Adam asked:

I’m very curious at the moment and have no strong views on this topic and would very much like to get your opinion.

The theory of evolution is a fairly wild claim by the looks of things. How can we assume that ancestors of monkeys/dolphins/ and humans were equal. Besides from the fact that we have free will and animals are driven by innate needs, (which I feel is an impossible extension of evolution) for evolution to occur, we are looking at probabilities of 1 in 1012000000 to 1 in 1024000000 (taken from John Barrow and Frank Tipler’s book). Most mathematicians would deem these numbers impossible. I do understand however that micro evolution is fairly prominent and commonly seen (moths changing colour due to predators etc).

I feel the issue is and why this theory is more evident within science as apposed to a theory like string theory, is this theory has apposed creationists. Its no more proven.

I think that it’s man’s need to explain his own existence, and the origin of it why most religions start, as well as such focus on the evolution/big bang theory model of life.

My question is for your views on the matter, and possibly for an explanation as to why humans have such a drive to find their origin as the fact is whatever religion says there is no way we will ever find the true origin of any of these theories. i.e. the obvious, where did the two huge masses in space come from that collided. Or if there were fish that decided to walk on land, there must have been a first fish who decided the water was not good enough and would have needed to develop legs and a whole knew body system to be land dwelling, furthermore he would need another fish to do the same to copulate with.

If you could shed some light for me that would be appreciated.

Answer by Craig Skinner

You quote from ‘Barrow and Tipler’s book’ (which I take to be ‘The Anthropic Cosmological Principle’), you mention two huge masses colliding (I take this to refer to colliding ‘branes’ producing a Big Bang), you mention string theory, and you question evolution. So you are clearly grappling with big and controversial ideas, which is excellent. Also you have ‘no strong views’ on these subjects, which is even better, open-mindedness is a real asset.

First, the probabilities. Yes, the probability of one-step development of say the human genome from simple chemicals is fantastically tiny, and can be disregarded. Fred Hoyle (another physicist/mathematician) likened it to a tornado hitting a junkyard and assembling a working 747 jet plane. But evolution proceeds by multiple small steps, each far less improbable, so that complexity arises very gradually through a series of intermediates, each stable. It’s as if monkeys typed randomly and every time a letter happened to be in the right place for the text of ‘Hamlet’, that letter was retained (others rejected): the text of ‘Hamlet’ would be produced in a remarkably short time. You seem to accept ‘microevolution’. It can become macro-, given enough time, it’s just that the human lifespan is so short compared to macroevolutionary timescales, that we don’t see it.

Secondly, as to theories being ‘proven’. They cant be. Only maths (and logic) involves proof (deduction from agreed axioms or premises). Scientific theories are our best explanations for observed data. Of course we aim to arrive at true theories, but cant be absolutely sure that any particular theory is true. We thought Newton’s theory of gravity true till Einstein came along, and now we know Einstein’s theory is incompatible with quantum mechanics so that one or both need to be modified in a new ‘theory of everything’ (enter string theory and other speculations). My view is that the theory of evolution by natural selection, as an account of the complex biosphere, is the most secure of all scientific theories. There have been countless observations which might have falsified it, and it has passed every test. Furthermore, I think it is the only conceivable mechanism for the natural (as opposed to supernatural) production of complex life forms from simple precursors, not only here on Earth but anywhere/anytime. Of course many details remain to be ascertained such as the relative importance of genetic drift and geographical isolation, of mutation and genetic mixing, and the responsiveness of genomes to the environment (epigenetics). But the fundamental idea, in my view, is far beyond reasonable doubt. There are many good accounts of evolution by biologists. The best by a philosopher is Daniel Dennett’s book ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’.

Thirdly, your enterprising fish has no need of legs or new body systems to take the first steps on land. The mudskipper (and there are others) can survive for hours or days out of water (it has an air bladder for flotation which doubles as a proto lung) as it trundles along on its fins looking for a pool of water when conditions are dry. No doubt our ancestors did something similar.

Fourthly, I don’t see that ‘free will’ is an impossible extension of evolution. I don’t know what sort of free will you think you have. I think I have free will in the Humean sense of being able to do what I want (free of external constraints, but determined by events in my brain) but not in the Kantian sense of having alternative options than what I actually choose. But this is a whole other debate. However, I don’t see any clash with evolution.

Why have we such a drive to find our origins, the nature of the world and and our place in it ? I suppose because we are curious by nature (an evolved trait of survival value in our ancestors, also seen in many of our simian cousins), and are smart enough to have made some headway in our understanding.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Adam what you have written shows that you don’t understand the theory of evolution at all so your attempts to criticise it are nonsense. Fish don’t decide to walk on land, apes don’t decide to walk on two legs and then become men.

Forget my views on the matter and forget your views on the matter, what we are dealing with here are facts and scientific theories that explain the facts, views don’t come into it.

You really need to study the theory in detail before you think about it. Darwin didn’t just dream up his theory from nowhere, he spent years studying nature in great detail and studying the fossil record.

Like all good scientists Darwin looked at the facts (the evidence) and he tried to devise a theory that would explain the facts (in detail). Since Darwin’s time we have amassed an enormous amount of evidence from geology, fossil discoveries, radio carbon dating, physics, geography and from the unravelling of the genetic code. All of this evidence supports Darwin’s theory of ‘Evolution by means of Natural Selection’. It is one of most well established theories of science. No one who criticises it has come up with any believable evidence against it nor have they come up with an alternative scientific theory to replace it.

Now if you can come up with an alternative theory that explains all the known facts then you may be able to overturn Darwin. However you should remember that Darwin wasn’t a philosopher, he wasn’t trying to explain man’s origins, he wasn’t just dreaming up wild but interesting ideas. He was a scientist trying to explain facts and you need to know what the facts are before you can criticise his theory.

First you need to study the theory and the facts, in detail, and that is going to mean reading a lot of books. Science is not a philosophy and science is not a religion.