Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Greatest scientific discovery of all times (but naming no names!)

We said yesterday both that Creationist literal claims are clearly bunk and that many advocates for teaching evolution in the schools are not all that sophisticated about evolution. In the latter case, and certainly naming no names!, they may have a over-simplified idea of the role and strength of natural selection in evolution, or may not appreciate the subtle relationships between drift and selection, or have little idea about the sophisticated kinds of evidence coming out of molecular biology labs that so beautifully confirms evolution, and so on.

The blunt fact is that some of what we say in evolutionary biology, especially when dumbed-down for public or textbook consumption is also bunk. The proliferation of Just-So stories in evolutionary biology, even at the highest level, is extensive and well-known. So we're told confidently such things as that our body parts evolved 'for' such-and-such a purpose, and our physiological responses were selected 'for' a reason, and we have genes 'for' all of it.

In fact, anything that's here today can be given such explanations with little in the way of constraint much less testability. Nice, tight stories sell big!

Humility should have a deeper role in science and among us members of the Science-tribe. It seems unassailably true that life today is the result of a history. Darwinian selection also seems undeniably important, though there are other equally important evolutionary forces. And, humans really did come from terrestrial ancestors. We might hope to discover something that refutes such ideas, because it would be so energizing and exciting for science and the public alike! Alas, nothing suggests it will happen.

Still, who knows how much we don't know about life? What factors or forces might be as yet undiscovered but have an effect on biological change? What kind of real 'dark matter', that today is to us what, say, electrons or infra-red radiation were to Aristotle--or real dark matter to astronomists?

When we discuss the evidence for 'evolution', we should be humble enough to acknowledge that that word isn't so clear as it may seem. There are gaps in what we know, gaps in the fossil record, gaps in our theory (e.g., of how to predict phenotypes from complex genotypes, which we assume are causally connected, or how species evolve, or how to know when selection is acting, rather than drift).

We can't let Creationists cower us into asserting more than we know, or simply adopting a party line, as that would be a kind of victory of non-knowledge over knowledge. What sends us to work every day is the pursuit of what we don't yet know. There is likely to be a lot of that out there. It is hard to imagine something that would be so profound as to change our basic view of life as the product of historical evolution, much less anything that could convert us to a theologically literalist view. But we might discover things as new and exciting as the awareness that Darwin and Wallace brought to us about the nature of life. We should remain open to that possibility.

In fact, many scientists are atheists, some (naming no names!) so aggressively so that it is their way of hyping themselves and rolling in the book-sales and TV appearances. Of course, proving a negative is difficult, but science is not likely to prove, using its current set of principles, that God does not exist (even if He was just kidding about a 7-day creation). Many scientists are proud of their atheism, but let's not be hypocrites. And here is a warning to Creationists, who like to trash scientists for their views:

It is hard to imagine a scientist who would not crave being the one who discovered and could truly prove that the source of our hopes and dreams (naming no names!) really does exist. As the scientific discoverer of God, such a scientist would become the most distinguished human being in the history of our species. Darwin would be a puny dustman by comparison. The reason scientists don't take much to religious arguments is not that they'd not like to show them to be true, but simply, and perhaps sadly, because the evidence doesn't suggest that such a thing is even worth pursuing in science.

--Ken & Anne


Jason said...

Fantastic column! Thanks for this.

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks! If we can stimulate people to think, that's our objective!

John said...

Again the canard: negatives are hard to prove. No, not in any sense most of us would accept, and certainly not more difficult to do so than positive assertions. Yes, ill-defined negatives are hard to prove, but so are their positive alternatives; indeed, there is no (deductive) logical difference, despite the wide-spread assertion to the contrary. Most of the ``hard to prove'' claims arise not from deductive logical proof (the seeming home of such claims), but from inductive proof. Professor Tony Pasquarello published a brilliant article on just this claim in the early 1980s in The Skeptical Inquirer. I urge all to check it out.

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks for this comment. I don't know Pasquarello but will try to get it. Falsifiability is widely, and I think uncritically, stated as the main criterion for scientific 'proof'. But induction and basically all of the other non-deductive criteria have similar problems, and even deduction rests on its axioms and hence can't be shown to describe the real world in-itself, to use a Kant-like term.

But I think I agree with all that you say. Our statement about hard-to-prove negatives was an informal rather than formal one. If it's hard to imagine a rigorous proof that 'God' does exist, the vigorously atheistic arguments we referred to, that offer all sorts of evolutionary 'explanations' for religion, are widely stated as if they prove the literal falseness of religion.

A creationist or other religious person can argue validly that science can never prove that God does not exist, even if science can show that some related claims (like ESP, sceances, and the efficacy of prayer) have no discernible effect with the kinds of studies that have been done. Defenders of the faith can always say, for example, that they communicate directly with God and we cannot prove that to be false.

Anyhow, in saying what we did were largely being rhetorical, to recognize that we in science are unlikely to satisfy a believer with our counter-evidence unless that evidence becomes subjectively persuasive.