Darwin in Decline

February 2009

In a democracy, citizens should respect each other's beliefs; and citizens have a right to express their beliefs. But in a democracy, a newspaper has an obligation to what is right. The truth is that Darwin's reasoning has in the last 150 years been supported overwhelmingly by discoveries in biology, geology, medicine and space science. The details will keep scientists arguing for another 200 years, but the big picture has not changed. All life is linked by common ancestry, including human life. The shameful lesson of this 200th anniversary of his birth is that Darwin's contemporaries understood more clearly than many modern Britons.

Darwin's 200th anniversary, at The Guardian

Nato commented:

that last sentence bugs me...

Matt commented:

Okay. There are a bunch of assumptions hidden in there, and some of them are pretty questionable. For example, did Darwin's contemporaries actually understand, or were they just more prepared to defer to people who were expert in the matter?

Nato commented:

ha ha, actually, it was more that grammatically, the understanding lacks an object - what did people understand more clearly then than they do today? (you could read it different, and say that people understand 'more' clearly, but it's a little awkward)

Matt commented:

I accidentally the whole comment.

IDIEEASY commented:

I think the intransitive understand is actually more common e.g. "I understand what you are saying" vs "I understand your point of view".

anyway: evolution. I fully understand but I don't think it fits well with the label 'science': It can't be accepted as fact by most of the ways we define it e.g. reproducible etc. which i think is why its still mostly a 'theory'. Or some of those other useful definitions of science, like that it should make novel predictions. I don't see that evolution is a necessary precondition to advances in molecular biology... perhaps these discoveries would have taken place quite independently.

Nato commented:

IDIEEASY, I wish to disagree with you.

For a start, in response to your disparaging remarks about evolution still being a 'theory': "According to the United States National Academy of Sciences "Some scientific explanations are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them. The explanation becomes a scientific theory. In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science. In science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature supported by facts gathered over time."" (Cited here). So when scientists refer to evolution as a theory, they are saying it's a pretty good explanation.

Secondly, aspects of evolution are readily reproducible. Obviously not the whole process, but parts can be easily demonstrated, particularly in organisms that reproduce quickly, e.g. viruses and baceria. Lets look at HIV, which has recently evolved in order to be able to infect humans, and is continually evolving as we try to find ways to kill it.

Sure, the entirety of evolution cannot be reproduced, but this isn't a problem restricted to the biological sciences - the geological sciences and the social sciences deal with phenomena that are not readily reproducible, but there are methods to examine these while remaining well within the bounds of science.

Thirdly, Darwin's theory of evolution did make predictions. An example would be the DNA concordance rate being higher for species with closer common ancestry. (e.g. human and chimp DNA is very similar, whereas mouse DNA is less similar) This may not be 'novel' these days, but bear in mind that evolution has been around for a while, and that when Darwin wrote origin of the species, DNA hadn't even been discovered. In fact, the theory of evolution needs some sort of basis for inheritance, and DNA fits what evolution requires quite well. So aspects of DNA were predicted by Darwin (not sure if he explicitly made such claims, but such claims are implicit to his theory).

Anyway, I'm a bit tired. I hope this makes sense.

Nato commented:

heh... I shouldn't post while I'm tired... that's really long.... apologies...

IDIEEASY commented:

Yeah I was about 90% asleep when I wrote that myself! Time to break out the old Philosophy of Science books to see if I can figure out wtf I was talking about.