Evolution’s weaker claims

February 25, 2013

[UPDATE: I have added an addendum at the end.]

It is refreshing to read a scientist’s perspective on the evolution/creationism debate: An Insider’s View of the Academy (ht: Vincent Torley). The author is James Tour, the Chao Professor of Chemistry at Rice University.

Tour is questioning the scientific academy’s confidence in macro-evolution. To be clear, this is not an apologia for either the Intelligent Design community, much less the Young Earth Creationism folks. He expressly rejects both. Rather, it is an honest assessment of the academy’s willingness to recognize certain weaknesses in the evolutionary theory. Here is a snippet:

Although most scientists leave few stones unturned in their quest to discern mechanisms before wholeheartedly accepting them, when it comes to the often gross extrapolations between observations and conclusions on macroevolution, scientists, it seems to me, permit unhealthy leeway.

…It is not a matter of politics. I simply do not understand, chemically, how macroevolution could have happened. Hence, am I not free to join the ranks of the skeptical and to sign such a statement without reprisals from those that disagree with me? Furthermore, when I, a non-conformist, ask proponents for clarification, they get flustered in public and confessional in private wherein they sheepishly confess that they really don’t understand either. Well, that is all I am saying: I do not understand.

He goes on to offer warnings to his younger colleagues and students who share his concerns about the integrity of the scientific academy on matters pertaining to macro-evolution. This unwillingness to challenge the mechanics of macro-evolution is, it seems to me, a mirror image of the fear and protectionism in certain segments of evangelicalism. There are strengths, to be sure, in the overall evolutionary paradigm, namely the evidence for an old earth. Yet, the mechanics of the evolution itself between species, and especially the emergence of life, is notably weaker. John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, touches upon this in his excellent (and highly accessible) book, Seven Days that Divide the World. With scientists like Tour and Lennox, the dialogue between science and theology can be far healthier than is found, especially at certain seminaries. It will also bolster the credibility (both scientific and theological) of those of us who refuse to be pushed into either the strict Darwinian Evolution camp or the Young Earth camp.

Addendum – Just to be clear, I am not offering this as any sort of proof against macro-evolution or against the viability of a theistic evolutionary framework. Much less would I argue for a “God of the gaps,” which is the danger of offering these sort of questions about macro-evolution. In the spectrum from YEC to Theistic Evolution, I have always leaned heavily toward the latter but not uncritically, and I find the mediating positions to be fascinating (OEC and Progressive Creationism). As a theology student and seminarian, I just want to see a more productive dialogue between evangelicals and the scientific establishment. I’ve criticized the former several times on this blog (e.g., here and here and here); now I am offering a criticism of the latter.

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15 Responses to “Evolution’s weaker claims”

  1. Thank you for your post. I find this a very interesting topic. James Tour appears to be arguing from the position of “I don’t understand it, therefore scientists are wrong to be so confident”. This is somewhat flawed. Although he may, as you say, reject creationism and ID, his name appears almost exclusively on websites supporting both Creationism and ID, so either he’s being misrepresented, or he is not being completely honest in his motivations regarding his critique of evolution, a complex theory that is fascinating and extremely persuasive to most people who approach it free of ideological baggage.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Thanks, Adam. I disagree: He is saying that he “does not understand it” because there is nothing to be understood, based upon his knowledge as a chemist and in dialogue with other scientists. He is saying that the rationale has not been made clear because it is not clear in-itself. Moreover, this is not a statement of his scientific justifications for “not understanding”; rather, it is a more colloquial statement of his general observations.

      And, I wouldn’t want to do a “guilt by association” move. It’s not surprising at all that he would be touted by ID and YEC advocates. I would do the same thing, and I am neither ID nor YEC.

      • Hi Kevin, thanks for replying. If he is indeed saying that the rationale has not been made clear because it is not clear in itself, I find this rather circular logic. If there is a specific question about evolution (there may be many, as it can be quite complex) I’d be happy to try and answer it. Condemning it with a general statement about it not being clear, however tempting, is, in my opinion, unproductive.
        My intention wasn’t to infer guilt by association, I was just pointing out that he doesn’t appear to be very active in distancing himself from anti-science dogmatic ideologists like ID and YEC proponents.

      • Kevin Davis said

        I think it is more like: my water is muddy because there is mud in my water.

        Anyway, I wish I could offer specific questions, but my specialty is philosophy and systematic theology. As an undergraduate, I did some work in the philosophy of science, so that has sparked my interest in these debates ever since. But, I am only capable of observing at a distance and doing the best I can to keep the mutual suspicions to a minimum.

  2. One other point I’d like to respectfully make. Tour may be a scientist, but he is by no means a biologist, and his personal beliefs may be informing some of his less scientific pronouncements http://www.jmtour.com/personal-topics/personal-statement/

    • Kevin Davis said

      From my (albeit limited) understanding, chemical changes are rather important for understanding how material forms may develop.

      At the least, we should recognize that he has an incredibly impressive résumé and list of publications. It would be absurd to question or cast aspersion on his scientific judgments because he has a (rather typical) evangelical statement of faith.

      • A knowledge of chemistry does not imply an understanding of a biological process that a vast consensus of biologists fully accept.
        The quality of his résumé is, with all respect, irrelevant, what is known as an argument from authority, a fallacy.
        His fundamental religious beliefs are relevant here because so many interpretations of his religion have serious issues with the science of evolutionary theory on a theological basis, an area of which I have little knowledge.
        You seem to be dismissive about an evangelical statement of faith, but many scientists would argue that such a view, or any other form of faith-based perception of the world, can only have a detrimental effect on the understanding of a subtle, intricate and powerful scientific concept like evolution. It’s not for me to question the faith of others, but when the science of evolution is questioned not on scientific grounds, but from an ideological perspective, this is where I feel faith has stepped over into science, where it has no place.
        Thank you for your civil replies, and I’m grateful and appreciative of your genuine curiosity about one of the great wonders of science.

      • Kevin Davis said

        If I were deducing the truth of his claims from his authority as a scientist, then that would be a fallacy. Rather, I am arguing for the relevance or plausibility of his claims because of his authority as a scientist, which is not a fallacy.

        I really don’t care to argue this further. I don’t even care if someone is a full-blown evolutionist. After all, I’ve mostly categorized myself as a “theistic evolutionist” (with some reservations), so I hardly have a problem with the compatibility of science and the Christian faith. You can see the addendum that I added to the post.

  3. P.s. I haven’t had a chance to read it in detail, but your blog appears to be thoughtful, well balanced, and extremely well written. I look forward to reading more of it in the future.
    Kind regards

  4. John said

    Wish I’d seen this sooner. Whilst I don’t get worked up one way or the other about macro-evolution, I think that contemporary science too easily elides the discontinuities between mankind and the rest of creation. If you’ve not yet read it, you might appreciate Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, which has caused a bit of a stir.

  5. As far as I can find out, Nagel’s book appears to have excited some creationists, mildly irritated some philosophers, and has been completely ignored by neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists. Personally I see his hypothesis as a fun intellectual thought experiment that begins from the false premise that evolution is so improbable that it should be rejected.
    He admits himself that he is no expert in evolution, then proceeds to use an argument from personal incredulity to dismiss the reasoned position of pretty much everyone who’s spent time studying evolutionary biology. Science, however, has a proven track record of going against our best intuitive judgments (earth going around the sun, atoms being almost completely empty, the fact that light has a top speed, etc…)
    The scientifically literate appear to find a philosophy based around materialism and monism most useful for their purposes, simply because it works, and if Nagel is offering any functional alternative worth considering, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence for it that I can find.
    Regarding discontinuities between mankind and the rest of ‘creation’, I’m unaware of anything outside theology that would support such a claim. The theory that we are simply naked apes is supported by a huge fossil record, observations made of our fellow apes who can also transmit culture across generations, and DNA. Any evidence to counteract this theory would be most interesting.

    • John said

      Nagel’s comments on probability at the opening are the weakest part of the book, but they are incidental to its core, which concerns philosophy of mind. Since that’s a subject far outside the ken of most biologists and neuroscientists, their reaction (or lack of reaction) to the argument says little about its merits.

      • Thanks for your comments. I see your point, however I do feel that many scientists, perhaps neuroscientists especially, have very well-explained opinions on the philosophy of mind (Dr Steven Novella, for one), and are able to bring a useful perspective to such matters. In fact, I feel that the expertise of such people has more cross-disciplinary validity than when a philosopher ventures into evolution. Either way, I cannot agree with the philosophy of mind being far outside the ken of neuroscientists. You may not agree with the commonly held scientific view of monism, but that in itself doesn’t invalidate their argument.

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