Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Abominable mysteries

One of the most annoying things I run across regularly is when someone takes a perfectly good piece of scientific research and twists it to support their own highly unscientific pre-existing beliefs.

The latest in this long parade of frustration I found out about because of my good friend, the amazing writer Gil Miller, who is a frequent contributor of topics for Skeptophilia.  Gil sent me a link to a fascinating paper that came out a month and a half ago in Nature about one of the most perplexing puzzles in evolutionary biology -- the sudden diversification of flowering plants during the Cretaceous Period, something on the order of 150 million years ago.  They went on to outcompete every other plant group, now comprising ninety percent of the known plant species, totaling about 13,600 different genera.  If you look around you, chances are any plant you happen to see that isn't a moss, fern, or conifer is a flowering plant.

What caused their explosive rise and diversification, however, is still unknown.  Their success might well be due to coevolution with pollinators, especially insects, which had a sudden spike in diversity around the same time, but that's speculation.  The current study vastly expands the genetic data we have on current genera of flowering plants, rearranging a few groups and solidifying what we know about the branch points of different clades within the group.  However, it still doesn't solve the reason behind what Darwin called "the abominable mystery" of why it all happened -- something the authors are completely up front about.

[Angiosperm phylogenetic chart from Zuntini et al., Nature, April 2024]

Well, any time an evolutionary biologist says "we don't yet understand this" -- especially if it's something Darwin himself noted as odd or mysterious -- it's enough to get all the anti-evolution types leaping about making excited little squeaking noises, and it didn't take long for this paper to appear in an article over at Evolution News (don't let the name fool you; the site is sponsored by the staunchly creationist Discovery Institute).  The article (so I can save you the trouble of clicking the link and adding to their hit rate) glosses over all of the stuff Zuntini et al. did explain, and highlights instead the fact that they never accounted for the reason behind flowering plant diversification (which wasn't even the purpose of the study).  The article ends with, "Nature clearly did make jumps in the history of life and this cannot be explained with an unguided gradual accumulation of small changes over long periods of time, but requires a rapid burst of biological novelty that is best explained by intelligent design."

Basically, what we have here is yet another iteration of the God-of-the-gaps argument; "we don't yet understand it, so musta been that God did it."  The problem is, you can't base a conclusion on a lack of data.  For the intelligent design argument to work, you'd have to show that it explains the data better than other models do.  Simply saying "we don't know, therefore God" isn't actually an explanation of anything, something that atheist philosopher Jeffrey Jay Lowder brought into sharp focus:

The objection I have in mind is this: the design hypothesis is not an explanation because, well, it doesn’t explain. ...  [I]t seems to me that a design explanation must also include a description of the mechanism used by the designer to design and build the thing.  In other words, in order for design to explain something, we have to know how the designer designed it.  If we don’t know or even have a clue about how the designer did it, then we don’t have a design explanation.

Which is it exactly.  Science works because it not only self-corrects, it holds explaining things in abeyance until there's enough data there to warrant a robust explanation.  A mystery is just a mystery; maybe we'll figure it out at some point and maybe we won't, but until then, it doesn't prove anything.  Science doesn't simply look at a lack of information and then throw its hands in the air and say, "Well, must be X, then."

To quote eminent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, "If you don't know what it is, that's where the conversation stops.  You don't go on and say it 'must be' anything."

Honestly, it's astonishing that the creationist types are still using the God-of-the-gaps approach, because the truth is, it's more damaging to their position than it is helpful.  The reason was noted by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "[I]t is [wrong] to use God as a stopgap for the incompleteness of our knowledge.  If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat."

But that line of reasoning -- from a respected theologian, no less -- doesn't seem to be slowing them down any.

So I'll apologize to Zuntini et al. on behalf of the entire human race for these unscientific yayhoos taking a really lovely piece of research and claiming it supports their beliefs.  The tl;dr summary of this post is: it doesn't.  At all.  At worst, the study indicates that there's still stuff we don't understand, which is a damn good thing because otherwise the scientists would be out of a job.



  1. Asimov wrote an essay on ten things he kept getting from those people and refutations of same, and the one I remember the most was about the second law of thermodynamics and systems tending toward entropy, and therefore god had to exist because earth had complex systems like cities. They apparently forgot the sun exists?

  2. I'll submit another excellent work for future blog fodder: The Light Eaters, by Zoe Schlanger. It investigates how plants communicate among other things, and has changed the way I think about lots of things. My mind has been blown.