Tracking the Course of Evolution


by Bruce H. Tiffney

NOTE: This is page 1 of a two-page document.


A. Any consideration of evolution or paleontology deals with "data."
1. Much of the past is really "unknowable" — it is so far in the past.
2. But we can infer it through facts that we gather via the science of paleontology.
3. Thus, the starting place of any course should be what is "science"? What is the methodology that allows us to know the past?
4. To do so, we need to place" science" in a larger context of human knowledge, and then explore precisely how it functions.


A. What is "knowledge"?
1. It is a statement about what you accept as sufficiently "real" to allow you to take action upon and thereby live your life.
2. There are two kinds of knowledge.
3. Both are equally valid, but stem from very different first assumptions.

B. Belief Knowledge
1. The essence of belief knowledge is that knowledge about the world is inherent and unique in each human being.
2. It is attained by individual revelation.
3. It is not open to testing, observation or quantification; it is based upon data that cannot be observed.
a. By definition, these are "Super-natural" data which are not amenable to investigation by research knowledge.
4. Only belief knowledge can involve "truth." Only with belief comes the absolute certainty that brooks no opposition and confers great personal strength.
a. Only belief knowledge invokes value systems.
5. Herein lies the power of the human spirit and some of its great creations, e.g., purpose, aesthetics, morality, religion.

C. Research Knowledge
1. The essence of research knowledge is that the gathering of knowledge be not individual, but universal. It is a group endeavor.
2. To this end, research knowledge is based on a protocol to allow one to select between alternative observations or hypotheses.
a. It involves the requirements that all observations be
— repeatable . . .
— by more than one observer,
b. And the requirement that all hypotheses be falsifiable. That is, that they be open to test and that it is possible to prove the hypotheses wrong.
c. By definition, research knowledge involves "natural" phenomena; those that are observable and measurable by humans.
3. By its very nature, this process forbids a scientist to say that "this is true" (although you will catch many scientists incorrectly speaking about "true" and "false" answers). Rather, it can only be that "this is the most likely explanation in light of existing knowledge."
4. The closest this comes to belief knowledge is that the scientist does make a choice to believe in the "research knowledge" methodology of science.

D. Both modes generate "Facts"
1. The defense of a "fact" in belief knowledge is the spirit of the individual who believes.
a. Its success is dependent upon the quality of argumentation, or upon greater force.
2. A "fact" in research knowledge is defended by the methodology of observation and testing that allows one to choose one "fact" over another.

E. Uh, What's a "Research knowledge" fact?
1. A "fact" is a mini-hypothesis, subject to testing by repeated observation, etc.
2. Any observation is an electromagnetic stimulation that passes through several filters:
a. The receiving human brain which then . . .
b. interprets the received data and . . .
c. communicates it to other humans who in turn . . .
d. process the data through their brains.
3. The mind receives data constantly. What it chooses to observe is conditioned by culture and influenced by individuality.
a. The Chinese recognized fossils millennia ago, but they had no significance.
4. Perception of fact thus varies, and all facts must be treated as hypotheses and tested constantly.
5. Some will indeed become dominant (the Earth is round, gravity is real), while others are open to testing (T. rex was a carnivore . . . or was she?).

F. This brings us to consider an oft-misunderstood aspect of the research protocol, the "Hypothesis."
1. What is a hypothesis?
a. An explanation for the pattern created by two or more facts
2. The life of a Hypothesis
a. Note: used in a technical manner here, not "I have a hypothesis who killed JFK" in the mode of the National Inquirer.
b. It should be based upon observations that have been repeatedly made by several individuals.
c. It should make predictions about how the world works (an experiment) or has worked in the past (a test in the fossil record).
d. It must be testable — that is, be open to being proven wrong.
e. Note NO amount of data that agree with a hypothesis ever "prove" it to be true! They only fail to disprove it. One significant datum can disprove a hypothesis.
3. The death of a Hypothesis — A hypothesis dies for one of 3 reasons:
a. Data are found which contradict it;
b. Its predictions consistently fail;
c. It is supplanted by a new hypothesis which explains more of the data, or explains the same data more elegantly.
d. Hypotheses often rise and fall quickly. From the outside this appears unstable, but the constant tumult is a sign of healthy science, and usually results in a "spiral" of advancing knowledge.
4. Multiple working hypotheses
a. More than one hypothesis will often explain the observations with equal elegance and strength of predictions. This may lead to the situation where two or more hypotheses have equal currency, and both coexist until one is found wanting.
5. The hypothesis triumphant — a "Law" of science
a. Some hypotheses offer such strong predictions and withstand testing for such a long period of time that they become generally accepted, first as "theories" and then as "laws."
b. However, even these are not "absolute." A scientific law is just a "very strongly supported inference." We do not know that it will survive in light of new data or technology.
c. The empirical sciences have several such laws (e.g., gravity, thermodynamics). The historical sciences have no or few laws because of the nature of their data.


A. Introduction
1. The non-scientist (and often the scientist) sees all "science" as monolithic. It is not. This causes troubles in perception.
a. There are varieties of science depending upon the initial assumptions and the materials observed.

B. Formal Sciences
1. Logic and mathematics
2. Both define their own universe.
3. Because they do, they can initially speak of absolute "true" versus "false."
a. 2 + 2 = 4. Why? Because we all agree upon it.
4. This sounds like belief knowledge. However, it differs in one critical element — once you establish an initial premise (which must have rigor), you have to follow the research protocol to investigate its effect and validity.
5. These disciplines are often seen as the epitome of science — an exact, fully logical, brick by brick process.

C. Empirical Sciences
1. Deal with objects and observations
a. Takes the world as it is and tries to understand it.
b. Here there can be NO truth, no right or wrong, only observations and hypotheses about the natural system.
2. Empirical Science may be roughly divided into two camps:
a. The Experimental Sciences: e.g., Chemistry, Physics and allied subjects.
(1) Here the subject allows the creation of controlled experiments in the laboratory.
(2) The objects under observation (e.g., atoms, molecules) are assumed to all be the same and to lack individuality.
b. The Historical Sciences: e.g., most of Biology, Geology.
(1) Here the objects under observation increasingly possess individual characteristics, such as single historical events or the individuals in a species. Optimal controls and laboratory experiments become increasingly difficult.
(2) Paleontology exhibits the "worst" of this in that it concerns organisms (which have individuality) in historical circumstances (where the coincidence of factors at any one time may NEVER be repeated) and all of this occurring in the distant past.
3. This distinction between Experimental and Historical Sciences sets up a false debate in public. Paleontologists are often compared with physicists and then faulted for not producing scientific data as measured by the standards of physics. We paleontologists simply cannot!
4. As we progress from experimental to historical sciences, we pass into a realm of the critical establishment of probability. "Good Science" becomes a matter of eliminating as many variables — while entertaining as many alternate interpretations of the observations — as possible.

CONTINUE to page 2

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