Todd Wood talks sense

First, my very favorite creationist in the wide world has an appropriately snarky (but optimistic) take on a new ID journal. He opens by noting, "The last time ID supporters tried their own journal was PCID, which seemed to whither and die five years ago." Indeed, they appear to have been unable to generate sufficient submissions to even complete their final volume.

I and others have taken this as a sign of the intellectual vacuity of ID. Even their own house organs cannot manage to maintain an appearance of vibrant research. And what papers they generate are simply absurd. But Wood, a young earth creationist who teaches at Bryan College, in the town where namesake William Jennings Bryan fought to block evolution from classrooms, is still hopeful for the ID journal:

Frankly, I'm glad this journal has launched. I know a lot of people have been waiting a long time to see what (if anything) the ID movement had to offer besides yet another populist anti-evolution crusade. In particular, since the launch of Biologic [Institute, the DI's "research" lab], I've been hoping they would ... well... do something. Something other than churn out books, debate atheists, and make spectacles of themselves.

Indeed we have been waiting a long time for ID to produce anything of value, and we're likely to be waiting a lot longer. Wood tips his hand that he thinks the journal won't live up to his expectations by writing: "I hope it will go beyond just anti-evolution rhetoric research, but I guess that remains to be seen."

The thing that's so shocking about the failure of all previous attempts at an ID journal is that the young earth creationist movement has actually done quite well at creating its own pseudoscientific infrastructure. They have several journals that imitate the peer-review of proper scientific journals. Sure, authors have to swear that their results won't contradict a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, and the actual arguments they make tend to fall apart once you start pushing on them, but many of the papers are quite sharp, and do a decent job of testing hypotheses within the straightjacket imposed on them by fundamentalist ideology.

ID, which is often presented as the "more sciency" cousin to scientific creationism has never lived up to that billing. They've never created such an infrastructure, nor anything resembling the technical sophistication of baraminology. Baraminology has no logical or empirical basis outside of the fundamentalist subculture, but at least it's an attempt to flesh out the scientistic implications of that theology. It's as true now as it was when Paul Nelson said it 6 years ago (already 10-20 years into the ID project):

Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’–but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.

The heralded "first research article" to be published in the journal is a rehash of research that Ralph Seelke has been touting since at least 2005's Kansas Kangaroo Kourt, at which he had to admit that his research to date was still "whoosy," adding that "I wouldn't publish this until I had probably 10 to 100 trillion [cells]." The article he's now published is based on roughly 1 trillion cells, and therefore still "whoosy" by his own standards.

The second instance of Todd Wood talking sense comes in his response to an article by old earth creationist Faz Rana. Rana is trying to explain why harmful bacteria would exist if they were created by a good and benevolent god. Rana argues that they were created to be perfect, but have since evolved their harmful natures. "Wow," writes Wood, "I could totally be reading a young age creationist here." Indeed, this is essentially the YEC argument, but in their model harmful mutations arise after the Fall (for reasons scientifically unexplained but theologically significant).

So what's Wood's problem? Aside from the theological differences, Wood doesn't like Rana's special pleading:

Everything Rana writes applies only to humans not animals… He wants to cut off humanity from the rest of creation, even though everything he says applies equally well to animal diseases. Shoot, you could even say that disease has been an effective population control on humans! …

A pathogen's a pathogen, whether it infects a horse or cat or human. Disease is disease. If we think there was no human disease before the Fall, it just seems weirdly inconsistent to say that animals had diseases. It's a bizarro world, where Fido can catch a cold but his master can't. If RTB wants to allow animal disease in the world before the Fall, then humans should have been susceptible to those same diseases from the moment they were created.

I don't see any reason to believe Rana's special treatment of humans. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

Alas, my ellipsis above is important, because that's where Wood simply crashes and burns. The elided sentence reads: "It seems to me more biologically consistent to attribute pathogens in general to the effects of the Fall."

There is nothing biologically consistent about invoking a magical moment where mutations started happening which were not capable of occurring previously. There's also nothing about that sentence consistent with what we know about physics, chemistry, or any other science.

So why do I bring this up? In the past I've cited Wood as a reminder to anti-creationists that it's not enough to simply dismiss creationism as irrationality run amok. Wood's approach is rational, but premised on faulty assumptions. Rationality is dependent on the quality of the minds inputs and presuppositions, and some folks tend to wrongly claim that simply being rational would solve all our problems.

I also point it out in the hopes that Wood will, at some point, confront the special pleading he's using, and will realize that if he extends his arguments to their logical results, he'll have to abandon his creationism. His critiques of ID creationism and of old earth creationism are spot on, and if he'd only turn the same analytical approach toward his adherence to young earth creationism, interesting things might happen.

For instance, consider his third inadvertently sensible comment. Discussing a recent paper by Doug Theobald which statistically tests whether universal common ancestry is the best explanation for the similarity of the genomes of all living things, Wood opens with a mistake. "Although Theobald does not cite creationists in the article," Wood acknowledges, "I think it's pretty clear who his primary target is."

But no! As John Wilkins points out, there's an interesting discussion among biologists about the root of the tree of life. There are three domains of life: the Archaea, Eubacteria, and Eukarya. It seems to be the case that eukaryotic cells are the result of an archaean engulfing a eubacterium [thanks to commenters for catching the error here], but the Archaea and Eubacteria are quite different. So different that it isn't totally impossible that they represent separate origins of life. There's a lot of evidence of gene flow between the lineages over time, making it tricky to tell for certain whether similarities between those lineages represent convergent evolution, lateral gene exchange, or common ancestry. So biologists working within a standard evolutionary context have argued back and forth about this problem of distinguishing how many distinct lineages life would have had a couple billion years ago. Theobald's paper explicitly applies itself to testing among several proposed evolutionary models.

And perhaps unwittingly, Wood acknowledges the problem with applying this approach to a creationist "orchard" model. He writes:

A correct alternative [i.e. creationist] model would have to assess the probability of created similarity vs. evolved similarity. Impossible? Maybe…

Impossible? Definitely. Doing so requires knowing a great deal about the entity doing the creating. A supernatural being who wished to make the universe appear to be 13.7 billion years old despite having created it last Thursday could do so. A supernatural creator who wished to make it seem as if all life shared a common ancestor a couple billion years back could do so, and could do so with such skill that science could never detect the difference. Which means that there is no way that any test Theobald or anyone else might propose could conceivably serve as a falsification of creationism.

This is why creationism is inherently unscientific, and all Wood's attempts to make a scientifically plausible account of creationism are doomed. They're all built on quicksand. This need not mean that they're wrong, but they're not science, and don't belong in a science class or science lab, even at Bryan College.

I know Wood knows that, because all I'm doing is quoting his own argument. Hopefully he'll recognize its significance some day.

More like this

I've got Wood's blog in my reader specifically to watch as he walks through something like this. He comes close to the edge and then abruptly veers off when he approaches forbidden territory. It becomes apparent that he will not attempt to test creationist assumptions and assertions, but only wants to buttress them. In that respect he's no different from Duane Gish or Henry Morris, or, for that matter, George McCready Price. In the end, just like Rana's notion about pathogen's that he criticizes, it's just apologetics in a lab coat. One wonders why he can't see it as clearly in himself as he does in Rana.

"It seems to be the case that eukaryotic cells are the result of a eubacterium engulfing an archaean"

Usually it's the reverse people are thinking of, at least if the engulfing event is the one that created the mitochondrion... there are more complex scenarios though...

By Nick (Matzke) (not verified) on 19 May 2010 #permalink

It seems to be the case that eukaryotic cells are the result of a eubacterium engulfing an archaean
More like an early eukaryote/archaea engulfing a bacteria.

By ponderingfool (not verified) on 21 May 2010 #permalink