Gad Saad, the evolutionary scholar who has devoted his career to explaining consumer behavior, celebrated Charles Darwin’s birthday with a new “Saad Truth” video:

Professor Saad is one of my favorite arguers, interviewers, and monologists on YouTube. I like almost all of his online contributions, and am head-over-heels for not a few of them.

Alas, this is not up to his usual stellar standards.

He defends evolutionary theory against its many unlearned critics. Many of whom have the temerity to attack his evolutionism on Twitter and similar venues. But there are problems as to how — not that — he has done so.

Full disclosure: I am on his side. I do not see how evolution cannot be the basic view of life. But I admit: I did not really believe it until after I had abandoned theistic belief. (I exited the fold of believers, long ago, for scientific and rational reasons that were tangential to evolutionary theory proper. Psychology was a major concern, however. I abandoned a supernaturalistic explanation for all the human behavior I witnessed, and after that it proved too difficult to maintain any sort of theism. I moved to incredulity, coupled with curiosity.) But in this video he spends most of his time engaging in ad hominem arguments and the argument from authority.

img_2320Which is not wholly disreputable. It is sometimes legitimate to attack the motivations and character and methods of those one disagrees with. Sometimes it is this practice, more than rational argument, that proves the only thing carable of nudging some folks out of dogmatic slumbers.

Similarly, appeals to authority (which the professor also marshaled) are not wholly out of line. When we suggest that experts generally support some conclusion or another, those who doubt the conclusion should take pause.

But there is no logical reason to side with authorities. Authorities can be, and often are, wrong.

I can cite many cases.

But all this is moot. The reason the vast majority of biologists and allied scientists support evolutionary explanations is that these explanations are the best we have available, and the alternatives just do not seem very persuasive. If you bracket out religion, especially religious motivation, from the picture.

And Saad is quite right, the standard charge that “evolution is only a theory” is silly in the extreme. First, it is not true: evolution is not “only a theory.” And second, there are a lot of now universally accepted truths that we ordinarily view primarily as theories, since our everyday perceptions would indicate that Occam’s Razor better slices in a completely different direction.

Example? Flat Earth. It is not the spherical planet theory that seems to make sense in terms of normal, everyday experience. One must broaden one’s experience (say, fly in a jet, or travel on the open seas) and engage in some tricky mental operations (noting the round and apparently spherical character of heavenly bodies, the disappearance first of ship and then of shipmasts at the horizon, etc.) to see that a spheroid Earth better describes terrestrial shape.

Most creationists, today, seem uninterested in the vast evidence gathered by geology and paleontology. Most of which backs up the evolutionary approach. But once you begin to engage in hands-on work with rock and fossils, and then look at the huge collections of fossilized life and their origin in geological strata, then the creationist and “intelligent design” quibbles are eclipsed by the huge mass of accumulated evidence, and evolution becomes pretty darn obvious.

One of the best early arguments for the facticity of evolution was written nearly a decade before Darwin’s Origin of Species, and was acknowledged by him (along with many other precursors) in a later volume of the work. That argument is “The Development Hypothesis,” by Herbert Spencer.

“Aha!” exclaim the creationists. “You admit, it is less than ‘just a theory’ — it is a mere hypothesis!”

No. I encourage a reading of the actual text. For, as one quickly learns, even seven years prior to Darwin’s explanation of speciation, Spencer made a quite convincing case. “Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by the facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all.” As Darwin wrote in the Historical Sketch preceding later editions of his first ground-breaking work, Spencer makes the case with “remarkable skill and force.” If one looks at facts further away from one’s normal pathway between work and home, one sees that the case for evolution is quite clear. Even sans the Darwinian advance.

The only real reason (from what I can tell) that anyone puts any stock at all in the theory of special creation is the result of being “born to a given belief” — that is, because they accept certain ancient beliefs in the supernatural, beliefs that they find comforting or exalting or in some other way psychologically attractive.

For my part, those ancient beliefs seem not in the tiniest bit persuasive. The people who first advanced them, and the books that they produced, were not at all conducive to rational thought. Doubt and incredulity and curiosity were not attitudes they sought to inculcate. Instead, they promoted dogma and something called “faith.” They were engaging in a mythological mode, intent on fulfilling purposes other than careful inquiry. None of their writings gives off the odor of reliable reportage.

Let us move on. To the next step. The fact of evolution is one thing. The explanatory principles are another. And, yet further, the extrapolations from those principles, and their applications to other questions not directly and obviouosly related to the long course of evolution, are different yet.

Darwin helped many believe the first aspect of the problem — the actual occurrence of the development of life over many, many thousands and millions of generations of living beings — by providing a startling set of principles that helps explain how organisms adapt to environments, and, over time, change structures and behaviors so that the natures of the descendants are remarkably distinct from that of their ancestors.

There are a lot of “theories” involved at every level, here. But it is not as if the initial speculations have not been backed up by later accumulations of evidence. And while it is also true that some evidence has falsified some aspects of Darwin’s (and, more obviously, Spencer’s) notions, this is not cause for alarm — evolutionary science has itself evolved, adapting to newly discovered facts, modifying to reflect reality. Increment by increment.

Creationism, on the other hand, has mostly been restricted to apologetics, to bolstering up received notions. The expansion of its “research program” has not given us many (any?) useful new insights, much less promising avenues for further exploration. And, unlike evolutionary science, it has not produced useful technological advances in medicine or anything else.

But evolutionists have.

The distant past is difficult to explain, since it is indeed long past — and we naturally enough lack direct access to the facts of the past, especially before living memory, and most especially before the human record, reliable or not. And yet, we do possess the geological record; we also understand (in part) the astronomical context, the rapidly expanding information about genetics and epigenetics, and the massive evidence of a diversity of beings distributed throughout the world (in patterns that suggested to Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin a difficult-but-powerful idea, natural selection).

And the people Gad Saad calls morons and Dunning-Kruger-affected nincompoops? They think they understand creationism. But they do so mainly on faith, or by metaphor — they still are infat Yates with Priestley’s found artifact. The Argument from Design. But they have no real grasp of even their own theory, for, as Spencer explained,

This is one of the many cases in which men do not really believe, but rather believe they believe. It is not that they can truly conceive ten millions of special creations to have taken place, but that they think they can do so. Careful introspection will show them that they have never yet realized to themselves the creation of even one species.

Of course, “careful introspection” is not something everyone has a knack for. And it is certainly not something that our schoolmasters and institutions have spent much effort in inculcating.

I quote this passage not only because it is relevant to the folks Gad Saad laments and pillories. It helps to explain their error. And, on a personal note, it was with careful introspection that I started the intellectual journey that has not yet ended, but has led me to positions not too far from Professor Saad’s.

Yes, I came up from the ranks of [what Saad sadly thinks of as] the Yahoos. It was an ascent, if not an evolution. But, like an evolutionist, I never really stop trying to understand my ancestors. Which includes my very own past self.

And, we must remember, that the greater nescience of others is tragic not because of what they do not know, but because they do not know that they lack important knowledge. For the rest of us, our growing knowledge is comic: as science expands, the surface where knowledge meets nescience also expands, and we know more and more of how much we do not yet know. Knowledge increases, but so does the realm of the known unknowns.