Atheist fallacy #2: Equivocation fallacy
“Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?”
…quipped comedian Groucho Marx. Humor can be achieved with an equivocation, which is the use of two different meanings of a term, as if they were the same. In Marx’s joke, the second usage of the term institution is a reference to a mental institution.
But using different meanings of the same term, as if they were the same (equivocation), is often used for a darker purpose than humor: misdirection and outright deception.
A fallacy of equivocation occurs when someone uses a term in more than one sense, thus making an argument misleading or deceptive. It is crucial that genuine truth seekers learn to spot this fallacy. As an illustration, consider the following example of an equivocation fallacy which uses the term fine in two different contexts, as if the term meant the same thing in both contexts:
Context 1: The sign says, “fine for parking here.”
Context 2: The sign says parking is fine.
Conclusion: It’s OK to park my car here.
Perhaps no term is used in a more misleadingly equivocal fashion than evolution. In fact, the next time I see an atheist use this term equivocally, I might need to be sent to an institution, lol!
Equivocation frequently occurs with the term evolution
Atheists frequently allege that theists deny evolution. But the term evolution merely means change over time. Since virtually nobody of any religion or belief system denies that living things have changed over time, virtually nobody denies evolution, in the correct sense of the term. The conflict between theism and evolution only occurs when the atheistic philosophical add-on that this change over time is the result of unintelligent processes is applied to the term evolution. (Please read Where the Conflict Really Lies by philosopher Alvin Plantinga for a more thorough exploration of this subject).
The easiest way to realize that the term evolution does not imply that change over time is the result of unintelligent processes is to recognize that scientists do not even agree on the mechanism by which this change occurs. Darwin alleged that the change over time of living things is the result of the very, very gradual process of the random mutation of genes, and the natural selection of reproductive offspring. But scientists have divided into two main camps in order to explain why the fossil record does not support this gradualistic account of evolution. Even Darwin himself acknowledged that the fossil record does not support his theory. A post from the University of Vermont notes:
Charles Darwin believed that evolution was a slow and gradual process. He did not believe this process to be “perfectly smooth,” but rather, “stepwise,” with a species evolving and accumulating small variations over long periods of time. Darwin assumed that if evolution is gradual then there should be a record in fossils of small incremental change within a species. But in many cases, Darwin, and scientists today, are unable to find most of these intermediate forms. Darwin blamed lack of transitional forms on gaps in the fossil record, a good assertion, because the chances of each of those critical changing forms having been preserved as fossils are very small. However in 1972, evolutionary scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge proposed another explanation for the numerous gaps in the fossil record. They suggested that the “gaps” were real, representing periods of stasis in morphology. They termed this mode of evolution “punctuated equilibrium.”
It is noteworthy that the punctuated equilibrium model proposed by Gould and Eldredge does not even propose a mechanism by which evolution occurs. The very gradual process of random mutation of genes and natural selection of reproductive offspring cannot be cited as an explanation for why the change over time of evolution occurs in a notably not gradual manner.
The fossil record clearly does not support Darwinism.
Harvard University evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (one of the two founders of punctuated equilibrium, cited above) refers to the fact that the fossil record does not support gradualistic accounts of evolution as “the trade secret of paleontology” in a 1977 issue of Natural History:
“The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology…Paleontologists have paid an exorbitant price for Darwin’s argument. We fancy ourselves as the only true students of life’s history, yet to preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad that we never see the very process we profess to study.”
Gould also wrote,
“The absence of fossil evidence for intermediary stages between major transitions in organic design, indeed our inability, even in our imagination, to construct functional intermediates in many cases, has been a persistent and nagging problem for gradualistic accounts of evolution.”
Ernst Mayr (one of the leading evolutionary biologists of the last 50 years) writes:
“Paleontologists had long been aware of a seeming contradiction between Darwin’s postulate of gradualism … and the actual findings of paleontology. Following phyletic lines through time seemed to reveal only minimal gradual changes but no clear evidence for any change of a species into a different genus or for the gradual origin of an evolutionary novelty. Anything truly novel always seemed to appear quite abruptly in the fossil record.”
Evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Henry Gee (senior editor of the science journal Nature) said it best in 1999:
“No fossil is buried with its birth certificate. That, and the scarcity of fossils, means that it is effectively impossible to link fossils into chains of cause and effect in any valid way…To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story—amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific.”
The Curator of the invertebrates department at the American Museum of Natural History, biologist and paleontologist Niles Eldredge, who was also the adjunct professor at the City University of New York, is a non-theist. But Dr. Eldredge openly admits that the traditional evolutionary view is not supported by the fossil record, which is why he and Gould created the concept of punctuated equilibrium. He writes:
“No wonder paleontologists shied away from evolution for so long. It seems never to happen. Fastidious collecting of fossils, from the bottom upward, up sheer cliff faces, zigzags, minor oscillations…all showing the same results. That life forms all appear, fully formed, complete in body parts, at their first discovery. When we do see the introduction of evolutionary novelty, it usually shows up with a bang, and often with no firm evidence that the organisms did not evolve elsewhere! Evolution cannot forever be going on someplace else. Yet that’s how the fossil record has struck many a forlorn paleontologist looking to learn something about evolution.“
In The Altenberg 16: An Expose of the Evolution Industry, biologist Lynn Margulis (winner of the U.S. Presidential Medal for Science) discusses the persistence of neo-Darwinian theory, despite its deteriorating scientific basis, with journalist Susan Mazur:
Margulis: “If enough favorable mutations occur, was the erroneous extrapolation, a change from one species to another would concurrently occur.”
Mazur: “So a certain dishonesty set in?”
Margulis: “No. It was not dishonesty. I think it was wish-fulfillment and social momentum. Assumptions, made but not verified, were taught as fact.”
Mazur: “But a whole industry grew up.”
Margulis: “Yes, but people are always more loyal to their tribal group than to any abstract notion of ‘truth’ – scientists especially. If not they are unemployable. It is professional suicide to continually contradict one’s teachers or social leaders.”
How do we know that evolution is the result of intelligent processes?
So, in addition to the notably not gradual change over time of evolution, what is the evidence that evolution is actually the result of an intelligent cause? As I discuss in The case for God is not a case of the God of the gaps, the genetic code is a language in the most literal sense. This is no metaphor. An excerpt from that post:
Symbolic representation, such as the complex set of instructions symbolically communicated by the genetic code, requires a conscious and intelligent agent. Such is the case because the meaning which symbols convey is entirely arbitrary, and cannot be a property of the symbols themselves. For example, the letters C-A-T serve as a symbolic representation of a furry animal that purrs and meows only because the intelligent agents who created the English language arbitrarily assigned this meaning to this set of symbols. There is no physical or chemical relationship between these symbols and what they serve to represent, only a mental relationship. Michael Polanyi, a former Chairman of Physical Chemistry at the University of Manchester (UK), who was famous for his important theoretical contributions to physical chemistry, emphasizes this point:
“As the arrangement of a printed page is extraneous to the chemistry of the printed page, so is the base sequence in a DNA molecule extraneous to the chemical forces at work in the DNA molecule. It is this physical indeterminacy of the sequence that produces the improbability of occurrence of any particular sequence and thereby enables it to have meaning–a meaning that has a mathematically determinate information content.”
Indeed, it would be just as absurd to assert that mindless physical or chemical processes could write a newspaper article as it would be to assert that such processes could produce a DNA sequence. An entire school of thought in biology called biosemiotics considers language to be a primary lens through which living things must be understood, as Perry Marshall points out in his book Evolution 2.0. Marshall elaborates on the scientific reasons why DNA is a language in the most literal, not metaphorical, sense:
Rutgers University professor Sungchul Ji’s excellent paper The Linguistics of DNA: Words, Sentences, Grammar, Phonetics, and Semantics starts off,
“Biologic systems and processes cannot be fully accounted for in terms of the principles and laws of physics and chemistry alone, but they require in addition the principles of semiotics— the science of symbols and signs, including linguistics.”
Ji identifies 13 characteristics of human language. DNA shares 10 of them. Cells edit DNA. They also communicate with each other and literally speak a language he called “cellese,” described as “a self-organizing system of molecules, some of which encode, act as signs for, or trigger, gene-directed cell processes.”
This comparison between cell language and human language is not a loosey-goosey analogy; it’s formal and literal. Human language and cell language both employ multilayered symbols. Dr. Ji explains this similarity in his paper: “Bacterial chemical conversations also include assignment of contextual meaning to words and sentences (semantic) and conduction of dialogue (pragmatic)— the fundamental aspects of linguistic communication.” This is true of genetic material. Signals between cells do this as well.
Perhaps the Nobel Prize-winning, Harvard University biologist George Wald was onto something when he admitted the following in his address to the Quantum Biology Symposium titled Life and Mind in the Universe, despite being non-theist:
“It has occurred to me lately—I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities—that both questions [the origin of mind and the origin of life from nonliving matter] might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality—the stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff. It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create: science-, art-, and technology-making animals.”
Darwinism can only comment on the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest.
Lastly, it is not that Darwinian evolution fails to explain the origin of life from non-living matter. Rather, it does not even try. The Darwinian mechanism of the random mutation of genes and the natural selection of reproductive offspring, quite obviously, only applies to that which has genes to mutate and reproductive offspring to naturally select…namely, things which are already alive. Put another way, the Darwinian mechanism can only be referenced as an explanation for the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest.
If living things evolved (changed over time) from non-living matter, this evolution clearly did not happen as a result of a mechanism which can only apply to things which are already alive. An atheist who alleges that Darwinian evolution does away with the need for God is therefore again using the term evolution in an equivocal fashion. And if atheists are not citing Darwinian evolution as an alternative to theism, then why is it so frequently cited in atheistic arguments?