the lazy man’s guide to theistic evolution

April 18, 2010 — 4 Comments

Did you ever want to try writing about science and playing arbiter in pop culture debates about evolution while being only vaguely familiar with the theory in question and having no clue how to use anything other than the words of other people just as unfamiliar with the relevant science as you? Well, with most publications you’d be out of luck, but not HuffPo. No, it seems that Ariana Huffington will give a column to absolutely anyone with the ability to type a coherent (and sometimes not so coherent) sentence without asking a single question as to how well the author knows the subject. This is the only explanation I could think of for Ervin Laszlo’s stilted exercise in quasi-scientific laziness which is currently being passed off as an honest to goodness article on the supposed presupposition of design in evolution. Well, I suppose that’s a step up from Deepak Chopra…

Laszlo’s piece is probably one of the most lackluster and clichéd defenses of theistic evolution I’ve seen in a very long time, managing to say absolutely nothing original and presenting virtually nothing but arguments by assertion. The universe is fine tuned, biologists don’t say that evolution is a product of chances and life is far too complex to have evolved in a few billion years. Why? Because Ervin Laszlo says so, that’s why! There’s not a link, a cite or a reference to be found besides a nod to such a worn out and tired old fallacy, it should’ve been left on the shelf where it was found. In fact, the whole thing reads as if it was written about thirty years ago and published without any changes or regard for modern scientific advancements and rebuttals to the arguments being presented. Take the following old chestnut for example…

Post-Darwinian biologists recognize that the evolution of species is far more than just the chance processes classical Darwinists say it is. It must be more, because the time that was available for evolution would not have been sufficient to generate the complex web of life on this planet merely by trial and error. Mathematical physicist Sir Fred Hoyle calculated the probabilities and came to the conclusion that they are about the same as the probability that a hurricane blowing through a scrap-yard assembles a working airplane.

First off, all biologists who studied evolution after Darwin are post-Darwinian biologists. Just like Newton is at the heart of today’s cosmology, especially general relativity, Darwin’s work is still one of the foundations of our modern biological theories. As a philosopher and apparently, concert pianist, Laszlo is clearly unfamiliar with how scientific theories are built up over decades. Just like yanking Newton out of physics would render almost all modern astrophysics useless, neglecting Darwin’s work would be a huge step backward for biology. When you see a pundit talking about moving past some influential scientific figure, it’s generally a major hint that the pundit doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Unless natural selection is somehow definitively disproven while a new mechanism for explaining how certain genetic changes occur and compound in populations is shown to be a better explanation, scientists are not going to abandon Darwin’s work.

Another major tip off that Laszlo is just babbling out of his depth is the invocation of Hoyle’s Fallacy. You see, Hoyle was a very good astronomer but when he tried dabbling in other scientific disciplines, he was very often wrong in rather spectacular ways. When he tried to calculate the probability of life arising at random, he used the wrong methodology, started with the wrong premise, and used arbitrary values. Instead of calculating the odds of life arising and evolving by chance, he calculated the odds of spontaneous generation. So when it came to biology, Hoyle knew just as little about it as Laszlo. Who, by the way, found it far too difficult to spend a minute or two on the web to do just a little background research on the person he was going to quote, plowing ahead with a celebrity quip without checking what actual experts have to say about it. But then again, Laszlo is far more interested in pontificating than actually offering any evidence for sweeping assertions like this one…

Evolution of life presupposes intelligent design. But the design it presupposes isn’t the design of the products of evolution; it’s the design of its preconditions. Given the right preconditions, nature comes up with the products on her own.

And his proof for this is what exactly? How is this different from the old and tired Watchmaker argument? It’s nothing more than a religious declaration, followed by another assertion that since Laszlo has spoken, there is no longer any controversy between creationists and biologists in the public eye and everyone will agree that we live in a fine tuned universe. Maybe this kind of factual and intellectual laziness flies in systems philosophy, but it doesn’t work in real science. Even basic particle physics tell us that the universe isn’t fine tuned and that instead of precise arrangements, we have a few ranges of conditions which would produce a universe very much like the one we inhabit. And even basic logic should tell us that just asserting something doesn’t equal proving it, especially when every one of his hackneyed attempts at proving his point has been addressed over and over again by a library’s worth of books. I would say that maybe next time, before babbling about things he clearly doesn’t understand, Laszlo should do a little reading but we all know that’s just not going to happen.

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  • RaggMopp

    Perhaps Ariana Huffington subscribes to the “He said, She said,” school of journalism currently on view at ABC,CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN, etc. Goes something like this: “How is a reporter to know the appropriate qualifications for a debate, or which side makes sense?” PS = It’s much better to have John Travolta debate Robert Redford about the space program, than two PhD astrophysicist geeks, one from NASA and one from the JPL of whom nobody has ever heard. News is a “profit center”, ratings are important.

  • reknaw

    “Just like yanking Newton out of physics would trigger almost all modern astrophysics useless”

    Sorry, but that’s misleading as modern astrophysics relies on General Relativity and not Newton’s theory. It’s like comparing a Roman chariot to a Ferrari ;)

  • Greg Fish

    Yes, it’s true that general relativity is the underpinning of modern astrophysics, but it came about only because Newton laid out the framework for the motion of stars and planets. Einstein was tackling the problem of why an ever growing number of cosmic objects and physical phenomenon didn’t line up with what was expected by Newton’s theories. General relativity was an elaboration of Newton rather than an effort to build a brand new theory of how gravity worked. This is why Newtonian constants are still a prominent part of GR formulas.

    If anything, it’s rather misleading to say that wildly successful theories are discarded in favor of new ideas. Usually, massive frameworks like GR and evolution build on a vast amount of work done by scientists before these new concepts were formalized, extending this past work in new directions and adding ever more detail to it. Discard one of these lines of work and you take out one of the underpinnings for the modern theories to which they lead.

  • RaggMopp

    Precisely, and what a blow that is to the current Creationist paradigm. If some genius came along just now and explained Darwin’s concepts in a totally new and different way, and took the scientific world by storm, it would not give one Creationist a moments peace. It would not sweep Darwin away, either as a transcendent observer, nor as a historical milestone deserving of near reverence (like Newton). A complete readjustment of theoretical conceptualizations is nothing like the triumph of supernaturalism.