Avoiding genetic fallacies


Sometimes, when my dad is feeling a bit mischievous, he will say with an impish smile, “Remember! It is important to choose your parents wisely!” Every time I hear him say this, I smile to myself, because of course my dad knows that it is logically impossible to choose your own biological parents. No matter how much you wish or how hard you try, your biological parents had to exist before you were born and you are stuck, generally speaking, with the genetic material that they bequeathed to you at conception.

There is something genetic, though, that you can avoid, and that is genetic fallacies. You may have never heard of a genetic fallacy before, so let me explain what it is. A genetic fallacy is when someone discredits or rejects an idea based simply on the source of the idea or the process through which it was developed.1 A genetic fallacy can also be committed in the converse manner—when someone defends or accepts an idea simply on its source or the process through which it was developed. The truth or falsehood of ideas does not depend on where they come from. Each concept needs to be evaluated on its own merit rather than simply on its source.

. . . it is possible that some current scientific theories are false while many others are true.

Let me give you an example of a genetic fallacy. Imagine that I had a primary school teacher in Year 2 called Miss Jones, who was a dedicated vegetarian Seventh-day Adventist and every Sabbath afternoon faithfully went door-to-door offering people Try Jesus cards. In Maths class, Miss Jones taught me that “1 + 2 = 4”. Imagine, though, that the next year I had another primary school teacher called Miss Wilson, who was a chain-smoking communist agnostic and at night moonlighted as a bartender. In her Maths class, Miss Wilson taught me that “1 + 2 = 3”. Now it would be a genetic fallacy for me to conclude, since Miss Jones was a dedicated vegetarian Seventh-day Adventist and that Miss Wilson was a chain-smoking communist agnostic, that “1 + 2 = 4” rather than “1 + 2 = 3”. Even though we may agree with many of Miss Jones’ beliefs, that does not mean that everything she said was true. Conversely, just because Miss Wilson may have had so many beliefs and lifestyle practices that were wrong, this does not mean that everything that she said was false. 

Now, let’s consider a genuine and significant genetic fallacy. There are scientists who claim that there is an internal inconsistency in the Seventh-day Adventist worldview because our church community embraces certain scientific discoveries but it rejects other theories or conclusions that are currently accepted in the scientific community. For example, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has enthusiastically embraced the physics of electromagnetism, since we use electromagnetic waves to carry our evangelistic messages through radio, satellite and optical networks, and the genetics behind the Human Genome Project, which is already providing us with information to design predictive genetic tests and gene-based “designer drugs” to treat hereditary diseases like cancer.2 However, the Adventist Church has not officially adopted the Big Bang theory and has rejected the deep-time evolutionary theory that we have a common biological ancestor with chimpanzees, along with all of the other furry, feathered and leggy critters that call this planet home. This is internally inconsistent, say some scientists, and reveals a strange paradox in the Seventh-day Adventist worldview. If we accept some scientific conclusions, we should in good faith accept them all, claim these scientists.

Before we rush to conclude that there is actually an internal inconsistency in the Seventh-day Adventist faith, we need to understand some important things about the nature of science. Science is an incredibly effective way of studying the physical world around us, but it is also an inherently tentative and provisional process. This means that we cannot be sure that science has reached objective truth in the case of each and every scientific theory or conclusion. In fact, one of the key aims of science is to develop better theories, and this may, in the process, result in falsifying some of the scientific theories currently on the research table. This means that it is possible that some current scientific theories are false while many others are true. Scientific theories can even be inconsistent with each other, for example like the fact that general relativity is incompatible with quantum mechanics.3 At other times, particularly in biology, two scientific theories can exist side by side to explain a process. They are not necessarily incompatible. It simply means that not enough evidence has been gathered yet to lend more weight to one versus the other.

So, it is reasonable to reject some scientific theories as false, but on what basis would we do that? Firstly, we may reject some theories because they have already been falsified by scientists. We may also reject other scientific theories because they are highly speculative or because we are aware of evidence that contradicts them. Most importantly, we may reject scientific theories on theological grounds because they contradict a clear teaching of the Bible. For example, Jewish and Christian theologians in the first few centuries after Jesus’ resurrection correctly rejected Aristotle’s cosmological teaching that the universe did not have a beginning, because the Bible clearly teaches that God created everything, including the universe.4 In the same way, the Seventh-day Adventist Church can reject the contemporary evolutionary theory that life evolved on planet Earth over billions of years because the Bible teaches that God recently created life on this planet in six literal days.

Now you may be wondering if rejecting particular scientific theories, while accepting others, is actually possible, since scientific theories may be interlocked and actually depend on each other, sort of like a vast scientific jigsaw puzzle or a delicately woven daisy chain. For example, the Christian geneticist and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote a famous essay with the title, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”5 However, science is actually more like a Jenga game tower, where you can remove some blocks and the tower still stands. Scientists have been adding and removing blocks from the tower of science over the last few centuries without causing the entire tower to collapse. The reality that biology is based on DNA and genetics does not mean that biology depends on all of life having evolved from a common ancestor. This is because God could have recently created all of the life on Earth in six literal days in such a way that we are genetically similar to both chimpanzees and bananas. This short timeframe for Creation is, in fact, what the Bible plainly teaches: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day” Exodus 20:11 (ESV).6

The claim that the Seventh-day Adventist worldview involves an internal inconsistency, because our Church does not adopt all of the theories and conclusions produced by the scientific method, rather than being an indictment that warrants significant concern, actually commits the simple logical blunder known as the genetic fallacy. You may not be able to avoid the genetic material which formed the DNA instruction manual in your personal primordial cell, but you can avoid genetic fallacies, even though this reasoning might be being recommended by well-meaning people in the science community.

1. The definition of a genetic fallacy is given in Ted Honderich, (Ed.) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition, 2005, p331 and in J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview, InterVarsity Press, 2003, p57.

2. David Wheeler & Linghua Wang. “From human genome to cancer genome: The first decade,” Genome Research, Vol 23. 2013, pp1057-1062. 

3. As acknowledged by Stephen Hawking’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at Cambridge University: http://www.ctc.cam.ac.uk/outreach/origins/quantum_cosmology_one.php and by John Schwarz on his Caltech homepage: http://theory.caltech.edu/people/jhs/strings/str115.html. Alvin Plantinga has also noted that “science contradicts itself, both over time and at the same time. Two of the most important and overarching contemporary scientific theories are general relativity and quantum mechanics. Both are highly confirmed and enormously impressive; unfortunately, they can’t both be correct.” Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, Oxford University Press, 2011, xii.

4. Refer to Paul Copan & William Lane Craig, Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical and Scientific Exploration, Baker Academic, 2004, pp93-145. Alvin Plantinga has described this situation in a more current and personal way: “For example, science has not spoken with a single voice about the question whether the universe has a beginning: first the idea was that it did, but then the steady theory triumphed, but then big bang cosmology achieved ascendency, but now there are straws in the wind suggesting a reversion to the thought that the universe is without a beginning. The sensible religious believer is not obliged to trim her sails to the current scientific breeze on this topic, revising her belief on the topic every time science changes its mind; if the most satisfactory Christian (or theistic) theology endorses the idea that the universe did indeed have a beginning, the believer has a perfect right to accept that thought.” Where the Conflict Really Lies, p121. Something similar goes for the Adventist believer and the Seventh-day Adventist fundamental belief that God recently created all of life on Earth in six literal days.

5. Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”, American Biology Teacher, 1973, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp125-129. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/10/2/text_pop/l_102_01.html. Check out the evaluation of Dobzhansky’s far-reaching claim in the following papers: Jerry Bergman, “An Evaluation of the Myth that ‘Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution’”, Answers Research Journal, 5 (2012), pp1-12. Available at: https://answersingenesis.org/theory-of-evolution/nothing-in-biology-makes-sense-except-in-the-light-of-evolution-myth-evalutation/. Stephen Dilley, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of theology?” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Science, Vol. 44 (2013), pp774-86. Abstract available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23890740

6. This literal understanding of the Creation week is reinforced in the prophetic gift that Jesus has given the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the chapter “The Literal Week” in Patriarchs & Prophets and the chapter “Science and the Bible” in Education.

Dr Sven Ostring is director of Discipleship Movements for Greater Sydney Conference.