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You can’t believe in evolution

[This is a re-posting of an earlier post, with the comments turned on this time. Unfortunately, current events–read: “Kansas” [Oct24, 2005: good grief, and now Dover!]–keep making it relevant. It’s amazing that almost a century after the Scopes monkey trial, we STILL have to argue about this nonsense.]

Evolution is said to be one dogma among many, nothing more than part of the orthodoxy known as science. Other beliefs are just as valid, and they deserve equal time because anything less is unfair.

There is only one thing wrong with this viewpoint. Evolution is not a belief. Even though nobody is ever going to see birds evolving from dinosaurs, evolution does not rest on the same sort of faith as, say, belief in an afterlife. You might as well say you believe in stars or electrons because you, personally, have never seen great flaming balls of gas or infinitesimal blips zipping by. Switching on a lamp or a computer doesn’t feel like an act of faith. (Well, maybe just a little bit, in the case of computers.) The physical world isn’t something to believe in. It’s just there. Likewise, believing in science would be like believing in a yardstick. It’s just a way of studying that world.

Science is defined by a method, and that method explicitly involves only measurable objects and testable predictions whose results can be independently verified. That means science doesn’t work on anything that can’t be measured and verified. It does *not* mean that everything immeasurable is unimportant. Quite the contrary, since love, joy, hate, hope, beauty, and God are all beyond measurement. Science doesn’t have the tools to tell us anything about them.

What science can tell us about is the physical world, and it is so effective in its own limited range that it’s given us vast power. This has a whole slew of unscientific consequences. Humans, as a matter of observable fact, adore power, so science has acquired a mantle of god-like authority that doesn’t remotely fit. Scientists, who are human beings in their spare time, tend to like the authority and all the perks that go with it, and they’ve certainly come up with their own share of stupid orthodoxies. But that has nothing to do with science itself. Science is not, and by its nature cannot be, a belief system any more than carpentry could be.

So where does that leave evolution? It’s called the Theory of Evolution, and in order to understand what that means one has to understand how scientists use language. Truth is immeasurable, so science can’t find truth. It doesn’t try to. It talks only about the likelihood that a given result will be observed again.

All scientific conclusions are probability statements: an observation is repeated a number of times and, say, nine times out of ten the results confirm a given idea, so . . . the idea is thrown out. A ninety percent chance of being right is not good enough. The probability of being right has to be nineteen out of twenty in the biological sciences. It has to approach ninety nine out of a hundred in the physical sciences. Imagine applying those standards in your personal life.

In science, that’s just the beginning. The hypothesis, which is an expensive word for educated guess, is merely said to be confirmed once it passes that bar. These guesses are dignified with the name of “theory” when they have been confirmed so many times there is no real chance they won’t continue being confirmed. They are called “laws” when that certainty becomes crushing, but even laws are probability statements. The law of gravity is a probability statement with an extraordinarily low chance of not working.

Against that backdrop, evolution is called a theory because there are so many facts in its favor. It’s a parallel case to our understanding of stars and electrons. We have no personal experience of any of them, but scientists who have studied the facts have come up with coherent explanations that pan out. Evolution can explain practical things, such as how bacteria develop antibiotic resistance and why measles epidemics run in cycles, and it can provide mind-altering insights such as that insects and mammals have the same basic body plan, except the plan is back to front.

None of the other ideas for explaining the patterns of life rests on any facts that contradict evolution. The theory of intelligent design (and “theory” is used here in its common meaning) has not been able to show the existence of intelligence in the design, using scientific methods. Creationists can’t show that creation occurred. If the scientific method is not used, the result is not science.

People who argue against evolution can, and do, fit some of the facts into their theories, but they have to ignore all the facts that disagree, which is about as far from the scientific method as you can get. They have no measurable observations and no testable, independently verifiable predictions.

Intelligent design and creationism, by those or any other names, are not competing scientific theories. They are simply theories. They may deserve equal time, but only with their equals in the realm of ideas. Discussing intelligent design in a class on evolution is like considering theories on good government when building a rocket ship.

At the heart of the problem lies confusion about science and religion. Both may have authority and try to explain the world, but the worlds they’re trying to explain are different, the way they explain things is different, and their authority rests on different foundations. Science is not, *and cannot be*, in conflict with religion because they address fundamentally different questions. Facts can certainly contradict specific scriptures, because God’s stenographers do suffer the occasional hiccup, but that doesn’t mean science can suddenly answer cosmic questions about the reason for our existence, or that religion becomes a good way to cure AIDS.

Using religion, or anything else for that matter, to argue against facts is a hopeless endeavor. You can’t argue with facts any more than you can believe in them. And evolution is as close to a fact as biology gets. In Bill Bryson’s inimitable words, denying evolution proves conclusively that the danger for those who try it is not that they may be descended from apes but that they may be overtaken by them.

Technorati tags: evolution intelligent design creationism

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "You can’t believe in evolution"

#1 Comment By TroutGrrrl On 09 May, 2005 @ 04:34

Bravo, very well said.

#2 Comment By That Girl On 26 May, 2005 @ 07:22

Excellent – thank you so much for being a voice of reason about this issue. The problem I have with most of the other posts about this subject is that they are written by scientists who don’t believe that anything that cannot be proven scientifically even exists.

#3 Comment By quixote On 26 May, 2005 @ 13:35

Yeah, scientists drive me a bit nuts on this issue too–and I’m supposed to be one of them. Socrates said it over two thousand years ago: define your terms. You’d think scientists would know about that, but they were probably too busy taking chemistry instead of those “useless” philosophy electives.

#4 Comment By Anonymous On 02 Jan, 2006 @ 23:52

How ever things came to be “religion” is not a or necessary or appropriate part of the equation. Religions were concocted by humans and have no legitimate place in this examination. God did not invent religion but He may very well have invented and used what appears to be spontaneous generation or evolutionary processes – like the “evolution” of the automobile.

It is more than reasonable that an Intelligent Designer would use similar designs in different life forms just like human engineers use similar designs in the hundreds of different makes and models of automobiles and other motor vehicles.

I will give you evolutionists everything evolution claims if you will answer just one question – how would seeds come to be under evolution??

Same question stated differently?? Why sperm and ovum?? In as much as evolution admits no cause – only spontaneous generation – why would two genders develop independently so they can combine so that a new young life form would come to be?? How could the two genders survive through eons of time to develop independently while each at the same time came to be able to combine?? And why would one gender produce milk out of its blood with nifty valves for the infant to draw nourishment from and how would it come to be under evolution that orgasms feel so good??


Yadu Alipuria

#5 Comment By quixote On 03 Jan, 2006 @ 12:10

Re your first point, if I’ve understood it right, that’s one of the points I’m trying to make. You’re saying God may have created evolution, and that’s certainly possible. The point is that science studies evolution, not the creator. Science has no methods or tools to study the supernatural. It’s purely a way of looking at the natural world, which is why the larger questions don’t belong in science classes.

The second point is about complexity. You mention sex as an example, and it’s an interesting one. It actually took biology a couple of billion years to come up with sex. Initially, there was nothing but bacteria making exact copies of themselves (with the occasional mutation to provide a very low level of change). Sex, in contrast, takes half of a creature’s genetic information, combines it with somebody eles’s half, and the new creature is never exactly like anyone. That diversity is the biological point of sex. It means that at least some of the new creatures should be able to survive if the environment changes (which it generally does). Diversity results in so much more success, that the bacteria have been pretty much left in the mud.

(Another facet is that diversity can’t coexist with immortality, since if the same organisms survive forever, there’s not going to be much diversity. Sex makes death possible, which makes the world as we know it possible. Now there’s a philosophical knot.)

Sperm and eggs, as we know them, are not essential to sex. The only essential aspect is having cells that contain only half the genetic information, so that when two cells are combined you’re back to one full complement. Some algae, for instance, grow whole plants where all the cells are “halfed” so to speak. Some of those cells have to ability to merge and form a new “whole,” but they’re indistinguishable from each other. You wouldn’t know which one to call an “egg” and which one a “sperm.” Differentiation of function, with one carrying more nutrition and one being more mobile comes in many gradations. The evolution of egg and sperm is not actually that difficult to see in the biological record.

Just as a point of interest, egg and sperm isn’t the only way to do things. The general case is that those are two mating strains. A must go with B. A won’t merge with A or B with B. Some fungi take it much further than that. They have many mating strains, and which ones are compatible can vary all over the map. A may be able to combine with C and F, but not B, D, E, G, and so on. G may combine with everyone, including other Gs. B may combine only with E, but E combines with B and F. Imagine how complicated the dating scene could get if it wasn’t just a matter of distinguishing between boys and girls and straights and gays. What if there were, say, twelve sexes you had to worry about?

The point I’m trying to make is that the complexity of sex is even greater than perhaps you’ve realized.

The feeling good question, by the way, isn’t hard to answer either. Biological functions essential to your individual survival (eating, breathing, urinating, and so on) feel somewhat good when satisfied, but truly awful when not. Pain or its relatives provides the right level of motivation to deal with the problem and survive. Sex and nursing are not essential. You, personally, won’t die without them. (Nobody ever said Nature was nice.) But you will have more offspring and be a bigger evolutionary success if you do them when you can. Pleasure provides the level of motivation that has resulted in the most evolutionary success. If nature has a motto, it’s “whatever works.” (That doesn’t mean it’s a good one. It’s just what it is.)

The really fascinating complexity happens well before sperm and eggs. The real riddle was how DNA came to be and how cells arose. There have been a whole series of truly breathtaking experiments, starting in the early 1950s, that have gradually documented how this could come about. For starters, the simplest molecules of life self-assemble. Literally. You put carbon, nitrogen, and so on in a flask, and when you look again a few days later, the elements have combined into a variety of organic (ie carbon-bearing) compounds. Under the right conditions, and Earth four billion years ago had those conditions, simple compounds aggregate into more complicated ones. Some of those compounds are capable of forming bubbles like the membranes of a cell, and inside the bubble is a (relatively) protected environment. RNA (which can carry genetic information like DNA) came before DNA, and very simple RNA appears in petri dishes under the right conditions. Once you have some RNA lucky enough to get trapped inside the protective environment of the bubbles, you have your first cells, and the rest is history. Or evolution.

#6 Comment By SuPRn0A On 22 Sep, 2006 @ 11:33

Or God was’nt a supernatural being but an Extra-Terrestrial “coming from the sky” being who created all life on Earth scientifically, and nothing has ever evolved.

Of course that’s not science yet, but consider that we can create new life form from chemicals. We will soon, also consider that DNA is a code, and codes need coders or programmers.

In the first post it says we can’t mesure happyness, joy, sadness, etc. We will soon, we just started to understand how the brain actually works, we are able to locate which part of the brain is very active at any moment of a though, of course every part are active but some are more active than others. Soon we will be able to locate emotions, not in one point but on a neurones path into the brain of anyone.

We will also learn very soon that criminality has the same effects on the brain that any drug or alcohol, which means that criminality will be consider an illness, which we will be able to cure.

There is so much that science will discover soon, in 2050 everyone will know that evolution was just as stupid as the idea of God.

infinite = 1