Evolution, Specificity, and Falsifiability

A recent commenter Mynym wrote (I hope he doesn’t mind my re-posting his comment in full):

I would like to register my disagreement that that is what “evolution requires.” What is required is that evolution be a more plausible explanation than the alternatives.

If that’s the case then evolutionary theory hasn’t really yet been specified in a way that leaves it open to empirical verification or falsification, even its critics are still looking for possible “edges.” For example, as it stands now it “predicts” any genetic change. Ironically Darwinism was actually more specified and open to empirical verification or falsification than the modern forms of hypothetical goo that the elastic term “evolution” has degenerated to. The problem is, Darwinism was falsified by the evidence to the extent that it was specified and so its specification and requirements had to be blurred away. Now even proponents are left with a theory specified only as opposed to other theories rather than the empirical evidence. Darwin did the same thing to some extent but not to the same extent, i.e. he would often “verify” his arguments as opposed to creationism instead of based on the empirical evidence. For example, to argue that you do not believe that God would design the panda’s thumb the way it is or to engage in theology is not using the theory of natural selection to predict the emergence of panda’s thumbs based on a process of filtering random mutations and so on. It’s not the same thing as using a scientific theory to predict a trajectory of adaptation or to really predict anything. If the predictions, specifications and requirements of evolutionary theory are defined by their opposition to other theories or to creationism then taking the case of creationism as an example all that has really been said is: “I don’t believe that God would make thumbs like this.”

One of the thing I’ve been insisting upon, and will continue to insist upon, is that the explanatory power of the evolutionary hypothesis is drastically underestimated by people whose understanding of the hypothesis is based on misunderstandings, if not caricatures.

That’s just it, the explanatory power of the evolutionary hypothesis is too great and too “overwhelming” because it explains everything. It hasn’t been specified so it “explains” all possible empirical observations. It is often said to explain one set of facts as well as their exact opposite. If men are homosexual then it explains that, yet it also explains why men are heterosexual as well as why they are promiscuous, yet also why they are monogamous and it even contains explanations as to why they are celibate. How can you verify a theory based on empirical evidence when it explains everything? Many “explanations” can be proposed given the vast explanatory powers attributed to a theory that was never specified based on a rational view of the empirical evidence in the first place. Its explanatory power is a mental illusion brought about by its own lack of specification. After all, what biological observation would not comport with evolution?

The simple fact is that anyone criticizing the hypothetical goo typical to the theory of evolution will seem to be making a caricature out of it because it’s up to the critic themselves to specify it or to attempt to find its edge. There is no edge that has been specified by its modern proponents, thus its predictions are typically mental illusion which it never really predicted in the first place. Even in disagreements among themselves over their ridiculously low epistemic standards biologists have to point out that they’re not making a caricature out of that type of hypothetical goo:

The viewpoint of Coyne et al. (1988) is one in which past events are argued to explain, in a causal sense, the world around us. Such explanations cannot be verified or tested, and the only biological observations they require are that variation and differential reproduction occur. This is not a caricature, as a reading of Coyne et al. will verify. In keeping with this general viewpoint, proponents claim that species are explained with reference to history. Important characters are hence “mechanisms” that have established and maintained the separation between diverged lineages of an ancestral population. According to Coyne et al., even the adaptive purpose of the changes that resulted in these mechanisms is irrelevant.
We would ask where biology enters into this schema.
(Points of View
Species and Neo-Darwinism
By C. S. White; B. Michaux; D. M. Lambert
Systematic Zoology, Vol. 39, No. 4. (Dec., 1990), :400-401) (Emphasis added)

It seems that because of the imagery and mental illusions brought about by such reasoning* it sounds better in your own mind but when someone else repeats exactly what you’ve specified back at you then suddenly it’s not what you said at all. Instead it’s a caricature, etc.

*Which is linked back to the modern philosophy that did away with Aristotle, a mechanical philosophy which actually denies a scientific understanding of present causal patterns in favor of imagining things about the past.

Mynym, I think you make a great point with the lack of specificity with Darwinism. The refrain of neo-Darwinists seems to be, “But we can explain that!” It doesn’t matter what it is. No matter what the criticism, they have an explanation. No matter what the phenomena, they have an explanation. They can explain everything from buttered bread to flyswatters to deodorant. There is no falsifiability, because “Evolution is true!” They can spin just-so stories all day long1, and it doesn’t matter because “Evolution is true! If you don’t believe it, then just ask scientists.” Often to me, the argument is no better than, “Evolution is true; therefore it happened. And anyone who believes it didn’t happen is stupid; therefore, evolution is true….Praise Science!”

And while Darwin posited a couple of ways his theory could be falsified (i.e., a lack of millions of transitional fossils and irreducible complexity), there are many religious arguments that are made on behalf of evolution as Mynym points out. Current Darwinists assert that Darwin was wrong on both accounts. These factors cannot falsify evolution, because evolution is true. And anyone who doesn’t believe it is well obviously a Cretard or an IDiot.

1 Darwin says “just so…” While I’ve written a number of naturalistic fairy tales going back well before the beginning of time, this site chronicles many naturalistic fairy tales of Darwinism. Even more than the 15 I have written thus far.

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25 Responses

  1. Well, here’s a standard line of argument which I submit for your consideration:

    There are multiple lines of empirical evidence — genetic, paleontological, embryological, anatomical, and (sometimes) behavioral. And there is a remarkable — actually, quite astonishing — degree of consilience between these different lines of evidence. So the question is, which hypothesis better accounts for this consilience, evolution or intelligent design?

    I accept that there are strong cases to be made on both sides. But I think the case for evolution is stronger, because evolution — understood as selection operating on inheritable phenotypic variation — can explain why we see precisely the sort of consilience that we observe. Why, for example, we see adaptive radiations when we do — why the dinosaurs didn’t flourish until after the Permian extinction, and why mammals didn’t flourish until after the Cretaceous extinction. (Though in recent years we’ve had some remarkable discoveries of Cretaceous mammals, including one that was big enough to hunt small dinosaurs!) Whereas intelligent design cannot offer any more than, “that’s just how the designer chose to do it.”

    On the other hand — and I really do wish to be fair to all sides, despite my prejudices! — there is this to be pointed out: consilience, and science generally, presuppose that we live in a rational universe with a structure that is intelligible to human thought. And it is my prejudice that one of the intuitions which motivates design theory, at least in its philosophically sophisticated versions, that the very comprehensibility of the universe is itself something that cries out, that demands, comprehension.

    If human beings are only one more species of animal, whose minds are the consequence of selection operating on inheritable variation, then one might think, “why should it be the case that an odd sort of African ape be capable of discovering the fundamental intelligibility of the universe? Isn’t it remarkably odd — if not absurd! — that a mind which is adapted for hunting antelope, avoiding lions, and chasing mates should also be capable of re-programming itself, over the generations, into a mind which can create mathematical proofs of dizzying complexity and which can build instruments that instill reverence for the grandeur of galaxies and atoms?”

    I don’t think that this is a good argument for intelligent design over evolution at the level of theory, but it is the best argument I can think of for theism over atheism at the level of worldview. John Haldane, an avowed atheist, once said that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is its comprehensibility.” For if atheism cannot allow us comprehend the comprehensibility of the universe, then there is something intellectually unfulfilling about atheism (contra Dawkins).

  2. For if atheism cannot allow us to comprehend the comprehensibility of the universe, then there is something intellectually unfulfilling about atheism.

    Based on that Carl, wouldn’t consilience necessarily need to include disciplines such as theology and philosophy?

    …because evolution — understood as selection operating on inheritable phenotypic variation — can explain why we see precisely the sort of consilience that we observe.

    First, that can’t be all there is to evolution (“selection operating on inheritable phenotypic variation”). Evolution is more about defining the limits (or lack of limits) of such a process, as Mynym has pointed out.

    Second, I would say evolutionary theory only explains (or attempts to explain) a consilience of scientific disciplines, with theism excluded. Yet you admit such a worldview doesn’t accurately represent your true experience of “lived life”? So wouldn’t the inclusion of theism lead to a more satisfying consilience or truth?

  3. First, that can’t be all there is to evolution (”selection operating on inheritable phenotypic variation”). Evolution is more about defining the limits (or lack of limits) of such a process, as Mynym has pointed out.

    I don’t understand. Limits? Lack of limits? Defining?

    I don’t even know what this means, but I strongly suspect that whatever the guiding thought is here, it is not something that I recognize in any aspect of evolutionary theory as I’m familiar with it, and I’d like to believe that I’m pretty familiar with it.

  4. I was only thinking about consilience among the sciences . . . although E.O. Wilson argues in his book Consilience for a further consilience of the sciences with the humanities. I don’t share that view. The autonomy of the humanities must be defended. And though I don’t share all of Wendell Berry’s sentiments, I thought very highly of his Life is Beautiful.

  5. I don’t understand. Limits? Lack of limits? Defining?

    Limits, as in can this process “select” a rodent into a human, given unlimited time? Or will a rodent always be some sort of rodent, selection notwithstanding? Evolution says yes on both counts. No discernible limits, or edges, as Mynym expressed in his post. Evolution’s got all the bases covered. It can’t lose. It’s unfalsifiable in its current dogma. It’s like saying ‘God is unlimited’, so that I may freely attribute to him anything that fits my dogmatic beliefs.

    Anyway, I don’t see how the autonomy of the humanities is sacrificed in any way by allowing them to speak to the question at hand. Especially since the one thing it offers is potential meaning.

  6. Mynym, I think you make a great point with the lack of specificity with Darwinism.

    And yet to the extent that it has been specified it has typically been falsified.* This may be difficult to see for those “overwhelmed” by mental illusions rooted in imagining things about the past based on modern philosophy but it is generally the case empirically. I don’t like using italics but it seems like some people really can’t see basic facts or distinctions because they’re too busy citing their own imaginations as if they are empirical evidence. The irony of avoiding falsification is that one is also avoiding any possibility of verification, other than the imaginary kinds which allows the weak minded to be “overwhelmed” by their own imaginations.

    *As Gould noted:

    Stasis is data.
    So if stasis could not be explained away as missing information, how could gradualism face this most prominent signal from the fossil record? The most negative of all strategies-a quite unconscious conspiracy of silence-dictated the canonical response of paleontologists to their observations of stasis. Again, a “culprit” may be identified in the ineluctable embedding of observation within theory. Facts have no independent existence in science, or in any human endeavor; theories grant differing weights, values, and descriptions, even to the most empirical and undeniable of observations. Darwin’s expectations defined evolution as gradual change. Generations of paleontologists learned to equate the potential documentation of evolution with the discovery of insensible intermediacy in a sequence of fossils. In this context, stasis can only record sorrow and disappointment.
    Paleontologists therefore came to view stasis as just another failure to document evolution. Stasis existed in overwhelming abundance, as every paleontologist knew. But this primary signal of the fossil record, defined as an absence of data for evolution, only highlighted our frustration-and certainly did not represent anything worth publishing. Paleontology therefore fell into a literally absurd vicious circle. No one ventured to document or quantify-indeed, hardly anyone even bothered to mention or publish at all-the most common pattern in the fossil record: the stasis of most morpho-species throughout all their geological duration.
    (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Harvard College) by Stephen Jay Gould :759-760)

    It’s interesting that if catastrophism is done away and one interprets geology through an imaginary “geologic column” it’s still difficult to imagine mythological narratives of naturalism and gradualism. This isn’t to say that it is impossible, it’s just curious how difficult it is given the actual (yet often unpublished) evidence.

  7. Whereas intelligent design cannot offer any more than, “that’s just how the designer chose to do it.”

    You go on in your own comment to undermine elements of this caricature so apparently you already know that there is more to it than that.

    Ironically, if it were true that’s all that intelligent design offers then Darwinism and theories of evolution would have never arose in Christendom in the first place.

  8. I don’t understand. Limits? Lack of limits? Defining?

    For example, what type of biological observation would serve as a falsification of evolutionary theory as you understand it? Various biologists have pointed out possible falsifications* so it should be possible to the extent that Darwinism or evolutionary theory is specified in the first place.

    *Løvtrup for example:

    The author assumes an iconoclastic and sometimes sarcastic stance from the outset, and this tone persists throughout the book. This alone may discourage some of his potential readers, most unfortunately, for here is a book that all evolutionary biologists should read. […]
    In the end, one is left convinced that the author’s criticisms and suggestions are, for the most part, correct. He hits hard at the innumerable “falsifications” (as he calls them), that have wrongly attempted to enshrine Darwin and natural selection. He concludes that “Darwinism was refuted from the moment it was conceived” (pp. ix, 404) and that”… as a biologist and thinker Darwin was not a genius. He was not the ‘Newton of Biology’.. . . I would rather. . . bestow the latter epithet on Lamarck” (p. 421). Through degradation and epigonism, Darwin, supported by his friends and followers, reduced all of his important predecessors in evolutionary thought to near-oblivion: “. . . thanks to the deception of these men, Lamarck is largely considered a lunatic, Geoffrey Saint Hilaire an unbridled speculator, Chambers next to unknown, Owen a mischievous struggler, Spencer an inexhaustible scribbler, and Mivart a religious fanatic. Von Baer.. . is hardly mentioned . . .“ (p. 421). Yet, Von Baer was responsible for “the most parsimonious generalization ever stated in biology” (p. 378 ).
    In lauding Løvtrup’s book as an epochal break from the past, I do not wish to imply that he is the originator of his basic tenets. The book abounds with unique and pithy thoughts, but numerous other authors have subscribed to his fundamental theses: “. . . it is with great satisfaction that during the last few years I have been able to record a growing opposition to the ruling micromutation theory, both among experimentally and theoretically minded biologists” (p. 422). The list of people to whom the book is dedicated gives a clue to the free-thinking company sharing many of his views….
    (Darwinism: The Refutation of a Myth by Søren Løvtrup
    Review author: Hobart M. Smith
    Evolution, Vol. 43, No. 3. (May, 1989), :699-700)

    It’s interesting to note that ignorant people do compare Darwin to Newton and conclude that the theory of evolution is similar to the theory of gravity and so on.

  9. Limits, as in can this process “select” a rodent into a human, given unlimited time? Or will a rodent always be some sort of rodent, selection notwithstanding? Evolution says yes on both counts. No discernible limits, or edges, as Mynym expressed in his post. Evolution’s got all the bases covered. It can’t lose. It’s unfalsifiable in its current dogma.

    I don’t see why the testability of evolution requires that one be able to stipulate in advance whether or not there are limits to evolutionary change.

    This gets back to the issue we touched on before, about “kinds.” Evolutionary theory in its contemporary form is anti-essentialist — there are no “essences,” “kinds,” or “forms” of any sort — there are only populations. And this is, I have come to think, one of the real reasons why evolution is often regarded as dangerous. (Notice that the charge that it is dangerous is different from the charge that it is false — if it is dangerous, that could be a reason for not wanting it to be true, but that is different from showing that is not true.)

    The reason why evolution is often regarded as dangerous is that it is often assumed that ethical conduct requires essentialism about human nature. If it is true that ethics requires essentialism, then if evolutionary theory is anti-essentialist, then evolution might be dangerous. (Though here too there are many options!) On the other hand, if it is not true that ethics requires essentialism, then the anti-essentialism implicit in evolutionary theory is no cause for alarm.

    With respect to testability: well, if the cladograms produced from genetic data and paleontological data were massively divergent, I’d consider that an anomaly, for sure! But I’m closer to Kuhn than to Popper — that is, I don’t think that a single falsification breaks a theory. Instead, I think that anomalies can accumulate, and those anomalies are resolved when there is new “paradigm” which both successfully explains the anomalies and re-describes the observations explained under the previous paradigm.

    Those of you who see the matter as a stark opposition between the modern synthesis and design theory may not have appreciated the fact that I myself regard the modern synthesis as in need of replacement. That’s why I’m interested in self-organization theory (esp. Kauffman and Goodwin), in autopoeisis theory (Maturana and Varela), and developmental systems theory. I think there’s a good chance that one of these, or some combination of all of them, could give us the paradigm we need to really understand the power of “evo-devo” (evolutionary-developmental biology). So, in response to Pigliucci’s question, “do we need an extended evolutionary synthesis?” I think the answer is a clear “yes!”

  10. …if evolutionary theory is anti-essentialist, then evolution might be dangerous.

    I think evolution already is and has been dangerous for a long time. The damage is done. Mankind, the world throughout has already been dehumanized by the repeated drumming of evolution into all modern cultures. All the lost souls in the wake of the ongoing hubris of science is to all our shame.

    But what I am convinced of is that even if evolution is true, it will not be true in the way anyone expects. It will be a path that we have found, rather than a destination. It will offer more questions than answers. It will be a sign of a greater reality that will prove scientifically sound, while simultaneously revealing a glimpse of the Creator’s glory for those who have eyes to see. And then the argument starts all over again as we move from there!

  11. Is it your contention, then, that neo-Darwinism (however understood) is incompatible with a commitment to the inherent dignity of each individual?

  12. Who can feel dignified believing he is a meatloaf, covered up with a few self-ascribed “virtues” to make him feel better? That is self-delusion. It is an affirmation of matter over mind. It is an embracing of death, non-existence and entropy; not an embracing of life, spirit and intelligence.

    I believe that if the Glory revealed by any scientifc endeavor falls upon us meatloafs or mother nature, rather than the Creator, then it’s just not true. That’s what my faith tells me. That’s what my heart tells me. And that’s what evolutionary dogma tells me.

  13. A friend sent me this quote, which is an extended version of Socrates’ statement on introspection:

    The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the evolved life isn’t even worth examining.

    Mike, your comment reminded me of this quote!

  14. Yeah, I’ll take Ecclesiastes over ‘The Origin of Species’ !

  15. Mike,

    Me too!!!!

  16. Do you really believe that you have to chose? Why can’t you have both?

  17. “Do you really believe that you have to chose?”

    Yes!

    “Why can’t you have both?” (Spoken like a true American!)

    One’s a lie and one’s the truth, therefore, they don’t go together!

  18. Carl,

    In order for you to understand our position and choices, you would have to understand absolute truth, which, as of now, you continue to reject or deny. We, unlike others, can’t serve two Gods!

  19. Because any “theology of biology” that I’m interesting in would need to be grounded in a reason for being.

  20. Interesting responses!

    But clearly, even someone who accepts absolute knowledge (how things really are from the God’s-eye point-of-view) would happily accept that we, as finite human beings, catch glimpses of that absolute knowledge in fits and starts, here and there. The emphasis on absolute knowledge guarantees that it will all fit together, somehow. With me so far?

    So, given that, why can’t the Biblical view (represented by Ecclesiastes, which is one of my favorite parts of the Bible as well) be glimpse of the absolute truth, and Darwinism be another glimpse?

    Put otherwise, perhaps: a theistic evolutionist — even if that person’s theism is Christianity and their evolutionism is Darwinian — could be, it seems to me, as firmly committed to absolute knowledge as is any creationist or IDist (or atheist!). So even if the emphasis on absolute knowledge is part of what’s necessary to reject Darwin and accept Ecclesiastes, that can’t be the whole story. What else is it?

  21. Mike, I find your response very interesting — I’ll return to comment on it later on today or tomorrow.

  22. “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “all is vanity!” The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly. The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. Ecclesiastes (12: 8-14)

  23. But clearly, even someone who accepts absolute knowledge (how things really are from the God’s-eye point-of-view) would happily accept that we, as finite human beings, catch glimpses of that absolute knowledge in fits and starts, here and there. The emphasis on absolute knowledge guarantees that it will all fit together, somehow. With me so far?

    So, given that, why can’t the Biblical view (represented by Ecclesiastes, which is one of my favorite parts of the Bible as well) be glimpse of the absolute truth, and Darwinism be another glimpse?

    Put otherwise, perhaps: a theistic evolutionist — even if that person’s theism is Christianity and their evolutionism is Darwinian — could be, it seems to me, as firmly committed to absolute knowledge as is any creationist or IDist (or atheist!). So even if the emphasis on absolute knowledge is part of what’s necessary to reject Darwin and accept Ecclesiastes, that can’t be the whole story. What else is it?

    To me, the “absolute knowledge” that is aspired to to can only be knowledge of a greater reality, which goes with a humbling of knowing we in fact are further from absolute knowledge than we thought. This is so radically different from the proud doctrines I see being spouted from Darwinists.

    To me, any science of biological origins, based on reason for being, must come from embracing creationism in some form. So, a Judeo/Christian evolutionist will try to subordinate evolution to creationism, but insurmountable conflicts arise between orthodox theology, or revelation, and evolutionary theory. The further one goes, the less of each is retained, the more each is mangled, to arrive at an impotent synthesis that glorifies nobody but the one who made it up. This is because it’s impossible to “back-into” a theology of life from a starting point of non-existence. Life begets Life.

  24. Perhaps this is matter of my wanting to have my cake after eating it. Evolutionary theorists are right, I think, in arguing that Darwinian explanations are superior to natural-theological explanations — as explanations of particular biological phenomena. But it’s one thing to say that, and quite another to think that evolutionary theory rules out of consideration a “theology of nature.”

    (Dembski, for what’s worth, is highly critical of this distinction: see his Is Intelligent Design a Form of Natural Theology?.)

    I think that Dawkins has done evolutionary theory as many disservices as he has services. In part because he’s a good writer, he has an extraordinary influence on public perceptions of science. But he does not distinguish, as I wish he would, between evolution as a scientific theory and anti-theism as a world-view. Since they are inextricably interwoven on his account, and his account has proven to be (unfortunately) influential, he contributes to the public perception that evolution and anti-theism are interwoven.

  25. On the one hand, I can see the point of a desire for a metaphysics of nature (whether theological or not) — something that gives an answer to the traditional question, “why is there something rather than nothing?”

    On the other hand, I regard science as playing a different role than metaphysics. I don’t expect that a scientific theory will offer us ultimate explanations of the sort that we traditionally expect from metaphysics.

    Among the various “theistic evolutionists,” I’ll confess a deep fondness for Hans Jonas. Jonas begins by pointing out that ethics must be grounded in metaphysics if it is not to be arbitrary. (And I think that is correct.) He makes the connection by way of the concept of life. Life itself is a source of ethical demands, and the process whereby moral agency emerges from life is the actualization of ethics through progressively more complicated forms of the self/other relationship. Yet he also points out that we need an account of the origins of life. He suggests — but also acknowledges that he cannot demonstrate — that the potentiality for life is present in the very structure of matter, just as the potentiality for mind is present in the very structure of life.

    But where does the potentiality of life ultimately come from? To say that it lies in matter as such is not to answer the question, since one can ask, “why is the universe one in which there exists a potentiality for life?” This is the age-old “fine tuning” problem. At this point, Jonas argues that there is no empirical, scientific solution to the fine-tuning problem, but that we demand that there be something to be said about it. Much like Kant, Jonas insists that human reason asks questions to which there is no scientific answer — i.e. reason transcends knowledge. In doing so, reason itself invites a response from faith.

    The faith of a theist responds to the fine-tuning problem in one way; the faith of an atheist (“faitheism”) responds to it in another way.

    I don’t know if this tangent contributes to the conversation — but that is for you to decide!

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