Tuesday, 10 June 2014

David Burges critiques evolutionary creationism in The Testimony - 2

Despite the assertions of fundamentalists such as David Burges that evolution is false, as respected evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma points out, common descent has long been accepted as a fact because the evidence for it is overwhelming:
Like the heliocentric hypothesis of Copernicus, the hypothesis of descent with modification from common ancestors has long held the status of a scientific fact. No biologist today would think of publishing a paper on "new evidence for evolution," any more than a chemist would try to publish a demonstration that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen. It simply hasn't been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century. [1]
A common blunder made by evolution denialists is in failing to define evolution. Burges makes a token effort to do this, but fails miserably. As TR Gregory [2] and others [3-4] have pointed out, evolution refers at the very least to fact (common descent) and theory (the modern evolutionary synthesis). Special creationists who claim that difficulties - real or (most likely) imagined - with the modern synthetic theory mean that common descent has been vanquished demonstrate their ignorance of evolutionary biology. Even if the MES was falsified tomorrow, its successor theory would need both to explain everything that the MES did, as well as the phenomena that the MES could not.

This confusion between evolution as fact and evolution as theory has been exploited by special creationists such as the Discovery Institute which maintains a list of scientists who 'dissent from Darwin.' Such lists look impressive to the laypeople, but given that there are hundreds of thousands of life and earth scientists in the USA alone, a list of a few hundred people isn't even close to 0.1% of the total number of geologists and biologists in the USA, let alone the world.

As I mentioned previously, one of the rhetorical ploys used by special creationists is to equate evolution  with atheism, despite the fact that many of Darwin's earliest defenders were theologically conservative Christians, and many prominent biologists are Christians who vigorously defend both evolution and the Christian faith. Unsurprisingly, Burges clumsily wheels out Richard Dawkins in order to make this connection, and - yet again - poison the argument:
To listen to the media and to the public statements of the science establishment, the debate is over: evolution alone is responsible for every species of living organism on this planet toady. In the oft-quoted words of Richard Dawkins: "If you meet someone who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)." [5]
Over two decades before Dawkins penned those remarks, the devout Russian Orthodox geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the main figures behind the forging of the modern synthetic theory of evolution and arguably one of the greatest geneticists of the 20th century pointed out that even in the early 1970s, the evidence for evolution was beyond rational dispute. After providing a summary of the evidence from molecular biology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, and biogeography which even then showed how strong the case for common descent was, Dobzhansky continued by pointing out the unifying power of evolution, what remained (at that time) to be discovered and what was no longer in doubt. 
Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry facts some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole. 
This is not to imply that we know everything that can and should be known about biology and about evolution. Any competent biologist is aware of a multitude of problems yet unresolved and of questions yet unanswered. After all, biologic research shows no sign of approaching completion; quite the opposite is true. Disagreements and clashes of opinion are rife among biologists, as they should be in a living and growing science. Antievolutionists mistake, or pretend to mistake, these disagreements as indications of dubiousness of the entire doctrine of evolution. Their favorite sport is stringing together quotations, carefully and sometimes expertly taken out of context, to show that nothing is really established or agreed upon among evolutionists. Some of my colleagues and myself have been amused and amazed to read ourselves quoted in a way showing that we are really antievolutionists under the skin. 
Let me try to make crystal clear what is established beyond reasonable doubt, and what needs further study, about evolution. Evolution as a process that has always gone on in the history of the earth can be doubted only by those who are ignorant of the evidence or are resistant to evidence, owing to emotional blocks or to plain bigotry. By contrast, the mechanisms that bring evolution about certainly need study and clarification. There are no alternatives to evolution as history that can withstand critical examination. Yet we are constantly learning new and important facts about evolutionary mechanisms. 
It is remarkable that more than a century ago Darwin was able to discern so much about evolution without having available to him the key facts discovered since. The development of genetics after 1900 especially of molecular genetics, in the last two decades has provided information essential to the understanding of evolutionary mechanisms. But much is in doubt and much remains to be learned. This is heartening and inspiring for any scientist worth his salt. Imagine that everything is completely known and that science has nothing more to discover: what a nightmare! [6]
The anti-theism of Dawkins is well known, which makes one consider why Burges elected to cite him instead of a devoutly religious biologist who like Dawkins pointed out that the reality of common descent and large-scale evolutionary change, but who could not have been more emphatic in declaring that evolution did not clash with religious faith:
It is wrong to hold creation and evolution as mutually exclusive alternatives. I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God’s, or Nature’s method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way. [7] 
Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. As pointed out above, the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness. [8]
The blunt truth is that the overwhelming majority of professional biologists and palaeontologists, those who have studied those subjects to PhD level and beyond, who work in the laboratory and the field, publish, debate, and live the subject to a depth practically no special creationist does, accept that the evidence confirms the reality of common descent and large-scale evolutionary change. As the National Academy of Sciences notes:
The scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming. Those opposed to the teaching of evolution sometimes use quotations from prominent scientists out of context to claim that scientists do not support evolution. However, examination of the quotations reveals that the scientists are actually disputing some aspect of how evolution occurs, not whether evolution occurred. [9]
Quantifying this consensus is slightly complicated by the fact that opinion polls of scientists can include non-biologists whose background precludes them from offering an informed opinion on the subject, while the poll question can be vague. [10] A 2009 Pew Research poll however shows that 97% of scientists accept that humans and other animals have evolved over time. [11] As such polls are not restricted to biologists, they would tend to slightly underestimate the support for evolution among professional biologists and palaeontologists whose background allows them to comment with authority on the subject.

Burges' ignorance of this overwhelming consensus  is highlighted when he offers the following rebuttal to Dawkins:
It is comforting that many highly qualified scientists, including a significant number of biologists, have risked a 'Dawkins certificate of lunacy' by questioning whether the whole evolution story is true, particularly the neo-Darwinian version that Dawkins favours. [12]
Whether by design or ignorance of the subject he criticises, Burges has once again conflated evolution as fact and evolution as theory by failing to specify what it is he believes these 'highly qualified scientists' reject. A number of biologists, while accepting the fact of evolution have doubts about whether the modern evolutionary synthesis is the final word on how evolution occurred. That however is not the same thing as professing belief in special creation. It is false that there are a 'significant number of biologists' who question 'whether the whole evolution story is true' or who deny the reality of common descent. Burges conveniently fails to provide any evidence to back up his assertion, which is simply not reflected by the facts.

The Discovery Institute, an ID creationist pressure group maintains "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism", a list of several hundred scientists who have signed the statement declaring:
We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged. [13]
The statement as worded simply expresses scepticism that natural selection acting on random mutation is capable of generating the complexity of life. It says nothing about denying the reality of common descent, and as Skip Evans noted, some of those who signed did indeed accept the reality of common descent:
We anticipated that signatories working for Christian anti-evolution ministries — especially those who are young-earth creationists, such as David A Dewitt, PhD, an adjunct faculty member at the Institute for Creation Research — would answer in the negative, but responses from some of the other signatories were quite revealing. One signatory responded to each of the two questions with "I don't have a problem with this," then went on to elaborate that his "dissent mainly concerns the origin of life." But, of course, evolution is not a theory of the origin of life, nor was "Darwinism" in any of its forms; evolution concerns what happens after life appears.

Although another signatory responded that "the definition of species is very troublesome," he added that "I certainly do accept that SOME (perhaps most) modern species shared at least a recent common ancestor." On the question of whether chimps and humans share a common ancestor, he said, "I believe the genetic evidence is overwhelming for the morphology." Another signatory has elsewhere written, "I am not a creationist and have no reason to doubt common descent." [14]
At least one signatory felt deceived by the Discovery Institute. Bob Davidson, an academic nephrologist at the University of Washington Medical School is also a Christian who accepts evolution.  Initially, he thought the Discovery Institute was a place where those who respected science and theology could meet:
Not anymore. He's concluded the institute is an affront to both science and religion. 
"When I joined I didn't think they were about bashing evolution. It's pseudo-science, at best ... What they're doing is instigating a conflict between science and religion."
I got Davidson's name off a list of 400 people with scientific degrees, provided by the Discovery Institute, who are said to doubt the "central tenets of Darwin's theory of evolution." Davidson, at 78 a UW professor emeritus, says he shouldn't be on the list because he believes "the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming."
He's only one scientist, one opinion in our ongoing debate about evolution and faith.
But I bring you Davidson's views because I suspect he is a bellwether for the Discovery Institute and intelligent design, as more scientists learn about them. He was attracted to an institute that embraced both science and religion, yet he found its critique of existing science wrong and its new theory empty.
"I'm kind of embarrassed that I ever got involved with this," Davidson says.
He was shocked, he says, when he saw the Discovery Institute was calling evolution a "theory in crisis."
"It's laughable: There have been millions of experiments over more than a century that support evolution," he says. "There's always questions being asked about parts of the theory, as there are with any theory, but there's no real scientific controversy about it." [15]
Unfortunately, laypeople such as Burges who encounter lists of scientists who 'Dissent from Darwin' are unlikely to be aware of those such as Davidson who felt tricked into signing a statement, or fail to appreciate the distinction between expressing doubt that the modern evolutionary synthesis is the final word in evolutionary theology, and denying common descent. Instead, they will simply see a list of several hundred scientists, assume that they are all special creationist, and conclude that evolution is a 'theory in crisis.'

While several hundred signatories may look impressive to the layperson (though given that less than half of them are biologists or palaeontologists, people who are in a position to express an informed opinion on the subject), as historian of science Ronald Numbers notes:
After more than a decade of effort the Discovery Institute proudly announced in 2007 that it had got some 700 doctoral-level scientists and engineers to sign "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism." Though the number may strike some observers as rather large, it represented less than 0.023 percent of the world's scientists. On the scientific front of the much ballyhooed "Evolution Wars", the Darwinists were winning handily. The ideological struggle between (methodological) naturalism and supernaturalism continued largely in the fantasies of the faithful and the hyperbole of the press. [16]
Similar damning estimates come from figures supplied by science denialist organisations such as Answers in Genesis, who list 194 "modern scientists who have accepted the biblical account of creation." The AiG figure is grossly misleading as it includes people who are not biologists or geologists and therefore are not in a position to offer an informed, credible opinion on the subject. Excluding those who are not life or earth scientists reduces the AiG figure considerably to 114 people with backgrounds in earth sciences, life sciences, and medicine. In 2008, the total number of earth and life scientists in the USA according to figures from the National Science Foundation [17] was 1,737,000 meaning that the AiG list (which includes people who were dead at the time of list compilation) comprises 0.006% of all life and earth scientists in the USA. Even if one includes only earth and life scientists with doctoral degrees, the figure barely changes, reaching 0.05%. This percentage value, damning as it is, actually flatters the special creationists as the data from the NSF excluded the total number of physicians, dentists, and veterinarians in the USA as of 2008, while the AiG list included those with such degrees.

The data from AiG and the NSF harmonise with the figures noted by Ronald Numbers when comparing the Discovery Institute list with the total number of scientists in the world. Burges frankly is deluding himself and his readers if he thinks that less than  0.023% of the world's scientists is the same thing as "many highly qualified scientists, including a significant number of biologists." They are not. By far the overwhelming majority of earth and life scientists - those who are well placed to comment on the evidence for evolution - accept the reality of common descent, with only a tiny minority, well under 0.1%, rejecting this consensus not on scientific grounds, but on an a priori adherence to a fundamentalist reading of the creation narratives.


1. Futuyma D Evolutionary Biology (1998: Sinauer) p 12

2. Gregory TR "Evolution as Fact, Theory, and Path" Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46-52

3. Gould SJ Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (1994: New York: W. W. Norton & Company) p 253-262.

4. Science, Evolution, and Creationism, National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine. (2008: National Academy of Sciences)

5. Burges D "Is Theistic Evolution Compatible With Faith in God's Word?" The Testimony (2014) 84:143-147

6. Dobzhansky T "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" The American Biology Teacher (1973) 35:125-129

7. ibid

8. ibid

9. Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. (1998: National Academy of Sciences) p 56

10. A scientist who accepts common descent but rejects the modern evolutionary synthesis is hardly a special creationist, but may be counted as one if she signs a statement expressing doubt about the ability of random mutation and natural selection alone to effect large-scale evolutionary change)

12. Burges op cit p 145

13. A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism

14. Evans S "Doubting Darwin Through Creative License" NSCE April 8th 2002

15. Westneat D "Evolving Opinion of One Man" The Seattle Times August 24 2005

16. Numbers R "Creationism, intelligent design, and modern biology" In Alexander D, Numbers R (Eds) Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins (2010: University of Chicago Press) p 328

17. National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 2013. Characteristics of Scientists and Engineers in the United States: 2008. Detailed Statistical Tables NSF 13-320. Arlington, VA. Available at