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Is Scientific American unscientific?

May 2004 | by John Peet

The editor-in-chief of the leading popular science journal Scientific Americanhas charged creationists with being unscientific. In the July 2002 issue, John Rennie wrote an article entitled ‘Fifteen answers to creationist nonsense’, claiming that creationist arguments do not hold up. Although the article is nearly two years old, the issues have not gone away.

If creationists are so stupid, one wonders why evolutionists are so worried about us! Why do we have such an impact? Rennie’s article provides a clue, for reading it one is constrained to ask, ‘Is this the best they can do?’

John Rennie has picked what he considers to be the key challenges we make to the evolutionist, but he is clearly ignorant of much of the creationist position. For example, he barely begins to answer such challenges as that presented in The Icons of Evolution by biologist Jonathan Wells, who argues that the most famous case studies for evolution ‘no longer convey the spirit or substance of science, but have become instruments of indoctrination’.

In this article and the one to follow, I examine briefly the arguments advance by Rennie. In each section below, the heading is the claim he attributes to creationists. This is followed by his own arguments and my response.

Evolution is only a theory

Rennie denies that scientists distinguish between such terms as ‘theory’ and ‘facts’. He then proceeds to make a subtle distinction between them! Theory, he says, is a well-substantiated explanation which incorporates facts, laws, etc. A fact is an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and is accepted as true [emphasis added].

It is correct that scientists do tend to use terms in this way rather than as would be understood in a legal sense.

Thus it is worth advising creationists against using the argument that ‘Evolution is only a theory’. This statement is often misunderstood by the layman as meaning ‘wild speculation’, which is not the scientific meaning of the word.

Of course, on the basis of Rennie’s definition, many scientific ‘facts’ have become obsolete when new observations contradict them.

A classic illustration used in the philosophy of science concerns the colour of swans. We might note that all the swans on the River Thames are white. When we travel to other rivers isolated from the Thames, we see the same thing. So, on the available evidence, we state it as fact that ‘all swans are white’. However, this becomes a non-fact when we travel elsewhere and discover black swans!

Natural selection is a circular argument

Rennie’s response is to use a bit of word play. He replaces the concept of ‘survival value’ by ‘adaptive fitness’. For example, large beaks in finches are better adapted than small beaks for crushing seeds. He says that adaptive fitness, produced by natural selection, is not necessarily related to survival value.

Creationists do not dispute the concept of natural selection but argue that it has no clear evolutionary value — it does not drive evolution in an upward direction, because it cannot add genetic information.

For example, the work Rennie quotes on finches shows that these changes are reversible and do not represent any genetic development. Similarly, the changing colouration of the peppered moth, supposedly the best evidence for evolution by natural selection, has been shown to be reversible.

Evolution cannot be falsified and is thus unscientific

He acknowledges that most creationists accept microevolution but claims that the historical nature of macroevolution, which we dispute, is based on fossil evidence and DNA studies. The distinction between micro- and macro-evolution is artificial, in that the latter simply means any change above the species level.

Creationists recognise that new species can arise. And in a sense, Rennie is right to dispute a distinction between micro- and macro- evolution based on classification. But a clear distinction does exist — between genetic changes which supposedly create new genetic information (which are not observed) and genetic changes that lead to a loss of information (which are observed).

The theory can, he claims, be used to make predictions, which can then be judged true or false according to the physical evidence. It is therefore capable of being ‘falsified’. As evidence, he points to hominid evolution.

The prediction of the theory is that as we go through the fossil record, the remains should become less ape-like and more like modern man. For example, there are no human remains in the Jurassic sedimentary rocks.

Again Rennie seems to be ignorant of creationist arguments, if not of the evidence! The fossil evidence can be interpreted in terms of either model — creation or evolution (see, Is Man descended from Adam? by Reinhard Junker). So the challenge is to see which model fits best.

One only has to listen to the news to see how every fossil hominid seems to challenge previous theories rather than confirm them. There is no evidence of intermediate forms — the fossils are either ape or man. The Homo creatures are always truly human according to the archaeological evidence.

In terms of the distribution of the fossils in the different strata, Rennie is obviously ignorant of the Re-colonisation model of the fossil record (as a snapshot of the recovery of the world from the Flood catastrophe).

Evolution cannot explain the origin of life

It is true, as Rennie states, that Karl Popper’s work on falsifying scientific theory has been superseded by other philosophies of science, but we would say that the ‘falsification approach’ is still valid.

In his answer, Rennie points to experimental work in biochemistry as a potential source of evidence demonstrating the power of evolutionary theory to explain the origin of life. He says that the spontaneous generation of a life-form would disprove Darwinian evolution, because the latter requires multiple small changes rather than a single large step.

But even if we could synthesise life in a test-tube (which we cannot), it would not prove anything — except that intelligent beings can synthesise life in a test-tube! It would not demonstrate that the origin of life did occur by a similar but accidental synthesis.

As most chemists in that field admit, they are nowhere near finding a solution. Interestingly, Rennie frequently refers to articles in Scientific American when they support his arguments, but ignores the one they published demonstrating the paucity of support for chemical evolution.

Evolutionists have no suggestion as to how the primeval atmosphere generated the small molecules of life. They cannot explain how these molecules polymerised (linked together) to give the giant molecules needed to support life. They cannot explain how the hundreds of structurally specific proteins required by a living cell can be produced on any realistic time scale.

Rennie agrees that the origin of life is still very much a mystery, but clings to the possibility that life originated in space. This, of course, is a cop out — it simply moves the problem elsewhere.

As a fall-back, he claims that evolution is still true even if the process of chemical evolution cannot be demonstrated!

Increasing numbers of scientists doubt the theory

He disputes this claim and points to the lack of papers in professional journals challenging the theory. This really is a circular argument. It is well documented that you cannot get such papers published.

Universities will not normally permit creationist research in their laboratories. (One scientist from the German organisation Wort und Wissen was forced by his institution to amend his web site which published support for creation.)

However, significant books have been published by non-creationists challenging the theory. Also the Biblical Creation Society has a number of scientists holding university chairs on its Council of Reference.

Creationist Dr Arthur Jones recently published his research on speciation, which confirms the creationist position and challenges the evolutionary one (‘The identity and nature of the created kinds — speciation among cichlid fish’, The Genesis Agendum Occasional Papers, 7, 2002).

Scientific disagreements about evolution show it is not a solid theory

He rightly points to the fact that debate is the meat of scientific endeavour. What he does not say, however, is that only naturalistic hypotheses are allowed in evolutionary debates — creationist arguments are ruled inadmissible before the debate begins.

He repeats the usual claim that evolutionists have been quoted out of context to provide arguments against evolution. Though this is a common claim, what evolutionists really mean is that they do not like who is quoting them.

Why are there still monkeys if evolution is true?

This, Rennie suggests, results from a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. That is a fair statement, but I believe it results from early forms of the theory. Many of us were brought up with the idea that evolution was a linear process — in fact, some books probably still show such a sequence for hominid evolution.

If this were true, we could legitimately ask why we cannot see intermediates between ape and man still being formed today. However, evolution no longer claims that creatures that now exist were ever intermediate forms.

In fact, I have never heard a creationist lecturer make this claim; it may have been made by laymen but not by informed creationists.

To be continued