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How would you explain evolution to someone who is not familiar with the topic?
Charles Darwin first documented the theory of evolution by natural selection in his book On the Origin of Species in 1859. In this book, Darwin argued that all existing animals descended and evolved from a small number of original species (Cooperman 2009). Two factors contribute to this evolution. The first factor is that subtle differences distinguish each individual from its parents. Darwin called these differences variations. The second factor is that some variations carry distinct advantages that better equip an organism to survive in its environment (Cooperman 2009). A greater probability of survival allows for more opportunity to breed. Breeding allows advantageous traits to be passed on to offspring. An advantage spreads throughout a species over time, and future generations are more likely to endure and reproduce (Cooperman 2009).
Over generations, subtle changes occur and accumulate at or below the taxonomic rank of species. This process, called microevolution, is exhibited in the peppered moth, Biston betularia. Prior to 1845, all known specimens were light-colored moths. A black moth emerged near the heavily polluted area of Manchester, England at the height of the industrial revolution. Natural selection seemed to favor the dark moth in polluted areas, and the light moth in cleaner areas. H.B.D. Kettlewell thought that the color protected the moths from hungry birds (Walton and Stevens 2018). These small changes can eventually morph into bigger changes above the species level—the creation of new species. This process, called macroevolution, is exemplified in the eohippus—a small, dog-sized animal with multitoed feet that inhabited rainforests—which evolved into the modern horse over 60 million years (Larsen 2017).
What makes evolution a scientific theory? Why is evolution an important scientific theory to know?
Terms relating to the process and products of science itself, such as “theory” and “law”, are almost completely opposite in scientific vs. colloquial settings. In conversational language, “theory” often suggests a lack of supporting data. A theory in science, however, is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses,” as defined by the National Academy of Sciences (Gregory 2008). Science not only generates facts but seeks to explain them, and the united, well-supported explanations for those facts are known as theories. A well-substantiated theory is the ultimate goal of science (Gregory 2008).
Theories can be modified or replaced by better ones if founded by meticulous observation. Such is the case with the origin of human bipedalism. Darwin developed a hypothesis that the origin of human bipedalism was linked to the shift from life in the trees, to life on the ground (Larsen 2017). This led Darwin to an additional hypothesis, that the first hominins evolved in open grasslands from an arboreal, apelike ancestor. This hypothesis was widely believed for 150 years until, in 2001, early hominins were discovered in the woodlands of modern Ethiopia. These hominins had slightly curved fingers and toes, indicating a lot of time spent in trees. This discovery forced scientists to reject Darwin’s original hypothesis. This scenario perfectly describes the scientific method via evolution. Hypotheses and theories are subjected to the test of time and rigorous observation, allowing science to revise its own errors.
Over the past 150 years, Darwin’s hypothesis of natural selection has been supplemented by countless observations in paleontology, anatomy, biology, and genetics, and through direct observations of evolutionary change in both natural and experimental populations (Gregory 2008). No valid observation has been found to contradict the general idea of common ancestry. The scientific community has accepted evolution as a historical reality and considers it one of the most reliable and fundamental facts in all of science (Gregory 2008).
Darwin’s theory has permeated modern life in vital, and often unnoticed, ways. For example, mismatches between our genes and an environment that changes faster than human genomes evolve can cause diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. Understanding this variance may help convince someone to change their diet in order to minimize risk due to a genetic heritage that doesn’t accommodate excess, refined carbohydrates and saturated fats (The Editors 2009) This shows how natural selection and the knowledge of how genes, individuals, and species change over time can develop critical thinking skills.
What is the difference between believing evolution and believing in evolution?
Intuitively, there are cases in which belief in and belief about seem to be different ways of saying the same thing. This isn’t always the case. One might believe in evolution without having many accurate beliefs about it, but would not really understand the theory or how to use it. Conversely, someone might have many accurate beliefs about evolution but decide not to believe in the theory as a result of not valuing it. One possible scenario of this is with a biologist who uses evolutionary theory to make predictions and perform experiments but does not believe in it because of conflicting religious commitments (Kampourakis 2016).
Faith, as defined in the book of Hebrews, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Based on this biblical description of faith, it does not seem accurate to say that it takes faith to believe in evolution. Using a different source to define faith, one could bear “complete trust” in the scientific method given its empirical methods. The scientific method has revealed plenty of phenomena that I personally “believe in”. I believe in a round earth, though it appears flat as experienced with my local senses. I believe that the earth orbits the sun. I believe in subatomic particles like quarks even though I can’t see them directly. And I do believe in evolution.
Why is it important to understand evolution?
When we properly understand a well-supported theory such as evolution, we gain certain abilities: to satisfy our curiosity, to make reasonable predictions, and to explain and unify disparate facts. We likely value the theory more. After all, one can believe the theory of evolution to be true simply from the testimony of someone else without learning what the theory actually says (Kampourakis 2016). If the unifying and explanatory power of evolution is understood and appreciated, the theory can be applied to an infinite number of topics.
Given the task of explaining the properties of an organism before the theory of evolution, only two options would have been available; theological (God’s work) or material (explaining the properties of the whole from the properties of the component parts). Natural selection provides a third distinct structure. As described by David Sloan Wilson (2005):
To the extent that the material composition of organisms results in heritable variation, it becomes a kind of living clay that can be molded by environmental forces that influence survival and reproduction. The most interesting properties of a clay sculpture are caused by the molding action of the artist, not the physical properties of clay. In the same way, evolutionary biologists routinely make predictions about the properties
of organisms (such as “many prey organisms match their background to avoid detection by predators”) without any reference to the physical materials of the organisms, including their genes (P. 2060).
This distinction is important because it has predictive value. Predictions about an organism’s properties can be made if given only a little information about it and its environment.
Should all beliefs be respected even if they are wrong?
People’s rights, bodies, and freedoms need to be respected. These things are sacred. Beliefs and opinions are ideas, and ideas are not sacred. They belong to no one without a patent or a copyright. Even then, those ideas can be mocked or ridiculed. Ideas can be sacred if kept to oneself. If exchanged, like in a marketplace, they are subject to judgement by each individual with whom they are shared. No person has an obligation to buy a belief that has no value to them.
- Cooperman, Alan. 2009, “Darwin and His Theory of Evolution” Pew Research Center: 1-4.
- Gregory, T. R. 2008. “Evolution as Fact, Theory, and Path” Evo Edu Outreach (1): 46-52. DOI: 10.1007/s12052-007-0001-z.
- Kampourakis, Kostas, and Kevin McCain. 2016. “Believe in or about Evolution?” BioScience 66 (3): 187–88. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biv188.
- Larsen, Clark S. 2017. Our Origins: Discovering Physical Anthropology. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.
- The Editors. 2009. “Why Everyone Should Learn the Theory of Evolution.” Scientific American. Retrieved June 15, 2019 (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-everyone-should-learn-evolution/)
- Walton, Olivia A, and Martin Stevens. 2018. “Avian vision models and field experiments determine the survival value of peppered moth camouflage” Communications Biology: 1-7. DOI: 10.1038/s42003-018-0126-3.
- Wilson, David S. 2005. “Evolution for Everyone: How to Increase Acceptance of, Interest in, and Knowledge about Evolution.” PLoS Biol 3(12): e364.
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