Tuesday, March 22, 2016
On many occasions, I've discussed the relationship between theism and science. I've argued that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. I've also agreed that there have been many scientists who are Christians, but to be a good scientist, one must set aside his religious faith, at least insofar as it relates to his scientific investigations. Any failure to do so will inevitably lead to unscientific results, as theistic presuppositions find their way into a biased interpretation of evidence, and consequently biased conclusions. It is particularly disappointing to see someone with a PhD in science wasting his talent and intellect on a pursuit of theistic pseudo-science, under the deluded belief that the broader scientific community has got it all wrong, and that he sees the truth that eludes them.
Such is the case with Cornelius G. Hunter, a fellow at Discovery Institute, and adjunct professor of "science and religion" at Biola University (a Christian liberal arts school). He has a blog called Darwin's God, named after one of his books. The blog seems to be dedicated to debunking evolution theory. I've made several posts about this topic lately, mostly relating to the semi-educated fools who are suckered in by pseudo-scientific literature they find on the internet. Hunter is one of the charlatans who produce this literature and give it an air of authority.
In today's discussion, I will focus on how Hunter peddles misinformation about evolution theory. In this article, he calls into question one of the central features of evolution: natural selection, claiming that it's just a myth. But this seems to be based on a confused understanding of what natural selection is. The confusion appears to be based on semantics, and I get the distinct impression that Hunter is deliberately injecting this misunderstanding of the terminology into the discussion in order to make his point.
First, there is the issue of teleology. Of course, evolution theory contains no element of teleology. But Hunter wants us to believe that it does. As proof of this, he cites various phrases found in the literature that use teleological language to describe natural processes or phenomena. It's true, scientists will sometimes use phrases like "designed by evolution", or even describe nature itself as an agent that "causes" or "seeks" or "experiments", as if nature has a goal toward which it is intentionally striving. This is the way many of us speak about things that have no intention and no goal. We say things like "water seeks its own level", with the understanding that it is only the laws of physics that act upon the water. There is nothing intentional in the water that makes it behave in a certain way. And that applies to evolution, as well.
Many scientists scrupulously avoid using any teleological language in their work, precisely because they know that it could lead to this kind of confusion. However, there are others who don't share that concern, and may feel that using this kind of language makes their literature more lively and readable. But even when they do that, it is with the understanding that there is no actual intelligence or intention in nature. What Hunter is doing is to cherry-pick these phrases, and use them as examples of how scientists can't help but smuggle Aristotelian teleology into evolution theory. And that provides the basis for his claim that natural selection is a myth.
Again, he uses a cherry-picked phrase from UC Berkeley's website on evolution: "natural selection can produce amazing adaptations". He uses the term "natural selection" in two very different senses to create more confusion. This website makes good points that are completely ignored by Hunter, but it is rather simplistic, and it unfortunately defines the term "natural selection" in a way that plays into Hunter's hands. To most evolutionary scientists, the term refers to the differential survival of the inherited genome, which may be called "differential reproduction". This is one part of the overall evolutionary process. However, in the Berkeley site, "natural selection" is equated to the overall process of evolution, consistent with the way some people use the term. So "natural selection" might be used to mean the process of evolution, or it might be used in a more specific sense that refers to one part of the process.
Hunter exploits this difference in a subtle manner. He acknowledges, per the Berkeley site, that natural selection is equivalent to the overall process of evolution: "Natural selection is simply the name given to that process." But at the same time, he uses it in a way that is more consistent with the more restricted sense of differential survival: "It selects for survival of that which already exists." By "that which already exists", he means a genome that has been modified by some mechanism that causes variation, like random mutation. So he's really talking about only a part of the evolutionary process. A mutation causes a variation in the genome, and natural selection is the differential survival of that variation. So he's correct in saying that natural selection doesn't produce anything that doesn't already exist, provided he means only the portion of the process that refers to survival. It is another part of the evolutionary process that produces changes in the genome. But if "natural selection" is used in the sense of the overall evolutionary process, then it does indeed produce new adaptations.
Hunter is playing games with language to create confusion in his audience, and claim that natural selection is just a myth. He is counting on his readers' lack of astuteness, but he himself is plenty smart enough, and certainly well educated enough, to know exactly what he is doing. It is a deliberate and intellectually dishonest attempt to discredit legitimate science. This is the modus operandi of science deniers. Thanks to some of those semi-educated fools for pointing this article out.