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David: About that Opinion Piece . . .

by Richard Peachey

[Featured as an advertorial in Cascade News, University of the Fraser Valley student newspaper, Oct. 9, 2009]

An open letter to David Miller, News and Opinion Editor for the Cascade News

Dear David,

Regarding your article titled “The Hollow Nature of The Creation-Evolution Debate,” which appeared in the Cascade News of September 17, 2009 (page 7):

The primary point of your article seems to be that creationists unreasonably cling to a non-negotiable foundational principle (the truth of the Bible as God’s Word), whereas evolutionary scientists are reasonable and open to changing their views.

The “scared cow” of creationists (I’m guessing that was just a typo rather than an intentional slur) is, in your words, “their unwavering commitment to a bible that is inerrant and unquestionable. . . . most creationists would not accept any evidence that could possibly contradict scripture.”

Furthermore, you state: “A person unwilling to accept criteria that could prove them wrong isn’t open to reason; such conversations inevitably become circular and useless.”

Then you contrast that stance with the position of evolutionary scientists: “. . . most scientists will never commit themselves to a notion that can never be proven false.”

The problem with setting up such a contrast, David, is that it’s just not realistic. Consider this now-famous quotation from Richard Lewontin:

“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door” (The New York Review of Books 44[1]:31, 1997; italics in original).

And who is this Richard Lewontin? Only a world-renowned Harvard geneticist and evolutionist!

• “It is probably fair to say that, in the second half of the twentieth century, no single person has had a greater influence on the progress of evolutionary biology than Richard C. Lewontin. . . . [he] has made key contributions to both theory and experiment” (Alexey S. Kondrashov and Eugene V. Koonin, Cell 103[4]:545, 2000).

• The late John Maynard Smith, the dean of British evolutionists, enthused about “the uniquely stimulating effect Lewontin has had on young scientists and philosophers. . . . it is clear that he has been the greatest teacher of biology in his generation” (Evolution 55[7]:1496, 2001).

Now, a careful reading of Lewontin’s statement cited above yields the following analysis:

(1) This eminent scientist is speaking for the scientific community in general (note his repeated use of “our,” “we,” “us”). It’s significant that of the letters published by The New York Review of Books as responses to Lewontin’s article, none objected to what he said in the above-quoted excerpt.

(2) Lewontin holds to “materialism” as a non-negotiable foundational principle, in precisely the same way you’re saying creationists hold to the Bible. His materialism is axiomatic, and therefore is not subject to possible disconfirmation. Lewontin designates it an “absolute,” an “a priori” which has “forced” evolutionary scientists to act in certain ways because they “cannot allow” any explanation that might make room for the supernatural — even when materialistic explanations are “mystifying” or “counterintuitive,” or involve “absurdity,” “failure,” or “unsubstantiated just-so stories.”

Now, David, regarding your allegation that “most scientists will never commit themselves to a notion that can never be proven false” — isn’t that precisely what Lewontin is saying evolutionary scientists have done? And this commitment is not merely to “methodological” naturalism — Lewontin makes it abundantly clear that he and his colleagues are in thrall to philosophical naturalism with “absolute,” “unwavering” devotion.

Another part of Lewontin’s classic article is worth bringing in at this point:

“. . . it is repeatedly said that science is intolerant of theories without data and assertions without adequate evidence. But no serious student of epistemology any longer takes the naive view of science as a process of Baconian induction from theoretically unorganized observations. There can be no observations without an immense apparatus of preexisting theory. Before sense experiences become ‘observations’ we need a theoretical question, and what counts as a relevant observation depends upon a theoretical frame into which it is to be placed. Repeatable observations that do not fit into an existing frame have a way of disappearing from view, and the experiments that produced them are not revisited.”

Evolutionary scientists, according to Lewontin, hold an unshakable commitment to a philosophical position. They are far from being objective, “neutral” observers. Not unlike creationists, they come with a preexisting philosophical framework or “worldview” which they bring to bear as they interpret the data.

To wrap up this discussion, let me quote two other scientists who are as forthright as Lewontin:

“The theory of evolution by cumulative natural selection is the only theory we know of that is in principle capable of explaining the existence of organized complexity. Even if the evidence did not favour it, it would still be the best theory available!” (Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986, p. 317; italics in original).

“Even if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such an hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic” (Scott C. Todd, Nature 401:423, 1999; Todd is in the Department of Biology at the University of Kansas).

All the best to you, David, as you continue to give thought to this highly important controversy.

— Richard Peachey (BSc, Biology and Chemistry, UFV, 1995), is a past vice-president of the Creation Science Association of BC; for 17 years he was a public school science teacher in Abbotsford