Evolution and Other Controversies

Once in a while, someone asks me if I think global warming is real. I usually respond that I believe it is, but that I don’t have a good enough understanding of it to really give an opinion.

What I usually don’t go into is that while I have a reasonable amount of information FOR global warming, I have very little information AGAINST global warming. The reason I feel unqualified to render an opinion is because I don’t really understand the evidence against global warming.

What am I talking about?

Well, let me tell you about the time my daughter came back from school and told me that she learned about evolution. I asked her if her teachers taught her the arguments against evolution. She of course gave me a puzzled look.

As a biologist, of course I believe in evolution, but I don’t think you can really understand a theory unless you understand arguments for and against it, so I gave her a brief summary of arguments against evolution. The strongest argument of course is the blind watchmaker argument, made famous by Richard Dawkins. It goes like this: let’s say you’re walking down the street and you see a watch on the ground. You pick it up, and it’s ticking, and shows the right time. If someone asked you, “Did someone make that watch, or did it spontaneous come into existence by chance?” you would of course say someone made it. Similarly, if you were walking down the street, and you saw an animal–let’s say a dog–someone asked you, “Did someone create dogs, or did they spontaneously come into existence?” The natural answer would be that someone created dogs–dogs are a lot more complicated than a watch.

I can go into a lot of details about the counterarguments, but the strongest counter argument is that there are a lot of poorly designed parts of living organisms, such as the appendix in humans, that don’t make sense if someone designed the organisms. This is the argument outlined in “The Panda’s Thumb.” It’s a pretty good argument, except that we are constantly learning that things that look poorly designed to us is actually well-designed, and we just don’t understand the full design yet. For example, for a long time, we thought most of the DNA in cells was “junk DNA” with no function, simply because we understood genes and did not understand DNA that didn’t code gene.. Now we know that this junk DNA is probably more important than the gene-coding DNA.

When I took an evolutionary biology course in college, it was taught by two of the most august evolutionary biologists of the last century (wow, that makes me feel old to say that), Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. The first lecture of the course was the most important lecture I ever attended. Almost the entirety of the lecture was Gould explaining the weaknesses of evolutionary theory, and the evidence against evolution. It was an eye-opening lecture for a budding scientist and biologist, to understand that evolution was indeed a theory, and that there were excellent arguments against the theory–though of course Gould at the end of the lecture concluded that while evolutionary theory had a lot of holes, it was still the best theory we had so far.

The point is not whether evolutionary theory is valid or not (it is). The point is that whenever there is a scientific controversy, such as over global warming or GMOs, the first thing you should do is to ask what the arguments and evidence against the mainstream view is. There is almost always excellent arguments and evidence against it–otherwise there wouldn’t be a controversy.