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Friday, October 14, 2005

The Case for a Creator, by Lee Strobel, part 2

I am continuing a series on Lee Strobel's The Case for a Creator. My comments, for the first few posts, anyway, will take the same order as Strobel's book. Much of that book is interviews with various persons who believe in Intelligent Design (ID).

Strobel's first interview is with Jonathan Wells (beginning p. 38). He consistently lists not just the interviewee, but his degrees (they are all male), which indicates that Strobel is on the defensive here. He is trying to establish the credibility of his witnesses by their credentials. Jonathan Wells is the author of Icons of Evolution, in which he claims that there are images, or icons, which have been shown to the public, including students, for a long time. Wells says they have been mis-represented, or oversold, as proofs of evolution. The four considered in Strobel's interview are:
1) The Miller-Urey experiment, in which a mixture of simple gases was electrified, resulting in some simple organic compounds, including amino acids, and sugars. Wells, and Strobel, argue that the mixture of gases used was not representative of conditions on the early earth, and that, even if such experiments could be made realistic, they would not show how self-replicating molecules (DNA) could have arisen.
2) Darwin's tree of life. Wells and Strobel argue that there was a Cambrian explosion, wherein many new types of organisms arose in a (geologically) short time, which argues against the tree of life idea.
3) Haeckel's embryos. Haeckel purported to show great similarity between the embryos of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, in sketches that have often been used in biology books, thus providing evidence for common descent. Wells and Strobel argue that the pictures that have been presented to the public were made so as to exaggerate the similarity.
4) Archaeopteryx, the missing link. Archaeopteryx was a fossil with characteristics of both birds and reptiles, including both teeth and feathers. Wells and Strobel argue that it was not a link between these two classes of vertebrates.

Wells has more to say in his own book, but my post is about Strobel's.

There are a number of reviewers who take pot-shots at Wells, or his book. To read some, just do a Google search on "Jonathan Wells Icons of Evolution." Most of the returns will be attacks (which doesn't, by itself, mean, of course, that Wells is wrong!). Paul Jacobsen, in "Another Case not Made," criticizes Strobel's entire book in considerable detail. A lot of his criticisms are about Wells, or Strobel's presentation of Wells.

Jacobsen concentrates on Archaeopteryx. He points out that, even though the public has often been told that Archaeopteryx was a missing link, it really wasn't, and sound paleontology doesn't claim that it was. I'm not a paleontologist, but I think that there is considerable justice in what Jacobsen says about this matter. Probably Wells has done a service, if he dispelled that notion, although I doubt Jacobsen would credit him for that.

Jacobsen also says that Wells misunderstands or misrepresents the significance of the Cambrian explosion. Jacobsen wrote that "many readers probably got the idea that the life forms that lived during the Cambrian Explosion were roughly the same as today--but nothing could be further from the truth." More seriously for Wells' position, Jacobsen says that "Wells argues against the idea that transitional life forms ever existed at all. This makes his bringing up the Cambrian Explosion all the more ironic. If the Cambrian Explosion was anything at all, it was a period of transitional life forms! Wells argues that there are no transitional life forms. Yet the Cambrian Explosion was nothing but transitional life forms!" (Emphasis in original) Jacobsen's view, as I understand the situation, is correct.

For more on the Miller-Urey experiment, see here. The web page referenced, which is from a biology professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, seems to be part of a class of that University. It agrees with Wells that the relevance of the Miller-Urey experiment, as originally performed, has declined, because, as Wells says, the Miller-Urey gas mixture probably wasn't the same as that of the early earth. However, The web page goes on to point out that the Miller-Urey experiment has been fruitful, in that it has led to further exploration of the possibility of synthesis of molecules needed for life from simple gases.

As to Haeckel's embryo sketches, they were, indeed, misleading, and, as an important naturalist (for more on this term, see here) critic of Wells admits, Wells is basically correct about the story (the link also shows drawings). This critic goes on to point out that exaggerations by Haeckel, or others, of the similarities between various types of embryos, doesn't prove that there are no such similarities, or that the various classes of vertebrates couldn't be related by descent.

My own comment on Haeckel's drawings is that I haven't seen them in introductory biology books for many years. (They may still be found in some such books -- I haven't seen them all.) That being the case, Wells' criticism is less important than Strobel and Wells seem to think.

My judgment is that, even though some of his claims seem overblown, Wells performed a useful service in pointing out that there have been exaggerations of various kinds in attempting to show that all organisms are related by descent. Unfortunately, those trying to push naturalistic theories of origins are not the only persons who have not been careful with the truth. It's too easy to rely on soundbites, and whether the subject is politics or science, they seldom give more than a caricature of the true picture.


Rob Spooner said...

To consider in detail the arguments of Intelligent Design is to miss the point. Intelligent Design is not merely not science, it is anti-science. Science attempts to understand nature without supernatural intervention. Intelligent Design actively resists finding such explanations.

It's impossible to disprove religion with science. With the powers that have been attributed to Jehovah, He could clearly have created the world in seven days along with evidence that it took a few billion years, all to test the faith of believers.

Conversely, if Galileo had told the world that not only was the solar system heliocentric but farther out, there were quasars, the Pope could rightly have said that he had no evidence of quasars. He would have been absolutely correct at the time, but the existence of quasars would have been just as true then as now. Absence of evidence is not a problem for science. It's just an indication that science is an ongoing process.

Creation versus Intelligent Design is a conflict of philosophies, not facts, and can't be resolved by rational argument.

Martin LaBar said...

I think I agree with you, Rob, except that I'm not in complete agreement on the first two paragraphs of your comment.

At least one of Strobel's experts pretty much does, too. See my next post.

On the second paragraph, although I agree that God could have done it that way, I don't believe He would test our faith in that fashion.