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Science vs. the Bible – A Response (Part 3)

How should the Bible and science relate to each other? An increasingly popular way to answer that question has been to draw a dividing line between the two, to declare a ‘no contest’ by recognising that they deal with different types of truth. Accordingly, any conflict between the two is merely apparent, a consequence of category confusion in the minds of those who have never been trained to think properly.

 

But, as we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, that division is both unnecessary and leads to logical incoherence. It’s also futile as an attempt to declare a truce: scientists have a tendency to step over the line by making philosophical assertions (usually on the impossibility of God’s existence) based on what they consider to be science.

 

There is, of course, some truth to that division. The Bible is clearly not a scientific textbook, just as an Irish road map is not an analysis of the chemical compostion of bitumen and concrete. Scripture gives us no guidance on how to conduct experiments in a laboratory or how to arrange geology field trips. But although the Bible is not a science manual, it is a clear guide to the philosophy of science: it provides an accurate description of the type of reality we should expect to uncover when we study the natural world.

 

If God’s word is true in its entirety (Psalm 119:160), then its explicit and implicit statements about nature will never fail to be congruent with that reality. Conversely, any erroneous philosophy about the character of existence will inevitably fail the congruence test. So how do the Bible and Darwinism measure up when subjected to that analysis?

 

A fascinating answer to that question is provided in J.C. Sanford’s book Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome. Sanford, a geneticist, had been an atheist, then, following his conversion, a Christian evolutionist. That is until he decided to question Darwinism’s Primary Axiom that ‘man is merely the product of random mutations plus natural selection’. He discovered that the theory’s failures soon became apparent when measured against the hard realities of genetics.

 

Although Darwin proposed his theory based on observations of gross anatomy (and not a little speculation), his twentieth century followers combined it with advances in microbiology to produce the Neo-Darwinian synthesis. Simply stated, Neo-Darwinism maintains that mutations in the genome produce features at the level of the whole organism, or phenome, which are then naturally selected, eventually producing new species. Extended over millions of years, this process is sufficient to give rise to complex life forms (such as men and chimps) from simpler forms via common ancestors.

 

The theory’s logic is certainly enticing, but Sanford mercilessly exposes its practical impossibility. Its logical appeal rests on the naïve popular understanding that many genetic mutations produce clearly good or bad effects in the phenome. Given this assumption, all the significantly bad mutations – even if they’re the vast majority – will be weeded out by natural selection, allowing the few good mutants to dominate and pass their advantages to the next generation.

 

However, geneticists now know that the overwhelming majority of genomic mutations only produce very slight deleterious mutations (VSDMs) which have no obvious effects at the level of the phenome. These mutations are invisible to nature, so there’s nothing to select. Consequently, mutations are passed from one generation to the next and accumulate in the genome, leading to the gradual genetic deterioration of the species. This, of course, is precisely the opposite to what we should expect if Darwinism were true.

 

As an example of Darwinism’s utter inability to break through the hard wall of genetic fact, Sanford cites the dilemma first recognised by J.B.S. Haldane in the 1950s. Haldane understood that all selection came at a cost – not even breeders could simultaneously select all the qualities desired in a stock – and calculated that it would take 6 million years (the time period that separates man and ape from their supposed common ancestor) to fix just 1,000 genetic mutations in man through natural selection. Since Haldane, geneticists have discovered that there are 3 billion genetic units in the human genome, which has approximately 150 million nucleotide differences compared to the chimp genome. Forty million hypothetical mutations (20 million for each species) are necessary to arrive at the current point of separation given the common ancestor starting point. But, as Haldane discovered, natural selection can only account for a thousand of those mutations in humans. So practically all of them must be VSDMs, whose aggregate would be lethal to the species. Sanford comments that this process of evolution through non-selected mutations ‘would not just have made us inferior to our chimp-like ancestors – it would surely have killed us’.

 

So evolution is happening in the genome – but in reverse! Darwin’s hopeful story of the triumphant progress of increasingly more sophisticated life forms is precisely that, a nineteenth century progressivist fairy tale whose fabric is daily being torn to pieces by modern science.

 

And that same science is remarkably consistent with the biblical record, even in the most unexpected places. Sanford shows that the shortening lifespans of Noah’s descendents, when charted, follows the same exponential curve associated with human genetic decline established by the secular geneticist J.F. Crow. His analysis of this correspondence is worth quoting at length:

 

The unexpected regularity of the Biblical data is amazing. We are forced to conclude that the writer of Genesis either faithfully recorded an exponential decay of human lifespans, or the author fabricated the data using sophisticated mathematical modeling. To fabricate this data would have required an advanced knowledge of mathematics, as well as a strong desire to show exponential decay. But without knowledge of genetics (discovered in the 19th century), or mutation (discovered in the 20th century), why would the author of Genesis have wanted to show a biological decay curve?…The most rational conclusion is that the data are real, and that human life expectancy was hundreds of years – but has progressively declined to current values.

 

But we really shouldn’t be surprised by the Bible’s regularity. Scriptural authors consistently anticipated science by centuries, and in some cases millennia, with their insights regarding the natural world. Although western medicine laboured under the Aristotelian misconception of ‘humours’ even into the modern era, Moses recorded that ‘the life of all flesh is its blood’ (Leviticus 17:14); Job knew that the Earth was suspended in space (Job 26:7), and recognised that it was spherical (Job 26:10) centuries before that idea occurred to the Greeks, as did Isaiah (Isaiah 40:22).

 

So drawing an arbitrary line between scientific truth and scriptural truth is unnecessary and diminishes the full impact of God’s word. God, as the creator of the universe, should be expected to speak accurately about His creation, to describe the natural world as it really is. Darwinism, on the other hand, presents a largely inaccurate – indeed, back to front – picture of that world. Darwinists will claim that nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolutionary theory, but surely Science progresses in spite of being shackled to this philosophical dead weight, not because of it.

 

And although the Bible speaks accurately on a range of scientific matters, it never once suggests the possibility that life evolved. It’s strange that the Author of life would remain silent on that subject, and it should cause Christian Darwinists to at least consider their assumptions. If they do, they might discover that any conflict between science and the Bible cannot be resolved by constructing artificial epistemological barriers but by subjecting all knowledge – including science itself – to the Word of its Creator.

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Science versus the Bible – A Response Part 2

Last week we considered the division theistic evolutionists draw between the books of scripture and nature. The first, they claim, instructs us in the why questions of existence, the second answers the how questions. I hope my blog helped you to appreciate the theological and philosophical difficulties in their approach.

Such an approach might seem reasonable to many: spiritual and scientific truth are two separate realms; when there is apparent conflict between the two then surely it’s better to simply recognise that they are non-overlapping spheres of truth. To paraphrase Stephen Jay Gould, the preacher tells us how to go to heaven, the scientist explains how the heavens go. Both are telling the truth, but about different realities.

But once the division is established, a clear hierarchy develops in the relationship of these two spheres. Whenever traditional interpretations of scripture (eg, a litero-historical reading of Genesis 1-3) conflict with the regnant assumptions of Science, it is the Christians who are forced to modify their beliefs. Nevertheless, today many Christians, whether driven by fear that biblical literalism would present too many easy targets to sceptical scientists, or because they accept naturalism (at least as an investigative methodology), are willing to concede to the division.

But their concession is both futile and unnecessary. Its futility is evident when we consider the triumphant tone of the more militant atheists when describing the ascendance of Darwinism. Richard Dawkins famously declared that Darwin had made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, while more recently Daniel Dennett has described Darwinism as a ‘universal acid’ eating into and reshaping every field of human thought. If well-meaning Christians believe that marking a border between religious and scientific truth will mollify their critics, they need to think again.

And it’s unnecessary because Darwinism is incapable of fatally wounding Biblical Christianity. Not because it’s in some way compatible with our beliefs – it emphatically isn’t – but because it’s a failed artefact of nineteenth century thought that deserves no more than a place in the museum of philosophy beside other curiosities such as Marxism, phrenology, and eugenics.

That might surprise you, but I’m really not overstating my case. Darwin proposed his theory in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the scientific world was still largely ignorant of the complexity of life at the sub-cellular level. (That ignorance would only properly begin to lift with the invention of the electron microscope in the 1930s). Darwin based his theory on observations at the gross anatomical level and never imagined that there were layers upon layers of highly elaborate organisation below that. We’ll return to that problem in a moment.

Darwin’s argument relied heavily on extrapolation from the improvements in breeding that had taken place from the end of the eighteenth century. His contemporaries were able to produce impressive variations within species over the course of only a few generations, and he argued that, given sufficient time, nature could use the same process to produce not just variations but whole new species. His logic was simple, elegant and extremely persuasive.

Unfortunately it was also empirically very weak. What selective breeding actually demonstrated was that there were strict limits to variations even within species. Darwin was also honest enough to admit that the innumerable transitional forms anticipated by his theory were simply missing from the fossil record. He conceded this absence was ‘the most obvious and gravest objection that can be urged against my theory’ but attempted to explain it away by asserting that the geological record was imperfect and that subsequent discoveries would validate his ideas. They haven’t. The geological record is now so hostile to Darwin’s gradualistic explanation of species development that some palaeontologists (including Gould) have felt compelled to propose radically new hypotheses to account for the still- invisible missing links. One such theory is punctuated equilibrium which, in simple terms, suggests that evolution must have happened with massive saltations, or leaps, with new species being formed almost instantaneously without the need for intermediates. Needless to say, this idea is not very popular among traditional Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins; but it is a clear concession by palaeontologists that Darwin’s conjectures simply do not match the observable facts.

And if Darwin thought that geology presented grave problems, he would have simply flung up his hands in surrender if confronted with modern biochemistry. He accepted that ‘If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.’ He confidently asserted that he could find no such case – but we must remember that he was wholly ignorant of life’s most complex organs, those found at the sub-cellular level.

The problems presented at that level have been highlighted by the biochemist and ID advocate Michael Behe in his book, Darwin’s Black Box. Behe describes a range of microbiological systems (such as bacterial and protozoan flagella, immune systems, blood clotting and cellular transport) that feature numerous elements in such complex, interdependent relationships that no credible, step-by-step Darwinian model could be proposed to explain how they might have gradually arisen from simpler systems. Their complexity cannot be reduced without destroying them and the larger biological systems they support. Behe’s arguments have been criticised by many Christian Darwinists because, they claim, of their appeal to a faulty God-of-the-gaps logic. But, as we saw last week, ID argues from an increase in our knowledge, not from its gaps.

And the conundrum identified by Behe is reflected in the professional literature. Despite an exhaustive trawl through journals such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of Molecular Evolution, Behe was unable to locate a single paper that ‘proposed detailed routes by which complex biochemical structures might have developed.’

It’s fair to say that Darwin raised the bar quite high when proposing standards for his theory’s testability: one complex system which defied his stepwise explanation would be enough to collapse it. However, his disciples have spent the last century-and-a-half lowering that same bar to the point where it’s almost impossible not to get over it.

Such bar-lowering was on display at the Grosvenor Road talk in February. When pressed, the microbiologist claimed that there was ‘incredible, compelling evidence’ for Darwinism and suggested what was probably, to his mind, one of the strongest examples: endrogenous retroviruses (ERVs). These are non-coding elements of DNA that are situated on corresponding locations of the genomes of closely related species such as humans and apes. It must be noted that this evidence is incredible and compelling to Darwinists not because it establishes a step-by-step pathway for biochemical evolution but because it suggests a common ancestor.

Nevertheless, ERVs at first blush provide a very solid plank in the argument for common ancestry. If they are non-coding and have no obvious role in their respective genomes, it’s quite reasonable to suggest that they were initially inserted into the DNA of our common ancestor and maintained their (now redundant) positions as the several species followed their divergent evolutionary paths. Certainly the microbiologist sounded convinced when he announced ‘There’s absolutely no explanation for that other than the fact that we must have had a common ancestor.’

Or it would be a solid plank if science hadn’t revealed its rot. Research  published as recently as 2008 has established that, far from being redundant junk, ERVs actually play an important role in the transcription of close to 25% of human DNA.

The most interesting aspect of this case is how it reveals Darwinists’ incapacity for self criticism. ERVs were compelling evidence for a common ancestor because there ‘was absolutely no other explanation’ for them; lack of knowledge was used as evidence for the Darwinian hypothesis of descent. Although rightly opposed to the God-of-the-gaps, Darwinists have no hesitation in invoking an Ancestor-of-the-gaps.

So Christians have no need to concede any intellectual ground to Darwinism. The theory’s empirical problems were evident even to its author when first proposed in the nineteenth century. Since then, supporters of evolution have been constantly forced to revise it and to lower Darwin’s high standard of testability in order to rescue it from destruction by true science. And those advocates indulge in exactly the same science-stopping logical fallacies which they so quickly accuse others of committing.

Next week we’ll take a look at how Science and the Bible can truly complement each other.

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Science versus the Bible: A Response

In a 1989 New York Times article Richard Dawkins declared, with characteristic directness, that anyone who denied Darwin’s theory of evolution was either ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked. Rarely a model of diplomacy, the Oxford zoologist reserves his most biting rhetoric for those who question the secular explanation of life’s origins.

Which is not surprising. There’s a lot at stake in the creation-evolution debate, and negative stereotyping has long been a weapon of choice for both sides.

To the disinterested outsider the conflict is a tired slugging match between hardcore atheists and swivel-eyed fundamentalists, and anyone seeking a compromise can expect haymakers from both sides.

That’s why I’m loathe to criticise events such as Grosvenor Road’s recent panel discussion on Science vs. the Bible. By all accounts it was very well run and important issues were considered without the rancour that’s often generated when those two topics collide.

Nevertheless, I must criticise. Not the event, but the philosophy behind it, a philosophy that seems to be taking many Christian minds captive (particularly educated Christian minds). The philosophy is naturalism – the assumption that the existence of all life can, and indeed must, be explained without reference to any supernatural agency, i.e. God.

The three participants on the panel – a chemist, microbiologist and geologist – were of course Christians, and none of them would deny God’s existence. But as scientists they are also naturalists (or, as the microbiologist helpfully refined it, methodological naturalists). They are committed to the method of explaining the world with the naturalistic assumptions that underpin contemporary science. In Geology, this presents itself as uniformitarianism, Charles Lyell’s idea that the processes we observe in the present, such as erosion, are the main causes of all geological formations; and its equivalent in Biology is the creeping, stepwise, unconscious and undirected Neo-Darwinian process.

The panellists would doubtlessly contend that it’s perfectly reasonable to be methodological naturalists – to adopt the assumptions of naturalism when doing science – while rejecting metaphysical Naturalism. They see no conflict in being theistic evolutionists, for they believe in two books with different purposes: the book of Nature tells us how the world works; the book of Scripture tells us why the world exists.

I believe this division is unnecessary, philosophically and theologically incoherent, and leads to a diminished view of Scripture.

I’ll begin with my second objection. The panel’s chemist, when challenged to explain Christ’s transformation of water into wine at Cana replied simply that it was a miraculous act which ‘was not part of the regular, normal behaviour’. I quite agree. God interrupted the normal course of events to produce results immediately that would naturally have required many months.

But allow me now to run a quick thought experiment. If one of the panellists was transported back in time to that wedding feast, presented with a pitcher of the miraculous wine and challenged to explain its creation, what would be his reply? As a committed methodological naturalist, he would be bound to explain that grapes ripened on a hillside, were picked, crushed, fermented and finally brought to the wedding feast in wineskins. His explanation would be quite reasonable, naturalistic, and wrong.

You might reply that the scientist’s Christianity would trump his methodological naturalism, that he’d simply believe apostolic testimony on this issue. I’m sure he would, but that’s not the point. Our little experiment shows that methodological naturalism would have been clearly incapable of explaining at least one historical fact in the natural world; it simply couldn’t have answered the how question of the wine’s provenance correctly. (Remember, once introduced, the wine was chemically no different to its non-miraculous counterpart – although it did taste much better!)

So if God can compress the natural processes of many months into one instant in first-century Cana, why do many Christian scientists object on principle to His intrusion at other times, such as at the creation of Adam and Eve and the flood? I believe it’s because they’ve chosen to be bound by the naturalistic assumptions that currently govern science. This naturalism is assumed a priori and is not a necessary conclusion of scientific observation – instead, it determines how scientists view the evidence in the first place. If the history of all material phenomena must be explained through a naturalistic lens, then there’s no place for a literal, historical interpretation of, for example, the early chapters of Genesis.

And, logically, there’s no place for Christ’s New Testament miracles. However, the panellists believe in those miracles as strongly as I do, but only by arbitrarily suspending their naturalism. Their faith comes at the very heavy cost of logical inconsistency.

I think it’s very important to recognise the commitment of so many Christian scientists to naturalism because it is this commitment that determines their response to any attempts to challenge Darwinism. And their allegiance is very strong, maybe even stronger than that of their non-believing colleagues. The microbiologist claimed, for example, that he was uncomfortable with Intelligent Design (ID) because he was a methodological naturalist and therefore suspicious of invoking any non-natural agent to explain natural phenomena; he was scared of anything that seemed like a God-of-the-gaps argument.

But the argument offered by ID advocates is the opposite of the God-of-the-gaps approach: they claim that our increasingly sophisticated knowledge of life’s complexity – not our ignorance of biology – points to the existence of a Creator.

An interdisciplinary approach, such as the application of information theory to the interpretation of DNA, has yielded some very strong arguments for ID. For example, William Dembski has proposed specific criteria for detecting intelligent causation in his book The Design Inference, an academic monograph published by Cambridge University Press in 1998.

Designed systems demonstrate what he terms ‘specified complexity’: objects and messages produced by an intelligent agent consist of seemingly random yet specifically ordered components or symbols. For example, the repeating string abcabcabcabcabcabc is specific but not complex or random enough to contain much information, and the string xjmfernidheosnbyt is a complex collection of random information but its lack of specification means it communicates nothing we would identify as a coherent message. In contrast, the string methinksitislikeaweasel is both random and specific, indicating an intelligence behind its composition. (In this case, the intelligence of a famous 16th century playwright).

ID theorists maintain that it’s reasonable to apply the criteria of specificity and complexity to biological systems, and in particular to the messages encoded in DNA, and draw the same conclusion of design by intelligence. This is simply the logic of Romans 1:20 applied to microbiology.

Given these criteria, they argue, standard evolutionary thought, with its emphasis on the classic combination of chance and necessity, is inadequate in explaining life’s complexity at the information-rich microbiological level. Chance produces meaningless disorder (the xjmfernidheosnbyt of the above example) and necessity can merely account for the mindless repetition of that disorder.

Nevertheless, theistic evolutionists prefer to cling to Darwinian orthodoxy because they simply believe that it’s taboo to speak of an outside Designer inferred from the apparent design of a closed natural system – they would call it ‘bad science’. But remember that the closed natural system is an assumption (and one that they themselves often feel compelled to suspend).

I used to have some respect for this philosophical nicety until I realised the following irony: theistic evolutionists – the party within the Darwinist movement that should be the most open to detecting God’s handiwork in nature – are arguably the most committed opponents to detecting design in God’s creation. The following example should be enough to demonstrate this claim.

In an interview with Ben Stein for the film Expelled, Richard Dawkins conceded that ‘a signature of some kind of designer’ might be found if scientists looked hard enough in the details of biochemistry. Dawkins’ putative designer could, he claimed, be no more than an earlier alien life form that may have seeded life on earth in the distant past. But he at least recognised that it was not philosophically illicit to infer a higher designer from complex biological systems. Incredibly, Christian Darwinists, who believe that God created the universe and everything in it, are even less open-minded than Richard Dawkins in this respect.

So theistic evolutionists are in a very difficult position, theologically and philosophically. They share the methodological naturalism of their secular colleagues but are forced to ignore it when its inadequacy becomes clear in the context of Christ’s miracles. Nevertheless, it guides their understanding of other miraculous accounts, particularly in the book of Genesis. What is the reason for this inconsistency? And why do these scientific believers deny the possibility of inferring design in nature while the world’s most notorious atheist is happy to allow it?

Those questions should be enough to keep your minds busy this week. Next Sunday we’ll examine why theistic evolution is unnecessary and leads to a diminished view of scripture.