"Darwin was the first to use data from nature to convince people that evolution is true, and his idea of natural selection was truly novel. It testifies to his genius that the concept of natural theology, accepted by most educated Westerners before 1859, was vanquished within only a few years by a single five-hundred-page book. On the Origin of Species turned the mysteries of life's diversity from mythology into genuine science." -- Jerry Coyne
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Some quotes from the National Academy of Sciences
Scientists use the term 'fact' to refer to a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it or looking for additional examples. In that respect, the past and continuing occurrence of evolution is a scientific fact. Because the evidence supporting it is so strong, scientists no longer question whether biological evolution has occurred and is continuing to occur. Instead, they investigate the mechanisms of evolution, how rapidly evolution can take place, and related questions.
Scientists no longer question the basic facts of evolution. The concept has withstood extensive testing by tens of thousands of specialists in biology, medicine, anthropology, geology, chemistry, and other fields. Discoveries in different fields have reinforced one another, and evidence for evolution has continued to accumulate for 150 years.
The concept of biological evolution is one of the most important ideas ever generated by the application of scientific methods to the natural world. The evolution of all the organisms that live on Earth today from ancestors that lived in the past is at the core of genetics, biochemistry, neurobiology, physiology, ecology, and other biological disciplines. It helps to explain the emergence of new infectious diseases, the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, the agricultural relationships among wild and domestic plants and animals, the composition of Earth's atmosphere, the molecular machinery of the cell, the similarities between human beings and other primates, and countless other features of the biological and physical world. As the great geneticist and evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in 1973, ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.’
THEORY: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses. The contention that evolution should be taught as a "theory, not as a fact" confuses the common use of these words with the scientific use. In science, theories do not turn into facts through the accumulation of evidence. Rather, theories are the end points of science. They are understandings that develop from extensive observation, experimentation, and creative reflection. They incorporate a large body of scientific facts, laws, tested hypotheses, and logical inferences. In this sense, evolution is one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have.
Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations are limited to those based on observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Explanations that cannot be based on empirical evidence are not a part of science.
In the quest for understanding, science involves a great deal of careful observation that eventually produces an elaborate written description of the natural world. Scientists communicate their findings and conclusions to other scientists through publications, talks at conferences, hallway conversations, and many other means. Other scientists then test those ideas and build on preexisting work. In this way, the accuracy and sophistication of descriptions of the natural world tend to increase with time, as subsequent generations of scientists correct and extend the work done by their predecessors.
Progress in science consists of the development of better explanations for the causes of natural phenomena. Scientists never can be sure that a given explanation is complete and final. Some of the hypotheses advanced by scientists turn out to be incorrect when tested by further observations or experiments. Yet many scientific explanations have been so thoroughly tested and confirmed that they are held with great confidence.
The theory of evolution is one of these well-established explanations. An enormous amount of scientific investigation since the mid-19th century has converted early ideas about evolution proposed by Darwin and others into a strong and well-supported theory. Today, evolution is an extremely active field of research, with an abundance of new discoveries that are continually increasing our understanding of how evolution occurs.
How Science Works
The study of evolution provides an excellent example of how scientists go about their work. They observe nature and ask testable questions about the natural world, test those questions through experiment and new observations, and construct explanations of evolution based on evidence. As scientists gather new results and findings, they continue to refine their ideas. Explanations are altered or sometimes rejected when compelling contradictory evidence comes to light.
Some scientific explanations are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them. The explanation becomes a scientific theory. In everyday language a theory means a hunch or speculation. Not so in science, the word theory refers to a comprehensive explanation of an important feature of nature that is supported by many facts gathered over time. Theories also allow scientists to make predictions about as yet unobserved phenomena.
A good example is the theory of gravity. After hundreds of years of observation and experiment, the basic facts of gravity are understood. The theory of gravity is an explanation of those basic facts. Scientists then use the theory to make predictions about how gravity will function in different circumstances. Such predictions have been verified in countless experiments. Evolution stands on an equally solid foundation of observation, experiment, and confirming evidence.
Creationists sometimes claim that scientists have a vested interest in the concept of biological evolution and are unwilling to consider other possibilities. But this claim, too, misrepresents science. Scientists continually test their ideas against observations and submit their work to their colleagues for critical peer review of ideas, evidence, and conclusions before a scientific paper is published in any respected scientific journal. Unexplained observations are eagerly pursued because they can be signs of important new science or problems with an existing hypothesis or theory. History is replete with scientists challenging accepted theory by offering new evidence and more comprehensive explanations to account for natural phenomena. Also, science has a competitive element as well as a cooperative one. If one scientist clings to particular ideas despite evidence to the contrary, another scientist will attempt to replicate relevant experiments and will not hesitate to publish conflicting evidence. If there were serious problems in evolutionary science, many scientists would be eager to win fame by being the first to provide a better testable alternative. That there are no viable alternatives to evolution in the scientific literature is not because of vested interests or censorship but because evolution has been and continues to be solidly supported by evidence.
But today there is no scientific doubt about the close evolutionary relationships between humans and all other primates. Using the same scientific methods and tools that have been employed to study the evolution of other species, researchers have compiled a large and increasing number of fossil discoveries and compelling new molecular evidence that clearly indicate that the same forces responsible for the evolution of all other life forms on Earth account for the biological evolution of human characteristics.
Based on the strength of evidence from DNA comparisons, the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees lived approximately 6 to 7 million years ago in Africa. The evolutionary tree leading from this ancestral species to modern humans contains a number of side branches, representing populations and species that eventually went extinct. At various times in the past, the planet appears to have been populated by several human-like species.