The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Happy Darwin Day

This Wednesday (February 12th) is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Darwin, of course, was the first person to work out the basic principles of natural selection. Contrary to what many people believe, Charles Darwin was not, in fact, the first person to propose the idea of the evolution of species – the idea had been considered in scientific and philosophical circles for some time, in no small part due to the frequent discovery of fossils – but he was the first person to work out the basic mechanism for evolution, and in so doing was able to link the field observations together into a coherent explanation of life on Earth.

Also contrary to what many believe, the theory of evolution* was not cooked up by “godless scientists” or agreed upon rapidly by those who wanted to remove miracles from the world, or any of the other variations I have heard on that theme. Darwin didn’t publish his work at all until he met someone else who had reached the same conclusions and was about to publish them, and even then he felt as if he had done something wrong in publishing them. They were not adopted immediately, but were subject to hard scrutiny and harsh criticism – but they stood up to both, and, more importantly, provided testable predictions that consistently proved correct.

In the end, Darwin’s work proved a great boon not only to our understanding of how we, and every other species, came to be here, but also to all fields that rely on biology – for example, it’s Darwin’s work that provides us with the models we need to understand the development of viruses and bacteria in order to fight them with new medicines (which is why I am always amused when creationists use vaccines and antibiotics – if their view is correct, these things shouldn’t work).

So, take a chance to ponder how well the breakthroughs of this particular 19th century scientist have improved our lives and views of the world. Oh, and if you have some time, look up the works of Charles Darwin online.

*I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, theory is one of the most mis-used words in the English language. Contrary to what many a middle school teacher tells their students, theories are not simply hypotheses that have not been tested enough to be considered laws. A theory is something completely different – it is the body of observations and linking arguments, and can be highly hypothetical, but can also be considered a “fact” – gravity, electricity, the notion that diseases are caused by viruses and bacteria, these are all theories, but nonetheless are absolutely real.

So, really, when someone says that they don’t believe something because it’s “only a theory” they are saying a sentence that A) makes no sense at all, and B) shows their complete and utter ignorance of the subject that they have chosen to talk about.


Dave Hasbrouck said...

"Also contrary to what many believe, the theory of evolution* was not cooked up by “godless scientists” or agreed upon rapidly by those who wanted to remove miracles from the world, or any of the other variations I have heard on that theme."

I really need to loan you this book I have called "The Dragon Hunters" (or 'Dragon Seekers' or something similar, I can't remember exactly). It's about the earliest Paleontologists, and how so many of their first discoveries were either suppressed outright, or had to be written in such a way as to reinforce scripture before they could be published and accepted.

It also kind of goes into a bit about gender-roles in scientific circles back then. For instance, The Plesiosaur and two different species of Pterosaurs were actually discovered by a fossil-hunter named Mary Anning, but nobody gave a toss about her discoveries until male paleontologists swooped in and stole all her work.

Ah, but I'm getting off on a tangent. Needless to say, for a long time, scientific discoveries had to tip-toe around religious beliefs; coming up with scientific theories simply to fly in the face of religion would have never ever succeeded.

Kay said...

Hey I used that link as well!

Nicely written (as always) and yay for being able to opeing celebrate something pro-science eh?

Evan Davis said...

I heard a cute story about Darwin where someone suggested it was because of her he didn't publish his works for so long. He loved her and didn't want to hurt her. It was only after the death of their oldest daughter (at 10yrs) that she started to encourage his work.

I'm surprised at the idea that "diseases are caused by viruses" is a theory. Isn't a theory something that has some unexplored item that would clinch the idea? As in we know what gravity does, we can predict it's behavior, it accompanies matter, but we have no idea where it comes from. Figure out where it comes from and you've got a law. We know that viruses cause disease, we know where they come from, we know what they are made of, we know how they mutate. I'm not sure what we don't know beyond classification.

Anthroslug said...

Dave: I think I have that book in one of my stacks o' stuff to read - let me look around. If not, I'd love to borrow your copy.

Kay: Thanks for the complimanets.

Evan: I think that Darwin's family had alot to do with his hesitance, but as I understand it, so did his culture, so it was a combination of things.

Oh, and good question. The way that the word theory is used among scientists is very different than what most non-scientists think when they hear the word. Theories are large, over-arching models that explain how something works. Some are very hypothetical - think of string theory, for example. Others are very well established as pretty much factual, such as germ theory.

To sum it up as best I can: observations are facts, laws are well-established principles, hypotheses are the ideas to be tested, and theory is what ties all of these things together. In the case of evolution, we know that specieis change over time - all observations confirm that (and in order to claim otherwise, leaders of the opponents to evolutionary science have generated some rather bizarre and ornate lies, because the truth just doesn't support them). So, evolution is a fact.

Evolutionary theory is the description of how evolution occurs. It generates hypotheses (well, if species X evolved into species Y then this implies that we should see transitional form Z; if species A and species B are related, then the genes should be similar in region C; etc.), but it also ties observations together and provides a coherent framework through which we can examine what information we have.

I hope that's clearer than I feel like it was.