Does Dr. Niles Eldredge Believe in Darwinian Evolution?

June 12, 2011 2:50 am 20 comments

Dr. Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History

Dr. Robert Shapiro, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at NYU, (and self-declared agnostic) is one of the most outspoken critics of modern-day Origin of Life research. In fact he was unofficially dubbed “Dr. No,” by his students for his repeated criticisms of what he called the “deeply flawed” approach of many scientists as they search for a purely naturalistic origin of life. When asked for his reaction to a widely touted experimental “breakthrough” by a British researcher he was quoted as saying, “The flaw in this kind of research is not in the chemistry. The flaw is in the logic – that this type of experimental control by researchers in a modern laboratory could have been available on the early earth.” The particular details of that experiment are not relevant to our present discussion. What is relevant is the above highlighted phrase, and I ask the reader to contemplate its import and let it percolate through your brain. “The flaw is in the logic.”

Many laypeople in our times view scientists as sort of demi-gods. Dr. Niles Eldredge, a distinguished scientist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, put it this way, “Many scientists really do seem to believe that they have a special access to the truth. They call press conferences to trumpet new discoveries…and they expect to be believed – by their peers, and especially by the public at large. Throwing down scientific thunderbolts from Olympian heights, scientists come across as authoritarian truth givers, whose word must be taken unquestioned.” Speaking as a highly accomplished scientist himself, he unceremoniously shatters this misleading façade: “That all the evidence shows the behavior of scientists to be no different from the ways in which other people behave is somehow overlooked in all this.”

Simply put, they are subject to the same foibles as all other human beings. Some scientists are petty, underhanded, lustful, manipulative, and envious, while others may have developed sterling quality of character. And yes, a brilliant scientist can conduct a complex experiment calling on all his vast knowledge and skill, and then proceed to draw faulty conclusions, not due to a failure of his science, but due to a failure in his logic. Please focus on this crucial distinction. Logic is not science. Logic is a commodity which cannot be hoarded or monopolized by any particular occupation or profession. Logic is an intellectual tool available equally to both scientist and non-scientist. If the issue at hand is not a question of scientific data or knowledge itself, but a logical comparison, deduction, or conclusion involving scientific data or knowledge, scientific credentials are for the most part irrelevant. At that juncture, the scientist, historian, plumber, and taxi-driver are all on equal footing, provided their logic is sound. No one made the point better than Nobel prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, indisputably a genius of the highest order and one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century: “I believe that a scientist looking at non-scientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.”

It is my contention that many of the hottest areas of dispute in the so called “battle” between science and religion have relatively little to do with the actual science involved. They are to a great extent problems of logic. We will now focus on Niles Eldredge himself. In his foreword to Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction (by Dr. Eugenie Scott), Eldredge states that there are two grand predictions made by evolutionary theory and that by experimentation and observation one can see these predictions confirmed:

What predictions arise from the notion of evolution – that is, the idea that all organisms present on earth are descended from a single common ancestor? There are two major predictions of what life should look like if evolution has happened…(1) more closely related organisms will share more similarities with each other than with more remotely related kin; rats and mice will be more similar to each other than they are  to squirrels; but rats and mice and squirrels (united as rodents) share more similarities than any of them share with cats. In the end there should be a single nested set of similarities linking up all of life.

He then goes on to explain that this prediction has been borne out in the world of nature:

“This is exactly what systematic biologists and paleontologists find as they probe the patterns of similarities held among organisms – in effect, testing over and over again this grand prediction of evolution. Rats, squirrels, and mice share many similarities – but with all animals…they share a common organization of their cells. They share even with the simplest bacteria…the molecule RNA [and]DNA.”

On the surface it sounds quite reasonable. As life moved forward in its evolutionary journey from the first common ancestor, organisms on the same evolutionary branches will resemble each other more closely than those on divergent branches. It is a rather simple task to test this prediction. All we have to do is find those living things that are closely related and see if they share more similarities than with more distantly related organisms. But you may ask: How do we know which species are more closely related in order to test out the level of similarity? Eldredge has already given us the answer, “Rats and mice will be more similar to each other than they are to squirrels, but rats, mice, and squirrels (united as rodents) share more similarities than any of them share with cats.” This logic is so thoroughly and fatally flawed that it never even sees the light of day. Rats, mice, and squirrels, which are all closely related, are very similar to each other. And how did we know that rats, mice, and squirrels are closely related in the first place so that we could test out if they share similarities? We know they are related, because they are very similar to each other. In order to test his prediction, Eldredge has presupposed the truth of what he is testing for.

Let’s put it a different way: If evolutionary theory is true, then living things are “related” through the evolutionary process, and as a result of this “relatedness” will share similarities. However, if the theory is not true, then living things are not “related” at all, and the fact that they share similarities is for an entirely different reason (hint: they were created that way). In order to test out the truth of this prediction of evolutionary theory, Eldredge must look for “related” organisms to see if they are similar, but in order to know if organisms are “related” we need some independent knowledge that the theory is true in the first place! Not only is Eldredge’s prediction untestable and unfalsifiable, it is, in fact, a striking example of circular reasoning. Along this line of thinking, the only testable and falsifiable predictions that could be made are the following: If evolutionary theory is true we would expect to see that (1) some living things are very similar to each other, (2) some living things are less similar to each other, and (3) all living things share some similarities. Let’s face it, numbers (1) and (2) are nothing more than truisms, and although molecular biology has confirmed (3), it offers no conclusive demonstration of evolutionary theory. All it tells us is that…well, that all living things share similarities!

On the second grand prediction of evolutionary theory, Eldredge does better:

The second grand prediction of the very idea of evolution is that the spectrum of simple (bacteria) to complex (multicellular plant and animal life) should be ordered through time: the earliest forms of life should be the simple bacteria…and only later do the more complex forms of multicellular life arrive…that is indeed what we do find.

Let’s assume that the science here is flawless; that, in fact, our scientific observations confirm that the oldest living things were the simplest and that more complex living organisms only come later, culminating in man himself. While it would then be true that the data matches the prediction of evolutionary theory, the data also happens to align very closely to the “predictions” of another competing theory that is older than Darwinian evolution by several millennia; oddly enough, we are talking about the first chapter of Genesis. Based on the story of creation in Genesis, one would also expect to find that there was an order in the progression of life going from simple life in the water all the way through homo sapiens, who is the final stage of creation. So far, the first of Eldredge’s grand predictions turns out to be circular reasoning and the second turns out to be curiously similar to the creation story in Genesis.

However, the most bewildering point in Eldredge’s approach is not anything that he predicts about evolutionary theory; it is what he does not predict that is most perplexing of all! The obvious “third grand prediction” should have been that if all life originated from one common ancestor, then the fossil record should provide the “smoking gun” evidence that shows the gradual transitions from one species, genus, phylum, etc., to another. What makes this even more astounding is that Niles Eldredge is a highly respected and world-renowned paleontologist! It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the reason he leaves this out, is because in his opinion as a world-class paleontologist, the fossil record does not provide evidence for Darwinian evolutionary theory. I want to make it clear to the reader this should not be misconstrued as a comprehensive analysis of evolutionary theory nor an attack on Eldredge’s credentials as a scientist; I am simply pointing out the flaws in his logic.

Dr. Robert Shapiro (whom we mentioned in the first paragraph of this article), also stumbles in his logic regarding the search for a naturalistic origin of life. In his classic work, Origins: A Skeptics Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth, Shapiro writes the following:

“One favorite analogy of believers involves the discovery of a watch…it would function only if its parts had been put together by a watchmaker…similarly, the existence of bacteria [the simplest organisms known to have ever existed] …which are much more complex than a watch implies the existence of a creator…we will not take this escape route in our book, for we are committed to seeking an answer within the realm of science.”

The problem here goes beyond a simple flaw in logic. It seems that Shapiro has brazenly thrown the entire quest for truth under the bus. He is clearly prepared to abandon and ignore a perfectly reasonable possibility for the origin of life because  he is “committed” to seeking a scientific answer. Why couldn’t Shapiro state that despite the very reasonable possibility that the first life was created,  as a scientist he is still committed to investigating if there is a plausible naturalistic pathway from non-life to life. Why denigrate the notion of a creator as an “escape route?” It is obviously just as foolish for a scientist to believe that his “commitment” to finding a scientific answer magically creates a scientific reality, as it is for a theologian to believe that his “commitment” to seeking a religious answer magically creates a metaphysical or spiritual reality.  The only answer that anyone should be seeking is the true answer. In fact, if one is seeking the truth, for what reason would one possibly care if the answer is scientific or not? He concludes the above cited paragraph with a rather strikingly un-scientific statement: “We must look for another solution if we wish to remain within science.” (“If wishes were fishes, we’d all cast our nets in the sea.”)

Dr. Robert Hazen, in his book Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin, makes a similar blunder:

“How did life arise?…Barring divine intervention, life must have emerged by a natural process – one fully consistent with the laws of chemistry and physics.”

How is it possible that such a bizarre statement could be put forward by such a highly accomplished and intelligent scientist?  There are only two possibilities to begin with; if you arbitrarily eliminate one, it doesn’t take a PhD level intellect to conclude that only one possibility remains. Dr. Hazen has presented us with none other than a meaningless tautology.  He has, in fact, informed us of the following: If no other force is at work in the universe with regards to the origin of life except natural processes (“Barring Divine intervention”), then no other force is at work in the universe with regards to origin of life except natural processes.  Hazen’s statement is about as meaningful, informative, and scientific as the following: “Barring natural processes, life must have emerged by divine intervention.”

One might think that after everything I’ve written above, I have a low opinion of the level of intelligence or scientific expertise of the aforementioned scientists. Nothing could be further from the truth. If I needed a piece of scientific data within their fields, I would unhesitatingly inquire of Dr’s Eldredge, Shapiro, and Hazen, and rely on the validity of their answers. In closing, I offer a corollary of Dr. Robert Shapiro’s incisive observation which is cited in the opening paragraph of this article: When agnostic/atheist/materialist scientists use their laboratory tables as pulpits to preach their non-belief, the flaw is not in their science, the flaw is in their logic.

Rabbi Moshe Averick is an ordained orthodox rabbi. He is the author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist, available on Amazon and Kindle. He can be contacted via his website at Link to Amazon.


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