Imagine playing chess with someone who insists on continuing after his king has been taken. Or imagine a basketball game where the losing team insists on continuing after the final buzzer has sounded. These vignettes are so absurd that if they actually happened we would regard the protesters as insane. Yet something comparable happens all the time when creationists protest that it is unfair for them to be ignored–including some recent comments on my blog.
The idea that it is unfair to be declared a loser and to be made to retire from the field profoundly misunderstands the nature of fairness in all contest situations. Science is a contest situation, no less than chess or basketball. In the ideal scientific contest, alternative hypotheses make different predictions that can be tested with empirical observations. When the predictions of a hypothesis are not confirmed, it is declared a loser and is made to retire from the field. New hypotheses are always welcome to enter the competition, including modified versions of rejected hypotheses, but science without losers would be as pointless as chess without checkmate and basketball without the final buzzer.
Science is admittedly a much more complex contest situation than board games and sports. I should know, because I helped to revive a theory that was declared to be such a loser in the 1960′s that Richard Dawkins compared efforts to revive it to the continuing futile search for a perpetual motion machine (see my series on Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection, including installment XI on Dawkins). There is no final buzzer for science and few tests of hypotheses are so definitive that they compare to a checkmate or basketball scoreboard. Science is also vulnerable to cultural and ideological influences. When a hypothesis seems like common sense to everyone or supports a widely cherished notion, the scientific playing field can become highly uneven.
Nevertheless, the scientific contest does result in the accumulation of durable knowledge. The earth is extremely old. Continents do drift. Species are descended from other species. Those who claim otherwise and demand that it is only fair to be heard are either deluded or cynically making a manipulative argument, a point to which I will return below.
The concept of an intervening god–a powerful supernatural agent who creates things in the same way people create artifacts, takes an active interest in the affairs of people, and actively intervenes to alter human affairs–is a perfectly good scientific hypotheses. It generates testable predictions, at least insofar as one knows the powers and will of such a god. It was the prevailing scientific theory for centuries, starting when science emerged as a recognizable cultural institution. The problem with the intervening god hypothesis is that it lost–again and again–for our understanding of the physical universe, the geological features of the earth, and life on earth. It failed so deeply that Darwin could quote this passage from William Whewell, written in the 1830′s, on the page facing the title page of Origin of Species, so that it was literally the first thing that would be read.
But with regard to the natural world, we can at least go so far as this–we can perceive that events are brought about not be insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.
The Origin of Species merely extended Whewell’s assessment, already accepted for physics, astronomy, geology and medicine, to the study of life. Today, creationists who protest that they are an embattled minority need to be reminded that they were by far the majority in Darwin’s day. Even then, with their superior numbers and much less information than we have today, they were muscled off the scientific playing field, especially with respect to identity by descent. The principle of natural selection took longer to become established among scientists, but that was a contest among materialistic hypotheses, so even in that case creationism was sitting on the sidelines.
The idea that losing is unfair in contest situations is so silly that one wonders why it persists for creationism. Beliefs are often accepted and defended, not because they are factually correct, but because they are useful for the community of believers. That’s true for other beliefs that are manifestly false as factual claims, from religions, to political ideologies, and even atheistic beliefs, as I recount in my atheism as a stealth religion series.
Still, we need to explain why the “rejecting creationism is unfair” claim is so successful, when it can be so easily dispatched. Consider the phenomenon of biological mimicry, whereby species resemble their background or masquerade as other species to escape detection by their predators and prey. An insect mimicking a leaf can be astonishingly convincing, right down the mid-vein and fake chew marks along the edges, but it’s easy enough to recognize as an insect with enough scrutiny. Mimics depend upon the fact that their predators and prey are too busy to recognize them for what they are.
So it is for the “rejecting creationism is unfair” argument. It sounds like it makes sense, but only for those who don’t have the time or expertise to seriously consider it. That’s why it fails to pass muster among actual scientists but still manages to survive among the general public and especially among those who would like it to be true. Unfortunately, that’s the arena where important decisions are made, such as whether to give creationism “equal time” in our public schools.
The revival of group selection illustrates the day-and-night difference between an authentic scientific contest and a flimsy mimic of one. Group selection was so thoroughly rejected during the second half of the 20th century that one senior scientist (who will remain nameless) counseled a junior colleague “There are three things that you don’t invoke in biology: the phlogiston theory, Lamarkism, and group selection”. When I became a proponent of group selection in the 1970′s, I began by constructing a mathematical model to demonstrate its theoretical plausibility. As a graduate student, I had no professional credentials whatsoever, other than the model itself. Nevertheless, I brashly showed it to E.O. Wilson and asked him to sponsor it for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. My argument made sense to him (and it was a delight to join forces with him over 30 years later in our review articles titled “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology” and “Evolution For the Good of the Group“) , but he also had it scrutinized by other theoretical biologists before he sponsored it for PNAS. Decades were required for group selection to make the transition from a pariah concept to a part of mainstream evolutionary science, but scrutiny has always been on our side. Scrutiny is the friend of an authentic scientific position and the enemy of a mimic.
In this fashion, creationists who have been fairly excluded from the scientific playing field, as surely as the chess player who has lost his king or the losing basketball team after the final buzzer, still inhabit the comment section of my blog and other low-scrutiny venues, where they complain bitterly about being unfairly excluded. The next time you hear this tedious complaint, just reply “checkmate” or “game over”.