All of us have questions. We have about who we are and why we’re here. How we go about answering those questions depends on the question but fundamentally in order to begin answering a question we need to ask what we know and how we know first. Sometimes just by examining what is known we can better tailor or search or adjust our question so that the answers we obtain will really satisfy what it is we really want to know. I say what we want to know, rather than what we want to hear, or want to be true because knowledge is a very special category of human endeavor. In order for something to be called knowledge it must be established with evidence. This means that unfortunately a lot of things that are true will come into direct conflict with things which we wish to be true, things we may have faith in because they conform to certain expectations we may have. This is why many of us are attracted to easy answers-answers which conform to our worldview or reinforce beliefs we may have about ourselves. Take the origin of human life, for example. Many will offer the simple response- “God did it.” Consider this answer.
Some people will think, “ahhh of course.” Of course what though? How do you know god did it? What exactly did god do? How did god do it? How does that initial response, “God did it”, even begin to tackle these questions? The answer is it doesn’t. But the answer itself is simple and comforting inside of a worldview that human life is special and that there is an entity that is interested in out existence. And that is why people prefer it to a more complex answer like, humans evolved over the course of millions of years of evolution. Often when I have discussions with people they are in awe just how our bodies work, human cognition, etc. This is because most of us from the time we are children raised with the idea that human life is special- that we are the center of the universe. Its an attractive perspective. We have these amazing bodies and these amazing intellects- why wouldn’t we be at center of things? It seems reasonable that if we were special that something made us special. This notion that we are somehow created special is one of the many objections people have to evolution, but what if we aren’t special?
Take the human eye. Several other species have better vision than humans, snakes can see in infrared, cats and dogs have better night vision. And that is just one organ. Studying the rest of our anatomy just further demonstrates that our bodies aren’t as perfect as many of us like to think, they are merely sufficient. And recognizing this is hard for many people because simple ideas are easier to digest and seem more authoritative than complex answers which require time to explain and flesh out. Explanations to many of us seem to signal weakness or uncertainty and we are uncomfortable with uncertainty. But in fact we live in a world full of uncertainty, all the time we are finding out about new species, or new realities in physics, or new worlds in astronomy, etc. And more and more we live in a world that cannot afford simple answers to complex questions like climate change, or overpopulation, etc. We can’t wave off science, the best flashlight we have to pierce the darkness of our uncertainty, with a simple “god did it”-even if that’s what you believe. By insisting upon simple answers like these be given precedence over those that can be verified people deprive themselves and others of truth, truth which could improve our decisions and may help improve our future.
So what sort of questions can science answer? Well science can answer a question concerning anything that can be tested-that means it must be observable. Scientific questions ask what something is, or what it does, or how does it do it. Scientific questions can’t tell you what something means. Meaning is entirely subjective. Can it tell you about whether god did something or not? Well, that’s not a question science can answer or is even really interested in answering although, some people believe that specific claims made about “god” are in fact testable. The question of how human life originated is testable and the best answer we have is the theory of evolution. Oh, there is that word theory- this is the word that starts most of the arguments about science in the public. I mean most people use theory in the colloquial sense, like one of your friends probably says they have a theory about how to pick the best fantasy football team- whatever they might tell you its not scientific. But I will let Dr. Eugenie Scott explain what a theory is:
Like Dr. Scott described in science a theory has explanatory power. Scientific theories are more than mere guesswork, they bind together the evidence and laws into a framework that helps us to understand how things fit together or how they work. So when you hear the words, evolutionary theory, you cannot just dismiss evolution as though its unsupported by evidence. You should begin by examining what the evidence is to begin with. Below I have listed several sources that provide information about evolutionary theory and I hope you will consider the information they offer. However, If you take nothing else from this blog, just always be wary of an easy answer particularly when that answer doesn’t explain much of anything.