September 21, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Is Science Free of Miracles?

“No miracles” is a favorite phrase by an evolutionist who finds that perplexing puzzles in nature always “yield to evolutionary thinking.”

Don’t understand the origin of human language?  Curious how crows can fashion tools to get food?  No miracle; “evolutionary thinking” can explain it.  That’s the attitude of Russell Gray (U of Auckland), who was highlighted in Science Magazine this week.  A “man of enthusiasms,” Gray is on a roll, gaining popularity among many for his skill at submitting complex problems to evolutionary explanations.  Virginia Morell portrays him as a modern-day Newton of evolutionary theory:

Although the full list of Gray’s enthusiasms would fill this page, suffice it to say that evolutionary biology is at the top. Using its principles, Gray, an evolutionary biologist and comparative psychologist at the University of Auckland, has helped crack open two areas—animal cognition and historical linguistics—long regarded by many as black boxes, impenetrable to the scientific method.

This has to be good if he succeeded where Darwin himself failed.  Pointing to Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene as his student-days’ inspiration, the biologist noted early on the power of evolutionary theory “to explain many things.”  When faced with natural puzzles, “We don’t have to just wave our arms,” he says.  “There are no miracles“—a favorite phrase of his, often shortened to “no miracles.”  Evolution is here as the universal explanatory toolkit.  Take the theory and run with it; that’s his approach.

Gray’s early work involved finding evolutionary relationships between seabirds in New Zealand by comparing their behaviors, and assuming that behaviors evolve in the same way as genes.  Later, when confronted with linguistic puzzles, he grabbed his handy-dandy evolutionary toolkit:

For Gray, “it didn’t seem a huge leap to think of human languages in the same way. … Words are inscribed, in their shape and form, with a powerful record of the past.” Growing up in New Zealand, he had heard Polynesian languages, including Maori, Tongan, and Samoan, and just by listening he could tell that they must be closely related. As with the seabirds’ behaviors, he suspected that the Pacific Island languages had come about through “some kind of descent with modification.” His key insight: “Words are just like genes,” in that they resemble each other because of shared ancestry.

Gray’s anatomy of “evolutionary thinking” is to use the same kind of software that evolutionary geneticists use to try to tease out ancestral relationships among animals.  When he used phylogenetic software on words instead of genes, some surprises popped out:

Gray took the analysis further: He realized that the sophisticated software designed to trace genetic lineages could be applied to languages. In 2000, he and a colleague published a Nature article using language trees to test competing hypotheses about the settlement of the Pacific by people speaking ancestral Austronesian: a rapid “express train” of peoples who spread from Taiwan across the widely scattered islands in a few thousand years, or an “entangled bank” of Austronesian and other speakers who mixed more slowly over a longer period. Using 77 Austronesian languages and 5185 words and phrases, they found that Taiwanese languages were the oldest, and that their spread matched that of express train settlement, with Indonesian and coastal New Guinean languages hiving off before those in New Zealand and Hawaii.

“I was just delighted when that paper came out,” says Pagel, who also studies the evolution of language. “He showed that you can test questions of human history with linguistic data.

His method, though, relies on an analogy between words and genes.  Arguably, words are under the control of human minds, whereas genes are less so.  His method is not without critics.  When Gray used the software to locate the origin of Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) in Anatolia instead of in the steppes of central Asia, critics appeared:

Many linguists disliked both the results and the methods. “It’s hard to overstate just how contentious my linguistic work is,” Gray says. “People at linguistic conferences have left the room when we present our results.”

The critics disliked his use of glottochronology, which they claim is a discredited method.  They also disliked his use of “relaxed clocks” (sometimes called “rate heterogeneity”) to get things to fit better.  Despite these concerns, Morell thinks most linguists will be using his method in coming decades.

The Crow Bar

How does Gray get rid of “miracles” by studying the tool-making skill of New Caledonian crows?  Part of his work has been empirical: studying the cognitive limits of the birds’ abilities with variations on puzzle-solving experiments.  His main theme, though, is to apply “evolutionary thinking” to any question:

Gray intends to keep his New Caledonian crow project going, too. In his view, the field of animal cognition suffers from the same deficiency as linguistics once did: “Its theories haven’t been sufficiently shaped by evolutionary thinking.” Researchers often discover one or two species doing something clever and immediately “compare them to humans. That’s not thinking like an evolutionist,” he says. Instead, Gray and his team seek intermediate steps, devising tests for the crows that reveal mental limitations as well as talents.

This quote reveals that Gray’s anatomy of “miracles” is not religious; he uses the word “miracle” in the punctuated equilibrium sense: any sudden leap over a gap without “intermediate steps” tractable by mutation-selection theory.  “Thinking like an evolutionist” to him means imagining plausible intermediates, and envisioning the ancestral forces that connect them.  In the case of crows, he found that the birds do not approach puzzles in the same way as humans.  “So, no, she isn’t thinking about the problem exactly like we would,” Gray says. “And we shouldn’t expect that. That’s not the way evolution works.

As Gray continues his rise to fame, he looks forward next to analyzing the language patterns on the Fijian island of Vanuatu.  As with everything else, he expects Darwin’s theory to unlock any mysteries he may encounter.  “It [Vanuatu] has the greatest density of languages; it’s like the Galapagos of language evolution, and we’re going to find out why,” he says. “I can guarantee you, it’s not a miracle.

Gray is fooling himself.  Everybody is a supernaturalist, and every scientist believes in miracles.  Before we offer our commentary, can you explain why?  Can you explain the strengths and/or weaknesses of evolutionary explanations?  Can you describe what “evolutionary thinking” entails?  Try your hand at analyzing Gray’s evolutionary approach to science.  Does it really lead to more understanding?  As with any discussion, it’s always wise to begin by clarifying definitions.

Update 9/23/14:  OK, we gave you some time.  If Gray believes in logic, truth and integrity, he believes in concepts that must be timeless, eternal, necessary, and certain.  Conclusion: he believes in the supernatural.  If he believes that everything proceeded from a big bang without a cause, that life originated by chance against the laws of probability, that multicellular organisms arose without purpose, that all the animal body plans exploded onto the scene without transitional forms, or that human cognition emerged from neurons, then he believes in miracles.  The only difference is his miracles are ruled out by the laws of probability, while theists believe that miracles, though rare (otherwise they would be called “normals”) proceed from an intelligent God for His stated purposes.

Evolutionary explanations can explain anything, even opposites (see “The Story of Evolution” in the 12/19/07 commentary).  Using imagination, anybody can concoct a story about how something evolved (see confabulation in the Darwin Dictionary).  “Evolutionary thinking,” therefore, is synonymous with confabulating; it is the opposite of science, which should rely on observability, testability, and repeatability.  Why did the crow evolve toolmaking while the dove did not?  Simple, the evolutionist says: Stuff Happens.  Isn’t science wonderful!

We should distinguish between variability and evolution.  Everyone, even the strictest young-earth creationist, knows that living things vary (look at dogs, for instance).   We should expect language to vary over time, because intelligent human people groups isolated from one another come up with different ways to express things in their environment that they find useful.  That is not Darwinian evolution.  Evolution in the sense Gray and other Darwinians use the term is defined as the universal common ancestry of all living things by the mindless, purposeless, unguided processes of mutation and natural selection—no intelligence allowed.  We have shown many times this is equivalent to the Stuff Happens Law.  It neither explains, nor provides understanding; it’s storytelling masquerading as science.

All this should be review to our regular readers.  If you are new to Creation-Evolution Headlines, learn these lessons well.



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