Setting the Record Straight on Evolution
Victor J. Stenger
The authors of two recent letters make several assertions about science that question the competence and integrity of scientists. Paul Mauldin (December 18) says that we base our positions on "a faith‑based philosophy" that has become "the theology of the media and public education." Marshall T. Riggs (December 20) calls Darwinism a "religion, led primarily by atheists." Because anti-evolutionism is a real and growing threat to scientific understanding, I would like to set the record straight.
I begin by giving specific examples that reveal the errors in Mauldin's assertions. He claims that evolution is "not predictive." On the contrary, Darwin specifically predicted that recognizable human ancestors would be found in Africa. Many now have been.
Evolutionary theory also predicts that the use of anti‑viral or anti‑bacterial agents will result in the emergence of resistant strains. This principle is, of course, a mainstay of contemporary medicine. Paleontologists correctly predicted that a transitional form from fish to amphibian would be found in Devonian strata.
This also refutes the usual creationist claim, parroted by Mauldin, that "transitional forms" (presumably meaning transitional species) do not exist. Paleontologists had expected to find transitions from land based mammals to whales for years; in the past decade, science journals, as well as the media, have been full of these finds. A simple Internet search will yield hundreds of examples of transitional species.
Mauldin also mistakenly claims that evolution cannot be falsified. In fact, it is a trivial exercise to think of ways to falsify evolution.
For example, evolution would be falsified if we were to find bona fide remains of organisms out of place in the fossil record. For example, if mammals (horses, humans or hippos) were found in the Paleozoic strata associated with trilobites, crinoids, and extinct corals, this would show that there was no evolutionary process. But we don't find any inconsistencies.
My favorite example is over a hundred years old: In the nineteenth century the theory of evolution was challenged by a famous physicist, Lord Kelvin, whose thermodynamic calculations gave an age for Earth that was much too short for natural selection to operate. Darwin thought this was the most serious challenge to his theory. But Kelvin did not know about nuclear energy, which efficiently powers the sun, allowing it to last billions of years as a stable energy source. In fact, evolution predicted the existence of such an energy source!
Mauldin also disputes that evolution is the foundation of biological and medical sciences, offering biochemistry and anatomy instead. Although biochemistry is more chemistry than biology, evolution still plays a big role in this field. Think of all the work on DNA, which is the fingerprint of evolution, showing that every living thing emerged from the same primitive source. As for anatomy, I can't think of a better example for evolution, where every human body part that is studied can be compared with that of other mammals. Evolution explains why animals can be used in medical research.
Riggs misrepresents the goals of national intelligent design movement, led by lawyer Phillip Johnson. A simple look at the website of Johnson's organization, the Discovery Institute, and a glance though his many books, will demonstrate that the purpose of the movement is nothing less than to transform science and culture so that they conform to fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Far from supporting evolution, Johnson blames it for every evil in modern society, as if evil did not exist before Darwin.
Mauldin and Riggs fail to note that many religious figures, including the Pope, accept evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life. One of the most eloquent champions of evolution, biologist Kenneth Miller, author of Finding Darwin's God, is a devout Christian.
Riggs says his common sense does not comprehend how life can evolve mindlessly, so he concludes it must not have done so. My common sense cannot comprehend how anything other than evolution could explain life on Earth, given the facts. How can we objectively say which hypothesis is correct? We return to the fundamentals of science and test which hypothesis works best with observations in the real world.
If critics of evolution really had a valid, scientific, alternative theory, they could propose it and explain how it contrasts with existing theories. They could devise an empirical test to see which is a better fit with observations of reality. The results of the test -- and not religious prejudice -- would determine which theory is correct. So far, creationists have failed to propose a more meaningful, workable theory than evolution. This includes intelligent design.
Currently, science does not find any need to introduce nonmaterial processes in its explanations of the origin and evolution of life and, indeed, the physical universe itself. Nothing in science, however, prevents such processes from being considered when and if the data demand them. Indeed, many of us would be thrilled by such a development. The opportunities for new funding would be mind-boggling!
Victor J Stenger is Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and President of the Colorado Citizens for Science. Contributor of Mukto-Mona.