Posted by: The Amoeba | January 5, 2009

Evolution: The Fact(s)

This year, the 2009th of the Common Era, is the 200th anniversary of the birth (on 12 February 1809, to be precise), of the English gentleman scientist Charles Robert Darwin. Yes. That Darwin.

In honor of the occasion, scientists throughout the universe, or at least the universities, are going on the warpath in support of his “big idea”, that life on Earth first appeared billions of years ago, sans divine intervention, and has changed constantly since then due to natural selection. In a word:

EVOLUTION!!

The top-tier science journal Nature has gone so far as to publish, in its New Year’s Day issue, a list of 15 recent discoveries that, as prime samples of what Darwin called the “long catalogue of facts” amassed in support of his big idea, make the case that evolution is, itself, a fact. You can read all about it here.

Now, you might have heard the argument, from those who would conceal the fact of evolution from you, that “evolution is just a theory”. And they would be right – and wrong.

Evolution is a theory in the sense that it is not a finished product. Its statements and (this is important) its predictions about nature are constantly being tested and refined, and will continue to be tested and refined until each and every one of its articles can be expressed in iron-clad mathematical proofs. Or something better is discovered.

Evolution is a theory, just as the idea that matter is made up of infinitesimally small bits is a theory – atomic theory. Atomic theory isn’t a finished product. If it were, we wouldn’t need to spend billions of dollars on miles-long holes in the ground so that physicists can smash atoms apart to find the gluons that hold them together. Yet, without atomic theory, the predictions it makes, and the work that can be done with those predictions, most of the apparatus of the modern world, from the electric lightbulb to the cruise missile, would not be possible.

OK, maybe we could have done without the cruise missiles. Shall we talk about your iPhone instead?

Atomic theory works. Because it works, scientists treat it as an established fact, even though they have not yet worked out every last detail.

And there are no picket lines at school board meetings denouncing atomic theory as “just” a theory – never mind one that is an affront to God.

Evolutionary theory works. Its predictions, and the work that can be done on the basis of those predictions, make it possible to discover and understand nearly everything we now know about the human body, and how to treat its ailments and imperfections. Disease, for example, would be almost impossible to treat effectively were it not for our understanding that microbes evolve. Because it works, scientists treat it as an established fact, even though they have not yet worked out every last detail.

Creationist explanations for life and its history on Earth make, and can make, no predictions – because the Divine, by definition, can transcend natural laws at will and, hence, is utterly unpredictable. Without the ability to make and test predictions, no work can be done. Medicine, if it were performed at all, would be performed by revelation. You might ask medieval Europeans dying en masse of the Black Death, now almost extinct, or smallpox, which is extinct in nature (we hope), how satisfactory “medicine by revelation” tends to be.

Arguably, of all the illustrious thinkers of the 19th century (viz. Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Louis Pasteur), Darwin (and the geologist Charles Lyell, whose notions of an ancient Earth were new in Darwin’s time, and were essential to the development of evolutionary theory) is the one whose ideas have best stood the test of time. Despite (or perhaps because of) all the controversy with which they have been surrounded since the initial publication of The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection in 1859.

But to the modern scientist, the manner in which these ideas came to publication is sobering. The notion of public funding for scientific projects did not exist in Darwin’s time. And precisely because of the controversial nature of his work, his chances of getting either a public or a private sponsor were then, and would be today, nil. The development of the evolutionary theory on which nearly all modern biology and medicine are dependent were made possible by two things:

1. Darwin’s inheritance from his equally-intelligent but more pragmatic father and grandfather;

2. Darwin’s marriage into the Wedgwood pottery fortune.

In other words, fellas and gals – if you truly wish to do radical, ground-breaking science, go ahead. But bring your own money.

Of course, that’s the message that scientists have been hearing from We the People for at least the last twenty years (5 out of 10 of all grant proposals are worthy, 1 of 10 gets any money at all, $1 of $20 in requests is awarded).

  O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions expressed are mine, as a private citizen.

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Responses

  1. Money is nice but all that would not have mattered had Mssr Wallace not kicked Darwin’s butt into publishing overdrive. And given extreme inductivism a near burial.

  2. Dude…I’m on your side and have been all along. Selection is sometimes not for the best, but it is for what interests the female…usually. That is how there are changes in a species…some for the better, some for more “beauty”. I’ve fought this battle for years and been thunderstruck by the people that think it all just happened.

    When I said maybe this is how God wanted it, I meant just that. Maybe God just ain’t all that interested and is coming to check on what he left one day.

    Rene Descartes tried a priori proofs that God exists. I wish I knew where my philosophy textbook is…it had a great one in there that ended with

    If there is no God
    and you live you life as if there isn’t.
    Then there is no consequence.

    If there is a God
    and you live your life as if there is none
    then there will be a great consequence.

    If there is a God
    and you live your life as if there is,
    then the consequence will be good.

    Not exactly in the form the book had it, but it has stuck with me, and that was a long while ago. I can’t remember exactly, but probably 20 years.

    That is my life view of survival of the fittest and how I like to live my life. Not from fear of retribution from God, but in case there is one…I’d like to be with Him. Maybe it is a survival technique. I’m not a philosopher or actually all that bright.

  3. Too true, Kitty. But Darwin had spent most of his early life taking beatings from his father, and he wasn’t really up to taking another one from the apologists for the Big Daddy In The Sky. In fact, even after he did get goaded into publishing The Origin (and the fair-minded speak of it as the Darwin/Wallace theory of evolution), Darwin had to have help with the public debate side of things – hence T. H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog”.

    Amber, that triptych is a simplified form of Blaise Pascal’s Wager. If we accept “God” as a metaphor for maintaining right relationships with each other in a society, then the Wager becomes:

    1. If there is no “God”, and you live your life as if there is none,
    then watch your back. All the time. Forever.

    2. If there is no “God”, and you live your life as if there is one, then drop everything now, go to Vegas, to the roulette wheel in the casino at the Luxor, and bet everything you have on 27 Red. Do it right now, before it’s too la… Damn.

    3. If there is a “God”, and you live your life as if there is none,
    then you’d better not slip up, or else, Mr. Madoff.

    4. If there is a “God”, and you live your life as if there is one,
    that’s where hospitals come from. Until their administrators go off after 1. or 3.

  4. I stand corrected.

  5. […] are responsible for the changes that we are now observing and are predicting (that word again, evolution fans) will occur in the near […]

  6. […] Evidence, Evolution, and the Principle of Principle As I’ve already mentioned in this space, 12 February 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s […]


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