Creationist Wisdom #344: No Proof!

Today’s letter-to-the-editor appears in the Union-Bulletin of Walla Walla, Washington, that’s in Walla Walla County — hubba hubba! — and it’s titled Debate still open on evolution. We’ll give you a few excerpts, enhanced with our Curmudgeonly commentary and some bold font for emphasis. As we usually do we’ll omit the writer’s name and city.

Okay, let’s get started. The letter begins with a profound question:

Has evolution been proven to be true?

Then we get the letter-writer’s confident answer:

It has not. Earlier this year I learned that Steve Luckstead has been writing a monthly column for the U-B [the Union-Bulletin] with the thesis that it has been proven. In his March 4 column he stated, “I love that science is ruthlessly objective. Nothing is accepted without proof. In fact, any proposed idea isn’t seen to be science without the possibility of being falsified.”

We can’t find that Luckstead column, but we suspect that it doesn’t literally claim that evolution has been proven. Our guess is that Luckstead means only that evolution has been “proven” in the sense that it’s been tested and not falsified. Anyway, today’s letter continues:

[T]here are only two possibilities. Either we evolved or there was a Creator, a master designer. It is crucial folks understand that if strict scientific methods are used neither the evolutionary theory nor creation theory can be proven. Neither of them can be falsified. It takes a certain amount of faith for folks to believe in either them. Someone has suggested the evolutionary theory is the humanist’s religion.

It’s certainly true that creationism can’t be proven or falsified. Well, it has been falsified in the sense that large chunks of the Genesis creation account are contradicted by observable evidence — but that can easily be explained away by either denying the evidence or imagining as many convenient miracles as may be required. That’s why creationism isn’t science. Evolution, however, is a genuine scientific theory. Does the letter-writer understand this? Apparently not. He says:

If Luckstead believes his theory can be falsified, it seems to me it would only be fair to the public if he would explain how that would be done.

There are many ways evolution can be falsified, and we’ve written about this before. See Creationism and the Burden of Proof. Also, the would-be evolution debunker can go out and find the infernally elusive Precambrian rabbit. Let’s read on:

Let’s look at what some noted evolutionists have written about the proof of evolution. In 1932, Horatio H. Newman, professor emeritus of the University of Chicago conceded, “Reluctant as he may be to admit it, honesty compels the evolutionist to admit there is no absolute proof of organic evolution.”

Assuming that’s an accurate quote, we have no quarrel with it. There is no “absolute proof” of any scientific theory. The letter continues:

Nearly 40 years later Ernst Mayr, Ph.D. of Harvard, an outstanding evolutionist, declared: “The fact that the evolutionary theory is now so universally accepted is no proof of its correctness … the basic theory is in many instances hardly more than a postulate.”

Ernst Mayr? We’ve never seen a creationist cite Ernst Mayr as an authority against evolution. For that reason, this letter is truly memorable. And then, immediately after that stunning quote (with a suspicious ellipsis glaring in the middle if it), the letter ends with this definition, which is supposed to be the ultimate evolution killer:

The dictionary defines a postulate as a position or supposition without proof.

Well! At this point the letter-writer imagines that we’re sobbing in frustration. We’ve been totally devastated! But be of good cheer, dear reader. Your Curmudgeon is on the job.

We immediately suspected quote-mining, but we really had to hunt for that Mayr quote. We found it here — or at least something close to it. You can see that Mayr’s statement has been badly mangled by the letter-writer — or, more likely, by the creationist website from which he copied his material. An important omission appears in red, the mined snippet we found appears in bold, and we can’t locate the part that was quoted before the letter-writer’s ellipsis:

The essentials of the modern theory are to such an extent consistent with the facts of genetics, systematics, and paleontology that one can hardly question their correctness. The basic framework of the theory is that evolution is a two-stage phenomenon: the production of variation and the sorting of the variants by natural selection. Yet agreement on this basic thesis does not mean that the work of the evolutionist is completed. The basic theory is in many instances hardly more than a postulate and its application raises numerous questions in almost every concrete case.

In case you have any lingering doubts about Mayr’s position (although you shouldn’t) a few paragraphs latter Mayr says this:

It is the application of the theory that is sometimes controversial, not the theory itself.

So there you are, dear reader. We conclude that if you’re a creationist, everything is okey dokey in Walla Walla.

Copyright © 2013. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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9 responses to “Creationist Wisdom #344: No Proof!

  1. The part before the ellipsis is earlier on the same page, but the word “evolutionary” has replaced the original “synthetic”.

  2. The quotemine is from Mayr’s “Populations, Species and Evolution: An Abridgement of Animal Species and Evolution,” p. 6. You can find it on Google Books. The creationists are, to say the least, doing a grave injustice to Mayr.

  3. anevilmeme

    Why do papers publish this sort of inane trash?

  4. Tripp in Georgia

    anevilmeme: “Why do papers publish this sort of inane trash?”

    Indeed, why? …Particularly since there does not seem to be any easy way to make comments on that web page. Stirring up contentious debate is one thing, and simply ‘…publish(ing) inane trash’ is something different.

  5. Tripp in Georgia

    Oh, yeah. The old ‘the jury is still out’ ploy. Science does not progress by democratic debate and thought experiments but by facts and falsifiable hypotheses.

    And, that clearly stated false dichotomy “[T]here are only two possibilities. Either we evolved or there was a Creator, a master designer. “ Wrong! Only objective investigation of the facts reveals all the possibilities. The ‘possibilities’ cannot be stated ‘a priori’ and not based on objective facts.

    Quote-mining from 1932?

    This letter writer failed his readers and science-at-large with his misguided missive. …Too bad it’s not clear how to make comments about it on the Union-Bulletin web page in Walla Walla.

  6. In my role as (mostly self-appointed) keeper of the quotemines, here is some more information on this:

    As background, Mayr was discussing the time when, in the 1930s, “many dissenting theories were fused into a broad unified theory, the “modern synthesis.” He opines that the previous theories suffered from an attempt to explain evolution by “a single-factor theory,” giving as examples Lamarck (internal self-improvement), Geoffroy (environmental induction of genetic change), Wagner (evolution by isolation), and De Vries (mutationalism). In addition to Darwinian natural selection, the synthesis included “concepts of mutation. variation, population, inheritance, isolation and species …” According to Mayr (who not every scientist agrees with) the main change is brought about by “[t]he replacement of typological thinking by population thinking.”

    Mayr goes on to write:

    Recalling this history should make us cautious about the validity of our current beliefs. The fact that the synthetic theory is now nearly universally accepted is not itself proof of its correctness. It will serve as a warning to read with what scorn the mutationist (saltationists) in the first decade of this century attacked the contemporary naturalists for their belief in gradual changes and in the immense importance of the environment. …

    The quoteminers are committing several sins here. First and foremost they are confusing the “modern synthesis,” a theory about the mechanisms that cause evolution, with the fact of evolution (common descent). Mayr is in no way questioning the overwhelming evidence for common descent; he is only cautioning that our understanding of its mechanisms may change, as they have changed in the past.

    Other sins are, as the Curmudgeon noted, that the ellipsis is hiding the stitching together disparate thoughts … a caution about falling too much in love with a theory about the mechanisms of evolution with another thought about the difficulty in applying any theory to particular, concrete, facts.

    And then there is my particular bête noire: the nonexistent period. The quoteminers put a period after “hardly more than a postulate” when, in fact, Mayr went on to say “and its application raises numerous questions in almost every concrete case.” Not that the implication that the quotemine was a complete thought would have made any difference to their fellow creationists (thoughts, complete or otherwise, have nothing to do with them) but innocent passersby might, if they had been given the entire sentence, have had a glimmer of the quoteminers’ dishonesty. The insertion of that period, when they are so otherwise free with ellipses, is what we lawyers call “evidence of the knowledge of guilt.”

  7. Excellent commentary, John Pieret. Thank you.

  8. Here’s the Douglas Futuyma quote in context. In this case also, the creationist has chopped off a sentence and added his own period. Italics begin with the creationist stopped.

    “Creation and evolution, between them, exhaust the possible explanations for the origin of living things. Organisms either appeared on the earth fully developed or they did not. If they did not, they must have developed from preexisting species by some process of modification. If they did appear in a fully developed state, they must indeed have been created by some omnipotent intelligence, for no natural process could possibly form inanimate molecules into an elephant or a redwood tree in one step. If species were created out of nothing in their present form, they will bear within them no evidence of a former history; if they are the result of historical development, any evidence of history is evidence of evolution.”

    [Futuyma, Science on Trial., p.197]

    The part about “any evidence of history is evidence of evolution.” is ignored by the creationist, because it contradicts the creationist’s claim that “neither the evolutionary theory nor creation theory can be proven. Neither of them can be falsified.” His authority, Futuyma, says evolution can be falsified and creationism cannot be.

    In addition, by “appearing in a fully developed state”, Futuyma meant molecules straight into “an elephant or redwood tree.” He did not mean a gap between two transitionals, a la Gish’s Law.

  9. It pains me to disagree with Futuyma, but even in context he seems to buy their false dichotomy. What’s so special about elephants and redwoods? In one sense the first free-living organism was just as fully developed, just much smaller, and less complex (though still horrendously complex, and arguably “irreducibly” so – as long as you use a consistent definition and avoid the Discoveroid bait-and-switch). If a natural process caused the catalytic closure of a tiny prokaryotic cell, who’s to say that there can’t be some bizarre, yet-undiscovered natural process can snap up a trillion-cell eukaryote organism from inanimate matter?

    Similarly, who’s to say that there isn’t a designer hiding behind every quark and smart enough to leave no evidence? Whether there are many designers, one, or none, the fact is that the only explanation that has any evidence is evolution – the fact (4 billion years of common descent with modification) and the theory.

    Note that anti-evolution activists don’t always say that “neither the evolutionary theory nor creation theory can be proven” but rather try to have it both ways, and resort to nonsense like that (and the similar “evolution is a faith too”) only when they sense that the audience doesn’t buy their pretense of having an alternate scientific explanation.

    The irony is that anti-evolution activists, particularly the Discoveroids, seem to be fully aware that they’re playing a game, one they keep winning mainly because most people lack the time and/or interest to see through it. The other irony is that no one seems to appreciate the evidence of evolution more than theists who are at least as devout as Discoveroids and fundamentalists. E.g. Pope John Paul II’s astute description of the evidence as “convergence, neither sought nor fabricated,” which, intentionally or not, calls attention to the stark contrast with the antics of anti-evolution activists, who do nothing but seek and fabricate, and still need to play word games to cover up the lack of convergence. John Haught has even gone so far as to speculate that evolution is how Judeo-Christian God can be expected to create species.