Thursday, 22 May 2014

Andrew Perry shows how not to discuss evolution and creation - 3

What drives the evolution-creation debate is the fact that the interpretation of the creation narratives, as well as doctrinal positions inferred from interpretations of the Pauline corpus by fundamentalist Christian groups is flatly ruled out by an avalanche of scientific evidence which shows the reality of common ancestry, and the impossibility of universal human descent from two people living a few thousand years ago. Either the science is wrong, or the interpretation of the Bible is wrong. There are no other options. The scientific evidence as I have shown repeatedly is solid. Evolution is a fact, and on that point there is no further room for discussion.

Andrew Perry by his own admission is not in a position to comment on the science, but has shown a distinct reluctance to alter his interpretation of the Bible accordingly. Therefore, his strategy is to arbitrarily declare the problem a philosophical one. The justification he gives for this is anything but convincing, and at one point is based on quote mining a 2001 article by atheistic philosopher of science Michael Ruse. If arbitrarily redefining the terms of a debate is dubious, quote mining is intellectually dishonest.

Perry continues with his attack on evolutionary biology with some frankly inflammatory rhetoric verging in conspiratorial thinking:
The theory of evolution is scientific and secular orthodoxy. A review of the library shelves in a university shows the extend of the orthodoxy: it is worldwide, massive in size, integral to research funding, and immovable. [1]
Substitute any other scientific theory in place of evolution, and what Perry has written would sound frankly ludicrous:
The theory of general relativity is scientific and secular orthodoxy. A review of the library shelves in a university shows the extend of the orthodoxy: it is worldwide, massive in size, integral to research funding, and immovable. 
The germ theory of disease is scientific and secular orthodoxy. A review of the library shelves in a university shows the extend of the orthodoxy: it is worldwide, massive in size, integral to research funding, and immovable.  
Atomic theory is scientific and secular orthodoxy. A review of the library shelves in a university shows the extend of the orthodoxy: it is worldwide, massive in size, integral to research funding, and immovable.
In terms of advancing his argument, it does nothing, and exists merely to pander to the anti-science prejudices of his readers who are more than willing to buy into any suggestion that there exists a scientific conspiracy to enforce orthodoxy in biology. 

Furthermore, Perry has failed to define what he means by the theory of evolution. Is he referring to the modern synthetic theory of evolution, or is he referring to common descent? If the former, then even if the MSE turns out to be wrong, the facts it seeks to explain remain for its successor theory to explain. If he means the latter, then the burden of proof lies on him to explain the multiple lines of evidence from disciplines as diverse as comparative genomics, biogeography, and palaeontology which demonstrate the reality of common descent from a special creationist perspective, and do so to the satisfaction of the scientific community. 

Perry continues:
Lined up against atheistic and agnostic evolutionists there are a variety of opponents including young-earth creationists old-earth creationists, intelligent-design theorists, some philosophers of science, and theistic evolutionists…As for this range of opponents, what is new today is the philosophical appraisal of the idea of creation, evolution and intelligent design. The philosopher of science, Michael Ruse, observes that in the last twenty years "philosophy has come to the fore" and is "at the front of the dispute" between creationists and evolutionists." [2]
One is immediately reminded of the 'teach the controversy' strategy employed by the ID community in the wake of their defeat in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, in which the illusion of genuine scientific controversy over evolution is created in order to shoehorn special creationism into the classroom. Contrary to what Perry is implying, there is no controversy over the fact that evolution has occurred. As evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma has pointed out, there has been no serious argument in the scientific community on this point for over a century. [3] It is no more controversial than germ theory, plate tectonics, or general relativity. It is worth noting that even some members of the ID community such as biochemist Michael Behe accept that common descent is a fact:
"Both humans and chimps have a broken copy of a gene that in other mammals helps make vitamin C...It's hard to imagine how there could be stronger evidence for common ancestry of chimps and humans." [4]
Among the members of the scientific and philosophy of biology communities, what is being discussed are details of how evolution has occurred, rather than whether evolution has occurred. Furthermore, this discussion is not predicated on an atheism versus theism line. Evolutionary biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has argued the modern synthetic theory requires extension, while geneticist Jerry Coyne strongly rejects the idea that the modern synthetic theory is incomplete or flawed. [5] Both are atheists. Conversely, evangelical Christian and geneticist Dennis Venema accepts the modern synthetic theory [6] while Michael Behe regards the synthetic theory as an inadequate explanation. All four scientists are united in their acceptance of common descent. Perry is simply mistaken if he thinks there is any controversy about the fact of evolution. There is none.

What then do we make of Michael Ruse's statement that philosophy is at the front of the dispute? Ruse has an excellent reputation as a philosopher of science and has been involved in the evolution-creation controversy for some time, so as quoted,  it would seem to imply that the main issue is not scientific, but philosophical.  However, when one checks the Ruse quotation (from his article "Methodological naturalism under attack" in Intelligent Design Creation and its Critics, a 2001 collection of essays on ID, evolution, and creation) , it turns out that Perry has quote-mined Ruse quite egregiously. The first two and a half paragraphs are quoted to give context, with the quotes by AP in bold:
In the last decade, Biblical literalism - especially that version known as ``creationism,'' concerned to deny evolution and affirm the truth of the early chapters of Genesis - has shown considerable vigor. Moreover, it has gained a remarkable respectability, for whereas previously the supporters of creationism - although often qualified in various areas of science or the humanities - had little standing in the academic community, we now find enthusiasts among people of deservedly renowned prestige from the very best institutions. With this rise in status has come a new way of approaching the problem. A new way that I suspect is part cause, and part effect, of the rise. Twenty years ago, the creationists' chief appeal was to their understanding of the facts of science - the fossil record, homologies, and so forth - but now philosophy has come to the fore
It is true that this is not an entirely new phenomenon. Indeed, in the celebrated Arkansas Creation Trial of 1981, when a federal judge ruled that creationism could not be taught in the biology classes in publicly funded schools in the United States, I myself - a professional historian and philosopher of science - was an expert witness for the plaintiffs. After the event, I felt thus encouraged to put together a collection on the philosophical issues in the dispute - But Is It Science? The Philosophical Issue in the Creation/Evolution Controversy (1988) - showing among other things that philosophical questions were being raised even before Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859. Yet, truly, philosophy was but a side issue. Now, however, the new infusion of creationists have taken up the philosophical issues in a major way and in many respects it is these that are at the front of the dispute. 
In particular, perhaps realizing that a straight frontal scientific approach will not succeed - although, as you will learn, ultimately I am not sure that the science is now quite as absent as everyone pretends - the new creationists are making much of the claim that the essential difference between evolutionists on the one hand and creationists or ``theists'' (as they prefer to call themselves) on the other hand is one of conflicting philosophies (Johnson 1991, 1995). Evolutionists, supposedly, are committed to the secular atheistic materialistic philosophy of naturalism and from this evolution follows as a consequence. Creationists, on the other hand, are committed to some form of spiritual or religious philosophy of theism and from this follows their commitment to a Genesis-based world perspective. [7]
When put in context, the extent of Perry's quote mining becomes apparent. Ruse, who accepts evolution and is a non-theist is saying:
  • Special creationists have failed to defeat evolution on scientific grounds
  • Therefore, they have adopted a new rhetorical strategy, one of declaring that the problem is of competing philosophical world views
  • It is the special creationists who have pushed philosophy to the fore in order to provide another way in which they can attack evolution.
It is telling that Perry did not comment on the rest of Ruse's article, which rebutted attacks made by Christian philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga against methodological naturalism. Ruse's comments towards the end of his paper have particular relevance to Perry's attack on evolution:
We know that Plantinga's agenda is Christianity. That is fair enough. But it is an agenda backed by a deliberate ignorance of work that is going on today in science. Plantinga is able to talk so confidently about science stoppers only because he has not and apparently will not look at what scientists are saying and achieving. These people may not be right, but they do deserve more of a hearing than Plantinga gives them.

I would argue that he has given us no reasons to give up on methodological naturalism, or inasmuch as he has it has been only because of his prior commitment to his own version of Christian theism. So I see no reason why one should not continue to draw the distinction between methodological and metaphysical naturalism; to argue that the two can be separated; and to argue that, whatever may be the philosophical and theological basis underlying metaphysical naturalism, it is not the case that the methodological naturalist has to adopt the same position. This all being so, then, although I am happy to accept that methodological naturalism leads today to a belief in evolution, I am not prepared to accept that methodological naturalism is a philosophy opposed to theism. I see no reason at all to deny the Christian access to methodological naturalism, saying that it is untenable for the Christian to insist that in our understanding of the natural world one employ only the methodologically naturalistic approach. Evolution and Christianity should not be separated in this way. [8]
Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what Perry is doing. Perry likewise has a special creationist agenda backed by an ignorance (by his own admission) of the details of evolutionary biology, and is seeking to repel the threat to his theological position by trying to redefine the evolution-creation debate into a philosophical one. As Ruse notes, this gives us no reason to abandon methodological naturalism.

Perry, as mentioned before, has tried to frame this debate in terms of atheistic evolution versus special creation. This approach is a deliberate distortion of the reality in which by far most believing scientists accept common descent, with only a tiny minority of fundamentalists with science degrees arguing against common descent. Ruse specifically comments on this creationist misrepresentation:
Evolutionists do not speak with a unified voice, but my impression is that generally in important respects they are inclined to agree with their opponents: they do think that naturalism, somehow defined, is indeed an important underpinning to their position. However, where they disagree with the creationists is in the implication that this means that evolutionism is simply a manifestation of an atheistic world philosophy. At least, those concerned with the fight between evolution and creationism are unwilling to make this concession. There are evolutionists - notably Richard Dawkins (1995, 1996), Daniel Dennett (1995), and William Provine (1989) - who are materialists, atheists, naturalists, and evolutionists, and who see everything as a united package deal. But these men do not speak for all evolutionists or all naturalists. Those of us - for I am one - who are unwilling to be pinned into the corner of atheistic evolutionism point historically to the fact that there have been distinguished evolutionists who were practicing Christians. In this century, notably the two leading evolutionists, Sir Ronald Fisher (1950) in England and Theodosius Dobzhansky (1967) in America, were both absolutely and completely committed to the idea of Jesus as their Savior. Philosophically, those of us who would separate atheism and evolutionism suggest that simply using a catch-all term ``naturalism'' conceals subtleties in peoples' approaches. Once these subtleties are uncovered, the clash between evolution and creationism is no longer seen to be the simple black and white philosophical matter that the creationists claim. (Emphasis mine) [9]
In attempting to redefine the terms of the evolution-creation debate from science to philosophy, Perry is merely following in the footsteps of special creationists who having lost the scientific battle are resorting to the philosophical ruse of claiming that the debate is a battle of world views. As Ruse has shown, this is unconvincing. The irony here is that Perry has quote mined Ruse in order to support a position that Ruse strongly attacks. This intellectually dishonest strategy alone destroys Perry's credibility on this subject.


1. Perry A "The creation versus evolution debate" The Testimony (2014) 84:69-72
2. ibid, p 70
3. Futuyma DJ. Evolutionary Biology (1998: Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates)
4. Behe M The Edge of Evolution. The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (2007: Free Press) p 71-72
5. Whitfield J "Biological theory: Postmodern Evolution?"Nature (2008) 455:281-284
6. As seen in his series of articles Evolution Basics at BioLogos
7. Ruse M "Methodological naturalism under attack", in Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics (ed. RT Pennock; Cambridge, MT: MIT PRess, 2001) 363-364
8. ibid, p 382-383
9. ibid, p 364-365