Can Evolutionary Theory Improve Scientific Practice?
Need better science? Let the Darwin Party take over. They’ll give the next reformers an even bigger mess to clean up.
Arizona State University graduate Leonid Tiokhin is earning his D-Merit Badge for the Darwin Party. His project was to “change science for the better.” If “Science is society’s best method for understanding the world,” the reader asks, why does it need to be better? (See Best-in-Field Fallacy). Everybody acknowledges severe shortcomings between science’s ideals and real-world practice:
- The push to get priority motivates sloppy, rushed work.
- Many scientific practices are mere traditions.
- There are perverse incentives to publish positive, happy findings.
- First authors get all the glory.
Tiokhin thought about possible methods for overcoming these and other problems. He worked with Thomas Morgan at ASU to come up with some action plans. First, though, they decided to make a model – an evolutionary model.
To figure out how exactly the preference for priority affects science, and whether recent reforms offer any solution for its potential drawbacks, the collaborators developed an “evolutionary agent-based model.” This computer model simulates how a group of scientists investigate or abandon research questions, depending on their own results and the behavior of other scientists they compete against.
“The benefit of an evolutionary simulation is that we don’t need to specify in advance how scientists behave. We just create a world in which success is rewarded, and we let selection figure out what kinds of behavior this favors,” said Morgan. “We can then vary what it means to successful—for instance, whether or not it’s critical to come first—and see how selection changes the behavior of scientists in response. We can also measure the benefit to society—are scientists being efficient? Are their findings accurate? And so on.”
Based on their model, they reduced their findings to specific actions that could be taken to “change science for the better.”
- Priority protection: reduce the motivation to be first.
- Scoop protection: reduce the winner-take-all effect of publishing first.
- Increase the efficiency of large-scale data collection, reducing the temptation to skimp.
- Pre-register hypotheses so that they can be evaluated before data collection.
- Allow for some ineffeciencies; they are not always bad.
Tiokhin felt very pleased with his evolutionary model. His partner Minhua Yan said,
“It was a great pleasure to be part of this project. I got to use my modeling skills not only to make specific scientific discoveries, but also to shed light on how the scientific procedure itself should be designed to increase research quality and credibility. This benefits the whole scientific community and ultimately, the whole society,” said Yan, a graduate student in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.
Tiokhin, Yan and Morgan never specified whether any of the behaviors correlated with truth. A positive evolutionary outcome might be measured if everyone in the model ended up inebriated on soma, the drug in Brave New World. No more conflicts over priority; no worries over being scooped; inefficiencies forgotten – happy, happy, happy.
This is how evolutionary shlooping robs God of glory for science: the practitioners are chronic plagiarists. They think they can steal all the philosophical goodies from the theists’ table that they like – the correspondence theory of truth, the reality of good and evil, an eternal standard of integrity – and take them over into Darwin’s frankenstein lab to raise materialism from the dead. They could never get those values from their own worldview, because everything in Darwin’s universe is shifting shadows. Mind is an illusion, because only particles and forces exist. Truth reduces to fitness. It’s all a game of self against self.
Christians see exactly what is going on here. These three shloopers are not really materialists; nobody is. They are souls made in the image of God. Tiokhin and his buddies all came into the world with a conscience and an inborn sense of right and wrong. They were born physically into the world with working senses intended by their Maker to allow interaction with reality. And yet they, like all of us, wrestle in a fallen world that must deal each day with evil.
From a Christian worldview, their behaviors make sense. They perceive the wrong of selfish worries over priority in science, of perverse incentives, and sloppy work. They recognize these as truly bad things – not just bad instances of fitness. They want to fix them for the better. So they run over to the Christian smorgasbord and nourish themselves on a few Christian concepts like truth, beauty and love, without paying the price, and then run back and imagine that ‘if we had this kind of food here in Darwin’s lab, we could fix things in science.’ They could never come up with words like better, benefit, honor, integrity, or unselfishness on their own menu. So they steal them (because Tiohkin et al. are not really evolved apes after all; they are fallen image-bearers of God). With some remnant sense of their spiritual natures, they apply them, and hold up their product (the “evolutionary agent-based model”) as praise for What Darwin Hath Wrought. It’s a crime.
Darwine attacks the mental lobe connected to understanding and prevents them from seeing themselves infected with the Yoda complex. Only by slapping their hand every time they borrow Christian concepts can they be brought to see that ‘you can’t get there from here.’
The way to proceed with such people is to treat them as who they are (image-bearers of God with a conscience), not as who they think they are (evolved apes). When they sneak up to the Christian smorgasbord to grab some goodies, we stand up to them and say, ‘We have plenty of these to share, but first, you need to drop your baggage and go to the end of the line, where that narrow gate is. Once your repentance and faith are accepted, you can have all you want. You will receive a new mind that will no longer wish to thank Darwin for it, but will wish to thank the true source, the true and living God who made all this and you.’