15 November 2012
Evolution Final Paper
What is, or ought to be, the relationship between science and our personal/political lives?
It might be fitting to begin this essay with a quote by Carl Sagan, a 20th century thinker who made great strides in popularizing natural and astrological science:
‘Look again at that dot (earth.) That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.’
Treated in the most literal sense, this quote asks us to consider how small we are in comparison to the rest of the Universe, and in relation to the objects that fill it. What Sagan is really trying to convey, however, is how petty and insignificant humanity is, despite the self-conceited significance we attach to our ideas and theories (not to mention the quarrels that result from them.) It seems we too often forget that, for all our differences, we are composed of the same matter, and bound by the same laws that set the stars in motion. We cannot escape this reality, and are very much affected by the causal chain that governs all life. Given our shared status as ‘humans’ should we not emphasize what we have in common, and avoid arguing over uncertainties and doctrine?
For most people today, particularly those living in modern societies influenced by a western liberal perspective, science has become a ‘given’, and the foremost authority on almost all questions. No longer are we so inclined to question the products of scientific enquiry, and key theories (for example, relativity and evolution) are accepted, and even well understood, by the general public. Underlying this development (if we wish to call it that) has been the proliferation of the scientific method, which asks us to only adopt positions once they have been verified by repeated observation and experiment. In this way, all knowledge is ‘falsifiable’ and therefore confirmed, rejected or refined by further inquiry in a particular field.
Evolution, then, is a good example of a theory that meets the requirements of ‘acceptable’ knowledge. Not only does it appeal to ‘common sense’, it also provides a clear explanation for natural phenomena that were previously ‘mystical’ or dependent on the existence of some ‘higher power.’ Many treat evolution as a ‘unifying force’ in biology as it integrates and makes sense of ostensibly distinct fields (for example, genetics and paleontology.) By combing knowledge from such fields, it offers a convincing, though sufficiently nuanced, explanation for Earth’s incredible biodiversity. While scientists have probed at the theory of evolution for the best part of two hundred years, it has stood the test of time and has led many to question whether ‘divine creation’ exists in the universe (especially when so much of animal development has occurred randomly and through a process of attrition.)
The process of natural selection, as put forward by Charles Darwin, states that animals, confined by limited resourses, have to struggle for dominance and survival. However, in this struggle, members of a species have certain advantages from birth (commonly referred to as ‘heritable differences’) and these traits (such as more powerful incisors, larger frontal lobes or superior camouflage) enable populations to survive and successfully reproduce. Those without such helpful characteristics slowly die