A Monkey’s Cousin? A Critique of Common Descent (Part 1)

by / Tuesday, 06 August 2013 / Published in Evolution vs. Creation

Opponents of Creationism often argue that Creationism is pure metaphysical dogma whereas the evolutionary account of the origins of species is based on scientific fact. This charge against Creationism, however, obscures important distinctions.

As we discussed in this post, Evolution is composed of two separate theories: Genealogical Continuity (GC) and Natural Selection (NS). GC is synonymous with the term “common descent,” meaning, all organisms are related through common ancestors. To put it casually, this means, for example, that humans and chimpanzees have common great, great, great… grandparents. What is often ignored by proponents of Evolution and Creationism alike, however, is that GC is fundamentally metaphysical. What does this mean?

Science or Metaphysics? 

Some creationists have been know to make claims like, “Evolution is just a theory,” or, “Evolution is not falsifiable.” Proponents of Evolution will often mock these creationists for being ignorant of the empirical science behind evolutionary theory and ignorant of the scientific method in general. While it is true that some creationists may not have the sophistication or knowledge to substantiate their claims against Evolution, their concerns are, nevertheless, well placed. This is because, as we shall see, a big part of Evolution, namely GC, is indeed metaphysical and non-empirical.

How so?

First of all, an interesting fact to note about GC is that it far predates the advent of science. Many thinkers throughout history believed that animal species originated from purely “natural” processes, i.e., processes devoid of Divine or supernatural involvement. Aristotle was one notable proponent of this view. Atheists and naturalists throughout history, in their denial of the supernatural, always maintained that life on earth originated through exclusively “natural” means. This, of course, is GC. The debate between theists and atheists on the origins of life and human beings, thus, predates science by millenia.

Why is this significant? Well, it problematizes the common narrative that the debate between Creationism and Evolution is one between religious/metaphysical dogma vs. empirical/scientific fact. Since GC is primarily metaphysical itself (as we will see), a more plausible way to frame the debate is: one set of metaphysical beliefs vs. another set of metaphysical beliefs.

Philosophy Before Science

But, why should we think that GC is metaphysical and non-empirical?

Well, as we have seen, historically many non-theists subscribed to GC without citing or relying on any empirical evidence or scientific work. Rather, they argued for GC on philosophical grounds. Theists, of course, also relied on philosophical and theological grounds for their claims against GC. In other words, the debate occurred exclusively in the arena of philosophy and did not involve anything resembling the scientific method, which, of course, had not been developed by that point in history.

Admittedly, the fact that GC predates science does not by itself establish that GC is metaphysical. However, the considerations in Part 2 show just that. ♦


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