IN DEFENSE OF SCIENCE
(originally run: February 10, 2006)
Over the past many years there has ranged considerable discussion at the popular level as to the validity of evolution and related scientific concepts. Perhaps it is time to examine some elements of this discussion in this feature, although at best this can only be cursory.
Many objections to evolutionary ideas obtain not from any scientific evidence, but rather from literal interpretations of certain religious writings. For example, some individuals have claimed that the Earth, and the entire universe, are only a few thousand years old, despite the many billions of years indicated by the evidence. Throughout the universe, we measure numerous objects' distances as being so great that it takes light many millions, if not billions, of years to travel to us. The mere fact that we are seeing that light means that it has completed the journey and indicates that the objects in question, and thus the universe, have been around for at least that length of time. While one could perhaps argue that the light was created ³en route,² one could just as easily argue that the universe was created two minutes ago, with each of us being created with memories of an existence prior to that moment. Neither of these ideas can be disproven, but at the same time there is no evidence to support either of them, and thus neither qualifies as a valid scientific idea.
Some objections to evolution are based upon the phrase that ³it's only a theory.² But such objections misuse the concept of ³theory;² while in popular usage ³theory² might mean ³guess² or ³hunch,² in science ³theory² means a comprehensive framework that explains a multitude of observations and that has been subjected to rigorous testing and verification and, when necessary, has been discarded or modified.
For example, in a scientific sense, the idea that the Earth is round is a ³theory.² We accept this idea, not necessarily because the Earth has been demonstrably proven to be round, but because the ³round-Earth theory² explains our observations much better than does the ³flat-Earth theory.² Similarly, the ³sun-centered theory² of the solar system advanced by Copernicus explains our observations much better than does the ³Earth-centered theory² that was accepted for the many centuries prior to Copernicus. In like manner, the ³theory² of evolution has been subjected to repeated testing for well over a century, and is as well established as the ³round-Earth theory² and the ³sun-centered theory.²
Other objections to evolution are based upon misunderstandings of scientific principles. One of the most oft-repeated of these concerns the Second Law of Thermodynamics which, in a basic sense, states that the amount of ³entropy² in a system always increases. ³Entropy² is often popularly defined as ³randomness² or ³disorder,² but a more precise scientific definition is ³energy unavailable to do work.² It is a specific quantity that can be calculated and measured with the appropriate experiments.
Based upon the common misinterpretation of the Second Law, it would be impossible for a newborn human child to develop into a human adult. The mere fact that this article is being written, and is being read, shows that this statement cannot be true. Does this mean that every human being is a violation of the Second Law? Of course not.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies only to closed systems, that neither gain nor lose energy in any form. A human child that is not nourished will soon die. If we consider the human being from a thermodynamics perspective, we must consider the energy contained within the nourishment, the energy expended in the metabolic processes that break the nourishment down, the energy involved in producing the nourishment and in delivering it to the child and all this energy must be included within the system. When we do so, we see that the entropy increase involved in providing nourishment to the child far exceeds the entropy decrease involved in the child's development and thus the Second Law is not violated. Similarly, when we consider life on Earth, we also must include the energy produced within the sun which is then radiated to Earth and utilized by life; the entropy increase involved in the sun's production of energy is far greater than the entropy decrease involved in life's evolution.
Some have argued that phenomena such as life are so complex that there must have been a ³designer² or ³creator.² Anyone who wishes to believe in such an entity may certainly do so as a matter of personal prerogative, and indeed many scientists possess such beliefs. But for this to qualify as a scientific idea, a proponent must be able to provide some information as to the nature of such a ³designer² keeping in mind the numerous, mutually incompatible, ³creation² traditions that have existed throughout human history. A proponent must also provide some hard scientific evidence to back up such a claim, and propose experiments or observations that would test the claim and thus help to verify or refute it. Unless and until this is done, a ³designer² idea does not qualify as science, regardless of any individual's personal beliefs.
Of course, some of evolution's detractors may point to this-or-that phenomenon and exclaim ³this can't be explained!² at least, not yet. Exactly! This is precisely why we have science in the first place. If every phenomenon and process in our universe were to be completely and entirely understood, there would be no further need for science. But any look into the distant heavens on a clear dark night should be enough to dispel the thought that we are anywhere near that point. As the Hindu poetess Avvaiyar wrote in the 1st Century B.C.:
What we have learnt
Is like a handful of earth;
What we have yet to learn
Is like the whole world . . .
May this continue to be as true from now on as it was back then.
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