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Evolutionary Theory Confusions

June 12th, 2005 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

My brother recently accused Mere-O of attempting to increase traffic by referencing "scantily clad women" (twice). I'm not sure anyone looking for said women would use "scantily" to find them. Regardless, it surely wouldn't bring the sort of reader Mere-O likes, so we'll try to avoid any more mentions of "scantily clad women" (did I say "scantily"?).

One mention of Intelligent Design, though, will (hopefully!) bring the readers out en masse. Full disclosure: I am rather uninterested in the debate regarding the scientific merits of intelligent design, or in the scientific shortcomings of evolutionary theory (or vice versa). In fact, I remain uninterested in the claims of science itself (which, according to fellow Mere-O member Andrew, is nothing short of a vice, to which I reply, "So be it.").

The claims of science are tentative, and I would much rather focus on the philosophical issues undergirding the actual science. For this reason, I share an affinity with ID.

My confusion, though, is simply about a number of claims being made about the benefits of "evolutionary theory." In a recent post, ID theorist Bill Dembski said:

My suspicion, therefore, is that Josh Rosenau meant something much more plebeian when he referred to evolutionary theory as “creating cures.” What I suspect he is referring to is that bacteria, through a process of natural selection, tend to acquire immunity to antibiotics. Thus, for infections to be treated effectively, drug companies need to design new drugs to overcome the increased immunity of these bacteria.

But, in that case, it is not the theory of evolution that provides insight into how to design new antibiotics that knock out bacteria that have developed an immunity to old antibiotics. Rather, it is the drug designer’s background knowledge and ability as a researcher that enables him or her to design appropriate new drugs that knock out these bacteria. All evolution is doing here is describing the process by which these bacteria acquire antibiotic resistance — not how to design drugs capable of overcoming that resistance.

In response, my brother litanized genetic mutations that we are now aware of.

Additionally, in response to Dembski, Rosenau writes:

The ongoing campaign to reduce use of antibiotics is driven in large part by an understanding of evolution, and a concern that our bullpen of useful antibiotics is being depleted faster by evolved resistance than we're developing new drugs. That's evolution saving lives and alleviating suffering.

Maybe you don't like that. Fine, look at the immune system. Whenever you are given an immunization, your body puts its immune system through natural selection. The cells which produce useful antibodies survive, the others are more likely to die off. As a theory, evolution predicts the effect of that, and explains how the immune system works and how it fails. Treating auto-immune disorders relies on our understanding of the evolution within the body.

It may be me, but it seems both my brother's and Rosenau's response miss Dembski's objection. Dembski seems to be accepting the fact that "evolution" identifies how and when bacteria acquire immunity to certain drugs, but that in order for lives to actually be saved (intelligent) researchers need to design a new drug that will effectively combat the now-immune bacteria. My brother's response that mutation happens and Rosenau's claim that evolution predicts the effects of the immune systems response to immunization don't actually address the substance of Dembski's claim.

It does raise questions for me, though, about what "evolutionary theory" actually is. Clearly mutation happens on biological levels, and clearly on biological levels there is something like "survival of the fittest." However, these 'facts' seem no less difficult to harmonize with ID than with 'evolutionary theory.' The only difference is that an evolutionary theorist who does not accept agent causation as a valid form of (scientific?) explanation must explain all events in the universe using these categories, which just seems a tendentious. They must see the macro in light of the micro, which seems awfully reductionistic.

The anticipated question for an ID theorist would simply be "How would ID predict the immune systems response to immunization better than evolutionary theory?" My reply is, on the micro-level, it doesn't seem to at all. This doesn't entail that the explanatory power of "evolutionary theory" in this instance disconfirms ID. Rather, it simply highlights that ID is a macro-scientific theory, and it's opponent "evolutionary theory" is as well, which means that rolling out specific instances (on either side) probably won't settle the issue. It also makes me more than a little suspicious that there are two competing philosophies of science at work and that philosophical naturalism is undergirding contempory science more than some would like to admit (rather than science justifying the claims of naturalism, as many more would like to admit!).

Those are my thoughts. Perhaps I am over-simplifying the situation, but if I'm right, then I'm probably justified in continuing in my lack of zeal for the scientific aspects of evolutionary theory and intelligent design (whatever those are).

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.