Joe Carter is making a curiously convoluted argument. He’s trying to get at why the majority of the American public does not accept the theory of evolution, and he’s made a ten part list of reasons, which boils down to placing the blame on the critics of intelligent design creationism. We’re all bad, bad people who are doing a bad, bad job of informing the public and doing a good job of antagonizing them. There is a germ of truth there—I do think we all have to do a better job of educating American citizens—but what makes it a curious and ultimately dishonest argument is that Joe Carter is a creationist. It’s one thing for an evolutionist to complain that the facts are on our side and we’re doing a piss-poor job of communicating them, but it is a weird thing for a creationist to complain that we do a poor job of communicating the facts, while neglecting to mention that the facts are all against his personal view of life’s origins. The impression it leaves is that Joe Carter doesn’t like evolution because those dang ‘Darwinists’ are all poopy-heads.
Let’s go through each of Carter’s 10 complaints (which you can find in parts I, II, and III), and you’ll see that he even bungles the task of putting together a logical argument: it’s loaded with false premises and inconsistencies.
“By remaining completely ignorant about ID while knocking down strawman versions of the theory.” Joe tries to claim that the critics of Intelligent Design creationism don’t have any idea what the theory entails.
I know that the majority of us working out of the Panda’s Thumb have actually read a significant number of the source documents for the ID movement. I’ve read Johnson, Behe, Wells, Dembski, and of course, the Wedge document. We’ve read this stuff in painful detail. If it’s not vacuous, please do tell us what the “theory” actually means, because all we see is uninformed people sniping at deficiencies in modern evolutionary theory, not well-intentioned contributors to science who are making productive additions to our body of knowledge.
“By claiming that ID is stealth creationism.” Joe finds it offensive and bigoted that one dismissal of his favorite theory is that it is a pseudo-scientific façade fronting old-style creationism.
Look ahead to his argument #7, where Joe is going to argue that evolution is stealth atheism. If this is a bad argument against ID, why does he think it is a good argument against evolution? Consistency is not one of his valued attributes.
He also complains that labeling ID as creationism ignores the fact that the “vast majority of people throughout history have believed in at least a basic form of creationism”. This is a silly reason to demand respect for an idea; humans for most of their history have probably been animists, and even now Christianity is a minority belief, so if we’re going to go with some kind of majority vote here, Joe’s ideas are defunct, too. Also note in argument #7 he’s going to belittle the majority opinion of the world’s scientists.
Finally, ID is stealth creationism—the Dover decision settled that by looking into the history of the idea. Truth is a pretty good reason to make an argument, I think.
“By resorting to ‘science of the gaps’ arguments.” Joe thinks claiming that science will find an answer to a problem is equivalent to the “god of the gaps” argument. He does the usual creationist thing of complaining about mysteries of science, such as abiogenesis.
Unfortunately, Joe gets it wrong again. We don’t claim of every mystery that “science will find it,” and I know for sure that our ignorance will outweigh our knowledge throughout my lifetime and long beyond. I am also sure that there are many things we can’t know, because the information is simply lost. Science is not an answer, it’s a tool and a process, and it’s the only one we’ve got. When we see a gap in our knowledge, what scientists do is try to come up with practical, natural procedures to fill it in and get the best answers we can. So, yes, when I see something I don’t understand, I say we should try to develop a solid, evidence-based answer, and the way to do that is through the scientific method. Does Joe have a better alternative?
“By claiming that ID isn’t science since it’s not published peer-reviewed literature…and then refusing to allow publications of ID papers in peer-reviewed journals.” He’s whining about the atrocious Stephen Meyer paper that was published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, slipped in with sloppy peer review under the negligent eye of Richard Sternberg.
I’ve read the Meyer paper. It was terrible: poor scholarship, flagrant handwaving, a lot of empty noise. Doesn’t it say something that the only way it could get published was in a relatively obscure journal with a baraminologist as acting editor, and that it was later repudiated by more responsible officers of the journal? Science has standards. Rise to them or forget about being accepted.
“By making claims that natural selection is responsible for all behaviors and biological features.” He’s making a legitimate argument that a theory that explains everything might just be an empty theory that has left no means of testing it. That’s a fair cop. I’m not a fan of just-so stories, either.
Joe conflates a reasonable complaint and a demand for evidence that every scientist wants with a jumble of confusion, though.
Why did we lose our body hair? Sex selection. Why do we retain some body hair? Yep, sex selection. Why do humans walk on two legs? Again, the same answer, sex selection. Why do dogs walk on all four? You guessed it, sex selection.
Uh, “sex selection”? He’s confusing natural selection with a distinctly different process, sexual selection. It does help make your argument that there is one arbitrary blanket explanation for everything if you ignorantly collapse multiple mechanisms into just one, I suppose.
What Joe doesn’t understand is that there are a set of general principles proposed, such as natural selection, sexual selection, or common descent, and that then because evolution is in part a historical science, there are also a set of particulars that have to be explained. Sometimes those particulars are not clear from the evidence we have at hand, and he’s right, the explanations are unconvincing. That doesn’t mean the general principles are wrong.
For example, if a plane crashes, one general answer is “gravity did it.” It’s not a very satisfying answer, though, and we want the specific historical details: “cold weather caused ice to form on the wing, causing a loss of lift, allowing gravitational force to dominate.” The creationists, on the other hand, want to do the equivalent of saying that the existence of ice means gravity is false.
“By invoking design in non-design explanations.” Joe complains that biologists use the word “design” when talking and writing about biology, therefore it is reasonable for an audience to assume they mean intelligent design.
The semantic argument is complete nonsense. We are human beings, using language that evolved in a human context, and that is rich in a vocabulary and grammar that assumes intent and intelligent, human actors. The principles of evolutionary biology are abstract, complex, and driven by complex stochastic process that are rather poorly represented in colloquial language. We have to get very technical or mathematical or assemble very convoluted grammatical constructions to reduce the biases of human language in our discussions. When, in order to explain things to a non-technical audience, or in general introductions to a subject, we use metaphors or casual language, it does not imply that the protein or pathway or organism we’re discussing was literally designed—it says we are using English (or whatever language you want). You know, a language that arose because people wanted to talk to other people about things that interest people.
This is actually an argument against Intelligent Design creationism, not evolution. It’s the IDists who are always making this shallow conflation of language describing something with the actuality: “Oooh, he said ‘design’! Therefore, God exists.” It’s one of the dumbest arguments in the creationist arsenal.
“By claiming that the criticism of ID has nothing to do with a prejudice against theism — and then having the most vocal critics of ID be anti-religious atheists.” Again, there’s a germ of truth to this complaint, but it’s not the germ he addresses. He points out that the overwhelming majority of biologists are unbelievers, and then simultaneously complains that many of the vocal critics of Intelligent Design creationism are atheists, and that ID is criticized because of anti-religious bigotry.
Personally, I think scientists ought to speak out more against the silliness of religion, and I’m a bit tired of the appeasers on my side who want to pretend that religion and science are fully compatible. I’d reverse his complaint a little: it’s hypocritical that we keep trotting out god-worshippers as spokespeople for evolution. They just aren’t at all representative. A lot of the ID debunkers are godless, but we’re actually under-represented relative to the proportion of atheist scientists he cites.
It’s not bigotry, though. Think about it. Most scientists did not get their religious beliefs from their parents, so it’s not childhood indoctrination. In college, religion is almost never mentioned in science classes, and there is no proscription against going to church—if anything, college campuses are loaded with desperate pastors and preachers and Christian outreach centers, trying hard to garner recruits. There’s no atheist propaganda in grad school, either, as we’re supposed to be shackled to the bench, doing our work. How is it that such a phenomenal percentage of biologists end up rejecting religious belief in the absence of any kind of overt proselytizing against religion?
Could it be that training in critical thinking and having the importance of logic and evidence hammered into you day after day is exactly the kind of discipline that religion fails to meet?
“By separating origins of life science from evolutionary explanations.” It’s simply no fair that biologists try to separate questions of the evolution of life from the origins of life—it means poor Joe can’t just say, “you don’t know how DNA arose” to refute the hominid evolutionary series.
What a sad complaint. I think there is a valid point to be made that chemical evolution and the origins of life from non-life are part of the story of life on earth, and there is a lot of good work being done in that field (none of which seem to be on Joe Carter’s radar.) However, it is reasonable to constrain arguments to the relevant facts. If you want to argue that humans didn’t evolve, you’re going to have to argue against the facts that show that they did, not some random gap in our knowledge.
He also complains that it’s reasonable to expect “the various parts to be stitched back into a seamless whole.” That’s correct. That’s what the theory of evolution does—it ties together various details as aspects of an ongoing process.
“By resorting to ad hominems instead of arguments (e.g., claiming that advocates of ID are ‘ignorant’).” Don’t call us ignorant!
I have to laugh at this one. Go back to Joe’s #1 complaint, in which he accuses biologists of being “completely ignorant,” guilty of “intellectual snobbery” and “intellectual laziness.” I assume he must have figured his readers were so stupid that they’d forget what they read in Part I, #1, by the time they got to Part III, #9.
Joe also doesn’t understand what “ad hominem” means. If I accuse Fred of having a DUI arrest on his record, and therefore his understanding of evolutionary biology is erroneous, that is an ad hominem. It’s an attempt to smear a person’s character on the basis of an irrelevant datum rather than addressing the substance of the argument at hand. On the other hand, if I point out that Fred has never studied evolutionary biology, doesn’t seem to have read any of the contemporary sources, and has made a series of outrageous errors in his explanations of biology, that is not an ad hominem at all—that’s a perfectly reasonable impeachment of Fred’s relevant knowledge.
Joe claims that he’s just as competent as another person he has argued with about evolutionary biology. I don’t know about that, but I think he has set the bar awfully low, when he can write this long screed babbling about “sex selection” and decrying one of the most firmly supported theories in biology as false. Joe Carter is ignorant of biology. That’s also not an ad hominem.
“By not being able to believe their own theory.” I’m afraid that Joe’s last point is incoherent and makes no sense at all. He’s somehow trying to argue that biologists don’t believe humans are subject to the processes of evolution, and that evolution is invalid because scientists try to exempt ourselves from it.
I don’t know what Carter is smoking here, because this is as completely false as anything else he has said. Biologists certainly do think humans have been, are now, and will be subject to the processes of evolution. To back up this weird claim, he cites some philosopher, David Stove, who says odd and equally incomprehensible things like this:
Do you know of even one human being who ever had as many descendants as he or she could have had? And yet Darwinism says that every single one of us does. For there can clearly be no question of Darwinism making an exception of man, without openly contradicting itself. ‘Every single organic being’, or ‘each organic being’: this means you.
Errm, what? ‘Darwinism’ says no such thing, nor does any form of modern evolutionary biology. Humans aren’t excepted from biology, and anyone who tells you differently is ignorant.
Great job, Joe! Ending your tirade with a climactic point that was a paragon of sloppy thinking, ridiculous straw men, and illogical nonsense was a brilliant stroke!