“I don’t understand” is not equal to “Not True”
A little while ago, I wrote a post about the book “Divinity of Doubt” by Vincent Bugliosi. I’m very happy that Bugliosi’s book exists as I think one of the things frequently missing from the atheist/theist debate is agnosticism.
I’m not happy with Bugliosi’s reasoning on several points, however. While he spends much of the book railing against the seemingly nonsensical beliefs of Christians (I’m with him there), he also spends some time criticizing atheists. He’s writing a defense of agnosticism and as such, that is entirely appropriate. My issue is with how he structures his arguments.
He devotes one chapter to evolution and his problems with evolution. His problem with evolution, however, springs completely from a near complete failure to understand evolution.
For instance, he says:
It is well known that Darwin’s theory has been accepted by the scientific community as one about which there can no longer be any reasonable doubt. In other words, his theory has been accepted as fact by most scientists on how man evolved and they therefore reject the notion that God created man. Although they may be right, I can say that viscerally I find it difficult to conceptualize the notion of bacteria evolving into Mozart or, for that matter, any human.
Later, he goes on to question, as so many creationists have, the issue of transitional fossils:
As the New York Times observes, “The Known Fossil Remains of man’s anscestors would fit on a billiard table. That makes a poor platform from which to peer into the mists of the last few million years.” ….if man’s search for his definitive anscestry has so far been in vain, is the reason that he has none?
I’m going to ignore the fact that the quote from the Times is wrong because that is hardly the focus of my objection to his almost completely unscientific response to the question of evolution.
His basic argument is based on an inability to wrap his head around how natural selection works. He claims to have read several books on the subject but reading them is not the same as understanding them. Similarly, a failure to understand natural selection is not the same thing as proving it wrong.
You can’t understand how we went from single celled organism to Mozart? How about from a single celled organism to a multiple celled one?
If that is too hard for you, how about accepting that biologists know more about how evolution works than you do?
I took physics in college and I was pretty good at it. For the first several tests of the term, I had the high score for the class by a pretty good margin. Then we got to fluid dynamics.
Man, I could not get my head around fluid dynamics. I thought I understood it but no amount of study time and homework would result in the correct answer. I just bombed that section of the class. It was embarassing.
I can’t recall a moment during that class that I figured the problem was with fluid dynamics. I didn’t say to myself “well, I can’t get my head around this stuff so everything this physics professor is saying must be wrong.”
Saying such a thing in response to a physics professor is ridiculous. Saying it in response to a biology professor is commonplace.
For some bizarre reason, Bugliosi cites a 2007 USA Today/Gallup poll in which 2/3rds of Americans do not believe in evolution. There was a time not so long ago when more than 2/3rds of the civilized world believed the Earth was flat. Scientific fact is not a popularity contest.
The refuge of the creationist (and in at least one instance – the agnostic) is the idea that we humans are just too complicated to have happened by random chance.
As Jerry Coyne points out in his excellent book “Why Evolution is True,” natural selection is not random. Natural selection is the process by which genes that provide an organism with the best chance of survival are selected in favor of other genes that do not. This process is not random.
Coyne points out that the creationist argument regarding transitional fossils (also aped by Bugliosi) is complete bunk. We may not have a huge number of transitional fossils but we have a lot. More importantly, if we look at a particular date in the fossil record, we find exactly the kind of fossils we expect.
I’m not a biologist but the basic idea here is that – say – somewhere between a fossil of a prehistoric fish and the fossil of an early land animal we ought to be able to look into the fossil record and find evidence of some sort of amphibious creature. That is the theory that can be tested if we know the age of the rock that held the fish and the age of the rock that held the land animal.
When a biologist has information like this and goes looking for their transitional form in the rock that is older than the rock with the fish and younger than the rock with the land animal, they almost always find what they are looking for.
If they don’t, it is typically because there aren’t any well preserved fossils in that strata of rock. We could assume that is a point where god meddled or we could note that making fossils is actually pretty hard to do and if the climactic conditions aren’t right, we could see a gap of a few million years because there just aren’t that many fossils from that time period.
The entire argument is an argument from ignorance. A failure to understand a process does not discredit the process.
I don’t really understand how cars work. Does that mean I can’t drive? My failure to understand the human digestive system has not yet resulted in an inability to digest food.
Arguing that god might exist because you don’t understand evolution is nonsensical. Do I need to understand every step between a single celled bacteria and Mozart for evolution to be true? No.
The logic doesn’t follow. Why is it that we are so willing to accept the word of geologists (Bugliosi doesn’t question geologists’ claim that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old), cosmologists and physicists but the field of biology is the one that is open to second guessing by people who don’t know what they are talking about?
It is one thing to be an agnostic. It is another to support your agnosticism through ignorance. Moreover, the arguments can be used support a radical fringe who are much worse because they don’t misunderstand the evidence, they ignore it.