Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Campus talk on evolution

The campus Phi Sigma Tau (the Honor Society in Philosophy; national link, campus information) had a meeting on Friday, March 27th, and they hosted Dr. Killebrew to give a talk about evolution and intelligent design. My two readers may remember that Dr. Don Killebrew was one of our speakers for the library's celebration of Darwin Day back in February. So, when I saw the announcement for the March talk, I took some time to go. Besides, part of being an Outreach Librarian is being visible in campus. Keep in mind, for audience purposes, this is a scientist speaking to a philosophy group.

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So these are my notes from the event:

  • Biologists seek to understand biological diversity. Some examples of ways to study life include, but are not limited to, physiology, genetics, conservation, cell and molecular biology.
  • Life abounds. There are far more species that have gone extinct than are alive today. And there are still many more needing description.
  • Science cannot look at nature in terms of intelligent design. The wish for some for a benevolent intelligent designer can be there, but this is not compatible with science. Science uses empirical evidence. An intelligent designer cannot be questioned. To say things happen just because does not lead us far into understanding. Scientists look at how things happen.
  • By using the methods of science, we get objective, unemotional, detached empirical causes.
On what science is:
  • a human endeavor
  • tentative: it can change. Science is not absolute. It always seeks answers based on evidence.
  • a way of knowing
  • based on observation
  • structured to be falsified: this is to mean it raises questions to gather support for an explanation.
  • open to challenge and change.
  • replicating experiments is important
  • in the end, science is about explaining the natural world.
On what science is not:
  • absolute
  • the only way to know
  • based on hopes or wishes
  • good or bad. The "bad" is in how it is used.
  • under the control of a select few. It is probably one of the most free enterprises.
  • a process that rejects the possibility of God. Science is not about discrediting the existence of God. God is left out of science.
  • able to deal with the supernatural.
  • predetermined to go in a particular direction.
The best scientific concept to explain biological diversity is evolution.

Components of evolution:
  • Natural selection
  • genetic drift
  • differential migration
  • differential mutation
  • linkage disequilibrium
  • random mating
The point is that science has come a long way since Darwin, and it has added much to his idea of natural selection. Evolution is not one theory but a multitude of theories.

The Darwinian notion of descent with modification remains consistent with the empirical evidence from the natural world as the cause of biological diversity.

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There was a Q&A after the talk. These are some notes from the questions asked:

  • On the influence of technology on evolution, or rather, on our evolution? Technology has not quite been around long enough to have an influence. What would be the "fitness" issue for humans to evolve? Faster fingers to type better? Medicine has been helpful in improving life quality, but in terms of evolutionary change, technology has not been around long enough. Now, with a high selection pressure, a very successful trait happening and passing, evolution could accelerate a bit.
  • On there being one source for evolution? Biologists ask how the diversity occured in life. Current thinking is for one common (or a few) ancestors. And yes, evolution happens simultaneously in various places (some else asked that).
  • What could falsify evolution? For instance, finding an intact human skeleton in strata of 2.5 billion years given we've been around for 5 million or so. This would have to be verifiable (i.e. not a hoax).
  • On taking God out of science? If you were to include God, you'd need a controlled experiment, which is impossible. Science does not allow for ignoring something because it is not understood.
  • On what is a theory? On the use of the word "theory." Science does not see a theory as a guess. It is based on work and evidence that supports evolution. Evolution as a fact means it has not been falsified. There is a big data set of evidence to support the theory. Intelligent design is an idea, not a theory as it lacks evidence.

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