Putting It Into Context: Darwin and the Eye

Taking stuff out of context and using it to strengthen your views is … let’s just say, not nice. This is one of the things creationists and various religious apologists like to do very much.

A particularly blatant example of this is misquoting Charles Darwin’s “On the origin of species” to make it seem like Darwin himself had huge doubts about his theory.

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Photograph of Charles Darwin by Henry Maull (1829–1914) and John Fox (1832–1907) (Maull & Fox)

Case in point:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.

Charles Darwin, On the origin of species (1859.)1

 

This in one of the quotes Creationists love to use to try to show that supposedly Darwin didn’t trust his own theory. This is, of course, very far from the truth.

People who use this quote to try and show that there are problems with the evolution, happily ignore the continuation of this text about the evolution of the eye:

Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.

Charles Darwin, On the origin of species (1859.)

 

This is the quote taken from the first edition of the “The origin of species”. How about later editions? Well, Darwin went even further and the previous quote started with:

When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself originated; but I may remark that, as some of the lowest organisms in which nerves cannot be detected, are capable of perceiving light, it does not seem impossible that certain sensitive elements in their sarcode should become aggregated and developed into nerves, endowed with this special sensibility.

Charles Darwin, The origin of species (1872.)2

 

As you can see, in the later edition Darwin even tells us that it’s reasonable to think  that minor, gradual changes are responsible for the development of the eye. He even compares doubting the evolution of the eye to the fact that once was doubted that the Earth orbits the sun. I would say this is the writing of a man with confidence in his ideas.

This means, whenever you see someone posting nonsense that Darwin himself had huge doubts about Evolution, you can rest assured this is not true.

Nice try, though.

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Human endeavors that inspire: The Hubble Space Telescope

Humanity has invented conflict, war and Religion. But not all achievements of society are bad. Quite the contrary, some of them are so magnificent they can actually restore your faith in Humanity and make you feel special to be a member of the Human family.

The Hubble Space Telescope is one of those achievements.

Hubble In Free Orbit

Image by NASA, Public Domain

 

The problem with observing the universe using telescopes and observatories stationed on Earth is a bit difficult because Earth’s atmosphere gets in the way. When looking at objects through Earth’s atmosphere, so-called twinkling occurs. What apparently happens is: the light which comes from distant sources passes through different densities of the atmosphere and the path of light is diverted and you don’t get precise readings.

In addition to that, atmosphere blocks ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma-rays, so if humanity wants to observe them it cannot do so through the atmosphere.

The Hubble Space Telescope as seen from the departing Space Shuttle Atlantis.

The Hubble Space Telescope as seen from the departing Space Shuttle Atlantis.

 

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Human endeavors that inspire: The International Space Station

We all have ambivalent and contradictory feelings, sometimes about the tiniest, most irrelevant things. And when it comes to the human condition, to the status and development of humanity … well, what can be a greater source of contradiction that development of human society in general? For example, I’ll be the first one to say that we as a species are not doing nearly enough when it comes to Space Exploration and Science, but at other times I take a look what humanity has achieved and I’m filled with inspiration and almost moved to tears.

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The International Space Station as photographed by a crew member on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis, By NASA/Crew of STS-132 - Public Domain (Source)

 

This time we’re talking about The International Space Station. This is one major human achievement and not only because it’s a technological wonder, but also because it’s a monument to what humanity can achieve once it pulls together to work on a common goal. It’s  material evidence that our petty little differences don’t matter so much, because when humanity wants a common goal it will pull it’s resources together to make that happen.

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Human Endeavors that inspire: The Large Hadron Collider

Just as a wonderful piece of music or transcendental work of poetry, Science can also be an endless source of inspiration and wonder. Just think about the vastness of Deep Space, or the miniscule of quanta, and try not to be inspired. Imagine the expanding universe, the galaxies running away from us, at an ever increasing speed and try not to feel amazed. You are a part of Human species, the only species known so far that is able to understand these facts about the Universe we live in.

Today we are talking about one Human Endeavor that makes it possible for our species to do just that – gain an increased understanding of the Universe, the Large Hadron Collider.

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LHC tunnel / Photograph Copyright CERN / Maximilien Brice

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator and a largest machine in the World. It was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

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Freedom to criticize Religion

In all modern democracies, one of fundamental citizen rights is that of a Religious freedom. There is no state-backed religion and there is no discrimination of people based on their religious beliefs. At least in writing, as something similar is undoubtedly written into Constitution of your own Country.

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For example in my native Croatia, Article 40 of our Constitution says:

“Jamči se sloboda savjesti i vjeroispovijedi i slobodno javno očitovanje vjere ili drugog uvjerenja.”

 

which roughly translated means that freedom of consciousness and religion and free public display of said religion or other  belief is guaranteed. Or in the US, with the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

 

This is, of course, an important right. Let’s just remind ourselves briefly why. There was no small amount of instances through history when people who had religion different than the majority was persecuted and executed. This is still practiced today in some countries, for example Burma, where intolerance, discrimination and violence against Muslims is provoked by the Buddhist community (PDF). (ah, those religions of peace …). So, I believe we can all agree that freedom of Religion is important.

The thing is, Freedom of Religion also ensures the rights of people to change their minds about their religion. This basically means, if you have another religious idea, other than the one you currently practice, you are free to act upon that idea and leave your old idea behind, you are free to change your religion.

So, this is to me evidence that as far as countries are concerned, Religion is, and should be only an idea and it should have no more privilege when it comes to criticism, than for example, politics. And we all know that a lot of politicians leave their old political parties behind, only to spew criticism on them from afar.

This is only one example. You can criticize everything, so why should only Religion be spared? Why is Religion the only thing nothing bad can be said about?

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A Few words about Conspiracy Theories

Some studies1 are saying that people who believe strongly in all sorts of conspiracy theories have one thing in common: They feel like they don’t have control over their lives.

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Image by FreeImages.com/Cheryl Empey

Basically, it seems that most conspiracy theories appear in times of uncertainty. This is when our brains are in overdrive, trying to figure out what is happening and why is it happening. Human brain is wired to look for patterns, as this behaviour helped our ancestors survive when they were roaming the African savannas. This means we are looking for patterns everywhere, in every situation. And sometimes brain will malfunction, connecting two things that are not really connected in reality.

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Scientific Theory

Making sure to avoid any confusion about what "scientific theory" in context of evolution means, Richard Dawkins in The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution wrote:

Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact.

- Richard Dawkins

 

What I'm guessing he meant is: evolution did happen and it's still happening. This is proven and solid. Evolution also uses and incorporates other facts that support the conclusion that evolution did happen. In this sense, evolution is a scientific theory and it is supported by facts. And of course, it is true and should be universally accepted as the truth. Creationists would not agree with this, but I would say this doesn't really matter to educated people.

But still, a lot of people say things like "that's only a theory", "why should we base our lives on a theory?, etc when they're talking about evolution, for example. Yeah, like a belief in a sky-wizard is something to base your life on? But I digress - the point of this brief post is just to share a understanding about what scientific theory is.

First thing you'll notice about scientific theories is - there's really PLENTY of evidence for them. This very fact makes them different from what we usually mean when we say "Theory" in normal speech.

Triceratops mounted skeleton at Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles, United States of America, by Allie_Caulfield Derivative: User:MathKnight - File:LA-Triceratops mount-1.jpg (by Allie_Caulfield), CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

By using words such as "FACT", instead of "theory" Dawkins does not confuse people that might not be familiar with scientific meaning of the word "theory" and sometimes I wish other scientists would do the same when talking to the public, just to hammer the point more clearly. If you read Dawkins' quote again, there's no second thought about what he meant evolution is.

Let's not get tangled in words too much, but get right into the point about evolution and other well established scientific theories. So, what does actually mean when a scientist says something is a "scientific theory"?

Well, if you simply ask Wikipedia, it will tell you:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed, preferably using a written, pre-defined, protocol of observations and experiments. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge.

 

Basically, when scientists use word "theory", they are talking about something completely different than what general public understands under "theory". When you use word "theory" in everyday speech, you actually mean "hypothesis" or "conjecture", something not tested or proven. When scientists use this word, they mean almost the same thing Dawkins meant: That what you and I mean by "fact" in normal speech.

To make an additional point, here are some scientific theories:

  • Special Relativity
  • General Relativity
  • Plate Tectonics
  • Evolution by natural selection
  • Information theory

All these theories have stood the test of time, fought-off challenges, have practical effects and are well-proven pieces of knowledge humanity has. So, don't be fooled by the words and cheap arguments that something is "only a theory". But do be critical and do try and see for yourself. A good rule of thumb would be: if there's evidence for something, it's on it's way to being true and if a idea doesn't have any evidence but requires "faith" or "trust" from you, or only focuses on trying to find flaws in competing idea, it most likely isn't true.