Home > What is science? > On Technobabble in Evolutionary Theory Part 1

On Technobabble in Evolutionary Theory Part 1

There is a lot of confusion amongst a lot of people about what these terms actually mean so I’m going to present my interpretations of each term and why I’ve chosen those terms, I’m also going to use this as an opportunity to explain the various principles in evolutionary theory. Experts, remember, this is the basics, so if you see something you disagree with, first think “Is what I’ve said a good enough simplification for someone who doesn’t know so much as you?” then comment based on what you’ve thought, because, hey, I’m human, it’s possible (Probable or even likely, I would say) that I will make some errors.

So, without further ado, I will start with possibly the most contentious: Darwinism. Darwinism is often used as a synonym for the “theory of evolution by means of natural selection” which while being quite a mouthful, is often what is meant by “evolutionary theory” today which I would argue is much more accurate than Darwinism. Why do I think “Darwinism” is a bad synonym for “evolutionary theory”? Because Darwin wasn’t our prophet, he wasn’t infallible nor omniscient. He didn’t discover everything through revelation, he discovered it through ‘plain old boring’ thinking about it.

As evidence for this, I present “Things Darwin Didn’t Know About”:

  • Genetics: Gregor Mendel was a contemporary of Darwin, that is, he lived at the same time as Darwin and published his work in 1866 a full 16 years before Darwin finally kicked the bucket, however, Darwin never read his work. No-one even discovered the connection between Mendel and Darwin until the early 20th century.
  • The Age of the Earth: Dating the Earth to millions of years was typical for theorists in Darwin’s time, however, with the discovery of radiometric dating in 1905 by Ernest Rutherford expanded the age into billions of years before eventually giving us the current age of 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years.
  • The structure of the ‘tree of life’: Darwin didn’t know much about the relationships between species and groups of species. Indeed, in one of his earlier editions of “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” (Wonderful title) he hypothesised that a bear which swam through the water catching insects would be through natural selection transformed into a whale.

These principles, central to modern evolutionary theory, were at least in their infancy, and at worst, were completely misunderstood in Darwin’s time. Darwinism should effectively mean the original ideas theorised by Darwin and so does not represent current understanding in evolutionary theory.

Why is this important? Because it shows we’ve advanced since Darwin, that Darwin’s ideas weren’t accepted as dogma and then any dissenters were quickly ostracised by the scientific community. Evolutionary theory has been debated ever since the first ideas were put forward (There were several ideas concurrent to and even proceeding Darwin that suggested a mechanism for how diversity was generated in life, see Alfred Russel Wallace for an epic beard and a forgotten hero, also Lamarck who’s greatest contributions to science were not his blunders, see references below).

The problem for science in these debates was never about whether evolution occurred (See below for definition of evolution) but rather how it occurred. What effect does natural selection have? How much does genetic drift effect genetics of species? How fast does speciation occur? How important is extinction for the creation of new niches? Notice how none of these questions target the age of the earth, the permanence of species nor the fossil record? Creationists take note.

So, Darwin wasn’t perfect and therefore it’s important to separate out his ideas, the ones which began our modern evolutionary study from those that make up our current view. This also helps us to discuss controversy within science and the difference between debating an issue (Such as the effect of natural selection in evolution) and debating the fact of an issue (Whether evolution occurs).

Now, what is evolution then? If evolution isn’t Darwinism then what is evolution? Well what it isn’t is the theory of evolution nor evolutionary theory. Evolution on it’s own is the fact of evolution which is evidenced in the existence of fossils which are dated using radio-metric methods of all different sorts which are used depending on the condition of the rock. The fact of evolution is also evidenced by the studies of Grant and Grant on the Galapagos Finches, or the enormous amounts of studies done on fruit flies. Evolution, put simply, is the observed change in life as time has passed. The oldest rocks contain different animals and plants than younger rocks which are different again to modern flora and fauna.

But of course, if evolution is that, then what is the theory of evolution? Well to begin, you’d need to know the differences between theories, hypotheses, ideas, laws of nature, facts, et.c. but suffice to say that a theory is a body of tested ideas which explain facts. The theory of evolution explains how life has changed since it first emerged. It does not seek to explain the origin of life, the origin of the solar system, it is not the big bang theory, nor does it seek to disprove any god (Uncapitalised to point out all the gods that people think that word means.).

The theory of evolution is really the collection of tools we use to explain and demonstrate the way that life changes and has changed. The main tool that everyone knows about is of course, natural selection. To demonstrate natural selection, think about this:

A female weevil lays 300 eggs which mature in a month, roughly half of those weevils will be female, so 150 females in the next generation, each lays 300 eggs, that’s then 450000 weevils in two months, multiply that out after one year and there are nearly 260 septillion (260 followed by 24 zeros) weevils. If the weevils weigh 1g each, then the total mass of all the weevils would be equal to nearly half the mass of the earth (Earth mass = 5.97e24kg). Clearly, since we aren’t swimming in a sea of weevils, something is limiting them, preventing them from reaching this enormous mass.

Now, evolutionary theory, isn’t about what is limiting the weevils, but rather how the weevils are limited. The idea being that the limits on the weevils are selective, that is, weevils the best at being weevil-y will be better at resisting the factors which limit them. So, for example, the weevils I’m talking about are rice weevils (Sitophilus oryzae) and they live in enormous grain stores where there is a bit of an issue about how much oxygen they acquire, so, if a weevil is pretty good at living without much oxygen, they’ll do better in that environment.

However, this problem happens across the generations, it’s not just a problem for the current weevils, but also their descendants. So any benefit will only help the weevils as a whole survive if any resistance to low oxygen levels is heritable. If a weevil passes on it’s ability to use less oxygen then it’s descendants will be better equipped to survive than others.

This is just one mode for variation in a population to facilitate change (read: evolution). Hopefully you can see why this is such a big deal, to limit organisms in their way of life is the ground state for nature, things aren’t limitless and so animals will not all survive. This means that organisms will compete with each other for their ‘place’ in the population and their opportunity to reproduce. Then if the differences between the organisms can be passed on, then the populations will change over time.

This is all the basics of evolutionary change. This is what we use to understand biology today. Shocking it could be so simple. This post is getting pretty long now so I’ll cover other things in another post at some point. Things like sexual selection, the role of genes etc will be covered next time (If I ever do get around to carrying on this mini-series).


Lamarck: See Eight Little Piggies by Stephen J. Gould. In one essay (I forget which and don’t have my copy to hand) he discusses the misrepresentation of Lamarck. Though I know in the book he also discusses Goethe, Haley and Ussher as representatives of people who have been misrepresented by history.

Ideas: This essay is based heavily on my thoughts prompted by reading Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond. Defining terms used in evolution is a topic discussed in a section of the book and it helped me to realise the issues surrounding lay readership of technical work. The use of differing terms confuses even experts (Not me, rather my lecturers when I ask them about issues in the literature) so the various terms will undoubtedly confuse anyone unacquainted with the literature.

A note on Wikipedia: I don’t know if I’ve mentioned my heavy use of Wikipedia references before but I think that in this blog a lay reference is fine and accessible for the interested reader who doesn’t want a long technical paper detailing the various arguments and counter-arguments presented by the expert.

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