When I was in graduate school, Mathew Leibold, a fellow graduate student and one of my best friends (and now Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Texas, Austin), asked me one of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked. I don’t remember his exact wording, but the question was to explain to him why my research was not trivial.
This article first appeared as an editorial I wrote for the Valley News on 4 September 2005. I thought it was probably a good time, given the bills currently before the New Hampshire legislature, to post it again.
What is science, and what is science trying to accomplish? The goal of science is to investigate what we as humans can empirically know but do not yet understand about the workings of nature. Scientists do this by constructing sets of hypotheses (based on what we have already learned) about some feature of nature that we do not understand, testing these hypotheses by making observations and performing experiments, and then updating our understanding based on which hypotheses are supported and refuted by these observations and experiments. This results in a never ending cycle of hypothesis generation, testing, and updating of our understanding.
Having been raised a Methodist and now being a member of the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, I know the power of God in people’s lives. Also, my scientific training and my career as a practicing scientist show me that nothing in science denies the existence or actions of God. In fact, science can only be mute on these issues, since we cannot empirically test the existence, actions or methods of God.
The phrase “theory of evolution” is sometimes used pejoratively by people who do not want to acknowledge that populations and species of biological organisms evolve. In fact, the legislature of the state in which I reside – New Hampshire – is now considering legislation (e.g., see here and here) “requiring the teaching of evolution as a theory in public schools”. As any scientist will tell you, the meaning of the word theory in science is very different from its common usage.
Pondering this difference got me to thinking about how the theory of evolution stacks up to other more readily accepted scientific theories, at least in the public’s mind. We all have an intuitive understanding of many physical phenomena, and so I wanted to compare how the theory of evolution stacked up against our scientific understanding of something as familiar as, say, gravity.
George Carlin really understood the relationship between humans and the Earth!
He must have been a paleontologist.