|Carina Nebula [Courtesy NASA]
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Is evolution falsifiable?
David H. Bailey
Updated 14 December 2018 (c) 2018
Both creationist and intelligent design writers have asserted that evolution is at best a poor scientific theory, because it is not "falsifiable," which in the parlance of scientific philosophy means that the theory is too flexible -- no test could be devised that decisively rejects its key tenets. Creationist Ken Ham, for instance, has argued that theories such as evolution and the big bang cannot be tested, because no scientists were present to directly observe whether or not the conjectured events really took place [Ham2011]. Similarly, creationist Henry Morris has asserted that virtually any observation of the natural world could, with some adjustment, be accommodated within the overall evolutionary framework, and thus evolution is not worthy to be termed a solid scientific theory [Morris2000, pg. 6-7].
So does evolution really qualify as a first-rate scientific theory, or not?
Falsifiability in modern scientific thought
First of all, it should be noted that even some of Charles Darwin's original assertions have been falsified. For instance, he believed that organisms could acquire traits during a single lifespan and transmit these traits to offspring. But modern genetics has concluded otherwise -- acquired traits, with rare exceptions, are not passed on to offspring. The current evolutionary paradigm, often termed the "modern synthesis," reflects this conclusion.
Karl Popper, who more than any other scientific philosopher promoted falsifiability, initially regarded Darwinian evolution as only a metaphysical research program, because it was too difficult to test. Most of the claims by creationists and others regarding falsifiability derive from these comments by Popper. But subsequently Popper reversed his position, saying, "I have changed my mind about the testability and logical status of the theory of natural selection, and I am glad to have the opportunity to make a recantation." [Popper1978].
Falsifiable tests for evolution
In any event, there are numerous ways in which evolutionary theory can be tested and, if found wanting, would have to be rejected. Here are just a few:
In a similar vein, some creationists claim that natural selection, meaning "survival of the fittest" is tautological, since "fitness" is nothing more than the ability to survive and reproduce. Actually, Darwin did not coin this phrase -- this was done by Herbert Spencer in 1864 -- but in any event it is not used very often in the evolutionary biology literature. A more careful definition of "fitness" is possessing certain traits that make survival and reproduction more likely in a given environment. Fitness alone does not ensure survival.
- Charles Darwin himself proposed a rather strong test of evolution: "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." [Darwin1859, pg. 175]. This is the basis of claims by various intelligent design writers that various biological structures, such as the vertebrate immune system or the bacterial flagellum, are "irreducibly complex" -- they consist of multiple components that could not develop in the absence of the others. However, these structures have been exhaustively studied in the scientific literature, and scientists have demonstrated entirely plausible evolutionary pathways. See Complexity.
- Famed biologist J. B. S. Haldane, when asked what evidence could disprove evolution, mentioned "fossil rabbits in the Precambrian era" [Ridley2004, pg. 66]. This is because mammals, according to current scientific analysis, did not emerge until approximately 40 million years ago, whereas the Precambrian era is prior to approximately 570 million years, when only the most primitive organisms existed on Earth.
- Biologists had long conjectured that human chromosome number two was the result of a fusion of two corresponding chromosomes in most other primates. If DNA analysis of these chromosomes had shown that this was not the case, then modern evolutionary theory would indeed be drawn into question. This "fusion hypothesis" was indeed confirmed, rather dramatically, in 1993 (and further in 2005), by the identification of the exact point of fusion. For additional details see DNA.
- Modern DNA sequencing technology has provided a rigorous test of evolution, far beyond the wildest dreams of Charles Darwin. In particular, comparison of DNA sequences between organisms can be used as a measure of relatedness, and can further be used to actually construct the most likely "family tree" hierarchical relationship between a set of organisms. Such analyses have been done, and the results so far dramatically confirm the family tree that had been earlier constructed solely based on comparisons of body structure and biochemistry. For additional details see DNA.
Evolution, when viewed in the modern context of a huge volume of convincing empirical data, entirely qualifies as a rigorously testable theory. And in fact it has survived decades of withering testing. This is precisely why evolution is taken so seriously as the governing paradigm of modern biology.
It should also be pointed out that strict adherence to "falsifiability" is not an accurate description of the process of modern science. For one thing, major theories are seldom falsified by a single experimental result. There are always questions regarding the underlying experimental design, measurement procedures, and data analysis techniques, as well as questions of whether the underlying theories have been properly applied. For example, if we were to strictly apply Popper's principle, Copernicus' heliocentric theory was falsified from the start and should not have been further considered, because it could not predict planetary motions as accurately as the traditional Ptolemaic system. It only after Kepler modified the theory to include elliptical orbits with time-varying speeds, and when Newton showed that this behavior could be mathematically derived from his laws of motion, that it gained widespread acceptance. It must also be kept in mind that in most cases, "falsified" theories continue to be extremely accurate models of reality within appropriate domains. Even today, over 100 years after Newton's mechanics and Maxwell's electromagnetic equations were "falsified," they remain the basis of almost all practical engineering and scientific computations, giving results virtually indistinguishable from those of more advanced theories in all but highly exotic circumstances.
For additional discussion, see Evolution, Theory and Postmodern.