Archive for the ‘1900s’ category

The failure of Intelligent Design

February 18, 2011

“Were there no example in the world of contrivance except that of the eye, it would be alone sufficient to support the conclusion which we draw from it, as to the necessity of an intelligent Creator.  It could never be gotten rid of; because it could not be accounted for by any other, supposition, which did not contradict all the principles we possess of knowledge.[i]

–William Paley, Natural Theology, 1857

“To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.  Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple…can be shown to exist…then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.[ii]

– Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859

“By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.”[iii] 

–Michael Behe, 1996.

Charles Darwin refuted the teleological argument from design in 1859.  Apparently Behe didn’t get the memo.  Through his theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection, Darwin accomplished what earlier evolutionists could not.  Unlike previous theorists such as Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin, Darwin (and Alfred Russel Wallace working with him) provided a working mechanism for evolution. In short, Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection replaced Paley’s divine watchmaker with a blind watchmaker; the selective force of nature.  Following the strengthening of Darwinian theory by intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, especially after the development of the Modern Synthesis in evolutionary biology, evolutionary theory effectively replaced “Design” as a creative force.

Natural Selection, therefore, is able to explain organs and features of organisms formerly relegated to creation by an “intelligent Designer”, or a “divine watchmaker” of sorts.  Regardless of whether it is Paley’s eye or Behe’s bacterial flagellum, evolutionary theory effectively explains the development of these organs and features.  Therefore, the “Watchmaker hypothesis,” in both its historical and modern forms, does not present an effective challenge to the efficacy of evolutionary theory.  Thus, the argument from “Design”, or “irreducible complexity”, is not an adequate tool with which to challenge evolutionary theory.  Both fail to undermine the strength of evolutionary theory on closer inspection.  Although one might ask “what good is 2/10ths of an eye?”, any working “eye” is better than no eye at all.  Even if we are referring to just a few light-sensitive cells that are useful for an organism to detect light or predators, these cells will provide a definite survival advantage compared to organisms that lack these cells. In time, variation and selection can and do build more complex organs through differential survival rates.  In the case of “irreducibly complex” organs, the key flaw in Behe’s argument is the fact that he fails to account for the fact that so-called “irreducibly complex” organs can and do have other uses if a component or group of components are removed from them.  Natural selection works by jury-rigging and adaptation of available features, not by the design of new ones.  Therefore, the “watchmaker hypothesis” fails on all counts.

Another key aspect of modern arguments from design is the “fine-tuning” argument for the existence of the universe. This argument, stated simply, alleges that since the universe appears to be “finely tuned” for the existence of life as we know it (i.e. cosmological constants are exactly what they need to be for life to exist as we know it), that the universe therefore must be designed.  While this argument seems cogent at first glance, it is, in fact, fatally flawed.   In fact, the apparent “fine tuning” of the universe is exactly what one would expect if life evolved.  Natural selection produces organisms that are well-fit to their environment.  If life did, in fact, evolve, it did so in this universe, on this planet, governed by the constraints placed upon it by the existing cosmological constants.  You do not build a vehicle that sinks quickly but has really good wheels if you are only going to be using it in an ocean.  Rather, you construct a vehicle that is well-adapted for oceanic travel.  Natural selection works the same way.  It is governed by physics and chemistry as well as biology and ecology.  Natural selection, in short, is as much a slave to cosmological constraints as organisms are to their dietary requirements.  Thus, the cosmological argument is as much a failure as the “watchmaker hypothesis”.

Another key argument advanced by Intelligent Design proponents can be described in the following manner. The proteins/molecules/cells, etc. that make up life are extremely complex.  It is extremely improbable that they developed through solely naturalistic means. Therefore, these features must be designed.  However, this approach is philosophically and scientifically flawed.  Scientists have done a decent job exploring the origin of life. Even though scientists have not definitively explained the origin of life, they have developed some tantalizing glimpses at possible explanations for this event. This topic is relatively complex, and a bit intensive for a short post, so if you’re interested I’ll refer you to the work of Robert Hazen as a first guide to this topic. See, for example, his book “Genesis“. I will focus on the philosophical flaw with this argument in this post.

The philosophical argument inherent to this portion of the Intelligent Design argument can be re-phrased in the following manner.  A million (pick your favorite large number here, and replace “A million” with it if you’d like) lottery tickets are sold for a lottery. One ticket must win.  Each ticket represents a possible combination of proteins (the building blocks of DNA).  The “winning ticket” is the actual combination generated by nature.  According to the Intelligent Design approach, since a million tickets (possible protein sequences/amino acids) exist, the chances of drawing the winning ticket are extremely low, and therefore no ticket will win.  However, we know this to be false; one ticket ultimately DOES win.  Therefore, as improbable as the development of DNA sequences was, by nature, it was at least possible.  And, in fact, there are possible ways to increase the probability of the development of complex protein sequences (Hazen discusses the possibility of proteins growing within the microstructures of carbonate rocks, a hypothesis which explains the extremely high proportion of “left-handed” amino acids). Therefore, the Intelligent Design perspective once again proves flawed.

Before closing this essay, I will mention a few other key claims/approaches fronted by Intelligent Design proponents. The first is Dembski’s Explanatory Filter, which fails miserably as a tool to supposedly discern design in nature (see critique here). The second is the claim that natural selection cannot “increase information” in a genome.  Here’s a rebuttal for that claim as well.  Finally, perhaps the most ridiculous claim advanced by Intelligent Design advocates such as Stephen Meyer is the claim that the “Cambrian Explosion” somehow undermines evolution.  This is the old “there are GAPS!!!  Gaps in the fossil record!” argument trotted back out to play. Even a cursory glance at modern paleontology proves such a claim irreparably flawed.  A good explanation of why such an argument is flawed can be found in one of my all time favorite books on transitional forms, Donald Prothero’s “Evolution: What the fossils say and why it matters“.  For a good online critique of the “Cambrian Explosion” argument advanced by Design advocates, see Keith Miller’s article (part one here and part two).

Therefore, as demonstrated, upon closer inspection, the arguments against evolution advanced by Intelligent Design proponents consistently fail to withstand scrutiny.  I consciously avoided arguments from social ills in this post (“well evolution influenced Hitler, or communism, or what have you”) due to the extremely flawed nature of this type of argument.  What is more important is attacking so-called “science” of Intelligent Design.  As I’ve shown here, even a cursory critical glance at the pseudoscientific structure of Intelligent Design reveals massive and irreparable flaws. Therefore, Intelligent Design fails as a science.

Works Cited:
Behe, M.  Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to evolution. Free Press, New York. 1996.

Darwin, CR. The Origin of Species.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge.  First Ed. facsimile, 2002 (1859)

Paley, W. Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected From the Appearances of Nature. Gould and Lincoln, Boston, 1857

Megaloceros and orthogenesis

September 24, 2010

Megaloceros on display at AMNH

Megaloceros, commonly (and wrongly) known as the “Irish Elk” offers a good example of an organism utilized as proof of orthogenesis during the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century.  During this period, paleontologists utilized the term “orthogenesis” to explain trends in the fossil record.  Under the model of orthogenesis, once a species begins to develop, it continues to develop along that line and exhibits an inability to stop this process of development.  In the case of Megaloceros, the argument was structured such that through the process of orthogenesis, Megaloceros’ antlers grew to extreme sizes.  Ultimately, this unchecked antler growth caused the extinction of Megaloceros.  This example offers a good model to demonstrate why orthogenesis does not work.  A trait isn’t going to survive if it causes a problem for the survival of the organism in question.  Ultimately, even if selective pressures do support the development of larger antlers in Megaloceros, the antlers won’t get large enough to cause extinction.  If an individual Megaloceros has antlers so large that they end up getting caught in trees (part of the orthogenesis argument), then it’s not going to have much success with reproduction. Sure, a few individuals with extremely large antlers might get to reproduce, but as a rule, most of these will, in fact, be weaned from the gene pool.  This is why orthogenesis does not work.

If you’re interested in this topic, check out Stephen Jay Gould’s article “The misnamed, mistreated, and misunderstood Irish Elk.” The article is available in his 1977 book Ever Since Darwin.

Gould’s Hopeless Monster

October 30, 2009

I’m back, after a brief hiatus (getting back into the swing of college again).  Sorry about disappearing off of the radar recently.  I’ve been doing some pretty intense reading focusing on the relationship between science and religion lately, and this paper is the result: a critique of Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of Non-overlapping Magisteria. It’s pretty long, but seems enjoyable enough to me:

While Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA)[1] has some merit, it is as a whole highly problematic.  Although Gould does allow for some minor contention at the boundary between science and religion[2], his contention that science deals with only empirical questions and religion deals only with moral and spiritual questions is deeply flawed.  While science is, at its core, an empirical process, scientific ideas often have far-reaching consequences which can deeply impact religious thought.  Therefore, although the claim that science and religion are constantly at war with each other is nothing more than a myth[3], there are contested zones in which science and religion are inherently in a state of conflict.  These contested zones run deeper than NOMA implies, and therefore are a problem for Gould’s construct.  This essay will explore these contested zones through the interaction between evolutionary theory and revealed religion. Due to the asymmetrical public treatment evolution has received from different religious groups, this discussion will focus mostly on the interaction between evolutionary theory and Christianity.  However, contested zones are present between evolutionary theory and non-Christian religions as well, as will be demonstrated later through the example of Kennewick Man.  In conclusion, it will be demonstrated that Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magisteria is inextricably flawed, and should be discarded.

While pre-Darwinian discussions of evolution[4] certainly did have theological implications, for the purposes of this essay, these discussions will be bypassed here due to the nature of the texts.  Pre-Darwinian theories of evolution tended to be Progressive in nature, focusing on the gradual improvement on life on Earth, eventually culminating in the development of White European Christians.  Darwin rejected this model, and sought to distance himself from these authors.  As such, Darwin refrained from using any derivation of the term “evolution” until the last word in On the Origin of Species.  This text is where we will begin our discussion.

Darwin’s thesis, which states that life evolves mainly through natural selection, is an elegantly simple one.   In a given population, different organisms will exhibit slightly different traits.[5] Some of these traits will provide their owners with a distinct survival advantage.  Other traits will prove problematic to their owners.  These differences lead to differing rates of reproductive success.[6] Over long periods of time[7], this process will drastically alter the features of members of the given population.  In essence, natural selection acts as an agent of design, shaping the features of life on Earth.

As such, Darwinian natural selection is a direct refutation of Paleyan natural theology. Darwin was thoroughly aware of this fact; in fact, as Darwin notes in his autobiography, he studied Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, and Moral Philosophy as a student at Cambridge[8] (and Natural Theology later in life). As a young man studying to become a minister, Darwin was deeply impressed with Paley’s work, which was deeply influential in Christian thought at the time.  Therefore, it is not surprising that the Origin of Species, in a sense, can be read as a refutation of Paley.

In fact, certain passages in Darwin’s Origin of Species directly allude to Paley’s work.  Consider, for example, the following passage:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.  Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations rom a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple…can be shown to exist…then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.[9]

This statement serves as a direct refutation to Paleyan theology, as demonstrated below (from Paley’s Natural Theology):

Were there no example in the world of contrivance except that of the eye, it would be alone sufficient to support the conclusion which we draw from it, as to the necessity of an intelligent Creator.  It could never be gotten rid of; because it could not be accounted for by any other, supposition, which did not contradict all the principles we possess of knowledge[10]

Paley continues to describe the perfection of the eye in a way similar to which Darwin does.  However, while Paley viewed this perfection as necessitating an intelligent Creator, Darwin viewed natural selection as sufficient to explain the origins of the vertebrate eye. This comparison illustrates the profound theological implications of On the Origin of Species.  Through the lens of natural theology, the Creator is viewed as one which is responsible for every detail of an organism.  Through the lens of natural selection, the Creator becomes one which created the first few organisms and who allowed life to evolve as a result of natural processes.

This radical re-definition of humanity’s place in nature created a major contested zone between science and theistic religion.  Le Conte[11] notes that evolutionary theory, like the heliocentric model before it, might be seen to pose a threat to religious beliefs. However, Le Conte implies, as with the heliocentric model, religious belief will come to encompass evolutionary theory. According to Gould[12], Pope John Paul II’s October 22nd, 1996 speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences would seem to confirm this hypothesis. Ruse 2001[13], however, notes that the Pope’s endorsement is valid only if the basic tenets of Catholic faith are not compromised.  Therefore, if an aspect of evolutionary theory contradicts Catholic faith, then it must be rejected. This hesitance towards evolution is understandable. Accepting evolutionary theory as part of a religious framework fundamentally alters the structure of that belief.  Daniel C. Dennett has called evolutionary theory a “universal acid” that alters everything that it touches[14].  This is as true with science as it is with religion.  Evolution itself becomes a contested zone, with atheists such as Richard Dawkins and theists such as Kenneth R. Miller both claiming a consistency between evolutionary theory and their own personal belief systems.

What is evident, even within Miller’s work, is that evolutionary theory does drastically alter religious belief.  Miller’s vision of God is one who created human life through natural evolutionary processes, one who could have created our species in a more direct fashion, but chose not to[15]. This view of God, while consistent with evolutionary theory, is drastically different than a classical view of God in which God created humans out of dust in His own image.  In order for evolutionary theory to co-exist with religious belief, the religious belief system in question must be fundamentally altered.  While Miller’s God[16] is consistent with evolutionary theory, it is necessary to accept certain Biblical passages (for example Ch. 1 of Genesis) as allegorical rather than factual.  The religious belief in question must make compromises in order to incorporate evolutionary theory.  As implied by Ruse 2001 (as mentioned above), there is only so much room in which Catholicism is able to move to incorporate evolution. Eventually, evolutionary theory will find itself at odds with Catholic belief[17]. Therefore, it is clear that science and religion do not inhabit totally separate spheres. Contested zones exist wherever scientists attempt to study topics classically relegated to the religious realm, for example where humanity came from.  Gould’s model of non-overlapping magisteria fails to incorporate this logical problem, and is therefore incomplete.

The contested zone between science and Christianity is even greater among literalist Christian groups such as the Seventh Day Adventists and Baptists.  These groups accept a 6,000 year old Earth on which life was created in six literal days[18]. Seventh Day Adventists such as George McCready Price and Ellen White published books that criticized science that did not fit within a literal interpretation of the Bible.  Price went so far as to attempt to reinterpret the geologic column using Noah’s Flood as a creative mechanism, so as not to necessitate long periods of time for the formation of the geologic record[19]. In the mid-20th century, individuals such as John C. Whitcomb and Henry Morris would continue the pursuit of Price’s model of flood geology[20]. Whitcomb and Morris’ work would spark the growth of a relatively significant Young Earth Creationist movement within the United States, one which attempts to deny evolutionary theory for religious reasons.  It is clear that to these groups, evolutionary theory and religious belief cannot coexist.  Acceptance of evolutionary theory or an old Earth directly contradicts a literal interpretation of Genesis, and therefore becomes a religious issue[21].  In this instance, it seems that evolutionary theory and religion cannot peacefully co-exist.  Here, the science itself is altered[22] in an attempt to force it to conform to religious expectations.

Disagreements between evolutionary theory and religion are not solely a Christian issue.  The case of Kennewick Man offers an alternate issue, featuring a contested zone between Umatilla religious belief and science.  The study of skeletons such as Kennewick Man is seen by archaeologists as an attempt to understand where the first people to colonize the Americas traveled from.  The remains of Kennewick Man are drastically different (and older) than the remains of modern Native American peoples.  Although Kennewick Man is now suspected to be most closely related to the Ainu of Japan[23], the original press releases on the skeleton suggested that Kennewick Man was “Caucasian” in derivation[24]. Regardless of the ancestry of Kennewick Man, any non-North American interpretation directly contradicts the Umatilla creation story[25], which implies that their ancestors have always inhabited the North American continent.  In cases such as this, there is no legitimate compromise between scientific data and religious belief.  Either the ancestors of the Umatilla always inhabited North America, or they didn’t.  Both sides cannot be correct.  Here, science and religion are not occupying separate realms; both the scientific and religious interpretations are dealing with the same exact question.  In cases such as this, Gould’s concept of NOMA breaks down completely.

In many cases, science and religion are inextricably linked.  For example, Noble 1999 describes the deep level to which religious belief has influenced Western technological and scientific growth.  While millenarian Christian beliefs deeply influenced the exploration of the Americas,[26] later human exploration in space would also be infused with Christian belief[27]. Both projects of exploration were couched both in scientific and religious terms.  Newton himself viewed his scientific achievements as being deeply tied to his religious beliefs[28]. Much like Kenneth Miller, prominent evolutionary theorist R.A. Fisher viewed evolution as deeply linked to his Christian faith.  However, deeply linked to Fisher’s belief system is the notion of Progress.  In Fisher’s case, it was the need for human action to further the human condition[29].

While science can be positively linked to organized religion in some settings, in other settings, science can be deeply tied to atheism.  Granted, by definition, science is not meant to favor one religious belief system over another.  However, some philosophers and scientists such as Richard Dawkins (2006) and Daniel Dennett (2006) have tried to forge a link between science and atheism.  Both authors view religion as an ultimately explainable natural phenomenon that does not ultimately require any type of God.  To these authors, religion is seen as an evolved response to external pressures.  Cziko (1995) offers a classic example of this type of view.  Cziko focuses on the link between rice cultivation and religion in Bali, and describes the link in terms of cultural evolution.  Under this type of model, the Balinese religious beliefs are important for rice cultivation because they help explain when to plant and harvest crops[30].

It is at these moments, within these contested zones, which the alleged separation between science and religion collapses.  Gould is correct in stating[31] that science and religion do in fact collide at the border between the two “magisteria[32]”. However, while Gould does note that science and religion can interact, he misses the main point.  Gould develops his position such that science deals solely with empirical fact and that religion deals solely with questions of moral meaning and value[33]. Gould’s model ignores situations in which religious belief has a seemingly direct impact on scientific matters[34].  It also overlooks instances (such as Cziko 1995) in which scientific theory attempts to explain away religious beliefs.  Instances such as this provide a classic instance of a contested zone.  The realm of science is, in these instances, delving directly into religious questions.  Granted, while attempts put forth by the likes of Dawkins and Dennett to use science to prove atheism are philosophically flawed[35], areas where science does seem to explain the basis of a given religious belief does seem to contradict Gould’s model. At some level, the scientific explanation of the belief in question will likely directly contradict the religious explanation of the belief.  This presents a situation in which science and religion do directly overlap.

Scientific thought also has direct influences on religious belief.  As previously demonstrated, Darwinian natural selection, as a direct refutation of Paleyan design, revolutionized religious thought.  In the case of Roman Catholicism, evolutionary theory directly altered such thought.  While one could argue that this alteration resulted from an interaction between science and religion, it is better defined as a direct overlap between the two.  First, in an attempt to support NOMA, Stephen Jay Gould explains that Catholics can accept evolution as long as they believe that the soul is divinely created. However, while Gould (through a Pope John Paul II quote) notes[36] that one cannot directly scientifically observe the spiritual, he overlooks a key issue.  Ruse 2001[37] notes that an acceptance of evolution by John Paul II directly contradicts earlier Catholic belief, which necessitated a monogenist[38] view of humanity. While merely accepting evolution does not cause problems for Catholics, a deeper analysis of the consequences of such an acceptance clearly does.  To fully accept evolution is to reject the monogenist view, which in turn calls into question the concept of Original Sin.  The rejection of this view also raises questions about the most basic of all Christian beliefs, that of mankind being created in God’s image.  If humans evolved, then can one truly say that humans were created in God’s image?  Ruse 2001 argues that Pius XII viewed monogenism as a key component of Christian belief,[39] and notes that Pius XII addressed this topic in Humani Generis. While Gould 1999 does address Humani Generis,[40] he misses this point. The concept of monogenism is one in which evolutionary theory and Catholic theology directly collide, and yet Gould fails to acknowledge it.  This failure raises questions with regards to the accuracy of Gould 1999.

Gould also fails to sufficiently address religious belief systems other than Roman Catholicism (although Gould does admirably admit a lack of background with some religious belief systems, especially Eastern ones).  Gould implies that “Creationism” is a small-scale American fundamentalist Christian institution[41].  However, this statement is false.  Christian Creationism is not a solely American institution; Christian Creationist groups exist in Australia, England, and elsewhere[42]; Jewish[43], Muslim[44], and Native American Creationist[45] groups also exist.  Therefore, Gould’s picture of religion as a whole is a flawed one.

Gould fails to adequately address the fact that different religious belief systems interact with science in different ways.  Gould creates a false dichotomy in which science either does not overlap with religion at all or is completely anti-scientific in nature.  The first group is assumed by Gould to incorporate the majority of religious believers, with the latter occupying a small fringe group.  However, this description creates a dreadfully oversimplified picture of the boundary between science and religion.  Some believers (such as Roman Catholics) are pretty open to science.  Other groups (such as Seventh Day Adventists and Baptists) often try to alter science into something that is consistent with their faith.  Some groups merely reject science that contradicts their beliefs.  Given the vast number of different religious sects globally, it seems nearly impossible to draw one distinct line separating science and religion.

Gould’s concept of contingency[46] also seems logically inconsistent with NOMA.  Contingency implies that evolution itself is a totally random process.  Replay life’s tape a thousand times and a thousand different results will be produced.  This concept implies that there is nothing special about human existence.  Taken to its logical end, contingency implies that humans are the result of accident and luck.  This in itself is a spiritual statement.  The concept of contingency inherently crosses Gould’s artificial boundary between science and religion.  Contingency addresses a direct question of value. It seeks to answer a key religious question, one which focuses on our very identity as a species.  The concept of contingency follows Gould’s reading of the fossil record to its logical end.  However, by arguing that humanity is the result of a series of accidents, Gould crosses the boundary between science and religion established in Gould 1999, therefore rendering the boundary a false one.  Science, like religion, can be used in an attempt to answer questions of a moral or value-based nature.  Religion, like science, often does delve into traditionally scientific questions.  Therefore, Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magisteria fails at the most basic level.

Gould’s argument is flawed in that it creates a false dichotomy between science and religion.  As demonstrated through the previous discussion of Darwin and Paley, scientific discoveries can fundamentally and drastically alter religious belief systems.  When scientific fact and religious belief collide, there are multiple possible reactions. In some cases, no overlap (and no conflict) is present[47].  In other instances, where overlap does occur (such as with evolutionary theory and Catholicism[48]), one or both sides make compromises[49] to avoid conflict.  In the case of religiously-based anti-science movements, science that is seen to conflict with religious belief is openly rejected on the grounds of such a conflict.  While Gould[50] seeks to imply that these movements are fringe groups and that no such conflict exists, clearly there is some level of overlap between religion and science. While this overlap can result in either conflict or compromise, its very existence calls the validity of Gould’s NOMA into question.

While Gould’s NOMA model is deeply flawed, this does not mean that science and religion cannot coexist.  However, a more sophisticated model is necessary to address the boundaries between science and religion.  Gould argues that science and religion occupy wholly separate realms, which occasionally collide, but never overlap.  Gould relegates religious belief to a realm of morality and science to a realm of empiricism.  However, this division is overly simplistic.  Science can and does create morally troubling questions (such as the debate surrounding the creation of the atomic bomb).  However, religion is not the only possible pathway to moral choice.  Scientific data plays a major role in weighing the costs and benefits of any morally taxing scientific question.  The political elements operating within a society also play a key role. The picture of science as a solely empirical force with religious belief picking up the moral slack is a deeply flawed one.

Religion also delves into the empirical realm.  If religion were a solely moral force, there would be few (if any) contested zones between science and religion.  However, the presence of these contested zones suggests that religion is more than a moral force.  As has been shown, scientific discoveries do often create contested zones between religion and science.  This suggests that religion itself is somehow concerned with empirical questions.  Of course a distinction must be drawn here, such that the scientific questions that concern religion tend to be questions of ultimate meaning and causality (such as the question of evolution).  Since both science and religion seek to answer questions of this nature, these spaces are where the overlap between the two is greatest.  At these points, there is no clean separation between religion and science, at least in the sense that Gould’s NOMA model predicts.  The question, for religion, becomes not only a spiritual one but also a physical one.  Either God created humanity out of dust (or some other method depending on the religious group at hand) in its current state, or humans evolved through natural selection.  One cannot have it both ways.

Therefore, revisions are necessary if Gould’s model is to work at all.  NOMA is a useful concept, but a deeply flawed one.  The idea that religion and science can coexist peacefully is a good one.  There is much merit to this inference.  However, if progress is to be made in the dialogue between science and religion, the idea of completely separate spheres must be discarded.  Science and religion are both human socio-cultural constructs.  Both are presented as pathways to truth.  They are not mutually exclusive; for example, Darwin likely didn’t give up his Christian faith because of his work on evolution, but rather as a result of the logical problem of evil[51] and the problem of hell[52].  Evolutionary theorists such as Fisher and Miller openly accept both Christianity and evolution.  It is therefore obvious that science and religion can coexist.  However, compromises must be made.

The magisteria of science and religion do occasionally overlap.  Therefore, any revised look at the two subjects must incorporate this fact.  A simplistic Draperian conflict thesis is obviously flawed, but some level of heated interaction between the two magisteria is likely.  The contested zones between science and religion are where any thorough focus on the interplay between these two subjects must begin.  Science and religion can both be easily understood in a vacuum, but when the two are combined, the picture becomes convoluted. While Gould describes science and religion as two wholly separate magisteria that can interact but never overlap, a better model is one which allows for some overlap between science and religion.  However, given the complexities of religious philosophy (such as the myriad belief systems on a global level) and science, it is impossible to define exactly where such overlaps will occur.  To make such a comparison, one must compare scientific fact with religious belief on a sect by sect basis.  Rather than denigrating religious groups that reject science as radicals outside of the norm, a useful model will incorporate these groups such that it will be possible to outline exactly where scientific thought overlaps with religious faith in such cases.  Perhaps Gould’s greatest gaffe is oversimplifying the interaction between science and religion; since there is no single monolithic religion, but rather myriad different belief systems, such a simplification is fatally flawed.  For science and religion to peacefully coexist, compromises must be made within the contested zones between the two, or one or the other must be partially or totally rejected.  Gould’s model of NOMA does not predict or incorporate such an outcome.  Therefore, non-overlapping magisteria, while an interesting thesis, is fatally flawed, and should be drastically altered or rejected.

Works Cited:

-Cziko, G. Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1995.

-Darwin, CR. The Origin of Species. Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2005. 6th Edition, original year of publication 1872

-Darwin, CR. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2005. Original year of publication 1887.

-Darwin, CR.  Autobiographies. Penguin Books, New York, 2002.  Originally published 1903

-Dawkins, R. The God Delusion. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2006

-Dennett, DC.  Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.  Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996.

-Dennett, DC. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Viking Penguin, New York, 2006

-Draper, JW. History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. 8th edition, D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1878

-Egan, T. Tribe Stops Study of Bones That Challenge History. National Report, the New York Times, Sep. 30, 1996.

-Gould, SJ. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. WW Norton & Company, New York, 1989

-Gould, SJ. Non-overlapping Magisteria. In Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History. Three Rivers Press, New York, 1999 p. 269-283

-Le Conte, J. Evolution and it’s Relation to Religious Thought. D. Appleton And Company, New York, 1890.

-Miller, KR.  Finding Darwin’s God: a Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. Harper Perennial, New York, 2002

-Noble, DF.  The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Intervention.  Penguin Books, New York, 1999

-Numbers, RN. Introduction to Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2009 p. 1-7

-Numbers, RN. The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006.

-Paley, W.  Evidence of Design (from Natural Theology), in Readings in Philosophy of Religion. Ed. Eschleman, A. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, 2008. p. 144-145

-Pope John Paul II.  “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth”.  October 22nd, 1996 address presented to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

-Quammen, D. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution. Atlas Books, New York, 2006

-Ruse, M. Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1996

-Ruse, M. The Evolution Wars: A Guide to the Debates. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, 2000

-Ruse, M. Can a Darwinian be a Christian?. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001

-Strong, EW.  Newton and God. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 13, no. 2, p. 147-167, April 1952

-Schnee, K. Make No Bones About It (The Tech. Online Edition.  Vol. 119, Issue 52: October 22, 1999) accessed 2/25/2009

-White, AD. A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom. V 1 and 2. D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1897

-Zimmerman, LJ. Public Heritage, a Desire for a “White” History for America, and Some Impacts of the Kennewick Man/Ancient One Decision. International Journal of Cultural Property, 2005, 12:2:265-274

[1] Gould 1999 p. 269-283.  In a nutshell, NOMA states that science and religion need not conflict since they occupy different realms.


[2] Gould 1999 p. 274

[3] This idea is known as the conflict thesis. As noted by Numbers 2009 p. 6, this thesis, presented in such texts as Draper 1878 and White 1897, is deeply flawed.

[4] Such as those ideas presented by Lamarck, Chambers, and Erasmus Darwin

[5] Variation.  We now know that variation is a result of genetic mutation.  However, the source of variation in evolution was demonstrated after Darwin’s death.

[6] After all, if an organism has a trait which makes it difficult for it to survive, it is unlikely to leave many offspring.

[7] If selective pressures remain steady

[8] Darwin 1887 (2005) p. 20

[9] Darwin 1872 (2004) p. 207-208

[10] Paley 1855 (2008) p. 145

[11] Le Conte 1890 p. 262

[12] Gould 1998 p. 270, 272

[13] p. 74-75.

[14] Dennett1995 p. 63

[15] Miller 2002 p. 243-245

[16] And the Roman Catholic God in general; Miller is Roman Catholic.

[17] At points which Catholic dogma is directly called into question.

[18] Ruse 2000 p. 110

[19] Numbers 2006 p. 90-104

[20] Numbers 2006 p. 211-215

[21] This is not to say that evolutionary theory or geology is in any sense “religious”, but rather that it contradicts the beliefs of some Christian sects.

[22] At which point it becomes wholly unscientific in the eyes of the mainstream scientific community.

[23] Schnee 1999

[24] Zimmerman 2005

[25] Egan 1996

[26] Under a description of the New World as a New Eden.  See Noble 1999 p. 21-33

[27] Noble 1999 p. 115-142

[28] Strong 1952

[29] Ruse 1996 p. 301-303

[30] Cziko 1995 p. 152-157

[31] Gould 1999 p. 274

[32] To borrow Gould’s terminology

[33] Gould 1999 p. 274

[34] See, for example, Fisher’s Progressivism.

[35] Science cannot ultimately disprove the existence of God.  God’s existence is a supernatural question, which means that science does not have the ability to answer it one way or the other.

[36] Gould 1999 p. 278

[37] p. 75-76

[38] In this situation, a view in which all humans are directly descended by Adam and Eve, who were, according to this interpretation, two literal individuals. It is worth noting, however, that evolutionary theory is strongly consistent with a more basic form of monogenism which merely states that all living humans are ultimately derived from the same ancestral stock.  Darwin even indirectly affirms such a framework in On The Origin of Species, where he states that “[l]ight will be thrown on the origin of man and his history” (Darwin 2005 [1872]).  In this case, the term “man” is singular, implying a singular ancestry for all of humanity, rather than separate origins for each race of human.  This statement, in itself, stands as an open rejection of polygenist thinkers such as Agassiz.

[39] p. 75

[40] See p. 275-280

[41] p. 270-271

[42] See Numbers 2006 p. 399-432

[43] Numbers 2006 p. 427-431

[44] Numbers 2006 p. 420-427

[45] For example Umatilla Creationists, this essay

[46] 1989 p. 288-289

[47] Due to a definition of science such that science cannot answer questions dealing with supernatural causation, if religion is defined such that it does not overlap with scientific thought, then the two can coexist without an issue. However, such definitions of religion do not always exist.

[48] Christian monogenism being threatened by evolution

[49] Such as John Paul II stating that Catholics can accept evolution as long as they believe that God created the soul.

[50] 1999 p. 270-271

[51] As expressed through the deaths of two of his children (Quammen 2006 p. 118-119)

[52] Darwin devotes one of the shortest, most pointed paragraphs (Darwin 2002 [1903] p. 50) in his entire body of work to the idea that his “Father, Brother, and almost all [of his] best friends will be everlastingly punished” merely for not accepting the Christian belief system:

“And this is a damnable doctrine.”

Along with the deaths of his children (especially Mary in 1842 and Annie in 1851), the problem of hell seems to have been a major component of Darwin’s loss of faith.  However, it is worth noting that Darwin was most likely never an atheist, but rather likely died as an agnostic.  Therefore events that occurred during Darwin’s life (and the nature of Christian belief itself), and not evolution, caused Darwin’s loss of faith.

Defending William Jennings Bryan

August 18, 2009

I recently watched (once again…it’s a film I’ve watched many times) the classic film interpretation of the Scopes Trial, Inherit The Wind.  While I have a deep appreciation for the film as someone with an interest in evolution and anti-evolution movements, the portrayal of Bryan in the film is problematic.

Throughout the film, we see Matthew Brady (the character representing Bryan) portrayed in a wholly alien way to someone familiar with William Jennings Bryan.  Brady was a Young Earth Creationist, convinced that the Earth was created in 4004 BC (as given by the Ussher chronology).  The real Bryan held a rather different view, which was compatible with an old Earth (the “day-age” interpretation of Genesis).  While many people instantly think of Young Earth Creationists when the term “Creationist” is mentioned today, Bryan’s position was a relatively common one in his day.  It may seem like I’m jumping on minutia here, but there is a key difference between Brady in the film and Bryan in real life in this area.

One other extremely blatant misportrayal of Bryan within the film comes near the end of the film, when Brady states his desire for a much harsher penalty than the Scopes character recieved.  In reality, Bryan was not trying to ruin Scopes.  In fact, Bryan offered to pay Scopes’ fine.  Thus, Inherit the Wind portrays Bryan in a negative light compared to what he actually was like during the trial. 

A final note: Bryan was not some defeated buffoon come the end of the trial.  He did not give up on the anti-evolution movement.  In fact, Bryan was preparing to expand it before his death(Larson 198-199).  While he was upset by the trial, and   clearly took a beating at the hands of Clarence Darrow, he was not broken.  And the trial was clearly not a victory for evolutionists.  How could it have been?  The trial ended, and Scopes was found guilty.  Scopes fine was eventually discarded on a technicality, thus preventing the defense from challenging the ruling in a higher court.  Evolution would continue to be excluded from classrooms for years to come.

Therefore, when watching a film such as Inherit the Wind, remember that the work is inherently a work of fiction.  Bryan really wasn’t as bad as they made him out to be.  Inherit the Wind, while a classic film, has its own historical problems, as I have partially demonstrated.  However, the film does much to expose the public perception of a battle between science and religion, a battle that is not always necessarily present.  This concept is an old myth, popularized by the likes of Draper, through the conflict thesisInherit The Wind offers a good illustration of this myth, thus making the film worth watching even with its historical errors.  While events such as the Scopes Trial certain had religious and scientific influences and consequences, the perception that science and religion are always necessarily at each other’s throats is inherently and deeply flawed.  Let us remember that when we see Bryan portrayed as a religious zealot yearning for the crucifixion of a science teacher who overused his right to think.  As we have seen, this is not the case at all. Yes.  Social factors were at play in the Scopes Trial.  But this was not a simple case of Science VS. Religion.


Works Cited:

Larson, EJ.  Summer For The Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion.  Basic Books, New York, 2006

Kitzmiller v. Dover (pt. 2 of 2)

June 12, 2009

And now for the part everyone thinks of when Kitzmiller v. Dover is mentioned: the legal maelstrom following the events described in Kitzmiller v. Dover (Pt. 1 of 2).  The legal battle that would ensue as a result of the school board’s attempt to challenge the teaching of evolution in Dover, PA included some key players in the evolution-creation struggle, including Kenneth Miller, Kevin Padian, Barbara Forrest, Nick Matske, the NCSE, Steve Fuller, and Michael Behe.  Notably absent from this trial was the Discovery Institute, who had saught to distance themselves from the school board once the board began to stray from legal techniques suggested to Buckingham in a phone conversation (Humes 77, 101). 

There were a few notable aspects of this trial.  First, it offered the first true legal test of Intelligent Design in a classroom setting.  However, perhaps more notable is the Creationist heritage of the textbook supplement Of Pandas to People that came to light during the trial.  As described by Barbara Forrest and discovered by Nick Matzke, Of Pandas and People is nothing less than a creationist book with all references to “creationism” changed to “intelligent design” after McLean v. Arkansas declared the teaching of “Creation Science” unConstitutional (see here).  The transitional form “Cdesign Proponentsists”, a failed edit in an unpublished draft of Of Pandas and People helps to confirm this linaeage (although this transitional fossil was not used in the trial; Forrest and Gross 329). It is worth noting that on September 6th, 2005, the defense in Kitzmiller v. Dover attempted to have Forrest barred as a witness.  However, this move failed (Forrest and Gross 327), and would go on to establish a religious basis for Intelligent Design.  In reference to Of Pandas and People:

“Forrest used charts [here] showing the continuity between creation science and ID.  Her Pandas analysis centered on early drafts that FTE [the book’s publisher) had amazingly kept.  There were at least five: (1) Creation Biology Textbook Supplement (1983); (2) Biology and Creation (1986); (3) Biology and Origins, (1987), and (4) two 1987  drafts entitled Of Pandas and People. Pandas was published in 1989, followed by the current 1993 edition” (Forrest and Gross 329)

Forrest’s testimony, combined with that of Kevin Padian and Kenneth Miller, established both the religious undertones of Intelligent Design and also the strength of evolutionary theory (Padian’s powerpoint slidesand testimony, available here,  offer a detailed analysis of the strength of evolutionary theory, and the weaknesses of ID). It is worth noting Kevin Padian’s blunt yet honest assessment of the disclaimer leading to Kitzmiller v. Dover, namely that “Padian bluntly and effectively stated that in confusing students about science generally and evolution in particular, the disclaimer makes students ‘stupid”  (quoted from Memorandum Opinion in previous link).

Perhaps as striking as the testimony of Padian and Forrest is that of Michael Behe. As acknowledged by Behe, if the definition of science were altered to include Intelligent Design as a scientific theory, then astrology would become a scientific theory as well:

Q In fact, your definition of scientific theory is synonymous with hypothesis, correct?

A Partly — it can be synonymous with hypothesis, it can also include the National Academy’s definition. But in fact, the scientific community uses the word “theory” in many times as synonymous with the word “hypothesis,” other times it uses the word as a synonym for the definition reached by the National Academy, and at other times it uses it in other ways.

Q But the way you are using it is synonymous with the definition of hypothesis?

A No, I would disagree. It can be used to cover hypotheses, but it can also include ideas that are in fact well substantiated and so on. So while it does include ideas that are synonymous or in fact are hypotheses, it also includes stronger senses of that term.

Q And using your definition, intelligent design is a scientific theory, correct?

A Yes.

Q Under that same definition astrology is a scientific theory under your definition, correct?

A Under my definition, a scientific theory is a proposed explanation which focuses or points to physical, observable data and logical inferences. There are many things throughout the history of science which we now think to be incorrect which nonetheless would fit that — which would fit that definition. Yes, astrology is in fact one, and so is the ether theory of the propagation of light, and many other — many other theories as well.” (from cross-examination of Behe, available here)

As a result of the information presented here, legal precedent, and the rest of the data presented during the trial, Judge John E. Jones III had enough information to strike down the motion to read a disclaimer questioning the strength of evolutionary theory and referring students to copies of Of Pandas and People.  As exposed during the trial, the text has a distinctly Creationist heritage.  As accepted by Behe, to alter science to include Intelligent Design as a scientific theory would also deem astrology a valid scientific theory.  While testimony illustrating the religious motives of board members such as Alan Bonsell and Bill Buckingham exposed the religious nature of Dover’s anti-evolution movement, expert testimony also illustrated weaknesses with Intelligent Design as a whole.  Thus, while Judge John E. Jones III struck down the school board’s attempt to challenge evolution in Dover, expert testimony within the trial can provide some framework for future attempts to incorporate Intelligent Design into the American science classroom.

Works cited:

Forrest, B. & Gross, PR.  Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007

Humes, E. Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul. HarperCollins.  New York. 2007

Kitzmiller V. Dover (pt. 1 of 2)

June 12, 2009

And now for my first deep consideration of legal fights in the Creation-Evolution struggle.  I’ll discuss Kitzmiller v. Dover here, and then delve into other key trials in future posts.  Kitzmiller v. Dover, fought over a Dover, Pennsylvania school board’s decision to read a disclaimer in classrooms in the school district claiming that evolutionary theory “has gaps” and referring students to copies of the textbook supplement Of Pandas and People to learn about intelligent design, which is proposed as an alternate theory to Darwinian evolution.  The text of the disclaimer is as follows:

“The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s Theory of Evolutionand eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact.  Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence.  A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations. 

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.  The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves. 

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families.  As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.” (in Kitzmiller v. Dover memorandum opinion, p. 1-2.  for link, click here).

The adoption of this disclaimer followed a 6-3 vote in which it was decided that:

“Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught” (Kitzmiller v. Dover memorandum Opinion p. 1).

These statements set up the controversy.  Here, we have a school district deciding to challenge the teaching of evolution.  With the development of the classroom disclaimer,we have a strategy.  However, there is more to Dover than the adoption of standards challenging evolution.  In this instance, we have the documentation to provide a good look at the forces governing this decision.

The decision to challenge evolution in Dover’s classrooms was pushed heavily by schoolboard member Bill Buckingham and fellow board member Alan Bonsell (as described in detail in Lebo 2008, Chapman 2008, and Humes 2007). Buckingham, during the course of debating the teaching of evolution, is quoted as stating “Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross.  Can’t someone take a stand for him?” (Numbers p. 392).  This statement, by a leader of the push to challenge evolution in Dover’s classroom suggests a religious rationale for this challenge.  Other sources of information (for example, the fact that the Thomas More Law Center, the self-declared “sword and shield  for people of faith” offered legal protection if the school board were to challenge evolution around July 2004; the vote to challenge evolution passed October 18, 2004, and the disclaimer was published November 19th 2004 (see here for general background)) confirm this suggestion.

However, the Dover school board was not unanimous in their decision to challenge evolution, as suggested by the 6-3 vote over changing the district’s standards.  Following this vote, the three board members who moved against the measure  (Jeff Brown, Casey Brown, and Noel Wenrich) resigned (Humes 98-99).  Casey Brown’s resignation statement can shed some more light on the religious tensions present on the Dover school board in 2004:

“Sometimes in order to fulfill the requirements of our office, we must put aside our personal feelings and beliefs.  It is not always an easy thing to do—but it is what we must do in order to properly perform the duties and responsibilities of our office.

In the past year, regretfully, there seems to have been a shift in the attitudes and direction of this board.  There has been a slow but steady marginalization of some board members.  Our opinions are no longer valued or listened to.  Our contributions have been minimized or not acknowledged at all.  A measure of that is the fact that I myself have been twice asked within the past year if I was “born again.:  No one has, nor should have the right, to ask that of a fellow board member.  An individual’s religious beliefs should have no impact on his or her ability to serve as a school board director, nor should a person’s beliefs be used as a yardstick to measure the value of that service.  However, it has become increasingly evident that is the direction the board has now chosen to go, holding a certain religious belief is of paramount importance.

Because of this, it is quite clear that I can no longer effectively function as a member of this board…” (quoted in Humes 99)

This statement confirms the importance of religious belief with regards to the operation of the board. Ironically, had the school board not been taken to court, it is entirely possible that social studies curriculae in the district would have been altered to challenge the separation between Church in State in America (Humes 100, Lebo 60).  Largely as a result of this separation, the Dover School Board lost Kitzmiller v. Dover.

Following the passage of the anti-evolution measure, with teachers refusing to read the statement and parents such as Tammy Kitzmiller unwilling to have their children’s education compromised (Lebo 48-53), in cooperation with the National Center for Science Education, the ACLU, attorney Eric Rothschild, and others, filed suit… 

Works Cited:

Chapman, M.  40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, oxyContin, and other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania.  Collins.  New York. 2008

 Humes, E. Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul. HarperCollins.  New York. 2007

Lebo, L.  The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-town America.The New Press, New York, 2008

Numbers, RL.  The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006