Re: evolution archive list

Brian D Harper (
Sat, 29 May 1999 22:50:50 -0700

At 11:26 AM 5/28/99 EDT, Bertvan wrote:
> Subj: Re: evolution archive list
>CC: (Brian D Harper)
>Hi Brian,
>Another non-hostile response!! Thanks. In this acrimonious
>evolution/creation battle, I often find my sympathies with the
>creationists--although the truth is, I don't agree with either of you. I
>feel the creationists could be accommodated, whereas the defenders of
>Darwinism seem more interested in winning battles and "defeating creationism"
>than in any sort of tolerant coexistence.

One problem that I have thus far with your criticisms is that they
seem so one sided. As if it is only evolutionists that are
"defending the faith" so to speak.

Now, let me offer some advice. If you really want to learn about
the science of evolution then you have to discipline yourself
not to take too seriously what you read in the public debate
about evolution/creation. Sure, it is interesting to follow,
but don't rely on that as being representative of the real science.

The reason has to do with your observation above. It is my experience
that there are certain extremists (fundamentalists) on both sides
who are not content to show someone is wrong, they have to show
they are stupid or immoral or evil ... The reason I believe has
to do with the politics surrounding the public debate. So, I
personally don't take anything I read from public debates as
being reliable.

>I have heard defenders of
>Darwinism claim they dare not allow a possible "divine foot in the door". I
>believe it is true that any biologist who publicly expressed skepticism of
>Darwinism in today's world would probably be denied tenure at most

I am very skeptical about this claim. First, I happen to know that
there are many biologists who have publicly expressed skepticism
about Darwinism. The natural follow up to this might be to ask
whether those individuals already had tenure at the time. I have
no idea.

Let me give a word of caution. Conspiracy theories tend to
be self confirming. For example, I might try to give reasons
why I'm skeptical about your claim. But then someone may
whisper in your ear "well, what do expect him to say, he is,
after all, one of THEM."

Well, of the various reasons for skepticism I might give,
I believe the most persuasive would be to look at the legal issues.
What you need to try to appreciate is that Universities have
to protect themselves in this age of law suits. There have
been several high profile law suits at Ohio State involving
denial of tenure to an assistant professor. I imagine there
have been many others that haven't made the front pages. If
a law suit is filed, the university must show objective criteria
according to which the candidate was found unsuitable. If a
university can't do this, their in trouble. When I was hired
it was explained to me in no uncertain terms what I would
have to do to get tenure. The three most important ingredients
are (1) external funding of research (2) publications in quality
journals (3) good teaching evaluations. If someone establishes
themselves in these three areas, yet doesn't get tenure, then
there will be hell to pay, pardon my french :).

If anyone has evidence to the contrary then let's here it.
I will be the first to take the side of any qualified
assistant professor who fails to get tenure because they
are a creationist. I'm sure that there would be many who
would join me.

>Take the concept of "design", for instance. The universe was either created
>or it arose by spontaneous generation. (Maybe there are even other
>possibilities) In any case, it appears to consist of an infinite number of
>complex parts, each fitting intricately together to perform specific,
>interdependent functions, and it looks designed to me. Even Dawkins admits
>life appears designed--but hastens to add such appearance is merely an
>illusion. Dawkins is entitled to his view that what looks like reality is
>really illusion, but I resent anyone trying to impose such ideas upon me as
>"scientific truth". Acknowledging the possibility that the universe might be
>"designed" would have no effect upon science. Science's function is to
>figure out the details of the design, regardless of how it originated. As an
>agnostic, I can refrain from speculating about any "designers". Questions of
>ultimate origins will probably remain outside the scope of science, and one
>persons speculations on the matter are as valid as another's. No opinion is
>more "scientific". The creationists admit the battle is over ideology; the
>Darwinists often pretend it is not.

Here I would repeat the suggestion I made above. In public debates
and many popularizations, many scientists feel compelled not just
to present the science but also their metaphysical interpretations
of the science. If you're going to read this stuff you have to
learn to distinguish one from the other.

>Brian wrote:
>> Darwinism is one of many possible theories that attempt to explain the
>>observed facts relating to evolution.
>>Your second two questions are interesting. First, there are
>>many mechanisms proposed for macro evolution, though exactly
>>how they work would still be in doubt in many (most?, all? :)
> Even most creationists accept natural selection as a mechanism of
>micro-evolution. The explanation of how "random mutation and natural
>selection" gradually results in macro evolution is certainly simple
>(simplistic, to some of us), but I've seen no evidence strong enough to
>demand that everyone accept the theory as a description of what happened.

Nor have I. Despite what you may have read, the idea that
macroevolution is just microevolution extrapolated is not
universally accepted, not by a long shot. So, we agree on
this, it is simplistic, IMHO.

>>IOW, uncertainty about (or lack of) a mechanism is not a
>>license to speculate wildly.
>True. And lack of a fully understood mechanism is no reason to insist
>everyone accept a theory which seems inadequate to some of us. I sincerely
>doubt wild speculations would do any harm--unless someone were trying to ban
>them. Attempts to suppress ideas always arouse my interest in them.. (Can
>you think of anything wilder than speculations by cosmologists about multiple

Agreed, multiple universes is pretty wild. But bear in mind that
we've switched subjects to the Anthropic Principle wherein
almost everything is speculation, some of it pretty wild.

Let me give an interesting quote taken from one of the most
often cited papers in the Anthropic Principle literature.
It is taken from the closing paragraph. I'm giving it in the
hopes that you may have second thoughts about the stereotypes
that you seem to have developed. Here's the quote:

There does exist a line of thinking that _is_ in direct
competition with the anthropic principle. Edward Harrison,
in his textbook _Cosmology_, advises his readers early on:
"We shall occasionally refer to the anthropic principle,
and the reader may, if it is preferred, substitute the
alternative theistic principle." The theistic principle
is quite straightforward: the reason the universe seems
tailor-made for our existence is that it _was_ tailor-made
for our existence; some supreme being created it as a home
for intelligent life. Of course, some scientists, believing
science and religion mutually exclusive, find this idea
unattractive. Faced with questions that do not neatly fit
into the framework of science, they are loath to resort to
religious explanation; yet their curiosity will not let
them leave matters unaddressed. Hence, the anthropic principle.
It is the closest that some atheists can get to God.
-- Pagels, H. (1985). "A Cozy Cosmology," <The Sciences>
25(2):35-38. also in <Physical Cosmology and Philosophy>,
Ed. J. Leslie, Macmillan, New York, 1990, pp. 174-180.

>>IMHO, creationists are most likely to be guilty of propagating
>>confusion about randomness. Whenever I've seen the issue of
>>the randomness of mutations discussed in evolutionists'
>>writings it is always emphasized that "random" in the context
>>of "random mutations" means that mutations do not anticipate
>>the needs of an organism. It does not mean random in the
>>usual statistical sense of the word.
>>BTW, are you proposing that randomness automatically implies
>I imagine random, in every sense of the word, would be an important part of
>the ideology of Atheists. Mutations occurring in response to the environment
>would not be random. There is no way to prove mutations occurring over long
>periods of time had no Lamarckian component. Why do biologists insist upon
>a word with a meaning differing somewhat from common usage, which they know
>will antagonize most theists?

Why do you jump to such conclusions? The fact of the matter is that
technical words used in science almost never have their meanings
in everyday conversation. Order, disorder, information ... All
these words have technical meanings quite different from everyday
usage. If one wants to understand a subject then one has to take
time to learn the vocabulary.

>I asked:
>>>Isn't the insistence that instincts and behavior are specified in the
>genome >>based upon the fact that we merely don't know what else might
>control >>them? Is there any reason to believe a "altruism gene"
>exists--other than >>faith that there must be a gene for everything?
>Brian answered:
>>I'm also not sure the best answer to this due to my lack of
>>expertise. Let me just warn you that evolution is not
>>equivalent to genetic reductionism.
>Most scientists, even most biologists, might well be tolerant and
>acknowledge no special expertise in philosophy or ideology. I fear that is
>not the impression the public gets from the evolution/creation debates. The
>most vociferous defenders of Darwinism appear to be pushing deterministic
>materialism as the only acceptable ideology.

This may be the case. But according to my reading, deterministic
materialism is not a particularly popular view among scientists in
general. Once again, though, this will very much depend upon exactly
what one means by materialism and determinism. Also, you seem to
be crossing swords with yourself a little now as random and
deterministic are opposites.

Thanks for your contributions to the group.

Brian Harper
Associate Professor
Applied Mechanics
The Ohio State University

"All kinds of private metaphysics and theology have
grown like weeds in the garden of thermodynamics"
-- E. H. Hiebert