Evolutionism

I was reading an article in a (several months old) magazine yesterday which compared Evolution to Creationism. After reading the article I went back and re-read it -- no where in the text did it refer to the Theory of Evolution. Creationism was rightly presented as an "ism," that is, as an ideology, but Evolution was presented as a fact.

When we stop treating Evolution as a theory, we stop being scientists.

While we scientists must staunchly defend scientific theory from religious ideology, we also must not err on the other extreme of defending scientific theories ideologically. It is an absolute failure of science when scientists start believing their theories are infallible, that they are fact. But Evolution seems to have achieved that dubious state. It is no longer the Theory of Evolution; it has become Evolutionism, and there are people who will fight against anyone and anything that contradicts Evolution. They are afraid to call Evolution a theory because they fear it will encourage people to try to find data that contradicts it. And after all, one key role of science is gathering observational data to either support or contradict existing theories.

This is, of course, not the first time in history that a scientific theory has evolved into an ideology. In circa 100 AD, Ptolemy came up with a theory that the Earth was the center of the universe: the "Geocentric Model." Initially a theory, it too entered the realm of ideology. The strict adherence to a once-scientific theory turned the Geocentric Model into Geocentricism, and new scientific theories that contradicted Geocentricism were considered heresy. More than fourteen-hundred years later, Copernicus and Galileo faced stern opposition to the Theory of a Heliocentric Solar System. Despite a new theory which better explained the universe, ideologues refused to waiver.

In a more recent example, Newton's theory of gravity grew into Newton's Law of Gravity. While no one denies that they feel the effects of gravity, Einstein's Theory of Relativity contradicted Newton, and was met with staunch opposition. (While Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics, it was for his work on photoelectric and not for the Theory of Relativity.). The Theory of Relativity proved that Newton's "Law" was not a law at all; it was simply a theory which could no longer hold up to scientific scrutiny. This did not mean objects suddenly started falling up; it simply meant that Newton's Theory was wrong, incomplete.

In science, there are no laws: there are observational data, and theories. Theories explain what we have observed in the past and predict what we will observe in the future. No theory is infallible. If we treat a theory as an ideology, we close the door on other scientific theories that might better explain the world around us.

Comments:

Actually Einstein got his Nobel prize for the photoelectric effect. The Brownian motion paper was one of 3 that he produced in 1905 the others being special relativity and photoelectric effect. Saying that Ptolemy had a "scientific" theory in 100 CE is kind of dubious when by most reckoning Bacon was the first "scientist" in 1200 CE. Finally, saying "They are afraid to call Evolution a theory because they fear it will encourage people to try to find data that contradicts it" is, at best, your opinion of their motives and a dubious opinion at that.

Posted by fatcatair on February 07, 2007 at 04:07 AM EST #

To fatcatair,

Thanks for the correction on Einstein's Nobel price (that's what I get for working from memory). I've fixed the blog entry.

On Bacon, while he is the father of the modern scientific method, to claim that no science existed before Bacon is a bit arbitrary. Perhaps scientists like Aristotle relied too heavily on thought to extrapolate simple observations into theoretical "law;" however, they were still scientists. I'm sure 10,000 years from now, scientists will look back at the work of the 20th and 21st centuries with disdain.

Finally, yes, the opinions expressed in this blog are my own. If you have your own opinions, please feel free to post them on your blog -- I'd love to read them. Sharing ideas and opinions is what this is all about.

Posted by guest on February 07, 2007 at 04:29 AM EST #

In that regard, the only "facts" are observations; any generalization beyond specific observations are "theories". A better way to put it is that the theory of evolution fits the observed facts very well in a reasonably compact manner (i. e. it doesn't simply tack on special cases for each and every new observation). While evolution may be a theory, there is a very wide range of observations (i. e. facts) that corroborate it, and a distinct lack of evidence against it (which isn't to say that there aren't plenty of subtheories, such as punctuated equilibrium, for which the evidence is much less clear).

The difficulty lies in the distinction between the scientific usage of the term "theory" and the popular usage. The popular usage of "theory" implies that it is in serious doubt, or at least hasn't yet been put to the test. So it's very easy to say "creation is a theory, but evolution is only a theory", and then get it misinterpreted to mean that the two are on an equal footing. I don't think that people are afraid to call evolution a "theory" because they fear it will encourage people to try to find data that contradicts it (biologists don't seem to have much trouble finding data) so much as they fear that the term will be misinterpreted and abused for socio-political ends. In any event, there are specific cases of observed evolution (e. g. emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria) that are as close to "evolutionary fact" as you're going to get.

I would argue that Newton's theory of gravity was completely correct to within the capability of his measurement system (the optics and timekeeping apparatus of his day) -- even if he had had a reason to do so, he wouldn't have been able to measure the precession of Mercury's orbit with enough accuracy to refute the simple inverse-square formulation. Relativity doesn't so much refute it as refine it -- there are additional higher-order terms that come into play that have only very minor (immeasurable without special equipment) effects at the velocities and gravitational fields available to Newton. Even today, for most purposes the Newtonian theory of gravitation provides more than enough accuracy.

I think a better illustration of your point might be Alfred Wegener's theory of plate tectonics, which took 50 years to conquer its opposition despite significant evidence in support of it (similar fossils and other geological features matching up at many points across the Atlantic) that didn't have any other good explanation.

Posted by Robert Krawitz on February 11, 2007 at 10:34 AM EST #

Your commentary about evolution misses the point, and shows that you have fallen for the creationist propaganda. There are actually two prongs to evolution. One is the observation that the Earth is very old and that the plant and animal life on the Earth has changed over a long period of time. That is the fact of evolution, and something that creationists cannot reasonably dispute so they, instead, turn to attacking evolutionary theory, spefically Darwin.

Theories of evolution (and I use the plural form deliberately) are attempts to explain HOW the observed changes occurred. Darwin's "theory of evolution" was that evolution occurred through the process of natural selection. However, he was not the first scientist to propose a theory of evolution. That might have been Lamarck who proposed a theory that evolution occurred through the passing of acquired characteristics to the next generation.

There have been and will be further theories of evolution proposed to explain the how the observed fact that the animal and plant life on Earth changed over a long period of time. However, disputes over the process will not change the observation. That is a distinction that creationists consistently ignore.

Posted by Inquisitor on August 29, 2007 at 09:37 AM EDT #

Thanks for proving my point: anyone who questions evolution is branded a creationist.

Posted by Bob Hueston on September 01, 2007 at 12:25 PM EDT #

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