Still flaws in Lovett’s explanation

In his recent editorial, Dr. Lovett has stated that science and religion are “two different ways of knowing,” and that religion relies on faith, and science relies solely on facts. Perhaps in an ideal world, he would be correct, but science today, regardless of the area, relies heavily on faith. Take, for example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. One resultant aspect of Relativity often discussed in courses covering the theory is the famous Twin Paradox – if one twin stays on Earth, while the other travels around the universe at speeds near the speed of light, the one on Earth will seem to age must faster than the one traveling. This cannot be conclusively proven, because it is impossible, at least with the technology available today, and possibly with any technology we will ever have available, to travel even at a significant fraction of the speed of light. Yet, the twin paradox and the Theory of Relativity are widely accepted, because they seem to be good in explaining the world as we observe it. Is not this acceptance an application based at least partially on faith, however?

With the case of Evolution, the application of faith is many times more. To use Dr. Lovett’s New York Times example, in there are cases where a newspaper dated Jan. 1, 1963 and one dated Feb. 7, 2002 are considered enough to say the newspaper was published daily in the interim, which requires a huge amount of faith. Any student in a biology lecture is supposed to have faith that apes turned into humans, even though this can never be experimentally proven, and can never be experimentally proven. Yet, and I am sure Dr. Lovett would agree with me, the core of science is the scientific method, which states that that a scientist will observe the world, develop a hypothesis, make a prediction about something from the hypothesis and then conduct experiments to confirm or deny his hypothesis. By this method, the General Theory of Evolution is untestable, as experiments cannot be designed to prove that all variation of life is the result of natural processes. And if it is untestable, it is unscientific.

The very definition which Dr. Lovett says separates Creation and Evolution is that Creation is a claim which cannot be verified or falsified, and is thus unscientific. This definition entirely invalidates the General Theory, however. For the General Theory to be true, life needs to have begun somewhere, on natural principles alone. Can scientists prove that life began on its own? No. To this day, no one has been unable to create even a simple protein or RNA strand from its base atoms, using only heat and electricity, the supposed energy sources on early “Earth.” Yet, theories speculating on how it happened are accepted as correct. Even if the basis of one of these theories was shown to be possible, that still would not prove that the theory was actually how life began. But, any attempt to explain the beginnings of life is something which cannot be verified or falsified.

We can even generalize further back from the origins of life to the origins of the universe itself. The Bible gives one point of view on the creation of the universe – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3). This cannot be proven, until, assuming Christianity is correct, everyone comes before God to be judged. However, the Big Bang or any other scientific explanation cannot be proven, at least not until (in the case of the Big Bang), the universe collapses to single point again, and explodes a second time. As that explosion will consume all matter in the universe, however, including records and observers, we are still left without being able to verify it. Why is it, then, that starting the universe with the Big Bang, starting life with an RNA world, and going from the RNA world to today with the General Theory of Evolution is considered perfectly valid in the scientific community, when saying God created the universe and life is not, given as how they are equally untestable? Indeed, Mr. Esposito was correct a month or more ago when he said accepting this requires “checking your brain at the door.”

What Dr. Lovett fails to either mention or accept, is that world views affect the way in which a person, be he scientist, politician or historian, interprets data. It is observed that crocodiles are somewhat different in South America and Africa, and can become somewhat better adapted to their environment over time. Dr. Lovett would say that this means crocodiles evolved from some crocodile ancestor, who in turn evolved from something else, and so on down to the very first cell which formed 3.5 billion years ago. I would say that this is ultimately the result of the flood described in Genesis 6 – that members of each known family and/or genus were preserved on the Ark, and their offspring led to the world we see today. Both of these views fit well the evidence. Yet, only one is accepted.

Science does play a very important part in the world. If I did not think so, I hardly would have chosen to study it. However, as I am sure Dr. Lovett will agree, not all science is good science. And, I feel that accepting one theory which is not provable while rejecting another simply on the basis of its improbability fits in the realm of bad science.

Mark Strohmaier

Strohmaier’s letter contains errors

I thank Mr. Strohmaier for his excellent and well-written reply in the April 13 issue. However, he has made some mistakes in his letter, which I will address.

Mr. Strohmaier insists on a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis, a viewpoint which I and many other members of the Christian community do not share. Remember that Christ taught by parable time and time again. Are we unable to afford God use of that method? The Bible does not require a literal interpretation to convey its essential message. The Bible itself suggests that we read it figuratively. 2 Corinthians 3:6 says, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life,” suggesting that the essence of the Bible is the meaning of the message, not the verbatim transcript of it. Galatians 4:24 confirms this by stating that the story of Abraham is an allegory, and should not be taken as literal truth. A literal reading of the Bible is like a literal reading of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” and I sincerely doubt that Orwell was concerned with the threat that talking animals posed to the English countryside.

Mr. Strohmaier also makes the claim that current dating methods cannot extend back more than 400,000 years. I am curious as to where he arrived at such a number. Nothing in the scientific literature seems to agree with this limit. If such a limit existed, it would come as a surprise to Dr. Valley, a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Wisconsin who two weeks ago put on display “the oldest thing on Earth:” a speck of zircon crystal which he dated at 4.4 billion years old. I find it hard to believe that Dr. Valley and thousands of other scientists like him would willfully make a mockery of their profession and risk their careers and their credibility by arbitrarily assigning great age to an object if the best tools at their disposal only allowed for accuracy up to 400,000 years.

Hominid fossils are an oft-cited topic in the debate between evolutionary science and creationism, and in reference to Fred Spoor’s study of Australopithecus, Mr. Strohmaier neglects to explain what Spoor’s conclusions actually were. Far from reporting that the ancient hominids were “all-ape,” Spoor’s 1994 paper concurs with the commonly-held belief that Australopithecus walked partially like an ape and partially like a modern human. This is exactly what has been predicted for years, and it has not come as any great surprise to anthropologists, since one would expect that a transitional fossil would show characteristics of the ancient and modern organisms it falls between.

In suggesting that because life is rare in the universe and that this provides evidence against the theory of evolution, Mr. Strohmaier confuses biogenesis with evolution. Modern evolutionary theory starts with the first organism and proceeds to explain the diversity of life on Earth from there. Evolutionary theory says nothing about what pre-biotic Earth was like: evolution concerns itself with life, not the formation of planets. “Rare Earth” does not claim that life in the universe should be rare. Ward and Brownlee actually suggest that life should be common in the universe (with complex life being rare). They never even suggest that this rarity implies that life’s origin must have been as described in the Book of Genesis. They explain that unique evolutionary pressures that Earth’s environment had on early life account for the complex web of life we see today. Ward and Brownlee note that a similarly complex web of bacterial life is what we should expect throughout the universe, and evolutionary theory has little trouble accepting that idea.

Evolutionary theory is an extremely robust and fascinating field of study which forms the foundation of modern biology. If one wishes to replace it with something like creationism, one would do well to ensure that creationism actually can explain evidence better than evolutionary theory. Thus far, that has simply not been the case: evolution has done an exemplary job of explaining the diversity of life on Earth while creationism grasps at straws.

John Pennisi

Kudos to faculty for engaging students

I read with interest recent letters on religion and evolutionary theory. I applaud the authors for their contributions: Mr. Esposito for raising the questions; Mr. Pennisi and Mr. Strohmaier for writing lengthy articles clarifying various positions; but specially Dr. Lovett and Dr. Pride for taking the time to engage in discussions initiated by students.

As educators, we should strive to provide guidance to our students without stifling their inquiry or being overbearing. Rather than giving students impression that we know all the final answers, we should encourage them to ask question even about things “we all agree about.” We should remember that Einstein’s inquiries were called “nonsensical” by many a great mind. Eventually, what our students think and ask might change over time. But one thing they should take from college is a habit of asking questions and a willingness to search for the answers.

Dr. Lovett gives an illustration of archeologists digging copies of the New York Times from various dates throughout its 150-year history. Although they only find pieces of various editions and not every page from every edition, Dr. Lovett concludes that they could reasonably hypothesize that the paper was published daily.

Dr. Lovett should, perhaps, consider revising this illustration; for, although creative, it does not make the point it was apparently trying to make. The hypothesis that the paper was published daily can only be reasonably made if one assumes that the New York Times was made according to an intelligent design (and one should hope that to be true for the Times). If the paper was made in a random fashion, there would be no reason to assume that every date should be included.

Danielle Dalafave

Physics Department