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.]

“Reason and creationism”

My friend and colleague (frienlleague?) Dr. Eugenie Scott gave, yet another, excellent talk titled “Reason and creationism” at the Global Atheist Convention, Melbourne, Australia (4/15/2012). Have a watch:

NCSE Home Page

“The silly things those creationists say” – Pharyngula podcast #2

I lucked out and was able to be one of the participants on biologist P.Z. Myers’ Pharyngula video podcast (#2). The subject of this podcast was, as you may have guessed by my post title, creationism. Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience was also there, as were several other people who, while they were new to me, seemed to be hip to the subject. I really enjoyed it and the time just few by. 

My thanks to the other participants and especially to P.Z. for having me!

“The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Creation Science”

The Sensuous Curmudgeon has given us an eloquent exposition on why “creation scientists” are immune to empirical evidence and why there is no science in “creation science”. I highly recommend you give it a read.

[Hat tip to Richard Hoppe over at Panda’s Thumb.]

In which I yell at everyone on the interwebs

A Facebook friend posted a link to a YouTube video titled “Top Ten Creationist Arguments” by The Thinking Atheist. I had seen it before, it’s slickly produced and OK as far as it goes (though I would have a different list of 10 creationists arguments) but that’s not what got me going. In the video TTA gives a quote from the late Stephen Jay Gould:

This caught my eye because I have been researching stuff to do with philosophy of science, i.e. the testability of evolutionary theory and the difference between the so called experimental sciences and historical sciences. In particular I thought I had remembered reading a essay by Gould on the subject and I thought this quote might give me a lead on it. The problem is TTA doesn’t give a source for the quote. “No problem”, I thought, “I’ll just Google it and it should be a snap to find the source.” Bzzzt! Wrong. Oh if you Google the quote you’ll get a gillion links but none* of them give the source of the quote!

After a half and hour or so of Google mining I finally found a site that gave the source as Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995), but it provided no page number! So I pulled my copy off the shelf, blew the dust off the top  (damn dust) and checked the index for references to creationism.

There were a couple and while Gould did say something like this in one part of the book referenced, it wasn’t an exact quote. Finally I went to Amazon.com and found that they allowed one to search the contents of the book, and at last I got the information I was looking for.

The quote appears on page 397 (of the 1st hardback edition) and is not one of the places listed in the index for the term creationism. Here it is with some context:

One tangential point before I leave this elegant study [a genetic study of certain crabs, see below – T.B.]. Creationists critics often charge that evolution cannot be tested, and therefore cannot be viewed as a properly scientific subject at all (see the next essay for a fuller discussion of this important issue). This claim is rhetorical nonsense. How could one ask for a better test, based on a very risky prediction, than this? The counterintuitive link between king and hermit crabs was postulated on the basis of classical evidence from morphology (the arguments detailed previously in this essay as points 1-3). This prediction was then tested by the completely independent data set of DNA sequence comparisons — and confirmed in spades, with even closer propinquity than suspected between king crab and hermit crab lines.

I regard this story of king and hermit crabs as one of the most elegant I have learned of late in evolutionary biology–a lovely combination of a fascinating and counterintuitive tale; a multifaceted, rigorous and convincing pile of supporting data; and a lesson of intriguing generality  (the difference between genealogical propinquity and any functional meaning of similarity–and the overriding importance of propinquity). (Gould 1995, p. 397, emphasis mine)

Great, curiosity satisfied!

So please, please, please, people, don’t just throw quote around willy-nilly. Give proper references. [I’ll make an exception for T-shirts, but that’s it!]

OK, I got that out of my system, end pedantic rant.

[* I didn’t look at every single Google result so this is a rhetorical “none”.]

Reference

Gould, Stephen Jay (1995) Dinosaur in a Haystack, Harmony Books, NY, 1st hardback edition

My Weekend at the O.C. Freethought Alliance Conference

The Orange County Freethought Alliance Conference (3rd Annual) is “in the can” and I had a blast. I went as part of a contingent from my local Atheist, Agnostic & Skeptics Meetup group, which had purchased a table at the event. The table was right up front next to the speakers table, all the people in our group were great and there were lots of interesting talks presented! I got to meet lots of new people and say hi to familiar friends and colleagues.

Here are a few of the new people:

Dave Silverman, president of the American Atheists who was famously challenged by Bill O’Reilly to explain how every day the tides go in and go out with “never a miscommunication”.

Aron Ra, a very popular YouTube anti-creationist and veteran of the talk.origins newsgroup. I had three people think I was him, before he arrived, though I’m not sure why. Considering how many things we share in common, it is somewhat surprising it took this long for us to run into each other.

And last but actually First the Lord Himself…

Mr. Deity, AKA “El“, AKA the very funny Brian Keith Dalton. If you don’t know who Mr. Deity is, go right now to his YouTube channel and start with episode one. See also the official Mr. Deity website.

The end of the conference came late Sunday afternoon just as a partial solar eclipse started and the organizers had two telescopes set up with special filters to allow us to safely view it. One of the scopes just showed the sun as a white disk with the moon cutting into it but the other actually allowed you to just make out the filaments of the many loops, flares and prominences in the corona of the sun. I have seen many pictures and films of these phenomena before but this was the first time I actually saw them with my own eyes. Incredible.

A NASA photograph showing solar prominences etc.

Once again I have a really great time and all the people I talked to, especially those at our table were a lot of fun. Thanks to Aaron for organizing our contingent and to the other members of our group for being such good company! My only regret is I got a bit distracted and got out of there kind of quickly at the end and didn’t get a chance to say a proper goodbye to them or to my friend and colleague Barbara Forrest (who was one of the speakers). Hopefully I’ll get to see them all again soon.

If you’re interested you can watch a streaming video or buy a DVD of the event from the O. C. Freethought Alliance (look for the guy in a black t-shirt with the long hair near the front) and if you live in the area consider attending the 4th Annual O. C. Freethought Alliance Conference in 2013. You just might see me there in person.

The Annual Orange County Freethought Alliance Conference

I will be attending the Third Annual Orange County Freethought Alliance Conference this weekend and am looking forward to meeting people whose work I have admired (Aron Ra, Mr. Deity) as well as getting a chance to see friends and colleagues I’ve met in the past (Michael Shermer, Barbara Forrest). And on off chance any of my readers are attending, I hope to get a change to met you to. Just look for the guy with long hair and a goatee, that isn’t Aron Ra (see his pic below).

Hopefully I’ll have some photographic evidence of event to share with everyone next week.