Thursday, 29 August 2013

Scientific errors in Christadelphian attacks on evolution: The Testimony magazine - 7

In the January 2005 edition of The Testimony, John Watts attempts to rebut the evidence for common descent from molecular genetics, which he appears to regard as a variation of the argument from comparative anatomy. Most of his article in fact is a muddled attempt to rebut the argument from comparative anatomy, which cites a paper [1] written by Graeme Finlay, a Christian cell biologist outlining in detail the evidence for human-ape common ancestry, but never once addresses these arguments in any substantive manner.

FInlay is a researcher in cancer genetics [2] who at the time of writing works at the University of Auckland. He is alsos highly active in showing that evolution and Christianity are not mutually exclusive. The apparent conflict between science and Christian faith he argues: 
“is propagated by the media and by people who are uninformed and uncompromisingly dogmatic. Here in New Zealand, young earth Creationism is inalienable orthodoxy for many of the most vigorous churches. I feel enduring frustration when Christians exclaim that they do not know how an intelligent person can ever believe in evolution and Dawkins exclaims that he does not know how an intelligent person can ever believe in God. If only they would ask!” [3]
Finlay is hardly a fire-breathing atheist intent on destroying Christian faith, but a devout Christian who unlike almost all special creationist critics of evolutionary biology is a working professional in an area of science directly relevant to the question of common descent, which lends considerable credibility to what he says. Therefore, when he points out: 
This compelling genetic evidence must inform our understanding of what it means for God to create, of the place of chance in the creative work of God, and of the nature of humanity. It illustrates the way in which God works, and demonstrates his grace as seen in creation and redemption. [4]
an intellectually honest review of his article would not only substantively deal with the scientific evidence that Finlay believes demonstrates common descent, but reflect on his motivation. Watts never did this, and it reflects poorly on the science editor of the Testimony that such a shabby, misleading, poorly researched article ever made it to print.

An overview of the flawed arguments in Watt's article

Watts opens with both a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, and a depressingly ironic remark: 
Similarities in physical appearance were the earliest evidences used to support the theory of evolution, and those between man and the apes were perhaps the most widely cited. As our knowledge of the microscopic and the molecular has increased, so in turn the argument has been applied at other levels: to embryology, to protein structures, to DNA sequences. How valuable is this class of argument? Sadly, it relies more on ignorance than on knowledge. [5] 
Watts undermines the credibility of his argument right from the opening paragraph by failing to accurately define what he means by evolution. A common creationist error is to fail to differentiate between common descent and large scale evolutionary change, and the mechanisms proposed to explain how they occurred. Difficulties - real or imagined - in the latter are then assumed to invalidate the former. This argument makes as much sense as to claim that gravity ceases to exist simply because general relativity cannot explain gravity at the quantum level. There is no excuse for conflating evolution as fact (common descent and large-scale evolutionary change) and evolution as theory (the modern synthetic theory) as this distinction was made by none other than Darwin. In 1863, four years after his book was first published he noted: 
Whether the naturalist believes in the views given by Lamarck, or Geoffroy St.-Hilaire, by the author of the ‘Vestiges,’ by Mr. Wallace and myself, or in any other such view, signifies extremely little in comparison with the admission that species have descended from other species and have not been created immutable; for he who admits this as a great truth has a wide field opened to him for further inquiry. [6]
Eight years later, he noted in The Descent of Man
Some of those who admit the principle of evolution, but reject natural selection, seem to forget, when criticising my book, that I had the above two objects in view; hence if I have erred in giving to natural selection great power, which I am very far from admitting, or in having exaggerated its power, which is in itself probable, I have at least, as I hope, done good service in aiding to overthrow the dogma of separate creations. [7]
 Many of Darwin’s scientific contemporaries accepted the evidence for common descent from comparative anatomy, biogeography and embryology, but were sceptical of his explanation for common descent. In fact, from the late 19th century until the forging of the modern evolutionary synthesis in the first half of the 20th century, natural selection fell out of scientific favour as an explanation for evolution. Evolution as a historical fact never was seriously challenged – the evidence was universally regarded as overwhelming.

It needs stressing that molecular biology simply did not exist as a discipline a century ago, but even then, no serious doubts about the fact of evolution (as opposed to the mechanism of evolutionary change) existed in the scientific world. The evidence from molecular biology for common descent is overwhelming – there is simply no other word to describe it. Sadly, it makes bro. Watts’ comment that this argument “relies more on ignorance than on knowledge” an ironic comment on his understanding of the subject he feels qualified to criticise.

Watts continues: 
A recent article claims to demonstrate beyond any doubt that apes and man had a common ancestor. The evidence used is drawn from cytology and molecular biology, considering similarities first in the physical structure of parts of the chromosomes of man and primates, and then in some of the base sequences of their DNA. It is another example of reasoning from comparative anatomy. 
Scientists, if they are honest, know that they operate in a fog of ignorance. Advances in understanding are very slow and uncertain, and the ‘theories’ of today are usually little more than a consensus of opinions and never fit all the known facts. The source of power of arguments like this one, based on chromosome architecture and base sequences, is derived from ignorance; they look similar, therefore they are related, and no one knows enough to be able to offer constructive criticism. Arguments from similarities invariably lose much of their plausibility when the things being compared are better understood. 
How can anyone usefully comment on an argument based on visible patterns in chromosomes, objects whose structures and purposes are poorly understood? What can we usefully say about base sequences in DNA when over ninety-nine per cent of DNA is dismissed as ‘junk’, in other words as of unknown significance? Apparent similarities between species will always be seized on to support evolution. Even the use of the fossil ‘record’ is only an extension of the argument, since no transitional stages between species have been observed. The following comments are offered, then, to introduce some element of perspective, to suggest that the existence of ‘similarities’ will in some degree be inevitable, imposed by the nature of the physical world and the interdependence of all forms of life. [8]
Watts is of course referring to  Graeme Finlay's paper. One would expect Watts, having cited the paper, to meaningfully engage with the arguments. Unfortunately, not only does he never directly quote from it, he fails to even accurately summarise the evidence from molecular biology for common descent made by Finlay, bur rather creates a straw-man version which he spends a few paragraphs attempting to rebut. Anyone who has read Finlay's article will not even find an accurate precis of his argument, let alone a decent rebuttal.

It is of course easy to make unsupported assertions. Carefully refuting them however takes time. Over the remaining posts I will:
  1. Outline the evidence for common descent from molecular biology and comparative genomics
  2. Summarise Finlay's paper
  3. Point out the numerous errors in Watts' article


Again, while one takes no delight in criticising an article by a fellow believer, we need to be honest with the evidence, no matter where it leads. Watts has made sweeping claims in a number of fields ranging from comparative genomics to palaeontology in which he is clearly abysmally informed. To say that this reflects poorly on us is an understatement, particularly when papers in which these demonstrably false assertions are made are freely available on an official Christadelphian site.

The final word should go to Graeme Finlay, whose advice not a few believers would do well to heed: 
Is there no truly tractable issue, in which some aspect of evolutionary science could be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, and so illuminate authentically biblical faith? Of course, to the confirmed sophist, no demonstrations carry any weight if they threaten to overthrow cherished a priori commitments. But it is hoped that people who are motivated by a ‘love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith’ (1Tim.1:5; GNB) could sustain a search for truth, even if they are anxious by what they may find. [9]

1. Finlay G “Homo divinus: the ape that bears God’s image”. Science and Christian Belief (2003) 15:17
4. Finlay, p 17
5, Watts J “Evolution or Creation? The argument from comparative anatomy” The Testimony Jan 2005 p 31-33
6. Darwin C The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. (London: John Murray; 1871.)
7. Darwin C “Origin of species” [Letter]. Athenaeum 9 May: 617; 1863.
8. Watts, p 31
9. Finlay, p 17