathing space. Now I have enough room to choose my beliefs (more or less!), knowing that I am not ‘flying in the face of reason’.

    That’s why I’m passionate about the subject. I am not trying to clear the way in order the bludgeon others with my own beliefs (I hope). I just want everybody to know that the Mystery is alive and well, not ‘solved’ by the scientists, and belief is a choice – the most important choice we must make in life, I think.

    Sorry to go on, RJS. I must thank you very much for you internet writings, it really helps me to read serious and thoughtful pieces on the relationship between science and faith. Thanks!

  • RJS

    Richard G,

    Thanks – I agree that somethings are really ‘known’ and others are belief and speculation. And I find it as important as you to provide the breathing space to know that faith is not ‘flying in the face of reason’. Science for example has not and cannot disprove such events as the resurrection or the incarnation despite what some want to claim. The fact that resurrection is not “normal” has nothing to say to a one-off act of God in relationship with his creation.

    The origin of life could be another such one-off act of God in relationship with his creation. This is part of the reason I back off of any claims here.

    One of the most important things though, I think, is to be able to separate the science from the metaphysical conclusions people draw from the science. It isn’t always easy to discern where these are getting entangled.

    I don’t put quite as much emphasis on the explanatory/predictive distinction between say evolution and quantum mechanics. Partially this is because as a physical scientist I think the explanatory theory is only partial until it is in agreement with the predictive theories. It is the predictive theories that provide the mechanism for the explanatory theory.

    I might not be getting quite to the point that you raise, but I think I understand it.

  • RichardG

    RJS,

    Separating the science from the metaphysical conclusions is the important thing, and that is what you are focusing on. I think we agree on that, and it may be that my predictive/explanatory stuff is knit-picking.

    My mission is to tell those who think that science is simply ‘the truth’ (as I did once) that they are being deceived. It is a belief system, and in the hands of Dawkins et al, it is practically a religion. The confusing thing is that it has a lot of practical knowledge mixed in with it.

    Does the world run on without micro-management from God? Not all the ‘explanations’ or ‘mechanisms’ in the world will answer that question.

    I’m not sure you quite get the point I raise, but I don’t think it’s important. I think you have ‘got it’ in all the essentials. I look forward to more on your blog!

  • John I.

    Re “Evolution would be disproved if we found 1 billion year old rabbits in the fossil record. ”

    No it wouldn’t. They would be held as examples of an early divergence in the tree of life that evolved very rapidly under optimal conditions and then died out for reasons as yet unknown, leaving the other branches of the tree of life to take over. Also, they wouldn’t be called rabbits, but morphological similar examples of parallel evolution.

    It would be rather like how Junk DNA and vestigial organs were supposed to be proof of evolution until they were neither, and so now evolution accounts for the fact that the organs are not vestigial and the DNA is not junk.

    Evolution is not an example of the scientific method, but a “just so” story that provides materialists, especially atheist materialists, with a mythology–one that makes them feel “intellectually fulfilled” (as Dawkins has said).

    I don’t really care how God did it (made a universe containing us), but being a skeptic I’m not about to genuflect at the alter of Darwin when there is precious little to justify doing so.

  • Doug

    @Bev,

    Agreed — but… the strange and wonderful mechanisms that Noble reveals are certainly sufficient to soundly refute the likes of Dawkins (and, it would all too often seem, RJS?) who like to trumpet, loudly and often, that modern biology can explain all the diversity of life. It most certainly cannot. And any pretense to the contrary is NOT scientific.

    John I. hits the nail on the head. Darwin is only capable of fulfilling the feeblest of intellects.

  • Doug

    Here’s a scientist (and a chemist) that RJS will undoubtedly respect whose perspective likely aligns with Richard’s, John’s and my own:

    http://www.jmtour.com/personal-topics/the-scientist-and-his-%E2%80%9Ctheory%E2%80%9D-and-the-christian-creationist-and-his-%E2%80%9Cscience%E2%80%9D/


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