12 February 2009


today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of charles robert darwin , whose theory of evolution is one of a small handful of paradigm-shifting works of brilliant insight. although his seminal voyage as resident naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle took place in 1831, it wasn't until 1858 that darwin published his seminal "On The Origin of Species", after years of experimenting and testing his thinking. the results reverberate to this day. his realization that species evolve, influenced by both natural selection and sexual selection, revolutionized our understanding of nature, and of ourselves. darwin's theory of evolution was buttressed and solidified by later discoveries in genetics by gregor mendel, and still later by watson and crick's discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule.

let's be clear about a few terms. in science, we assign special meaning to the following:

a hypothesis is a tentative explanation for an observation, phenomenon or scientific problem that can be tested by further investigation; the antecedent of a conditional statement. e.g., the hypothesis that two objects of different weight, dropped from a height, will reach the ground at the same time.

a theory is a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena. e.g., the theory of evolution by natural selection.

a law is a statement describing a relationship observed to be invariable between or among phenomena for all cases in which the specific conditions are met. e.g., the law of gravity.

there are those, generally of a particular religious bent, who dismiss darwin's work as "merely a theory." but they either mistakenly fall victim to the ambiguity of language, in which one word may have a number of different meanings; or else they intentionally take advantage of that ambiguity to further their own agenda. for in the more generalized public understanding of the word, outside of science, a theory is a conjecture, a supposition. it is understandable that in our society, in which education in the sciences is at a third-world level, the general public might not make the distinction in meanings. but actively sowing such confusion is misguided at best, irresponsibly manipulative and venal at worst.

back to darwin. happy birthday, charles. may you live long and prosper.

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