Bungling the Facts Behind Evolution

The last presidential election is, thankfully, long behind us, but do you remember Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry? He got flak for saying, “In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution. I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.”

There’s plenty of anti-science nuttiness in this country to go around, but Texas has another prominent politician who’s doing more than his share. Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who is, bizarrely, the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, recently circulated a draft of his “High Quality Research Act,” which would politicize the work of the National Science Foundation by having it answer to politicians.

Can we question evolution?

In the wake of the response to Perry’s comments, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach asked, “Does Questioning Evolution Make You Anti-Science?

Yeah, pretty much. Let’s take a look at his apologetic.

Denial of both climate change and evolution is popular among conservatives. The author said, “While I cannot comment on climate-change science, I do have a great deal to say about evolution.” He lists his credentials as organizing the annual science vs. religion debates at Oxford University, which were typically about evolution, and giving Richard Dawkins a good thrashing at another debate for good measure.

But for someone who’s well versed in these matters, his understanding of science seems stunted.

What I learned from these debates, as well as reading extensively on evolution, is that evolutionists have a tough time defending the theory when challenged in open dialogue.

I doubt that, but let’s assume it’s the case. Who cares? Science, not debate, is where our confidence in evolution comes from.

Theory vs. law

[Attacks on evolution do not] mean that evolution is not true or that theory is without merit or evidence. It does, however, corroborate what Governor Perry said. Evolution is a theory. Unlike, say, the laws of thermodynamics, it has never been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt to be true.

Wow—where do you start?

Evolution is an explanation. It claims to give us the mechanism explaining how life got to be the way it is. The best evolution can hope for is to become a theory, and it has done so. The same is true for germ theory, another explanation, which has also reached that pinnacle and can’t become anything better.

By contrast, a scientific law is a description—how motion works (F = ma) or how gravity works (F = Gm1m2/r2) or how gasses work (PV = nRT), for example.

In Newton’s Second Law of Motion, why is force proportional to the acceleration and not to, say, the acceleration squared? The law doesn’t help you out there; it only describes the relationship. For the mechanism, you turn to a theory.

A theory doesn’t graduate to become a law. They’re two different things. And as for the “beyond the shadow of a doubt” thing, science is always provisional. Nothing is ever certain. A sliver of that shadow of doubt hangs over our most established scientific conclusions, including the laws of thermodynamics.

Richard Dawkins and the late and celebrated Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould fiercely debated basic presumptions about evolution. Gould … argued that the large gaps in the fossil record make a mockery of a theory of gradual evolution, which is why Gould advocated ‘punctuated equilibrium,’ a variation on Darwinism in which evolution takes place in dramatic periods of change followed by long eons of stasis.

You’ve got two scientists arguing about details within evolution. That’s how science works.

The author seems to imagine some great schism within biology, but both scientists accepted evolution. What’s the point?

Evidence of evolution

No scientist has ever witnessed evolution directly and science itself says that this is impossible given the vast amount of time needed for species to evolve.

Witnessing something directly is nice, but science is long past the day when Galileo dropped different-sized cannonballs from the Tower of Pisa to see if the bigger one fell faster. (He probably didn’t, but it’s a nice story.) Science is often indirect now. When we look at a photo from the Hubble satellite or an electron microscope, there’s a long chain of technology massaging bits before the data is in a form that we can understand.

Nevertheless, we have seen speciation happen. My favorite examples are the evolution of a bacterium’s ability to eat nylon (nylon didn’t exist until it was invented in the 1930s) and Richard Lenski’s 20-year experiment in which bacteria evolved the ability to eat citrate.

Evolution is the overwhelming scientific consensus. Deal with it.

Before [we attack] Republican politicians for simply questioning evolution, it would behoove [us] to recall that the very essence of science is to question and that stifling doubt is a sin that religion was quite guilty of in the past and that science should refrain from repeating it in the present.

Yes, science needs to question. The politicians mentioned here, however, are neither Science nor scientists. A non-scientist politician critiquing science is like a non-pilot politician giving pointers to the pilot flying my plane.

Take your seat, pal, and leave the expert fields to the experts.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child,
but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
— 1 Cor. 13:11.

(This is a modified version of a post originally published 10/7/11.)

Photo credit: Wikimedia

About Bob Seidensticker