Thursday, 22 May 2014

Andrew Perry shows how not to discuss evolution and creation - 2

Perry's reference to 'harmonisation' betrays the fact that he is shaping any reconciliation of science and the Genesis narratives exclusively in terms of literalism or strong concordism: 
"If theistic evolution and young-earth creationism are polar opposites, old-earth creationism sits in the middle between these two extremes." 
This is incorrect. YEC and OEC take a literalist and strong concordist approach, respectively, to harmonising the narratives. The former view insists that a literal reading of the narrative describes exactly when ands how the universe was created. The latter sees the days either as consecutive day-age periods, a six day period of recent re-creation, days of proclamation, or intermittent creative epochs over geologic time. In both cases, the narrative is construed as making fact-statements about how and when creation occurred. A strong concordist view of TE, which seeks to harmonise evolution with the creation narrative is a view that does not enjoy wide support among those who reject YEC and OEC. Perry's spectrum fails because he is comparing TE, whose advocates almost completely reject strong concordism, with two views whose hermeneutical strategies are completely different.

Perry asserts that if science is put to one side, 'old-earth creationism is the correct exegesis of Genesis 1.' Again, we see Perry's implicit assumption of a strong concordist paradigm, which is flatly ruled out by the clear reference to a solid firmament in Gen 1 in which sun, moon and stars are set. [1-2] If the text was intended to allow the reader to harmonise it with what we know about the natural history of the universe, it would not have an explicit reference to ancient Hebrew cosmology. The fact that Gen 1 clearly reflects a pre-scientific cosmology means any literalist or strong concordist interpretation of the narratives is automatically invalid. As John Walton points out, Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology not modern science.[3]

Of course, we cannot put science to one side. Perry concedes that when science is brought 'back to the table, obviously an old earth is an established fact.' If Perry was honest, he would also concede that when science is brought back to the table, common descent is also an established fact. Evolutionary biologist TR Gregory notes that:
"Over the past 150 years, [Darwin's initial list of evidence] has been supplemented by countless observations in paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, molecular biology, and (most recently) comparative genomics, and through direct observations of evolutionary change in both natural and experimental populations. Each of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every year in scientific journals provides further confirmation (though, as Futuyma (1998) notes, “no biologist today would think of publishing a paper on ‘new evidence for evolution’ ... it simply hasn’t been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century”). Conversely, no reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science.' [4] 
Perry of course is being intellectually dishonest in how he approaches the scientific data as the evidence for common descent is just as robust as the evidence for an ancient Earth, making his refusal to accept this consensus a clear example of dogma trumping reality. As Douglas Theobald points out when commenting on the remarkable consonance between molecular and morphological phylogenetic trees: 
So, how well do phylogenetic trees from morphological studies match the trees made from independent molecular studies? There are over 10^38 different possible ways to arrange the 30 major taxa represented in Figure 1 into a phylogenetic tree... In spite of these odds, the relationships given in Figure 1, as determined from morphological characters, are completely congruent with the relationships determined independently from cytochrome c molecular studies...Speaking quantitatively, independent morphological and molecular measurements such as these have determined the standard phylogenetic tree, as shown in Figure 1, to better than 38 decimal places. [5]
Figure 1. The Consensus Phylogenetic Tree of All Life.

Perry's rejection of evolution and acceptance of an ancient Earth cannot be due to his ability to appraise the scientific information as by his own admission he is not competent to make this decision, having ceased studying the sciences after secondary school. Rather, it is driven purely by the fact that evolution refutes his preferred approach to interpret Genesis, and rather than have the honesty to acknowledge this and change the way in which he interprets Genesis, he chooses to hand wave away the science with faux-philosophical obfuscation.  WD Jardine's observation about false theology and true science is apposite:
Some scientific men, we believe, view the Scriptures through the distorted medium of “confessions of faith” and doubt them, and theologians view science and call it false, because it does not take to their turn‐pike road. [6]
Incredibly, Perry's next step is to appeal to the fact that a majority of religious people do not accept evolution:
"Opinion polls show that many religious people do not believe in evolution, despite it being the secular orthodoxy, and taught in an unquestioning way in schools. It seems that when ordinary people look at the wonders of nature, and then hear the religious teachings that God is the Creator of all that they see, they naturally see an agreement or 'concordance' and so they believe as a matter of faith that God exists and is a Creator. There seems to be a spiritual connection here which science has not been able to break down. People are incredulous that evolution can explain the full diversity and complexity of life at all levels." [7]
What is immediately obvious is that Perry's use of the pejorative terms 'secular orthodoxy' and 'unquestioning way' is yet another rhetorical strategy to poison the debate. Evolutionary biology is no more 'secular orthodoxy' than geology, physics, or any other scientific discipline, and is no more taught in an 'unquestioning way' than any other branch of science. Unsurprisingly, Perry brings no evidence to justify his allegation.

His appeal to what the majority of Christians can readily be turned against his argument. Opinion polls have also shown that a majority of US evangelical pastors not only are special creationists, but believe in a young Earth. [8] It seems that many religious people do not believe in an ancient earth,  despite it being the "secular orthodoxy, and taught in an unquestioning way in schools." Is Perry about to embrace a young Earth on the basis of an ill-educated public's refusal to accept reality?

The incredulity of a a scientifically uneducated audience whose theology is contingent on evolution being false is hardly a definite refutation of evolution. As Richard Dawkins has ably pointed out:
The Argument from Personal Incredulity is an extremely weak argument, as Darwin himself noted. In some cases it is based upon simple ignorance. For instance, one of the facts that the Bishop finds it difficult to understand is the white colour of polar bears.
As for camouflage, this is not always easily explicable on neo-Darwinian premises. If polar bears are dominant in the Arctic, then there would seem to have been no need for them to evolve a white-coloured form of camouflage.
This should be translated:
I personally, off the top of my head sitting in my study, never having visited the Arctic, never having seen a polar bear in the wild, and having been educated in classical literature and theology, have not so far managed to think of a reason why polar bears might benefit from being white. 
In this particular case, the assumption being made is that only animals that are preyed upon need camouflage. What is overlooked is that predators also benefit from being concealed from their prey. Polar bears stalk seals resting on the ice. If the seal sees the bear coming from far-enough away, it can escape. I suspect that, if he imagines a dark grizzly bear trying to stalk seals over the snow, the Bishop will immediately see the answer to his problem. The polar bear argument turned out to be almost too easy to demolish but, in an important sense, this is not the point. Even if the foremost authority in the world can't explain some remarkable biological phenomenon, this doesn't mean that it is inexplicable. Plenty of mysteries have lasted for centuries and finally yielded to explanation. [9]
The concordance between the 'wonders of nature and the Biblical teaching that God is creator which Perry sees as significant is somewhat artificial, as it is predicated on a superficial and selective examination of the wonders of nature. Christians who refer to the 'wonders of nature' invariably are advancing an aesthetic justification for belief. Unsurprisingly, they fail to add parasitism, predation, and natural disasters to their list of the 'wonders of nature', despite the fact that the same God they praise for sunsets, roses, and ducklings also created ebola, guinea worms, botflies, and tsunamis. As Darwin noted in his May 1860 letter to Asa Gray:
With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonid√¶ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.— 
Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws,—a child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by action of even more complex laws,—and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter. (Emphasis mine) [10]
The existence of obligate human pathogens which not only cause disease in humans, but cannot exist outside of a human host makes the existence of natural evil an even more perplexing one for special creationists who are obliged to answer why a loving God would specifically create pathogens that cause considerable suffering exclusively for human beings. This directly leads to the question of the problem of evil. 

YECs are particularly aware of this problem, which is why they insist that physical death and natural disaster were unknown in the world prior to Adam's sin. As a theodicy, YEC is arguably even more important to the fundamentalist than as as an explanation of creation. OECs on the other hand, who accept the existence of life on Earth stretching back millions of years but argue that they were acts of progressive special creation are particularly vulnerable at this point. William Dembski's explanation of the bind in which OECs find themselves on this point is worth citing:
"They can go with a young earth, thereby maintaining theological orthodoxy but committing scientific heresy; or they can go with an old earth, thereby committing theological heresy but maintaining scientific orthodoxy." [11]
Dembski's solution is to assert that the effects of Adam's sin propagated backwards in time, prior to the Fall, thus bringing about the introduction of natural evil into creation. His theory of 'retroactive wrath' however suffers from a lack of Biblical or scientific evidence, to put it mildly.
Although Darwin never explicitly framed his letter as a formal explanation of evolution and theodicy, some of the key principles are there, particularly with his recognition that the free working of the laws of nature produces natural phenomena which inflict harm on good and evil alike. Celebrated biologist Francisco Ayala makes this point in Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion:
Later, when I was studying theology in Salamanca, Darwin was a much-welcomed friend. The theory of evolution pro vided the solution to the remaining component of the problem of evil. As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life. They were not a result of deficient or malevolent design: the features of organisms were not designed by the Creator. 
Evolution by natural selection is Darwin’s answer to Paley. It is also the solution to the last prong of the problem of evil. Theology professors in Salamanca saw in the theory of evolution a significant, even definitive, contribution to theodicy. I was, therefore, much surprised when I became aware of the creationist movement in the United States and the pervasive reservations against the theory of evolution. [12]
Darwin was correct. There is much natural suffering in this world which is inexplicable under a model of special creation, but there is much wonder in this world. Christians such as myself appeal to a free-will model of theodicy to explain that humans who are given untrammelled free will are at liberty to do good or evil. An evolutionary theodicy extends the free-will defence to the problem of evil to the biological domain - life will exploit any niche in order to be fruitful and multiply, which means predation and parasitism are inevitable. Perry's OEC is simply unable to posit a meaningful solution to this problem.

[To be continued]


1. Seely PH "The Firmament and the Water Above Part I: The Meaning of raqia' in Gen 1:6-8" Westminster Theological Journal (1991) 53:227-40
2. Enns P "The Firmament of Genesis 1 is Solid but That’s Not the Point" Science and the Sacred Jan 14 2010
3. Walton J "Genesis One as Ancient Cosmology" (2011: Eisenbrauns)
4. Gregory TR "Evolution as Fact, Theory and Path" Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-52 
5. Theobald, Douglas L. "29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent." The Talk.Origins Archive. Vers. 2.89. 2012. Web. 29 May 2014 <>
6. Jardine WD "The Bible as a Law of Life and Immortality” The Ambassador of the Coming Age (1864) 1:93-94
7. Perry A "The creation versus evolution debate" The Testimony (2014) 84:69-72
9. Dawkins R "The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design" (Norton, 1996) p 38-39
10. Letter: Darwin CR to Gray A May 20 1860 Darwin Correspondence Project
11. Dembski, William A. The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World. (2009 Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing) p 77
12. Ayala F "Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion" (2007: Joseph Henry Press) p 4-5