Evolution is misunderstood because science itself is misunderstood. Science has been conflated with atheism, Social Darwinism, and the cold, inhuman march of progress that ultimately leads to the subjugation of humans by machines in many a science fiction novel. Science is no more any of these things than a mechanical engineer is the person with the striped hat in the locomotive engine. Science is a discipline narrowly focused on posing answerable questions about the physical universe. Science is simply a useful tool for understanding the physical world.
The confusion and maligning of science, and especially the theory of biological evolution, is unfortunate. Part of this confusion stems from the acceptance by some of a false choice: either you accept science and reject spirituality, or you accept spirituality and reject science. However, this misses the point: science is simply a tool for understanding the natural world – it cannot provide evidence for or against what is beyond nature.
A scientist is no more qualified to show or falsify the existence of God than an auto mechanic. A vertebrate animal is (kind of) like a car, and an auto mechanic’s job, like that of a scientist, is firmly planted in the physical. I don’t know about you, but when I take my car to the auto mechanic, I expect that he or she will diagnose and fix the problems I have with the car physically. I expect to get a bill with items such as: low break-fluid, ruptured radiator, pin-hole leak in the air conditioning compressor, or worn break pad. I expect to see how they physically have altered my car so that it is once again safe to drive. I do not expect my auto mechanic to wax philosophic on the nature of good and evil, or to tell me that something supernatural is to blame for my car’s troubles. I also don’t plan to ask my auto mechanic for spiritual guidance or emotional counseling, or even for oboe lessons, because all these things fall outside his or her job description (unless they moonlight in oboe lessons, of course).
Science works similarly. There may be an ultimate purpose to the universe, and there may be a spiritual realm, but science is not the right tool to address those issues. On the other hand, understanding the pattern and functional evolution of vertebrates does fall under the purview of science, because it has occurred in the physical world and can be tested under the explanatory umbrella of the theory of biological evolution.
But what is the theory of biological evolution? Biological evolution is not simply “change over time” as is often claimed. Your watch changes over time, but it certainly does not evolve. It is telling that when Charles Darwin drew his first conception of evolution during his travels aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, he drew a family tree of finches. In science lingo, Darwin drew a phylogeny – a branching diagram of common ancestry and descent of the finches on the Galapagos Islands.
Darwin, and Alfred Russell Wallace independently, successfully united two concepts into one that provided a simple but effective explanation for the diversity of life: 1) common ancestry and 2) the passing of heritable traits via natural selection. Put simply, the biological theory of evolution can be stated as descent with modification from a single, common ancestor. All life on earth is related through a great family tree. Different branches of the family tree have inherited modified characteristics unique to their portion of the pedigree through a process of natural selection.
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