Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 24 November 2007

Is evolution fact? Is creationism myth?

Most people reading this already have preconceived answers, but they would be pushed to defend them beyond: 150 years of scientific investigation can’t be wrong, or the Bible is the ‘Word of God’. At the heart of this, however, lies another question altogether: what constitutes truth? In fact, it was tempting to title this essay, What is truth? But I wished the topic to be more specific. Truth is often subjective, and objective truth only becomes apparent over time. Truth usually requires longevity in our cognitive world to gain validity. But truth can also be found in myth in the form of allegory. To give a biblical example, the story of the good Samaritan is a parable, but many would argue it contains a profound truth about human nature. Is the Genesis story also allegorical? I will return to this point later.

To bring the discussion back to the topic at hand, one needs to ask another question: are there any scientific facts? Many philosophers, perhaps most, would argue that the answer is no. They would say that all scientific ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ are contingent, meaning tomorrow (any tomorrow) we may find evidence to the contrary, no matter what we’ve observed in the past. For example, we all assume the sun will rise tomorrow, but it may not, and certainly one day it will not. This is an extreme example, but let’s look at the same example in another way. Does the earth go around the sun or does the sun go around the earth? One of these is true and the other false, which means, that as far as I’m concerned, the one that is true is a ‘fact’.

Now, 400 years ago, this very question was a huge issue: cost Galileo his job, almost his life. 400 years is not that long ago, if one considers that Western philosophy and science started with the Ancient Greeks about 2500 years ago, and astronomy had been practiced by a number of cultures well before then. But even 400 years ago, the answer to one of these questions was still a fact. Either the earth went around the sun, or it didn’t; there was nothing contingent about it. It didn’t go around the sun today and do something different tomorrow, or next year, or next millennium. It’s just that, at the time, it was still a disputable fact. It was a fact awaiting proof, if you like, which eventually came from Johannes Kepler using Tycho Brahe’s observations. Now, in case you think the Church was just being bloody-minded (which they were), the Vatican’s astronomer had a very good argument to counter Galileo. He said that if the earth went round the sun as Galileo claimed then why didn’t we observe a parallax shift against the distant stars over a one year period? The reason was that the stars were much further away than anyone could possibly imagine, and so the necessary parallax adjustment wasn't observable with the instruments of the day. It’s a bit like the argument Columbus had convincing people that if he sailed far enough west he would eventually encounter Asia. The boffins of their time knew his calculations were incorrect and he would only be half way there, which is why they were against his mission, not because they thought the earth was flat.

The reason I’ve spent so much time on this one topic is because it’s a similar situation of religion versus science, though, arguably, evolutionary theory is in a stronger position today than Galileo’s position was 400 years ago, because the arguments against Galileo were not as ignorant as people think, and Galileo was up against a 1400 year old theory (Ptolemy's). So are there any scientific truths? The only truth in science is that whatever we’ve discovered, there always remains some mystery still to be solved. In other words, science is an endeavour of endless depth and mystery, so there appears to be no ultimate truth as some would like to find it.

The best book I’ve read on science is Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind for a number of reasons, not least because it’s pitched at a level I can readily comprehend. Penrose provides the best exposition on entropy I’ve read, including its cosmological significance, as well as a philosophy of mathematics very similar to mine (see my post: Is mathematics invented or discovered?) But Penrose also provides an entire chapter on what constitutes a successful scientific theory. Penrose provides 3 categories for theories: TENTATIVE, USEFUL, and SUPERB (the capitalisation is his) which he then discusses in depth. I won’t repeat his discussion here, but it illustrates how theories evolve, with TENTATIVE and USEFUL being more contingent, and SUPERB being supremely successful over time. Interestingly, he includes Newton’s dynamics as a SUPERB theory even though it was overtaken by Einstein’s relativity theory. This is because many aspects of Newton’s theory, including the inverse square law for gravity, still apply under Einstein’s theory. Even if Einstein’s theory is overtaken, one would expect that many aspects, like the observed relativistic effects on time, would remain in any new theory. In effect, he is saying that a SUPERB theory, though it must satisfy the highest standards, does not explain everything. Outside of physics, Penrose argues that only Darwin’s and Wallace’s theory of natural selection comes closest to his idea of a SUPERB theory. Note that the theory of natural selection does not encompass evolutionary theory totally – there are other biological components to the theory that neither Darwin nor Wallace could have known about.

Science is a dynamic enterprise – we have never known the answers to all the mysteries that it uncovers, but what we do know is that future generations unlock secrets we can only speculate about. This is what has made science the most successful enterprise undertaken by humankind: a continous dialectic between existing knowledge and future discoveries. And this dialectic is epitomised in the case of Darwin’s acclaimed theory of evolution. When he proposed the theory he had no idea how traits were passed on from one generation to another, let alone how they could change or ‘mutate’. Everything we have discovered since has only confirmed the theory. We have discovered not only the mechanism of passing on traits (genes) but the message itself (DNA). DNA has allowed us to place every organism on earth in its correct evolutionary relationship to every other organism. DNA is the most compelling evidence yet that all life forms on earth have a common ancestor. (We share over 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and 63% with mice.) It’s not just simply that everything we have found ‘fits’ the theory, but if the theory was false, then the evidence would have told us that as well. In other words, the evidence is far from neutral. And, going back to the analogy with Galileo’s defence of Copernicus’s theory, it’s either true or it’s false: you can’t say evolution works some of the time or only works with some species and not others. It’s either true or false – it’s either a fact or it’s not – just like, in Galileo’s time, the earth went round the sun or it didn’t.

Richard Feynman notably won a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work on QED (quantum electrodynamics), and worked at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project (the development of the atomic bomb in WWII). Most famously, he demonstrated on television how the Challenger shuttle failed: using a clamp, a pair of pliers and a pitcher of iced water he showed how the shuttle's O-rings lost elasticity under freezing conditions. He was not only one of the truly great physicists of his generation, but also one of the great teachers of science. In a book of his lectures on relativity theory, Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, he describes how the amino acid, L-alanine, is only found in life in a left-handed form, while it exists equally in right-handed and left-handed forms outside of life (the right-handed version is called D-alanine). Using a combination of irrefutable logic and brilliantly realised imagery, he explains how this could only come about if all existing life forms have a common origin. Paul Davies makes the same point, less eloquently perhaps, but no less persuasively, in his book, The Origin of Life.

This does not mean we understand everything we need to know about evolution. Quite the contrary: the biggest conundrum still to be resolved is how did the first DNA come about (refer Davies). Any ideas on this are very speculative – still very much in the TENTATIVE mode to use Penrose’s nomenclature. And this leads us to Intelligent Design (ID). When it comes to an exercise in complexity, DNA takes the cake, and according to the ID advocates, complexity stops evolution in its tracks. (For a brief discussion on complexity, including its role in DNA, see my later post: Is mathematics evidence of a transcendental realm?) Using the ID argument, DNA could have only been ‘designed’ by some ‘intelligent’ entity, a Creator or God, and evolution did the rest, or, evolution never happened. If we take the second argument first: evolution never happened; then genes, DNA and natural selection are irrelevant to nature, except for sexual reproduction. Speciation never occurred, which means everything was created all at once, or God came along every now and then, as was his whim, to create some new species. He manipulated the DNA so as to create new species whenever he wanted. Not only does this not ring true, it’s not accounted for in the Bible either (I'm leaving the biblical interpretation to last). Taking the first argument that God created DNA and let evolution do the rest, one is effectively saying that science can no longer answer any further questions on this: we have come to the end of science; only God can explain the origin of life.

Personally, I have no problem with admitting that we don’t know everything, but I would like to point out that history demonstrates continuously that only future generations can tell us how ignorant the current generation is. So I expect, that at some point in the future, the origin of DNA will be explained – in fact, I’m quite confident, even though I’ve no idea how.

The biblical interpretation, of course, does away with all of this nonsense: there is nothing to explain. And this brings me to Karl Popper, who instigated the proviso that a scientific theory needed to be able to generate falsifiable hypotheses. He did this to eliminate pseudo-scientific theories, which can explain everything no matter what we find, and his particular target at the time was Freud. In other words, a scientific theory needs to be put at risk. If you can’t prove it wrong then it’s purely speculative. Creationism is a pseudo-science in that it’s always right no matter what the evidence says. If we find something in nature then that’s the way God created it – all questions answered.

Now some people argue that evolution, on the basis of this criterion, is also a pseudo-science, because no one can observe it in progress. Well, natural selection is observed all the time, but no one can observe evolution en masse for even a fraction of the history of the planet. However, evolution can generate a number of hypotheses that can be proved false. The most obvious would be to find fossils of the same species in completely different geological time zones, or to find fossils out of sequence in the same line. With advances in DNA the most critical test is to find genetic relationships between species that contradict the fossil record. So the claim that evolution can’t be falsified is a nonsense.

The biblical interpretation is that all species were created everywhere in the world all at once. All the millions of species in the Amazon, all the weird and wonderful species that Darwin found on Galapagos, all the marsupials in Australia, all the dinosaurs, trilobites and millions of other species that have disappeared, but, strangely, only one race of humankind. All of these, of course, were also picked up in Noah’s ark and redistributed afterwards. At the same time, God created all the galaxies and all the light rays and all the quasars and all the neutrinos traveling through space – all within a 6 day period. The other interpretation is that all the scientific discoveries of the last century are completely fraudulent and none of these things exist, or not in the way we interpret them. Creationism not only does away with evolution but most of modern scientific knowledge, and certainly all of cosmology. I've argued with a number of creationists who claim they are not anti-science, only anti-evolution, but they seem unaware that their very claims of creationism make it impossible for them to be one without the other.

As recently witnessed in the 'Climate Change' debate, someone with a little knowledge can easily convince someone with no knowledge that they are right, even though a third person with a lot more knowledge can demonstrate that they are both wrong. I find it's the same with the Creationism/Evolution debate, even though it's really a debate about religion versus science, or, as I like to point out, myth versus science (see below). One of the favourite arguments of anti-evolutionists, is that evolution defies the second law of thermodynamics, also known as entropy. Both Roger Penrose (The Emperor's New Mind) and Paul Davies (The Origin of Life) provide excellent explanations of why this is a fallacy. But, without going into these arguments, I would like to give an everyday, millions of times repeatable, example of why the argument is false. Basically, the antagonists claim that entropy doesn't allow simple entities to develop into complex ones. A good example of entropy is breaking an egg and making an omelette (refer Penrose). It's impossible to take the omelette and get the egg back as it was before you started. In fact, Penrose points out that entropy is the only law in physics that really prohibits time from running backwards. Both quantum mechanics and relativity allow time reversal, mathematically speaking. Entropy says that everything goes from order to disorder, but there's a catch, which is energy. If you add nett energy you can go from disorder to order as we witness all the time. Now, the everyday example is every living organism on the planet, including each and every one of us. We all started out as simple cellular organisms (zygotes in the case of humans) and develop into extremely complex multi-cellular organisms without breaking the second law of thermodynamics. And it happens everyday, as it has done for millions of years, with swarms upon swarms of living entities all over the planet.

Ken Ham is an Australian, the same age as me as it turns out, who started and built the ‘Creation Museum’ in Kentucky. His entire premise is that humans are fallible but God is not, therefore the ‘Word of God’, the Bible, is the only criterion for validating a scientific theory. On his web site, I once submitted the following question: Since the time of Pythagoras (500 BC) to the present day, tell me one scientific discovery that arose from studying the scriptures? I never got a response, even though it was submitted over 2 years ago. The Bible tells us nothing about science: nothing about DNA, about the constant speed of light, about Euler’s famous equation or Einstein’s (E=mc2) or his theory of gravity; so why would it tell us anything about evolution or natural selection or genetics. The Bible was never written as a scientific text, even though people like Pythagoras, Euclid and Archimedes had already lived before the New Testament was written. So even the scientific knowledge of the day was not included.

Personally, I see the Bible as a book full of stories. A story, any story, can contain profound truths, but that doesn't mean the story itself is true, and that's how I see the Bible.

The Bible is full of mythical events: Jonah eaten by a whale, Moses parting the Red Sea, Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt and Jesus walking on water; are amongst the best known, and there are myriad others. But the Genesis story is arguably the most mythical story of them all. In Genesis you have a man being made out of dirt, a woman made from a man’s rib, a serpent who speaks and a piece of fruit, that, when ingested, makes people genetically inherently evil. Not to mention that, afterwards, God punishes the snake by making it forever legless. It’s a story full of mythical elements, so what does it all mean? Myths can be interpreted a number of ways, but my interpretation of the Genesis myth is that it contains a fundamental truth: that no one can go through life without having to deal with evil at some level. Evil is a part of our human nature but that doesn’t mean I believe we are born evil. Evil arises from a set of conditions, usually social, that turns human against human. Any one of us can become evil, given the circumstances, but it’s not because of our biblical origins, it’s because of our evolutionary heritage (I discuss this in detail in my posting on Evil).

Many people interpret the Genesis story as ‘original sin’, which is a fundamental concept in Christianity. Because we all have original sin, only Jesus can save us from eternal damnation. This requires an extension of the myth to include Satan and a place called hell in the afterlife. I have a serious problem with the concept of ‘original sin’, not only because of all these mythical extensions, but because it’s a most pessimistic view of humanity, and I strongly disagree with the idea of teaching children that they are born evil. But as a means of psychological control over large sections of a population, it’s brilliant, and the Church exploited it for centuries.

Coming back to the discussion at hand, I don’t believe you can credibly replace a valid scientific theory with a myth. I’ve said elsewhere that science and religion can’t answer each other’s questions (I discuss this in my posting: Does the Universe have a Purpose?). Many people, on both sides of the argument, disagree with this. They claim that they absolutely overlap, but I counter that they only overlap if you insist on it. Science is the study of natural phenomena in all its manifestations. Religion, on the other hand, is an internal experience, and this creates a fundamental epistemological divide that people seem to overlook in this debate.

One of the fundamental criterion for the success of a scientific experiment is that it has to be replicable – it can’t be a one off. This means that anyone doing the same experiment under the same conditions should get the same result. Without this predictability science would be useless, both as an enterprise for discovery and as a fount for new technology. Having said that, it’s the unpredictable events, and the inexplicable ones, that lead to new theories, often dramatically, as expounded upon by Thomas Kuhn in his treatise on 'scientific revolutions'.

In the case of religion, however, any experience is unique to the person who has it. And this includes God, because God is an experience. The only manifestation of God that we know of is an internal one, albeit, it may feel like an external connection. And that experience is unique to that person. This means there are no religious truths, except at a very individual and intimate level. This creates a contradiction between personal religious experience and institutionalised religions that insist that everyone’s religious experiences must be the same, or of the same type (see my post on Religion). It’s when we attempt to rationalise these experiences, usually in the context of our cultural background, that we claim they are an ultimate truth. I contend that there is only one objective religious truth: we don’t know. Anything else is a dishonesty to the self, ‘mauvaise foi’, to quote Sartre.

People have a habit of confounding what they believe with what they know. When I studied philosophy, I was told that there are things that you know and things that you believe, and what you believe is contingent on what you know, but not the converse. (The Dalai Lama makes a similar point in his book on science and religion, The Universe in a Single Atom) When it comes to religion, I don’t expect anyone else to believe what I believe, because my experience is unique, and so is everyone else’s.

Footnote: The Dalai Lama was a good friend of, and heavily influenced by, the renowned physicist, David Bohm, who also worked on the Manhattan Project. David Bohm lived in exile in England following his refusal to testify in the McCarthy senate hearings. The Dalai Lama said it was something they had in common, ironically, by polar opposite political forces: one communist and one anti-communist. Late in his life, Bohm wrote a philosophical book called Wholeness and the Implicate Order. In it, he speculates (amongst other things) that quantum mechanics may be the manifestation of our universe being a 3 dimensional projection of a higher spacial dimensional world.

Addendum: I argue continuously that ignorance is the greatest enemy of the 21st Century. A view also shared by the Dalai Lama apparently, who said: 'ignorance is one of the 3 poisons of the mind.' Stephen J. Gould once made the point that this particular debate is very parochially American. The rest of the Western world appears to be less confused about the roles of religion and science, especially in education, and, for the most part, moved on from this debate generations ago. There is nothing wrong in admitting ignorance - in fact, it is to be commended - but passing on ignorance under the guise of education is inexcusable, and a serious backward step. At a very early stage in my education (adolescence), I realised that real knowledge comes from knowing how much one doesn't know.


Neena said...

Keep up the good work.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Neena, for the encouragement.

Regards, Paul.