12 May 2009

Theistic embryology controversy: a developing story

Get it? Heh. Anyway, go to Clashing Culture to see further discussion of the TE test.

09 May 2009

Weekly sampler 23

Okay, so not really weekly.

1. John Farrell has an interesting discussion of protein folding as a problem or challenge for evolutionary theory. His post includes quotes from experts with whom he has corresponded, and he cites the primary literature. (You know, peer-reviewed research articles written by people who are actually trying to understand the biochemistry of an early earth.) Here he's quoting Nick Matzke:
Even the very first polypeptides were pretty certainly not assembled all-at-once-from-scratch from a pool of 20+ kinds of amino acids in even proportions, in D- and L-form, as creationists and various beknighted physicists blithely assume. Probably the first time a proto-tRNA grabbed an amino acid and made a short chain, the chain was composed of glycine and few common hydrophobic amino acids and was quite short. Cavalier-Smith (2001) suggests that the original function may have just been a hydrophobic tail for association with a membrane. All of the improbability statistics are irrelevant in this sort of scenario, chirality isn't an issue, etc.
Let's go with 'benighted' lest anyone confuse an ignoramus in Glendora, California with, say, Sir John Polkinghorne.

2. I never really finished my junk DNA series, but there's still work to be done: falsehoods about non-coding DNA are beyond rampant. Recently at Adaptive Complexity, Michael White scored a direct hit on one of the major issues in this bogus controversy, and as usual it's a basic scientific principle (in this case, the concept of a null hypothesis). His post is required reading for those interested in any aspect of evolutionary genetics and especially those who have seen the standard genomic arguments of intelligent design creationists. Hat tip: Sandwalk.

3. Christians (and others) will find ThinkChristian.net interesting and provocative. I'll be writing there regularly starting this month. About science. And stuff.

4. Alister McGrath on Augustine on Darwin. His (very) basic point is a good one and he equivocates at the right times. But he seems to be allergic to randomness. After mentioning Augustine's emphasis on "divinely embedded causalities," he claims that "Augustine has no time for any notion of random or arbitrary changes within creation." More specifically, McGrath explores notions in Augustine's The Literal Meaning of Genesis that sound like ideas from a thoughtful design advocate. (Ideas, I'll add, that were articulated just as well by Howard Van Till in a slightly different context.) But, like most design proponents, he inveighs against randomness and then identifies it with Darwin:
Augustine would have rejected any idea of the development of the universe as a random or lawless process. For this reason, Augustine would have opposed the Darwinian notion of random variations, insisting that God's providence is deeply involved throughout. The process may be unpredictable. But it is not random.
I wonder if McGrath has thought hard about this. He may be right about Augustine, but I think it's a mistake to take such a hard line against "random variations." Why do so many people think that "embedded causality" is inconsistent with "random variation"? I don't get it.

5. And speaking of randomness, our reading group ("Random Readers") recently tackled some articles on determinism and evolutionary theory. We focused on a paper by Roberta Millstein titled "How Not to Argue for the Indeterminism of Evolution: A Look at Two Recent Attempts to Settle the Issue.” The "attempts to settle the issue" were responses to a paper that Millstein describes as a "full fledged defense of evolutionary indeterminism" that put the debate over evolutionary determinism "into high gear." That paper is "The Indeterministic Character of Evolutionary Theory: No 'No Hidden Variables' Proof But No Room for Determinism Either" by Robert N. Brandon and Scott Carson. Wait, Scott Carson? Yes, the same Scott Carson who writes one of the blogs I regularly follow: An Examined Life.

6. An answer to the famous question, "What is it like to be a bat?" Hat tip: Very Short List.

02 May 2009

Theistic embryology: the gathering storm

On Friday in the Christian Perspectives in Science seminar at Calvin College I gave a little talk on theistic evolution. The idea was to get some feedback on the simple ideas that I'll present at a symposium at the North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC) in Cincinnati in June. The symposium is titled "The Nature of Science and Public Science Literacy" and it's part of Education and Public Outreach Day at the NAPC. Here's the title and abstract of both the symposium talk and the seminar I gave at Calvin.
Why is there no controversy surrounding theistic embryology? Dissecting critical responses to theistic evolution.

Those who simultaneously express Christian belief and affirm evolutionary theory are said to espouse a position called "theistic evolution." The view holds the peculiar distinction of being reviled by both hard-line creationists (who call it "appeasement") and prominent atheist commentators (who deride it as fallacious). I argue that these critics typically fail to articulate objections that are specific to the view. Most creationist critics of theistic evolution object to one or both of these characteristics of the view: 1) its reliance on naturalistic explanation, a feature common to all scientific theorizing; or 2) its embrace of "random" causal events, a feature common to myriad scientific explanations. Most atheist critics of theistic evolution object to its openness to supernatural explanation, a feature of religious belief in general. Such criticisms, valid or not, fail to address anything specific to theistic evolution. In other words, attacks on theistic evolution are usually attacks on theism or attacks on evolution, but rarely represent specific criticisms of the theistic evolution position. To better understand the controversy surrounding theistic evolution, I propose that critiques of the position be considered in light of a lesser-known position we may (with tongue in cheek) call "theistic embryology." Theistic embryology describes the thinking of those who simultaneously express Christian belief and affirm basic theories in human developmental biology. Although the logic is indistinguishable from that of theistic evolution, the view is uncontroversial and the term "theistic embryology" is practically non-existent. I suggest that critiques of theistic evolution be subjected to the "theistic embryology test." Most critiques that claim to identify weaknesses in theistic evolution make arguments that are equally damaging to "theistic embryology" and so fail the test. Critiques that fail this whimsical test are likely to be arguments against belief, or against naturalistic explanation, and should be considered as such.