I occasionally post feedback to my column, partly to stimulate discussion but also to shed light on America's peculiar resistance to evolution. The issues expressed by these readers sometimes suggest science illiteracy, but it's not so much a lack of the right facts and figures as a misunderstanding of the nature of the scientific method.
Normally when I post feedback I offer some counterpoint from a scientist. But it's the holiday season, and most scientists are on vacation, so I thought I'd make a special exception this week and let Higgs the cat take a stab at this job. Let's see how he does.
And here's one I'll transcribe from my voice mail on Dec. 26:
Q. Good evening this is ####. (leaves his number) You don't have to call me, really I don't want you to call me. Being an atheist you are wasting your time with the articles you are reading. You think we came from an animal? You have to study about our brains and how complicated we are and if you think we came from an animal you'd better go back to school or see a psychiatrist because you are a sick person . Happy New Year.
A. Happy New Year backatcha! Humans are so amusing when they talk about animals as a grouping in which they are not included. To which kingdom do you humans aspire to belong? Plants? Fungi? I employ several humans as servants to bring me my meals and clean my toilet and I can tell you they are animals with a capital A. It is much easier to understand why some cats object to evolutionary theory. We obviously exist on a higher plane. Nevertheless we have come to accept our humble evolutionary roots and family ties with lesser beings. Thank you for letting me express my opinion – Higgs.
This next letter came via email and refers to one of the columns written about scientists trying to understand the origin of life:
Q. I, too, found the article interesting, largely because of the huge assumption of naturalism that underlies the entire endeavor. The idea that the difference between life and non-life may be defined in purely scientific terms rests on a naturalistic worldview that basically assumes its conclusions.
A. This seems quite tail-end backwards. It's those who want to attribute the origin of life to God who are confusing assumptions with conclusions. Scientists are still working hard trying to replicate parts of the process in their labs. They don't have a complete conclusion yet, and those they have are the direct result of experiments. I think scientists would take notice if their experiments showed life was first assembled by angels. That just hasn't happened.
By breaking down the origin of life into smaller pieces, science has made great progress. Some say all that's required is a membrane and some kind of self-replicating molecule. People such as Jack Szostak have shown how membrane-like structures can assemble themselves. They are also making strides in showing how self-replicating molecules such as RNA and DNA might come about from simpler precursors. RNA is more independent – more catlike that is – than DNA. So scientists think RNA predated DNA during an early phase called the RNA world.
Scientists aren't making assumptions that God wasn't involved. They just don't see any evidence. Quite frankly, supernatural phenomena have an abysmal track record in science. In the past, scientific inquiry has always pointed to natural causes for things – never supernatural ones.
And seriously, if you were deathly ill or in pain, would you want your doctor to start looking for some kind of natural cause first, or would you want him to spend several days looking for signs of possession? The physicist David Bohm is thought to have said that intelligence is knowing not to fight for an assumption. Thank you for letting me express my opinion. - Higgs
Okay, but those were relatively easy. Let's see how Higgs handles this more difficult one:
Q. Much of science today is accepted because it is or seems logical, and the scientists themselves decide what is the proof. Logically the sun rotates the earth every day and it has been proven by Ptolymy. His math definitely showed that the sun and planets make a daily spin around us. It took 1400 years to disprove his proof and Copernicus risked censure to publish it.
Certainly Evolution is very logical and I certainly believe it but nobody, nobody, can ever prove it.
A. The concept of proof is useful in mathematics, but in science, not so much. Scientists can make much more progress by focusing on evidence. If you read On the Origin of Species, you'll see Darwin doesn't so much try to prove evolution as to show it works better than creationism. He gives examples of dozens of observations from nature that are easily explained by natural selection and not explained at all by the then-current theory of independent creation of each species.
Darwin's idea caught on because it blew the previous paradigms out of the water. Others had considered the possibility of evolution, but he figured out the mechanism. His evidence was in the apparent relatedness of living things, their distribution, the fossil record, and his observations of dramatic changes in domestic animals. Since then, DNA has provided powerful conformation that all living things are related through common ancestry. Scientists have also had a chance to observe natural selection in action by studying viruses and bacteria. You could call this proof or evidence – that's just semantics - but it's every bit as good as the evidence/proof for Einstein's relativity. From the get-go special relativity explained how the speed of light could be a constant in Maxwell's equations. It really is a constant! Extending the idea to incorporate gravity, general relativity predicted the bending of starlight around the sun, which astronomers were able to demonstrate during an eclipse.