Last year on Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday The New York Times carried an article of mine (http://nyti.ms/2vMcjP) for which I took some heat from Darwinian fundamentalists because they thought I was “dissing” Darwin (everyone who thought so has no sense of irony and basically can’t read, but that’s why they’re fundamentalists. Anyway—.) In honor of Charles Darwin’s birthday on February 12 (he was born in 1809), here’s another thought on the great man.
This was deleted from the above essay for space reasons, but it’s included in my upcoming book, The View From Lazy Point:
Evolution: Only a Theory
That we’re all related by common ancestry is the most fundamental discovery about living things. Religion long ago intuited this; in the Abrahamic religions, God creates all creatures, so in one sense we have always considered ourselves siblings within a family of life. Evolutionary biology and genetics are the scientific mineshafts that get deep into the motherlode discovery: living things change.
The biggest misconception about evolution is that it’s “only” a theory. To most people, a theory is an untested hunch. But in science, a hunch is called a hypothesis. If a hypothesis is tested and confirmed repeatedly, and if all the confirmation creates a pool of knowledge useful for predicting events, the knowledge is called “theory.” That’s very different than a hunch. Imagine a child sitting at a piano for the first time. They notice that some keys sound dissonant together, and others harmonize. Eventually, the child may know how notes will sound before hearing them played; that’s music theory. It’s not “just” a theory. It’s an understanding of music so thorough that one could—as Beethoven did—compose a symphony despite being completely deaf. Listen to Beethoven’s Ninth and you’ll feel the power of theory. This predictive sense of theory is the same way scientists use the word. Atomic theory predicted that a series of procedures would cause a big explosion. Germ theory predicts that if surgeons wash their hands, fewer people will die of infections. Evolutionary theory has the same proven power. It’s not a guess. When insects and bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics and pesticides, that’s evolution. We’re not surprised when they develop such resistance, because of evolutionary theory. For all of civilization, plant and animal breeders who created new strains by selectively breeding individuals with desired traits were, without naming it, using evolutionary theory.
Evolution is as scientifically accepted as gravity. And while we don’t quite understand how gravity works, we know a lot about how evolution works—much more than Charles Darwin, even with all his genius, could have dreamed.
Evolution is not just the making of new species—the question that obsessed Darwin. And it’s not the progress from Protista to say, Protestant. Very primitive things are also evolving now (like the AIDS virus). And plenty of evolution brings neither new species nor progress. Sometimes the progress goes backwards; the ancestors of whales and snakes had legs, and on islands lacking predators, bird species sometimes lose the ability to fly.
Evolutionary theory predicts that the more diversified the living enterprise, the more it will adapt to change. The more diminished, the more trouble it will have adapting. And changes are coming, faster than before, that will challenge us all to adapt. We can predict some important things about how life on Earth is likely to change, and plan to cope, because evolution is a theory.