Science & Faith
5/15/13 at 04:38 PM 35 Comments

Neo-Darwinism, Evolutionary Biology, and "Theory"

text size A A A

My last posting triggered many comments and ad hominem attacks (attacking persons rather than arguments). I urge my readers to focus on arguments based on evidence, rather than name calling. I will address a few of the assertions and arguments made in the comments in regard to the meaning and contextual use of the terms Darwinism, neo-Darwinism, evolutionary biology, and theory.

Webster dictionary: "neo-Darwinism: a theory of evolution that is a synthesis of Darwin's theory in terms of natural selection and modern population genetics." [I would only add that modern population genetics became part of this "modern synthesis" in the 1930s]

I gave many examples from books and professional journals to show that "Darwinism" and "neo-Darwinism" are often used interchangeably when referring to the most recent versions of evolutionary theory. I explained this situation by noting that the 1930s don't seen so "neo" [new] anymore, and also by observing that Darwin's theory continues to be updated in so many ways today, including by those who oppose certain aspects of traditional neo-Darwinism (but who are still Darwinists in some broad sense). These are sociological facts about the use of terms and sytles of theoretical discourse over the last few decades, which I documented with two bibliographies. SketpicNY, one of my readers who holds a Masters Degree in Toxicology, made this comment below my last post:

Sorry to break it to you Mr. Keas but you and your brethren at The discovery Institute are as much a part of the scientific debate as astrologers are. Do you have any idea how much you are ridiculed and laughed at? Just by uttering the word "Darwinism" you remove yourself from any type of discussion - and quite frankly is childish.

Dear SketpicNY, perhaps you may wish to comment below today's post just how the use of terms like "Darwinism" and "neo-Darwinism" is childish or astrology-like (my Ph.D. is in history of science and so I familiar with the history of astrology and its relationship to astronomy). If you review my last post you will find about 23 examples of publications in reputable scientific journals (or books by major academic publishers) that use these terms in the ways I have in my blog, even though only one of the 23 sources was written by an advocate of the scientific theory of intelligent design, namely this one: Meyer, Stephen C. "Teaching About Scientific Dissent from Neo-Darwinism." Trends in Ecology & Evolution 19, no. 3 (2004): 115-116. Notice that this essay was published in a major peer-reviewed scientific journal. By the way, Meyer is the lead author of this supplementary textbook in evolutionary biology that is currently used in public and private schools and colleges:

Meyer, Stephen C., Scott Minnich, Jonathan Moneymaker, Paul A. Nelson, and Ralph Seelke. Explore Evolution: The Arguments for and against Neo-Darwinism. London: Hill House, 2007. This textbook doesn’t teach intelligent design theory. It does, however, offer a balanced treatment of the scientific evidence and arguments for and against the most prominent current versions of Darwin's theory. Learn more about it here.

There is nothing in this textbook by Meyer and colleagues about the history or current status of the social, political, and moral applications of Darwinian ideas. I did write about "Darwinian morality" in my last blog because that is the title and topic of an essay in a journal aimed at science teachers and students at all levels of education (the same journal that Eugenie Scott promotes and publishes in). In that case the "ism" ending of "Darwinism" did connect with claims that went far beyond empirical science. Here is the article, which you can read for yourself (free download, see link in my last post): Wilson, Catherine. "Darwinian Morality." Evolution: Education & Outreach 3, no. 2 (2010): 275-287. See also my comments about this article in my last posting, and how Wilson is pushing atheism in the name of science. Usually the "ism" ending of neo-Darwinism describes work in the empirical natural sciences (unlike Wilson's essay). But read the textbook by Meyer above, and then you will see that it we stick just with empirical natural science, the case against the evolution of all life from a common sourse (by an undirected material process) is very strong.

SketpicNY also wrote:

ID's two biggest arguments: 1) Gee it's so complicated therefore the magic man did it 2) Lets change the word "evolution" and call it "darwinism". Thats's basically it Mr Keas, right?

I've already answered the second charge. How about the first? When SketpicNY typed out the above sentences, he was not doing magic, but he was acting as an intelligent cause. He arranged a complex sequence of letters that have a specified function, namely to communicate some ideas in English. This blog, and all that SketpicNY has posted in comments, exhibit complex specified information. This is the core of the inference to intelligent design (ID), and it has nothing to do with magic.

What exactly is the design inference? Scientists can compare objects (such as telescopes) designed by human intelligence to phenomena whose origin is debatable. When an intelligent agent acts, it chooses from a range of competing possibilities to create a complex and specified outcome. Human artifacts such as my laptop (and the present blog) exhibit complex specified information (CSI). Intelligent design is detected when one observes a highly unlikely event or object (making it complex) that conforms to an independent functional pattern (making it specified). The digital code in DNA and the text of Shakespeare’s Hamlet both constitute CSI in that they are complex and conform to the functional requirements of either biological life (i.e., proteins made using DNA’s code) or English language rules. Intelligent agency is the only causally adequate explanation of CSI. That is the strikingly beautiful and scientifically detectable essence of ID. Read more about this in Discovery Institute’s free e-booklet The Parent’s Guide to Intelligent Design.

SketpicNY also thinks that I think that a <<"theory" means a guess or a hunch.>> I don't. Evolutionary theory explains small scale change very well. It is a good theory in this regard. What it does not explain is the origin of all life forms from a common ancestor (or very few number of common ancesotrs) by an unguided material process. Read the textbook Explore Evolution for the details. There is a whole range of theories in science from very strong ones to weak ones. Part of my job as a historian and philosopher of science is to assess the worth of different theories in terms of how well they explain the relevant evidence available at different times in history (and today).

Another one of my readers wrote:

Theories about what did or didn’t occur millions or billions of years ago, cannot be verified of falsified, and are best left to those who have at least pursued science far enough to recognize simple chemical vocabulary. That would not include teenagers that can barely pass the reading & math courses.

All scientific theories, whether about origins (historical theories) or not, typically include multiple hypotheses that can be modified bit by bit when confronted by conflicting data. But if a theory has a track record (over many years) of being modified frequently in ways that seem designed merely to save it from defeat in the face of conflict with new evidence, then this counts against that theory. Such modified components of larger theories are called ad hoc hypotheses. There are many ways in which the part of evolutionary theory that deals with large scale changes has such a poor track record.

I think that evolutionary theory can be taught effectively to high school students, especially when they get the whole story, which the textbook Explore Evolution helps provide: not just the evidence for neo-Darwinism, but also the evidence against it. Learn more about it here. There you will find this about the textbook (which further addresses one my reader's thoughts about historical theories):

Sometimes, scientists find that the same evidence can be explained in more than one way. When there are competing theories, reasonable people can (and do) disagree about which theory best explains the evidence. Furthermore, in the historical sciences [i.e., theories about origins], neither side can directly verify its claims about past events. Fortunately, even though we can't directly verify these claims, we can test them. How? First, we gather as much evidence as possible and look at it carefully. Then, we compare the competing theories in light of how well they explain the evidence.

Looking at the evidence and comparing the competing explanations will provide the most reliable path to discovering which theory, if any, gives the best account of the evidence at hand. In science, it is ultimately the evidence-and all of the evidence-that should tell us which theory offers the best explanation. This book will help you explore that evidence, and we hope it will stimulate your interest in these questions as you weigh the competing arguments.

Now that is what I call good science education. Eugenie Scott, who is soon going into retirement from the National Center for Science Education (see my last blog on her), has argued for a quarter century against the sort of even-handed approach taken by the textbook Explore Evolution. She is the same person who has urged us not to use the terms "Darwinism" and "neo-Darwinism." But, as I documented in my last blog, many scholars and scientists are just ignoring her advice.

Learn more about the textbook supplement *Explore Evolution* here:
CP Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of The Christian Post. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author(s).