The Argument From Incredulity

“I can’t imagine how this could possibly have happened. Therefore, it didn’t happen”.

The argument from incredulity is a classic used by young-earth creationists, and more recently by cdesign proponentsists. Dave Scot at Uncommon Descent begins by posing the question “which came first, the caterpillar or the butterfly” and then goes on to present this as evidence against evolution. The question itself is obviously wrong-headed to begin with – even a religion professor with no degree in biology can see that if he has taken the time to inform himself about evolution! The theory of evolution doesn’t say that there used to be just eggs and caterpillars, and at some point eggs evolved the ability to hatch chickens, and at some point caterpillars evolved the ability to turn into butterflies. The evolution of metamorphosis is a legitimate area of inquiry, and while poorly-informed bloggers are throwing up their hands and trying to divert attention elsewhere, scientists continue to work on these questions, and not without results.

As an organism evolves, the precise details and stages of it embryological development will change over time. This field, of how embryos evolve with the ability to become various fully-developed adult forms is central to evolutionary developmental biology, or “Evo Devo” for short. When it comes to metamorphosis, we do have evidence of intermediary forms in organisms that currently exist – a range from no metamorphosis through partial metamorphosis to complete metamorphosis. It does not take much searching online to find evidence of the fruitful scientific research on this subject. From popular presentations to journal articles. Lynn Riddiford is clearly a key name in this particular field, and it is unclear why Dave Scot was unable to find the article she published in Nature in 1999. But this is typical of various forms of anti-scientific creationism: they do not stay up to date on scientific research, because they are rooting for science to fail and don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to those places where it “fails to fail” contrary to their desires and predictions.

But if scientific explanation is incompatible with belief in God, then the battle is already lost. We can understand that the genetic code that cdesign proponentsists attribute to a Designer carries the instructions that turn fertilized ova into full-grown organisms. If that is a competing explanation to being “knit together in one’s mother’s womb“, then there is already a problem. We understand much about meteorology, and even if we still have trouble predicting the weather we have no problem explaining it in scientific terms. If meteorology is incompatible with the belief that God sends the rain, then religion is already in serious trouble.

My advice to religious believers is this: Stop trying to fight science’s attempts to explain things, and focus instead on asking whether or not your religious views are compatible with the scientific data. If not, then you need to either change your religious beliefs or discard them. But to pretend that the issue is limited to evolution and does not relate to the whole range of science and human knowledge is dishonest, and to try to drag us back to earlier times of ignorance because you do not have the courage necessary to rethink and reformulate is unhelpful – to say the least.

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  • Doppelganger

    Hi James,I think you hit the nail on the head.It has always been, and I suspect will always be, a stand-by of sorts for the DaveScots of the world to fall back on ‘I just can’t believe this evolved’ type arguments, along with using the fact that we don’t know everything to imply that we thus know nothing.It isn’t must of an argument really, but sadly, it does seem to convince the ‘unwashed’.

  • ifeelfine72

    I can’t believe you got me to read the entire post and not one mention of the Very Hungry Caterpillar! I feel duped! Just kidding of course – great post.Jeff

  • phil_style

    What a bizzre coincidence, I was trying to explaing the Very Hungry Caterpillar book to a colleague just yesterday. . .

  • Anonymous

    Metamorphasis is simply a special case of development in which it is interrupted by a dramatic transformation. In general metamorphasis indicates the probable sequence of ancestry with the more primitive form preceding the final adult as a fish. the tadple, preceding the amphibian frog. All development involves a great deal of cell death as the embryo is transformed into the adult.John A. Davison

  • Anonymous

    Excuse my spelling error -metamorphosis

  • Bilbo

    “cdesign”? Does that stand for “creation design”? Is that your not so subtle slam on us IDists? Puerile.

  • James F. McGrath

    cdesign proponentsists” is a transitional form between “creationists” and “design proponents” found in drafts of the textbook Of Pandas And People, a result of trying to paste the latter into the place of the former to conform with the legal decision about teaching creationism in school, but without other significant change to the content.