Evolution as testable science

This morning I came across this i09 arcitle about Zack Kopplin’s fight against teaching creationism in science classes in public schools. I looked at the comments (which is not usually a good thing to do) and saw that at least one person claimed that evolution is not testable (as the article states), and that “some facets of it are just as much religion as anything else”. I usually try not to engage people who tend to dismiss evolution in that way, because usually that will get you nowhere, but it occurred to me that the person who wrote that is suffering more from ignorance than anything else. So I thought I would try to educate a few folks at least by writing a blog post.

Evolution can be split into two parts: the pattern and the process. The pattern of evolution could also be called the history of life on Earth. And yes, there is a lot that we do not know about it because we have only an incomplete fossil record. Most of what we know from that is based on observations (painstaking observations in many cases), but that is true of a good deal of what we know about species that are currently alive on Earth. And although the conclusions drawn from the fossil record may not seem testable, scientists use computer simulations to test their hypotheses. This is perfectly in line with the scientific method: make observations (look at the fossils), create hypotheses, test the hypotheses (the computer models), and draw conclusions from the results. Then go back to the beginning and start again!

When it comes to understanding the process of evolution, we’re talking about figuring out HOW it might occur. These processes include things like mutation, natural selection, and sexual selection. This is what I study. And I study it using the scientific method, which comes back to the idea of studying evolution as a testable theory in science (side note: for something to become “theory” in science, its hypotheses MUST be tested and supported repeatably). Anyway, the process can be studied in many ways, such as looking at allele frequencies of genes, looking at differential expression of genes, studying behaviors of animals, using mathematical models, using computer simulations, and the list goes on and on.  All of these studies are done in an effort to understand a hypothesis, and at the end of a study/experiment, the data will either support or not support the hypothesis. That is how science works, folks! And yes, maybe in the effort to study evolution we’re not all manipulating an organism like you might in a lab studying cancer, but in some cases you might. It all depends on the hypothesis you’re addressing!

I hope this blog post has convinced you that studying evolution is done actually using the scientific method, and that it’s not just all magical/religious mumbo jumbo. If not, leave a comment!

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