Bad Science, Worse Philosophy: the Quackery and Logic-Chopping of David Foster's The Philosophical Scientists (2000)

 

8. Misrepresenting Darwinism

Richard Carrier

 

Foster's main enemy is Darwinism, which he claims to have 'refuted.' But he seems to have no proper idea of what Darwinism actually is. Some of his misrepresentations may be polemic. Take for instance his hyperbolic declaration on page 42 that "after the Second Law of Thermodynamics it is possible that science is next most committed to Darwin's Theory of Evolution as a major anchor-point." Never mind his careless reification of 'science.' What is to be noted is the exaggerated importance of evolution theory. In all fairness to biologists, for whom this might in a sense be true, it is a huge exaggeration to state this of all science. Indeed, what about the other two laws of thermodynamics? And certainly there are many anchor-points that are far more committed-to by all scientists: relativity, the periodic table, kinetic theory, etc. It is typical of polemicists to exaggerate the importance of their enemies, so as to make their declaration of victory seem all the more impressive. So, Foster does not just claim victory over biologists, but all of science. Yet physicists would not have to adjust their theories one jot if Darwinism were refuted, nor would chemists, mathematicians, or astronomers.

Whatever his reasons, Foster utterly fails to represent Darwinism correctly. Only once in all 179 pages of a book that purports to refute Darwinism does he even mention the features of natural selection, and at no point does he incorporate them in his mathematical calculations. But how can you mathematically disprove Darwinism when you don't even include Darwinism in your proofs? This does not dissuade Foster, who claims victory without ever having actually fought the battle. To be fair, he does use the words 'natural selection' a lot, but he almost always does so as a synonym for 'evolution.' But as any biologist will tell you, these are not synonyms. Evolution is a visible and documented progress of speciation over time. Natural selection is a theory as to how evolution occurred. You cannot refute the evidence for evolution without first destroying geology, archaeology, paleontology, physics, atomic physics, astrophysics, and chemistry in your attempt to explain away the evidence of the fossil record and its chronology. Moreover, even if you refute natural selection, you have not refuted evolution. Foster does not clarify this important nuance, but he shows no desire to refute evolution. He accepts it fully. Instead, he is against Darwinism, i.e. Natural Selection.

The one place where he does define natural selection in terms even remotely correct lies on page 42. But even there he only mentions two of the required elements (random variation and selection), forgetting the essential role of the third element (reproduction), and to make things worse he never picks this point up again. This neglect is consistent with his failure to actually account for selection forces when working out his statistics. But worst of all is his strange treatment of evolution science, and this will be documented below, and in the following section. Based on what we have already seen of Foster's scientific illiteracy, we can conclude, I think, that he is also illiterate in this particular topic as well, destroying his credibility as a critic of Darwinism.

For instance, on page 42 we read his enigmatic and inexplicable statement that "the problem [for Darwinists] is to account for those accidental variations (apart from sexual selection which appears legitimate and whereby the female mates with the male who is more dominant than the rest)" [sic]. Here he is apparently saying that the only plausible selection force is sexual selection. He gives no reasons. But how can anyone say this and not also add thousands of other "apart from's" which, taken together, refute his actual statement? What about the female who can bear more children, or who can gather more food for her children, or who is stronger, faster, more resistant to disease, more intelligent, and so on? For if we add up all the "aparts from's" that belong here, then the 'problem' for Darwinists is solved. There is no problem. But if Foster did that, then he would actually be including natural selection in his book, and he would then have to deal with it. Instead he dismisses it with a casual bone thrown to merely one form of selection process, to make it look like he knows what he is talking about. What makes this even more inexcusable is the fact that he will never again mention selection forces in his book----a book that purports to refute natural selection!

On page 76 we find Foster again using evidence in favor of Darwinism as if it were evidence for his opposing theory instead. There, he points out that the DNA 'code' is the same across all known life. To him, "This could suggest that the code is innate in Nature." But what it actually suggests is that all DNA-based life on earth descends from a common ancestor. That all variety on earth was born from a single DNA code is exactly what we should expect, for the existence of a code, once that code is stuck to, is an excellent platform for reproduction and evolution. It would actually be improbable to find several different DNA coding schemes on earth (unless life began without DNA, the DNA-code being a later adaptation, which is quite possible), for that would suggest that 'the first life' was spontaneously created on earth twice or more, and that the ancestors of each protogenic being were able to evolve for some time in isolation from each other, to the point where each family of creatures was robust enough to compete on equal terms with the other. That is more improbable than the event happening once.

But there are more direct examples of Foster's complete failure to understand or at least represent natural selection properly. For example, on page 81 he declares that "even if the requisite amino-acids had been shuffled once a second through all the time of life on Earth, haemoglobin could 'never' have been produced by random chance." But the theory of natural selection does not claim that hemoglobin was produced by 'random chance.' Foster's entire argument, his entire book, is based on his statistical analysis of the improbability of hemoglobin arising by chance arrangements of its constituent molecules. But this has absolutely nothing to do with natural selection or Darwinism at all. Again, on page 82, he says "Darwin's theory of evolution relies on chance mutations being crystallized by natural selection or the survival of the fittest. But it totally underestimated the time duration which such a theory would need." But this conclusion is based on his calculations on page 81, which do not account for any of the mathematical effects of natural selection. Rather, all he calculates is the random chance of something. He is thus attacking a straw man, rendering his conclusion invalid: he is now inserting 'natural selection' in his conclusion when it existed in none of his premises. This is yet another non sequitur, ever-typical of David Foster's methods, which I am compelled to call quackery.

Finally, in two cases Foster overtly ignores the most compelling facts that favor the theory of natural selection. First, on page 156 he says of natural selection via mutations in DNA that there may be "favourable mutations, but chance does not suggest their favourable overall balance." But the theory of natural selection arose from realizing that the exact opposite is the case: favorable mutations will always have a favorable overall balance, no matter how many unfavorable mutations there are, or how rare favorable ones turn out to be, because the favorable mutations will always outdo all other competitors in reproductive success. Thus, not only has he failed to include natural selection in his probability equations, but he even flatly contradicts the very conclusion he would have reached had he done so.

Second, Foster makes much of the assumption, as I have already noted, that ordering effects must be the result of some kind of intelligence. But the most compelling evidence to the contrary lies in the very chemical processes which underlie the development of life. Indeed, the very reason that life is composed of amino-acid chains is the fact that amino-acids naturally generate all of the ordering effects needed to create life in the first place. Ilya Prigogine won a Nobel Prize in 1977 for his work demonstrating this fact. He showed that certain chemical systems, called 'dissipative structures,' naturally (i.e. as a necessary and inevitable product of chemical and physical laws) increase rather than decrease their complexity without violating the Law of Entropy. They accomplish this by exchanging energy for order, so that overall entropy still increases even as order is produced [also, see my addendum on Entropy]. Foster even admits to this natural ordering principle born directly from the laws of physics as already known to science. He does not mention Prigogine or his work, but on page 69 he merely says in passing that "amino-acids have a natural propensity to join up in strings." Yet he forgets to account for this important fact in any of his arguments or calculations.

So what does Foster offer in place of 'Darwinism' as an explanation for the fact of evolution? On page 137 he begins to outline his theory, suggesting that "to create a new species" the 'cosmic consciousness' "figure[s] out the new evolutionary requirement" and "call[s] on the card index of sub-programmes for 90 per cent of the structure, and then add[s] the new or modified touches." In other words, God plays tinker toys with DNA, and creates new species by grabbing 'parts' found in various other species, and 'adding' them to the species he wants to 'evolve,' and he does this whenever he thinks a new species is 'needed' (?). So much for sexual reproduction. In Foster's scheme, 10% of the DNA of any given species is invented wholesale as each species evolves, or else it is 'borrowed' from an entirely unrelated species, but either way the addition appears ready made for its purpose.

Using more legerdemain, he argues that his view would be proven if we found "sub-programmes in the DNA as to 'four legs and one tail' and so forth." But that would not prove his theory at all. To the contrary, it stands as better evidence for natural selection and descent from a common ancestor. For his theory requires spontaneous creation of DNA, and the unexplained movement of DNA across species. Natural selection is a far better theory that would explain the existence of sub routines: once a successful routine is developed through the selection of favorable mutations, it continues to be inherited by all ancestors, until it suffers a favorable mutation again. In fact, this is what the theory depends on. So once again Foster takes a fact that natural selection actually requires, and uses it as if it were proof that his theory is better than natural selection. This is quite illogical, yet it is quite typical of Foster. What his theory entails and that evidence actually contradicts is that even in cases of convergent evolution (e.g. the Tazmanian Wolf vs. the Grey Wolf, the eye of an octopus vs. the eye of a bird, etc.) the DNA would be exactly the same for similar but genetically unrelated features. But in fact, in such cases the similarity of DNA structure is absent, directly refuting Foster's thesis.

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