Sunday, 6 May 2007

Is D'Souza really redefining evolution?

Conservative USA blogger and writer Dinesh D'Souza isn't afraid of Darwin. According to D'Souza, this is not because Darwin can be easily refuted; but because actually Darwin is perfectly compatible with Christian belief in design. He says:

I know many on the right, especially the Christian right, are scared of Darwin. Even intellectual magazines like Commentary seem to have adopted an anti-Darwin position. This has enabled many on the left, as well as the professional atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, to portray conservative Christians as yahoos. Sometimes we do come across that way.

In my forthcoming book "What's So Great About Christianity" I will show why, contrary to the claims of Dawkins and company, Darwinian evolution does not undermine the design argument for God. On the contrary, the latest findings of modern science have greatly strengthened that argument. Paley was right and Dawkins is wrong.
This has been picked up by a number of prominent bloggers. Pharyngula is unimpressed, at The rebranding of Intelligent Design. He says:

The new strategy is to embrace the word "evolution". Ask them if they believe in evolution, and they will happily declare that "Yes, I believe in 'evolution'!" Unfortunately, what they call "evolution" is not evolution as evolutionary biologists understand it. If they're willing to redefine science, what's to stop them from redefining mere evolution to suit them?
Pharyngula's title got it right. D'Souza is trying to rebrand design, but without letting on that this is what he is doing. But is D'Souza actually redefining evolution? Not that I can see.

Paley's notion of design

D'Souza is playing fast and loose with the notion of design. Paley's arguments on natural theology dealt specifically with the forms of living things. His famous book, first published in 1802, is Natural Theology, Or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. This includes the notorious "watchmaker" argument, which is the argument that has been picked up by the modern intelligent design movement. Put simply, anything that complex needs a designer. This argument was exploded by Darwin's insights on the origin of species.

The modern Intelligent Design movement picked up the shreds of this now useless argument, and by virtue of reeking incompetence at elementary science they tried to prop up the corpse with a lot of claims about new scientific theories. No science was actually involved, of course; just lots of bafflegab, and repackaging of conventional creationist arguments. This charade has been thoroughly exposed for anyone with the wit to see it.

D'Souza thinks Paley got it right. But Paley does much more than propose design. He gives an actual argument for design, and he speaks specifically of design of the forms of living things themselves. And in this, Paley got it wrong.

For instance, on page 468 (12 ed) of his book, Paley considers some difficulties with his view.

The TWO CASES which appear to me to have the most of difficulty in them, as forming the most of the appearance of exception to the representation here given, are those of venomous animals, and of animals preying upon one another. These properties of animals, wherever they are found, must, I think, be referred to design; because there is, in all cases of the first, and in most cases of the second, an express and distinct organization provided for the producing of them. Under the first head, the fangs of vipers, the stings of wasps and scorpions, are as clearly intended for their purpose, as any animal structure is for any purpose the most incontestably beneficial. ...
The remainder of the chapter makes fascinating reading. Paley gives some mitigating considerations, and a look at the whole problem of evil, and also, interestingly, a consideration of a role for chance and contingency along with design.

The critical point to bear in mind is this: Paley is looking at the specific organs and adaptions of living things. In Paley's view, the form of such organs can only be explained by design. Darwin showed that this is wrong; finely adapted organs can also be explained by natural selection.

The modern intelligent design movement is perfectly correct to see evolution and design as being two radically different explanations for the finely adapted forms of living complexity. They can't both be right, and this design argument is most certainly wrong.

Another view of design

At this point, we come to a subtle distinction. Darwin certainly exploded the line of reasoning used by Paley, but he did not explode the conclusion that the natural world is established by the design of a deity. Darwin left in smoking ruins the best positive argument from the natural world to a deity. He did not actually proceed to refute the deity itself.

It seems hard for many atheists to get their head around this point: but there are many Christians actively at work in scientific research into the natural world, and who accept without quibble or distortion all the basic empirical facts of evolutionary biology as conventionally understood by mainstream science. Christians are a minority amongst working scientists, but there are still a substantial number.

Christians invariably have some kind of notion whereby the natural world is God's creation. For Christians active in conventional science, this usually means that evolution itself is an intended consequence of how the designer set up the cosmos. An interesting example of this perspective is the famous evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky. Dobzhansky's well known essay,
Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution is actually about science and religion, and it expresses basically a kind of theistic evolution. He says:

The organic diversity becomes, however, reasonable and understandable if the Creator has created the living world not by caprice but by evolution propelled by natural selection. 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.
This is a variant of a common theme amongst Christians who are active in science. They hold that the entire natural world is established by design, and that any study of natural processes is study of that design.

This perspective is, of course, not provable and (usually) not falsifiable. It is not a scientific model. This is invariably recognized by its advocates. It may not be a good fit with popular religion, but Christianity is extremely diverse in any case. Dobzhansky, for example, was a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, but he was by no means conventional in his beliefs.

Whether this perspective is a fit with traditional religion is debatable. My own feeling is that we can see this much, at least... it has been a traditional belief all down the centuries that all natural processes are established by God. This foundational belief has been maintained many many Christians even as our understanding of those processes has developed.

Don't Redefine Evolution

We don't have to agree with Dobzhansky. But it would be rash to say that his view was inconsistent with evolution, or that he redefined evolution! As one of the major developers of the "New Synthesis" of evolutionary biology with genetics in the 1960s, Dobzhansky has an excellent claim to being one of those who established the definitions of evolution that we use today!

D'Souza recognizes that taking an explicit anti-Darwin position makes you look like a yahoo. As far as I can tell he's recognizing Darwinian evolution as it is conventionally defined. I see no flagrant errors in the details of evolutionary biology involved; and no redefinition.

The explicitly anti-Darwin position of the modern Intelligent Design movement so popular with D'Souza's fellow religious conservatives is a position of breathtaking inanity, fostered by culpable ignorance and calculated dishonesty in its public defenders. The real risk from attempts to rebadge intelligent design is the problem of the big tent. The risk is that they'll say one thing to one audience and another for a different audience, and try slide anti-Darwinian design of specific forms into the arena under the cover of a vague belief in a creative design underlying the whole cosmos.

D'Souza is, as far as I can tell, recognizing the validity of evolution, but arguing that it's a part of the whole design. That's a position that can and should be argued. But let's not argue it by redefining evolution ourselves!

This has nothing to do with wanting atheists to keep silence, or with rolling over and accepting the validity of religion, or with avoiding offense to believers who happen to be allies in the fight against creationist pseudoscience.

Evolutionary biology makes no mention of plans, or designs, or Gods. We have no need of that hypothesis. The same is true of meteorology, geology, physics, chemistry or any other science. There is not even an additional clause to say "there's no God who set this up". To argue for or against God's existence can use arguments relating to empirical science, but they have to go further than this and into some metaphysics.

Distorting science to insert our own metaphysics is bad because it distorts science. It is bad when done by believers, and it is bad when done by unbelievers.

11 comments:

  1. You're shilling for Pharnygula hits again, aren't you? :-)

    More seriously, it's nice to read a more moderate atheistic voice in the discussion. I hadn't read the Dobzhansky essay before, so thanks for pointing that out too. Although it's perhaps ironic that he redefines creationism in the essay, so that he can call himself a creationist.

    Bob

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  2. Pharyngula hits are nice, 'tis true; but the real fact of the matter is that I was getting into some debates in PZ's blog a few weeks ago that I wanted to be able to engage more thoroughly; and that was what finally persuaded me to start blogging myself.

    I've known PZ for years, from before blogs were invented. We were both talk.origins regulars in the old days. He's long been one of my favourite reads. Thanks for the comment!

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  3. Evolutionary biology makes no mention of plans, or designs, or Gods. We have no need of that hypothesis. The same is true of meteorology, geology, physics, chemistry or any other science. There is not even an additional clause to say "there's no God who set this up". To argue for or against God's existence can use arguments relating to empirical science, but they have to go further than this and into some metaphysics.


    You know I'll disagree strongly with this. It's not the new atheists trying to redefine evolution; it's the theistic evolutionists (and I will include Dobzhansky in that) trying to redefine all of science to allow their pet myth to sneak in. If there's no evidence for a postulated phenomenon, if observed mechanisms account for the observations we have at hand, you don't get to smuggle the phenomenon in anyway on the basis of "well, maybe it exists." It's a violation of parsimony, for one thing, and scientific conclusions should be constructed on the basis of reproducible, verifiable evidence, for another.

    On the other hand, noting that the phenomenon does not show up in our measurements, our photographs, our equations, our history; that it is defined in such a way as to be untestable; that it has no consequence, ought to be interpreted by the scientific mind as evidence that the phenomenon does not exist. That isn't metaphysics, that's elementary reasoning.

    If someone wants to drag in an unevidenced entity with internally inconsistent properties, that's metaphysics. It's kneejerk contrariness to argue that the opposite contention must also be metaphysics, and I don't buy it at all.

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  4. You continue to miss the point, PZ.

    If you are going to say "redefining evolution" then you need to justify that by showing something actually different in the definition of evolution being used.

    You can't just take willy nilly any belief (of Dobzhansky, for example) and insist that it is part of the definition of evolution. That's just being sloppy in your argument. Dobzhansky did not define evolution to incorporate theism. The definitions of evolution he used made no reference to his beliefs in a deity.

    I don't believe in God. Neither do you. Both of us consider that there are good reasons for this position. But that does not make our position with respect to deities a part of the definition of evolution.

    You failed to justify the idea that Dobzhansky redefines evolution; and instead switched a different claim: that he is "trying to redefine all of science to allow their pet myth to sneak in". But even that claim is invalid, because Dobzhansky is not presenting his belief in a creator as a scientific conclusion. As far as I can tell, there's nothing about his creator that has any material implications that would allow it to be tested, even in principle. So therefore it's not science – and more importantly – he does not claim it is science.

    It is fair enough to say that this belief is "unscientific". It's fair enough to say it is false, or irrational. But it does not follow that he is redefining science; since he is not making scientific arguments for his belief.

    You also mix up "lack of evidence for existence" with "evidence for non-existence". This is a basic error in logic on your own part, and it's going to become relevant at this blog, I hope, as I get into cosmology.

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  5. On the other hand, noting that the phenomenon does not show up in our measurements, our photographs, our equations, our history; that it is defined in such a way as to be untestable; that it has no consequence, ought to be interpreted by the scientific mind as evidence that the phenomenon does not exist.
    This is getting perilously close to social constructivism: if we can't measure it, it doesn't exist.

    Perhaps a philosopher would correct me, but it seems to me that this only makes sense if you have a prior metaphysical commitment to simplicity. It's not the same thing as saying "if we can't measure it, then we can act as if it doesn't exist": something I would take to be the epistemic form of your argument, and which I think has more force.

    The problem is that if we can't measure something, then we can't create counterfactuals to decide on the its existence. Hence, we can have now way of resolving its existence. The conclusion that it does not exist must then rely on some other philosophical commitment, other than reliance on the evidence.

    Bob

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  6. But where do I use this phrase "redefining evolution"?

    My original argument was that ID is trying to rebrand itself with a label that puts it under the umbrella of evolution; my point was that trying to turn evolutionary biology into Paleyism isn't valid.

    You also mix up "lack of evidence for existence" with "evidence for non-existence".

    Not at all. I know the difference. We do not have evidence for the non-existence of deities in general, although we do have evidence that the predicted properties of specific deities are not in existence. We have a combination of a lack of evidence and such blatant bad-faith evasiveness on the part of the god-belief advocates that we can legitimately make an operational judgement that gods do not exist -- those who object should simply give a solid argument rather than retiring to empty abstractions.

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  7. David Marjanović7 May 2007 at 6:55 am

    The "operational judgement" is called Apathetic Agnosticism... :-)

    On another note, I bet it should be dua quartunciae, assuming quartuncia is really singular. If it's plural, you're right.

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  8. We have a combination of a lack of evidence and such blatant bad-faith evasiveness on the part of the god-belief advocates that we can legitimately make an operational judgement that gods do not exist.

    For me the operational judgement is something rather less than making a (scientific) statement on the existence of an object: you're acting as if the statement is true (or false), but you're not saying whether it is. Calling for a statement to be rejected is calling for a decision on its truth.

    And making a decision on the truth of a matter based on the behaviour of its supporters is hardly a scientific approach, it would be likeCENSORED BY GODWIN SQUADelephants.

    Whatever. This should be appearing in your mailbox from 1367 Pharynguloids.

    Bob

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  9. pz asks:
    But where do I use this phrase "redefining evolution"?

    My original argument was that ID is trying to rebrand itself with a label that puts it under the umbrella of evolution; my point was that trying to turn evolutionary biology into Paleyism isn't valid.


    I think this question is answered at the start of my main blog article.

    I agree that ID is trying to rebrand itself, and I said so plainly, right at the outset, before getting in to the points where we have some disagreement.

    I also quoted a portion of the Pharyngula article that speaks of redefining science; of the potential to redefine evolution, and which says explicitly that 'what they call "evolution" is not evolution as evolutionary biologists understand it.

    I don't think that's accurate. It seems to me that what they call evolution is the same as what we call evolution... the process by which living things change over time, by cumulative variation and natural selection. They are, it seems, adopting a view more like that of Dobzhansky; that there is a creator who set up the whole operation, and that evolution – as conventionally defined – is a part of the whole grand design.

    This view is not a scientific one, of course. It is not a part of evolutionary biology itself and it is not claimed to be. It is not falsifiable; and it has no implications for what we see in the natural world. Dobzhansky, I think, understood that. As far as I can tell, Dobzhansky never tried to claim that his religious beliefs were scientific models, and made no attempt to expand the definition of science to incorporate arguments that we conventionally recognize outside the scope of scientific argument.

    I am not so sanguine about D'Souza, who is lightyears less insightful than Dobzhansky; it would not surprise me to know that he fails to understand the nature of scientific argument and evidence. But the blog article he wrote does not attempt to redefine science that I can see.

    Bear in mind; it is quite possible to use unscientific arguments without redefining science. You are only redefining science if you try to claim that those arguments are scientific ones.

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  10. By the way... thanks David Marjanović . I have changed the title of my blog to the correct spelling. The url is unchanged.

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