How could evolutionary theory be falsified?

cambrianrabbit

A rabbit fossil in Cambrian rock would be difficult to understand under current evolutionary theory.

Creationists often charge that evolutionary theory is unfalsifiable; that there is no way to potentially disprove it, if it were in fact incorrect. This is in essence an “I know you are but what am I” response to their critics who have rightfully pointed out that “God did it” as an explanation is not testable against the evidence from the natural world and therefore not a valid scientific explanation for anything.

This is because hypotheses, in order to qualify as scientific, must be testable against observable evidence in the natural world. In other words, in addition to there being potential observations that might support a given hypothesis, there should likewise be some potential observations that would tend to disprove a hypothesis.

Since God can do anything in any way, for any reason, here are no potential observations of the natural world that could disprove God’s involvement, which means the “God did it” hypothesis is unscientific in character.

In any event, is it true, as creationists charge, that there are no potential observations that would tend to disprove evolutionary theory?

The short answer is no, it is not true. However, for something more in depth you should head over to Why Evolution Is True where biologist Jerry Coyne provides several scenarios that would be highly problematic for current evolutionary theory.

In my general talk on the evidence for evolution, I give a list of seven observations that, if repeated and confirmed, would disprove parts of the theory of evolution described above. This shows that it is a scientific theory in the Popperian sense of being falsifiable.  Here are some of those conceivable observations:

  • Fossils in the wrong place (e.g., mammals in the Devonian). If the fossil record were all out of order like this (a single anomalous fossil might not overturn everything, of course, since it could be in the wrong place for other reasons), we’d have to seriously question the occurrence of evolution.

I recommend you hop over and check out the rest.

The last thing I want to say about this particular creationist claim, is that in addition to it being false, it is also stands in rather blatant contradiction to what creationists do on a regular basis, which is to argue that this or that bit of evidence somehow counts against evolutionary theory.

I mean what sense can we make of Duane Gish’s book Evolution, the Fossils Say No! (1978) if he was not arguing that the fossil evidence was disconfirming of the evolution hypothesis?

The mind boggles.

[And now John Wilkins, or some other philosopher of science, will yell at me about Popperian Falsificationism being passé with regards to the demarcation problem. Just to head that off somewhat I am not advocating naive falsificationism.]

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6 thoughts on “How could evolutionary theory be falsified?

  1. “And now John Wilkins, or some other philosopher of science, will yell at me about Popperian Falsificationism being passé with regards to the demarcation problem. Just to head that off somewhat I am not advocating naive falsificationism.”

    No (and Wilkins has agreed with me on this), any argument that, by its own terms, denies that there can be evidence against it (such as Omphalos or “presuppositionalism”) cannot be science. The “problem” is that falsifiability (as Popper originally proposed it — he modified it later on, though probably not successfully) is not a reliable way to separate science from nonscience. But that is only at the the the close intersection of science/nonscience.

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  2. To expand just a bit, Larry Laudan, a distinguished philosopher of science, criticized Michael Ruse’s testimony at the McLean trial on the basis that creationists *do* make falsifiable claims and that their claims have been falsified. Ergo, they were just doing bad science. The point I think Laudan missed was that the creationists denied the very existence of those falsifications and, therefore, were, in fact, denying that their claims could be falsified. It was just a back-door route to Omphalos.

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    • When we are talking about YEC (and to a lesser extent OEC), yes they do make many testable claims, which, as you know, are almost always (to be generous) falsified. But they also make unfalsifiable claims, liberally sprinkling “God did it” miracles into their narratives.

      So it’s a mix of testable (mostly falsified claims) with untestable “God did it” miracles.

      Then of course there is ID creationism which is just “evolution sucks” combined with untestable “God did it” claims.

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