Well, I’ll Be a Monkey’s Nephew

by Bob Murphy
by Bob Murphy

I have just finished reading (large chunks of) two books on evolution: Douglas J. Futuyma’s Science on Trial (1983) and Phillip E. Johnson’s Darwin on Trial (1991). What I want to argue in the present essay is that the case for evolution is not nearly as solid as most scientists would have you believe.

First let’s deal with Johnson. He is a lawyer, and thus he spends most of his time analyzing the validity of the arguments for evolution. Most scientists who read his book would probably come away thinking Johnson was an intelligent but amateur outsider, and that Johnson should have spent more time dealing with "the data" rather than abstract arguments.

But this misses the point. Before we can determine whether "the evidence" will support or refute the theory of evolution, we need to stop and decide what sorts of things will even count as evidence. If we jump right into the facts and let them "speak for themselves," we will almost certainly let our biases do the talking for them.

Johnson makes a particular point that I found quite decisive. I’m going to paraphrase, but what I took him to argue was basically this: Suppose 999 out of 1000 biologists believe evolution is a fact. That is, 999 out of 1000 biologists believe that the overwhelming evidence suggests that humans, as well as every other organism on the planet, all share a common ancestor. However, suppose further that 20 of the biologists believe evolution actually occurred through mechanism A. A group of 35 biologists believe, on the contrary, that man evolved through process B. A different group of 55 believe in mechanism C, and so forth. Finally, suppose that group A rejects explanation B, because of the insuperable difficulty b. But at the same time, the biologists in group B cannot endorse their colleagues’ argument in favor of mechanism A, because of the crushing problem a. And so forth.

Now if this were the case, what we would see is this: In the scientific journals, these biologists would argue with each other over the specific mechanisms of evolutionary descent, but they would virtually all agree on the "fact" of evolution. Naïve outsiders might think the theory of evolution were in crisis, but this would just be a misunderstanding of the situation, the biologists would think.

Given this type of scenario, Johnson claims that we cannot speak of the "fact" of evolution, since no one has come up with a plausible mechanism. Just because the biologists all agree that it must have happened doesn’t mean that it is yet a valid theory. After all, in many cases it is rival biologists themselves who level damning objections to any particular hypothesis.

Johnson drives home the point by reminding the scientific reader that he would never endorse a theory of evolution that relied on a "miraculous" macromutation. In other words, if someone said men are descended from apes, and this happened because sometime in the past, a particular monkey had an extraordinary set of mutations in her reproductive system, and ended up giving birth to twin human infants, then everybody would reject this "explanation" as ridiculous because of its mathematical improbability.

Yet the opponents of evolution are claiming that the standard theories suffer from the same flaw. It’s true, the odds against the development of an eye through gradual, natural selection are incredibly better than the odds against the development in one fell swoop, but nonetheless (certain critics charge) the odds against the first story are still astronomical.

This is a tricky point, and unfortunately I’ve yet to hear an expert give a satisfactory account of the true situation. At a conference on evolution at Notre Dame, a proponent of Intelligent Design made some rough calculations and claimed that the chance of certain molecules organizing themselves to form the first lifeform was ridiculously small.

A proponent of evolution then responded by pointing out the analogy (used, and perhaps invented, by physicist Richard Feynman) of somebody who walks into the office and says, "You’ll never believe this! I was stuck in traffic, and the car in front of me had the license plate ASD213. What are the chances of that?!"

The point of the story, of course, is that when a particular event happens, we might think that it was incredibly unlikely. But some outcome must occur, and so we shouldn’t doubt our senses on the statistical account. To use a different example: If I flip a coin 100 times and report the precise order of heads and tails that I observed, it would be silly for someone to say, "I think you’re making that up! The probability of that exact sequence of events is only 1 in 2^100."

Now back to the Notre Dame conference: The Intelligent Design guy responded by arguing that life could only arise if very particular (and unlikely) events occurred. So if someone were stuck in traffic and saw the license plate "ILUVGOR," then a reasonable conclusion would be that the driver designed the license plate to fit his political preferences. If we thought that all license plates had to be generated randomly, then such a motorist would go into the office and exclaim, "You’ll never believe the license plate I saw today!"

One of Johnson’s strongest arguments is his claim that evolutionists simply must believe in the theory, because for them, no other explanation is possible. In other words, they see life all around us, and they believe that there was a time when life did not exist. Furthermore, they reject out of hand as unscientific any hypothesis that involves "supernatural" intervention. Given this, evolution must indeed be a "fact," and the only thing left is to come up with better and better descriptions of how it had to occur.

This view was perfectly illustrated by a fellow student when I visited that Notre Dame conference. In discussing the statistical arguments that I mentioned above, I lamented that neither of the experts had really made clear whether life could have arisen from any one of millions of different ways, or if instead the particular molecules had to come together in a very specific way.

My fellow student, a staunch believer in evolution, grew irritated with me. "Look, it doesn’t matter how improbable the events may have been. It did happen, so it must have been possible."

To be fair, Johnson makes a few invalid objections. For me, the most unfair one was his claim that natural selection was a tautology (because "the most fit" organisms are the ones that leave the most offspring, and so by definition we have survival of the fittest), and that therefore the concept tells us nothing new about the world. As Austrian economists (as well as mathematicians) well know, human beings can certainly learn from the study of tautologies.

Notwithstanding such quibbles, Johnson’s book is an excellent and sober analysis of the arguments used in favor of evolution. Johnson is not at all trying to make the case for creationism; he is merely arguing that the case for evolution is weak. I’ll close this section by quoting one particularly striking example.

In discussing the development of the first living thing out of the prebiotic "soup" billions of years ago, Johnson mentions the difficulty that scientists are having in replicating the proposed mechanisms in the laboratory. Johnson then points out that a famous evolutionist views this difficulty as evidence for his theory, rather than creation!

Richard Dawkins, who has Darwin’s own facility for turning a liability into an asset, has even argued that the improbability of the origin of life scenarios is a point in their favor. He reasons that "An apparently (to ordinary human consciousness) miraculous theory is exactly the kind of theory we should be looking for in this particular matter of the origin of life." This is because "evolution has equipped our brains with a subjective consciousness of risk and improbability suitable for creatures with a lifetime of less than one century." (Johnson 105)

In case you think that Johnson is quoting Dawkins out of context, Dawkins goes on to say, "Having said all this I must confess that, because there is so much uncertainty in the calculations, if a chemist did succeed in creating spontaneous life I would not be disconcerted!"

I’ll now briefly discuss Futuyma’s book. The first thing that struck me was his smug attitude. Look at the very title: Science on trial. In other words, from the outset Futuyma is not debating just evolution, he is linking it to "science" and debating whether we should be scientific or not. He is simply begging the question (with the title) of whether evolution has been scientifically validated. It would be akin to Johnson writing the book Darwin Guilty rather than Darwin on Trial.

As I read Futuyma’s introduction, I realized that he is not trying to calmly convince those on the fence. He is rather notifying the ignorant reader that the smart people have all concluded evolution is correct. In particular, Futuyma tells us that he is not interested in appealing to those who believe in creation, because "Fortified against logic and evidence by unquestioned doctrine, they are not likely to be swayed" (xii).

This is the primary weakness of the book. Futuyma is not debating evolution on its own; he is rather showing the reader that it is a much more scientific explanation than the theory of Biblical creation. To Futuyma, it is apparently inconceivable that there might exist readers who are not fundamentalist Christians, and yet still doubt the plausibility of evolution.

In spite of my criticism, let me admit something right away: Futuyma certainly knows the subject better than Johnson. In contrast to Johnson’s occasional fumbling of a technical concept, it is clear that Futuyma has a much deeper appreciation of the mechanisms of natural selection, and that he moreover has a much wider command of the relevant evidence. Nonetheless, because he is so quick to jump into the details, Futuyma’s case is quite weak. He doesn’t convince the skeptical reader why certain facts should be interpreted the way Futuyma believes.

The most irritating feature of Futuyma’s book is his constant rhetorical questions of the form, "This is what we observe in nature. Natural selection can explain it. Now why would a supposedly benevolent Creator do things that way?"

There are three problems with this. First, where does Futuyma get off saying with such confidence that God wouldn’t have done things a certain way? Second, Futuyma no doubt thinks that his position only refutes Biblical creation, rather than the notion of God Himself. But here Futuyma is being duplicitous: His arguments do in fact imply atheism. If Futuyma is right, and a beneficent Creator would never have designed species such that 99% of them go extinct, then why would a beneficent Creator set up the initial conditions of the universe such that the Earth would form, life would emerge naturally, and then 99% of the species would become extinct? Third, Futuyma seems to think that the most damning objections against the fundamentalists’ worldview are things as trivial as the life cycle of the mayfly (123). But if we want to talk about the difficulties of Christianity, for example, we should first off mention the existence of evil, the requirement of Christ’s execution, and so forth.

Futuyma believes himself to be the epitome of a scientist, but he is just as biased as any of his fundamentalist targets. For example, he says, "Human populations differ genetically in trivial ways such as skin color and blood types, but there is no evidence whatever that they differ genetically in mental abilities" (112). Oh really? No evidence whatever? Is this belief driven by an objective analysis of the facts, or rather by Futuyma’s political and social views? After all, there are huge disparities in performance across races; in his controversial Bell Curve, Charles Murray shows that these disparities persist even after adjusting for obvious factors such as income, education, and (if memory serves me) the marital status of parents. Now it’s true, we can explain away all of this data as the legacy of slavery and current discrimination, and we can say that Japanese students outperform white ones because of cultural differences – indeed, I myself think these factors are far more important than genes. But I wouldn’t say there is no evidence whatever for the racialist claim. And I venture to guess that no matter what, Futuyma would never in a million years say, "Oh, it turns out I was wrong. Japanese people are programmed to be smarter than everyone else."

Not only does Futuyma harbor biases of which he is apparently unaware; he also advances some rather silly arguments. For example:

One of the many reasons for believing that organisms have a common evolutionary history is that their characteristics are often hierarchically arranged. Since evolution is supposed to proceed by a series of sequential splitting events, a new characteristic that evolves in one particular branch of the tree of life is likely to be passed on to all the descendants of that branch. Within this group, another new characteristic evolves, and is then passed on to descendants of that particular species. Thus, for example, the four-legged condition evolved in amphibians, and is retained by most of their descendants. Among these, the ancestors of the mammals evolved a single-boned lower jaw. Among some of their descendants, the rodents developed gnawing incisors, and so on. There is a nesting of groups within groups, as a consequence of common ancestry. Objects like minerals that are not descended from common ancestors cannot be arranged in this way. (53)

Futuyma’s conclusion is simply false: We can certainly arrange things in a hierarchical nesting, even things that are not descended from a common ancestor. We can talk about the set of all houses, within which we have houses that possess a garage, within which we find houses that have a garage that is painted green, within which we observe houses with green garages inside of which are bicycles. We could do the same for minerals too. Now it’s true, the criteria for membership in these nested groups would not be consistent with a theory of descent and modification for houses or minerals, but that’s not the issue. Futuyma is not merely claiming that the hierarchical classification of organisms is consistent with the theory of evolution; instead he is claiming that the hierarchy itself is evidence for evolution.

One of the most repeated claims in favor of evolution is that with it, "biology makes sense," while without it biology "is chaos" (67). But so what? I agree there is an aesthetic appeal, but this consideration alone is quite trivial. To give an analogy, theoretical physicists were certainly dismayed at the discovery of more and more "elementary particles." They felt that a good physical theory should involve only a few constituents of matter that obeyed a few (or ideally one) general law. Nonetheless, since the experimental evidence supported the theories purporting the existence of leptons, neutrinos, quarks, etc., the physicists had to face reality.

In the same way, just because the theory of evolution provides guidance and a "research program" for biologists and other scientists, we shouldn’t consider this as a separate point in the theory’s favor. (If anything, we should be more skeptical of the scientists’ claims of the certainty of evolution.) I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a professor of econometrics. After I asked about some of the methodological difficulties of his field, he said something like, "Look, you can hose the model if you want. But we have to make some assumptions, unless we want to just throw up our hands and read von Hayek again."

But all of the above analysis is superfluous. I can literally prove that evolution is false, and on Futuyma’s own grounds to boot. After wondering why a beneficent Creator would condemn millions of species to extinction, Futuyma addresses the obvious creationist response that this was all part of God’s plan. To this Futuyma answers:

If this were true, we would expect to see harmony in nature, not struggle; indeed, we would expect to see animals sacrificing themselves for the good of their species, and even making sacrifices for the good of the natural community in which they live. If the theory of natural selection is true, though, organisms should have adaptations that serve purely for the survival and reproduction of the individuals who bear them, not for the good of any other individual or species. Darwin laid down the challenge in The Origin of the Species: "If it could be proved that any part of the structure of any one species had been formed for the exclusive good of another species, it would annihilate my theory…"

How has Darwin’s challenge fared? No one has ever found a case of a species altruistically serving another, without any gain for itself. (123, bold added)

Again I ask, oh really? What about homo sapiens? There are plenty of environmentalists who strap themselves to redwoods in order to save the trees from the exploitation of man. If you think this isn’t a good example, because the people in question might be acting to preserve the long-run survival of the human race, what about the alleged scientists who are working to develop a virus that will only kill human beings, in order to rid the Earth of our destructive presence? Isn’t this a case of a species using one of its body parts – its brain – to altruistically further the interests of other species?

Of course, Futuyma would laugh at my examples.* He would point out that human brains are certainly beneficial to their possessors, and so can be explained by natural selection. But what of his claim, put in bold above? Would Futuyma back off that statement? I don’t think so, because my examples wouldn’t be the type of thing Futuyma had in mind. What he really meant was that if we look at Nature from the perspective of evolutionary biology, we don’t see anything to contradict our assumptions. Any apparent counterexamples can be dismissed as irrelevant, even if those counterexamples – such as the capacity for human altruism – stare us in the face.

Finally, let me address the argument that evolution is a scientific theory, whereas Biblical creation is not. Yes, in the sense that Futuyma and others define science, they are right.

But this proves nothing. The question is not whether evolution is "scientific," the question is whether it is true. It is logically possible that the Biblical account is true (just as it’s logically possible that aliens seeded the Earth with life), and so we shouldn’t dismiss the theory simply because we cannot possibly "test" it the way Futuyma wants.

Consider a few other hypotheses: (1) Humans suffered through the Dark Ages as punishment for their murder of Christ. (2) Everything happens for a reason; it is all part of God’s plan. (3) You should be honest so that God will entrust you with a greater knowledge of His intentions. And so forth.

Now how could we possibly test the above propositions? The answer is, we can’t. They are not falsifiable. A theist could examine the historical record and believe those theories were verified, whereas an atheist would look at the same evidence and believe the theories to be silly.

But does this mean it is a waste of time to consider the possible truth of these statements? Of course not. If true, these statements are much more important than understanding the plumage on a peacock. Simply because a particular theory is "unscientific" does not render it a bad theory.

In conclusion, I want to urge the reader to look into these matters for himself. Futuyma (and other evolutionists) certainly make some strong arguments; I am not denying that. But do not trust the interpretation of the evidence offered by the proponents of evolution (or the proponents of creationism, for that matter). Before you examine the evidence, first consider what sorts of things you will be looking for. You should decide beforehand, "If I see this, then I will tentatively believe in evolution. But if I discover such-and-such, then I will have to reject it as unsatisfactory in its current form." If you follow my advice, you may be surprised at the outcome.

*To clarify, I am not saying that my examples refute Darwin's argument. I am claiming that my examples refute the much bolder claims of Futuyma in the block quotation.

September 20, 2003

Bob Murphy [send him mail] has a PhD in economics from New York University, and see his personal website at BobMurphy.net.

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