Correcting Pre-Suppositionalist Misunderstanding Of Evolution - Part 1

Some time back, I got into an intense discussion with a Christian apologist that I interact with a lot on Twitter who goes by the handle of @Apolojedi_, so handled because he is an apologist who finds your lack of faith disturbing. 

(Apologist Jedi - get it? But since it was Darth Vader who said "I find your lack of faith disturbing", his handle should actually be ApoloSith).

This particular debate got so intense that ApoloJedi stopped communicating with me for a while, and even as I write this, we are at somewhat of an uneasy truce (though things are warming up, which is great. Behind the scenes, ApoloJedi is a nice guy, and that is something I have no problems saying).

In our debates, the biggest point of contention is about the nature of epistemology and philosophy of mind. And why something so obscure, and you know, not actual evidence? Because ApoloJedi is a Pre-Suppositionalist. Pre-Suppositionalist apologetics doesn't focus on building an evidentiary case for God's existence or the superiority of Biblical morality - the core skill of Pre-Suppositionalists is uncritically assuming that they're correct, then dismissing atheists because they are apparently self-deceived fools who can't even know for sure if the sky is blue. The general topic of Pre-Suppositional Apologetics is one I'll write on in depth at some time, but for now, just bear in mind that the standard Pre-Supp apologetics style is NOT to use reason and evidence to build a case - actually, quite the opposite - and this is something I will refer back to towards the end of this response series.

The other thing to bear in mind is that ApoloJedi is a Fundamentalist Creationist of the Biblical-Literalist variety, which means he does not accept the theory of evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life on earth today. I would also add that because he is a Biblically-Literal Creationist, I feel that he feels that he is theologically-obliged to not accept or understand evolution* no different than the standard Creationist tropes of it, then to attack that Creationist straw-man of evolution as if he is criticising evolution as actually understood in the scientific literature, and then acting as if he has definitively proved evolution is b******t. All of this is in stark contrast to myself, a person who accepts that science is the best tool for explaining the natural world, so in due course I accept the theory of evolution. But don't think for a second that it means I uncritically accept the writings of Charles Darwin or that I am a Richard Dawkins fanboy or that I worship evolution. I'm not and I don't. Accepting the theory of evolution just means that I acknowledge what I regard to be the evidentially unescapable fact that the species homo sapien is a member of the wider primate family (which itself is the result of a long line of forebears who are now extinct) as well as the fact that all organisms on earth are inherently related. 

As a prelude to the interaction that sparked this blog post, ApoloJedi challenged me on Twitter with the statement:


I've never heard a good explanation for why evolutionists think altruism is beneficial.

I responded with:


Altruism is a beneficial trait in social species. The other primates also practice altruism.


He responded:


More of the same post hoc gibberish dressed up with some sciency lipstick.


And thus I replied:


The scientific research would beg to differ. The evolutionary origins of human altruism explained.


And after some time, he with a blog piece of his own titled "Can Evolution Explain Altruism?". I have had a read of it and felt the need to respond because he gets quite a number of things wrong (as well as a couple of things right).


Here begins my response to ApoloJedi's "Can Evolution Explain Altruism?".

All text quoted from ApoloJedi's original blog post come from the version published on 5th December 2020, and is represented in Courier font.
All external sources used by either ApoloJedi or myself are quoted in Verdana font.


Inevitably in some of those conversations, skeptics bring up evolution as a reason not to repent. The conversation sometimes includes this phrase:

There’s no need for your sky daddy. Evolution explains everything without him


I am not one of those people. To me, evolution doesn't explain everything - all evolution explains is the diversity of life on earth, not the origin. This would make my stance somewhat compatible with Theistic Evolution, a concept that accepts the veracity of the theory of evolution, but also believes God either started the process, guided it, or could well have intervened at certain stages. So I will tell you straight up that theology is not the issue - God could exist, evolution could be verified, and none would detract from the other.

Aside from that, my primary reason for not believing in God (or repenting) is that no-one has ever come up with a testable definition of what a god actually is or a way of verifying how a god interacts with material reality. All of the definitions of what a god is that I've come across are not testable, have no material definition, or at the very best are philosophical and not scientific. I certainly don't reject God because of evolution - however, when I was a Christian, I rejected evolution because of my belief in God, in much the same way ApoloJedi is doing now, which is typical in the Fundamentalist mindset. Talk about pot calling the kettle black.


But one of the questions I’ve asked God-deniers about evolution’s explanatory power is “How is altruism consistent with evolutionism? How does evolution explain altruistic behavior?”


The first part is easy, and one I answered in the preliminary conversation: altruism is a beneficial trait in social species, and how it relates to evolution is that if a trait or practice is beneficial, it helps the community of whatever receives the altruism to survive and thrive.


But for the second part: how does evolution explain altruistic behaviour? The link I shared in the conversation up the top was to a Google Scholar search result for the term "evolutionary origins human altruism", which brings up 87'000 results - certainly enough to answer the question.


This, however, I am not concerned about - I'm not a biologist. It's the Creationist response that has me excited. Now, remember, the theory of evolution is not a theological issue. Numerous Christians happily accept the Bible as being divinely inspired as well as accepting that evolution is as solid a scientific theory we can get. So when ApoloJedi attempts to tie the theory of evolution with atheism (or God-denial, as he puts it) he's already trying to reframe the issue to make it theological, not scientific. A big no-no if you're presenting yourself as a defender of God's timeless word by speaking words of truth that accurately represent reality.


This is apparently a question that triggers God-deniers, because when I post that question on social media, there are all kinds of caustic and derogatory remarks about my lack of intelligence, my lack of education, and their desire that I be quiet.


I'm sorry for the caustic remarks ApoloJedi receives from atheists. In my mind, this is not how debate should be done, and personal abuse serves no purpose. Sarcasm, yes, but abuse, no. And I will make it known that I have publicly defended ApoloJedi in the face of abuse numerous times.

But on the flip side, ApoloJedi is also not beneath being condescending or antagonistic, though towards me he is a bit more moderate.


But the reason the question 'triggers God-deniers' isn't because the question is hard - it's because the question belies a lack of scientific understanding: the same lack of understanding that caused the Dark Ages to be so dark. From my point of view, when I walked back on theism, I didn't go "I hate God because he doesn't exist because the theory of evolution can explain everything!" - I rejected theism because I realised theism deals with nothings and offers nothing, and when I stopped being a theist, I accepted the theory of evolution because when you look at the evidence dispassionately and without a theological bias to be beholden to, you will see that evolution has an enormously large body of science behind it.


Keep in mind also that I have no desire for ApoloJedi to be quiet - I have a desire for him to be correct. As long as what he is saying isn't abusive or defamatory, he can be as loud and as wrong as he wants - he certainly wouldn't be the only person on Twitter to be combative and unaccepting of the findings of science. But if you're going to be loud, try to also be correct.


Once in a while a skeptic will try to answer. Here’s a recent answer I got to the question “Why do evolutionists think think altruism is beneficial (in this case public education)”

Alturism (sp) can improve the survival rate of the herd making it easier for individuals to thrive. Education improves the herd so ensuring a well educated public can improve individual life


In a very basic and unrefined sense, yes, that is the long and short of it - altruism (though I think the word 'kindness' is better for the argument) improves the survival rate of groups of organisms. I personally see kindness and altruism as being two points on the same side of a sliding scale, but I won't put my own definition in to the debate.


ApoloJedi then provides two definitions of altruism:


Wikipedia defines altruism as “Altruism is the principle and moral practice of concern for happiness of other human beings or animals, resulting in a quality of life both material and spiritual.”


Merriam-Webster tells us that altruism is “behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species”


These are OK, though I would remove the word spiritual from Wikipedia's definition simply because spiritual is a philosophical or poetic word that tends to refer to something emotional in humans anyway.


I prefer Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's definition:


Behavior is normally described as altruistic when it is motivated by a desire to benefit someone other than oneself for that person’s sake. The term is used as the contrary of “self-interested” or “selfish” or “egoistic”…


Further to this, SEP have an incredibly long article outlining the research behind various academic viewpoints of altruism. So from hereon in this will be my preferred definition, simply because it is more academically rigorous and favours no theological position either way.


ApoloJedi continues:


I will reference these definitions later in the post, so prepare to be pointed back here for a reminder of these foundational definitions. We all recognize altruism in humans when people are selfless. Altruism is on display when a person gives money to the homeless and when a person helps at the scene of an accident and when a person helps build houses on a mission trip. In those interactions, there is no benefit and may even be sacrificial on the part of the giver. Sometimes, altruism is seen in ant and bee colonies.


Already, ApoloJedi's arguments against evolution and for Creation show some weakness.


Sometimes, altruism is seen in ant and bee colonies.


Keep in mind, not just ant and bee colonies - numerous primate species, numerous mammals, even some species of shrimp have been observed to display altruistic behaviour - so however you want to define altruism, you then have to admit that altruism is not a behaviour seen only in humans, which means that the mechanism for how altruism developed in humans is just as applicable to how it developed in non-human mammals.


But if we ignore the scientific research and look to an Intelligent Design/Creation model, the only way to account for what we observe would be to say that the Creator/Designer gave the capacity for altruism to some animals (especially primates). And why? For reasons undiscernible, the Creator decided not to make other animals altruistic. 

This is hardly an explanation.

One of Intelligent Design's fatal flaws is that not only does a given explanation for an observation that counters Methodological Naturalism and leverages Intelligent Design have to account for a how, but it also has to add a why component to the explanation - otherwise, both the design and the Designer are no longer intelligent.

Whereas under an evolutionary model, not only has evolution been established as the primary driving factor behind biodiversity, but it also helps explain how altruism is found mostly in mammals, in particular social primate mammals, but only in a handful of other species - in short, it simply wasn't a trait that was developed and inherited across the animal kingdom. The detailed answer lies in genetics, which is not my field, but feel free to read a book literally titled The Genetics Of Altruism if you want the granular detail.


The next section goes on to define evolution.


In 1859 Charles Darwin released one of the most influential books of all time, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection for the Preservation of the Favored Races. In it, he lays out a case for a mechanism known as natural selection, which he says:


Natural Selection is the principle by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved


This is not too far off the mark, but one thing you have to bear in mind that Darwin didn't get everything right. Darwin saw the broad brush strokes and worked out that something was going on, and then put his findings in to writing for others to build up on. Darwin is not the be-all and end-all of evolution - he simply put the theory in a way that made more sense than other authors of his day, though he certainly wasn't the only proponent of the theory of evolution at the time. But the reason I need to make this clarification is to counter the common Creationist fallacy that evolution has been debunked because something Charles Darwin wrote in the 1850's was incorrect. No.

Darwin isn't evolution and evolution isn't Darwin, in much the same way that Newton isn't calculus and calculus isn't Newton. No-one who studies mathematics is compelled to worship at the altar of Newton, and likewise for evolution - Darwin is just a guy. Further to that, evolution has been verified independent of Darwin, and Darwin only described the process from an 1850's perspective, not a 2000's one, so he's obviously going to get some things wrong. Evolution also doesn't follow Darwinian principles, as if Darwin created de novo a process by which organisms MUST pass on traits, and any organism NOT passing on traits the way Darwin specified means Darwin was a liar and a racist. No - again, Darwin just described what he saw, and he just happened to get a good few things right.


Darwin reveals his biological theory that attempts to explain the origin of the great diversity of life. This theory requires that uncountable sequential individual heritable changes be preserved by natural selection for evolution to have veracity. He said:


If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.


Correct. He did say the words attributed to a rhetorical device. Darwin wrote the following text immediately after the above quote (from p.189 of On The Origin Of Species):**


But I can find out no such case. No doubt many organs exist of which we do not know the transitional grades, more especially if we look to much-isolated species, round which, according to my theory, there has been much extinction. Or again, if we look to an organ common to all the members of a large class, for in this latter case the organ must have been first formed at an extremely remote period, since which all the many members of the class have been developed; and in order to discover the early transitional grades through which the organ has passed, we should have to look to very ancient ancestral forms, long since become extinct. We should be extremely cautious in concluding that an organ could not have been formed by transitional gradations of some kind.


One of the common Creationist traps is the Darwin quote-mine, especially because what Creationists don't get is that Darwin employed a writing style where he gives what he believes is a necessary condition for his theory to fall down, almost as a dare to his detractors, but then retracts it by comparing with a more fortified opinion. He did this with the eye as well. The common Creationist quote-mine for that is text from p.186:


To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.


Pretty damning, right? Charles Darwin, god of the evolutionists himself - get this - thinks his own theory is absurd! Open and shut case! But wait…the rest of the paragraph reads as such:


When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.


So just be aware that when a Creationist quotes Darwin, what is being quoted may not be reflective of the whole picture of what Darwin was trying to communicate**.


ApoloJedi then continues:


For evolution to have explanatory power, there must be uncountable sequential individual heritable changes that are preserved solely by natural selection.


Not quite. Firstly, natural selection isn't the only mechanism proposed for how evolution works. Natural selection is the strongest mechanism, but not the only one. Darwin himself wrote in a letter to Charles Lyell:


I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main, but not exclusive means of modification.


Secondly, evolution is a process that happens to populations, not individuals. So yes, while one member of a group may have a beneficial trait, for it to be counted as evolution, the trait has to be passed on to a population and to the point that the population in question becomes distinct enough to warrant either a new species, or even a sub-species, category.


Thirdly, it is not quite uncountable. The Human Genome Project quotes research that National Institute of Health put out in 2007 that indicates that between any two people, there is approximately 0.1% genetic difference. Eighty years ago, we had no idea how genetics worked, but now, we have mapped the genomes of multiple animals (including humans) and we have now quantified how different humans are from one another. Given enough time, we may well be able to quantify down to an extremely granular level. But the thing to bear in mind is that uncountable does not mean unknowable.


Though I will say ApoloJedi is correct in that the changes are heritable and sequential. This is why we don't see homo sapiens giving birth to an australopithecus aforensis or any other member of the suborder Haplorhini (though we do sometimes see atavisms).


Now Darwin had no idea about DNA or the unimaginable complexity of genetic code that is stored on DNA, but scientists after Darwin discovered the code of DNA which serves as the source of inheritance, the mutation of which supposedly provides for novel traits.


This is almost correct. If ApoloJedi took out the word supposedly in the last sentence, I'd give him 8/10 - the genetics are the carriers of the differences, and sometimes also the inherent cause themselves, via a number of observed mechanisms. But saying 'supposedly provide for novel traits' is, again, shows that he is either unaware of the research, or is discarding it because of theological bias to do with the subject matter.


This here will mark the end of part 1 of what is so far a 4-part series.

Whenever and wherever you read this, stay rational and stay safe.


* - the original line "to the point of misrepresentation" has been removed to avoid any implication ApoloJedi is being deliberately deceptive.

** - text has been edited to avoid any potential accusation of quote-mining.