Napoleon in Russia



The proposition has been advanced, more than once, that our knowledge of past events regarding the evolutionary history of life on earth is analogous to our knowledge of the fact that Napoleon was once in Russia.

I found it ironic that this argument was accompanied by the apparently requisite mocking of people who might disagree as the sort to settle the matter by asking “were you there?”

But that is precisely how we know Napoleon was in Russia. People were there. it is recorded history. We have the testimony of eyewitnesses. None of which applies to, for example, the origins of the eukaryotic cell.

I’ll also note that this is the same reason that at least some of us accept the resurrection of Jesus Christ. People were there. There were eyewitnesses. Isn’t it surprising then how the same people who are inclined to reject the resurrection accept the presence of Napoleon in Russia, and further, will appeal to that as if evolutionary inferences are no different than historical inferences based on people who were there?

I say that Napoleon in Russia fails as an analogy for how we “know what we know” about past evolutionary events. Surely those of us who are on the side of science and reason can do better than that.

(John Harshman) #3

But you weren’t there, right? How do you know people were there? People are claimed to be there based on the traces they left, which you refer to as recorded history. We have what claims to be the testimony of eyewitnesses, but how do you know? Note that eyewitness testimony is much less reliable than circumstantial evidence in court. Now of course we know Napoleon was in Russia, but it’s because of the vast number of independent confirmations. It’s a very strongly supported hypothesis.

That, however, is on much weaker ground. People are claimed to be there and there are claimed to be eyewitnesses, but we have no actual eyewitness accounts and almost no circumstantial evidence.

The evidence for many events in the history of life is much more similar to the evidence for Napoleon than to the evidence for Jesus. And the analogy is just fine.


Is that how evolutionary arguments work? The hypothesis that humans and chimps share a common ancestor is far more plausible than the hypotheses regarding the evolution of the eukaryotic cell, because those events (HC shared ancestry) are far more recent?

We need to factor in how recent the proposed events are when we decide how plausible some event is?


That’s because you are ignoring all the relevant details. You’re like someone who is claiming that the bacterial rotary motor is analogous to a human designed and engineered rotary motor! We need to take them both apart and see all the actual differences!


Perhaps someone will appreciate the comparison. :slight_smile:

(John Harshman) #7

Which details would those be?


The details which you must be aware of in order to conclude that it’s an appropriate analogy, John.

Details matter. Remember?

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #9

The details didn’t seem to matter to you at all when it came to flagellum. Remarkable.


@swamidass, why was Patrick’s post hidden? Please un-hide it. The flagging of posts has become absurd.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #11

It was off topic, it seems. At least it was flagged such.

(John Harshman) #12

This is the sort of non-reply that makes everyone annoyed with you. Was that your object?


In my opinion, and I was the one who started the thread, and also the one who responded to his post as if it was on topic, it was not off topic and did not deserve to be flagged. Perhaps that is something that you and the moderators can discuss. Perhaps start a thread to see how the community feels. Thank you for your reply.


You think the analogy is “just fine.” You gave a simplistic and generic answer. Lots of independent confirmations. But no details, John. In order to ascertain the appropriateness of the analogy don’t we need to investigate all the minute details?


Perhaps there is some DNA evidence that supports the assertion that Napoleon was in Russia. Anyone here a Russian descended from some lucky Russian female impregnated by Napoleon?


I understand that you simply do not have time to read every single post, and probably could not accurately recall them if you did. It would be remarkable if you did and could. :slight_smile:

Here’s a link to a post where I explicitly state that details do matter. The context is the origin of eukaryotes, but it applies equally as well to the origin of the flagellum.

In my experience it is the advocates for evolution who consistently downplay the importance of details. They only seem important when it is an IDer who is suspected of employing an analogy, as reflected most recently in the case of your response to Brian Miller.

I trust that in this case, to bring things back on topic, you will not employ a different standard.

Is Napoleon in Russia a reasonable analogy to an event far distant in the past, not witnessed and recorded by human observers? If so, why? Please least all the details.


Give us a break John. You just gave a long litany of reasons to doubt that Napoleon was ever actually in Russia. Yet, in spite of that, you still believe that Napoleon was in Russia. Which of your “reasons to doubt” should we take seriously?

Independent confirmations based on eyewitness testimony?

(John Harshman) #18

I do not recall doing that. What are you referring to?

(Mikkel R.) #19

How do you know?

How do you know?

I think you’re doing the exact thing the analogy is supposed to show: Inference to the best explanation. We weren’t there to see history be “recorded”, we didn’t observe the eyewitnesses actually be eyewitnesses. But if there really were eyewitnesses there to record the events, then the kinds of records that we have are the sort of evidence we would expect. So we make an inference to the best explanation. The inference that eyewitnesses made the records we have.

The records are our data, which we seek to explain with a theory. A historical theory of people having been in russia, and recording their experiences.

In the same way, the data we have from comparative genetics is something which we seek to explain with a theory. A historical theory of certain evolutionary transitions leaving behind the evidence that we see.

(system) closed #20

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