Thursday, February 7, 2008

Investigating The Edge of Evolution-Chapter One

So it took me longer than a week to get this going, but nonetheless, this post will be the first of ten, discussing the ten main chapters of Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution. If you haven’t picked it up from a local bookstore, feel free to do so now! You can, of course, continue reading this post but if you want to be able to think about the arguments straight from the horse’s mouth, it’s best to go about doing so in that manner.

To take this chapter in summary, I want to point out that the thrust of it is that Behe makes clear that the structure and arguments of this second book are completely different from what he did in Darwin’s Black Box, his earlier work. Even the difference between the titles should alert the reader’s mind to the qualitatively different tasks at hand. In Darwin’s Black Box (hereafter abbreviated DBB), Behe sought to show how as the scientific community gained insights into the mechanisms of some biochemical processes of the cell, one could conclude that certain structures or phenomena were irreducibly complex.

Here in Behe’s second opus, the task is altogether different. In the Edge of Evolution (or EoE), Behe is not playing the role of a skeptic with regard to how phenomenon X or organelle Y came about. On the contrary, he is looking to the scientific community to see what are the clearest studies on evolution done as time has progressed. As we shall see, the retrovirus HIV, the malarial parasite Plasmodium falciparum, the bacterium E. Coli, and the notothenioid fish that are able to survive the cold temperatures of the Antarctic are all elements of life on our planet that have been studied with regard to the evolutionary changes that can be observed.Another important element to the first chapter of EoE is that Behe sets out to clearly explain the semantic problems that we face when we discuss Darwinism. Like many concepts that have been discussed by myriads of individuals, there are many implications to the many ways one can go about defining them. Without a precise understanding, our communication will be muddled.

Behe begins by carefully stating that when one discusses Evolution, this could refer to an emphasis on random mutation, natural selection or common descent. To be clear, random mutation refers to the changes in the genomes of populations through time, brought about by multiple means. Natural selection, on the other hand, is the way in which these mutations/variants of certain traits are passed down in a way that the more favorable variants become selected through time. And lastly, common descent is the idea that all of life is related, particularly through a common ancestor from whom all life on earth has descended. As we shall see, Behe has no qualms with the last of these three concepts (while many ID proponents would–but that is another issue that we should address when the actual arguments for common descent are raised). The real question that Behe has about these three concepts is how important the first two principles are in producing the third idea.Now normally, when two people argue about the issue, the skeptic of Darwin looks at the hill of “mount improbable” (to use a term coined by Richard Dawkins) and says that it’s impossible for random mutation and natural selection to produce the diversity and complexity of life on earth. In rebuttal, the proponent of Darwin says, “Oh yeah, well I do see how one can climb mount improbable through random mutation and natural selection!”

As the “no ways” and the “yes ways” fly back and forth, we are left with a lot of dust and anger, but no clear arguments have really been set forth, if we do not look at what has been observed as evolutionary biologists examine the power of mutations and natural selection. The EoE presents itself as a way to wade through the data and discuss just how powerful evolution is. As you may surmise, his verdict is one where mutation and natural selection are not nearly as powerful as it would need to be, if it were the all in all with regard to accounting for life’s unity and complexity.As you can see, this is the scope and the lay of the land in the Edge of Evolution. As the weeks go on, the way in which Behe lays his case will be made. There will be elements of his work that challenge all, from the most staunch creationist to the most stodgy materialist. How we think about the arguments herein, and not what we conclude, is what matters most. Are we thinking clearly? Or will assertions and attempts to get the upper hand for argument’s sake cloud our vision? Hopefully the former of the two options is what guides us in all of our thoughts.


Friday, February 1, 2008

Presumption of Atheism or Agnosticism?

In some of the comments, a theme keeps showing up: Theism (especially the Christian variety) seems guilty until proven innocent; while atheism seems innocent until proven guilty. Why is this? This is known as the “presumption of atheism.” But should Atheism be the default setting? One of the leading Philosophers of Religion of our day, William Lane Craig, shares why it should not be:

“….another philosophical relic is the much-vaunted presumption of atheism. At face value, this is the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist. Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists. So understood, such an alleged presumption seems to conflate atheism with agnosticism. For the assertion that “God does not exist” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “God exists,” and therefore the former requires justification just as the latter does. It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence, confessing that he does not know whether God exists or does not exist, and so who requires no justification. (I speak here only of a “soft” agnosticism, which is really just a confession of ignorance, rather than of a “hard” agnosticism, which claims that it cannot be known whether or not God exists; such a positive assertion would, indeed, require justification.) If anything, then, one should speak at most of a presumption of agnosticism.”

If there is a default setting, it is agnosticism, not atheism. In that case, the atheist has just as much explaining to do as the theist.

For a more detailed treatment of this issue, see Scott A. Shalkowski, “Atheological Apologetics,” in Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, ed. R. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).