Friday, August 23, 2013

Evolution and Evidence

                I love science, I really do. I gobble up articles about newly discovered planets, or animal behavior, or attempts to make black-holes with large Haledon colliders. When I found a self-identified scientist on CatholicMatch I tried three times to get in touch with her (the fact that she was a beautiful, petite brunette also was a factor). I say all this to fend off accusations about what I’m going to say next:
                I find Evolution really annoying.
                Don’t get me wrong; I believe the theory, at least in some form (Darwin’s idea of Natural Selection as its primary engine, not so much). But the way some people brandy it about like some sacred evocation and go into fits if anyone dare question it just drives me nuts, especially since most people seem to have the idea that it’s somehow always an upward motion; that to ‘evolve’ is to get better. By its nature, Darwinian evolution is a neutral force; there is no better or worse, there is only “able to survive.” It’s not elevation, it’s just neutral change.
                That’s one aspect. Another is that I hate it when people try to make out that they know more about the actual sequence of events in evolution than they actually do, or possibly could. For instance, in a recent conversation my brother commented that yawning is thought to be a dominance display, and got rather annoyed when I dismissed this as pseudo-science. But it is; it’s not possible for scientists to say for certain how yawning evolved or for what purpose, assuming there’s a purpose to it at all (which there really doesn’t have to be; all that matters, by this understanding, is whether it is conducive to survival or not. I fail to see how yawning would affect that one way or another, so it’s entirely possible that it was a random, pointless mutation which just happened to survive). They can’t go back in time and observe the process. They can observe that yawning in chimps is used for dominance displays, but that doesn’t amount to a shred of evidence that the same was ever true of humans, for whom it could have had a completely different purpose.
                As, indeed, it does. Yawning indicates tiredness, not dominance. When someone wants to intimidate you, he doesn’t yawn in your direction. Boxers don’t yawn at each other when they get in the ring. As far as it’s a hostile gesture, it indicates disinterest more than anything else.
                That’s why I called this sort of thing ‘pseudo-science;’ it propounds to know something that it couldn’t possibly know, based on no real evidence and often in flat contradiction to what everyone actually does know. And I find most ‘evolutionary explanations’ follow that same pattern; leaping to conclusions without noting that there’s really very little we can know about the evolutionary process that led to our own existence, for the simple reason that no one could have observed it. We’re working from bones, broken tools, and a genetic similarity to certain species. But obviously, what’s true of one of those species – i.e. chimps – is not necessarily going to be true of our species, for the simple fact that we aren’t chimps. Chimps like to steal and eat their neighbors’ children; we, thankfully, have not evolved to do this. Chimps smile to tell you to back off, human’s smile to encourage you onward.
                The point of all this isn’t that evolution is evil or false or what have you. It’s that we really should be cautious in believing the latest ‘evolutionary explanation’ for a given human behavior or experience. See, when a scientist theorizes that, say, early humans lived in such-and-such a place, well, he can go there and look for evidence of early humans. If he says humans came to that place for a specific reason, he’s guessing; he’s not going to find any solid evidence for why the people who lived half-a-million years ago decided to do what they did. He can find circumstantial evidence (i.e. it looks like there was good game here at the time), but can say nothing conclusive, because for all he knows it could have been as the result of divining from bird-entrails, or because the chief had a fight with his brother-in-law, or a hundred other things and the good game was just a happy coincidence.
Likewise, the fact that a given practice or facet evolved could have a hundred different explanations, or, as I noted above, it may even have no explanation at all. “Take nothing on its face; take everything on evidence,” as Mr. Jaggers advised Pip in Great Expectations. And, of course, most scientists follow his advice. But scientists are as human as any of us, and most of us go beyond the actual evidence we have to get the answer we want. We should always keep that in mind when reading of the latest scientific discovery, particularly when it comes to something as murky and uncertain as evolution.

Vive Christus Rex!

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