Remembering Darwin’s Legacy

Darwin_booksThe evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin was born on February 12th 1809. Every February we mark his birthday as a worldwide celebration of his work, science and reason. Darwin was one of the first scientists to gather facts from biology, geology, anatomy, physics and chemistry to help us build a picture of where we come from. Since his time the amount and quality of evidence supporting the concept of evolution by natural selection has become overwhelming.

In science you start by gathering observations of the world around you. You then create a theory to try to explain why things are the way they are. You then make some predictions. The predictions are either supported by future measurements or they are not. If they are, science advances. If not, you need to drop that theory and find a better explanation. At one time we thought we could treat patients by making them bleed. Now we know that this treatment was useless and harmful. Science evolves. It adapts to new facts. Every true scientific theory is open to being disproved. In science there are no holy facts handed down by supernatural beings. Evolution would be in serious trouble if, for example, you kept finding the remains of bunny rabbits in the same geological layer where you find T. Rex bones. This is the case because the science states that dinosaurs had become extinct long before rabbits showed up. Until dinosaurs and bunny rabbits are found to have lived at the same time, evolution is the only credible explanation.

These days we are inundated with information. One day coffee is good for you. The next day it is not. Depending on which study you read, you may get different conclusions, but rarely does anyone read past the headlines to study the data and methodology behind the research. Good research publishes the raw data and allows others to try to replicate the results. If other researchers can do that again and again, the science stands until someone can prove otherwise.

Also, we sometimes assume that any study we don’t agree with is either government propaganda, or funded by some multinational corporation or some other special interest group. It’s difficult to remove our personal biases from any argument, but we need to try to do so to get closer to the facts. All science is provisional until we know more about the problem under study. Some people are critical of certain scientific theories because they can’t explain everything from the first day. That is a strange criticism. We don’t know everything there is to know about cancer, but we don’t dismiss what we know just because there are gaps in our understanding. If we did that, we would be back to treating cancer with magical spells and sacrificing goats to some angry god.

Darwin’s legacy is a good reminder that we need to take a step back and be more critical of what we read or hear. Who is making a certain claim? What is his/her past record at being accurate? Is the person going to make a lot of money if his conclusions are widely accepted? For many years the tobacco industry, as an example, told us that there was nothing harmful about their products. Some scientists employed by tobacco companies produced studies to back them up. Today we know better. It is a good idea to be skeptical and see if so called “facts” are replicated again and again in other independent studies.

We now we live in a crowded planet with a limited amount of fresh water and farming land. The challenges we face are much bigger than in Darwin’s time. To survive and prosper on this planet we need to understand that there is no “free lunch”. Every solution we find for society’s problems comes with benefits and costs. We just need to ensure that we understand the trade off and that the costs don’t end up being much larger down the road than we were promised. Change is the only constant and we can only try to become more educated about the facts so that we can make the best informed decisions. A citizen who asks questions and becomes involved is the best guarantee of that.

Submitted by Bill Fradgley and Tony de Castro, of the Comox Valley Humanists.

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