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Science Flows On

May 12, 1985

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus asserted in the 6th Century BC that all things are in constant flux and that change is inherent in the universe. In 1859 his intellectual descendant, Charles Darwin, revolutionized science with his book "On the Origin of Species," which proposed the theory of evolution--a biological explanation for the diversity of life and for the development of higher organisms from lower ones. Darwin called the process "natural selection," and many others have called it "survival of the fittest": Change occurs by chance, and organisms better suited to their environments live on, while those less suited die off.

From the outset, evolution was in conflict with the biblical account of creation, pitting science against religion just as Galileo was pitted against the church for teaching that the Earth goes around the sun. To this day a die-hard group of "creationists" continues to insist that Genesis is right and Darwin wrong. Even Ronald Reagan has said he believes that evolution is just a theory and that creationism has equal footing with it.

But now Darwinian evolution is being challenged by scientists themselves, who in recent years have become increasingly concerned and increasingly vocal about gaps and inconsistencies in the theory. These researchers, two dozen of whom met last week at Cal State Fullerton, do not dispute that evolution occurs. They are not creationists, but they do question the mechanism of evolution. They want to make Darwin more rigorous, and they want to develop a theory of change that is consistent with the laws of physics and mathematics.

One of the central problems that they face is reconciling evolution, which finds greater and greater complexity in living things, with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that the universe, left to its own devices, tends toward increasing disorder. If the universe is running downhill all the time, how did humans evolve from amoebas?

Evolution also presents a serious problem to the structure of science, which insists that all theories be testable, and thereby refutable. Evolution cannot be tested. What exists today is ipso facto deemed to be the result of evolution. There is no other fossil record to test it against. Nor can evolution be used to make predictions, which is also supposed to be a requirement of a good theory.

But none of this should give aid and comfort to the creationists, who believe in revealed truth rather than in science. The scientific debate concerning Darwin shows that science itself is constantly evolving, that no truth is static, that better theories, which explain more, supplant weaker theories, which explain less. Science is a process in which the human mind seeks to understand the world outside it, and it is a process without end.

Heraclitus was right. "You could not step twice in the same rivers," he said, "for other and yet other waters are ever flowing on."

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