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Earl Doherty

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Evolution and Evidence  (March 6, 2005)

     The Skeptical Inquirer, a "Magazine for Science and Reason," has long been a favorite of mine, and I would like to especially recommend the current issue (Vol. 29, No. 2: March / April 2005). SI regularly addresses the Evolution-Creationism "controversy" and this issue has an excellent article by Dennis R. Trumble, titled: "One Longsome Argument" (sic, referring to a comment by Darwin). Religion has a long history of adopting an inimical stance to scientific discovery, but modern fundamentalist opposition to the greatest and most influential scientific discovery in history, namely Darwinian evolution, is virtually unprecedented for its hostility and tenacity, and the degree of negative impact it has had on the public mind and the integrity of so much of our educational system. The anti-evolution movement continues to eat away at the very fabric of society's intellect, and all the reasoned response in the world doesn't seem to be making a lot of headway against it. Trumble's article gives us, among other things, some insight into why. Here are a few excerpts, after which I will make a few further comments. I would urge everyone to get a copy of this issue, one with several other excellent features on related and other topics.

....By any objective measure, the evolution of species ranks among the most successful scientific theories ever. So why is the message not getting through?

....Despite all evidence to the contrary, a large portion of the world's population continues to cling to the belief that human beings are fundamentally different from all other life forms and that our origins are unique. It's a lovely sentiment to be sure, but how is it that so many people continue to be drawn to this thoroughly discredited notion?
    Like most mystic mindsets, creationist beliefs are normally instilled at an early age, nurtured by well-meaning parents and sustained by religious organizations whose vested leaders are traditionally loath to amend church doctrine in the face of emergent scientific facts. Though seemingly antithetic to the inquisitive nature of our species, the rote acceptance of received wisdom has been a hallmark of human culture almost from the get-go, arising initially as a benign behavioral adaptation geared to promote the rapid transfer of communal survival skills to our young homind forebears. It was only with the advent of modern civilization that this age-old habit finally began to outline its usefulness and yield serious negative consequences
most notably by granting gratuitous momentum to all kinds of ill-conceived nations about how the world is "supposed" to work....

    Problem is, most folks
including many of the more learned among usdon't understand the basic workings of science well enough to appreciate how feeble the arguments against evolution really are. If they did, they would realize that the scientific process is not about gathering data to prove a favored hypothesis but instead involves the testing of ideas against the totality of real-world observations. Creationists turned amateur scientists almost always fail to grasp this essential scientific precept and so unwittingly launch from false premises all kinds of pseudoscientific arguments in support of special creation. In fact, if there's one reason why creationists critiques are so consistently misguided it's that adherents generally presuppose that special creation is true and then sift the evidence for clues to support that suppositiona recipe for self-deception that stands in stark contrast to the scientific method, which mandates that fresh hypotheses by derived from all available evidence....

    Because no physical body of evidence exists to document the beginning of life on Earth, this information gap has proven to be a wildly popular (albeit wholly inappropriate) foil for those seeking to discredit evolutionary theory. In truth, the origin of life is an issue entirely separate from the origin of species, rendering this otherwise important question utterly irrelevant as far as the veracity of natural selection is concerned. Whether the first primitive life form arose from known physical processes or was somehow willed into being through means beyond our understanding, evidence that all life on Earth descended from simple primordial beings remains just as compelling, and the myth of independent creation just as untenable.
    But even this slender refuge for creationist sentiment has now begun to evaporate under the light of modern scientific scrutiny, for although Earth's original life forms left no physical evidence for scientists to examine, credible hypotheses regarding the spontaneous formation and assembly of self-replicating molecules have been proposed and tested nonetheless. Laboratory experiments and astronomic observations suggest that key organic compounds were present in abundance shortly following Earth's formation and that natural chemical affinities and mineral scaffolds may have acted in concert to produce the simplest of biochemical copying machines....
....Based on these and other findings, biochemists have proposed several plausible mechanisms by which these compounds may have coalesced of their own accord into the precursors of life....

    Many of the "scientific" arguments for intelligent design, for instance, invoke common misconceptions about how the physical world really works, as in the classic "watchmaker" argument wherein nature is assumed to act randomly and possess no organizational tendences. Given this false premise, it is a simple matter to show that complex molecular structures could never have formed by chance alone any more than a factory whirlwind could assemble a Mercedes Benz from its component parts. But anyone with a basic understanding of chemistry knows full well that such analogies do not apply to atoms and molecules. If the physical sciences have taught us nothing else, it's that the world of the very small is surprisingly counterintuitive. Processes in the realm of the microscopic simply do not behave as one might expect based on our experience living on the macroscopic plane. Electric charges, energy barriers, and nuclear forces all dominate the realm of the minuscule and compel individual atoms to form stable chemical bonds with neighboring elements, blindly building molecular structures of every possible type and complexity that the laws of physical chemistry will allow.
    Objects large enough to arouse our naked senses, on the other hand, behave quite differently. Because they exhibit no special affinity for one another, the scattered components of a disassembled watch will never coalesce of their own accord
the odds against such haphazard assemblies are simply too long. Nature, however, does not act without organizational tendences nor are living organisms randomly assembled. There is now ample reason to believe that simple unicellular life forms arose through processes endemic to the life-friendly universe we occupy and that more sophisticated beings slowly emerged from these modest beginnings. Indeed, all complex organisms on Earth (including humans) begin life as single cells that multiply, differentiate, and ultimately mature to assume the form of its parentall in strict accordance with the natural laws of biochemistry....

     There is a lot more to this finely-written article, and I think it illustrates a number of things. First, is that objections in the realm of religion to rational scientific and historical paradigms are often more easily dealt with than one might think. Once simple principles are stated
which, unfortunately, few laypersons are familiar with, and not a little because our media and educational systems are woefully set up to counter established religious dogma and intereststhose objections simply dissolve (like a disintegrating vampire at the thrust of Buffy's wooden stake).  How many times, for example, have we heard it claimed that life could never have spontaneously formed in the primordial soup, with odds against such a thing calculated to a huge number of zeros? As Trumble points out, and as in so many such cases, this objection is based on a false or incomplete premise. Once the missing factor is introduced, that nature at the molecular level possesses innate organizational propensities, all those zeros simply evaporate.
     I encounter these kinds of objections and missing premises in historical Jesus and apologetic research all the time. One of the biggest guns in the evangelical arsenal is the so-called fulfillment of prophecy. Dozens of alleged prophecies in the Old Testament were supposedly fulfilled by Jesus in the New, and the odds against that degree of correspondence happening to occur in a random life lived by a simple human man would involve an astronomical number of zeros; ergo: Jesus was divine and the bible is a book of prophecy about him, inspired from heaven.  But all those zeros crash to earth and roll off into the sunset when one offers the simple and demonstrable principle that the story of Jesus as found in the Gospels is not historical, but was in fact put together out of those passages from the Jewish bible. Scripture was not the prophecy of Jesus, it was the source-text.
     Few people are scientists or biblical scholars conversant in what is often technical or esoteric material, but becoming conversant with the simpler principles is often sufficient to prick the fundamentalist balloon (even if the resulting pop goes unheeded by many).  It should be incumbent on all of us in the rational community to try to become familiar with basic counter-arguments
—especially in the evolution-creation controversy. The religious right has invested a lot in its support of creationism and its campaign to discredit evolution, and the threat to education in particular and intellectual enlightenment in general is profound. But it is precisely here that they are in fact vulnerable. It's one thing for the rational mind to try to argue against some theological position, or the existence of angels, or the acceptability of a divine blood sacrifice for sin, and so on; but the creationist case is based on alleged physical and deductive evidence on earth, or the supposed failings of such on the evolution side, and can thus be countered on that very ground.

Earl Doherty

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