‘Induction over the history of science suggests that the best theories we have today will prove more or less untrue at the latest by tomorrow afternoon.’ Fodor, J. ‘Why Pigs don’t have wings,’ London Review of Books, 18th Oct 2007

Monday, 29 September 2008

Book Review of 'Creation or Evolution - Do We Have to Choose?

Book Review of 'Creation or Evolution – Do We Have to Choose?' by Denis Alexander. Reaction by Howard Taylor - September 2008

This is a good book highly to be recommended. For whether one agrees with his main thesis (evolution was God’s clever method of Intelligent Design) it is good to get to grips with the case that Theistic Evolutionists make. The Christian Faith of Denis Alexander shines through much of the book which is full of Biblical references with very helpful guides on how to approach the Bible and Genesis 1 in particular. (I hope though that his methods of interpretation don’t make the mistake of separating into non-interactive compartments the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘physical’.) It would be wrong of me to judge him even though I disagree with his main thesis, I am now going to give my main criticisms of his argument under various headings. The criticisms do not mean that the book is not a worthwhile read for people of varied opinions.

The title is in the form of a question: Do we need to decide between creation and evolution? Actually this reviewer gives the same answer as Denis Alexander: No! Clearly one can be a Christian and believe both the fundamentals of the Biblical creation story and also believe that evolution was God’s clever way of accomplishing the biodiversity we have around us today. I was a once a Theistic evolutionist and I believe my Christian Faith was real. Denis Alexander is another good example of a person who believes in Christ and also believes in evolution. It should not be a certain dogmatic interpretation of the Bible that leads one to hold that evolution and Christianity are incompatible. I doubt evolution because I don’t believe it happened – at least to the extent of making the whole of vegetable, animal, and human life related.

Objection to Evolution.
I repeat that the reason I reject evolution now is not dogmatic Biblical creation but rather the weakness of the case for evolution as well as the strong very logical case against it.

Evolution and atheism.
Of course the theory of evolution, if true, does not prove atheism because it can’t tell us where matter and energy come from or how life got started in the first place. Many who support evolution, prophecy that a physical theory supporting the origin of life will be found one day but like all prophecies that hope is based on a particular belief system. We will turn to that later. It also does not claim to explain what consciousness and reason are or how they came about even though they are very important in understanding the human condition. But because evolution attempts to explain the development of our physical life, it does make reflection more comfortable for the atheist although it does not really back his position – the most basic constituents of human life being beyond evolution’s, or any scientific theory’s scope.

The Mystery.
Denis Alexander claims it is a mystery why so many people reject evolution. I don’t believe much of this rejection is a mystery at all. The fact is that many people have come to evolutionist talks and asked perfectly reasonable non-dogmatic questions. They have often asked them in a friendly polite way. But over and over again their questions have not been taken seriously but they have been accused of ‘junk science’ or similar bad positions when they have made perfectly reasonable points. When taken aback by such abuse, it is not surprising or a mystery why they turn against the theory of evolution. People supporting the theory of evolution would gain much more respect if they were more honest about its difficulties and not keep giving the impression to the general public – that the theory is all sown up, while admitting grave concerns about the theory when talking among themselves. In the main part of Denis Alexander’s book, though, he is not a bit like that. It is written in a kind, thoughtful and non-confrontational manner. But sadly he does use condescending remarks elsewhere in public forums. Also in the postscript he reveals something of his arrogant self. I did not want to use that word but he uses such terms as ‘dangerous,’ disgraceful’ and therefore ‘embarrassing’ to describe the ID people and anyone who dares to publicly doubt evolution. It is then, not a mystery that so many are turning against the theory. One should expect it.

The scientific establishment would be open to criticisms of the theory if the criticisms were at all valid. Prestigious publications such as The New Scientist would welcome articles criticising evolution were the arguments putting up a good scientific case. This is what Denis Alexander says. I doubt it actually. On the very day that I write this it is reported on the BBC web site “Professor Michael Reiss has quit as director of education at the Royal Society following the controversy over his recent comments on creationism. Last week Prof Reiss … said creationism should be discussed in science lessons if pupils raised the issue.” The Spectator has a blog with the heading: ’Secular Inquisition at the Royal Society’. Lord Winston who is a member of the Royal Society reacting to his stepping down said: "I fear that in this action the Royal Society may have only diminished itself. This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science - something that the Royal Society should applaud “. I have known many professional academic scientists in my time. The majority believe in evolution – not because they have examined the evidence – but because ‘everyone believes it’ so they must be right! The relatively few who have examined it are not convinced (this includes biologists). After many years of chatting with them and unsuccessfully suggesting they go public, I am convinced that many do not do so, because they do not want to put their head above the parapet for fear of their career being damaged in a serious way.

Phillip Johnson. DA says of Phillip Johnson that he stopped believing in evolution after reading The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins (true, so did I). He says he gave it up because Richard Dawkins uses the book to promote atheism (not true that he gave it up for this reason). He gave it up because he believed The Blind Watchmaker was a dishonest book covering up weak arguments with rhetoric. (I too was converted to the anti-evolution cause for the same reason.)

Chance and God’s Providence.
First he, like Richard Dawkins, denies that evolution is a chance process. He says Natural Selection is a ‘law-like’ process. This is partly true but natural selection is only part of the story. It does not change anything but rather preserves those changes which have happened at random and are beneficial to an organism’s survival.

Second, DA points out that all Christians believe the hand of God guides their lives yet their lives are made up of a myriad of seemingly trivial and chance events. Yet even these seemingly small events can have a major influence for God’s purpose for our lives. So DA rightly argues. Christians believe that when these small events have the potential for major Divine consequences, God actually intervenes to use them for His purpose. In many chance events – those which bear no significance – God leaves them to do their little job and that is all. He leaves well alone the ordinary chance events – which have no ultimate Divine purpose. The question is ‘Does He intervene in any of the seemingly ‘random’ mutations on which natural selection works? DA thinks No! So according to him evolution is built on a random process even if a non-random process then takes over. It is therefore for him, difficult to maintain then that our physical being was created in the purposes of God.

Speciation. He tells us that there is good evidence for this. He refers to different kinds of similar fish that live in the African lakes. They all were descended from a common ancestor but now cannot interbreed with one another. They have become different species, This is probably true, but that is not the point. Different species may emerge but that does not explain the existence of the fish as a whole animal in the first place. To make a case he would need to show how entirely new organs in the fish species had come about through the process he describes. This is crucial to the case he wishes us to examine.

Descent with variation. He makes a reasonable case for descent with modification. But that is a non-controversial point, Even if it could be shown that there was such a thing as descent with variation, it does not show that all species are related to one another. It would show that some species are related to some other species. It does not follow that all species are related to one another. That is another crucial point in the discussion.

Interpretation of Genesis 1. - Origin of Life. DA admits that there is no theory yet as to the origin of life. He makes a prophecy that one day there will be a theory. But like all prophecies it is based on a belief. If evolution contains the belief that life will be shown to have a physical origin then the theory is not metaphysically neutral even though it claims to be. Atheist evolutionists hold that there is only one kind of reality – the physical. Theistic evolutionists hold a similar view about created material. They hold that God only created one form of material and that is matter/energy. Granted that it is very important, it does not follow that it is the whole story of nature. Indeed Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell held that is was not. What is more they both believed that to fully understand the important physical world one has to realise that the non-physical and the physical interact. That is what anti-evolutionists are claiming. That has been the belief of most scientists down the ages. The all pervading belief that only the physical exists, or that all physical events have physical causes, is a new theory, not backed up by empirical verification or experiment. It is a prejudice.

The Argument from Design. I get the impression that DA is embarrassed by this ancient argument. But he should not be. The argument contends that the natural world is so complex and suited to our survival that it needed a Designer. Therefore there is a God who designed it. Although many believe that David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, attacks the argument from Design, actually he doesn't really. Most people regard the sceptical Philo as David Hume’s mouthpiece but Philo only criticises the use to which the Argument From Design is put, not the argument itself. He actually thinks that the universe exhibits design. His main point is that the kind of design that the designer uses is perhaps remote from the kind of design we find among human beings for example when we design a bridge. According to Hume (in the words of Philo) we cannot deduce anything about the character of God, or his method of design, from the natural world but that does not mean we cannot deduce there was/is a Designer. In fact in the third sentence of his earlier work The Natural History of Religion of 1751 David Hume actually says the following:

The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion.


Steve Martin said...

Hi Howard,

You stated that:

The majority believe in evolution – not because they have examined the evidence – but because ‘everyone believes it’ so they must be right!

I agree with this statement. And a corollary to this is that "The majority of Christians reject evolution – not because they have examined the evidence – but because “all Christians” reject evolution so they must be right.”

The point is, relatively few people in the general population have the expertise to really analyze the vast amounts of data from many diverse areas of expertise that have contributed to validating the theory of evolution.

On the next statement that:

The relatively few who have examined it are not convinced (this includes biologists).

Hmm. You must be talking to different biologists that I am :-) . The point is, many, many Christian biologists have investigated this deeply – it is almost an obligation given a) their Christian faith b) the importance of evolutionary theory to biology and c) the common belief that these two are in conflict. And my sense is that most of them, once they have examined the evidence, most of these biologists accept evolution & come to the conclusion that it does not threaten their faith.

bobxxxx said...

Evolution is the strongest fact of science and the Magic Fairy (Mr. God) had absolutely nothing to do with it.

There's a large number of evolution deniers in the USA because America is a country of uneducated hicks. The problem is the Christian religion. Countless liars for Jebus make a living spreading lies about science, and their brain-dead Christian customers are willing to believe any nonsense so they can continue living in their childish fantasy world.

Only 14% of Americans agree people developed from other animals without God's intervention. This is disgraceful. America is a nation of idiots.

It's obvious Darwin killed the god idea. Thousands of scientists who came after Darwin have shown beyond any doubt the god invention was a mistake. Mr. God's magic is not needed for anything. The imaginary sky fairy didn't invent evolution and it doesn't guide evolution.

The disgusting adjective 'theistic' should never be attached to evolution or any other scientific fact. Science does not need the breathtaking stupidity of Christianity.

Critias said...

In Australia we have a brand of beer "XXXX". It looks like bobxxxx has had a skinful of it! Thanks for the temperate and reasoned comments bobxxxx, they really make me want to get inside your mind and maybe grow and learn...not.

RickK said...

"I repeat that the reason I reject evolution now is not dogmatic Biblical creation but rather the weakness of the case for evolution..."

This statement may show strong faith, but it is intellectually dishonest.

Evolution is the process that has brought us from that first precious living organism to the range of species we have today, even to the precious, conscious, and even sometimes rational human race.

The case for Evolution is unassailable and gets stronger every day. Deny Evolution for reasons of faith if you wish, but you must be intellectually dishonest to do so. You must ignore the following:

- the model presented by evolution is supported by fact after fact after fact after fact;
- every single day we find fossils that either reinforce what is already in the model, or fit nicely into predicted gaps;
- the model has forecasted many intermediate species that we later found - between terrestrial mammals and bats, between fish and amphibians, feathered dinosaurs;
- evolution has even been demonstrated in the lab by amazingly diligent scientists over a 20-year experiment.

Depending on your particular brand of Creationism, you may also have to deny physics, chemistry, geology, cosmology, and several other scientific disciplines.

The elegance and resilience of the simple Theory of Evolution is truly beautiful and worth taking the time to understand. I believe everyone should watch Carl Sagan, read Stephen J Gould, and review Richard Lenski's website, and catch their infectious fascination with what the natural world has managed to achieve with just a few basic rules.

But the true strength of Evolution is its ability to withstand attack after attack by well-funded, eloquent people who work so hard to deny and destroy it. Evolution marches forward steadily adding fact after fact, continues to close gaps, and leaves less and less room for Evolution deniers.

Some faiths have avoided intellectual dishonesty by attributing the true glory of the Theory of Evolution to God, by concluding that Evolution is God's elegant tool for populating a planet. The leaders of these faiths are very wise. All should learn from them.

Anonymous said...

"The fact is that many people have come to evolutionist talks and asked perfectly reasonable non-dogmatic questions."

A "talk" is not the place to begin your understanding of evolution. And you really should begin your understanding one of these days.