As I’ve posted about before, I am taking college courses online in my “free” time. As part of my current Biology course, I am participating in an online seminar hosted by the American Museum of Natural History. The Seminar is Evolution.
Every week participants are given various reading assignments and other resources to use. We are then expected to participate in a group discussion based on that week’s question. Here is this week’s question:
Theodosius Dobzhansky, the famous evolutionary geneticist, wrote in 1973 that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Why is evolution the fundamental concept that underlies all life science? If evolution is “true”â€”if life really has evolvedâ€”what would we expect to observe as a consequence? How could this lead to testable hypotheses?
See my answer on the jump …
When I talk with others about what evolution is and why is it important, I like to use a puzzle analogy. You have before you a table covered with jigsaw puzzle pieces, but you have no finished picture to look at and guide you. You simply have to work your way through it as best as you can. You need to look at the pieces and develop a few hypothesizes about how things fit together. Perhaps sorting out all the pieces with straight edges would be a good start. Then see if pieces with similar colors and patterns might match one another. Once a blob of the actual overall picture emerges, you can then see that the finished puzzle might be about furry animals near water of some type, maybe puppies or kittens checking out a pool. That can then guide the completion of the puzzle. Eventually, the final product emerges. It turns out it was a picture of a cute baby seal on the beach. But the puzzle has some holes in it where some pieces are missing. Some holes are small and some are huge. There are even a few pieces lying around that donâ€™t seem to have a home just yet. You still have yet to figure out where they go and what they represent in the overall picture.
Understanding why evolution is the fundamental concept that underlies all life science first necessitates an understanding of what the theory is meant to do. Evolution is not some odd idea pulled out of thin air. Evolution is not a dogmatic set of arbitrary rules that one must adhere to. Evolution takes a collection of known facts and observations and pieces it all together in a way that makes the most sense. Itâ€™s the blueprints of your house, or the outline of your college term paper. Without the blueprints or outline, you have a stack of wood or an incoherent rambling.
For the sake of argument, letâ€™s say that the theory of evolution isnâ€™t the best explanation for the facts we know. Fine. Take away evolutionâ€™s explanatory power and weâ€™re left with a jumble of bones, a massive pile of genetic research, apparent similarities in divergent species, changing disease-causing viruses, etc. Fine again. Weâ€™re back to a tabletop covered in puzzle pieces. What now? Taking away the theory doesnâ€™t erase the facts. One still has to figure out how it all properly fits together without sweeping some of the pieces you donâ€™t like off the table and taking a hammer to others you desperately want to fit together.
But evolution is presently the single best explanation for what we see and how it all fits together. As I said earlier, evolution is not dogmatism. Itâ€™s an idea thatâ€™s been tested again and again. If it failed the tests, it would have been discarded decades ago. Itâ€™s a waste of time and effort to prop up something that has no value to research. Robert T. Pennock put it this way in his essay in Evolutionary Science and Society: Educating a New Generation:
â€œThe ultimate test in science is pragmatic. That a claim is put in scientific-sounding language does not make it scientific; for something to be recognized as a scientific fact, it cannot just talk the talk; it must walk the walk. That is to say, it has to make an empirical difference. Put another way, there is good reason to conclude that we have got our hands on a real fact when using it works.â€
Pennock then goes on to list ways that evolution is useful: tracking diseases through the tree of life, prescribing medicines that bacteria are less likely to evolve resistance to, and learning more about our own bodiesâ€™ natural defenses. Evolution connects us humans to the vast array of life on this planet, past and present.
But how is evolution tested? Dr. Niles Eldredge, in his essay Evolution: A Paleontologist’s Perspective, outlines two such general tests:
1) If life has evolved, there should be nested patterns of resemblance linking up all life.
2) If life has evolved, we should observe a general sequence of primitive to more advanced forms in the history of life.
As Dr. Eldredge then goes on to show, evolution passes these tests without problem.
Furthermore, Pennock gives us some scope of what evolution is encompassing: â€œEvolution is the linking explanatory framework between internal (genetic) and external (environmental) factors and between efficient (historical) and functional (teleological) analyses of phenomena.â€
The bottom line is that the overall theory of evolution is an explanation that best fits the data. If it did a lousy job of piecing everything together, it would have been tossed on the garbage heap and some better scientific theory would be in its place right now. Not only does it do a great job of explaining, but it also has a myriad of useful, real-life applications.
That was my contribution to the group discussion. I welcome your input in the comments here, and I will share any interesting insight from other AMNH Seminar participants in the comments, too. Feel free to correct anything you think I got wrong, or add any points that would help better answer the original question.
Also, I find it funny that this week’s question relates directly to what one commenter here at FCS is has been complaining about lately: He doesn’t think evolution is the fundamental concept that underlies all life science.
Also, I find it funny that this weekâ€™s question relates directly to what one commenter here at FCS is has been complaining about lately: He doesnâ€™t think evolution is the fundamental concept that underlies all life science.
I was thinking the same thing. Larry Farfarman says your reasoning is crap in 5-4-3-2-1…..
Are you taking the classes at DBCC? I was thinking about adding biology, and hopefully evolutionary biology to my schooling. Any advice?
Look at these YEC people. Ugh, notice how they completely ignore the information about radiometric dating behind them!
Western Governor’s University. It’s the only program that I’ve found that will lead to a teacher’s certificate while fitting my schedule. I started at DBCC, but quickly ran out of classes I could take in the evening. It got real frustrating.
Great, though I won’t be doing it for teaching, I suppose i’ll give DBCC a try.
DBCC has some good online courses. To be honest, I liked the DBCC online classes’ format better than the ones at WGU. They were more structured. And that’s saying a lot seeing as how WGU is all online. Too bad they didn’t offer many of the classes I needed online at DBCC.
fc- I saw that too! Completely blew my mind.
Brandon, I learned something the other day (which is good for me since I don’t know A LOT about biology 🙂 ) that helped provide another piece of the puzzle for me.
I did not notice this as being addressed in your part of the discussion …
It would be bad for the “scientific theory” of evolution if DNA from one phylum was found in only one or two species of a different phylum, but nothing like this has ever occured.
example: jellyfish DNA found in elephants and domestic cats but in no other mammal.
(Did that make sense?)
Or as my friend Stanton on PT would say…
” Yes, or finding elephant DNA in moonjellies, but not box jellies or sea anemones, or finding a radish that has the genome of an elephant (and not a radish), or finding the remains of a rabbit in Cambrian strata, or having a dog give birth to a cat, or watching a fully mature horse emerge from a rock struck by a trident. ”
… food for thought.
S.Scott. I don;t think so. Heck we share some of the same DNA as plants. It simply points to a starting point in the jumbled bush of life before everything diverged.
Opps, ignore what I said. Since we all share the same ( for the most part ) DNA coding and I speed read your post.
–“Here is this weekâ€™s question: . . . Why is evolution the fundamental concept that underlies all life science? “–(emphasis added)
They did not even ask the right question — the question should begin with “is,” not “why.”
For example, I know that Fourier’s Law is the fundamental concept underlying all analysis of heat conduction in solids — everything is derived from Fourier’s Law.
I know that the so-called “fundamental theorem of calculus” does not apply to differential calculus. It is very important in integral calculus but there are other important laws and theorems in integral calculus that are not derived from the fundamental theorem of calculus.
I know that evolution cannot possibly be the fundamental concept underlying all of life science because I don’t even remember studying evolution in my high school biology and human physiology courses.
No need to apologize 🙂 I’m not very good at ‘splainin’ things.
Basically, we’re all made out of the same building blocks. If someone were able to find one of those examples that I described – THAT would be an issue. But so far, everything that we have discovered over the last 150 years has SUPPORTED ToE.
Larry, when did you go to high school? Is it imposible to think that we have gained some knowledge since then?
Larry, here’s a question that I found interesting that was addressed in the video that fc posted above.
Why haven’t any human remains (fossils) been found in the same layer of earth as the dinosaur fossils?
P.S. Larry, I’m proud of you for your statement at UD the other night 🙂
… ” I just donâ€™t think ID does much real scientific research, and I think co-opting real scientific research as an ID victory is an exercise in bad faith and sets a terrible witness.â€
There is a lag in education, it will never teach cutting edge science. That you weren’t taught evolutionary theory in high school (if in fact true) is indicative that either your school, or your state did not yet accept evolution.
You attempt to raise the question “How can evolution be the foundation of life science if I was taught biology without being taught evolution?” I will respond in kind, using something that you as an engineer should be familiar with. How can set theory be one of the founding principles of modern mathematics if people were taught math without set theory before Cantor’s time?
The answer to both of these questions is simple. Neither mathematics or science are set in stone. Unlike theology, both evolve. The founding principles of these evolve as well, as knowledge and evidence is gathered. Just because you weren’t taught about evolution doesn’t mean that evolution isn’t the foundation of biology. The discovery of evolution unifies biology. Likewise, the discovery of set theory helped to unify mathematics.
–“The discovery of evolution unifies biology. Likewise, the discovery of set theory helped to unify mathematics. “–
There is a lot more to mathematics than set theory, just as there is a lot more to biology than evolution. That statement that evolution is the “fundamental concept underlying all of biology” is outrageous.
Larry, Larry, Larry. How many more times do you need to be told that just beacause you didn’t get taught in 60s’ doesn’t mean it’s not true? By your line of thinking, what is being taught to the new firefighters is flat out wrong! Ya see, I was taught about the “Fire Triangle”; heat, fuel, and oxygen. However, the newbies are now taught the “Fire Tetrahedron”; heat, fuel, oxygen, and chemical chain reaction. Obviously a fraud! I wasn’t taught it in 1988 when I was in fire school. It must be all lies! They can’t change it, how foolish!
…just as there is a lot more to biology than evolution.
Such as? Name another unifying principle of biology more specific than evolution. I can think of many things that are less specific (e.g. life as we know it is based on organic and biochemistry, life as we know it is carbon based, etc). This principle must be exhibited by all life, and must be more advanced than evolution. One more thing, it has to be verifiable and falsifiable, and it must be verified.
S.Scott Says —
–“P.S. Larry, Iâ€™m proud of you for your statement at UD the other night
â€¦ â€ I just donâ€™t think ID does much real scientific research, and I think co-opting real scientific research as an ID victory is an exercise in bad faith and sets a terrible witness.â€ “–
What? I never said that on UD or anywhere else.
–“Name another unifying principle of biology more specific than evolution.”–
Biology simply does not have a single unifying principle. Most technical subjects — even narrow ones — do not have single unifying principles. For example, heat transfer analysis does not have a single unifying principle. Furthermore, convective and radiative heat transfer do not have single unifying principles. Heat conduction in solids does have a single unifying principle, Fourier’s Law.
Biology simply does not have a single unifying principle.
I didn’t ask for a single unifying principle. I asked for another unifying principle, matching my criteria above.
You imply that there are other principles besides evolution. Please provide me something at least as specific as evolution that matches my criteria above.
>>>>>I didnâ€™t ask for a single unifying principle. I asked for another unifying principle, matching my criteria above.
Sorry, I forgot to not use the inequality signs. Here is my comment again.
–“I didnâ€™t ask for a single unifying principle. I asked for another unifying principle, matching my criteria above. “–
How can I give you another unifying principle when I said that there is no unifying principle?
Well, evolution is a unifying principle. You claim that evolution is not the only foundational principle of biology, yet you cannot provide any other unifying principle at least as specific as evolution.
That argues highly for evolution being the fundamental concept underlying all of life sciences. There is no other concept as specific that unifies all forms of life on this planet.
Part of the problem is that the standards call evolution “the fundamental concept underlying all of biology.” It is not “the” fundamental concept and it does not underlie “all” of biology.
There are lots of other unifying principles — for example, the properties of carbon and water that make them especially suited for sustaining life. But there are a lot of subjects in biology where these principles are irrelevant.
It is not â€œtheâ€ fundamental concept and it does not underlie â€œallâ€ of biology.
Please provide for me an example of life that does not evolve to back up your claim here.
There are lots of other unifying principles â€” for example, the properties of carbon and water that make them especially suited for sustaining life.
Yes, but these are less general than evolution. Please see my criteria above.
–“Please provide for me an example of life that does not evolve to back up your claim here.”–
There is a lot more to biology than “evolution,” “changes with time,” the “origin of species,” or whatever you want to call it.
–“There are lots of other unifying principles â€” for example, the properties of carbon and water that make them especially suited for sustaining life.
Yes, but these are less general than evolution.’–
Wrong again. Carbon is so important to living things that it is the basis for dividing chemistry into two branches — organic and inorganic chemistry.
There is a lot more to biology than â€œevolution,â€ â€œchanges with time,â€ the â€œorigin of species,â€ or whatever you want to call it.
All life evolves, correct? Are there any more behaviors that all life exhibits that is more specific than evolution? No.
Wrong again. Carbon is so important to living things that it is the basis for dividing chemistry into two branches â€” organic and inorganic chemistry.
You entirely missed my point. The fact that life is carbon based is a more general unifying principle than the more specific principle of evolution. A lot of things that are not life are also carbon based, as you have eluded to with organic chemistry.
I am dissappointed that Larry dodged my analogy comparison.
I thought your analogy was great. I was taught the triangle in high school. I did not know about the tetrahedron until you mentioned it.
Well then PC, you must now know that the tetrahedron is false as you did not learn it in high school 🙄