Religiously Motivated Incredulity

From EvolutionBlog I found this link to an ARN report on the recent ID conference at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA). The following caught my attention.

Featured speakers included Dr. Henry Schaefer, University of Georgia and five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize, and Dr. Michael Behe, Professor of Biochemist at Lehigh University.

It is funny to see the same erroneous memes passed around. Schaefer is not a five-time nominee for the Nobel prize, as far as anyone actually knows. The Nobel committee doesn’t release nominations.

According to the Statutes of the Nobel Foundation, information about the nominations is not to be disclosed, publicly or privately, for a period of fifty years. The restriction not only concerns the nominees and nominators, but also investigations and opinions in the awarding of a prize.


The idea the Schaefer has been nominated five-times comes from a U.S. News and World Report story from December 23, 1991. That’s right; the authority for Schaefer’s near-Nobel-laureate credentials is the speculation of a weekly news magazine. Not what I’d consider ironclad enough to state as a sure thing.

It is very interesting to watch the evolution of the description of Schaefer’s credentials, as I once did through some googling. Before Schaefer tossed his “weight” into the ID ring, the descriptions of him correctly noted that the five nominations were speculations by US News and World Report. However, as he began to be cited more and more by anti-evolutionists, the source of the five nomination claim was stripped off and their speculated existence became an actual existence. Credential inflating is often used by anti-evolution activists who rely on misplaced appeals to authority to support their anti-scientific agendas.

I am at the same university as Schaefer, and we have the honor of having a world class evolutionary biology program. However, despite Schaefer’s apparent interest in evolution, given his relationship with the anti-evolution movement, I have never seen him at any of our evolutionary biology seminars, which involve major scientists of the discipline. In actually, he is nothing but a devoutly religious and conservative chemistry professor who has no professional experience in evolutionary biology and, as far as I can tell, takes absolutely no advantage of the resources the campus has in the discipline. His objections to evolution are nothing but religiously motivated incredulity.

“What are his objections?” you might ask. Well he lists them (circa 2002):

My first concern is that, with the collapse of the Miller-Urey model, there is no plausible scientific mechanism for the origin of life, i.e., the appearance of the first self-replicating biochemical system. The staggeringly high information content of the simplest living thing is not readily explained by evolutionists. Second, the time frame for speciation events seems all wrong to me. The major feature of the fossil record is stasis, long periods in which new species do not appear. When new develpoments occur, they come rapidly, not gradually. My third area of reservation is that I find no satisfactory mechanism for macroevolutionary changes. Analogies between a few inches of change in the beaks of a Galapagos finch species and a purported transition from dinosaur to bird (or vice versa) appear to me inappropriate.


His first concern defiantly shows that he is arguing against a straw man. What he is concerned about is not part of “the standard evolutionary model.” Only someone ignorant of evolutionary biology would think otherwise. Evolutionary biology does not explain where the first self-replicating system came from, due to the simple fact that evolution cannot happen until after the first self-replicator comes into existence.

His second concern is another one based on incredulity and ignorance. Stasis in the fossil record refers not to the stasis of forms, but to stasis of the distribution of forms. The rapid turnover that Schaefer is referring to is the fact that in the fossil record species often abruptly disappear and are replaced without any recorded species to species transitions between them. However, he is guilty of equivocation by confusing what is considered gradual and rapid in biological time (evolution) with what is considered gradual and rapid in geologic time (fossilization).

Schaefer is not a paleontologist, so I can’t imagine that he has much first-hand exposure to the fossil record. So the question is “where did he get his information on it?” Probably not from Gould and Eldredge who first described the broad pattern of species stasis and abrupt replacement in the fossil record (punctuated equilibrium) and who demonstrated how it was logical the result of “the standard evolutionary model.” Schaefer probably was exposed to punctuated equilibrium thought the many anti-evolutionists who completely and perhaps intentionally misconstrued the work of Gould and Eldredge to support their agendas. Simply put, he was had.

Gould and Eldredge explained how evolution, which is biologically gradual, coupled with the rare event of fossilization would produce stasis and abrupt replacement in the fossil record. Because fossilization is rare, the species most likely to be represented in the fossil record are ones that have body parts able to be fossilized, die in areas and in ways prone to cause fossilization, and are numerous. Now assume we have a species complex that reasonably satisfies the first two conditions. Now the species in this complex most likely to be represented in the fossil record are the most populous ones. However, large populations also evolve slower than small populations. Thus fossilization most likely will preserve species that evolve slowly, explaining the observed stasis.

Because large populations evolve slowly, “the standard evolutionary model” predicts that most speciation events will happen in the periphery of the population range where there can exist small subpopulations and, more than likely, different habitats. It is in these locations that gradual evolution will lead to speciation. However, fossilization is unlikely to preserve the event. From ecology and demography we know that population replacement can be relatively rapidly (over a few thousand years). One example would be a pathogen wiping out the parent species, and a daughter species, which before was on periphery invading the newly open central habitat.

Together, the evolutionary, demographic, ecological, geographic, and geological forces would produce a fossil record showing a species with a stable range of morphology existing for–say–100,000 years disappearing and being replaced by another species in less than–say–5,000 years. The interesting thing in all of this is that “the standard evolutionary model” was already elucidated before Gould and Eldredge describe and explained punctuated equilibrium using it. Punctuated equilibrium is not an application of the fossil record to evolution as is commonly claimed by anti-evolutionists, but rather an application of standard evolutionary theory to the fossil record.

Schaefer’s third concern is similar to his second. He says he can’t “find a satisfactory mechanism for macroevolutionary changes,” but I have to wonder how hard he is looking. There was much debate in the early part of the twentieth century about whether microevolutionary changes could lead to macroevolutionary changes. Many scientists thought that they were different processes, but since the middle of that century biological data has demonstrated that they are not.

One of the most important tenets of the theory forged during the Evolutionary Synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s was that “macroevolutionary” differences among organisms–those that distinguish higher taxa–arise from the accumulation of the same kinds of genetic differences that are found within species. Opponents of this point of view believed that “macroevolution” is qualitatively different from “microevolution” within a species, and is based on a totally different kind of genetic and developmental repatterning. The iconoclastic geneticist Richard Goldschmidt (1940), who held this opinion, believed that the evolution of species marks the break between “microevolution” and “macroevolution”–that there is a “bridgeless gap” between species that cannot be understood in terms of the genetic variation within species. Genetic studies of species differences have decisively disproved Goldschmidt’s claim. Differences between species in morphology, behavior, and the process that underlie reproductive isolation all have the same genetic properties as variation within species: they occupy consistent chromosomal positions, they may be polygenic or based on few genes, they may display additive, dominant, or epistatic effects, and they can in some instances be traced to specifiable differences in proteins or DNA nucleotide differences. The degree of reproductive isolation between populations, whether prezygotic or postzygotic, varies from little or none to complete. Thus, reproductive isolation, like the divergence of any other character, evolves in most cases by the gradual substitution of alleles in populations.

(Douglas Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology, 3rd ed. pp 477-478)

Or to put it another way, differences between individuals of different species (macroevolutionary changes) are no different than differences between individuals of the same species (microevolutionary changes); they just have had longer to accumulate. Schaefer’s third concern is a view of biology that the evidence dismissed over fifty years ago.

Although, Schaefer is a very good computational chemist, he is a lousy when it comes to biology. His concerns are not informed by biology, but rather creationist propaganda in which all three often appear. His name might initially look good in a press release for critics of modern biology, but upon further examination his support lacks the authority they think it has.

TrackBack URL for this entry:
Sent by Pharyngula on April 26, 2004 9:42 PM

Reed Cartwright shreds the pretensions of an Intelligent Design apologist, Dr. Henry Schaefer, who claims to be a "five-time nominee for the Nobel prize", yet despite his claims about evolutionary [Read More]

Use KwickXML Formatting to markup your comments, acceptable tags: <b> <blockquote> <br> <code> <em> <email> <h1> <h2> <h3> <h4> <h5> <h6> <i> <li> <list> <ol> <p> <qref> <quote> <s> <strong> <sub> <sup> <u> <ul> <url>. You may need to refresh before you will see your comment.

Remember personal info?


Posted by shiva pennathur on April 27, 2004 9:40 AM

I have been trying to browse thru Dr.Schaefer’s latest tome “Christianity and Science-Conflict or Coherence?” In it he has referred to the experiences of the physicist Subrahmanyam Chandrashekar, about how he felt a sense of emptiness and purposelessness at the end of his career, probably because of his atheism/rationalism. Schaefer quotes from Chandra’s biography by Kameshwar Wali - himself a physicist at Syracuse. I pointed this out to Wali who replied that he is distrubed by what might be a misrepresentation of Chandra’s experiences and his account of them. I promised Wali that I would go thru the book and write to him about what it exactly has to say. I am loathe to contribute to the coffers of the ID/Creationism movement so have been unsuccessfully searching for the book at bookstores here and there. I owe an apology for the task unfinished.

Posted by Les Lane on April 27, 2004 10:16 AM


You can find several listings on Bookfinder

Posted by John Wendt on April 27, 2004 10:49 AM

The book is also available from Amazon.

Posted by shiva pennathur on April 27, 2004 10:49 AM

Read about Dr.Schaefer “Nobel nominee” and the sixth most cited chemist in the world.…

Posted by Reed on April 27, 2004 11:09 AM

Sixth most? I thought he was the second most.

Posted by Nick on April 27, 2004 1:06 PM

Nobel nominee or not, Schaeffer’s lecture at the ID conference was one of the least interesting, even on its own terms. Schaeffer barely discussed any ID/evolution arguments, he simply described himself as a “big supporter” of “you guys”, referring to e.g. Behe and Dembski. Most of the actual content of the lecture was just overheads with quotes from scientists on science/religion.

Posted by shiva pennathur on April 27, 2004 1:48 PM

Would Drs. William Provine and Michael Ruse afford the same courtesies to UFO and Loch Ness “experts” as they did toward the Berkeely Wizard? While I am sure that a man like Johnson can be very kind, gracious and even witty, it is difficult to talk highly of one who has chosen every indirect and obtuse method possible to keep facts out of the way of his theses.

Posted by Reed on April 27, 2004 6:15 PM

Schaefer’s book has its homepage at

I looked for the book in the local libraries, but can’t find it. Purchacing it used is a possible alternative if you don’t wish to fund pseudo-scientific musings.

Posted by Paige on April 28, 2004 12:39 PM

Reed, thanks for the excellent article here. The explanations are very clear.

Posted by Gerard Harbison on December 10, 2005 5:28 PM

As a biophysicist who does a bit of quantum chemistry, I feel I’m in a good position to comment on Fritz Schaefer. He is a first rate theoretical chemist, and there’s no point in trying to deny or minimize that. I doubt he’s of Nobel caliber, but that’s just a personal opinion. Second, the commentary above is spot-on; his views on evolution, as I’ve read them, are simplistic and somewhat ignorant.

One wonders, though, how he’d feel if there were a religiously motivated movement to teach ‘alternatives’ to quantum mechanics. Professional courtesy, IMO, requires that one gives experts in their field credit for being experts; and expressing ill-considered and amateurish opinions of a field on which one’s intellectual peers have spent their life, is over the top.

Posted by Barry Wuthrich on December 13, 2006 12:29 PM

Whether Henry Schaefer has any Nobel prize nominations seems irrelevent.

One thing Mr. Schaefer does point out is that many scientists believe in design. From the past we have Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell and Charles A. Coulson. Where would science be today without these men? Current Nobel prize winners include Charlie Townes, Arther Schawlow,and William D. Phillips along with Crawford prize recipient Allen R. Sandage. There are hundreds of scientists who agree with these men.

These are some of the greatest scientific minds of our past and present. Dawkins wrote that he must contantly remind himself that things are not designed despite all appearances. Is it remotely possible that life appears designed because it is? Can we consider this possibility? Or must any evidence that seems to point that direction be dismissed because of a prior committment to naturalism?

This is a very interesting question, but if you bring it into a high school classroom setting, you will probably get sued. Evolution is the only science where cricism is off limits. What are we afraid of? As William Provine has said, that just smacks of elitism.