Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Andrew Perry shows how not to discuss evolution and creation - 1

The philosophical analog to the imperial overreach exhibited by scientists who dismiss the value of philosophy to science is found in the philosopher who turns every single scientific problem he sees into a philosophical one, ignores the main scientific issues while tackling irrelevant philosophical side issues, then declares the problem solved. Christadelphian philosopher of religion and evolution denialist Andrew Perry has contributed to the February 2014 edition of The Testimony with his article "The creation versus evolution debate" which not only makes this mistake, but slides into naked fideism as the abstract indicates:
"The debate between biblical creation and the theory of evolution is argued in scientific terms - that is, on the scientists' home ground. The following article argues that the conflict is actually a philosophical one, reflecting the competing world views of the two sides. For believers in God and His revelation in the Bible, the changing theories of science must be subservient to the inspired Word of God." [1]
In one paragraph, Perry has conflated a theology of creation with an account of material origins, ignored the fact that many evolutionary biologists are also devout Christians active who do not fall into Perry's artificial and misleading dichotomy of creation versus evolution, and invoked fideism by declaring that the 'inspired Word of God" trumps scientific theories. 

To that one can add his conflation of human interpretations of the Bible with the original text, and a failure to recognise that evolution refers to fact and theory. While the modern synthetic theory, currently accepted theory of evolution like all theories is not final but subject to revision, the facts of common descent and large-scale evolutionary change which the modern synthetic theory seeks to explain completely rule out the special creation Perry seeks to defend.

Perry makes his first mistake by positing a false dichotomy in order to frame the discussion in a way favourable to his special creationism. His reference to the 'competing world views' of biblical creation and the theory of evolution subtly equates the latter with atheism, a move which given the considerable number of respected life and earth scientists who are also theologically conservative Christians is intellectually dishonest. Theodosius Dobzhansky, the 20th century geneticist and leading figure in the forging of the modern synthetic theory of evolution warned against advancing the idea that evolution and creation are in opposition:

It is wrong to hold creation and evolution as mutually exclusive alternatives. I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God’s, or Nature’s method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way. [2]
In fact, up until the First World War, when, as historian of science Michael Keas notes, the perception among evangelical Christians that "scientific naturalism had degraded our knowledge of the book of God’s works" [3] helped trigger growing opposition among evangelicals towards evolution, support for evolution was hardly unknown among theologically conservative Christians. Historian of science David Livingstone notes that many of Darwin's earliest and most ardent supporters were theologically conservative Christians:
Darwin’s cause in America was championed by the thoroughgoing Congregationalist evangelical Asa Gray, who set himself the task of making sure that Darwin would have “fair play” in the New World. Let us be clear right away that this cannot be dismissed as capitulation to the social pressure of academic peers. To the contrary, Gray had to take on one of the most influential naturalists in America at the time to maintain his viewpoint – none other than Louis Agassiz, a Harvard colleague who vitriolically scorned Darwin’s theory. But Gray was not alone. Many of his countrymen, associates in science and brothers in religion took the same stand. And indeed even those who ultimately remained unimpressed with if not hostile to Darwin were quite prepared to admit that evolution had occurred. It is surely not without significance that Christian botanists, geologists, and biologists – that is to say, those best placed to see with clarity the substance of what Darwin had proposed – believed the evidence supported an evolutionary natural history. [4]
Livingstone's observation that some of Darwin's opponents nonetheless accepted the fact of evolution brings to mind Darwin's observation that he had two goals when writing his book, namely establishing the evidence for evolution, and proposing a mechanism to explain how evolution had occurred. Darwin recognised that not every naturalist accepted his theory of natural selection, but as he admitted:
Whether the naturalist believes in the views given by Lamarck, or Geoffroy St.-Hilaire, by the author of the ‘Vestiges,’ by Mr. Wallace and myself, or in any other such view, signifies extremely little in comparison with the admission that species have descended from other species and have not been created immutable; for he who admits this as a great truth has a wide field opened to him for further inquiry. [5]
This highlights yet another fundamental problem with Perry's argument, and that is his failure to properly differentiate between evolution as fact, and evolution as theory, a failing that as shown later completely negates the validity of some of his arguments. Furthermore, Perry's appeal to fideism as seen in his assertion "the changing theories of science must be subservient to the inspired Word of God" suggests that Perry also fails to appreciate that theory in science does not mean a hunch, guess, or speculation, but refers to a tested collection of facts and hypotheses that has explanatory and predictive power:
The common and scientific definitions of “theory,” unlike of “fact,” are drastically different. In daily conversation, “theory” often implicitly indicates a lack of supporting data. Indeed, introducing a statement with “My theory is...” is usually akin to saying “I guess that...”, “I would speculate that...”, or “I believe but have not attempted to demonstrate that...”. By contrast, a theory in science, again following the definition given by the NAS, is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.” Science not only generates facts but seeks to explain them, and the interlocking and well-supported explanations for those facts are known as theories. Theories allow aspects of the natural world not only to be described, but to be understood. Far from being unsubstantiated speculations, theories are the ultimate goal of science. [6]
His assertion that "the changing theories of science must be subservient to the inspired Word of God" implies that scientific theories are in a constant state of flux, which frankly is something of an overstatement. Since Newton, the theoretical mechanism proposed to explain gravity has changed once in the early 20th century when Einstein's theory of general relativity replaced Newtonian gravity. 

Furthermore, it ignores the basics of scientific epistemology which freely states that “truth in science is never final, and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow”. [7] To the scientifically naive layperson, this may seem to be a weakness, but in fact it is one of the great strengths of science, helping prevent it from being locked into dogma.

All scientific theories are potentially falsifiable, so to damn them as 'changing theories' contributes nothing to advancing his argument. [8] It also ignores the fact that the facts they seek to explain remain no matter what happens to the theory. GR is of course incomplete, as it fails to explain gravity at the quantum level. However, when GR is finally replaced by a quantum theory of gravity, the facts that GR explained such as gravitational lensing, gravitational red shift, and de Sitter precession will not vanish when GR is replaced. Furthermore, the successor theory to GR will still need to explain the same gravitational phenomena that GR did, just as GR explains all the phenomena that Newtonian gravity does. [9] The same holds with evolution. Even if the modern synthetic theory was falsified immediately, the facts of common descent and large-scale morphological change in the fossil record that it explains still remain. These facts, which include human-ape common ancestry, do not vanish no matter how hard Perry seeks to make them vanish by invoking philosophical legerdemain.

Finally, it is questionable whether it even makes sense to say that scientific theories should be subservient to the inspired word of God, other than at the level of platitude which states that God is sovereign over all of reality which is true, but is irrelevant to the real question - the fact that a literal or strong concordist reading of the creation narratives are flatly contradicted by hard evidence, and no amount of platitude will alter that reality.

[To be continued]


1. Perry A "The creation versus evolution debate" The Testimony (2014) 84:69-72
2. Dobzhansky T "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution", American Biology Teacher (1973) 35:125-129
3. Keas MN "Darwinism, Fundamentalism and R.A. Torrey" Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2010) 62:25-51
4. Livingstone DN Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders (Eerdmans 1984) p xi-xii
5. Darwin CR. Origin of species [Letter]. Athenaeum 9 May: 617; 1863.
6. Gregory T.R. "Evolution as Fact, Theory and Path" Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-52
7. National Academy of Sciences of the USA. Teaching about evolution and the nature of science. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 1998.
8. Cynically, it reads more as a rhetorical ploy designed to pander to the anti-science prejudices of readers of The Testimony.
9. The fact that Newton's theory of gravity still holds well under non-relativistic conditions (just as GR holds under non-quantum conditions) neatly skewers the naive view that when theories change, they become useless.