Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Is the theory of biological evolution science or history?

Here is a conversation I had with Dr Jay Wile on whether “historical science” (like the theory of biological evolution) is science or history. Is it scientific or is it an historical narrative (a story written by scientists based on what they believed happened in the unverifiable past)?

Other conversations on this topic are given in Appendix A.

A theory is scientific if it makes predictions that can be observationally verifiedDr Wile’s comment

With regard the documentary movie “Dismantled” by Back2Genesis:

… I do want to point out that I strongly disagree with the first part of the documentary, which tries to claim that evolution isn’t really science; it’s history. As such, it’s not the same as the science that cures disease and makes Mars rovers, because it studies something that is not repeatable: the past. This is a very common assertion among creationists, but it is utterly false.

In fact, epidemiology has cured disease by studying the past. More importantly, the study of the past is definitely repeatable. We cannot repeat the past itself, but we can study the evidence related to the past, develop a hypothesis, and then test that hypothesis with more observations of the evidence related to the past. We can repeat such observations in different parts of the world, and if the hypothesis is repeatedly verified, it is just as scientific as a hypothesis about a medical procedure. A theory is scientific if it makes predictions that can be observationally verified. This is true whether the theory is about the past, present, or future.

George’s question

I note your criticism of the idea of “historical science”. You say “A theory is scientific if it makes predictions that can be observationally verified. This is true whether the theory is about the past, present, or future”. I find this difficult to understand when observations can only be made in the present. Can you supply a reference that explains it for me?

Dr Wile’s reply

Observations can only be made in the present, but they can be repeated in different situations to test a hypothesis about the past in many different ways. Consider, for example, carbon-14 in dinosaur fossils. First, we were assured that there would not be any carbon-14 in dinosaur fossils, because they are simply too old. However, when observations were made, we found out there was a lot of carbon-14 in dinosaur fossils. So, observations made in the present falsified a statement made about the past.

Now that we have the observation, old-earthers say that it is the result of contamination. Young-earthers say it is because the fossils are only thousands of years old. Once again, the two explanations can be tested scientifically in the present. In the link above, I discuss the young-earth arguments against contamination. In one of them, researchers tested carbon-14 levels in the vicinity of the fossil and found that it decreased the farther away the sample was from the fossil. That is a good indication carbon-14 was leaking out, not in, falsifying the contamination hypothesis. If that observation were repeated on several different fossils at several different sites and the same results found each time, that would strengthen the scientific argument against contamination. This is an example of how observations in the present can be repeated to better confirm or falsify a hypothesis about the past.

Another example from that same study is that the carbon-14 testing was repeated on several different kinds of fossils. With the repeated testing, a pattern emerged: there were four distinct groups with different carbon-14 levels, and the grouping was based on the type of fossil. Thus, repeated testing in the present produced a new scientific insight about the past: it’s something about the nature of the organism that affects how the carbon-14 levels have decayed in the past. My guess is that more repeated testing of fossils will produce a few more groups, and once the pattern is more fully observed, a solid scientific conclusion might be reached about what happened in regards to carbon-14 during and after the fossilization process.

Here is another example, taken from genetics. I was taught at university that nylon-digesting bacteria were a recently-developed strain which resulted from mutations that occurred in a population which was exposed to nylon. However, Cordova and Sanford made observations in the present that demonstrated they are not a recent strain. Thus, once again, observations in the present tested a scientific statement about the past.

There are literally thousands of examples like this, and they all show that science is science, whether it is about the past, present, or future.

George’s question

You say that “a theory is scientific if it makes predictions that can be observationally verified”. So I can now see that science can deal with a theory about the past if it is able to be tested by observations in the present.

Would you agree that the conflict isn’t between “observational science” and “historical science”, but between either two different types of “historical science” or two different versions of history?
By the way, “Observational science” sounds like a tautology to me as all science should be observable (or testable), otherwise it is just speculation. This sounds OK for experimental science, but what about theoretical science?

As “forensic science” is a branch of science, then “historical science” could also be a branch of science that deals with historical events/times. In a blogpost I used the term “ancient forensic science” to refer to the “big-bang” theory and the theory of evolution. I would appreciate your comments on how this post could be corrected or improved.

Dr Wile’s reply

I would agree that the conflict is between different interpretations of the past. I also agree that “observational science” is a tautology. Theoretical science isn’t science until it is tested experimentally. What makes a theory scientific is that it can be used to make predictions. Theoretical science makes the predictions, and experimental science tests those predictions. Experimental science by itself has little (or no) explanatory power. Theoretical science has explanatory power, but those explanations have no scientific value unless they can make predictions that are tested with experimental science.

I think your analogy between forensic science and science that deals with past events is a good one, but I disagree that history trumps science when dealing with the past. Eyewitnesses, for example, don’t always trump forensic science. Eyewitnesses can be notoriously unreliable, and forensic science can often be used to show that an eyewitness’s testimony is wrong. In criminal investigations, the case is strong when the eyewitness testimony and the forensic science agree. In the same way, some historical documents are notoriously unreliable, so the interpretation about the past is strong when the historical documents and the relevant science agree.

George’s question

I note your comments on theoretical science and experimental science, which raises questions like:
Can the big bang model be tested by experimental science? Is it falsifiable?
Can the theory of biological evolution be tested by experimental science? Is it falsifiable?
Can the biblical account of creation (Genesis 1-2) be tested by experimental science? Is it falsifiable?
Can the biblical account of the flood (Genesis 6-8) be tested by experimental science? Is it falsifiable?

Also, thanks for the comments on my 2013 post. You noted that the conclusion doesn’t apply to unreliable eyewitnesses and unreliable history. As the historical record discussed in this post comes from the Bible, it is reliable. To clarify this, in the second sentence of the conclusion I will add the word “reliable” before the word “history”.

Dr Wile’s reply

In answer to your questions:

Can the big bang model be tested by experimental science? Is it falsifiable?

Yes, and yes. It makes both assumptions and predictions that can be tested. For example, a fundamental assumption of the Big Bang is that on a large enough scale, the universe is homogeneous. That has been falsified. It made a prediction that there should be a cosmic background of energy. That has been confirmed. Even though that prediction has been confirmed, the details of this background are inconsistent with the Big Bang. So there are three examples of how experimental science has tested the Big Bang. It failed two tests and passed one. Since it can be tested, it is falsifiable. However, falsifying a wide-ranging theory in its entirety takes a lot of falsified predictions.

Can the theory of biological evolution be tested by experimental science? Is it falsifiable?

Yes, and yes. I have several examples of how predictions of the theory have been falsified. Once again, falsifying a wide-ranging theory in its entirety takes a lot of falsified predictions. I do think you are seeing the beginnings of scientists admitting that biological evolution as it is formulated now has been falsified. This is why the secular scientific literature regularly publishes papers challenging it, and even atheists are starting to admit it.

Can the biblical account of creation (Genesis 1-2) be tested by experimental science? Is it falsifiable?

Yes and yes. I have several examples of how modern observations test the creation account. All of those could have gone the other way, so yes, the account is falsifiable as well.

Can the biblical account of the flood (Genesis 6-8) be tested by experimental science? Is it falsifiable?

Yes, and yes. Once again, the Flood model makes lots of predictions about what we should currently see in the geological record. In large part, those predictions have been confirmed. They could also have been falsified.

To clarify this, in the second sentence of the conclusion I will add the word “reliable” before the word “history”.

Yes.

George’s question

You say that, “falsifying a wide-ranging theory (like the big bang, or biological evolution) in its entirety takes a lot of falsified predictions”. But if an essential part of a multi-step or multi-component theory is falsified, wouldn’t that be a fatal flaw?

Also, can the radiometric dating model be tested by experimental science? Is it falsifiable? I have seen some work by Stephen Austin on the Mt St Helens eruption of 1980 which has been criticized. Also, studies have been done on the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.

Dr Wile’s reply

Falsifying an essential part of a multi-component theory does not falsify the theory. If that were the case, we would have discarded the current model of the atom long before it was fully developed. After all, experiments showed that when a charged particle moves in a circle, it emits light, losing energy and spiralling towards the center of the circle. This falsified the planetary and Bohr models of the atom, since they required the electron (a charged particle) to move in a stable circle. All experiments showed that to be impossible. The orbits were a fundamental component of both models. Despite this component being falsified, the models were successful at predicting certain experimental results, so scientists were willing to assume that there was something wrong with the falisifcation. When particle/wave duality was discovered, they found out that they were right, because it showed how specific orbits for an electron could be stable. That’s the problem with science: it’s tentative. Even its falsificaions might be falsified, and that is true regardless of whether the theory is about the past, present, or future. The makers of the documentary would certainly agree that atomic science is science. Nevertheless, it suffers from the same problems as what the documentary calls “history,” because in reality, both atomic science and evolution are science.

Yes, it is extremely easy to test radiometric dating by experimental science, and scientists like Dr. Austin and Dr. Snelling have done some great work in that area. After all, we know the dates of formation of certain igneous rocks, because the lava flows that produced them were recorded in history. When those igneous rocks are dated with the potassium/argon radiometric dating system, the potassium/argon dates are always wrong. Thus, potassium/argon dating has been falsified for the date ranges seen by Drs. Austin and Snelling (23 million years and younger). In the same way, carbon-14 in dinosaur bones and other supposedly millions-of-years old fossils falsify either the millions-of-years old dates of the fossils or the carbon-14 dating system, at least for the carbon-14 date ranges seen in those fossils (30,000 years and older). Of course, the problem is that once again, there are certain aspects of radiometric dating that seem to make sense given the data we know. Thus, those who like to use radiometric dating hope that falsifications like the ones I have discussed can eventually be explained, and they will know when to use specific radiometric techniques and when not to use them.

Science is a process. It takes time and makes lots of mistakes along the way. Falsifications don’t immediately lead to a theory being overturned, whether that theory is about the present, past, or future. If a theory has some success, it might still be used after aspects of it have been falsified, because scientists are always willing to assume there is something that will eventually show the falsification to be false.

Discussion

So the theory of evolution can be considered to be scientific in a similar way that forensic science is scientific. The Geological Society of America says that, “there is overwhelming evidence for evolution from many different disciplines”. They say, “Evolution is a theory greatly accepted by the scientific community because all available evidence supports the central conclusions of evolutionary theory, that life on Earth has evolved and that species share common ancestors and genomes”.

But in the previous post we saw that the sequencing of genomes has falsified the supposed evolution of mankind from apes. There are 300-400 million single DNA letter differences between chimpanzees and humans, which is a massive number! Waiting for the right mutations to arise and be established in the pre-human population greatly exceeds evolutionary time scales. So modern genetics has demonstrated that it is impossible for humans to have evolved from a chimp-like ancestor via a long series of random beneficial mutations. Similarly, the differences between the genomes of other kinds of life on this earth is too great to be bridged by sequential mutations and natural selection. It’s the differences that matter, not the similarities (see Appendix B). And these represent millions of DNA letter differences.

But falsifying an essential part of a multi-component theory does not falsify the whole theory. This example of genetics falsifies macroevolution. If we remove this from the theory of evolution we are left with microevolution (or adaption), which is variation within created kinds. Heterozygosity, mutations and natural selection play a role here. Sexual reproduction by heterozygous individuals (with genetic diversity) produces genetic changes/diversity. And rare mutations can be beneficial if they are selected by natural selection (but there is a loss of genetic information in this process). These processes rearrange or remove the existing genetic information. And much adaptation is a result of complex inbuilt systems that respond to the environment.

I wonder if the Geological Society of America will ever review their view of the theory of evolution? Probably not, even though they say that “vigorous questioning of existing ideas is central to the scientific process”. Because of it’s widespread acceptance as a long-held theory, the theory of evolution will probably not be the subject of such scrutiny. So much for the scientific method!

Conclusion

The theory of evolution is scientific because it makes predictions that can be observationally verified. But modern genetics has falsified the supposed evolution of mankind from apes. The same would probably apply to other examples of macroevolution. This implies that the theory of evolution needs to be revised.

Meanwhile, the theory of creation according to Genesis is more consistent with what we observe – there is considerable variation within the created kinds, but there are considerable genetic differences between them.

Appendix A: Other conversations on evolution

Tom’s question

I’m trying to understand your last paragraph (see “Dr Wile’s comment” above). You say “In fact, epidemiology has cured disease by studying the past,” as if that somehow validates Darwinian/selectionist evolution as science. If evolutionists studied the past and used that to help them conjure up some real, testable or useable science today (on par with curing a disease) then yea. But they don’t. Their “science” is nothing but a philosophical narrative which has been shamefully rubber-stamped on the past. It’s not something that has any current use. It can’t be observed, tested, repeated or relied on to explain current phenomena. It has no true value.

Dr Wile’s reply

My statement about epidemiology doesn’t validate evolution as science. It simply shows that what the documentary calls “history” can cure disease. Evolutionists do, indeed, “conjure up some real, testable or useable science today.” If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have produced predictions that have been falsified. In addition, there is an entire field called Evolutionary Medicine which uses evolution-based ideas to combat illnesses and guide physicians in treating their patients. Where it is successful, it uses microevolutionary concepts. Nevertheless, it is another example of how what the documentary calls “history” can be used to solve real problems in the present.

Caleb’s question

You state, “A theory is scientific if it makes predictions that can be observationally verified.” However, the *theory* itself cannot be observationally proved. A theory, by definition, attempts to construct a framework for explaining observations; it does not merely describe observations (that would be a law). Furthermore, you argue that if a theory has explanatory power, it may be modified to fit new data. Thus, it would seem that a theory can never be absolutely falsified by scientific means. Even if all of the predictions it made were falsified, this would not falsify every aspect of the theory, which seems to be what would be required to actually disprove it.

Regardless, it seems that what we need is a distinction between observations and theories. A theory can never be observed, since it is simply a possible *explanation* for observations.

Also, it is worth distinguishing between scientific reconstructions of the past and historical accounts. While historical accounts may be subjective, and there is the possibility of dishonesty, they are typically much more precise, and are either right or wrong. Scientific inferences about the past, on the other hand, are extremely tentative, are also subjective, and are scarcely ever correct.

What are your views on the subject?

Dr Wile’s reply

No theory can ever be proven. Even scientific laws cannot be proven. That’s because all evidence for theories and laws are based on experiments or observations, which can be flawed. Thus, the best you can do for ANY scientific statement is to simply “pile up” the evidence. The larger the pile, the more firm the theory or law. For a theory, then, the more successful predictions, the more reliable the theory. The general view on falsification is that falsification can be achieved, but the falsification can be falsified as well. Once again, any falsification is based on an experiment or observation, and all experiments and observations can be flawed. Thus, even falsifications can be falsified!

There is a distinction between theories and observations. An observation is something you observe. A theory is an attempt to explain observations. Their very natures are quite different, so I am not sure that we need something else by which to distinguish them.

I would think that the distinction between a scientific reconstruction of the past and a historical account is the presence of an eyewitness. If something that was seen is written down, or an account based on something that was seen is written down, then it is a historical account. A scientific reconstruction of the past is done in the absence of eyewitnesses. I agree that scientific reconstructions of the past are much more tentative and subject to error than historical accounts. That’s another reason I do not like saying that a scientific reconstruction of the past is historical. History is very different from scientific reconstructions of the past. Both are tentative, but the latter is more tentative than the former.

Caleb’s comment

I agree with pretty much everything you said. On the issue of observations vs. theories, I wasn’t suggesting that we need to create some sort of artificial distinction that’s not already there; I was merely pointing out that the distinction which already exists should be more generally recognized. It is very common for evolutionists to treat “science” as synonymous with “objective observation,” and thus claim that those who reject evolution are irrational. In reality, observations themselves do not qualify as science; they are simply evidence. Science requires interpretation and inference. Thus, the very fact that evolution is a scientific theory, *not* an observed reality, proves that it cannot be an incontrovertible fact.

I agree 100% with your assessment of history vs. science. I think I was trying to say the same thing, but you put it much better by identifying the central difference of eyewitnesses. I think you’re right that, when it comes to origins, creation (what is actually recorded in the Bible) is not science; it’s history. The models we make to explain the account are scientific, but the actual facts of creation and the Flood are based on historical accounts, not scientific inferences from data (though they are confirmed by science). Since, as you say, scientific reconstructions are far more tentative than historical accounts, this is one of the most important reasons creation is superior to evolution.

Also, I would point that, if creationists insist that all science must be observable, testable, and repeatable, then no theory or law would qualify as science, since they themselves are none of these. Only the evidence theories and laws are based on is observable, testable, and repeatable. Thus, “observational science” suffers from the same limitations as “historical science”: it must be based on assumptions, it is affected by researchers’ bias, and it is inherently tentative. Theories about present phenomena can be just as wrong as those about the past, as you illustrated with the example of atomic structure.

I think you’re right that there’s no concrete difference between the two; evolution *is* a theory based on observational science; it just happens to be wrong. I do think it might be valid to classify it as “origins science,” however, since it deals with the origins of the natural world. However, to say that it is somehow more tentative than non-origins theories is wrong.

Since it is equally tentative to other theories, it should, like atomic models, be modified or even completely changed if observations require it. Thus, since creation does make more accurate predictions (not to mention that the philosophy it’s based on is more consistent), it should, by scientific standards, supplant evolution.

Appendix B: It’s the differences that matter, not the similarities

Men and women are more similar genetically and behaviorally than people and chimpanzees. But the differences are significant. For example the physical differences in the urinary system and the reproductive system: Men have testicles, prostate, and penis; women have ovaries, uterus, and vagina. And men and women differ in every cell of their bodies because they carry a differing chromosomal pattern.

Do you think that a man can change into a woman (or vice versa) by sequential random mutations? Of course not! The physical differences are too great. The testicles, prostate, penis, ovaries, uterus, and vagina are complex organs that can’t develop piecewise over millions of years. Mutations do not add the type of genetic information required for evolution. They cannot account for the type of information required for making complex organs or complex processes. Likewise, an ape-like creature can’t change into a human being by sequential random mutations. The differences are too great and mutations do not add the type of genetic information required.

Reference

The Geological Society of America, “The nature of science and the scientific method”, p.7.

Acknowledgment

The content of this post comes from the comments on a blogpost by Dr Jay Wile.

Also see: Using history and science to investigate ancient times

Posted, November 2020

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