Science, Just Science

Is Evolution Science?

Introduction

Creationists and Intelligent Designists (IDC’s) continue, as ever, to try to disprove theories that dispute their view that the Earth & universe were divinely created. One technique they like to use is to attempt to level the playing field between science and their religion when they claim that both evolution and creationism (or Intelligent Design, ID) are religions. In doing so they seem more than a little confused as to how they would prefer their own personal worldview to be regarded … one moment they claim it is science in order to rank it on a level equal to that of evolution and the next they are denying it is a science and that major scientific theories are religion! Evolutionists, on the other hand, consistently regard Creation/ID as religion and evolution as science.

Discussion

The Scientific Method
Science is a methodology and any explanations it offers must not only be derived from properly derived (empirically testable) data but must fit with other currently accepted explanations of the universe around us. “Science” which begins with an unshakeable assumption, is not true science. True science is about having no assumptions until they have been accepted through the application of evidence and have demonstrated resilience to genuine falsifiability experiments. This does not apply to creationism or ID but wholly applies to evolution.

A scientific theory is not a guess or an approximation but an extensive explanation developed from well-documented and reproducible sets of data derived from experiments that repeatedly observe natural processes. From such data models are developed and it is important to note that these models (and their subsequent outcomes) are not decided in advance but can be modified and improved as new empirical evidence is uncovered. Science is constantly subject to peer-review and is a self-correcting attempt to understand nature and the observable universe. Science is not teleological that is to say theories do not start with a conclusion, refuse to change and acknowledge only data that the initial conclusion supports. Further, science does not base theories on untestable collections of dogmatic proposals but is characterised by questions, hypothetical proposals, design of empirical models and conceptual frameworks with the aim of researching natural events.

Whilst it may not always be possible to demonstrate how something happened in much of science it is often possible to demonstrate how something could have happened. Having demonstrated how something could happen that hypothesis can be used to predict other events and thus confirm or deny their own validity.

The scientific method relies upon two phases, those of observation and hypothesis or theory. Hypotheses and theories are slightly different but in principle both hypotheses and theories must be verifiable or repeatable, falsifiable and must only use theories that have yet to be found flawed as accepted “facts”. All hypotheses (and indeed theories) are under constant “attack” and may be removed from understood science in one of two ways … an observation may be made which does not fit the hypothesis forcing modification or a new experiment may be devised that proves the hypothesis to be false.

One of the principal tools used in science are those involving radiometric techniques. Wherever possible several different methods are used and they almost always agree to within very small variations and evidence derived from them is considered to be very safe.

Despite IDC claims to the contrary, radio-isotopic dating methods are accurate to within acceptable limits. The most common claim (aside from references to experiments where a given dating method was demonstrated as fallible) is that a given method’s assumptions may have been violated. Typically these revolve around the constancy of decay rates and claims that contamination may have occurred. If carbon dating were so inaccurate (as IDC’s claim) why would it agree so closely with all the other forms of dating available? C14 dating is accurate in the 1000 to 50000 year band with great reliability, outside that it is less useful.

So, how do we go about deciding a given theory or hypothesis is part of science?
“Science is characterised by the willingness of an investigator to follow evidence wherever it leads. It rests on testable observations and natural processes continuously moving ahead with new evidence and new viewpoints. It is, of necessity, self-correcting. On the other hand, the ‘proofs’ of the creationists consist not of testable observations, or analysis of the basic processes of Creation/ID, but of attacks on scientists and their methods.” (Newell, 1982) Any reasonably objective observer will realise that the ID movement follow the exact same pattern as their creationist forbears.

The distinguishing factor of science is its appeal to and reliance upon the natural observable universe, natural law if you like. Natural law is blind, blind and regular and every other part of science follows on from that notion: explanation, prediction, testing, confirmation, falsifiability and tentativeness. (Ruse, 1984)
Another view of the essential characteristics of science was derived from the US legal trial, McLean? v. Arkansas Board of Education, 1996 and it is worth noting that both sides (creationist and science) agreed the definitions.

  • It is guided by natural law;
  • it has to be explanatory by reference to nature law;
  • it is testable against the empirical world;
  • its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
  • it is falsifiable.

From these we can see that there are recurring themes to pursue; some essential characteristics of science that we could look for in either Creation/ID or evolution; some criteria we could use to determine if they are “equally valid scientific theories” as the IDC’s claim. This article, however, is not a critique of creationism but a defence of evolution.

In order to continue it is necessary to discuss each of these characteristics … unfortunately it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss these in depth so we will be brief.

Natural Law
Natural law is central to science. Natural laws are broad generalisations, essentially descriptions, of the way nature has been repeatedly observed to operate. If a phenomenon depends on supernatural intervention, then it is not relying on natural laws, and it is not explanatory by reference to natural law. (Overton, 1982)

The theory of evolution requires the existence and regularity of at least some laws of nature, such as the laws of chemical combination. And, to explain how the necessary atoms were available to form the biological molecules necessary for the evolution of life requires reliance on other laws of nature from the physical sciences. (Chaisson, 1981). The theory of evolution attempts to explain how successive forms of life evolved by specifying the natural laws, such as principles of biochemistry, genetics, and cellular biology, that were and are involved in this process. Therefore, evolution does appeal to and rely on natural law. There is no need for supernatural forces and miracles to explain the development of life from primitive forms to more advanced forms using the theory of evolution.

Falsifiability
Another essential characteristic of science is the requirement that a scientific theory be falsifiable, that it be testable and like most scientific theories evolution has some trouble with this criterion. Obviously there is no way that we can look back upon the very first instance of life or upon the way in which amoeboid creatures evolved into multi-cellular creatures or how the first fish developed limbs to move about the ocean floor and later used those limbs for their first tentative steps onto dry land. We cannot turn history back so we can view it directly but in that evolution is no different from many other forms of science … in fact no one can literally look directly back to any time prior to their own lifetimes so what are we to do? Would the IDC’s have us assume that everything before our own time is untrue?

Obviously we must step outside our own personal, limiting confines but we must do so with caution and, yet again, we must be careful not to take our criteria too literally or too narrowly or we will end up counting out just about all of our science (Ruse, 1982). Ruse goes further to suggest that a theory must be judged as a whole and should not be dismissed out of hand merely because some aspects are not testable.

“One must look at the total picture and see if the theory is protected, in fact or in principle, from any empirical phenomenon that might impinge and refute it. If this is so, then obviously the theory must go – it is not real science.” (Ruse, 1982)

So, as with all sciences with historical aspect, we look for indirect and comparative evidence … evidence that gives us answers to the questions we are asking and comparative evidence that will prove possibilities and potential mechanisms rather than the actual fact. Moreover, once found and theories established we go on to make predictions and in the majority of these cases such predictions have proven to be correct or, if not, have done so for entirely explainable reasons.

The evidence supporting man’s common ancestry with apes is overwhelming, not only are there thousands upon thousands of fossil remains (including many transitionals) but there is genetic evidence in the similarity of human, chimpanzee and other animals DNA.

“Neither the central mechanism nor the Darwinian theory taken as a whole stand outside of the bounds of genuine empirical science. To go on arguing otherwise is to put ideology and ignorance above reason and experience.” (Ruse, 1982)

If the mechanisms employed by IDC’s (naive falsification) to tear down evolution were valid in the manner in which they are being employed then it would be possible to tear down the whole of science by the application of the very same methods. The naive falsificationist criterion is “hopelessly flawed” and is a very poor test of genuine science (Kitcher, 1982).

Verifiability
Once a hypothesis has been tested through experiment and/or prediction it must be possible for other experimenters to repeat those self-same experiments. That verification may employ the same experimental techniques or different ones but it must be possible.

Observable consequences of the theory of evolution, on the other hand, have been verified (Morden, 1996). The transitional fossil Archaeopteryx is an example of such verification in as much as it has, as a find, been independently verified as authentic by a number of investigators from different fields and that other specimens of the same animal have been found elsewhere. Similarly fossils of common human ancestors have been found on many occasions by investigators the world over. Biochemical evidence verifies this and it is possible to trace entire, confirmatory, evolutions within proteins themselves.

Tentativeness
Scientists often say there are no facts, that is to say that nothing is “set in stone” in science, although being human, scientists are often reluctant to give up long-standing theories. From this (and verification) it can be seen that science is self-correcting. If a given hypothesis or theory does not fit the available evidence it is modified or it is discarded to be replaced with one that better fits the observations … it really is that simple.

Evolution, like any other long-standing, useful, productive, scientific theory, would be hard to discard and IDC’s often attempt to cite this as a means of portraying evolution as inflexible and dogmatic. However, though the overall theory is set and generally accepted, the underlying mechanisms are not and there remain many debates over whether, for instance, evolution proceeds by punctuated methods or by gradual and this demonstrates the self-correcting nature of science. IDC’s also cite examples such maggots from meat, Piltdown Man, Nebraska Man etc. when, if the observer were truly objective, these stand as examples of science self-correcting as it really should and constantly does.

Conclusion

There is no difference between science and evolution in terms of the methodology used … science and evolution are inextricably linked!

IDC’s often try to claim that there are two scientific variants, science and naturalism when, in fact, science is the study of the natural universe turning to that same universe for the explanation. Science and naturalism are one and the same.

To get to the key point, the claim that any science that opposes the inspired word of a given deity is not something science can comment upon … science is currently unable to test the kind of claims made in religious scripture.

This worldview leaves IDC’s with a problem and is likely the root cause of their constant struggle to tear down any aspect of science that does not agree with their beliefs and most of all, that affront to all literal IDC beliefs, evolution. IDC’s are concerned that if there is no need for a god to explain their existence and the existence of the universe in all its magnificence around us then others will no longer have to believe in their god and they fear that this might lead to a loss of control or decay in moral standards. In fact the Institute of Creation Research, a leading creationist organisation, has stated:

“If man is an evolved animal, then the morals of the barnyard and jungle are more natural …than the artificially imposed restrictions of premarital chastity and marital fidelity. Instead of monogamy, why not promiscuity and polygamy? Self-preservation is the first law of nature; only the fittest will survive. Be the cock-of-the-walk and the king-of-the-mountain. Eat, drink, and be merry, for life is short and that’s the end. So says evolution.” (Nelkin, 1977)

It is possible that is true but the available sociological & cultural evidence indicates that atheists and those of other religions are no more or less moral than the average IDC (indeed I would argue that the moderate theist and atheist are often more moral since they don’t seek to lie, twist the evidence, or generally hoodwink a gullible public into believing their rubbish) so it would seem that either god works in ways more mysterious than anyone has yet contemplated or morality is an inherent property of the human animal.

It appears that the real reason IDC’s oppose evolution and other accepted theories of science, and indeed attempt to claim they are not science, is not because they are not science, not because they don’t fit the facts but because they do not suit their personal worldviews. This isn’t likely to stop them and IDC’s abuse of evolutionist’s attempts to refine the theory of evolution (for instance when Gould et al proposed the concept of punctuated equilibrium) hampers the self-correcting nature of science. The result is that some evolutionists try to limit evolutions own attempt to correct itself for fear of giving these twisted and ignorant individuals more ammunition to throw back at them leading to a tendency to reject new theories regardless of whether they have potential or no.

IDC’s also point at the holes in evolutionary theory as if they are some gaping flaw in the concept whilst evolutionists, always treating the theory in the way any scientist would, realise that not knowing all the details only means there is yet more to be explored, more detail to be worked out. Typically evolutionists, unlike IDC’s, demonstrate a tentative attitude so critical to self-correction … evolutionists are willing to modify the theory to suit the facts!

For such reasons scientists must not only be on their guard but must be bold and treat fearlessly on the opinions of those who would oppose them … let the peer-review process decide what explanations are/are not science and not ignorant fundamentalists and their power hungry leaders.

In summary, when comparing the essential characteristics of science with the manner in which both scientific and evolutionary research is carried out, it is difficult to see exactly where it is IDC’s claim that evolutionists are going wrong. In all respects evolutionary research conforms to the essential characteristics of science, those of reliance on natural law, falsifiability, verifiability, and tentativeness and that unless the critic of such research is truly blind, ignorant and/or bigoted there is no case to answer.

Evolution is a true representative of science.

References

  • “Information For All Biologists” Dr. Morden
  • Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism”, Kitcher (1982)
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