January 13, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

What Value Do Evolutionary Explanations Provide?

We want value for our science dollars.  We know artists are into self-expression, but scientists need to offer more than just artistic prose: they are supposed to be in the knowledge generation business.  So we expect to gain one of two things from their scientific explanations.  One, we would like to gain practical knowledge that can improve our lives: such as a better understanding of cancer that can motivate more effective treatments.  But even if we cannot hope for a practical payoff, we hope to gain understanding of natural phenomena.  Black holes may not be practical, for example, but we want to understand what they are and what they do.  Most of all, we expect the knowledge gained to be empirical – based on observations, with theories that can be tested and verified.
    Evolution is often presented as the explanation for many things in science.  But how much does evolution pay in terms of practical benefits and understanding?  Hearing a person describe a notion out of his or her own mind, which cannot be tested, does neither.  Speculation is cheap.  If we wanted entertainment, we could go see Avatar or watch a comedy show.  Ask what return on investment, if any, is being provided in terms of knowledge by the following scientific explanations.

  1. We’re here because we’re here:  Alejandro Jenkins got the cover story of Scientific American for speculating about “life in the multiverse,” according to Science Daily.  Jenkins noted that the existence of life in our universe is constrained by requirements for the laws of physics (the Anthropic Principle).  Life on Earth can exist because these requirements are satisfied in our universe.  Jenkins noted that the existence of carbon, for instance, is possible because of precise values for physical constants.  So far, this is like natural theology: “So how is it that such a perfect balance exists?  Some would attribute it to God, but of course, that is outside the realm of physics.
        But is it within the realm of physics to do what he does next?  He speculates on other universes that might have different combinations of laws that might permit exotic life – speculations that cannot be observed or tested, even in principle.  That sounds like the same limitation he is placing on believers in God.
  2. We’re here because we’re here, part II:  An article in Space.com included this entertaining quip from Moredecai-Mark Mac Low of the American Museum of Natural History in New York about the realization that disk evolution around stars forbids planet formation: “Well, this contradicts basic observational evidence, like We. Are. Here.”  Live Science apparently thought that was profound.  Mac Low’s statement was in response to, “As the planets are forming, they are also thought to migrate within the surrounding dust disk.  The classic picture of this planet migration suggests that planets like (and including) the Earth should have plummeted into the sun while they were still planetesimals.”  Yet the stubborn fact remains that We. Are. Here.
        To bring theory into conformity with observations, Mac Low tweaked a mathematical model that kept his baby planetesimals from plowing into the star.  He included theoretical temperature differences in the dust.  As a result, his model brought the planetesimals to equilibrium zones where they survived.  Is this really a commentary on the physics of real-world stars and planets, or a salute to the imagination of a scientist to tell a post hoc story?  Maybe it’s a kind of appeal to miracles (08/21/2009).
  3. Why we get sick:  “Evolution and Ailments: Scientists suggest systemic changes are linked to rise in disorders,” began an article in PhysOrg.  “The subtle but ongoing pressures of human evolution could explain the seeming rise of disorders such as autism, autoimmune diseases, and reproductive cancers, researchers said Friday (Jan. 8) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” the article said.  “Some adaptations that once benefited humans may now be helping such ailments persist in spite of – or even because of – advancements in modern culture and medicine.”
        While this explanation appears to offer understanding, and maybe a modicum of practical benefit, it was qualified by that word “could explain.”  This means, in principle, there could be other explanations: like creation and the Fall, perhaps.  But the article assumed that the ruling explanation is evolutionary, even if they had to continue to couch it in maybe-words: “Autism and schizophrenia may be associated with the overexpression of paternally or maternally derived genes and influences,” for instance.  But what payoff did evolution provide in that explanation that distinguishes it from creation?  A Bible believer might acknowledge that our environment in a city is very different now, thousands of years past the Garden of Eden.  It says nothing to defend how humans arrived at humanhood from something else by a Darwinian process.
        The examples mount: “Maternal and paternal genes engage in a subtle tug-of-war well into childhood, with consequences for childhood development,” the article continues.  This explanation, however, is little more than a personified analogy that entertains the reader with visions of genes pulling the opposing teams into a mud pit or something.  Different analogies are possible.  Maybe what we observe is not a random tug-of-war, but a well-designed push-of-peace, where complementary systems engage in checks and balances to keep themselves in sync and in the pink.  What payoff to understanding or practical benefit did the evolutionary angle provide?
        The “hygiene hypothesis” was mentioned next: “Without being exposed to intestinal worms and parasites, as our ancestors were, our immune systems are hypersensitive.”  Again, a creationist could appeal to the same difference in environments and could explain this observation by intelligent design.
        Finally, the article simply asserted, as if it had won over any doubters, “Natural selection still influences our biology, despite advances in modern culture and medicine.”  The example given is “natural selection favors heavier women and reduces the age at which a woman has her first child.”  Yet natural selection could just as well favor slimmer women and later childbirth in some circumstances.  This is the “Stuff Happens” Law, an explanation devoid of knowledge.
        From there, Stephen Stearns (Yale) was called on to boast, “I think that the main take-home point is that evolution and medicine really do have things to say to each other, and some of these insights actually reduce suffering and save lives.”  Yet it could be argued that the evolutionary explanation is little more than a story tacked on to the end, with more entertainment value than explanation.  For centuries, doctors made major gains in reducing suffering and saving lives without even thinking of evolution.
  4. Fish morality:  Why do cleaner fish survive?  Cleaner fish are small species of fish that swim into the jaws of big fish and pick off the parasites – a remarkable case of mutualistic symbiosis.  The explanation: they play Robin Hood.  PhysOrg entertained readers with a kind of morality tale, an Aesop’s Fable of sorts: “Cleaner fish show it pays to be selfless.”  It’s a story about cheaters and punishers, lovers and wanderers, dictators and servants.  The morality tale gets undermined, however, with this line: “This study raises the possibility that ‘Robin Hood’ type behaviour might be less charitable than we think.”  Certain conservative talk show hosts might agree, but is it really adding anything to our scientific understanding to portray fish as actors in a morality drama?  Can fish even have a sense of self, or learn lessons about the benefits of selflessness?  Does this explanation do anything more than project our own human sensibilities on dumb fish?  Every child’s storybook does that sort of thing.
        The scientists at Zoological Society of London think this is science: “The next stage of the research will concentrate on the threat posed to male fish by similar sized females who can undergo sex changes and ultimately challenge their authority.”  I.e., they believe their explanation is testable.  But then, even the plot in a video game is testable.  You can change the rules or starting conditions of the game and watch the outcome.  That doesn’t mean the game wasn’t designed.  And it doesn’t mean you have generated new knowledge about nature when you have confirmed an anthropomorphism.
  5. Solving a mystery:  While on the subject of fish, consider that any good scientific explanation should solve a mystery.  But so should a good Sherlock Holmes novel.  The BBC News this week told us that scientists have found “Light shed on fish gill mystery.”  And the solution is: gills did not evolve for breathing.  A researcher at the University of British Columbia has figured out that “It is likely that fish evolved gills for the primary purpose of regulating the chemicals in their bodies.”  Surprised?  For one thing, it is surprising that an evolutionist would invoke purpose, and put the motivation for “evolving” something on the fish.  Evolution is supposed to be a passive, undirected result of selection pressures.  But even granting a little laxity for journalism’s sake, not everyone was convinced this explanation is a good one.  The article recorded the reaction of Rick Gonzalez [U of San Diego].  “He described the study as a ‘very interesting first step,’ but said it wasn’t clear if it answered the question of why fish evolved gills.”  He granted a charity vote that the work “is very interesting and offers insight into how natural selection works,” but noted that gills combine the functions of lungs and kidneys in mammals.  That’s a bigger order than the hypothesis was able to fill.  Whether insight was provided at all the reader can judge.
  6. Refining the measure of natural selection:  Triumph was in the air in this article on Science Daily: “Evolution’s Footprints in Human Genome Precisely Tracked Using New Approach.”  Researchers at Harvard are confident they are getting the image in the crystal ball: “As more data on human genetic variation becomes available in the coming years, an even more detailed evolutionary picture should emerge” (notice the future tense).  Yet the measures of “positive selection” they are assessing, which they promise provides a “deep glimpse of evolution’s handiwork,” concerns mild examples that would make a creationist yawn: changes in pigmentation, blood pressure, body mass index, and metabolic rate.  They claimed to find genetic changes that are “driving important evolutionary changes.”  In the next sentence, however, they admitted that, “Of the hundreds of these large genomic regions thought to be under positive natural selection in humans, only a handful have so far been winnowed to a precise genetic change.
        It’s clear that for this explanation to pay off, it has a lot of work to do.  PhysOrg reported that the chimpanzee Y chromosome was just sequenced, and they “have found considerable differences” between the ape and human versions.  To keep the evolutionary explanation intact, they are now having to say that “these chromosomes have evolved more quickly than the rest of their respective genomes over the 6 million years since they emerged from a common ancestor.”  David Page [Whitehead Institute] threw in a folksy analogy for entertainment: “People are living in the house, but there’s always some room that’s being demolished and reconstructed.  And this is not the norm for the genome as a whole.”  Funny; most people thought construction crews operated by intelligent design.

Evolutionists and materialists succeed at getting all the play in the scientific explanation industry (at least in the secular press) because their critics have been summarily excluded.  In any human enterprise, like politics, this is an environment that can produce laziness, excess, corruption, and abuse.

    To update Jeremiah 9:13-15, ‘these people have forsaken God’s laws of nature which are evident before them, and have not obeyed his voice, neither walked therein; But have walked after the imagination of their own heart (01/17/2007), and after Darwin, which their fathers taught them.  Therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of creation; Behold, I will feed them, even this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink.’  It is indeed galling to hear these people ascribe the wonders of creation to “evolution’s handiwork.”  That doesn’t make sense even to an evolutionist.  It shows they are mixing their own gall and drinking it on their own volition.  God doesn’t even need to intervene to help them exhibit their own folly.  He just uses “secondary causation,” the outcome of natural tendencies for lost humans to play the fool.
    Notice how they cannot be consistent with their assumptions about the way evolution works.  Natural selection is supposed to be completely mindless, purposeless, directionless, and careless.  It is supposed to have no foresight, no purpose, no planning and no goal.  Darwin was supposed to have ousted teleology from scientific explanation.  Yet day after day, week after week, year after year, decade after decade we find the Darwinists saying things like “fish evolved gills for the primary purpose of….”  Darwin himself was caught speaking this way often.  This is animism, pantheism, with Tinker Bell as their transcendent designer, because it is impossible to be a consistent materialist.
    Humans continue to fall into the habit of thinking and talking teleologically, not because we evolved to think in design terms in spite of the truth, but because design is the truth.  Disagree?  Then explain to everyone how you could ever know what truth even is.  But if you come to us as a scientist with no connection to the Truth about nature, then your storytelling is not science or knowledge generation.  It’s entertainment.  If imagination is your idol, go seek employment at Disneyland, where you can wish upon a star, all your fantasies can create a substitute reality, and the taxpayers don’t have to subsidize it.

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