Dr. David Berlinksi and Evolution

Readers will know that I consider myself to be an “evolutionary creationist.” Not long ago, I was asked about David Berlinski’s (Ph.D Philosophy) thoughts on evolution, as expressed in this short clip:

Evangelicals may remember Berlinski from The Truth Project and Expelled—both of which I once promoted. However, after looking into what actual biologists say about evolution, it became clear that I had been making grandiose claims without ever having looked at the actual evidence. It’s not that any one pastor, speaker, author, etc. intends to be dishonest (neither did I intend this when I was an antievolutionist). But North American evangelicalism, not intending it, has unconsciously arrived at an inherently dishonest approach to evolution: one in which individuals like Berlinski, who are not biologists, are accorded more authority to speak about biology than actual biologists. This is all the more painful for me, as I continue to identify as an evangelical and think that in many other things we are honest and self-examining. This is a call to fearlessly carry that same strength over to the area of evolutionary science. (I am not saying that The Truth Project is entirely without merit. It covers a wide variety of topics, and even if I disagree on some things, I entirely applaud any effort to get evangelicals thinking about deeper things that have not been thought about in the popular sphere for quite some time.)

How do I respond to this video? In a rather oversized nutshell,

Agreed: Evolution is not a theory in the same sense as a physicist’s theory, but it is a reasonable biological theory.

  • It is more like theories in more historical sciences like geology, cosmology, and crime-scene forensics than it is like theories in physics.
  • It is not just a collection of “hunches.”
    • In one sense all science is just “hunches”—depending on how philosophical you want to get, but Berlinski’s statement is just misleading. Yes, there are hunches involved, but those hunches have over 150 years of experimental confirmation, correction, etc. behind them. There were other “hunches” than Darwin’s about how to explain evolution, such as Lamarckism, which have been abandoned–they did not stand up to scrutiny. Every forensic detective works from hunches—what he or she looks for is confirming evidence.
    • Science is self-correcting and always open to new explanations and evidence. There is not one scientific “fact” out there that we can point to in any sort of final, no-more-possible-questions sense. So for Berlinski to point this out about evolutionary theory as if it is uniquely true about evolution is just misleading. It is also true about theories of gravity, electromagnetism, cosmology, chemistry, etc. So he can draw attention to the “hunch-ness” of evolution if he likes, but what he is saying is true about all science, everywhere.
  • Consider theology
    • Even the “science” of theology must always go back to Special Revelation for repeating “testing” (exegesis) and confirmation/disconfirmation of our “theories” (interpretations).
    • While we know that we might possibly be hearing the Bible/Holy Spirit wrongly, we also find ourselves constrained to formulate creeds and statements of faith. We are quick to add that our statements of faith are not the Bible, and yet, at the same time, it would be irresponsible not to have statements of faith.
    • In a similar way, scientists have theories: they are not final, as if we could just stop all experimentation, and yet they are not nothing either. They are in-between: they are what we have decided it is most responsible, for now, to accept as true.
      • It is my experience that we evangelicals want to say that everything is either certain or false. But God simply has not set up things that way. 

Regarding the Fossil Record

  • What he is saying here is just not true. Here are some examples of fossils that show the kind of confirmation of evolution that comes from the fossil record:
  • There are some mysteries in the fossil record. But anyone who expects there to be absolutely no questions or anomalies just doesn’t know how it works. There are also mysteries regarding other scientific theories—such as gravity and electromagnetism. But when 99% of the evidence points one way, and only 1% points the other, it seems reasonable to think that the 1% can be explained in the light of the 99%. (But see Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for a serious treatment of these things.)
  • This is similar to the “Scripture interprets Scripture” principle: we interpret difficult passages in light of the ones that are more clear. That’s one reason we do not abandon the Bible because of Paul’s words about “baptism for the dead” in 1 Cor 15. What would we say to someone who confidently rejected Christianity because we were not able to thoroughly explain every mysterious passage?

On Examining Natural Selection’s Claims

  • He says we can’t examine the claim that “natural selection and random variation can account for a great deal of complexity.”
    • This is partly untrue, and partly unfair.
      • It is untrue because we have demonstrated that natural selection can generate new information: 
      • It is unfair because while we can demonstrate small instances of natural selection (see above link), we obviously cannot play back the last 3.5 billion years in order to watch. Even if evolution were true, we could never do that, so it is a silly reason to dismiss evolution. It would be like dismissing the evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection just because we can’t go back in time and see the Resurrection. Would that really be a good, honest reason?
  • Berlinksi just doesn’t face up to the fact that biology should not and never could operate just like physics.
    • He inappropriately compares Natural Selection to Newton’s inverse square law.
      • What would we say to a man who asked us to prove from mathematical laws that a defendant was guilty? By Berlinski’s logic, we should not accept anything we know about viruses, allergies, human anatomy, etc.
      • He repeats the phrase “serious sciences.” Does he think that geology, cosmology, and forensic sciences are not “serious”? What he really refers to are the “hard” or “exact” sciences, as opposed to more historical sciences like geology, cosmology, and even the historical science involved in finding evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection.

Simulating Evolution on a Computer?

  • This seems to be a an example of how Berlinski just doesn’t understand what sort of science evolutionary science is, how it works, or what biologists really think. We cannot simulate a historical science for the same reason we cannot simulate history itself. You could not program a computer to simulate evolution from abstract principles (e.g. Force = Mass X Acceleration) any more than you could do so with the French Revolution. But do we therefore doubt the historicity of the French Revolution? It’s a category error.
  • He thinks that natural selection is so simple that we should be able to program a computer to simulate it. 
    • Could we program a computer to simulate a real crime—right down to the sinful decisions made in the criminal’s mind? No. And yet does that do anything to argue against our forensic re-creations of crime scenes? Not at all.
    • Natural selection always responds to the environment at hand. It is not as though evolution is always “aimed” at more complexity. If the environment favoured organisms with lower complexity, then we would see a decrease. So Berlinski would have to program his computer with exactly the right history of the changing environment in order to properly simulate human evolution as it really occurred (and we know that it might easily not have occurred). He just wouldn’t have the necessary data for his simulation–nobody has that complete of a record of the earth’s environmental history. This is like asking for video evidence of Jesus before we will believe.
  • Another problem is that in order to simulate a genetic algorithm, you’d have to already understand how it works; you’d have to already have the question answered—but that is just what we are trying to find out! The computer can only operate on the basis of our programming, and that initial programming can only ever stem from our own assumptions and data. Even if we had the “perfect genetic algorithms,” we would have to perfectly represent the changing environment on earth for the past 3.5 billion years. Moreover, this raises a serious theological problem:
    • We could never represent God’s providence at work in our simulation. Can we really replace God’s providence with a simulation and expect the same result? This suggests that what Berlinksi really rejects is atheistic evolution; he has not even come close to addressing a robust evolutionary creationism.
  • Because we have
    1. Convincing evidence that evolution did happen, and yet
    2. Evidence that human evolution very easily might not have happened (see fine-tuning arguments), we have
    3. A good reason to think that God’s providence is involved (but not in a way that science can necessarily detect–not any more than we can detect God at work in a sparrow’s death or a king’s decisions).
      • Therefore, I find that evolution actually shows the need for a sovereign Creator who just not just create the world, but sustains and directs it in his providence. (But I of course would not rest my faith in Christ on this argument. My faith rests on an ongoing encounter with him, in which I live life in the presence of God in a way that is behind and before all human reasoning–not unlike the fact that I find myself living in a real, physical world in way that simple pre-exists all reasoning.)

“Dogs stay dogs.”

  • Here Berlinski doesn’t seem to appreciate the very strong evidence we have for one species coming from another. For example, there is surprisingly good evidence that humans and chimpanzees came from a common ancestor: 
  • Berlinski talks about an “inherent species limitation,” but notice that the word “species” is really just a line that humans draw between different beings, and that we can find examples that blur these lines. Also, there are very clear examples of different species that appear not only related, but appear related in a way that can be independently confirmed from both fossils and genetics. 
  • He thinks that we should have more plasticity, etc. than we do have, but what makes his expectation relevant or authoritative? That’s just his hunch. Serious science would say, “well, we have strong evidence for Common Ancestry, and yet we don’t have exactly what Berlinski expects—it seems that Berlinski is just wrong to some extent.” 
    • Einstein was surprised that the universe isn’t eternal after all (it had a beginning); the Jews were surprised that the Messiah did not come as a military conqueror. Sometimes reality surprises us—it isn’t always how we assume it will be.
  • Again, the reason we see such “bounded variability” in the laboratory is that we don’t have billions of years to play with. In order to see large-scale changes, we need more time. We don’t have it, so we look in the only place we can: evidence that these things have or haven’t happened in the past.
    • Again: notice Berlinski’s assumption that the providence of God in evolutionary past can just easily be set aside and replaced with experimentation in the lab. This idea offends my sensibilities an evolutionary creationist. I entirely reject any idea that evolution is some sort of “rogue entity” that acts of its own accord apart from God’s providence; rather, it is his means of creation.

A Common Confusion about Common Descent

  • Berlinski does not explain to his audience (in this clip) the difference between three very separate things:
    • 1. The evidence for (and theory of) Common Ancestry of all life on earth.
    • 2. The evidence for (and theory of) Evolution as the best explanation of Common Ancestry (different evidence/considerations).
    • 3. The evidence for (and theory of) Natural Selection as the best explanation of Evolution (again, different evidence, and this is the part that Darwin contributed).
  • Berlinski plays fast and loose with these separate matters, speaking as if questions about one of them affect questions about another. However, questions about Natural Selection do nothing to overturn the evidence for Common Ancestry. Darwin could be totally wrong and we’d still have to deal with human evolution and explain it another way.
    • It would be like thinking that evidence against the biblical flood, for example, can determine whether or not Jesus existed,
    • Or like thinking that evidence in favour of the Resurrection alone automatically proves that the entire (Protestant? Catholic? Orthodox?) Bible is true in a rigid, literal-historical sense. 
      • As we know, these things just require more homework than that.

Conclusion

Berlinski makes numerous assumptions and speaks in way that sounds authoritative, but he seems unaware of the most relevant facts. He has a Ph.D in Philosophy—not science—and it shows. It is kind of like how Richard Dawkins has the ear of so many people on the topics of philosophy and religion even though his expertise is entirely elsewhere. There is great danger in giving people authority in fields that they (should) have none. No one take electrical advice from a plumber over me, an electrician—and no one should listen more to non-biologists about evolution than they listen to biologists themselves. The people who want to hear what Dawkins says are not troubled over whether he is trained in theology, and the people who want to hear what Berlinski says are not troubled over his lack of training in biology: both groups ought to be troubled. It is just an unacceptable practice to give more attention and authority to non-experts than to experts in a given inquiry. We should not forget to listen to non-experts, sometimes they surprise us, but the men and women who have humbled themselves before a given reality (electricity, the Bible, dentistry, etc.) are always the ones we should listen to first. 

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