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:
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.