01 March 2008

When it's not just a disagreement

Now this is interesting. I can think of plenty of interesting Shakespearean scenes involving conflict and disputation. [Takes a bow] But I couldn't recall the word 'disagree' anywhere in, say, Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, or even Macbeth. So to a quick search of the Oxford Shakespeare, which unearthed exactly one use of the word, in King Henry VI, Part I:

King Henry. Henceforth I charge you, as you love our favour,
Quite to forget this quarrel and the cause.
And you, my lords, remember where we are;
In France, amongst a fickle wav’ring nation.
If they perceive dissension in our looks,
And that within ourselves we disagree,
How will their grudging stomachs be provok’d
To wilful disobedience, and rebel!
King Henry VI, Part I, Act IV, Scene I, The Oxford Shakespeare
Interesting scene, and reminiscent of the kind of talk one might hear in any community that is facing opposition: we mustn't disagree, or at least reveal our disagreement, because it will signal weakness (real or not) to our enemies. Christians often talk like this. So do Democrats, and Republicans, and sports teams, and I'm sure we could find examples in much odder places than those.

There is much that I could say about this aspect of dissent and disagreement in Christian communities, but I have a different goal here. I want to distinguish mere disagreement from more substantive forms of conflict, because the deliberate smearing of these moral distinctions is a tactic oft employed by propagandists and their defenders.

First off, it should be obvious by now that I have significant and substantive disagreements with most creationists. We disagree about the meaning of large sections of the Old Testament. We probably disagree about the concept of biblical inerrancy, and we probably disagree on the proper role of scripture itself. We almost certainly disagree about the importance of natural vs. supernatural causation, and we surely disagree on the meaning and roles of Christian apologetics. Perhaps we further disagree on various questions regarding human nature, and I'm sure we would disagree on several topics related to the Christian life.

Those are significant disagreements. They're important topics, every one. Some have come up on this blog before, and they'll come up again. But this post isn't about disagreement. It's about confronting dishonesty.

I've already written about folk science and dishonesty; what I want to do here is to close what looks like a loophole. It's the "we just disagree" loophole. (Some think that my substitution of 'folk science' for 'recklessly dishonest propaganda' is loophole enough, and I agree.)

At Reasons To Believe (RTB), Hugh Ross and Fuz Rana believe that all of the species that have ever lived have been separately and miraculously created de novo, and thus they reject the notion of common ancestry. They further propose that the purpose of 3+ billion years of life preceding the advent of humans was largely to create fossil fuels and other raw materials needed for human civilization. (No, I'm not joking.) (I said NO, I'm not joking.) Now, those proposals are completely preposterous, and I'm embarrassed for Ross and Rana, and for their organization and its supporters. But while I think that theologians can probably identify outright errors in their scriptural analyses, I nevertheless view our differences as disagreements. It's an outrage to assert with any theological confidence that God made dinosaurs to provide us with petroleum, but it's not necessarily dishonest to say that. Besides, and this is important: the omnipotent God we both worship could have miraculously created species without common ancestry. So, at least on the surface, RTB and I are merely disagreeing.

Ditto for young-earth creationists, who believe that Genesis commits them to a cosmos created less than 10,000 years ago. I'm certain that they're wrong, and our disagreement is profound, but it's a disagreement. Could the scripture be telling a yet-unintelligible history of a very young universe in the Old Testament? Yes, I think it could. We just disagree on whether it does.

What about the ID folks? Again, lots of disagreement, on most of the same questions as above. (Because the ID movement is, of course, a creationist movement.)

The point is this: yes, of course, I disagree with RTB, and with Answers in Genesis, and with the Discovery Institute. But my most serious criticism of these outfits will be questions about their integrity. At least in principle, you can disagree with me on the historicity of Genesis without lying. But you can't claim that "junk DNA" was ignored by scientists for 30 years without disseminating falsehood. You can disagree with me on the importance of supernatural explanation without even a hint of dishonesty. But you can't claim that biologists have never observed "a measurable change within a species" without lying. You can dislike evolutionary theory as much as you want, and refuse to accept it as an explanation, all without engendering any accusation from me. But you can't talk about a "lack of transitional fossils" without revealing yourself to be either ignorant or duplicitous.

Here's a specific example. At RTB, Fuz Rana seems to be reasonable and thoughtful most of the time. His writing on biology is far more accurate than Hugh Ross' (which is scandalously irresponsible), and he seems to be steering clear of many of Ross' most idiotic notions. Sadly, though, Rana engages in some truly inexplicable behavior that looks for all the world like full-blown dishonesty. I've already mentioned Rana's sickeningly inaccurate portrayal of evolutionary theory on the comment-free RTB "blog." I think this indicates that Rana is willing to write things he knows to be false in defense of his peculiar natural theology. But there's more.

When writing about the interesting topic of convergent evolution, Rana confirms that truth-telling is a secondary priority at RTB. Convergent evolution, or convergence, is the phenomenon in which two apparently unrelated lineages of organisms develop very similar characteristics. On the PBS Evolution site, for example, you can see the extraordinary comparison of ant-eating animals from around the world, all of which independently developed long snouts and other adaptations. Such convergent evolution is not uncommon, and evolutionary theory must of course seek to explain it.

Fuz Rana thinks that convergence is a problem for evolutionary theory. He claims that "the evolutionary paradigm cannot accommodate 'repeatable' evolution." Now, no evolutionary biologist would agree with him, but if all he claimed was that he found convergence to be inadequately explained, or that he was certain that evolutionary theory would never explain convergence to his own satisfaction, I might think he's ignorant, but I wouldn't be justified in saying that he's dishonest. I'd just say, "We disagree." But here's what Rana actually wrote, in a 2000 article found on the RTB website:

The evolutionary paradigm cannot accommodate “repeatable” evolution. When evolutionists observe a tree frog ideally suited for its environment, they assert that natural selection––environmental, predatory, and competitive pressures repeatedly operating on random inheritable variations for long periods of time––has led to this relationship. Chance governs the evolutionary process at its most fundamental level. Because of this, it is expected that repeated evolutionary events will result in dramatically different outcomes.
Rana correctly identifies this idea with Stephen Jay Gould and his 1989 book Wonderful Life. In that book, Gould discusses this famous thought experiment: let's replay life's tape. We'll go back to, say, the Precambrian, and run the whole simulation again. What would we see? Rana continues:

Gould’s metaphor of “replaying life’s tape” asserts that if one were to push the rewind button, erase life’s history, and let the tape run again, the results would be completely different. The very essence of the evolutionary process renders evolutionary outcomes as nonreproducible (or nonrepeatable). Therefore, “repeatable” evolution is inconsistent with the mechanism available to bring about biological change.

This paragraph is perniciously dishonest. Rana moves smoothly from Gould's assertion (about the 'tape of life' and historical contingency) to a characterization of "the very essence of the evolutionary process." And in the previous quote, Rana carefully asserts that "it is expected that repeated evolutionary events will result in dramatically different outcomes." The question he's hoping you won't ask him is this: "'Expected'? By whom, Fuz?"

Gould's ideas on contingency, in fact, have always been hotly disputed. Simon Conway Morris, for example, has written entire books repudiating Gould on this subject. (Conway Morris once held to the contingency view, then changed his mind.) And most prominently, Gould's position has always been utterly rejected by strict adaptationists – those who postulate that natural selection is the predominant force acting in evolution. When adaptationists – such as Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett – see convergent evolution, they see strong evidence for the power of natural selection. And they wholly contradict Gould on the "tape of life" experiment, expecting that because organisms adapt to their environments in roughly predictable ways, the trajectory of evolution should be roughly predictable. (Go to Laelaps for an excellent account of these controversies.)

Fuz Rana knows this. But when he sat down to construct another rancid piece of folk science, he apparently elected to deliberately mislead his readers about the real status of contingency ideas in evolutionary theory. He constructed a fictional world in which evolutionary theory is somehow committed to thoroughgoing historical contingency, then proceeded to knock over that pitiful strawman by pointing to examples of convergence.

When Fuz Rana claims to doubt common descent, all I can say is that I disagree. But when he claims...
If life is exclusively the result of evolutionary processes, then biologists should expect to see few, if any, cases in which evolution has “repeated” itself.
...then I can say that's a dishonest claim made by a purveyor of folk science who ought to know better. It's not just a disagreement.

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