Pro-Evolution IV: The Nature of Science

EVOLUTION IV: THE NATURE OF SCIENCE

Science is not a simple discovery of truth.  It is a human process, a cultural process.  There have been scientific “truths” that generations of scientists have ardently believed.  Ideas such as phlogiston (although this can cut both ways; see the anti-evolution spin on phlogiston in this post) have convinced scientists and elbowed other ideas out of the realm of science.  This notion that science is somehow a social construction as much as a deduction of objective truth has led some evolution opponents to hope that evolution might be only a fashion among scientists rather than a basic truth about life on earth.  But even this understanding of the nature of science points out the fundamental truth of evolution.

Real science means continual skepticism.  The most ardent searchers for holes in the theory of evolution are not creationists; they are evolutionary scientists.  Any scientist who could come up with a big new theory that displaced evolution would be made an instant celebrity.  His or her career would be made forever.  It leads again to the question of the most likely: Which is more likely, a conspiracy of thousands of scientists over generations to keep a false theory as established science in order to undermine Christian faith (one of the implicit arguments of many creationists) or thousands of ambitious, aggressive scientists who have hammered evolution theory with every test imaginable, looking for a hole that would make their careers?

Take just one example to illustrate.  Stephen Jay Gould was one of the leading evolutionary scientists of the late twentieth century.  His writings attracted large appreciative audiences among both scientists and lay readers.  Yet he was also one of the fiercest critics of mainstream thinking about the nature of evolution.  Along with fellow evolutionist Niles Eldredge, when Gould found a weakness in standard scientific thinking about evolution, he pounced.  In 1972, Eldredge and Gould published a paper critical of the notion that species gradually evolved.  Rather, the fossil record seemed to argue for long periods of equilibrium punctuated by periods of rapid species change.  Rapid, of course, must be understood relatively.  Gould and
Eldredge did not argue—in spite of claims by later anti-evolutionists—that such change happened in sudden catastrophes.
They did not argue that there were no transitional fossil forms.  Rather, they argued that the pace of evolution must be understood to vary substantially over time.  The periods of change, Gould suggested, likely came in windows of between 50,000 and 100,000 years.  Nevertheless, their notion of punctuated equilibriums was a major criticism of contemporary thinking about the nature of evolution.  And it was suggested not by anti-evolutionists, but by evolutionary scientists themselves.  Far from conducting a campaign to enforce an evolutionary orthodoxy, scientists such as Gould and Eldredge continually probe the weaknesses of evolution.

The nature of science also tells us something about the origins of modern evolutionary thinking.  The idea of evolution is bigger than Charles Darwin.  Darwin gets the credit for introducing the modern notion of evolution with his 1859 book Origin of Species.  And he deserves a lot of credit.  His book spelled out a notion of changing species that could actually work.  But Darwin was not by any means the first to suggest that species had evolved from one another.  That idea was as ancient as Western culture itself.  Nor could Darwin claim all the credit for the notion of natural selection as the mechanism by which species changed.  Darwin finally published his book in 1859 after decades of working on it.
He was pushed to finally get it out into the public sphere by similar work by a man named Alfred Russel Wallace.  The fact that the two scientists came up with the notion of natural selection independently shows that the idea did not come from the unique genius of just one man.  Rather, it was an idea whose time had come.  Darwin’s patience in waiting for twenty years to publish his book and his elegant prose went a long way toward making his ideas credible.
But even without Darwin’s clout among the scientific community and his impressive style, the truth of natural selection would have made an impression on both scientists and regular readers.

Science is a competitive process.  It does not fit well with ideas of conspiracies.  It does not even fit well with ideas of ideology.  Scientists hope to establish themselves by proving something new.  If they smell a problem with the theory of
evolution, they will rush in to poke holes in it.

EVOLUTION IV: FURTHER READING

The TalkOrigins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy; http://www.talkorigins.org/; Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Anniversary Edition (New York: Signet, 2003); Stephen Jay Gould & Niles Eldredge, “Punctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered,” Paleobiology 3:2 (1977): 115-151; Niles Eldredge, Time Frames: The Evolution of Punctuated Equilibria (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985);  Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002).