Enns on Experts, Evolution, and Evangelicals (Part 2)

Peter Enns  has released a new book called The Evolution of Adam. Peter Enns kicked off the Evolution of Adam Blog tour this week, where he states the problem and reason for writing the book:

But I feel the most pressing issue Christians face is the hermeneutical one: if evolution is true, what do I do about what the Bible says about Adam and Eve?

In this series of posts we are examining three themes from an article  written by Enns for the Huffington Post entitled Once More, with Feeling: Adam, Evolution, and Evangelicals along with recent posts on his blog related to the topic of evolution, Christianity, and Adam/Eve. These are:

  • If evolution is correct, than the Biblical narrative regarding creation and Adam/Eve is not.
  • Evangelicals wrongly assume that the Adam and Eve story is about “human origins”
  • People who are not trained as scientists are not able to evaluate scientific arguments.

In Part 1 the first two were addressed. Here we address the third theme. Part 3 is also available.

People who are not trained as scientists are not able to evaluate scientific arguments.

In the HuffPo article, Enns tells us that we must accept the explanations given to us by the experts:

Then you have the mapping of the human genome. It’s a done deal: humans and primates are 90-something percent related genetically. The best explanation for it, geneticists tell us, is that humans evolved from primates. Since my greatest scientific achievement is doing puppet shows with dissected feral cats in high school biology, I feel I have no right to contest — and I likely speak for many other evangelicals in that regard (emphasis added)

This is fully developed in Part 4 of a series by Enns on recurring mistakes made in the Adam/Evolution discussion.

Since evolutionary theory is the product of scientific investigation, it follows that those best suited to evaluate the scientific data and arguments are those at the very least trained in the relevant sciences—or better those who are practicing scientists and therefore are keeping up with developments.

…  As much as biblical studies requires some training and expertise, it is much more the case in the sciences. The years of training and experience required of those who work in fields that touch on evolution rules out of bounds the views of those who lack such training. (emphasis added)

In case we missed this point, Enns reiterates it:

My point is that serious scientific questions require serious scientific training—which only a fraction of the earth’s population can claim to have.

My point is that most of us do not have a place at the table where the assessment of evidence is the topic of discussion.

However we do this all the time. Making decisions requires us to make assessments of information even when we lack some training or expertise. Consider this event in the life of our family recently. My daughter was complaining about headaches for some time. After a series of tests including eye exams, allergy tests, monitoring water intake, x-rays, and sleep studies, the doctors concluded that her tonsils and adenoids were swollen. Of the two, the adenoids were the worse and judged to be causing the most problems. In addition, tonsils are debated as to whether they are part of the immune system so our family had to weigh the medical advice we received and do some research in order to evaluate whether to have both removed or only the adenoids. And we had to do this despite the fact that none of us have any medical training.

While the answers involved in answering scientific questions may be complex and most of us may lack the training required to understand all the details, I don’t think Enns intends to say that understanding the sciences is closed to the majority of the earth’s population. While I may not be able to design and build a rocket that can get into orbit or solve the tension between general relativity and quantum mechanics nor will I likely ever be asked to splice genes in a lab, I think I can grapple with and assess a logical argument even if I cannot fully understand all of the scientific evidence presented as part that logical argument to support a hypothesis.

We can do this because some logical arguments are definitively provable through deductive reasoning and experimentation. Concepts like geometric proofs, genetic mapping, and Galileo’s theory that objects fall at the same rate regardless of their mass in a vaccum.

However some conclusions cannot be proven they can only be shown as probable and are based on inductive logic rather than deductive logic. Generally speaking in inductive logic, we are starting with data listed out as premises. Then we draw a conclusion or devise a theory that may explain the data. However that theory or conclusion can only be claimed as valid with a degree of probability. Readers of Holmes adventures will recognize this method.

It is an old maxim of mine that whenever you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. – Sherlock Holmes

The inductive method comes into play when science is not experimenting or predicting things based on observation and mathematical calculations that are happening now but rather is trying to draw conclusions about what happened in the past. In this realm science is more about being a good historian trying to piece together an event from extant artifacts or a detective trying to solve a crime.  Because we can’t go back in time we have to base our  conclusions on assumptions and the information we have or are able to gather now. And that makes us equivalent to a jury trying to evaluate the cases presented to them during a trial.

If you think about we also do this whenever we read a theological text or commentary where various interpretations are given. In the post Recurring Mistakes in the Adam/Evolution Discussion Part 1, Enns explains how readers come to different conclusions about the genre of the Genesis accounts based on different pieces of evidence that are given:

So, when someone says, “I don’t read Genesis 1-3 as historical events, and here are the reasons why,” that person is not “denying biblical authority.” That person may be wrong, but that would have to be judged on some basis other than the ultimate literalist conversation-stopper, “You’re denying biblical authority.”

The Bible is not just “there.” It has to be interpreted. The issue is which interpretations are more defensible than others.

Here he concludes that some interpretations of Genesis are more defensible – that is more probable – than others. The argument for a particular interpretation is evaluated using inductive reasoning and we all do it regardless of whether we are Biblical scholars or not. Now, if people can do that with Biblical interpretations, despite varying degrees of training and education, without denying the authority of the Bible then it should be assumed that people can interpret the conclusions that science provides without denying science or being scholars. The one thing to keep in mind is that as evaluators of logical arguments we have to be willing to read and learn about the premises used as evidence to support various ideas, critically think and evaluate them, and then determine which conclusions are more defensible than others.

Enns mentions in the HuffPo article the theory that man and apes have a common ancestor from which they have evolved. A simplified form of the argument in logical form goes something like this:

premise 1:man and chimps have between 95 and 99% (depending on how the comparison is done) similarity in their gene sequences.

premise 2: man and chimps have pseudogenes in the same location and sequence.

premise 3: man has 23 chromosomes and a chimp has 24 chromosomes but the gene sequence and location of chromosome #2 in man matches 2 chromosomes in the chimp.

conclusion: therefore man and chimps have a common ancestor and chromosome #2 in man is the result of 2 chromosomes in their common ancestor being fusing together .

The first three premises are written as statements that can be either true or false. They can also be experimentally proven as either true or false by geneticists who can compare the genome mappings from a man and a chimp and do comparisons with the data as it exists today. Here Enns does have a point. Most of us are not geneticists and would not likely have a great understanding of how to map genomes nor would we understand the complexity involved with comparing genomes between different species. We would have a tough time assessing this information.

However we are all able to understand the argument as laid out above and reason through it.  As presented this is a logical argument that presents a possible outcome. But does the conclusion necessarily follow from the premises? Can it be proven that this is the only conclusion possible? This theory may explain the data (premises) in this logical argument but is based on inductive logic. The theory or conclusion can only be claimed as valid only with a degree of probability. It can’t be proven. And it is this conclusion that we all are able to evaluate.

[check out part 3]

12 thoughts on “Enns on Experts, Evolution, and Evangelicals (Part 2)

  1. Well said.

    I like your formulation of how scientists could convince non-scientists on issues like evolution disallowing an historical Adam and Eve. I also agree that if the argument you put forward here is their best one, then they fail. The conclusion does not follow from the premises and almost anyone could see that.

    By the way, a conclusion that would follow much more logically from those premises was that man and chimps have a common designer.

    • Mike
      I appreciated your comments over at Kevin DeYoung’s posting on historical Adam and share your views on wanting more from the theistic evolution proponents on why evolution should be accepted contra a reasonable reading of the Scriptures.

      From what I have read a common designer is just as probable as a common ancestor. Especially given evolutions current lack of how abiogenesis happened.


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  3. “As presented this is a logical argument that presents a possible outcome.”

    It does more than that (though Enns’ summary suffers a bit from being too simplistic, in skipping over much anthropological evidence and genetics). What has been discovered in sequencing the genomes of various extant human populations, as well as sequencing long dead humans, has demonstrated conclusively that the idea that all living humans descended from just one pair (Adam and Eve) is simply false. Doubly false for a couple only 6000 years ago, btw.

  4. The main point of this post is that anyone willing to think can assess scientific arguments despite what Enns asserts because science can’t “prove” things like evolution as much as demonstrate “probability” using inductive reasoning.

    I know that there is more to the case regarding common descent, however I was not trying to refute that in this post. Besides this is a pretty common line of evidence that is given to prove common descent.

    While I have heard the assertion that genetic evidence suggests humans did not descend from a single pair of humans I have not seen that argument presented. Do you have a link to something that could describe this more?

    • The mountain of work ahead for anybody who wants to learn about genetics can be daunting, but it starts with a simple question: Did you inherit your genome from your parents?

      The obvious answer is “yes”, however the first step is understanding that the better answer is “yes, plus…” where the “plus” is that there are a few random mutations in you that were not in your parents.

      From there one can delve into different approaches.

      One is to look at that genetic material that does not recombine. In males that would be the Y chromosome, and in all people it would be the mitochondrial DNA inherited only from your maternal line. This now gives you two different sources of information along strict gender ancestries.

      A second line of study is to look at the entire genome and study portions which change, how they change, and how they recombine – the latter is important because it turns out that long-ish portions of DNA travel together.

      There are thousands of articles out there on websites about these things.

      From a religious point of view you might start with some of the articles that Dennis Venema has written over at Biologos.

  5. Mike, I’m eager to see what you can do with freetoken’s comment because it seems to exceed the limits of your proposed solution. That is, what he’s describing seems beyond the non-scientific minded to fully rationalize and then decide even with your formula. Moreover, he seems quite fair-minded and gracious about it so it’s not as if he’s trying to throw jargon around to make it more complicated than it is. It’s just that complicated!

    Freetoken, absent Mike’s being able to fit the issue into his “reduce-it-to-a-propositional-argument” approach, I hope you can at least begin to see how much the scientific community is saying to the non-scientific community, “Just trust us.” That is, the irony of the evolutionists’ argument to the majority of the human population is that the former is calling on the latter to exercise faith. Moreover, it calls for a greater faith than the faith community is currently exercising because it calls on them to abandon trusting in something that at least makes sense to them and to instead begin trusting in something that is incoherent to them.

    • I was just trying to answer his inquiry: “While I have heard the assertion that genetic evidence suggests humans did not descend from a single pair of humans I have not seen that argument presented. ”

      As for how the non-scientific community deals with whatever comes from “science” as an endeavor, or respond to particular scientists on specific issues – that is not a unique situation for us all. We all have to deal with others who have knowledge, expertise, or access to (power | wealth | people) that each of us might not have.

      The answer to the question of whether all humans are descended from two and only two contemporaneous individuals (whether they lived 6000 years ago or 70,000 years ago or whenever) is a question that can be answered as surely as, say, if you ask me if it is raining outside my house right now. It is testable, and thanks to contemporary technologies it is also tractable. Unless one wants to dabble into solipsism or some other philosophical cul-de-sac, the issue of ancestry as far as a literalist interpretation of Genesis 1 shouldn’t be seen as an unsolvable problem.

      This no doubt is a big challenge for those who want to interpret the Bible literally, and quite obviously Enns and the other religious writers who reject literalism (as far as creation) know this and, if they want to keep something akin to a classic Christian belief system know they will have theological problems that perhaps they can’t solve.

      • freetoken,

        When you say, “The answer to the question of whether all humans are descended from two and only two contemporaneous individuals (whether they lived 6000 years ago or 70,000 years ago or whenever) is a question that can be answered as surely as, say, if you ask me if it is raining outside my house right now,” you lose me. The former is a matter of inference (theory) while the latter is a matter of observation (now we’re closer to the scientific method). What am I missing?

    • Certainly we all inherit our genes from our parents and they from their parents and so on back in time. And there are techniques to measure these today.

      While I am certainly not a geneticist and would likely create a rather poor representation of the inductive logical argument regarding “most recent common ancestor” (MRCA) and population sizes, I would venture that others could list out premises that lead one to a particular conclusion. Then the premises and conclusions could be explored.

      A rough one from Venema’s BioLogos article (method 2)
      P1. Ya5 family of Aleu repeats occurs in up to 57 locations in some people
      P2. Not all people have Ya5 in all 57 locations

      Therefore: Not all people have the same common human ancestor, otherwise all people would have Ya5 repeats in all 57 locations.

      After some cursory reading it seems like various factors like mutations on the Y and maternal chromosomes or similarities in families of DNA segment repeats can be used to draw a “family tree”. However there does seem to be various factors that are modeled, assumed, or simulated to arrive at the timelines and populations proposed especially on a large evolutionary scale. An example is gene mutation rates.

      Again this is after a cursory reading. But I for one (as a good Berean) would want to understand more (as much as possible) before “just accepting” the conclusions.

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