August 11, 2019

The Evolution of Biochemical Complexity

[Antifreeze glycoproteins, or AFGPs] consist of a repeating three-amino acid sequence consisting of threonine alanine-alanine. With two sugars attached to each threonine, AFGPs are the fish's version of ethylene glycol. But how did such unusual proteins arise? [...] Cheng's group discovered that AFGP genes evolved from an ancestral gene encoding trypsinogen [...] What clinched the story was Cheng's finding that trypsinogen contains a three-amino acid sequence with no known function in the enzyme. You guessed it: threonine alanine-alanine. In constructing AFGP, the tripeptide reiterated again and again, probably because the repetition had antifreeze properties strongly selected by ice cold water. Most of the rest of the trypsinogen gene was discarded. By deleting parts of the trypsinogen gene and recruiting and amplifying others, evolution did its borrowing act.
Barry A. Palevitz, "Missing Links and the Origin of Biochemical Complexity," The Scientist, November 22, 1999.



August 9, 2019

Quotes: A. A. Hodge

Evolution, considered as the plan of an infinitely wise [God] and executed under the control of his everywhere-present energies, can never be irreligious, can never exclude design, providence, grace, or miracles. Hence we repeat that what Christians have cause to consider with apprehension is not evolution as a working hypothesis of science dealing with facts but evolution as a philosophical speculation professing to account for the origin, causes, and end of all things.
A. A. Hodge, introduction to Theism and Evolution by Joseph S. Van Dyke, 2nd ed. (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1886), xviii.

August 8, 2019

Consistent with Scripture is Consistent with the Confession

Let me preface this article with just a brief word about the importance of creeds and confessions in the history of the Christian church, particularly for those visitors who are not really familiar with creedal formulations. Creeds and confessions are an organized and systematic summary of fundamental doctrines taught in the Bible, presenting what R. C. Sproul described as "a coherent and unified understanding of the whole scope of Scripture." Their purpose is to reflect the authoritative truth of God revealed in Scripture and protect the church against false teachings that stray from sound doctrine, in accordance with the God-given duty of the church to guard and contend for the true faith once for all delivered to the saints. Some creeds are ecumenical, affirmed by the universal Christian church (e.g., Nicene Creed), while confessional standards are more particular, affirmed by specific denominations (e.g., the Dutch Reformed subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity: The Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg Catechism). Given their critical importance, I personally believe that questions pertaining to creeds and confessions should be taken seriously.

Having said that, I encountered just such a question posed by a young-earth creationist who didn't understand how someone could claim to be faithful to the Westminster Confession of Faith while at the same time maintaining a view on origins seemingly at odds with its statements regarding that subject. (He was confounded by typically orthodox Presbyterians affirming and defending the earth being several billion years old.) For example, it says that God created the world and everything in it "in the space of six days." As far as he was concerned, those who wrote the Confession in the seventeenth century meant six consecutive normal days, which he took to be the common and traditional understanding of that period. With the context now established, he posed his question: "Since confessional documents reflect what the writers understood the Bible to be saying, can one promote a view not intended by the writers and yet still be faithful to the Confession?" I don't think a simple answer is possible upfront because, to me, it feels like there is a bit of nuance here that needs to be unpacked first. Now, I could be wrong about this—after all, I am just an average layman with no expertise—but here is what I think.

To the best of their ability by the grace of God, those responsible for composing the Confession—they were called "divines" (i.e., Doctors of Divinity or theologians)—meant nothing other than what Scripture meant. As such, any view that is produced by a careful and responsible exegesis of Scripture, consistent with sound hermeneutic principles, should also be faithful to the Confession. If the divines thought that the days of creation were normal 24-hour days but the meaning in Scripture was, for example, indefinitely long ages, then the meaning in Scripture is what the Confession intends. As far as I know, what the divines as individuals happened to believe is not entirely relevant, as the Confession is not a biographical sketch of seventeenth-century divines but a summary of biblical doctrine. The Confession is self-consciously subordinate to Scripture, serving to reflect and affirm the fundamental doctrines taught in Scripture. Even the authority of confessional documents is derivative, as they are authoritative only to the extent that they reflect and affirm the only supreme authority, the inspired and infallible word of God. So it's the meaning contained in Scripture which the Confession intends to communicate, not the beliefs of seventeenth-century divines. (Moreover, it is Scripture that is authoritative, inspired, and infallible, not the Confession or the divines who composed it, nor the traditional views of their era.)

As explained in the "Report of the Creation Study Committee" from 1999 by the Presbyterian Church in America, what was meant in the Westminster Standards by the phrase "in the space of six days" should be determined by what they wrote as the Westminster Assembly, not what they thought as individuals. "It is not a sound principle of interpretation to take the statements of individuals as defining the intent of a deliberative body." [1] Francis Beattie would have agreed with this, for as he writes in his commentary on the Westminster Standards, "It is not necessary to discuss at length the meaning of the term days here used. The term found in the Standards is precisely that which occurs in Scripture. [...] The caution of the teaching on this point, in simply reproducing Scripture, is worthy of all praise" (emphasis mine). [2] It is also worth adding that the Assembly was seeking to confess the faith common to all, notwithstanding the advanced learning of the divines themselves (e.g., consider the reserved infralapsarian language in the Standards, despite the force of supralapsarian views).

So with all that said, here now is a more succinct answer: Can you promote a view that was not believed by those who composed the Confession and yet still be faithful to the Confession? Yes, because the writers are irrelevant. However, you cannot promote a view contrary to Scripture and still be faithful to the Confession.

Now, to go a little bit further, this gentleman believed that you can hold a view that differs from the underlying meaning of the Confession but you are then not being faithful to the Confession. If the Confession means whatever Scripture means, then the problem is much worse than this fellow implied. A view that differs from the meaning of the Confession is not even faithful to Scripture, much less the Confession. The word of God says that he made everything in "six days" (Exo. 20:11) so that's what the Confession says, and it means precisely and only whatever Scripture means. So, these "six days" which the Confession mentions, are they 24-hour periods or indefinitely long ages? As I understand it, that is an exegetical question concerning Scripture, not a biographical or historical question concerning the divines or the church.

John M. Bauer
@JohnMBauer1
Approx. 1,000 words

Footnotes:

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] "Report of the Creation Study Committee," Studies and Actions of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 27th General Assembly (PCA Historical Center – Archives and Manuscript Repository for the Continuing Presbyterian Church, 1999).

[2] Francis R. Beattie, The Presbyterian Standards (1896; repr. Greenville, SC: Southern Presbyterian Press, 1997), 80–81.

August 5, 2019

The PCA and the Naturalistic Science of Evolution

According to the "Report of the Creation Study Committee" in 1999 by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), evolution is naturalistic and thus antithetical to a biblical world-view. The following is my response to this finding of the report, namely, that it is not supported by the facts.

Let's start by looking at how they arrived at their conclusion. The Creation Study Committee (the Committee) defined evolution as "naturalistic" on account of a statement provided by the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT). That statement characterized biological evolution as
an unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies, and changing environments. [1] 
Not the greatest definition, really, but there it is. According to the Committee, that statement effectively "rules out any supernatural activity of God in the origin and development of life and of humans, and hence makes a naturalistic metaphysic the basis of science."

Logically, neither conclusion follows. In the first place, nowhere in that statement from the NABT is the supernatural activity of God ruled out. Simply speaking of a "natural process" does not somehow rule God out. Presbyterians should understand that the order and function of creation are sustained and governed by God through ordinary providence (i.e., second causes). This presupposes the nearness and activity of God, as Donald Macleod admits, whom they had referenced earlier: "All the second causes owe their potency to [God], and the whole system is effective only because of his indwelling power." [2] So, as I said, speaking of natural processes—even describing them in exquisite detail—does not magically rule God out.

Consider the following example. We might say that meteorology is the scientific study of the weather, particularly with regard to the atmospheric distribution of pressures, temperatures, and moisture which produce such phenomena as winds, clouds, storms, and precipitation. These normal day-to-day weather changes are part of a larger pattern of fluctuation known as climate. Notice that these scientific statements don't include any reference to God who commands the weather. Does that allow us to conclude that this view of meteorology is therefore naturalistic, in the sense of ruling out any supernatural activity of God? Obviously not. In the same way, doctors don't reference God when explaining your diagnosis and chemists don't include God in their description of a covalent network and so forth. This is not ruling God out, it is not naturalistic, and it is not contrary to Scripture. [3]

So straight away we know that the vast majority of the NABT statement is properly consistent with a biblical world-view and the Westminster Standards, with only two questionable terms remaining, "unpredictable" and "chance."

Does evolution being unpredictable and affected by chance events rule out the supernatural activity of God? I don't see how. Let's start with the fact that the NABT statement is a non-religious definition that neither affirms nor denies the existence and activities of God, a fact which the Committee itself acknowledged. What does that mean for our discussion? It means that evolution is "unpredictable" relative only to us, it means that "chance" mutations are random only for us. These terms reflect human ignorance and the limits of human knowledge, implicating nothing of God. An illustration of this may be the conception and development of a baby in the womb. Out of some 250 million sperm, only one will survive long enough, actually reach the egg, and successfully fertilize it, an unpredictable outcome affected by chance events that don't rule out the activity of God (Ps. 139:13). Or how about the man who shot an arrow "at random," humanly speaking (1 Kings 22:34), and fatally wounded the king of Israel, just as God had ordained (21:19; 22:20, 28; cf. 22:35, 38). Things may be random or a matter of chance humanly speaking but they are under God's sovereign government (cf. Prov. 16:33). [4]

So, it turns out that nothing in the NABT statement ruled God out, so the conclusion drawn by the Committee does not follow.

Second, it is incomprehensible nonsense for the Committee to claim that evolution being naturalistic (it's not) makes metaphysical naturalism the basis of science. It would take a smarter person than me to unpack that and identify the fallacy at work there. Nevertheless, it is actually the other way around: only if metaphysical naturalism was the basis of science would the science of evolution be naturalistic.

Metaphysical naturalism "is the philosophical doctrine that the natural world is all there is and that God, angels, and the like, do not exist. Science presupposes methodological naturalism but not philosophical naturalism, and the two should not be confused" (emphasis mine). [5] If your physician doesn't refer to God in his diagnosis, does that allow you to conclude that metaphysical naturalism is the basis of medicine? Of course not.

Contrary to the invalid conclusions of the Committee, neither evolution nor science is naturalistic; they neither include nor exclude the "special or supernatural activity of God." They ignore it. The limited competence of science does not extend to theological questions about God. The degree to which creation is sustained and governed by God through ordinary providence is a theological question, not a scientific one.

Related post-script: It is ironic that the Committee was willing to accept the science of evolution if only it meant that "the creatures we see today are related to those whose remains we dig up [as] fossils, and that the differences [between them] have to do with genetic changes that the descendants have inherited," with illustrative comparisons to be made between artificial selection and natural selection to flesh out the idea—rather like what Charles Darwin did. There may be legitimate questions "over just how much genetic relatedness the various species have with each other," it was said, but if evolution were to be argued in this sense "there would not be the kind of controversy that we find today." (!!!) The irony is so thick because that is precisely how evolution is understood and explained—yet there is controversy.


John M. Bauer
@JohnMBauer1
Approx. 1,000 words

Footnotes:

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] The citation provided in the Report amounts to a web address with no dates of either publication or access. However, I own a print copy, which is: National Association of Biology Teachers, "Statement on Teaching Evolution" (1998), in Philip Appleman, ed., Darwin, a Norton Critical Edition, 3rd ed. (1970; New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), 615.

[2] Their citation was: Donald Macleod, Behold Your God (Tain: Christian Focus, 1990) 50.

[3] Ruling God out requires more explicit language. According to the Committee, an earlier version of the NABT statement had included the term "unsupervised." That would rule God out. It would also be unscientific, which is probably why it was removed.

[4] The word "chance" has at least three different meanings relevant to science discussions. (1) The first meaning of chance is an event that is predictable in principle but not in practice. For example, if we possessed every single tiny detail relevant to weather and climate patterns, with a quantum supercomputer to crunch the numbers, we could theoretically forecast the weather with 100 percent accuracy. (2) The second meaning of chance is an event that is not predictable either in principle or in practice. For example, given quantum physics, when a radioactive atom decays we cannot know when the next high-energy particle will be emitted. (3) The third meaning of chance is metaphysical and very different from the first two, referring to the notion that the existence of the universe was a spontaneous accident and therefore has no reason, meaning, or purpose. Only the first two meanings are relevant to evolution and consistent with a biblical world-view. Denis R. Alexander, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (Oxford, UK: Monarch, 2008), 133–134.

[5] J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 358. For an informative, compelling, and balanced discussion on methodological naturalism being the basis of science, read Jim Stump's contribution on pages 106–111 in Kenneth Keathley, J. B. Stump, and Joe Aguirre, eds., Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation: Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

August 4, 2019

Intelligently designed broken genes?

Skeptic, vol. 23, no. 3 (2018)
Some people might be surprised to learn that despite being an evangelical Christian I cannot support the intelligent design movement and its arguments. There are a host of reasons for this, some of the more crucial ones being theological (and thus biblical). However, a few of those reasons are scientific in nature, philosophically and methodologically, which I was reminded of this weekend as I was reading an older issue of Skeptic magazine (2018).

In this issue was an article by Nathan Lents who had posed five examples of poor or bad design that proponents of intelligent design (ID) need to address, taking for granted that ID is a properly scientific model. The examples which he listed were fairly thought-provoking but it was the first example of bad design which he had highlighted that I found quite compelling—specifically, broken genes.

Lents explained that in the human genome there are "broken-down versions" of genes that "bear striking resemblance to important and functional genes in other species." A famous example of this is the GULO gene, which "normally functions in the synthesis of ascorbic acid, more commonly called vitamin C." Now, there is a clear and simple evolutionary explanation for why the majority of animals can synthesize vitamin C while primates cannot, and of course it has to do with common ancestry. Lents himself explains that in some population ancestral to the primate lineage (perhaps around 90 million years ago) the GULO gene was disabled by a random mutation and then became fixed in the population. From that point onward it has accumulated a number of other mutations, he said. "We have the GULO gene, but it's broken." Admitedly, all of that makes good sense to me.

The question, however, is what explanation could the ID model possibly provide? "Since creationists don't believe in evolution, what is their explanation?" he asks. "It's not that we don't have the GULO gene. We do. It just doesn't work. Why would an intelligent force intentionally design us with a broken gene? Give us a gene or don't, but a broken version?"

That is an excellent question and I would like to hear from creationist proponents of ID who believe they can answer it. Specifically, I would like to hear an explanation for how this state of affairs makes more sense given intelligent design than it does given evolution (thus providing a reason to prefer intelligent design over evolution).

John M. Bauer
@JohnMBauer1
Approx. 400 words

July 2, 2019

PCA Says God Working Through Nature Is an Inadequate Account

I came across a shocking admission found in the "Report of the Creation Study Committee" (1999) commissioned by the Presbyterian Church in America. [1] Under the section on Brief Definitions (as well as Appendix A: Definitions), specifically Article 5 which looks at the term "Creationism," the reader will observe that the Committee included theistic evolution as a sub-category of old-earth creationism (which is debatable). And they defined theistic evolution as the belief that "natural processes sustained by God's ordinary providence," or second causes, "are God's means of bringing about life and humanity." [2] So this paints a picture of God (first cause) working through nature (second causes). I can accept that for the purposes of this blog post, but then comes the shocking admission. The Committee goes on to say that both young-earth and progressive creationists agree on one thing, "that natural processes and ordinary providence are not adequate to explain the world."

Did you catch that? Stunning. I would never have expected to hear Christians say that God's providential control is inadequate to explain the world, to account for what we observe. Usually what one hears is that "purely natural processes" are an inadequate account. There is, of course, no such thing as purely natural processes in a world created and sustained by the triune God of Scripture but, at least according to this Committee, certain creationists believe that even the powerful hand of God's providence is not sufficient to create (hence the need for "supernatural" creation, corresponding to the divine fiats of Genesis 1). That is a shocking theological admission and I hope creationists protest loudly against it.

I believe that it would have been more accurate if the Committee had claimed that, although God's ordinary providence would definitely be an adequate account of origins, some creationists reject that view of God's creative work—in other words, it could've happened that way but didn't. Young-earth creationists would say that, given the world being only a few thousand years old, a supernatural account is required. Progressive creationists might say that, even though a natural account (ordinary providence) is plausible in a world this old, the complexity of life and its genetic discontinuity point to the need for a supernatural account. I think that would have gotten the same message across but with a bit more accuracy.

On a somewhat related note, here in the twenty-first century I would now want to have evolutionary creationism included as a sub-category of old-earth creationism and define it follows: "the belief that natural processes, orchestrated by God's ordinary providence in accordance with his good pleasure and the purposes of his will, are the means by which God brings forth all things including life and mankind."

John M. Bauer
@JohnMBauer1
Approx. 450 words

----------
Footnotes:

[1] "Report of the Creation Study Committee," Studies and Actions of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 27th General Assembly (PCA Historical Center – Archives and Manuscript Repository for the Continuing Presbyterian Church, 1999). 

[2] The Report says that theistic evolution, so-called, employs a "specialized definition" of evolution. Supposedly this model is typically scientific but, instead of framing things in terms of "purposeless natural processes" as does evolutionary naturalism, it speaks of "God's skill in designing and maintaining a world which has within itself the capacities to develop the diversity of life" (emphasis mine), a view rightly attributed to Howard Van Till. But I would warn Christians against accepting that model because it is neither scientific nor theistic. It is technically deistic in nature and it is easily falsified by science.

June 20, 2019

Creationist Errors: Steve Hays vs. Darrel Falk

As part of the regular series that I have labeled Creationist Errors, this post will constitute a critical evaluation of an article written by a gentleman named Steve Hays at Triablogue titled "Overwhelming Evidence for Evolution." [1] This critique is meant to represent a certain demographic of the Triablogue readership, namely, evangelical Christians who have made a serious effort to understand the strongest arguments of modern science and biological evolution (including old-earth creationists who disagree with evolution). As a result of that kind of informed position, I have been surprised and disappointed by the apparent widespread lack of scientific literacy among those Christians who openly oppose evolution and the relevant science. Whenever I encounter Christian material that misunderstands or misrepresents the science of evolution, I want to draw attention to it by identifying the error and correcting it, with the hope that fellow believers might be encouraged to publish material that is more informed, accurate, fair, and ultimately trustworthy.

In the article just mentioned, Hays intended to interact with one of the authors of a book called The Fool and the Heretic (2019), a gentleman named Darrel Falk who, in one of his chapters, discusses the "overwhelming evidence" for the scientific theory of evolution—literally the title of the chapter. [2] In my estimation there were several errors in that article by Hays ranging from trivial to very serious but here I will only sample three of what I think are the most significant and which seem to be typical of most creationists. The first error Hays makes was misrepresenting Falk's position, which he consistently associates with theistic evolution in spite of the clear evidence to the contrary in the very book which he had read. Next, he apparently fails to understand the nature and function of scientific theories because he seems to think they need proof, an error he makes obvious when he accuses Falk of the question-begging fallacy. And finally, he believes that data being consistent with a model should be a sufficient criterion, by which he demonstrates a failure to grasp the evidential strength of scientific falsifiability and why it's far more compelling than consistency.

1. Misrepresenting the Opponent


So the first thing that needs to be pointed out is that, right from the opening paragraph, Hays misunderstands or misrepresents the position which Falk defends in the book, including that chapter. He does this by claiming that Falk is a "leading propagandist for theistic evolution," a claim that is neither fair nor accurate. Admittedly, this could be the result of ignorance. I must allow the possibility that Hays doesn't know the difference between Falk's position and theistic evolution. If indeed he doesn't, then as a reader I am left wondering why Hays chose to criticize a subject which he does not adequately understand. But if he does know the difference, he was being disingenuous and intentionally misleading his readers. It would also mean that his article might interact with Falk as a person but it targets a view that is different from and weaker than the one that Falk actually defended. (Or Hays might be aware of the difference but nevertheless rejects it, perhaps thinking that it amounts to a distinction without a difference. In that case, he ought to have made that clear to his readers and provided at least a brief justification for such a critical evaluation. Apart from that, it looks like Hays is engaging in the straw man fallacy.)

In fact, Falk is an evolutionary creationist, a point which this book makes clear enough. Rob Barrett mentions in his prologue that Falk holds an "evolutionary creation perspective" (p. 23), and Todd Wood acknowledges that Falk is an "evolutionary creation" advocate (p. 31), while Falk associates himself with the "evolutionary creationist movement" (p. 91), explaining that he is an "evolutionary creationist" because he is a Christian who is compelled by the evidence (p. 148). Furthermore, he is the former president of BioLogos, an organization that is clear about its preference for evolutionary creation over theistic evolution, having taken the time to explain the real and significant differences between the two. [3]

But a case could be made that Hays is misleading his readers already by referring to Falk as someone who is disseminating propaganda, a word that is almost entirely prejudicial in its effect (a consequence of its typically political context). I would be surprised if Hays didn't know that and didn't use it for that very purpose. Having read The Fool and the Heretic myself, in addition to Falk's other book and numerous articles, I know that he is a leading proponent of evolutionary creationism, a very effective science educator, and a strong advocate of scientific literacy. Hays might be ambivalent or opposed to science education and literacy, I don't know. He certainly disagrees with Falk theologically. But none of this justifies describing Falk as a "propagandist." Yes, in this book Falk is writing with a clear bias, arguing for evolutionary creationism and against the young-earth view. But that is what he had been asked to do. Similarly, Wood was asked to argue for young-earth creationism and against this evolutionary view. Does that allow someone to conclude that he is "a leading propagandist" for young-earth creationism? Of course not. Whatever young-earth creationism may be legitimately called, it is not propaganda.

I don't know what Hays' intentions were or what motivated him to consistently associate Falk's argument in that book with theistic evolution, but the authors had been clear about Falk's actual position. If you can likewise smell the faint odor of burning straw, I can tell you that it's emanating from Hays' article.

2. Misunderstanding Scientific Theories


Falk describes a few different ways in which the theory of evolution produces falsifiable predictions that are borne out by the evidence. On the one hand, there are scientists who looked at the gap in the fossil record between land-dwelling tetrapods 365 million years ago (e.g., Acanthostega gunnari) and lobe-finned fish 385 mya (e.g., Eusthenopteron foordi) and, assuming evolution, made a specific prediction about an intermediate species which they subsequently searched for at Ellesmere Island in northern Canada. And they found it, several late-Devonian specimens of just such a species now called Tiktaalik roseae. Its appearance matched the prediction exactly as an intermediate species that lived roughly 375 mya (pp. 130–131). [4] On the other hand, there is the paleoanthropological evidence of hominin expansion out of Africa. There is no fossil evidence of hominin existence in any deposits anywhere in the world throughout all of evolutionary history—until they start appearing in East African deposits that are a few million years old; then there is evidence of hominins in Asia from about 1.8 million years ago, in Europe from about a million years ago, and in North America and the rest of the world more recently. These are the facts which can be independently tested (p. 138). [5]

In response to these things Hays asks, "How is this evidence for evolution?" Well, for one thing, Falk's point has to do with falsifiability and the nature of theories. "My point," he said, "is that evolutionary theory makes many predictions that can be tested" (p. 135). How this helps the theory of evolution should be obvious. As a scientific theory, evolution produces a lot of falsifiable predictions, directly and indirectly, that are routinely borne out by the evidence. If a theory says that X is the case, and a number of independent research teams rigorously test the prediction and find evidence for it, then what you have is a fruitful and well-supported theory.

"I get how that's consistent with evolution," Hays could reply, "but it's not proof." Of course not, but then proof is not relevant outside of logic and maths (and alcohol). Given the nature of abductive reasoning (i.e., inference to the best explanation), it's not applicable in science. [6] More than that, it's not even how scientific theories work in the first place. We are not looking for evidence to prove that evolution happened. That's a fundamental misunderstanding, as I have learned. When you have a massive wealth of diverse and seemingly related facts accumulated over years and decades, gathered from a broad range of independent scientific fields, what is needed is some kind of conceptual structure that organizes these data into a coherent and intelligible explanation. That is the role of a scientific theory. [7] To put this in other words: We don't have a theory seeking evidence to prove it, we have evidence seeking a theory to explain it. That is what the theory of evolution does, and it is "an extremely successful theory," as Wood himself admits (p. 29). [8]

To correct a typical misapprehension about evolution, as a theory it is not itself true. A shocking admission? It really shouldn't be. See, it's not the theory that is true but the facts which it attempts to explain. What's true are the facts of paleontology, population and developmental genetics, biogeography, molecular biology, paleoanthropology, archaeology, anatomical homology and analogy, evolutionary developmental biology and epigenetics—and on and on. These are the facts, the empirical observations made of the real world. But how are we to understand and make sense of all these categorically different observations being made? Again, in science that is the role of a theory, a conceptual structure that provides a way of organizing, interpreting, and understanding the massive wealth of data we possess, drawing all the relevant facts together into a coherent scientific model that makes sense of them or explains them—and, even better, it makes predictions that result in new, previously unknown evidence being discovered which then adds to the evidential credibility of the theory.

This is what the heliocentric theory does, for example. (Yes, heliocentricism is "just a theory.") It makes sense of otherwise strange planetary motions. It is not itself true, it is just our best scientific explanation of what is true—the celestial bodies and their "wandering" motions—an explanation so powerful that it enables us to intercept planets with satellites and rovers, land scientific instruments on comets (e.g., Churyumov-Gerasimenko), even calculate the location and orbit of a tiny Kuiper belt object roughly ten billion kilometers away accurately enough to perform a photographic fly-by (e.g., 2014MU69, "Ultima Thule"). These also amount to tests of the theory as falsifiable predictions. In a similar way, evolution is not true, it's just the best scientific explanation we have for all these things that are, an explanation so powerful that it can even allow us to predict what types of fossil we ought to find and where to find them, even before we go looking. This was the point that I think Falk was trying to get across.

Consider the example of hominin expansion out of Africa. It has the unmistakable appearance of a pattern. How do we explain this pattern? Well, more than a hundred years ago a theory was proposed which predicted, among other things, that human origins should trace back to Africa (p. 138). After all this time of wide-ranging and exhaustive research across several independent scientific fields, from paleoanthropology to genomics and more, we now have all these data with a clear pattern that corresponds with that evolutionary prediction. As an explanation the theory is both compelling and enormously fruitful. Is it true? That's a good question, but one for a discipline other than science. Wood is confident that it's false, a conclusion drawn from his young-earth creationist interpretation of Genesis 1–11 (pp. 29–36), a very different field of study indeed.

Hays points out to his readers that Falk is "using an evolutionary narrative and evolutionary categories to interpret the evidence." In other words, "he uses the theory of evolution to explain the pattern." Well of course he does. That's a statement of the obvious, not a meaningful criticism, insofar as the purpose of a scientific theory is to explain the data—so of course he is going to use a theory to explain the data. This is where Hays would object and claim that it's illegitimate to explain the pattern using evolution because "that's the very question at issue," he said. But is it? Assuming the very thing to be proved is viciously circular, that much is clear. But Falk is not trying to prove evolution true, therefore he is not arguing in a circle. What he is doing, the only thing he is doing, is defending evolution as the best scientific explanation we possess. The question of its truth is not addressed by Falk in his arguments. [9] He assumes the truth of evolution in his effort to make sense of the data, which is what theories are supposed to do. Again, scientific theories are either fruitful or falsified but they are never proven. Falk's position seems to be that evolution is the best scientific explanation we have of all these things that are true. Hays obviously rejects the theory of evolution, so one wonders how he would explain that interesting pattern of hominin fossil discoveries.

It just so happens that he offers a suggestion. "The fact that we find evidence of human occupation in the Old World earlier than evidence for human occupation in the New World is what Genesis would lead us to expect," Hays said. "According to Genesis, man originated in the Old World (Mesopotamia) and fanned out from there." All right, but notice that this paints a picture that is actually contrary to the pattern, a big chunk of which is all this evidence of humans occupying the Even Older World a whole lot earlier. In other words, his idea doesn't explain the data. Worse yet, it ignores all the inconvenient bits. The earliest evidence of human occupation in Mesopotamia dates from a couple thousand years after the end of the last ice age, so around 10,000 years ago. Some of the oldest Neolithic sites are Jarmo in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, Jericho in the southern Levant, and Catal Huyuk in Anatolia. According to his view of Genesis, human origins should be traced to Mesopotamia around 10,000 years ago. That's a falsifiable prediction. And it is falsified, for we find evidence of humans living in Africa more than 190,000 years prior to that. That's the enormously inconvenient stuff which his view simply doesn't bother to explain, that human origins go back much further than 10,000 years and somewhere other than Mesopotamia.

3. A Weak Criterion for Scientific Theories


After Falk described the fossil record pattern of simpler organisms in the oldest rocks to more complex plants and then animals in more recent layers, Hays asked, "What's the point of contrast?" He allowed that this might pose a difficulty for young-earth creationists but he didn't recognize it as a problem for old-earth creationists. And yet he should recognize this pattern of fossils as a problem for old-earth creationists because it is a falsifiable prediction of evolution that is actually borne out by the evidence, and it is not predicted by any old-earth creationist model. Therein lies the contrast.

The point, once again, is the rather conspicuous evolutionary pattern of these fossil finds. If we think about what the theory of evolution asserts—descent with modification from a common ancestor—it is significant that the history of life's biodiversity happened to leave behind a fossil record which consistently displays a pattern that corresponds with the predictions of this theory. On the assumption that evolution is true, we should expect to find a pattern of fossils in the geologic column that looks like X, a prediction which scientists out in the field are routinely testing (p. 129). And that pattern is what we do find, which then expands the amount of evidence the theory explains. By way of illustration, Tiktaalik was a predicted fossil find that is now part of the growing body of evidence. In contrast to this, on the assumption that young-earth creationism and its flood geology is true, we should expect to find a pattern of fossils that looks like Y (e.g., fossils of whales and trilobites together), a pattern that has never been observed in the geologic column. No research team of scientists has ever found geological or paleontological evidence that corresponds with (or is best explained by) the inherent predictions of young-earth creationist flood geology.

It needs to be underscored and highlighted that evidence being "consistent with" a given view is completely underwhelming. Yes, the fossil record is consistent with evolution but, as Hays pointed out, it can also be consistent with old-earth creationism. Therefore, such a criterion does not allow the evidence to support one view over another. This is why Falk's point should be considered so compelling—and the importance of this cannot be overstated—that the fossil record could easily falsify the theory of evolution but it never has. (Sometimes it raises unique challenges or problems, the hope of any scientist worth his salt, but it has not yet falsified the theory.) For example, we have never found fossil remains of a whale mixed together with trilobite fossils, or a fossilized rabbit in early-Devonian deposits, or dinosaur bones found in rock formations that also contain evidence of human activity, and so on. Any find like that would violently falsify the theory of evolution, and yet it would explicitly confirm a prediction of young-earth creationist flood geology. But the pattern of fossils continues to match the predictions of the theory of evolution, in the face of how easily they could have falsified it.

What's the point of contrast? As Falk showed, it's that this is just one way out of so many different ways that the theory of evolution can be falsified, and it never has been. Contrast this with the fact that, for example, no fossil find could ever falsify biblical creationism. [10] As Hays would be quick to point out, the evidence is always consistent with creationism. And he's right. It makes absolutely no difference what fossils are found in what order or where, everything and anything will always be "consistent with" creationism. But that's also the very problem which magnifies the contrast. Nothing falsifies it, anything fits with it. Creationism simply cannot afford to stick its necks out scientifically. That is the very real and stark contrast. For something to be "consistent with" a given view is cheap and easy. Where the rubber hits the road is whether or not anything could ever falsify that view. This is yet another area where evolution is simply without any rivals.

John M. Bauer
@JohnMBauer1
Approx. 3,000 words

Footnotes:

[1] Steve Hays, "Overwhelming Evidence for Evolution," Triablogue, February 09, 2019 (accessed June 18, 2019).

[2] Todd Charles Wood and Darrel R. Falk, The Fool and the Heretic (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019). The chapter which Hays addressed was "Overwhelming Evidence" (pp. 129–148).

[3] "What is Evolutionary Creation?" BioLogos, updated May 8, 2019 (accessed June 18, 2019). First of all, as evanglical Christians with a biblical world-view, we are creationists first and foremost (so that is rightly the noun); our acceptance of evolutionary science is secondary at best (so that is rightly the adjective). Hence, evolutionary creationism (in contrast to young-earth creationism, for example). Second, nobody talks about theistic zoology, or theistic physics, or theistic botany; it's just as silly to talk about theistic evolution. We are Christians, after all—everything is already theistic (given the triune God revealed in Scripture). When it comes to science, it is simply "zoology" or "physics" or what have you, including just "evolution." A biblical world-view entails presuppositional commitments that preclude accusations of naturalistic science.

[4] For the full story, see Neil Shubin, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (New York: Pantheon, 2008). As cited by Falk, The Fool and the Heretic, 130. See also Jerry A. Coyne, Why Evolution Is True (New York: Viking Penguin, 2009), 37–38.

[5] Falk had said that "no hominin fossils have ever been found" in North America "that are older than about eighteen thousand years." Well, that is only partially true. There is evidence of hominin occupation in North America which dates to around 130,000 years ago. True, it wasn't hominin fossils that were found, so to that extent Falk was correct, but it was prehistoric hammerstones and stone anvils, presumably fashioned and wielded by hominins. Steven R. Holen, et al. "A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA," Nature 544 (2017): 479-483.

[6] Abductive reasoning, or inference to the best explanation, "is a form of logical inference which starts with an observation or set of observations [and] then seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation for the observations. This process, unlike deductive reasoning, yields a plausible conclusion but does not positively verify it" (Wikipedia, s.v. "Abductive reasoning"). Emphasis mine.

[7] Gerald Rau, Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 33; Coyne, Why Evolution Is True, 15.

[8] See this brief article of mine that deals with hypothesis, theory, and law.

[9] Although Falk did refer to "the truth of evolution" early in the book, it was said in the immediate context of the theory being "supported by too much evidence to be disputed" (p. 48). Later in the book he said something which supports this interpretation, namely, that "when lots of predictions have been tested, and none have been shown to be wrong, scientists reach the conclusion that the hypothesis is likely correct" (p. 129). In other words, evolution is true in the same way that the heliocentric view is true. We casually refer to our sun-centered planetary system as a fact, even though it's actually just a theory. That's because when a theory has withstood so many thousands of empirical tests and remains unfalsified it is practically a fact, even if technically it isn't.

[10] I would also add intelligent design to that infamous set of things which cannot be falsified. Or is there something which, if discovered, would falsify intelligent design?



Miscellaneous Remarks:


"[Falk] ignores the multiregional alternative hypothesis."

Yes, he did. He ignored all kinds of alternative hypotheses that aren't part of his view which he was defending. At any rate, the Multiregional Hypothesis has lost considerable standing since the development of genomics. "Sequencing [mitochondrial DNA] and [Y-chromosome DNA] sampled from a wide range of indigenous populations [...] [has] strengthened the Out of Africa theory and weakened the views of Multiregional Evolutionism." Wikipedia, s.v. "Human evolution."

"Is there evidence that the reputed hominins display recognizably humanoid intelligence, viz. art, music, human problem-solving skills? At what date?"

As early as 100,000 years ago, but especially around 40,000 years ago.

"Why would it take [these hominins] so long to migrate out of Africa? Africa is a fairly inhospitable place to live. There'd be an incentive to explore other regions."

But was the East African climate inhospitable a couple million years ago?

"Suppose it's God's intention to create a world that reflects diversity."

Falk is an evolutionary creationist. I am confident that he believes that.

"How are such variations evidence for common ancestry rather than the principle of the plenitude or adaptation to habitat?"

Or all of the above? Certainly common ancestry and adaptation belong together.

"Falk acts as though the only reason evolution leads some people to be atheists is perceived conflict with the Bible."

He describes it as one reason, but where did he indicate it was the only reason?

"Even if Gen 1-3 (or Rom 5/1 Cor 15) never existed, evolution would still drive some people into atheism because they think the evolutionary record in itself is an indication that we inhabit a godless universe. They see no evidence of transcendent intelligence, benevolence, planning, or prevision in the evolutionary record. No evidence of a mind behind the process, guiding the process."

They approach the evidence with a No God Required presupposition already in place. It's why they can also look at things like meteorology or human reproduction and see no evidence of God. Should we stop teaching anything they pretend is godless?

"[Theistic evolutionists] read the evolutionary record the same way as secular evolutionary biologists and paleontologists."

Evolutionary creationists don't. They read it in at least one way that secular scientists don't: theologically.

"I can see how Falk's evidence for evolution would be devastating to Christians who are exposed to it for the first time. Christians who are intellectually defenseless."

And I can see how his arguments could be compelling to Christians who are not intellectually defenseless.

"When I invoke mature creation, Omphalism, and/or the principle of plenitude, an evolutionist might object that this has nothing to do with science. That it's pseudo-science. However, the question at issue isn't just a scientific claim but a theological claim."

Right, so ... not science. Don't be embarrassed. Own it boldly.

"It's not out of place to bring philosophical theology to bear when evaluating a theological claim."

So we can bring theology to bear on theological issues?

"So there's a methodological question. What's the starting-point?"

For the Christian? Jesus Christ, the Word of God. But that starting point does not preclude a scientific approach to exploring nature, a bottom-up trajectory of gathering the evidence, observing patterns, proposing a hypothesis that explains it, testing predictions against observations, etc. Scientists don't have to set Christianity aside in order to do their work.

"From that perspective, mature creation, Omphalism, and/or the principle of plenitude can't be ruled out."

Theologically? I think it can be.

"I can see how some people find young-earth creationism ad hoc. And maybe it is ad hoc to some degree."

I am unable to determine what this has to do with Falk or his chapter on the overwhelming evidence for evolution. I could be wrong but I'm pretty sure Falk did not make that criticism.

"What is more, theistic evolution is ad hoc."

Given what this term means, how is theistic evolution ad hoc? What problem was it designed to solve?

"The foundation of theistic evolution is naturalistic evolution. Many or most theistic evolutionists think the evolutionary record is indistinguishable from naturalistic evolution."

Theistic and naturalistic are mutually exclusive terms. A thing cannot be the foundation of its contradiction. I would invite Hays to try again.

"[Theistic evolutionists] reject the idea that we can detect divine intervention or direction in the record of natural history. [...] They don't think there's any discernible evidence of God's providential hand in natural history."

That's probably true in most cases. However, evolutionary creationists do see God's providential hand all over natural history—but theologically, not scientifically. And God's providential hand in natural history is not discernible because it's omnipresent; there is no corner of creation where it's not found (Col 1:17; Heb 1:3). See? Theology, not science. That doesn't embarrass evolutionary creationists.

"Many theistic evolutionists are antagonistic towards intelligent design theory. [...] That's why [theistic evolutionists] attack intelligent design theory with such implacable ferocity."

Intelligent design is attacked for being fake science, bad logic, and horrible theology.

"Instead, they appeal to evidence for God from disciplines outside evolutionary biology and paleontology."

As Cardinal Newman said, "I believe in design because I believe in God, not in a God because I see design." At any rate, God is not a conclusion to be reached but a presuppositional axiom, the necessary precondition of all intelligibility.

"Finally, naturalistic evolution is ad hoc."

It's worse than that—it's unintelligible.

"Every side in this dispute as the appearance of makeshift explanations."

But only one side has testable predictions or falsifiability. Anything is consistent with creationism, nothing can prove it wrong.

"One problem is that his presentation is so one-sided."

It was precisely what he was asked to write. Talk to the editor, it was his vision.

"He cites prima facie evidence for evolution, but fails to mention prima facie evidence to the contrary."

Ironically, so did Hays.

"Here's another major problem with evolutionary theory: the evolutionary process is a physical process. The effects of the process are physical products. But that raises the question of whether human reason can be the result of evolution. Can something physical generate consciousness?"

That's a problem FOR evolution, not a problem with evolution. There are tons of questions that evolutionary science has not yet sufficiently answered (if at all), such as the evolution of sex, of consciousness, of ethics, questions about convergent evolution, or the role and importance of natural selection, and so much more. But this doesn't count against evolution, for it is simply a vivid illustration of how science works. There are a nearly unlimited number of questions ranging from trivial to substantial which science is in the business of exploring, with good science being done when every new thing we learn uncovers even more puzzling questions. Essentially, science is unending. This is not how theories are proven false, it's how they are proven fruitful—by uncovering ever more areas for further research and understanding. In its ideal form, what science offers is the promise of ever more questions with potential for proving us wrong at any moment about something we thought we knew. Honestly, this is what gets scientists out of bed in the morning.