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Just So: is human evolution scientifically valid?

 
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brian-hansen
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Joined: 17 Mar 2006
Posts: 712
Location: Oregon

PostPosted: Fri Feb 25, 2011 6:17 pm    Post subject: Just So: is human evolution scientifically valid? Reply with quote

I just finished reading "Why Evolution is True", by Jerry Coyne.

I can't compete with the good reviewers at Amazon and elsewhere,
so, despite having a general admiration for the book and the
clarity of the writing, I'll confine myself to just one sidelight,
that, nonetheless, seems to reside at the center of the debate:
what does proof look like?

Mr. Coyne has written what appears to me to be *the* "go to" book
when wanting to bring creationists and IDers up-to-speed. A fantastic
body of evidence is surveyed, and with each significant piece of
evidence, Mr. Coyne points out that the evidence is consistent
with the theory of evolution, but that other theories (Intelligent
Design, for example) don't have anything to say, or would seem
to be contradicted. Though wanting to keep a skeptical mindset,
I found the arguments persuasive and compelling.

Still, something near the end struck me as a bit puzzling. Mr. Coyne
distanced himself (and his argument) from those who would want
to have evolutionary explanations (so-called "just-so stories") to
help understand contemporary human behavior patterns.

I can understand why, in a book designed to give readers only the
most firmly established theories (the best "talking points") when
discussing evidence for evolution, why an author would want to
avoid the more speculative areas of evolutionary theory.
WEIT is meant to provide more a a defensible beachhead against
anti-evolutionist arguments. Still, it came across as timidity,
when Mr. Coyne dismissed such notions as that rape, for instance,
would be evolutionarily selected, when he described this notion
as a "just-so" story. Just so, as in Rudyard Kipling's Just so
stories: How the Whale Got His Throat, How the Camel Got His Hump,
How the Rhinoceros etc.

I honestly don't want my posting to be about this single topic, but
I mention it as one of only a few examples of "just so" stories that
Mr. Coyne dismissed.

Maybe it's just me, but I'm having trouble keeping my notions of
proof straight. Evolution is true, his book is telling me, because
in places we look, the facts we see are consistent with a
particular story of evolution. The proof of evolution is based on
the weight of all the proofs of the "just so" stories that pertain to
each particular case: the cave-dweller's eye, the giraffe's larynx,
vestigial organs, etc.

Since his proof, persuasive as it remains, is just an agglomeration
of proofs of individual "just so" stories, it seems a little unfair to
tarnish particular individual stories with this label.

Meanwhile, the exercise has me reconsidering the difference between
what I would consider persuasive, and what I would consider to be
proof. I find myself retreating from the notion that evolution
is (proven to be) true, to the idea that evolution, as a theory,
is very, very persuasive.
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Joined: 20 Mar 2006
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 01, 2011 11:28 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I just finished reading Dawkins The Greatest Show on Earth: Evidence for Evolution ( http://www.amazon.com/Greatest-Show-Earth-Evidence-Evolution/dp/1416594787 ) which is basically a 500 page or so "argument" against the Creationists. He does well in that he brings in knowledge about the fossil records and evolutionary patterns that seems some times to be lacking in the minds of Evolution's proponents!

My own caution goes like this. Even as persuasive a theory as Evolution is...the point of science is that everything is up for grabs at any point. For example, the entire paradigm of genetic expression was just re-written in the last five years in the form of Evo-Devo theory (Endless Forms Most Beautiful is a good introduction [ http://www.amazon.com/Endless-Forms-Most-Beautiful-Science/dp/0393327795/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1299007321&sr=1-1 ]...where what for decades was considered "junk DNA" is now seen as regulatory -- causing the expression of the structural DNA to vary in growth and development. )

The thing is any theory is constantly subject challenge. It's just that the challenge must be overwhelmingly great...fantastically documented...and very much needed. I keep thinking about a book I read back at Princeton as part of my course in Population Biology. It was a work by Prof P.J. Darlington, and it was a very persuasive, scathing dissemination on the wrongheadedness of continental drift. It was published in 1959.

That said, my reading of Creationists is that their principle error is they do not do the really hard work of investigation to make their points. They merely say "there's not evidence" even when Dawkins and Coyne pour buckets of it over their heads. The "it's just a theory" argument is hard to refute because it's true. It's just a theory. It will always be a theory. It will be subject to new evidence even when proven "beyond a doubt". But it's still the best theory and fits the data most precisely.

Bottom line. If you want to knock off the heavyweight champ, you gotta train. Really hard.
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