I have been thinking on and off about evolutionary theory since this post, which I think set a record for comments. It struck me when I read this post that it would serve as the basis for a proper critique of modern evolutionary theory (as opposed to the non-sensical one I complained about in my earlier post).
The basic gist of Howard’s post is that social science suffers from its simultaneous desire to emulate the precision of the physical sciences and its inability to do so because of the complexity of its units of study. I.e., electrons can be completely characterized by a small set of properties all of which can described with reliably measured numeric values1. In contrast, people are the units of the social sciences and they have few properties that are as quantifiable and no important ones that are. Attempts to treat social science as if it could be done like physics leads to bad science.
It seems to me that both strong evolutionists and detractors both treat evolutionary theory in this incorrect way, that it is deterministic and complete (i.e. has an explanation for any physical feature). In practice, due to the complexity of the basic units, evolutionary theory has neither of these properties. It is a statistical theory, one in which things are more and less probable but nothing is ever certain2.
Critics attempt to discredit evolutionary theory by citing counter examples or improbabilities, but of course those are mere evidence, not disproofs (and generally weak evidence at that). The pressure of evolution isn’t the hard, intense pressure of how we humans do things, but a slow and patient one. That shouldn’t be surprising, since evolution is part of Nature and that’s how Nature does things. Evolutionary pressure cannot operate on time scales much smaller than a generation, since reproduction is the central engine of the process and that’s a rather slow time scale.
On the other hand, I see quite a few “supporters” of evolutionary theory make the same mistake, which leads to some of the rather silly “just so” stories mocked at Brothers Judd. It’s random, sometimes odd things just happen for no good reason. It doesn’t have to explain everything and it certainly doesn’t have to explain every little aspect of every little detail of every creature.
Just as annoyingly, very often even valid evolutionary theory is presented in a teleological manner, which of course is wrong (evolution isn’t teleological, it’s random). E.g., “the environment got colder so the rabbits evolved longer fur”. Uh, no3. Perhaps it’s just too hard to avoid anthropomorphizing but it certainly doesn’t help present an accurate view of the actual theory.
Overall, though, I don’t worry about it much. Surveys of how few people believe in evolutionary theory don’t concern me. Normal people don’t really need to know or believe it to get through life, even if it’s true. There are so many other wells of ignorance in the general population that one must either give up or accept that we can survive such4. It’s not even clear that it can be properly taught, except in catch phrases, to students in primary education (especially not if we are currently failing to teach them simple algebra, grammar, and basic history). It does provide some nice, soft, rhetorical targets from time to time which is my reason for wading in.
1 There’s a serious physical theory that this is because there is only one electron, we just see it a lot. When it goes back in time, it is percieved as anti-matter, but if you trace out every collision in the history of the universe, you see that in the end it’s all the same particle. Although there’s no obvious reason in physics that couldn’t be true, it remains a non-mainstream theory.
2 This makes arguments via the Second Law of Thermodynamics amusing, because the law actually reads
the total entropy of any isolated thermodynamic system tends to increase over time, approaching a maximum value [emphasis added]
Thermodynamics is also a statistical science and so it has no certainties either, not even the increase of entropy. Few people that I see use this Law, for good or ill, seem to grasp this point.
3 “The decrease in average temperatures created a preferential survival rate for long hair rabbits which, over the course of a number of generations, lead to a predominance of long hair rabbits”. The dryness of this may explain the anthropomorphizing, but it also ties in to the later point of trying to teach this kind of abstract theory as basic science.
4 Look at all the people who believe in Socialism, when it doesn’t even comport with their personal experience and knowledge of the world. That’s why it has to be sold by “experts”.