Saturday, March 17, 2007

Darwin's theory of evolution is wrong

No, I'm not running for the school board in Kansas. But with all the debate in recent months over the teaching of Intelligent Design (within the much longer-running debate about teaching of evolution overall), I thought I'd point out something subtle but important that I think gets missed in all of the debate. Specifically, the debate gets so distracted on the "correctness" of the theory that even people who accept evolutionary theory forget that, well, it's almost certainly mistaken.

Why on earth would we think otherwise? No scientific theory that I can think of to date has withstood the test of time intact - heck, we're even refining evolution on an almost daily basis with new techniques, as this recent Newsweek article shows. But here's the thing: just because evolution is flawed hardly means that it's worthless or that we shouldn't teach it.

My favorite example here is Newtons laws of motion. Some 300 years ago, Newton proposed his theories of motion, gravity, inertia, that sort of stuff. These theories worked great, they made predictions that could be tested, they helped people engineer all sorts of things, and everyone assumed that these theories were how the world worked. Except for one small problem: these theories were, well, wrong. 200 years after Newton, a troublemaker named Albert Einstein showed that Newton was wrong. Not completely off-the-mark wrong, but at-the-edges wrong; specifically, Newton's theories break down when you get into the world of the very small (atomic level), the very large (universes/black holes), and the very fast (near the speed of light).

But here's the thing: for everyday scenarios, the difference between what Newton says and what Einstein says are so small as to be essentially immeasurable. In other words, Newton got it so close that his theories are worth teaching and the most useful ones out there in the day-to-day world, even if they are only a good approximation of reality.

And it took 200 years for Einstein to show that Newton was only an approximation. This is why I bet that within another 200 years, we'll find a better approximation than Einstein offered, and why I am convinced that Darwin will ultimately be shown to be merely a very good approximation. And as a good approximation, it absolutely makes sense to teach it. Good science is all about approximations - every theory has rough edges that are continually refined and occasionally replaced (as Einstein did with Newton's rough edges).

The Intelligent Design folks, of course, latch on to the rough edges of evolution as evidence in favor of their "theory" (which is not actually deserving of that word in any scientific sense of the word). Of course, pointing to the holes in one theory as a means of supporting your own theory is like saying that since drinking water doesn't explain why people get cancer that they must instead get cancer from carrots. It's bad logic, but then the creationist crowd is pursuing an ideological agenda, not a scientific one, so I suppose bad logic is par for the course.

Global warming also suffers this. Lots of global warming doubters make the same logical mistake as the intelligent design crowd by pointing to the rough edges of global warming (of which there are many) as evidence that it's bunk. And many folks that accept global warming as real tend to ignore those rough edges, which is probably just as dangerous. There is certainly more about our climate that we don't know than there is that we do know. This doesn't mean we shouldn't make the most of what we do know, just that we shouldn't pretend that we know more than we do either.

Anyhow, I would caution against too much overconfidence from the scientific community that just because there is little or no scientific debate over a theory that the theory is somehow "done;" we just get better and better approximations. Global warming and Evolution are both pretty darned good approximations, but they are just that. Let's teach them, and teach our kids to extend these theories as well.

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