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 Post subject: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Fri Feb 13, 2009 11:49 am 
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Yesterday was Darwin Day, celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. In honor of this auspicious occasion, I present the following:

One of the chief complaints raised against Evolution by those who fail to understand the Theory is that it does not make testable predictions. This is, of course, absurd. The Theory of Evolution, even the primitive version advanced by Charles Darwin, makes any number of testable predictions, the failure of which would doom the Theory. These days we fail to realize this precisely because the Theory has been so successful. It's successes are so profound few people today can imagine a world in which it might have failed.

In particular, the test I am thinking of is the mechanism for evolution. When Darwin proposed his theory, there was no actual mechanism in the theory to account for inheritance. Remember, Gregor Mendel's work on genetics was lost at the time and would not be rediscovered, or understood, until well after Darwin proposed his own theory. The lack of a mechanism was not a weakness of the theory. Quite the opposite. For Darwin's theory to be correct, certain other things about the nature of inheritance and the operation of what we now call 'genetic traits' would have to be true.

In particular, Darwin's theory implied that traits must be passed down from parents to offspring in a very restricted fashion. Parents would pass on the traits that had been valuable to their children in their germ cell lines. The mechanism for evolution must be small enough to fit in these germ cells. For sperm cells, this meant that the mechanism for evolution must be contained in the cell nucleus. For only the nucleus of the sperm cell is preserved in a fertilized egg.

Further, the mechanism must allow for some form of variation. A species needs a stock of varieties on which natural selection is to operate. Or, to put it in modern terms, the mechanism must allow for mutation. These mutations must occur at a fairly low rate. They must also be inheritable. And most should be survivable, introducing new minor variation with the occasional major variation.

Darwin's theory implied all this and more. It set hard limits on just what the mechanism should and should not be able to do. But beyond making predicitons about the nature of the mechanism, it made no proposal for what the mechanism was. The theory didn't need it. Sure, it'd be nice if it could have been put it at the time, but science, and knowledge, isn't perfect. Darwin had more than enough information to advance his theory. Further, the theory was specific enough to allow bold predictions to be made on the nature of what we now call genetics and inheritance.

In essence, Darwin's theory predicted a large number of the facts of what we now know as DNA more than a century before it was discovered. The discover and understanding of DNA, now more than sixty years ago, was one of the major triumphs of the Theory of Evolution. And it was one of the major tests. If DNA did not operate as it did, if traits did not operate as Gregor Mendel detailed, it would have been a severe, perhaps fatal, blow to Darwin's theory. But the success of Evolution in predicting the nature of DNA now serves as one of its centerpieces. Mendel's work now serves to bolster Darwin's. Both led directly to the discovery of DNA.

Scientists today seldom talk about testing the Theory of Evolution. There are no major laboratory tests to verify the theory, as some skeptics claim is necessary. This is not because of some misplaced faith in the theory or some sort of religious dogma among evolutionary biologists. The answer is far simpler. Darwin's Theory of Evolution has already undergone its trial by fire, its life or death struggles with the scientific community when every scientist in every field from biology to quantum physics set out to destroy it. It did so more than a century ago. It has passed so many trials that it is no longer given the label of hypothesis, but has, with over one hundred and fifty years of stunning successes behind it, grudgingly been promoted to the lofty ranks of theory.

So happy birthday Charles Darwin. And hats off to the single most successful theory of all time. Quantum mechanics may be accurate to seventeen decimal places, and Relativity may have successfully predicted the shape and structure of the universe at every point for the last thirteen billion years, but we know they are wrong. Today, we know of no mistakes in the Theory of Evolution. It is humanity's most successful Grand Unified Theory, uniting Mendel's peas with Leaky's fossils with Watson and Crick's crystallography studies with the Germ Theory of Disease with the study of Alzheimer's with moldy bread with computer science with geology and the age of the Earth with solar and nuclear physics and the age of stars, all with a group of finches on a far away island, unimaginable remote, but still connected to the ebb and flow of life.

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Fri Feb 13, 2009 12:53 pm 
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Sadly, Carl Safina has proposed that Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live.

I suppose he makes some valid points about the fetishism of Darwin (and the fact that no one speaks of Einsteinism or Newtonism)...but it is kind of sad when valid scientific theories with so much experimental evidence behind them need to be divorced from those who proposed them because of such pathetic controversy.

On the other hand, maybe the sort of people who believe that "science is evil but technology is inspired by God" do speak of Newtonism and Maxwellism...

I've going to go back to studying the black art of Hidden Markov Models now...maybe I can use them to summon beer.

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Fri Feb 13, 2009 11:25 pm 
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Only ones 'fetishizing' Darwin are antiscience people trying to disguise the theory as the ramblings of some old guy. Why does no one ever complain about Wallace?

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Fri Feb 13, 2009 11:33 pm 
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Because no one's ever heard of him.

Thing is, Darwin, Newton, and Einstein all came up with theories that were fundamentally true and breathtakingly new.

But both Newton and Einstein were quickly, simply, and easily proven correct.

Darwin's proof was complex and difficult, and didn't happen for about 100 years, when DNA was fully elucidated. So fundies were given time to ramble about monkeys.

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Sat Feb 14, 2009 2:18 am 
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Newton and Einstein are somewhat unique in that the theories that bear their names are the work of a single individual. Both of their theories survived the early tests largely intact. Our understanding of Relativity is now more profound, but it is fundamentally the same mathematical equations Einstein wrote down almost a century ago. The same goes for Newton. Our modern mathematics are far superior than the calculus he used, but this is just a mathematical slight of hand. Rearrange the terms and a Hamiltonian snaps back to Newton's simple calculus.

Darwin is different. Evolution is a vast and complex theory, far more complex and powerful than what was described in Origin of Species. Calling the Theory of Evolution 'Darwin's Theory' is no more accurate than calling the Standard Model 'Schrödinger's Theory' or the Germ Theory of Disease 'Lewenhoke's Theory' or ascribing any of the other complex theories in use today to the work of one person. Darwin started it, just as Einstein kicked off quantum theory with his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Though Darwin's relative contribution was far greater, the Theory of Evolution is the result of thousands of scientists working for decades to build a coherent explanation of the observed fact of evolution.

Silly Green Monkey is quite right, the obsession with Darwin is the religious opponents trying to recast this as a debate between the Word of God and some crazy haired dead guy from ancient history. It is childish and an ad hominem attack. But it appears to be working. A poll I saw the other day had only 4 in 10 US citizens believing the Theory of Evolution is accurate. This is an astoundingly bad number for a population so addicted to antibiotics.

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Sat Feb 14, 2009 2:29 am 
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I'm relatively sure that a lot of these polls on American idiocy are the result of faulty survey methods. 4 in 10 believing evolution is a ludicrous number, I think it more likely that the question asked was more loaded.

I've heard of Wallace and I dislike him because of his late life spiritualistic gobbledygook.

EDIT:

Ahhh....

http://www.gallup.com/poll/114544/Darwin-Birthday-Believe-Evolution.aspx

While 39% chose the "Believe in Evolution", 36% chose the option of "No Opinion either way." Only 25% chose "do not believe in Evolution."

It would be just as accurate from that data to say that only 1 in 4 Americans do not believe in Evolution.

Splitting the difference of the apathetic, you get closer to 6 in 10 believing in Evolution, still bad, but less embarassing.

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Sat Feb 14, 2009 3:36 am 
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Bad, but promising.

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Sat Feb 14, 2009 4:13 am 
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I think we can say either that 4 out of 10 pollsters have no idea how to intelligently construct a survey or 4 out of 10 reporters will choose the most sensational way to construe a news item. Possibly both.

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Sat Feb 14, 2009 5:19 am 
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Sorry Duke, the numbers really are that extreme. Look at this poll.

The question specifically states: ""Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings? (1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process. (2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process. (3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so."

And since they first started asking this question in the 1980s, up until last year, over 40% has consistently answered "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so."

Perhaps some of those who say they have no opinion about evolution are really only open to "micro-evolution" - used to explain the breeding of dogs and suchlike.

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Sat Feb 14, 2009 5:58 am 
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It looks more like there's a 20% that is entirely confused by the whole line of questioning.

Note that below the survey results you point out there is one survey that simultaneously affirms that 39% Believe Creationism is definitely true and only 28% who believe that Evolution is definitly false. (June 1-3, 2007) This indicates to me that there is a considerable minority that somehow concludes that evolution taking place and god creating humans in the last 10,000 years is non-mutually exclusive. I wonder what the results would be if they bundled human evolution and geological history together in one option.

This doesn't really argue much for the overall intelligence and erudition of my countrymen, naturally. If we go from the fact those with no opinion are strongly correlated with the High School education, I would guess that there's a significant minority that just doesn't listen and agrees with everything.

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Sat Feb 14, 2009 9:52 am 
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waffle wrote:
Darwin started it, just as Einstein kicked off quantum theory with his explanation of the photoelectric effect.
Shouldn't Planck get the credit for throwing the first pitch on that one?

I mean come on, Einstein has about five or six big things to be famous for. Planck only has about one. Show a little love for the minor great physicists here!

Aside from that, I agree with just about everything else you said there.

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Sat Feb 14, 2009 11:36 am 
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Planck has his own constant. I'm pretty sure Einstein doesn't.

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Sat Feb 14, 2009 11:52 am 
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Let's start a ballot initiative to rename c in his honor. Then Han Solo can be redubbed to say of the Millennium Falcon "She can make .5 past Einstein..."

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Sat Feb 14, 2009 1:38 pm 
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Planck's Constant
Planck's Length
Planck's Time

That's pretty good. The only one Einstein got was
Einstein's Cosmological Constant

And that didn't work out so well...

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 Post subject: Re: Happy Darwin Day!
 Post Posted: Sat Feb 14, 2009 3:17 pm 
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And it's tough to make a good boat out of einsteins.

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