Friday, June 8, 2018

What is Darwinian Evolution?

Charles Darwin in 1880

Readers of this blog may have noticed that in the last few weeks I've written a number of posts on evolution and competing theories of origins. You can find them under the tags "evolution" and "creationism". Or for convenience, they are:

Evolution, Creation and Catholic Faith
Was Adam an Ape-Man?
Slumming with the Creationists
Was There a Biblical Flood?
The Biblical Literalism of English Catholic George Leo Haydock

I've jumped around a bit and I've also been, some might say, a bit cagey. I've been critical, in one way or another of all the alternatives. But one of them must be true. After all of it, what do I actually believe? What do I think a Catholic can believe or should believe? I've made some hints, but I haven't firmly taken a side.

I'm getting there. But before I do get there, if you'll indulge me, I want to clearly lay out the alternatives, with an emphasis on the alternatives for faithful Christians or Catholics.

I see five of them:

Darwinian Evolution
Old-Earth Creationism
Young-Earth Creationism
Intelligent Design
Theistic Evolution

In the next five posts, I want to look at each one of these in turn, briefly defining and describing them and then listing what I see as the strong points and weak points (or advantages and disadvantages - in opposite order) of each one.

For me, it's an entertaining break from Bergoglio bashing and Islam bashing. But of course I also think the topic is interesting and, in the end, incredibly important, especially for Christians and Catholics.

Again, I ask that you indulge me, but more importantly I hope you find the discussion interesting. As always, please tell me where you think I'm wrong.

And also as always, in the great Christian blogger moral tradition, I won't stop you from being abusive, but I just might get abusive back. (Insert your own mental smiley or frowny emoji, here.)

So, here's the first alternative:

DARWINIAN EVOLUTION

Definition:

All organisms and species, including Man, came into being via evolutionary descent from a common ancestor or set of similar common ancestors. The engine for this is natural selection operating on or against random genetic mutation.

Various evolutionary theories were proposed generations before Darwin and quickly acquired a certain cache in establishment and elite cultural circles. Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, wrote Zoonomia in 1794. While this work would soon make the Vatican's Index of Prohibited Books, it probably only became widely known after his grandson's works became popular. By contrast, Vestiges of Creation by the scientific popularizer Robert Chambers came out in 1844 and was wildly successful. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that its total sales were surpassed by Darwin's The Origin of Species.

But while these and other works proposed evolutionary theories of life's origins, theories which were in convenient agreement with steadily growing secular zeitgeist, none of them could precisely explain why or how evolution occurred. It was Charles Darwin in Origin who first came up with a scientifically plausible mechanism for how evolution could occur. At that time, Darwin would speak of natural selection operating against the background of "slight changes" - the genetic mutation part would come later, partly as a result of the roughly simultaneous scientific discoveries of Gregory Mendel, a Catholic monk who, arguably, was opposed to Darwinism as a general theory   

Origin was published 1859. It is perhaps notable that this most modern of theories was publicly launched two years before the start of the American Civil War.

What are the disadvantages and advantages of Darwinian evolution in its contemporary (2018) form?

Disadvantages:

1. From a scientific standpoint, the theory has proven to be an utterly bankrupt failure. (And someday I'll tell you what I really think.) Far from the case for Darwinian evolution becoming stronger in the last 150+ years, it has steadily become weaker. Here are some of the major problems:
  • The continuing gaps and oddities of the fossil record, completely at odds with what Darwin predicted. Instead of species gradually changing, they abruptly appear, remain unchanged and then abruptly disappear. There is no general trend from simplicity to complexity beyond a few discreet points in an allaged four-billion year timeline. There are rapid mass "explosions" as well as mass extinctions of species, etc.
  • The failure, even after 150 years, to come up with a firm evolutionary timeline for Man's origins. Despite the popular conception, there is still no agreed upon sequence of species for how man progressively evolved from ape-like ancestors. New discoveries, rather than "filling in the blanks," tend to simply make things more puzzling. If Darwinian evolution is true, then there must be such a sequence, but scientists are no nearer to having one now than they were three generations ago.
  • The failure to solve the problem of irreducible complexity. Darwin argued that evolution proceeded in small steps, each one of which had to be to the advantage of the organism or species. Indeed, in the Origin of Species he claimed, " if it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." Critics have claimed that many complex organs, such as the eye, have this feature, though this has been disputed by Darwinists who have come up with ingenious (while arguably implausible) proposals for how such complex organs could have been formed in successive stages. But the best example is the cell. Darwin and his contemporaries thought of the cell as a simple blob of protoplasm. We now know it to be akin to an incredibly complex miniature machine. The design of the machine is coded in the DNA of the organism, but no account has as yet been given of how the code builds the machine, or how a succession of different machines could have gradually "evolved" via beneficial changes at each stage from simpler origins.
  • The failure to explain how life could have arisen from non-life. This is somewhat related to the above. Various "just-so" stories have been proposed, but no evidence for them has ever been produced.
  • The failure to show how mere random mutation could steadily produce beneficial changes at the genetic level. Genetic protein sequences are incredibly complicated, and virtually all of them "don't work," in the same way that, say, virtually all random sequences of a page worth of letters and punctuation marks don't work to produce a page of intelligible prose. The mutations that do arise, almost always hurt an organism, rather than helping it
  • The failure to produce long-term beneficial mutations even in a laboratory. This is in a sense the empirical conformation of the previous claim. While it well-known that, say, bacteria can develop "new" resistances to hostile agents, the actual mechanism involved is the creation of a genetic "glitch" that masks recognition by the agent of, say, a particular protein. But no changes may be seen to occur past that point or "edge."
  • Finally, we might add that many of the best historical evidences adduced for Darwinian evolution have been exposed as intentional hoaxes or mistakes. This is not completely determinative, of course, but it should give any honest Darwinian evolutionist pause. Some examples of actual fraud include Piltdown Man, the Haeckel embryos and even the famous peppered moths. Even the evidence for the beak growth on Darwin's finches has been shown to be problematic.          
Darwinian evolutionists have reacted to each problem by doubling-down, and sometimes even boldly incorporating disconfirming evidence as confirmatory. Thus the independent evolution of distinct and complex organs such as the eye or similar animal morphologies, something that Darwin argued the theory probably ruled out, have been labeled "convergent evolution" - evidence for how wonderful and rich the theory is. The non-gradual timeline shown in the fossil record has been explained as "punctuated equilibrium." And so on.

With all of these problems, why has Darwinian evolution continued to be the dominant theory? See Advantages, below.

2. Darwinian evolution is strictly incompatible with conventional Christianity. This is of course only a problem for Christians. And indeed, it is celebrated by many atheist Darwinians. What do I mean by "strictly incompatible"? All Christians believe a) there is a God, b) God created (somehow, by some means, directly or indirectly) the world and all life in it, including Man, and c) God intended to create the world, life and Man in a certain way, according to His plan. But now recall that standard Darwinian evolution asserts that the engine for evolution is random mutation. Random means, well, random, or accidental. Or to see it another way, as the evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould put it, if we were to rewind the tape of life, say, two billion years, and then started things again, we'd get something, but it would be something completely different from what we actually have.

But why couldn't God have used evolution as His method of creation? That He could not have is not to invoke the infallible authority of some 19th century pope or to put a limitation on Gos's power, but simply to express a claim of logic, in the same way that we might say that God could not make 1 + 1 = 3. Random processes do not produce planned outcomes, unless there is some power or tendency or law also simultaneously in force. Again, this is not an empirical point but a logical one. If I randomly throw different colored paint at a board,  I could not produce the Mona Lisa. And neither could God (!), at least if we say that He randomly threw the paint. Christian evolutionists often claim that on their theory, the hand of God (somehow) guides the process, or that life as we know it, including the existence of Man was (somehow) front-loaded into things at the beginning. Why can't they say that? Well, they can, of course, but if they do, they're not anymore putting forth Darwinian evolution, which by definition incorporates a random process. Instead they would be (at a minimum) defending some sort of theory of Intelligent Design (see future post).

You can't have your cake and eat it, too.

Sorry, Christian evolutionists.

Advantages:

1. Darwinian evolution is still the overwhelmingly dominant theory or paradigm within the scientific and cultural establishment. If you dissent from the theory, you run the serious risk of torpedoing your career (or your career may fail to launch completely) in academic science and related fields. If you dissent from the theory as an actual or prospective scientist, not only will you probably not be popular or hip but you might also starve (at least if you're also unwilling to or unable to drive for Uber). Is this an "advantage" for the theory? Damn right it is. How could it not be?

2. Darwinian evolution is still the only even remotely plausible naturalistic theory of origins. By "naturalistic theory," I mean a theory that doesn't invoke supernatural agents or causes such as, most obviously, God. This of course provides the answer to why theory is still believed despite the massive amount of disconfirmatory considerations discussed above. The current philosophical and cultural zeitgeist will simply not allow God into "science" - for reasons independent of any scientific considerations themselves. And thus atheist or secular evolutionists are strictly correct when they assert that whatever it's problems, Darwinian evolution is the only game in town. If we assume away God at the beginning, it is the only game in town, at least so far. Why we should assume away God at the beginning is another question. But regardless, it has already been done for us.

And if you have a problem with that, I have an Uber pick up for you.

3. All else said, Darwinian evolution is a very clever theory. I mean that sincerely. True or false (and I obviously think it's false) it's ingenious. It has an undeniable superficial plausibility. Richard Dawkins famously claimed that Darwin finally made it possible to be an intellectual fulfilled atheist. What he meant by that is that before Darwin's theory, the atheist or secularly inclined philosopher or scientist had to confront a major problem - there simply was no good non-supernatural explanation for how all of life, up to and including Man, came to be. That the world and all the life on it had always existed was proposed of course. But that, as they say, didn't quite cut it. Life itself was a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to atheism. Darwin changed that.

In the interests of fairness, I should also add that the Darwinian paradigm has clear applications outside of biology. That some of these applications, or in this case, rather, alleged applications were subsequently used for morally horrific purposes is undeniable. But it's also true that it has been and can be used, if applied carefully and correctly, to better understand some phenomena in the social sciences. For those interested, I recommend David Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation, as just one of many examples of where the use of a sort of Darwinian theory can have positive and fruitful results.

Darwin and Darwinism was a huge wrong turn for science. I have previously described it as perhaps the greatest hoax in history. But that doesn't mean there aren't some positive things that honest and curious thinkers can get out of it - and yes, that even goes for Catholics.

That's the way it goes, sometimes.

Next: Old-Earth Creationism

3 comments:

  1. Hugh Owen of the Kolbe Center has lengthy speeches/interviews online on the subject of evolution and Catholic creationism. They're definitely worth listening to if you have the time.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5z7AveGSmU
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1xXypxjcls
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFwEyZ0g3D0

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  2. I remember the pictures in anthropology of the primitive species standing more and more upright until, voila, they stand erect and are modern man! The varying species of early man, or whatever we should call them, is fascinating. I mean, how to explain Australopithecus, or Cro-Magnon man, what are these beings? How did one take over another? How did we so quickly arrive with a modern brain capable of much more thought than earlier man? And why are we less capable of using that brain than we were when we started. Why is man getting stupider. I know this is so because I observe the world.

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  3. Did you see this story?

    http://www.techtimes.com/articles/228798/20180530/massive-genetic-study-reveals-90-percent-of-earth-s-animals-appeared-at-the-same-time.htm

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