An absolute must read. Eloquently written piece addressing the very foundations of evolution and the widespread concept that challenging the theory takes you out of mainstream science
By Mohamed Ghilan
If you are a scientist, or someone who considers himself rational, and would like to become an outcast, all you need to do is question evolutionary theory. Not only will you be shunned for rejecting such a permeating theory that has become accepted as a fact of science, you will also be viewed as one of those irrational religious crazies that believe the Earth is 6000 years old, or if not, you will still be viewed as one of those pseudoscientists that want to bring up Intelligent Design as an explanation for why life is as we know it.
It is a strange matter indeed. Having problems with the Theory of Evolution from a rational, philosophical, and scientific basis does not seem to sit well with many people. Rejecting this theory is even more problematic when those who were indoctrinated to accept it have been told that it is precisely this understanding that has given rise to advances in modern medicine and biology research.
I will admit it. Evolutionary theory is very attractive. On the surface, it seems to be capable of explaining so much. All the observations and collected fossils indicate, as we are told by the holy men in white lab coats, that all life started with a single ancestor, from which all forms of life evolved over a timescale that in spite of our knowledge of it, we find difficult to imagine. Moreover, multiple genetic mechanisms are proposed that show how new species can arise quickly through various mutations and gene duplications. The way one is presented with this theory during their education, unchallenged, makes it almost impossible to question its validity.
I believe that everyone needs a crash course in the philosophy of science and basic logic. In addition, another crash course in the history of science is also in order. Only through an understanding of these subjects can it be possible to realize why evolutionary theory is more a philosophy than it is science. I have already addressed 3 issues that I have in “Some Problems with Evolution”. But I have apparently ruffled some feathers. On the one hand are secular materialists who insist that evolutionary theory is the foundation of our modern biological sciences and it explains with an uncanny veracity much of how life seems to function. On the other hand are religious individuals who are taken aback so much with evolutionary theory that they seek to reconcile their faith with Evolution in any way possible. The perplexing issue that troubles religious ones about Evolution is its very logical conclusion that man is actually no more special than his pet dog, in that he also evolved from a common ancestor and through sheer coincidence happened to gain a higher level of intelligence that allowed him to get to where he is now. What evolutionary theory has done was take man from viewing himself as the center of Creation, and made him as just a freak accident in the cosmos. This is why people like Richard Dawkins point out that the Theory of Evolution is evidence against the existence of God.
Contrary to popular discourse, my contentions with evolutionary theory are not stemming from my religious belief per se. This may be a problem for some to get a grasp on, which I think is a result of not establishing how we each might approach not only evolutionary theory, but science in general. There are two opposing schools of thought in the philosophy of science: realism and instrumentalism. In short, realism maintains that the aim of science is to provide a true description of the world in its totality. The realists will say that the facts are all out there waiting for us to discover them. Instrumentalism on the other hand takes a nuanced approach. An instrumentalist will tell you that the aim of science is to describe a certainpart of the world – the “observable” part. As far as the “unobservable” part, it really makes no difference what science has to say to the instrumentalist. In other words, if we were to put the two up against each other in a skepticism contest, the instrumentalist will always come out as the winner.
If you were to look at a basic philosophy of science textbook, the way the distinction between realism and instrumentalism is typically presented has to do with capacity for direct observation. To give an example, when it comes to palaeontology, realists and instrumentalists will agree with each other because their approaches about describing the world will coincide. After all, fossils are part of the world that the realist is trying to describe, and they are readily observable for the instrumentalist to accept as a true description. Where they will disagree is when it comes to something like String Theory. Neither the realist nor the instrumentalist can see these strings of energy. But the realist will point to how all the math works out and if the experiments from the Large Hadron Collider confirm predictions, String Theory will be the accepted description of the world. The instrumentalist on the other hand will object by pointing to the not so small number of theories that gave empirically-successful predictions, but were later discarded for being completely false, and in some cases describing things that do not even exist. The phlogiston theory of combustion is just one example.
Other objections the instrumentalist will bring up against realism have to do with the underdetermination argument, theory-laden data, as well as others. Of course the realists have provided plausibility arguments to defend their positions. However, if one reflects on how scientists choose their words when they describe their explanations of phenomena, even those who have a realist approach to science use the commonplace phrases such as: “this suggests that such and such”, “that indicates that so and so”, and “this points to a possible explanation for this and that”. These carefully worded phrases by the realists are a recognition of the conjectural nature of science and their implicit slight concession to the very real and appropriate concerns of the instrumentalists.
So why do I heretically and sacrilegiously call evolutionary theory a philosophy rather than actual science, and in doing so risk being excommunicated from the holy alter at the lab bench?
Well, the first problem is one of definition. There seems to be a conflation of concepts that have been masquerading around in discussions under the common term “Evolution”. If you look at the possible definitions from a biological perspective, you will find that the term “Evolution” refers to a process of formation or growth and development; a change in the gene pool of a population from generation to the next by natural selection and genetic mechanisms; the process by which different kinds of living organisms are thought to have developed and diversified into different species from a single ancestor; and the gradual development from a simple organism to a more complex form. After reflection about what each definition indicates, it becomes obvious how easily people can wonder why they disagree, given that they they may not necessarily be talking about the same thing.
If we take the definition that refers to the change in the gene pool of a population, it would be unreasonable for one to deny Evolution. Genetic changes are processes that we can easily observe and can even readily induce through various treatments and environmental pressures. It is these changes that result in antibiotic resistant bacteria, virus mutations that force us to get a new flu shot every year, cancer, and having a subset of the human population that is naturally immune to HIV. Denying Evolution that is restricted to this definition is akin to denying the existence of the sun. This type of Evolution is what has been referred to as “micro-evolution”, and it primarily refers to the adaptational changes that cells, or whole organisms for that matter, undergo in response to environmental pressures. It is a phenomenon that is directly observable and can be tested and confirmed. It is also why we have a whole field in biology called Genetics that you can obtain degrees in, which are most certainly not built on some fantasy.
Where Evolution becomes a hypothesis rather than an actual theory, and philosophy rather than science, is at the point of induction into the unobservable realm of history, where dots are connected not because of directly testable evidence, but because of subjectively and unjustifiably imposed end goal of proving Evolution as a theory. This is the point where logical positivists insist that the observable “evidence” strongly proves Evolution as defined to be the gradual development from simple to complex, and as the process of speciation and diversification of organisms, to be the accurate description of how everything came to be, including our accidental gain of higher intelligence.
The positivist view of science that is adopted by laypersons, as well as many scientists and science-worshipping atheists nowadays, has been rightfully described by Thomas Kuhn as both inaccurate and naïve. Such a view results from insufficient attention to both the underlying philosophical basis of the thought process guiding the activity we call science, and the history of science itself. Throughout history, new theories have consistently replaced older ones, which were incompatible with their predecessors. Case in point is the Ptolemaic claim that the planets revolved around the Earth, which was replaced with the Copernican one that the planets, including the Earth revolved around the sun. This is not some refinements of older theories that are becoming improved. These are theories that are as Kuhn describes them “incommensurable”. In other words, one is thrown out and replaced by another, each of which uses such distinct language to state its worldview that it becomes impossible to make a direct comparison between the two in order for one to speak of any refinements.
Given that no theory is sacred since all theories have their own shortcomings, including their inabilities to describe or predict certain phenomena, it makes it a reality that any theory, including the Theory of Evolution, can be subject to a paradigm shift where it will be discarded for one that is incommensurable with it. However, one does not necessarily have to wait until a new theory emerges before an older one is thrown out. If a current model is deeply flawed, it is not necessary to maintain it in place, simply for the sake of needing a filler. In fact, it will be counterproductive for it will skew how one attempts to explain natural phenomena.
A crucial distinction should be made between the observation of a phenomenon, and the explanation of it. Logical positivists that advocate evolutionary theory as an accurate description of the world seem to work with the fallacious assumptions that the phenomenon is dependent upon the explanation given by a theory, or that observation can provide an accurate description, upon which a correct explanation and theory can be made. For example, let us look at the cerebellum, the brain region that plays an important function in motor control and coordination precision. This area has been noted to be larger in professional athletes. Given the functions attributed to the cerebellum, and its larger size in professional athletes, does not necessarily mean that the reason they are professional athletes is having a larger cerebellum. Inversely, having a larger cerebellum does not necessarily mean that one is a professional athlete. What makes one a professional athlete has more to do with the countless hours of practice than it does with how big their cerebellum is. In fact, the size of any brain region seems to be correlated with how often one engages in activities that require its activation. Therefore, in this case, both the size of the cerebellum and being a professional athlete were influenced by a third factor outside of their immediate noted observation – namely, hours of practice.
Observations of the phenomena of genetic changes and mutations happening at the cellular or organismal level that are seen in a timeline that is equivalent to part of an instant in a geological timescale, do not necessarily mean a plausible induction to explain the unobservable events that took place in the history of life on this planet. Moreover, evolutionary theory posits a progression from simple to complex, that is said to be supported by genetic evidence. However, direct genetic studies have merely shown adaptational changes in response to environmental pressures, which were lost once the pressures were removed, and while in some situations reducing the fitness of the better adapted cells (for an example refer to Some Problems with Evolution).
It is a fact that Evolution, as defined to be a progression from simple to complex, and speciation and diversification from a single ancestor, has never been directly observed by anyone. It is simply a fallaciously inducted proposition that is based on observations of reversible adaptational changes in organisms that do not change in their essence to become something else. We speak of these organisms using the same species names and simply give an additional designation to indicate what genetic alteration took place.
Modern biology and advances in medicine are not based on a direct assumption of relatedness between organisms as much as they are based on a real similarity that is readily observed. This similarity is not necessarily indicative of a historical evolutionary progression. How science is conducted is based on a direct cause and effect and immediately observable phenomenology type of work that, when combined with modern advances in technology, has resulted in our current scientific progression. When used in the fallaciously induced fashion, Evolution is added to elaborate the findings to give a proposed historical context rather than give a real scientific explanation of what is taking place that is of any immediate relevance. In the macro scale, it is a proposition that is made by a few individuals who sought to connect the dots in a particular pattern that suited their purpose. Hence, it should be called the Hypothesis of Evolution because it is a supposition made on very little direct evidence that is not testable. The more one looks into it, the more it seems to rely more on faith than actual science. The only difference between a properly proposed hypothesis and this one, is that a sound hypothesis is not presupposed to be true.
Mohamed Ghilan, PhD Candidate