Theory of Evolution

What can take down the theory of evolution?

[ 27/May/21 ]

What do you mean by the “Theory of Evolution”?

If you mean the process of evolution, the very complex sets of possible causes of variation, and the ability of different sets of selection pressures in different isolated populations selecting from those variations, to produce very different populations over generations, then that is a settled fact. No dispute. It happens. We can model it. It is no more in doubt than cell phones and computers are (most people don’t understand how they work either, but some do).

The theory part is the conjecture that we human beings are related to most other life on this planet via a very complex and sometimes random process generally characterised as “the modern synthesis of evolution”, and that we all emerged from simple single celled life some few billions of years ago.

The evidence for that conjecture, for any willing and able to examine reasonable examples of the vast evidence sets available, is established beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.

And the evidence sets are vast. Far greater than any single individual could ever examine in detail. And I spent quite a few years before, during and after my university studies of evolutionary biology examining some of those evidence sets. It is hard work, takes a lot of time, and involves a lot of complex mathematics.

The process is not simple.

There is very little about life that is simple, apart from the tendency of human brains to over-simplify that which is truly complex (and even that is not at all simple when you look deeply at what actually makes it happen, the levels of structure and biases within the many sets of neural networks within our brains).

I would venture to state that to a reasonable first order approximation, the only people with any significant doubt about the theory of evolution are those who know almost nothing about it. Way over 98% of people who look at the evidence with an open mind come away convinced.

Science does not deal in the classical notion of Truth.

Science always has uncertainties in it.

Science is a way of becoming more confident in some things, less confident in others, and is always open to new evidence that is sufficiently robust (all measurements have uncertainties – one of the arts of science is learning how to minimize them).

At its best science is an eternal process of becoming less wrong over time.

Reality does in fact seem to be sufficiently complex and contains sufficient classes of fundamental uncertainty and fundamental unknowability that the process could continue for ever.

And some things are close enough to be useful, always.

If you are building a house from lumber then the Earth is close enough to flat that the difference isn’t detectable by the tools most carpenters use. When I’m building I never worry about the earth being round, I treat it as flat, and that works, at that scale.

If I am out sailing (or flying) to some distant place, then I need to know that the earth is a globe, if I want to get to where I want to go.

If I am building a GPS system, then I need to use the equations of relativistic space time to coordinate the clocks on the satellites to allow accurate calculation of position.

What approximations we find useful and appropriate depend on context.

Is the earth flat when I am building?

No, but as a rule of thumb – it works.

Was life created by an ineffable God?

Seems highly unlikely, and as a rule of thumb for people not interested in the depths of complexity of biology – it’s probably as good an approximation as most. It tends to deliver a bit of respect for the diversity of life present, as a gift, which is a much needed thing.

If you are looking for a job in biotechnology, or any large scale planning for the future of humanity, it probably is not sufficient. Greater depth of understanding of the complexity present, and the necessary limits required to sustain life, are required.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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