According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Differences Between "Intelligent Design" and "Evolutionary Creationism" - Part 3

Reviewing “Darwin’s Doubt”: Robert C. Bishop - Two Rhetorical Strategies, Part 2

by Robert C. Bishop
September 2, 2014

Today's entry was written by Robert C. Bishop. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: As the next installment of our Reviewing Darwin’s Doubt series,
we present part two of Robert Bishop’s four-part review of the book.

In the previous post, I discussed the exciting, emerging synthesis that is developing among neo-Darwinian evolution, developmental biology and epigenetics. The development of evolutionary theory in recent decades is fascinating and offers new ways to think about God’s action in the world that I’ll touch on toward the end of this series. In this post, I want to discuss the main rhetorical strategies in Darwin’s Doubt.

Divide-and-Conquer Strategy

Last time, we saw examples of how Intelligent Design (ID) advocate Stephen Meyer paints a picture in Darwin’s Doubt of the evolutionary literature as offering competing explanations for how evolution operates. One feature of his narrative is the claim that evolutionary development (evo-devo) raises profound difficulties for neo-Darwinian evolution. This way of framing the literature serves Meyer well rhetorically for his case advocating ID, and neo-Darwinian evolution alone does look inadequate to explain macroevolutionary change. However, his framing doesn’t make good sense of either the evolutionary or developmental biology literatures, or the paradigm shift that has been taking place within evolutionary biology the last three decades.

For example, the evo-devo authors Meyer cites view genetic variation and natural selection as being incorporated within evo-devo, not as outside and opposed to it.[1] A popular audience reading Darwin’s Doubt will not be able to distinguish rhetorically created problems for evolution from the actual discussions in the biology literature.

The divide-and-conquer strategy works like this: First, Meyer rightly points out that there has been a long history of trying to understand the details of macroevolutionary change in neo-Darwinian evolution. Gilbert et al. (1996) gives a brief, but helpful account of this in the 20th century.[2] Second, Meyer successively reviews a variety of attempts, such as evo-devo, to rectify this shortcoming in macroevolution (chs. 8-16). Each attempt surveyed is presented to the reader as being in competition with and a replacement for neo-Darwinian evolution (i.e., population genetics and natural selection). Third, Meyer assesses the “alternative” to the neo-Darwinian account and finds it lacking as a viable alternative for explaining the diversification of Cambrian body plans. Intelligent Design is left standing as the best possible explanation of the Cambrian explosion.

The divide-and-conquer strategy in Darwin’s Doubt, however, offers a misleading picture for the reader. As I pointed out last time, researchers working in evo-devo typically don’t see themselves as replacing population genetics and natural selection. More generally, biologists, as illustrated by Gilbert et al., seek synthesis as the more fruitful approach to understanding descent with modification, where genetic variation and natural selection work along with other processes. Genetic variation and natural selection are seen as inadequate for descent with modification in the absence of these other processes. As Gilbert et al. put it,

“macroevolutionary processes could not be explained solely by microevolutionary events” (p. 362, emphasis added). Microevolutionary processes are seen as contributing some of the necessary conditions for macroevolution, but, as has been widely recognized at least since the 1970s, are not sufficient conditions for macroevolution.

For detailed examples of how Meyer assesses evo-devo and the development of gene regulatory networks (GRNs)[3] as independently inadequate to account for the macroevolution of new body plans in the Cambrian, see these supplementary materials. Neither the division nor the conquest parts of Meyer’s strategy work with respect to evo-devo or GRNs. These examples are representative of how the divide-and-conquer strategy functions for the other “alternatives” to classic neo-Darwinian evolution Meyer considers (e.g., epigenetics).

The Question-Shift Strategy

The second strategy playing a crucial role in Meyer’s case for ID is what I call the question-shift strategy. This strategy involves equivocating on the notion of origin. In the biology and palenotology literature, when scientists discuss the origin of Cambrian body plans, they mean the modification and diversification of body plans from preexisting body plans. This is the customary usage in the literature since Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species, where he makes clear that he is seeking only to explain speciation, not how the first species arose. The latter question is the origin of life issue, a separate question from how an ancestor species may be connected with descendant species though descent with modification. Meyer’s question-shift strategy is to shift from diversification of existing body plans to the origin of the first body plan. Yet, the question of how the first body plan arose isn’t what the biology and paleontology literature on the Cambrian is addressing.

A representative example of this question-shift strategy appears in Meyer’s discussion of whether changes in genes and genetic information might lead to new body plans. He critiques these accounts because they assume “the existence of significant amounts of preexisting genetic information...and then suggest various mechanisms that might have slightly altered or fused these genes together into larger composites. At best, these scenarios ‘trace’ the history of preexisting genes, rather than explain the origin of the original genes themselves” (p. 212, emphasis in the original).

Meyer and I would agree that the literature he surveys doesn’t answer origins of life questions. But note that he shifts the question from accounts of how existing genes may evolve to accounts of the origin of the first gene. He then faults this literature for not addressing the origins of the first genes. This equivocation on “origin” allows Meyer to critique studies of how genes diversify as inadequate to explain the advent of the first genes. Indeed, in a subsection titled “Begging Questions” Meyer accuses researchers in the literature of begging the question of the advent of the first genes by only considering mechanisms that could lead to modifications of preexisting genes (pp. 215-219). But it is Meyer who shifted the question from the one the literature addresses–the evolution of genes–to the advent of genes.

As a second example, consider Meyer’s claim that Erwin and Davidson (2009)[4],

"...rule out both observed microevolutionary processes and postulated macroevolutionary mechanisms (such as punctuated equilibrium and species selection) as explanations for the origin of the key features of the Cambrian explosion. They insist that the requirements for constructing animal body plans de novo ‘cannot be accommodated by microevolutionary [or] macroevolutionary theory.'" (Meyer, pp. 355-356)

While Erwin and Davidson’s paper focuses on how preexisting gene regulatory networks might be diversified over time[5], Meyer’s use of “de novo,” here, in the absence of further qualification, shifts the average reader’s frame of reference from diversification of GRNs to the advent of the first GRN. Now, Erwin and Davidson do make reference to de novo generation of GRN sub-circuits, but what they mean is the redeployment of existing GRN circuits as a means of diversification (e.g., 2009, p. 145) rather than Meyer’s sense of de novo (first advent of a GRN; seesupplementary materials).

These examples merely scratch the surface of the question-shift strategy in Darwin’s Doubt (three more examples are given in the supplementary material). Unfortunately, in each instance of the question-shift strategy, Meyer leaves his readers with the impression that the biology literature commits the fallacy of begging the question: of assuming an explanation for the advent of the first genes, GRNs, and body plans while only discussing thediversification of preexisting genes, GRNs, and body plans. Meyer is correct that the diversification mechanisms he surveys are inadequate for explaining advent of the first gene, GRN, or body plan.

Nevertheless, there is no question-begging going on in the literature, itself, because it’s addressing diversification questions. These are the Cambrian questions! The logical fallacy, here, is Meyer’s falling into equivocation on two different senses of “origin” and shifting all diversification questions to origin of life questions. Perhaps Meyer falls into the equivocation because of his fixation on the enormously challenging problem of origin of life. Nevertheless, it’s no fault of the biology and paleontology literature for failing to address Meyer’s first advent question. That’s the task of origin of life research and the subject of his book Signature in the Cell (reviewed on this blog here by Darrel Falk, Meyer’s response here, and Falk’s rejoinder here).[6]

In the next post, I’ll examine Meyer’s inference to ID as the best explanation of Cambrian body plans and how what I’m calling the “divide-and-conquer” and “question-shift” strategies shape that inference. As the series continues, we’ll see that one doesn’t have to choose between God and evolutionary theory as explanations for the incredible variety of life on Earth.

  1. Some such as Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins may dismiss the relevance of evo-devo, but they are being left behind in the wake of the developing synthesis.
  2. Scott F. Gilbert, John M. Opitz, and Rudolf A. Raff, “Resynthesizing Evolutionary and Developmental Biology,” Developmental Biology 173 (1996): 357-372.
  3. Eric H. Davidson, The Regulatory Genome: Gene Regulatory Networks in Development and Evolution. New York: Academic Press (2006).
  4. Douglas Erwin and Eric Davidson, “The Evolution of Hierarchical Gene Regulatory Networks,” Nature Reviews Genomics 10(2009):141-148.
  5. Erwin and Davidson do argue that “Neither microevolution nor macroevolution takes into consideration the impact of past changes in developmental GRNs on the future course of evolution” (2009, p. 146). Yet, they also argue that GRN circuits are subject to selection. So while population genetics and selection are insufficient to explain the diversification of GRNs, contrary to the impression left by Meyer’s divide-and-conquer strategy, Erwin and Davidson are not repudiating neo-Darwinian theory simpliciter. Instead, consistent with what we saw previously for Gilbert et al. (1996), they are pursuing a synthesis of developmental and evolutionary biology.
  6. Meyer often puts his arguments in terms of information, but this makes no difference to the question-shift strategy. The issue of how pre-existing information grows and diversifies is distinct from how information originates.

Robert C. Bishop is the John and Madeline McIntyre Endowed Professor of Philosophy and History of Science and an associate professor of physics and philosophy at Wheaton College in Illinois. He received his master’s degree in physics and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Bishop's research involves history and philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics. Bishop is the author of The Philosophy of the Social Science and co-editor of Between Chance and Choice: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Determinism.

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