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Et Tu, David?

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.

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 09, 2005 12:12 PM
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Rand, we ourselves have probably experienced a "failed" speciation event that left us with different skin, hair and eye colors, and may have effected our behavior as well.

It may well be that "transitional forms" may be the exception, not the rule. We need to find out a lot more about how DNA changes in response to extreme environmental pressure.

Right now, I think there may be two evolutionary pathways, the slow steady changes like when a specie begins to exploit a new ecological niche, and the rapid response needed when the ecological abruptly changes.


Posted by Rich at January 9, 2005 03:46 PM

Meant to say "when the ecological niche abruptly changes."


Posted by Rich at January 9, 2005 03:49 PM

I've known David Warren these last 20 years or so and he's not altogether a fool. Indeed. David's a very clever fellow, sometimes, and quite well informed on most subjects, but not on this one.

Long ago I wrote an article for his now-defunct "The Idler" magazine in which I tried to poke holes in Darwinism for fun. Years have passed and I now realize with chagrin that he must have taken it seriously.

You are right. He is wrong. It's too bad.


Posted by Woccam at January 9, 2005 05:26 PM

But the "presto" has never been observed in nature, and there is a universal paucity of transitional forms.

For future reference, here's a list of a several observed speciation events:

Posted by Neil Halelamien at January 9, 2005 06:11 PM

If you found a transitional form, B, precisely between animal A and animal C, the pinheads would claim "But where's animal B-minus? We don't have a transitional form!!"

They really won't be happy until every animal lays down on top of his father to die.

Posted by Mitchell Burnside Clapp at January 9, 2005 08:19 PM

"it's been noted that there's little difference between a cult and a major religion except the number of believers"

Not by anyone with over two brain cells, I don't think. That is exactly the kind of crap liberals like to say to tear down peoples belief systems, and point out how ALL religion is bad for the WHOLE. They then show up in Black Congregations to shake hands and get $$$. The discernible difference is much more than you say.

I was raised in one particular religion, and have worshipped in several groups in my 50 plus years. NEVER has anyone asked me to give up my wife, kids, cars, and assets or to drink the Holy Kool-Aid of Antioch.

Cults usually have some grain of a normal accepted religion. They then mix this with mind control, total turn over of all assets to the "group", sexual favors to the leaders, including sex with the younger members, or complete celibacy, and as we know and have seen, many "practice", then carry out mass suicides to show their adherence to the groups beliefs and leadership. They segregate themselves and their followers in compounds or on farms in the middle of nowhere.

If people want to find a huge cult in the U.S., look to the Democrat Party!!!

The leadership gets richer every year; the basic members are kept at some low level of monetary existence while the leaders always promise a better tomorrow. The leadership claims all their followers’ woes are due to someone else keeping them down, they build would be slums for the followers to live in as a kindly gesture. They created a welfare system that was almost impossible to fund and a system of rules that allowed almost no one to get out. They have ruined the family unit among the followers, and under educated them to believe in the leadership, while at the same time raising their own families in private schools, while philandering as much as possible, sometimes even in the Oval Office while on the phone, there is no celibacy in this particular cult. We know most liberals are in favor of abortion and killing or allowing the killing of the sick and elderly.

So lets see, cults want to, and historically have, controlled housing, education, social and sexual morals, monetary holdings, and set out what is and what is not a family, and control who lives and who dies, and that's all historical fact folks not my opinion. So if we are talkng cults, then the Democrats sound cultic to me!!

Posted by Steve at January 10, 2005 07:33 AM

I know you get tired of the ID debate--it's a never ending battle. As a Catholic, I find the endless legions of (largely evangelical) know-nothings to be mind numbing. But you hit the nail on the head with the key point a week ago that this is not a debate about science or religion -- it's a debate about how our civilization deals with the philosophy of science. Will we continue to base our questions about the physical world on our own observations and senses or will we base our questions (and answers)on a popular consensus of faith? To me this is not a debate limited to evolution. The exact same civilizational ills that feed the ID side also breed endless believers in catastrophic near term global warming, nuclear winter, and the belief that all exploration off planet should be done by robots.

What they all have in common is a basis in proof by consensus and modeling instead of scientific theoretical process.

Read this great talk given by Michael Crichton:

Posted by Tom Cuddihy at January 10, 2005 11:52 PM

You are welcome to criticize global warming but there is nothing wrong with modeling persay. Computer modeling/simulation are in use in nearly every branch of science. In some areas of physics for example -- chaotic or turbulent phenomena -- it is used almost exclusively. This doesn't mean that the results of such research are any less valid or unconnected to the scientific process.

Posted by Matthew Wood at January 11, 2005 08:34 AM

I have give some thought to the school \ religion quandary we find ourselves in.

It seems to me that those in favor of removing any religious representation from the public schools have used the courts and logical arguments to win the day over and over again. Simply put the pro-religion advocates have been fighting the wrong battle.

Their religious right are being infringed upon by federal law. Federal law requires that a child to attend school and that the taxpayers provide funding for such schools through local and federal taxes. The system has set up a form of financial coercion, whereby a person of religious conviction is forced to pay for the public schools, even if their religious convictions will not allow their children to attend these schools. If a school setting in which no religious teaching is tolerated is now the law of the land, then their religious rights have in fact been infringed upon if they are not allowed to opt out of such a system, and use those money's allocated by law for their child's education.

If they wish to solve the problem they will never prevail in their effort to turn back the clock. The anti-religion forces have made logical arguments to the court that any particular religion cannot be represented or advocated by a public school. So be it.

An equally logical argument can be made that if your moral and religious convictions require their children be taught in and environment where their religious beliefs are present they have a right send their child there. Since they have a right to send their child to such a school they also have a right to allocate the funds mandated for their child's education to that school if the school also give the child the education mandated by the state. So long as the school is an accredited institution, that can give their child the education required by law, forcing a citizen to send their child else-where through economic coercion is an infringement on their rights.

The anti-religion forces have used the courts and the torte system to make gains. The pro-religious side can do the same. By filing a lawsuit in every school district in America. It will force the courts to deal with their logical argument just as the other side has done. Our courts are designed to handle just this type of problem. They are woefully ill-equipped to deal with philosophical arguments. So don't take them there.

If the school system insists it cannot accommodate your needs then they themselves have given you the best argument for opting out of the system and returning them to the roll they once played in this country. The safety net for the children of those in our society who put less value on an education. Thanks jjs

Posted by John at January 11, 2005 09:11 AM

Since when have God and evolution been mutually incompatible? Why can't God work THROUGH evolution? It's such a beautiful system.

The Pope doesn't have a problem with it (see, although those who want creationism taught as fact usually aren't Catholics...

Posted by Class-factotum at January 11, 2005 10:06 AM

I've often wondered why religious people would embrace a decidedly non-theological belief system such as ID. In a nutshell, ID is simply a way of saying, "Look at this neat thing! I can't imagine how anything this neat could have come about a little at a time. There must have been a Designer."

A belief system resting entirely on lack of imagination/ignorance of systems design or engineering principles has serious problems. What the IDers are doing is, in essence, asserting a conclusion about engineering quality and aesthetics; not a religious opinion. Anyone conversant with such matters - and also with the biochemistry of living things - can make an arbitrarily long list of deficiencies in the way those "neat" living things work relative to better ways even a lowly human engineer would have designed them given a clean sheet of paper.

Just to cite the obvious example of such a shortcoming, if living things are supposed to stay the same and not evolve, then how come they can? Why are uncorrected genetic mutations even possible? Why, if he's so good, did the Designer not lay down a better error-correcting mechanism for genes? What, God doesn't know about about Reed-Solomon or forward error-correcting codes?

Since at least the time of the Roman Church vs. Galileo, religious organizations have been making unsupportable claims about the nature of the physical universe. In every case, the religion has come away bearing all of the damage from the collision.

Hurts when you do that? Don't do that.

Posted by Dick Eagleson at January 11, 2005 03:04 PM

I love the way Galileo gets held up as some sort of heroic figure fighting against the minions of religious inspired ignorance. People who cite 'Galileo vs the RCC' love to forget that he was accused of supporting the theories of Copernicus, a Roman Catholic priest (never accused of heresy), nor that he ridiculed the ideas of Kepler (another Roman Catholic priest, who turned out to be far more correct about the shape of the universe than Galileo). But the only reason he got in trouble was because he tried to take his scientific views about the shape of the universe and draw religious conclusions about scripture based on them. (see

In essence, Galileo in 1632 was arguing in the same mode that today's supporters of ID argue about evolution--by showing that established scientific theories did not adequately answer certain questions, but then drawing unsupported religious and hence social conclusions about them. The IDers try to show that evolution does not answer certain question about the orgins of the universe or human complexity--which is fine. But then instead of admitting that there's more yet to know about the universe, they draw a conclusion about science. And by the way, that is a religious conclusion as well, and the conclusion is that 'We actually do know all the answers, we are the interpreters of the scriptures.' That is decidely a religious conclusion.
That's when scientists or religious leaders go wrong--when they attempt to use their area of expertise to draw conclusions about the other side of the fence.
The point is that religion and scientific inquiry are far from inimical. Class-factotum has got it right. It's the abuse of one to make conclusions about the other that makes me want to throw up my hands--or just throw up.

Posted by Tom Cuddihy at January 12, 2005 10:54 PM

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