A critique of Kel Hammond’s 'The Testimony' magazine article “The Bible, science, evolution and creation”

The Ken-Cat
By Ken Gilmore
(Ken Gilmore is a Christadelphian, NOT an Ex-Christadelphian. He DOES NOT condone the Atheist position of this website.) 

I’ve previously referred to the regrettable fact that in response to the growing acceptance in our community of the fact of evolution, magazines such as The Christadelphian and The Testimony are doubling down on their attempts to defend the indefensible. Kel Hammond is the latest author recruited by The Testimony in their desperate attempt to rebut evolution.[1]


Hammond’s article is ultimately yet another attempt to define away evolution by (1) attacking it on spurious philosophical grounds and (2) criticising a straw man version of evolution that bears little resemblance to mainstream evolutionary biology. Ultimately, Hammond’s article is a reflection of his failure to properly understand both scientific epistemology and modern evolutionary biology, and as such reflects yet again how poorly special creationists in our community understand the subject they are criticising.

Defining away the problem (or how to avoid the overwhelming evidence for evolution)
 
Attempts to convert a scientific problem into a philosophical one are common among special creationists, and are little more than attempts to evade the burden of proof by illegitimately shifting a problem that belongs in the scientific domain to an area where the scientific evidence can be brushed away. Hammond is open about his attempt to shift the burden of proof, beginning his article with this admission:
The author of this series does not attempt to deal with all aspects of the topic or to address all the relevant arguments—or even to offer a ‘scientific’ argument against evolutionary theory. There are many complex aspects and disciplines involved, at times all seemingly united in support of evolutionary theory. The author sees the essence of the debate as one of philosophy and faith, rather than one of science. Mainstream scientists, when postulating on origins, utilise abductive reasoning coupled with a materialistic philosophy—in other words, they claim that the past can be understood only by the present, using natural mechanisms. These ideas are explored in this essay.
Hammond’s approach fails at this point. The burden of proof lies squarely on the person who asserts evolution is false, and that obliges him to do so on its own terms. With evolution, those terms demand an intimate familiarity with multiple scientific disciplines. As evolutionary biologist T.R. Gregory notes that the evidence for evolution comes from many disciplines such as comparative genomics, molecular biology, palaeontology, comparative anatomy, and developmental biology, not to mention direct observation of evolution in experimental and natural populations.[2]  Furthermore, the consensus is long-standing and robust:

Each of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every year in scientific journals provides further confirmation (though, as Futuyma (1998) notes, “no biologist today would think of publishing a paper on ‘new evidence for evolution’... it simply hasn’t been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century”) Conversely, no reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science.”[3]

The poverty of Hammond’s approach can readily be seen by framing attempts by germ theory denialists, geocentrists, or any other advocate of pseudoscience to shift the burden of proof so blatantly in terms of Hammond’s opening paragraphs:

The author of this series does not attempt to deal with all aspects of the topic or to address all the relevant arguments—or even to offer a ‘scientific’ argument against the theory.

Such an attempt to dismiss heliocentrism, atomic theory, plate tectonics, the germ theory of disease, or any other scientific theory would rightly be dismissed out of hand for failing to address the subject on its own terms. Hammond also is not averse to using rhetorical strategies to avoid the burden of proof:

There are many complex aspects and disciplines involved, at times all seemingly united in support of evolutionary theory.

The use of weasel words such as ‘seemingly united” elide over the fact that multiple scientific disciplines independently converge on one fact – all life is united via a process of descent with modification. One does not dismiss this evidence by using terms such as “seemingly united.” There is nothing ‘seemingly united’ about the lines of evidence for common descent. As the evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyama notes, evolution has not been an issue for over a century. Rhetorical evasions are not sufficient to dismiss one of the best-attested facts in science.

Hammond makes his attempt to define evolution away by converting it into a philosophical problem by asserting in the first paragraph:

The author sees the essence of the debate as one of philosophy and faith, rather than one of science.
Again, the poverty of this approach can be demonstrated by framing any pseudoscientific attack on any scientific theory in Hammond’s terms. Needless to say, any geocentrist, germ theory denialist, or opponent of the atomic theory who asserted that the ‘essence of the debate’ was ‘one of philosophy and faith, rather than one of science’ would be immediately dismissed for their clumsy attempt to evade the burden of proof by illegitimately and incoherently attempting to turn a scientific problem into a faux-philosophical one. It is worth pointing out that any attempt to polarise the debate along religious lines is subverted by the fact that acceptance of evolution in the 19th century was not along lines of belief and unbelief. As historian of science David Livingstone reminds us:

Darwin’s cause in America was championed by the thoroughgoing Congregationalist evangelical Asa Gray, who set himself the task of making sure that Darwin would have “fair play” in the New World. Let us be clear right away that this cannot be dismissed as capitulation to the social pressure of academic peers. To the contrary, Gray had to take on one of the most influential naturalists in America at the time to maintain his viewpoint – none other than Louis Agassiz, a Harvard colleague who vitriolically scorned Darwin’s theory. But Gray was not alone. Many of his countrymen, associates in science and brothers in religion took the same stand. And indeed even those who ultimately remained unimpressed with if not hostile to Darwin were quite prepared to admit that evolution had occurred. It is surely not without significance that Christian botanists, geologists, and biologists – that is to say, those best placed to see with clarity the substance of what Darwin had proposed – believed the evidence supported an evolutionary natural history.[4]

Evidently, many devout Christians theologians and scientists did not perceive the essence of the debate as one of philosophy and faith, but rather one of science, which suggests strongly that Hammond’s opposition to evolution is based on flawed hermeneutics, an unwillingness to change an interpretation of the creation narratives that is refuted by evolutionary biology, and a desperate attempt to resolve the problem by hand-waving away the scientific evidence.

Hammond’s attempt to evade the burden of proof by his attempt to turn a scientific problem to a philosophical one bears many similarities to philosopher of religion Andrew Perry’s attempt to dismiss evolution by making it a philosophical, rather than scientific problem:
"The debate between biblical creation and the theory of evolution is argued in scientific terms - that is, on the scientists' home ground. The following article argues that the conflict is actually a philosophical one, reflecting the competing world views of the two sides. For believers in God and His revelation in the Bible, the changing theories of science must be subservient to the inspired Word of God."[5]

Perry’s attempt to redefine the terms of debate as I pointed out reflected a poor understanding of both scientific epistemology and the science behind evolutionary biology. Fundamentally, Hammond’s attempt to evade the burden of proof is identical to that made by Perry, and as such the criticisms of Perry’s approach apply equally to that of Hammond’s argument.

Finally, Hammond attempts to poison the debate by using the loaded term ‘materialistic philosophy’, one that given its use as a proxy for atheism carries considerable emotional baggage when used in an article aimed at a fundamentalist audience. In addition, he couples a failure to appreciate the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism, with an illegitimate attempt to make ‘postulating on origins’ a special case of science, and as such intrinsically less reliable:

Mainstream scientists, when postulating on origins, utilise abductive reasoning coupled with a materialistic philosophy—in other words, they claim that the past can be understood only by the present, using natural mechanisms.

Science to a first approximation is the search for natural causes for natural phenomena, and as such any supernatural explanation is a priori not scientific. This applies to any scientific discipline, not just evolutionary biology. One would hardly criticise a clinical epidemiologist for not allowing divine intervention as a plausible cause of infectious disease, or an atmospheric physicist for ruling out of bound the finger of God as the explanation for tornadogenesis. Hammond’s attempt to make evolutionary biology a special case is clearly an attempt to redefine a scientific discipline that threatens his interpretation of the creation narratives in an attempt to justify his illegitimate use of philosophy to dismiss evolution, and on these grounds can be dismissed as having no credibility.

Given that Hammond destroys his entire thesis in his opening paragraph, it would seem somewhat indulgent and pointless to devote a few more articles to refuting the rest of his thesis. However, as Emil Zuckerkandl and Linus Pauling wrote fifty years ago when musing on how the consonance of molecular and morphological phylogenies[6] would provide an excellent demonstration of common descent.

Besides offering an intellectual satisfaction to some, the advertising of such evidence would of course amount to beating a dead horse. Some beating of dead horses may be ethical, when here and there they display unexpected twitches that look like life.[7]

Given the potential of such dead horses both to destroy the intellectual credibility of our community by linking its theology with obscurantism, and its risk to the faith of young people who are well aware of the evidence for evolution, such beating is very much indicated, and will take place over the next few posts.


[1] Hammond’s article has been recently serialised in The Testimony, but I will be responding to a similar online article available here.
[2] Gregory T.R. “Evolution as Fact, Theory, and PathEvo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:49
[3] loc cit
[4] Livingstone D.N. Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders (Eerdmans, 1984) p xi-xii
[5] Perry A "The creation versus evolution debate" The Testimony (2014) 84:69-72
[6] Long since confirmed.
[7] Zuckerkandl, E. and Pauling, L. (1965) "Evolutionary Divergence and Convergence in Proteins." in Evolving Genes and Proteins: a symposium held at the Institute of Microbiology of Rutgers, with support from the National Science Foundation. Eds Vernon Bryson and Henry J. Vogel. New York: Academic Press.

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