Sunday, December 6, 2009

The culture of science and the theory of evolution

(Young Charles Darwin.  For a great read on his early life and explorations, see "The Voyage of the Beagle".)

I find constantly that the general public doesn’t understand how science works, especially how university scientists do their work. For example, the university pays us a salary, gives us an office, and requires us to teach some courses (that applied to me before I retired). Then, they expect us to develop an active research program, but they usually give us no money to accomplish that. We have to find all of that money from funding agencies by writing research proposals, and this is a very competitive process. The National Science Foundation only funds about 10% of the requests they receive. If you do not develop this research program, you do not get tenure, and you lose your job after about 7 years.

This is relevant to the issue of doing research on evolution, or on any other established theory in science. If one of us could disprove Darwin’s theory, we would become absolutely the most famous biologist of the century. We would undoubtedly win the Nobel Prize for Biology, be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, obtain all the grant money we could ever use, be offered the very best university positions, get the best graduate students and that large corner office---in short, life would be really, really sweet. No one gets rich or famous in science by repeating what is already believed to be true; you make a name for yourself by being the first to come up with something new. Scientists are not like a group of people who get together to reaffirm their common belief. We go to scientific meetings, and we sit there and say to ourselves: “I know I can do better than that guy”, “I just know he is wrong and I am going to prove it”, “That SOB is full of %4$##”.

But after 150 years, Darwin’s theory still holds. There is almost no working biologist out of 10s of thousands who does not conclude that the theory makes sense, that enormous evidence supports it, and that nothing in biology makes any sense without it. Evolutionary biologists (FYI, I am not even categorized professionally as an evolutionary biologist) argue about mechanisms of natural selection all the time---whether meiotic drive is more important than mutation in bringing about change in species, whether genetic drift is more influential than selection, etc. But the overall theory always wins as the best explanation for the data.

Every so often the creationist community finds someone who will write a pamphlet or small book claiming that evolution can not be true. If they are lucky, they find someone with a Ph.D., but this is never taken seriously by the scientific community, because the arguments contained there are easily refuted. The same goes for arguing about the age of the planet. Thousands of geologists, paleontologists, and biologists have spent their entire lives over the past 300 years or so trying to get the best answer possible to this question, and they arrive at an estimate of about 5 billion years. Are all these people in some giant conspiracy to overthrow creationism? No. They did their work and that is their answer.

One more thing---what does the word “theory” really mean. On the street, we use that term all the time: “I have a theory why the Yankees are doing so poorly”, or “I have a theory why it is raining so much lately”. These are not theories in the scientific sense at all; they are hypotheses, which are of lower rank than a theory. In science, a published theory is a really, really big deal. Sir Isaac Newton’s theory on universal gravitation and his laws of motion, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection are considered as close to facts as we ever get in science. They are comprehensive, well-considered, well-tested, well-argued.

It really is time for creationists to give up their reluctance to acknowledge organic evolution via natural selection as the formative process on this planet. Realize that Darwin’s theory never had anything to say about the very origin of life in the universe. Darwinian evolution is about the process of how life changes once it started; the same process would apply regardless of where in the universe life got started, however. So, I suppose, religious folks could then fall back on the role of their creator in the beginning. There are scientists who believe in the existence of some higher power, and who also believe that life evolved on this planet via natural selection. And that is fine if it gives you solace. What happened at the very beginning of the universe is incomprehensible to me. But then, just a few centuries ago, the fact that there was a large body of land west of Europe before you reach Asia (now called North America) was incomprehensible to almost everyone.

One goal of mine on this portal is to stress the importance of conservation, but another is to introduce evolutionary thinking. This will take some time. It is an extremely powerful tool to use to understand life on this planet, and to understand the behavior of all organisms, including humans. All sorts of human behavior start to make sense (e.g., racism, greed, love, aggression, infidelity, etc.) once you begin analyzing life as a cost/benefit ratio with survival and reproductive fitness as currencies. Once you begin to view the world through this lens, I doubt you will ever go back. It is downright fun!