My debate with Subboor Ahmad

I had a second formal moderated debate with a live audience. It was originally supposed to take place at a huge Muslim Dawah conference, and that’s why I was so eager to accept. but I guess the organizers had other ideas about that and cancelled. Subboor said we might reschedule for the next time I’m in London. But I was eager to engage. And although London might have been better in some aspects, I still wanted to do it sooner and in Texas. So I called on Humanists of Houston less than a month prior, and they set it up at an alternate venue. Had it been a more convenient time with more time to plan, it would have been a bigger event. But this was pretty good for short notice, especially when you consider that this was only a couple days before Christmas.

The topic however, “Is Darwinian Evolution a Fact?” was necessarily a game of semantics, and I knew it would be. As I explained in the first couple minutes of my answer to Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb’s questions for “evolutionists”,  part of faith is convincing yourself to believe impossible things for no good reason. But to do that, believers must also find a way to deny the science that says otherwise. So the faithful have to question epistemology, to convince themselves that science doesn’t really know what we know, so that they can pretend to know what they know they really don’t know. Not surprisingly, this is what Subboor did, argue that he can still believe what he wants because [he thinks] science can’t be absolutely certain about this. At times, his argument was little more than a re-hash of Ken Ham’s “were you there?”. This is how Ham argues against “historical science”, saying that science can’t re-create the past: as if we can only accept testimony instead of evidence. Subboor didn’t phrase it that way, but he repeated that sort of sentiment at least a couple times.

Traditionally the one arguing the affirmative would go first, but Subboor went first taking the “affirmative” stance that Darwinian evolution is not a fact. I know that’s really a negative, but that didn’t matter to me. I already knew that Religion Reverses Everything.

His first semantic somersault was his attempt to redefine the terms. At the start of our debate, he defined fact as “something that is absolute”. He did the same when we had this discussion on video. Only then he said that a fact is “certain, absolute, it’s not going to change, it’s like the earth going around the sun.” But that is Heliocentric theory, and Subboor says a theory cannot also be a fact. Ironically in that video he also said that a fact could be defined as “something that is generally agreed upon in science, or its the best theory for the data that we currently have”. However what he calls Darwinian evolution fits both of those criteria.

I knew that in order to prove this point, I would have to show that I’m using a consensus definition from both common dictionaries and educational science sources. I also knew that Subboor thinks that a scientific fact is somehow different than a fact in common understanding. So I cited a collection of definitive sources showing that both the scientific and colloquial definitions are the same, being simply data that can be confirmed correct. I cited the National Center for Science Education and the National Academy of Science. Subboor thought I said National Science Foundation, and said that wasn’t good enough. Dictionaries and Wikipedia weren’t good enough either. No mainstream source was. The only thing he would accept was an irrelevant quote he mined from a book on philosophy. So he changed his definition from a common or scientific context to a philosophical context, inapplicable to our discussion, wherein he literally said the word has no consistent definition or two many discordant definitions with no consensus–despite the fact that I just showed him that consensus–when we’re talking about science or common understanding. Thus it would be impossible to prove that anything is a fact, since he won’t even accept what a fact is–if it puts his preferred assumptions at risk.

Honestly I could just as easily have gone with his first definition, that a fact is absolute. Because in this case, it is. Even if the theory of evolution changes in subtle details, the essence of it is actually absolute. We know for an absolute fact that humans evolved from apes, and we really can prove that absolutely.

Subboor told me that he had read my book on Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism to prepare for this debate. But then he proved repeatedly that he either hadn’t read more than the first few pages, or that he had only skimmed it, and obviously didn’t understand that either. Because he kept repeating the 15th foundational falsehood, that evolution is “just” a theory, not a fact. He also repeated the 2nd FFoC, that scripture is the word of God: the 5th FFoC, that Darwinism is a religion: the 10th FFoC, that the tree of life is an arbitrary human construct, not an evident fact of nature: and the 11th FFoC, that he accepts only small scale evolution because it is too obvious to deny, but that he thinks large scale evolution is unobservable and therefore merely a belief. He also said that I never explained homoplasy in my book, but I did at least twice when talking convergence. I just didn’t use the word he apparently searched for using Ctrl-F. He clearly does not read for comprehension. As one person commented, “Subboor selectively quoted from the abstract, leaving out the parts that completely undermine his argument. Like the conclusion: “These results provide powerful statistical evidence corroborating the monophyly of all known life”.”

Subboor said he accepted evolution as an observation, and that should have been enough to establish it as fact. But he thinks Darwinian evolution is something different. He described the observation of evolution as microevolution, without using that word. Then he gave the description for macroevolution as what he called Darwinism. He said he doesn’t use the terms micro and macro because scientists can’t decide whether to use them, because it causes confusion. But it isn’t the terms that are the problem. The confusion comes from arbitrarily dividing one continuous process into two different categories just so that half of it can be denied by folks who don’t know any better. If that’s the problem, then Subboor made it even more confusing by using the wrong words as labels when he arbitrarily divided the categories despite the controversy he himself cited as why he shouldn’t do that.

Then he cited a metamorphic predator response in individual Daphnea water fleas and said that was evolution. It’s my fault I didn’t interrupt to correct him immediately. I actually think I was momentarily stunned by the sheer dafuq of that comment. But no. Metamorphosis and evolution are different things. And even though evolution is genetic, it is still measured in changes at the population level. Otherwise individuals cannot evolve except in Pokémon cartoons.

Just to be clear, evolution is not “small-scale variations observable within a single life-time”; that’s microevolution. Evolution isn’t limited to the observed mechanism of evolution either; that’s Darwinism–in the American vernacular. In the UK, Darwinism means the same thing as evolution does in the US. As I explained in my offerings to the Atheist Dictionary, evolution is “an explanation of biodiversity via population mechanics; summarily defined as ‘descent with inherent [genetic] modification. When compiled over successive generations, these can expand biodiversity when continuing variation between genetically-isolated groups eventually lead to one or more descendant branches increasingly distinct from their ancestors or cousins.” That’s what evolution is whether we’re talking about the small-scale Darwinian mechanism or at the macro scale, which Subboor has conflated with Darwinism. He said evolution is the mechanism, not Darwinism. But if he’s going to use the word Darwinian at all, it should have been when he distinguished the Darwinian mechanism from the Lamarckian mechanism of acquired characteristics. He said Lamarck taught evolution too, albeit of a different type, and that there would always be a theory of evolution even if the current [Darwinian] mechanism was disproved. So he should have realized that evolution is the broader term, not Darwinism. Likewise he said that Lamarck was trying to explain the same tree of life years before Darwin, yet he also said that tree of life was a Darwinian construct. No, the evolutionary tree came before Darwin, even before Lamarck, and Subboor knows that. So the only thing that is Darwinian is the mechanism, natural selection. Subboor labeled them backwards. Even when he contradicts himself on this, he still doesn’t see that he’s using these terms wrong, reversed, or in a way that no scientist would use these terms. I corrected him on this several times, but he just wouldn’t pick up on it.

DebatingSubboor

It was the same during Q&A when I had to explain how a specific genetic feature, (the fusion of the human/chimp chromosome #2) proved our common ancestry with apes, and that this was not merely assumed because of any morphological or genetic similarity. I don’t know what his cognitive dysfunction is, but he seemed convinced that I was the one who didn’t understand. He also obviously misunderstood everything he said he read to support his argument and could not accept correction there either.

So I think the problem is not that he doesn’t know anything, but that he thinks he knows things that he obviously doesn’t really understand, or he has interpreted scientists as if they were saying or meaning something completely different than what they really said or meant. It reminds me of the adage inspired by George Bernard Shaw, “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.”

Some of this is not his fault. Unfortunately scientists aren’t always clear or careful about how they’re going to be quoted. For example, I mentioned a recent conference of the Royal Society wherein there was some argument over the validity of neo-Darwinism. No one argued against basic Darwinism, being the mechanisms Darwin himself proposed. They didn’t say that natural selection isn’t a real working mechanism, only that it’s not the only one, and that it isn’t always in play. But a couple of fringe scientists have said something like that in an indefensible attempt to promote their own ideas to the exclusion of others. Neo-Darwinism is essentially natural selection plus genetics, and no scientist argues against that either, not even among the crack-pots on the fringe. But some prominent proponents of Neo-Darwinism regularly praise the random chance processes of the blind watchmaker, as if no more deterministic alternative could even exist. Recent discoveries which could be described as cellular memory leading to a seemingly Lamarckian concept of acquired characteristics within the cell challenge the idea that the incident effects of population mechanics are the only catalysts of emergent biodiversity. So when these scientists said they criticized Neo-Darwinism, they meant the ideology that evolution must always employ the blind watchmaker and not any of the other concordant mechanisms that are sometimes applicable. When scientists say things like that, it leads unscientific philosophy students like Subboor to think they’re saying that natural selection isn’t real, or that it doesn’t really work, or that Lamarck disproved Darwin, or something like that. Subboor’s extremely limited “study” of the philosophy of science somehow hasn’t even shown him that an investigation can have assumptions without being based on assumptions, and that no surviving scientific theory even can be based on assumptions.

I’m still keen to prove evolution to Subboor’s satisfaction. Since all he can do now is misquote academics, then I’ll first have to undo what he thinks he knows, that he’s obviously got wrong. That means swapping his definitions of Darwinism and evolution back to what they are and not what he thinks they are. I don’t know if we’ll ever get that opportunity. But he did say we should set something up the next time I’m in London. If we do, I’m not going to wade through his misconceptions again. We’ll have to straighten that out first.

 

 

 

 

 

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