"A lifetime of working with nuclear power has left me with a healthy green glow... and left me as impotent as a Nevada boxing commissioner."
-- C. Montgomery Burns

In natural selection I’ve avoided all detection

According to a recent editorial in The Washington Post, opponents of the Theory of Evolution have begun making some headway in influencing how our origins are taught in American public schools. Having not had a whole lot of success with pushing Creationism, they are now using Intelligent Design as an alternative explanation. While I wholeheartedly support the Darwinian view of things, I can’t say I’m all that keen on the argument made by the Post, specifically: “To teach intelligent design as science in public schools is a clear violation of the principle of separation of church and state.”

We have an extraordinary amount of evidence supporting evolutionary theory, but many people forget that it is still a theory. We haven’t proved it as fact yet, and it’s doubtful that we ever will. It’s been a looong time since first-year Bio (grumble), but there are a couple of elements to the evolutionary explanation of our existence that are a little weak:

  1. Life began as a random collision of amino acids and proteins in the primordial soup. We’ve reproduced this event in a laboratory setting, but let’s acknowledge that it’s still a big assumption.
  2. Intelligence equals sentience and self-awareness. There is a good explanation in evolutionary theory of how intelligence has developed, but I don’t know of any explanation of how sentience comes about (someone let me know if the explanation exists). Again, we typically make the big assumption that sentience and self-awareness are the result of intelligence, but we don’t really know that this is true (despite what the makers of the Terminator and Matrix trilogies would have you believe).

For the rest, i.e. natural selection and everything, we have ample evidence and other than Phoebe‘s doubts (“So now the real question is, who put those fossils there, and why?”), I think most people in the know will acquiesce…especially since we have direct observational experience for much of it. But using evolution as an explanation for humanity’s existence does hinge on accepting the two points above.

So, other than pissing off all my scientifically-minded friends and amusing my philosophically-minded ones (and just confusing the conspiracy-minded ones), what’s my point? All I’m trying to say is that we should include any theory that has a significant body of evidence behind it in our educational programs. We’re talking about kids of at least high school age (I don’t remember discussing animal reproduction in grade school), so why not expose them to what is known (and how that knowledge has been parsed) and let them make up their own minds?

Last but not least, there is this assumption that if someone messed with life on this planet (either by kick-starting it, or just designing it outright), well then, it must have been (drumroll, please) God (or at least one of them, depending on your beliefs). How about the possibility that Earth was indeed seeded, but with genetic material from an extraterrestrial source? I hear the snickering, but is it any less likely than some all-powerful, non-corporeal (or extradimensional) entity having nothing better to do than treat Earth as his/her/its petri dish? I guess Q was right: it’s difficult to work in groups when you’re omnipotent.

I’m putting this in a very jocular (or blasphemous, depending on your beliefs) way in order to make a point: teaching about the origins of life on Earth cannot be completely separated from religion, nor can it be discussed without scientific reference. Again, I suggest presenting the various theories, what evidence there is to support each one, and let people make up their own minds.

The difficulty of course is that the powers-that-be have issues with allowing the population to think for themselves, especially south of the 49th.

(ok, ok, that last bit was put in to appease the conspiracy buffs…)

11 Responses to “In natural selection I’ve avoided all detection”

  1. just a quick comment for now…I’m not sure why the burden of proof still rests with those that are already holding the most cards, evidence-wise

  2. Depends who you talk to…I believe that the burden of proof rests with the anti-evolutionists, but they’ll say the reverse. It all comes back to the fact that we can’t really prove anything one way or the other, we’re just always trying to figure out which theory gets the ‘popular wisdom’ tag.

  3. You know, the best approach to all this that I ever had the pleasure of experience was good old Mr. Hewitt, my grade 11 biology teacher! First and foremost, he taught us how to think scientifically – by proceeding to convince us that there was a dwarf in the Coke machine!! I’ll tell that story another time… But when discussing the origin of life, he was quite practical and did address all of the theories out there. First, he started with creationism, and then pointed out the major flaws in the one piece of evidence for that theory (i.e. 2 versions of Genesis that contradict each other, and how exactly did Cain & Abel find wives when they & their parents were the only humans on earth?) Mr. Hewitt also addressed the theory that life on earth had extra-terrestrial origins, but pointed out that a) there is no hard evidence of this at present, and b) that extra-terrestrial origin does not answer the question of how life began – it isn’t a real answer, because if it developed here or light years away, it still had to start from something. And that leaves us with theories of colliding amino acids, which has the hardest proof so far – empirical laboratory experiment results. But he NEVER told us that any of these theories of the origin of life was fact.

    Moving on to the theory of evolution, I find it disturbing that in one of the Southern States they have placed mandatory stickers on biology texts stating something to the effect that “remember, evolution is theory, not fact, and you should seriously consider all alternate possibilities”. I don’t know what disturbs me more – the fact that some people have evidently tried to pass evolution off as fact & thus spawning these stickers, or the fact that this theory is still, after all this time, being singled out for special attention. I mean, can you imagine that kind of caveat on a treatise of the theory of relativity? :)

    Kav, I’d like to get back to your previous comment, “the fact that we can’t really prove anything”. What kind of proof to you mean? At what level? There may be more “proof” than you thought.

    Oh, and are you a phyletic gradualist or a devotee of puctuated equiplibrium? ;) (I just LOVE how creationists lump us all as being “Darwinists”, with no idea of the multitude of conflicting theories dealing with evolution!) :)

    OK, getting down off my high horse now!!

  4. The reason I say that we can’t prove anything is that we can never be 100% certain that any of our theories are accurate. No matter how much evidence we gather (and that’s what we have–evidence, not proof), it all must be interpreted. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that the colliding amino acids were the origin of life on Earth, and that evolution has been the sole mechanism of its development. I’m just saying that we should acknowledge that we don’t (and can’t) know this for certain, and I’m pleased to hear that your bio teacher presented the alternative theories (mine did not).

    Also, I tend to lean towards punctuated equilibrium — I don’t doubt that gradual changes occurred, but I don’t think the “big” changes came about gradually (in terms of planetary timeframes). I subscribe to the idea that the major changes in species were most often triggered by some extraordinary evolutionary pressure.

  5. Ooh! You actually knew what I meant when I was being pretencious and throwing the big words around! I am suitably impressed.

    As for proof, where I was going with that is that we do have empirical proof that natural selection can drive evolution – one example is the pepper moth (1 species, black & white colour morphs, white was predominant because enabled the moths to blend with lichen on trees & avoid predators, industry in England killed lichen & turned trees black, black morph became more prevalent, then environmental clean up enable pale lichens to come back, now white moths are predominant again.) However, to extrapolate that to evolution of life on the grander scale, then you are quite right, it becomes a piece of evidence in the larger scheme of things.

  6. I’m not going to launch into the whole debate, that would take more time than I have at the moment. But I just want to mention that we should be careful when we bandy around the word “proof”. This was drilled into me in a class in university where we were told NEVER to use the word prove. Maybe you can prove mathematical theorems, but in most of science you can never “prove” anything. You can disprove things, when you find evidence that blows your hypothesis out of the water, but when it comes to “proving” things, you can only ever say that current evidence, studies, etc. support your hypotheis. So all of science is pretty much the best explanation that we have for now, it’s all just theory (even relativity!)…which doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s just a lot less black and white than people on either side of the argument would have us believe.

  7. As I was telling to BirdLady on Friday night, the biologists have yet to give up on the notion of proof, and are still running around the world “proving” things…. Technically, the statistics only allow them to disprove the opposite of their hypothesis (i.e. the null hypothesis), but they really think they are proving things. I suspect physicists and chemists are no different?

  8. Basically any debate on this matter is an intellectual step backwards. Evolution is the best explanantion we have for the current state of things, and the opposing ‘theories’ are based largely on some stuff a few kooks wrote down a few thousand years ago, which have since become the fall-back for people who can’t understand or choose not to accept certain aspects of science. And this is the basis for debate? “I refuse to accept that my ancestor was a monkey!” Well then, what a terrific counter-argument! As with the same-sex marriage debate, my rebuttal is thus: NO ONE IS ASKING YOU TO LIKE IT.

    When you look around at the way the world is run today, you get the distinct impression that some of those in power and those that support them seem to think that all of history (however brief, to some) occured to lead up to this moment in time, that today is what it’s all about, and that humans are the greatest thing this Earth (which is round, and orbits the sun) has ever and will ever see, and that we can do no wrong. Newsflash…the world was different in the past and it will be different in the future. Humans are a blip in time and that applies forwards as well as backwards. Animals become extinct of there own accord, too you know. (Oh the plight of the poor Panda, who only has one food source yet can only digest 10% of what it eats…and that’s the poster animal for the WWF? But I digress…)

    One other thing, although I am an occasional ‘conspiracy buff’, I disagree with certain things being passed off as ‘conspiracy’ instead of ‘fact’. The Republicans DO want to keep the masses ignorant. How else to explain FoxNews?

  9. Actually, the refusal to accept that one’s ancestor was a monkey is one of the thing that irritates me so much about creationist objections – No one is suggesting your ancestor is a monkey! You & the monkey share a common ancestor! It’s different! They always like to forget that the monkey evolved too…

  10. Boyo, the issue many people have with what you’re saying is that they don’t like the idea that “Humans are a blip in time”. They say that human consciousness and intelligence are a wondrous thing, so there must be a plan for them.

    Personally, I think this argument is crap–I’ve heard various people say that they are comforted by the idea that everything that happens is happening according to someone’s plan. Me, I find that a horrifying thought. If there is some grand plan, then why the hell is there so much evil and suffering in the world? Who the hell plans for Dubya to win a second term?

    The only way I can find comfort in the world is if we are in fact a random occurrence–because then all the good things that happen in the world are even more wondrous. That is, if we’ve all struggled over a billion and half years to get from pond scum to humanity, then isn’t it amazing that there are any people in the world at all who rejoice in life and help others for no material gain whatsoever?

  11. That’s some pretty open-minded thinking for an engineer. :) :)
    But I totally agree. The ickiness some feel by considering hairy, heavy-browed ancestors and a world determined by randomness and chaos has somehow become an alternate and acceptable theory.

    And don’t get me started on the Rapture…

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