2010-09-09

A Creationist Method of Argument (and exposing the lie of those who compare mythicism to creationism)

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

A dome-shelled Galápagos giant tortoise, Geoch...
Image via Wikipedia

A good friend who is a creationist recently offered me a creationist article to read (“or refute”). The article’s arguments against evolution are based on:

  1. a misstatement of, or failure to understand, the arguments for evolution itself
  2. a glossing over of arguments for evolution by misleading oversimplifications
  3. a failure to address the counter-evidence for evolution cited by evolutionary scientists
  4. “bait and switch” — “sloppy language leading to sloppy thinking”

The article my friend gave me is Tortoises of the Galapagos by Lita Cosner and Jonathan Sarfati, apparently found in creation.com.

Here is the critical passage:

Evolution from goo to you via the zoo would require new genes encoding encyclopedic amounts of new information. But the tortoises’ adaptation to various island environments can be explained by the sorting out of already existing genes with some of these then eliminated by natural selection. . . .

The two sentences here do not logically follow one another. The authors have created a false argument against evolution by juxtaposing two sentences that in fact address different questions: by placing them together they confuse the question and lead the uninformed reader to think the authors have cleverly rebutted the foundation of evolution’s case.

The irony here is that in the same article the authors accuse evolutionists themselves of “bait and switch”, of using “sloppy language” (“confusing” adaptation with evolution) to lead to “sloppy thinking”.

The first sentence mocks the argument for evolution by condensing a number of processes that occur over hundreds of millions of years over wider geographic areas into a decontextualized summary image that sounds implausible. This is then placed against an observably and obviously true statement about the adaptation of the tortoises.

By this means the authors avoid addressing the arguments of the evolutionists. They oversimplify the argument and place that oversimplification beside an only indirectly related example that does not address the evolutionist’s arguments that really do underly those in the first claim.

In other words, they avoid the arguments for evolution by using a falsely applied or misleading analogy.

How false? Evolution seeks to explain how different species arose. The Galapagos tortoises are not different species. Both types can interbreed according even to the creationist article.

The authors continue by explaining how one set of tortoises developed longer necks than the others:

This is definitely natural selection in action, but not evolution. The possibility for these variations was already coded in the DNA of the tortoises’ ancestors . . .

Since this process generally selects only from genes already available, creationists would expect there to be a limit to this variation. Such a process would not produce a neck as long as a brachiosaur’s, for example. Another possibility is mutation that inhibited a gene which controls growth factors for the neck. Without this control, the necks overgrow somewhat. On the grassless island this information-losing mutations would be beneficial. But with plenty of grass, such a mutation would not be so beneficial since it would waste resources growing a neck longer than required.

So the explanation given here is the loss of a gene limiting neck growth.

What the creationist article fails to address

Surprisingly absent from this creationist article was any mention of indifferent genetic mutation, those variations that are in the vast majority of cases useless or detrimental. It is the occasional one that offers a benefit in certain environments.

This sort of change cannot be seen in a lifetime — except in bacteria. Jerry Coyne and Allen Orr “calculated that, starting with one ancestor, it takes roughly between 100,000 and five million years to evolve two reproductively isolated descendants. . . . It turns out that if you started with a single species 3.5 billion hears ago, you could get 100 million species living today even if each ancestral species split into two descendants [through geographic isolation] only once every 130 million years.” (pp. 194-5 of Why Evolution is True)

Evolution happened. We have the observable evidence for that. Ring species are one observable illustration of how different species can and do emerge across geographic areas. A classic case is the Larus gull — Those in areas 1 and 2, with slight variations, can interbreed, but by the time we pass through the mutations to point 7, the two types, 1 and 7, cannot interbreed. They have become different species. (Given debates about some such traditionally regarded “ring species”, including the larus gull, I am only presenting this one as one illustration of the ring species concept.)

Example of Ring species : the Seagull 1 : Laru...
Image via Wikipedia

The fossil record

Jerry A. Coyne in Why Evolution is True lists three things that the fossil record shows us:

  1. The fossil record “confirms several predictions of evolutionary theory”:

 

  • gradual change within lineages
  • splitting of lineages
  • existence of transitional forms between very different kinds of organisms
  1. When we find transitional forms, they occur in the fossil record precisely where they should.
  • earliest birds appear after dinosaurs but before modern birds
  • ancestral whales span the gap between their own landlubber ancestors and fully modern whales
  • (“If evolution were not true, fossils would not occur in an order that makes evolutionary sense.”)

3. Evolutionary change, even of a major sort, nearly always involves remodeling the old into the new.

  • legs of land animals are variations on the stout limbs of ancestral fish
  • tiny middle ear bones of mammals are remodeled jawbones of reptilian ancestors
  • wings of birds were fashioned from legs of dinosaurs
  • whales are stretched out land animals whose forelimbs have become paddles and whose nostrils have moved atop their head

There is no reason why a celestial designer, fashioning organisms from scratch like an architect designs buildings, should make new species by remodeling the features of existing ones. Each species could be constructed from the ground up. But natural selection can act only by changing what already exists. It can’t produce new traits out of thin air. Darwinism predicts, then, that new species will be modified versions of older ones. The fossil record amply confirms this prediction. (p. 57)

Need I say it?

Given a little history recently of a certain associate professor of religion who demonstrates an inability to rise to the intellectual integrity of some of his peers, including a predecessor by the name of Albert Schweitzer, by lazily opting to associate Jesus mythicism with creationism, it is instructive to compare the creationist style of argument with that of, say, a Doherty, a Price, a Wells, a Thompson even.

The integrity of this professor would rise to a positive level if he could support his comparison by demonstrating where Jesus-mythicists such as those named above

  1. misstate, or failure to understand, the arguments for the historical Jesus
  2. gloss over of arguments for the historical Jesus by misleading oversimplifications
  3. failure to address the counter-evidence for the historical Jesus by historical Jesus scholars
  4. use “bait and switch” — “sloppy language leading to sloppy thinking”

On the other hand, as I have demonstrated in previous posts, including my critique of McGrath’s review of Price’s chapter in 5 Views, this scholar does regularly

    1. misstate and fail to grasp the arguments for Jesus mythicism (e.g. that there was a conspiracy to invent a myth from scratch and/or it was misunderstood by its immediate audiences; that literary antecedents and influences disprove historicity; that mythicism argues from silence)
    2. gloss over arguments for mythicism by misleading oversimplifications (e.g. conflating my discussion of primary and secondary evidence to mean literary evidence and physical artefacts; assuming mythicism relies on arguments for interpolations, etc.)
    3. fail to address counter-evidence for the mythicist hypothesis (e.g. refusal to respond to my critique of Sanders’ “evidence” for the historical Jesus when challenged to address this; demonstrated reliance on second hand rumour about Doherty’s arguments in preference to reading his books; bypassing Price’s main arguments by focussing on side-issues and red-herrings)
    4. goes silent or resorts to insult when circularities of argument are exposed, when inconsistencies with normal historical methods are demonstrated (e.g. Schweitzer’s and Hobsbawm’s and von Ranke’s and Lemche’s and Davies’ and Schwartz’s requirement for external controls to establish the historicity of narratives), and when erroneous or unsupportable claims are made about the evidence and exposed (e.g. that “there was a general expectation among Jews for a Davidic messiah in the early first century).

Does the old proverb of pots calling kettles a darker shade of white, or projection, or something Paul said in Romans about the accuser doing the thing he attempts to project on others, come to mind?

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

  • Henk van der Gaast
    2010-09-09 14:19:41 GMT+0000 - 14:19 | Permalink

    Lets face it, they are such easy meat its not funny. Just look at Collins’ early attempts not to blush.

    Truth be known, if god could do all this he must have a purpose for every being. Maybe we were made for saving the mexican fire ant. Absence of evidence is hardly evidence of absence.

    Think I’ll roll on a sheet of honey in the neighbours back yard

  • Paul D.
    2010-09-09 15:32:37 GMT+0000 - 15:32 | Permalink

    “Evolution from goo to you via the zoo” strikes me as the sort of phrase evangelical pastors seem to love. It’s catch and a lot easier to visualize than actual science (ugg, science hard!), and fits well with the anti-intellectual soundbites fundamentalists enjoy hearing. (Sort of like the ubiquitous “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!”)

  • Henk van der Gaast
    2010-09-09 15:37:32 GMT+0000 - 15:37 | Permalink

    As I have said to many on other sites, quite often the authors do not have the scientific grip to attempt to write a scientific article. Some of the assumptions are a tad shakey and I’ll leave the author to sort this out as an exercise for his next attempt.

    Ive done similar and ended up with egg on my face because I made a firm statement that was in fact a contributory factor.

    I am a scientist and I was talking out of my field using 5-10 year old data. Shame on me.

  • Ishmael
    2010-09-09 20:26:04 GMT+0000 - 20:26 | Permalink

    Henk brings up an excellent point (and I applaud his honesty — been there and done the same thing). My pet peeve is scientists who pontificate on theology under the guise of science and theologians who pontificate on science in the guise of theology.

    Science has demolished a lot of myths by showing predictable (and verifiable) explanations based on natural law. They didn’t prove the myths “wrong”, they showed that the “supernatural factor” was not required. The “fun” starts when a scientist puts on his thology hat and starts asserting that “there is no god”.

    Take our evolutionary friends, they posit a process (seems to work OK, have some support in the data, etc) and then decide that anyone who holds the belief that there is a divine creator is a creationist nut-job. Doesn’t follow — even if evolution is the end-all, perfect explanation of how life originated, it doesn’t prove a darn thing about the existence of God. All you ever could scientifically say is that you see no need for a supernatural factor in the explanation. God could have chosen to use the evolutionary process — I personally find the idea of building the universe up from the big bang forward to the process of originating life on our planet to be a mighty testimony to the power of God.

    You want to look at that and see the interactions of stochastic processes over a vast timescale, then that’s your privilege. BUT don’t posit that as proof that God doesn’t exist.

    So, theologians, stick to theology. Scientists, stick to science. When you cross into the other field, do it as a private individual stating a personal opinion and don’t try to use your expertise in your field to give your opinion credibility.

    • Steven Carr
      2010-09-10 14:39:53 GMT+0000 - 14:39 | Permalink

      ‘ My pet peeve is scientists who pontificate on theology under the guise of science….’

      No wonder people like Francis Collins are so reviled. They look at a frozen waterfall and declare that Christianity must be true, and then write books claiming science and Christianity are compatible.

  • 2010-09-09 21:16:19 GMT+0000 - 21:16 | Permalink

    Excellent post, with one small correction:

    Those in areas 1 and 2, with slight variations, can interbreed, but by the time we pass through the mutations to point 7, the two types, 1 and 7, cannot interbreed

    As I understand it, points 1 and 7 can interbreed. It’s the species that are on opposite sides of the circle that cannot interbreed. Like points 6 and 3.

  • 2010-09-10 01:31:02 GMT+0000 - 01:31 | Permalink

    If we play along with the principle of Occam’s razor, then is it not perfectly safe to say that if explanation E (evolution) accounts for all of the data, then there is simply no need to introduce a God?

    This reminds me of one of my personal arguments for the gospel Jesus being a mythical creation of late first century / early second century authors. If one can account for any story in the gospels as being an adaptation of an Old Testament or extra-biblical reasons, I argued that we had no need to seek and alternative origin of the data. That does not prove an alternative is non-existent. It only means the historicist explanation will have to look for some more evidence elsewhere.

    Similarly, if there is a coherent explanation of the data without a god, then let the god-believers find their evidence elsewhere.

    • 2010-09-10 03:34:54 GMT+0000 - 03:34 | Permalink

      Creationists bring unspoken assumptions to the table, mainly (1) the Christian God is real and (2) the Bible is literally true. Those presumptions become pretty clear as soon as you start reading their works, and at important junctures in which a real scientist would introduce scientific evidence, they quote from the Bible. When a writer starts quoting Bible verses as scientific evidence, it’s time to pack it in.

      Recently I’ve been reading Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q, and early on he makes a good point about Q being presented and taught as fact before students are even told what the Synoptic Problem is. It’s as if the solution and the problem are presented as a single intertwined fact. Occam’s Razor, Goodacre would argue, should come in to play here, since if it can be shown that Luke could have copied from Matthew, then Q is an unnecessary entity.

      I suppose the irony is lost on NT scholars who champion Markan Priority without Q. They’re railing against the presumption of Q, and the practically hidden fact that it’s a hypothetical construct with no historical evidence. Can you think of another really big presumption in NT scholarship? Here’s a hint: It has no external corroborating evidence. Here’s another: It’s hypothetical, but taught as bedrock fact. Can anybody see the elephant in the room?

      The presumption that the Historical Jesus Hypothesis (HJH) is unquestionably true is actually one of the reasons why I expect Q never to go away. HJH presumes an oral tradition with preserved sayings, and Q fills the bill. HJH assumes that Mark used written and oral sources, and Mark/Q overlaps help solidify this assumption. HJH requires multiple, independent attestation, which Q provides. The “reconstructors” (Borg, Sanders, Crossan, Ehrman, etc.) all require logia that go back to the to the “real Jesus” so they can paint their hypothetical portraits. Does anyone seriously they’ll ever give all that up?

  • 2010-09-10 04:02:28 GMT+0000 - 04:02 | Permalink

    I doubt if blogging will have an effect on the current effete academic climate, other than to perhaps inspire more arguments from tradition or authority, but it’s good to see people calling lazy scholarship out.
    Well done.
    Ó

  • Thomas
    2010-09-11 12:53:19 GMT+0000 - 12:53 | Permalink

    Neil,
    What do you think of James Dunn’s comments on Robert Price’s case for mythicism in “The Historical Jesus: Five Views”? Does Dunn raise any significant objections to mythicism? See here:
    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2009/11/james-dunns-response-to-robert-price.html

    • 2010-09-12 13:16:31 GMT+0000 - 13:16 | Permalink

      Dunn fails to address Price’s arguments. He does no more than insultingly deride them. His own assertions for believing in the historicity of Jesus are demolished by Price so I can only suspect Dunn skimmed them with the same contempt expressed in his remarks.

      Look at the level of Dunn’s “argument” for historicity: Dunn says Romans 15:3 (Christ pleased not himself) is evidence for Jesus’ historicity (as Steven Carr has attempted to point out numerous times); he says the best explanation for the gospels saying Jesus spoke in parables and cast out demons is that he really did: why would anyone make it up?

      In other words Dunn doesn’t even bother to counter Price’s arguments. His tone suggests he thinks Price’s arguments are beneath contempt.

      Dunn is stuck in his circular reasoning, assuming that the gospel narrative is historical (because it must have been historical for it to have been told at all!) and since the story suggests that it was written within the lifetime of the apostles that, too, must be true.

      Dunn is obviously not listening to anything Price says. He is reading with a sneer and fails to see how vacuous his own response is.

      I was recently reading something by Arthur Drews and he describes the exact same reactions as we find in the Dunns and McGraths today being the normal response from academics in his own day. Nothing has changed.

      • 2010-09-12 13:39:51 GMT+0000 - 13:39 | Permalink

        That was quite painful to read. However, I did agree with one statement: “There is no need to argue for a high level of historical value in all the information offered in Acts about the beginnings of Christianity.” Only I was disappointed to find he wasn’t presented it as irony.

  • Pingback: Historical Jesus: two vacuous responses of Dunn to Price « Vridar

  • 2010-10-30 11:37:14 GMT+0000 - 11:37 | Permalink

    Lets face it, they are such easy meat its not funny. Just look at Collins’ early attempts not to blush.

    Truth be known, if god could do all this he must have a purpose for every being. Maybe we were made for saving the mexican fire ant. Absence of evidence is hardly evidence of absence.

    Think I’ll roll on a sheet of honey in the neighbours back yard

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.