I hate to resurrect the ID debate just when it’s finally dying down, but in a disappointing column from the usually smart David Warren, he makes the following false assertion:
“Evolutionism” is the prevailing speculation, that by minute alterations in traits, in continuing response to environmental pressures, an isolated group within a species “evolves” to the point where its members can breed with each other but no longer with others, and — presto! — you have a new species. But the “presto” has never been observed in nature, and there is a universal paucity of transitional forms. The speculation may even seem plausible, but remains an act of faith. It isn’t science, because it isn’t falsifiable: there is no way to test if it might be wrong.
There are many ways in which to test if if might be wrong, and so far it passes all tests (DNA relationships, location in strata, etc.)–I’m aware of none in which it’s failed (e.g., the classical pre-Cambrian rabbit). To say that there are no transitional forms is not only false, but meaningless, because all forms (other than perhaps ourselves, since we now control our own evolution) are transitional forms.
I really have no idea where he came up with this, and I don’t have time to go into this in depth right now, but these assertions are just flat out wrong.
[Update on Monday morning]
While a comment in this post doesn’t necessarily apply to David Warren, and it wasn’t made in this post, I thought I’d respond here to keep it near the top of the page. Cathy Young (of Reason fame) asks:
Why on earth would you take seriously, and bother to respond to, the comments of someone who states upfront that he believes the Earth is less than 10,000 years old?
I respect religion, and I don’t think anyone should be mocked for believing in things that can be neither proved nor disproved (God, life after death, Christ’s resurrection, etc.). But why should people be entitled to any “respect” when they promulgate theories about the material (not spiritual) world that are laughably at odds with scientific evidence? It’s worth noting that all this talk about the need to respect even irrational beliefs is limited to beliefs that (1) have the cachet of tradition and (2) are shared by a large number of the population. No one is asking for respect for believers in astrology. Nor would any conservatives feel compelled to show “respect” for the opinions of radical environmentalists who argued the recent tsunamis were caused by Mother Earth’s anger at pollution and global warming.
I’m not sure what “take seriously” or “respect” mean in the context of this discussion. If by that you mean that they’re a legitimate point of view that I have to consider to be possible, I do that only in the limited postmodernist, Goedelian sense that anything is possible, and that there’s ultimately no way to prove the tenets of science. It doesn’t mean that I would spend any amount of time wondering whether or not I should change my opinions on them. But the problem arises in the statement “…I don’t think anyone should be mocked for believing in things that can be neither proved nor disproved (God, life after death, Christ’s resurrection, etc.). But why should people be entitled to any “respect” when they promulgate theories about the material (not spiritual) world that are laughably at odds with scientific evidence?”
The problem with proving and disproving things is that proof and disproof is relevant only to people who use those as tools to attain knowledge, or consider the scientific method to have value. I’m certainly one of the latter, as (presumably) Cathy is, but if you think that knowledge comes from a divinely inspired book, then proofs and disproofs are beside the point, and there’s no way to prove them wrong, even to someone who believes in proofs, but certainly not to them. The scientific method only works for people who believe in it. It can only be claimed to be “better” in the context of its own beliefs (e.g., materialism).
She makes a good point that the degree of respect afforded to a point of view seems to be function of the number of adherents to it (it’s been noted that there’s little difference between a cult and a major religion except the number of believers). That’s not a rational point of view from the standpoint of evaluating the belief system, but it is one from the standpoint of not involving oneself in religious wars that may be unwinnable because one is outnumbered. And of course, the West and the enlightenment are in fact at war with one of the world’s largest religions, at least in its most extreme form, many of whose beliefs (e.g., misogynism, indivisibility of church and state, intolerance of other religions), are in fact intolerable to us. Intolerance is the one thing that our modern society apparently won’t tolerate (unless it’s intolerance of Christians and Israel), and I suppose that makes sense when it comes in as extreme a form as Wahhabism.
I’m not sure that I have an entirely satisfactory answer for her, other than to recognize the practicality that a large number of good people do feel their faith threatened by some of the teachings of science (particularly when many of its practitioners and evangelists, such as Richard Dawkins, are so vehemently and needlessly anti-religious). I would hope that my view represents a reasonable compromise–that people of faith are entitled to believe whatever they wish, as long as they don’t impose it in a science classroom, and in turn, scientists should be less dogmatic about their own views as representing reality, rather than simply being the consequence of a belief in objectivity and materialism.