Wednesday, 6 February 2013

iERA - Has evolution been misunderstood? A response to Hamza Tzortzis

Has evolution been misunderstood?

This is a response to the article "Has evolution been misunderstood" by Hamza Tzortzis of iERA.

I was really hoping the document would say "By Hamza Tzortzis" beneath the title so that I could simply reply "Yes, it has. Science too!"

"Over the past few decades there has been a growing discourse on science, evolution and its compatibility with Divine revelation. This discourse can be summarised in the following way: the theory of evolution has been established as a scientific fact therefore a believer in a particular revealed text, such as the Qur'an, must reconcile evolution with their holy book."

A fact is a recorded piece of evidence. It should be possible for a third party to verify the accuracy of the fact by performing their own measurements, experiments, observations, etc.

A scientific theory is a logical model which explains observed facts and uses scientific laws to make testable predictions. When tested, these predictions either show the flaws in the model (scientific theory) or give us more confidence in its accuracy.

Evolution is a process of random genetic mutations (alleles) being passed on to offspring. Individuals pass on these alleles along with the alleles of those with whom they are able to mate (with consideration to physical compatibility, sexual preference, distance, etc). When obstacles prevent two animals from mating they are no longer merging their alleles into common offspring; any group of animals separated in this way experience average genetic shifts in different directions as they develop different random mutations. If the genetic drift between two groups reaches a point where their DNA varies too much then the two groups are no longer able to create [fertile] offspring with each other and they effectively become different species – this is called speciation.

When laypersons talk about evolution, what they are usually referring to is the scientific theory of evolution driven by natural selection. This scientific theory (or model) takes the facts of random mutation, allele propagation, and speciation, amongst many other facts, to propose a model by which the least beneficial mutations are eradicated from the DNA pool via natural causes. The important thing to note here is that random mutation is an empirically observed fact, speciation is an empirically observed fact, and natural selection is the driving force which eliminates unsuccessful mutations, leaving other mutations to spread . Survival of the fittest means most adaptable or fit for purpose, not "strongest".

A common mistake entails confusing these concepts. Evolution is a fact, not only observed but even reproducible (e.g. the Lenski e-coli experiment [1][2][3][4][5][6]) and so too is speciation (e.g. the Ensatina Salamanders[7] and also Ring Species[7][8]). It is therefore a fact that evolution is deductive, observed, and reproducible.

"If there is no hope for reconciliation there are three main outcomes: the religious text is discarded, evolution is renounced, or a hope for a better understanding of the religious text and evolution in the future. However, in this growing discussion there is a hidden premise. This premise is that science produces certainty, evolution is fact and science is the only way to establish or verify truth claims. This premise is assumed in the popular discussion amongst many religious people, popular scientists and even the media, and by not bringing this premise to the forefront of the debate many Muslims (and fellow theists) have been left confused and disheartened."

There is no hidden premise that science produces certainty, in fact science never claims to produce certainty. Science works on a scale which produces a level of confidence based on a high or low probability. For example, we cannot know for certain that cutting off one's head would result in certain death unless we performed this irreversible action. However, based on our understanding of how the brain regulates our heart, how our heart pumps blood, how that blood carries oxygen, and so on (our logical model or "scientific theory" of human life), we can be very confident that the probability of one losing one's life along with one's head is very high indeed. Science doesn't say that it is a fact that you will die if your head is removed, but our current scientific model does say that we can be confident death will follow decapitation based on our scientific theory of how the head is necessary for independent human survival.

Science is not the only way to establish [obtain] truth; it is however the best method humans currently have of independently and objectively understanding the universe in which we exist and the only way to "establish" that it is true. Just like some religious beliefs a scientific theory will be revised if facts are discovered which seem to invalidate it, but unlike religion a scientific theory will be rejected outright if proven wrong. If we observe a living headless person then this new fact will be investigated as thoroughly as possible until rules (scientific laws) can be defined on which the scientific theory model can either be adapted to work with the new found empirically observable facts, or the model will be abandoned. It will not be deemed a one-off "miracle".

It is typically the cutting-edge of science where such revisions are made, instances where "the results aren't back in yet." For example the origins of the universe, what (if anything) exists beyond the observable universe, how life started, and so on. The root laws of a scientific theory in which there is a lot of corroborative evidence (such as natural selection guiding observed evolution) are the cornerstones of those theories which don't get refined. Human fossils are not found in the Precambrian era, nor are rabbits or any other mammals. If this were to happen then one of the core laws of how the diversity of life today occurred would be destroyed (so get digging!) and the theory of how natural selection guided random mutations to become different species would have to be completely reworked or, more likely, completely abandoned. However, this would not alter the fact that mutation has been observed and reproduced (Lenski), natural selection has been observed, and speciation is also easily observed. The fact that evolution and speciation occurs today is unquestionable.

The only people left confused and disheartened are evidently the ones who do not know the facts, do not understand the process, and seem to have confused themselves. The rest of the Hamza Tzortzis’ article reflects this position: Making errors such as confusing a certainty with a high probability and equating them to scientific facts.

"The philosophy of science - most of the time – does not produce certain knowledge"

Again, it doesn't claim to. A scientific theory produces confidence that with X% accuracy we are able to predict the outcome of an input, or based on the way the universe works given certain factors we can deduce what could have occurred in the past with a level of confidence beyond reasonable doubt.

"When the philosophy of science is understood and applied to evolution, the conclusion is that it is not a fact and has not reached the level of certainty."

I think it is already evident that the author doesn't understand the subject enough to identify which parts are scientific theory and which parts are observed facts so no more need be said on this kind of statement.

"Divine revelation is certain knowledge (this type of certain knowledge is known as al-‘ilm al-qat’i) which can be proven using deductive arguments."

Evolution has been proven with observation and thus is not only deductive but empirical and objective.  It has supporting evidence from multiple disciplines of science; DNA/virology[9], and even plate tectonics[10].

"Revelation is a source of certain knowledge."

Are you certain? If the only certain knowledge one may obtain is from a specific book then how does one know for certain which is the correct book from which to derive such knowledge?  To prove the source of the knowledge one must use information within the book and corroborate it with facts observed in reality.  If we are to ignore reality whenever it does not conform to the information within the book the we are setting up an unfalsifiable hypothesis, and as a consequence a useless one.

"In situations where science and Divine revelation are irreconcilable, revelation supersedes science"

Perhaps, but not at least until the accuracy of the revelation has been proven to a higher level of confidence than the scientific theory it competes against. Laws such as "Because Allah wished it that way" do not produce as much confidence as the various proofs for evolution of species via natural selection which explain the unusual facts of nature such as why are some fish born with eyes that dissolve and leave them blind before they are ever used?[11], Why are various flat fish born with one eye facing uselessly into the sand which later moves so that both eyes are on the same side of the skull and thus becomes useful[12]? Why are some legless animals born with limbs[13]? Why are some humans born with precursory tails[14]? Why do chickens contain disabled DNA capable of producing calcium teeth[14]? In the "divine revelation without evolution" scenario the all-knowing all-powerful creator must have had quite a number of strange vain whims.

"Science can only answer in terms of natural phenomena and natural processes. When we ask questions like, what is the meaning of life? Does the soul exist? The general expectation is to have answers that are outside of the natural world — and hence, outside of science"

Correct. Science is a tool and as such to expect this is illogical. It is akin to using a hammer to try to understand the beauty of a poem. Science however can help us to make decisions as to what would be the most likely consequences of actions taken given a specific scenario, or what is most likely to have caused a scenario to start with. As for the soul, no, science is only a useful tool for measuring the effects of a phenomenon able to affect reality in a measurable way.

"Only accepts idea that can be tested"

Incorrect.  A scientific theory can be built from which it is currently not known how to create effective tests or that we did not at the time have the technology to test (Higgs Boson, General relativity), but it is difficult to have full confidence in things until tests are devised and run; yet these still have more supporting evidence than various other hypotheses such as those proposing all kinds of ridiculous untestable ideas (pixies, unicorns, mermaids). This is a "results are not in yet" scenario, in the case of evolution the results were in long ago.  Science does also accept facts which have been observed repeatedly, independently, and can also be reproduced such as in the case of evolution.

"This means that what cannot be observed is outside the scope of science. For example, questions such as does God exist? and is there a soul? are outside the realm of the scientific method. This does not imply that such questions are meaningless, rather it exposes the limitations of the scientific process, as there are other methods that can provide answers to the above questions"

Science does not concern itself with things which either do not exist, or cannot/do not have any measurable effect on reality. An all-powerful entity could indeed make millions of pounds appear in my wardrobe during the night but this could be measured, however, if the entity were to do this on a regular basis but nullify the effect of its actions (remove the money) before it is observed then what is the purpose of such futility? Science is only concerned with phenomena that have effects.

"It is important to note that to claim that conclusions which have not been established via observation - and by extension science - are meaningless or false"

Said the theist to the world's evolutionary biologists :)

"Science cannot explain the past or the origins of things. For instance questions such as, what was before the Big Bang? and how did the first living cell emerge?"

Science can explain the past using evidence of the past, however, neither cosmology nor abiogenesis have anything to do with evolution. Science cannot tell you what is north of the north pole, does this mean that the mountains of evidence demonstrating speciation through mutation and natural selection should be ignored?

"What Darwin seems to be pointing out here is that our values would have no objective meaning from a scientific perspective, as we are just a by-product of a set of socio-biological circumstances. This is why the oft repeated statement you cannot get an ought from an is, is true. Science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be."

Nor can the tool of "hammer" or "screwdriver." Again this subject is an irrelevant distraction from the established facts of evolution (observed, reproducible facts).  Just because you don't like the conclusion of the truth does not make it untrue. If given sufficient intelligence to contemplate the subject should bees reject the concept of heaven because of the horrid idea that for eternity they wouldn't get to kill any males or their fertile daughters? Likewise liking something is no reason to believe it is true either. Reality doesn't alter to meet the fancies of humans, and why would you want it to?

"The problem of induction"

Observed mutations, selection, and speciation are deductive evidence. Irrelevant section on induction therefore ignored.  But on the subject of inductive and deductive reasoning.  Based on the deductive reasoning of factual evidence about our solar system I would gladly bet my house on the sun appearing to rise tomorrow morning - even though that bet would be based on inductive reasoning.  As Muslims cannot gamble I am instead willing to donate my house to charity on the first sign of the Earth not experiencing a new day.

"Science cannot prove other sources of knowledge. For example justified beliefs via ‘authentic testimony’."

Without a way to test the claims there is no way to have confidence that the "authentic" testimony is factual. It does not matter how authentic you believe your testimony is, if you tell me a man can live without a head then I will demand that you present proof that our biological scientific theories are incorrect. A man once quoted Galileo Galilei "In questions of science the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual" - This was a statement he used when trying to disprove the "authentic testimony" of the majority opinion using proof and evidence that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. It was eventually accepted due to the merits of its evidence, despite the suppression of those who preferred to believe information passed down to them without evidence (authentic testimony.)

Whatever begins to exist has a cause
The universe began to exist
Therefore the universe has a cause

Please provide one example of something which "began to exist."


Hamza, your argument seems to be based on a misunderstanding of what a "scientific theory" actually is, which parts of it are empirical facts, and indeed what those facts are.  Evolution is an observed fact which is part of a scientific theory about natural selection. Eventually your “argumentation” culminates in "Ultimately we can't know anything to be true, so therefore the Quran is true."

One of the strongest tenets of the scientific approach is that it tries to disprove itself. The scientists don't try to prove themselves right, they try to prove themselves wrong to save someone else the trouble of doing it for them. If they fail to disprove something then they invite others to help prove their observations wrong. In a recent case when it seemed Neutrinos might be travelling faster than light scientists tried in earnest to disprove their own test results.  Only when they failed did they ask the world's scientific community to help.  Scientists were confident that the test results were inaccurate because it would contradict a core part of their physics models, but unlike religion they would genuinely have been pleased (to say the least) to discover they were wrong.

If someone were to find rabbit fossils in the Precambrian era, they would certainly win the Nobel prize and be a bigger name in history than Darwin.  A prize any scientist would aspire to and one which evidently isn't going to have your name on it this time, Hamza :)

If Allah truly exists and creates nothing in vain then it stands to reason that common ancestry of animals, evolution, and speciation must be true. There are too many animal appendages that serve no purpose which, if not for being evolutionary remnants, are created entirely in vain.

Would your all-powerful, all-knowing, merciful god not only ask you to believe statements in a book with less evidence than a scientific theory, but also cruelly and deliberately manufacture more evidence for the opposing scientific theory, and then expect you to dismiss that scientific theory out of hand in the hope that it will all make sense once you are dead?  Surely gullibility is not a prerequesite of reaching heaven?

Trying to convince Muslims to disbelieve everything which is testably true based on observable and reproducible evidence is too much.  Just like biological life, ideas and religions mutate over time which is why there are so many religions throughout the world and many sects within those religions.  Some "interpretations" will prove more successful than others over time, some will wither away and die, and some will hang around as a vestigial embarrassment.  If you wish for your efforts to be successful then take my advice. "Reinterpret" the Quran to show it is not mutually exclusive with what is probably the scientific theory with the largest amount of evidence than any other, otherwise you will find yourself talking to a minority group of beleivers with as much credibility as The Flat Earth Society.

  1. Historical contingency and the evolution of a key innovation in an experimental population of Escherichia coli
    Zachary D. Blount, Christina Z. Borland, and Richard E. Lenski
  2. Dynamics of adaptation and diversification: a 10,000-generation experiment with bacterial populations
    R E Lenski and M Travisano
  3. Tests of parallel molecular evolution in a long-term experiment with Escherichia coli
    Robert Woods, Dominique Schneider, Cynthia L. Winkworth, Margaret A. Riley, and Richard E. Lenski
  4. Genome evolution and adaptation in a long-term experiment with Escherichia coli
    Jeffrey E. Barrick, Dong Su Yu, Sung Ho Yoon, Haeyoung Jeong, Tae Kwang Oh, Dominique Schneider, Richard E. Lenski & Jihyun F. Kim
  5. Genomic analysis of a key innovation in an experimental Escherichia coli population
    Zachary D. Blount, Jeffrey E. Barrick, Carla J. Davidson & Richard E. Lenski
  6. (Article) The Birth of the New, The Rewiring of the Old
    Carl Zimmer
  7. Incipient species formation in salamanders of the Ensatina complex
    David B. Wake
  8. Evolution and stability of ring species
    Ayana B. Martinsa, Marcus A. M. de Aguiarb,c, and Yaneer Bar-Yamc
  9. Endogenous retrovirus drives hitherto unknown proapoptotic p63 isoforms in the male germ line of humans and great apes
    Ulrike Beyera, Julian Moll-Rocekb, Ute M. Molla,b, and Matthias Dobbelsteina
  10. Afrotheria: Plate tectonics meets genomics
    S. Blair Hedges
  11. Developmental mechanisms for retinal degeneration in the blind cavefish Astyanax mexicanus
    Alunni, A., Menuet, A., Candal, E., Penigault, J-B., Jeffery, W.R., and S. Retaux
  12. Eye migration and cranial development during flatfish metamorphosis: a reappraisal
    B. Brewster
  13. Lessons To Be Learned From Atavistic Mutations
    Susumu Ohno;year=1995;volume=1;issue=1;spage=1;epage=5;aulast=ohno;type=0
  14. Atavism: Embryology, Development and Evolution
    Jill U. Adams, Ph.D. & Kenna M. Shaw