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Gappy Gods and Scientists

A guest author in Nature admonishes scientists to "Reach out to defend evolution" from gappy gods and their gap-wielding disciples. Writing in Nature's World View column, Russell Garwood has a beef with "creationists" who take advantage of gaps in evolutionary science.

Before going any further, we point out for the umpteenth time that intelligent design is not creationism, nor is the scientific critique of Darwinism to be identified with either of those views. Nature nevertheless routinely lumps them all together. For example, Garwood calls the new Tennessee academic-freedom law a "creationist bill" when its intent is only to protect teachers who present scientific criticisms of evolution; see here.

"Creationists seize on any perceived gaps in our knowledge of evolutionary processes," the subtitle reads. "But scientists can and should fight back, says Russell Garwood." (Bold added in quotations.)

Well, conflating ID and creationism is par for the course with Darwin advocates. It's still worth analyzing Garwood's criticisms

Garwood, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester, knows his field is plagued with gaps:

In my field, uncertainty is everywhere. Much of my work focuses on early land-based animals: the creepy-crawlies that beat our vertebrate ancestors to dry land by a few tens of millions of years. The earliest fossils post-date these first forays into the dry by millions more years. Accordingly, and unsurprisingly, many of them are very well adapted to life on land. Furthermore, although many groups are starkly different from their modern relatives, some look very similar.
As an example, he points to the spiders called harvestmen:
I recently described two fossil examples from rocks 305 million years old that look similar to those we see today. Their fragility makes harvestmen rare as fossils, and these beautifully preserved new species offered the first opportunity to assess their evolutionary relationships computationally. They turned out to be members of lineages that are still around, and so we reported that harvestmen have an early origin and that they are an example of evolutionary stasis, unlike the majority of other ancient land arthropods, which looked nothing like those we see today.

Garwood knows that 305 million years of stasis (the lack of evolution) represents a challenge, but claims it is not a falsification. "We don't know why harvestmen are such a good example of morphological stasis; but the fact that they are in no way undermines evolution," he says. "Rather, it indicates that further work is needed and encourages such work."

What bugs Garwood, if you'll pardon the pun, is that "creationists" latch onto these gaps in understanding and use them as ammunition. Their tactics are twofold: (1) misrepresenting "attempts to refine knowledge" as evidence against evolution, and (2) employing the old god-of-the gaps argument:

Another favorite anti-evolution tactic -- the god-of-the-gaps -- originated in the nineteenth century, and still flies today. This presents perceived gaps in scientific knowledge (genuine or spurious) as evidence in support of theistic world views. The lifeblood of this gappy god is uncertainty -- yet good science thrives on unanswered questions. That papers frankly assess and admit shortcomings in current knowledge is vital. But the creationist lobby uses the same literature to try to undermine science.
Science needs to acknowledge its unknowns, Garwood agrees; "Yet knowing that unknowns will be presented as evidence of a designer does make writing up the results a potential minefield." Strikingly, Garwood advises against the tried-and-true scientific practice of open debate. "Direct debates with creationists are risky," he warns readers of Nature. Apparently, debating is only advisable with members of your own debate team. And why is it risky to debate "creationists"? "Organized discussions only support the 'evolution is in crisis' lobby." Sounds like a reference to Michael Denton, who is neither creationist nor a lobbyist.

In the remainder of the essay, Garwood suggests ways his teammates can resist the "creationist threat" by blogging or performing outreach. That advice need not concern us here. What about the validity, though, of his critique of "creationists" and their "tactics"? Is it legitimate to gab about gappy evidence for evolution and insert gappy gods into the unknowns? Does this constitute "undermining science"?

One way to bring clarity to such questions is to consider the extremes and work toward the realistic middle.

(1) All gaps. Clearly, any science that is all gaps with no observational knowledge (like astrobiology or SETI) is ripe for criticism. It's hard to claim that knowledge is being refined when there is none being offered (or none yet). Astrobiology and SETI can make progress in refining our ignorance -- what we know that we don't know (e.g., we know there is no life on Venus or the sun), but until and unless life beyond Earth is discovered, these are sciences without a subject. Progress in such sciences (if they can be called that) is motivated by hope: the potential excitement of a discovery warrants the search. As with alchemy, all-gap sciences can provide some spin-off benefits; astrobiology is helping constrain the "habitable zone" around extrasolar planets, for instance -- something nice to know, even if life is never discovered beyond Earth. Nevertheless, Garwood himself would probably agree there's room for "genuine scientific debate" in all-gap sciences.

(2) All knowledge. Well-characterized sciences like ballistics are generally not threatened by debate. Neither scientists nor "creationists" (as if these were non-overlapping categories) are going to debate the physical theories that allow drones to target buildings with pinpoint accuracy. Since no science truly has 100% knowledge, there will still be lively debates at the fringes of well-characterized sciences, but the feeling will be, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

(3) Mixtures of gaps and knowledge. Most science fits in here. Garwood admits that "good science thrives on unanswered questions."

In (3), the problem is to determine how much is knowledge and how much is gap. This is where evolutionists and Darwin critics disagree. Darwin critics, for instance, will likely point to Garwood's harvestmen fossil and argue that morphological stasis contradicts the predictions of evolutionary theory; Garwood and his friends, on the other hand, will dismiss these criticisms, saying "further work is needed and [the gap] encourages such work." Who can play the referee here?

Unfortunately, the referee is simply the party in power. Darwinians retain power over most of the journals and news outlets. They get to choose the questions, the terminology, and the rhetoric. For instance, Garwood (with Nature's consent) trots out the old "god-of-the-gaps" chestnut without fear of rebuttal, even though many ID advocates reading that would be shouting responses from behind the soundproof, one-way glass.

Stephen Meyer's rebuttal -- that intelligent design is "not based on what we don't know, but about what we do know from our uniform experience with intelligent causes" -- goes unread in Nature, which refuses to print such views.

A party in power can lie with impunity and leave a multitude of questions begging. Look at the whoppers Garwood gets away with:

  • That creationism and ID are the same.
  • That the Tennessee bill is a creationist bill.
  • That anti-evolution arguments constitute disinformation.
  • That criticisms of evolution undermine science.
  • That "the lifeblood of this gappy god is uncertainty."
  • That Darwin skeptics constitute a "lobby" but Darwinians do not.
  • That "creationism" is a threat but Darwinism is not.
  • That "creationists" attack, but Darwinists encourage good scientific work.
  • That "creationist media" twist findings, but Darwinists never do.
  • That creationists "interpret" but evolutionists "explain."
  • That without fossil evidence, evolutionists "know" that arthropods beat tetrapods to land by tens of millions of years.
  • That arthropods already well-adapted for land, without evidence of transitional forms, evolved from sea creatures.
  • That morphological stasis does not undermine evolution, but is actually evidence for it.
  • That fossils exhibiting stasis allow scientists to "assess their evolutionary relationships" with living forms.

Garwood ends by pointing excitedly to the usual bogeyman: "Ignoring the creationist threat will not make it go away. As scientists, we owe it to the schoolchildren of Tennessee and elsewhere to find another way to beat it." Yes, readers of Nature, you need to expel the heretics even more vigorously! Do it for the children!

It's hard to argue that rhetorical power plays like this are good for science. If Garwood truly believes that good science thrives on unanswered questions, lively debate and admitting shortcomings, bring it on.