Tuesday, June 2, 2009

David Penny: Religion Can be Subtle

At next week’s evolution2009 conference, David Penny will give the Society of Systematic Biologists Presidential Address. Penny’s talk has the engaging title: “Why we should finally take Darwin 100% seriously: who's afraid of the big bad ID’er.” It should be interesting. As an evolutionist, Penny is an advocate of religious interpretations of the scientific evidence. Often this religious influence is obvious but sometimes it is subtle, as in a paper that Penny and coworkers published in Nature magazine.

In that 1982 paper, Penny responded to Sir Karl Popper’s occasional criticisms of evolution, such as that it is not falsifiable and is a metaphysical research program. Penny responded with the classic random-design-as-null-hypothesis argument which dates back to the eighteenth century when it was introduced by Daniel Bernoulli, and elaborated by Immanuel Kant and Pierre Laplace.

That’s quite a trio and the argument, though it is deeply theological (simply put, it claims God would not create patterns in nature), soon became standard fare in science. And the argument had the virtue of sounding scientific when carefully restated. As Penny declared:

Clearly we can reject any idea that the trees from the different sequences are independent.

Independent? What does that mean? This is a subtle, but deeply metaphysical interpretation of the evidence (See Science’s Blind Spot for more details). It is used as a consistent and powerful proof in the evolution literature, and it is not scientific. Ironically, in attempting to rebut Popper’s observation that evolution is not falsifiable and metaphysical, Penny instead confirmed these very points. Religion drives science and it matters.