From lowly origins

By Stephen Dunn
On September 13, 2011

False impressions about scientific theories are pervasive throughout society, as most of us are well aware. People cringe at hearing "genetically modified food," not realizing where a malnourished majority of the world receives its life-saving vitamins. Global warming is touted as fraud, and stem cell research has been stymied for years.

The list is large and growing still. Well-funded political and religious groups cloud the central issues to mislead the public into faulty conclusions. This bi-weekly column has two main goals: To take a stand for science by demystifying popular topics, and to highlight UNH-funded student research.

This week's topic is evolution.

Proponents of creationism, or its pseudoscience counterpart known as intelligent design (ID), often perpetuate misinformation regarding what is widely considered the most highly-supported scientific theory ever conceived— evolutionary theory. ID is a teleological argument that may, to the unsuspecting reader, appear to be a rational alternative to evolution. It isn't.

One of the first misconceptions arises from a confusion of what the word "theory" means to a scientist versus a layperson. For an idea to obtain the coveted addendum of "theory" in the world of science, it must explain and predict a host of phenomena.

Substantial evidence both corroborating and apparently contradictory must be accounted for by the theory; no scientific laws may be violated unless the proposed theory revises the law(s) it contradicts. The purpose of a theory is to condense a collection of facts into a model that describes reality. This is precisely what evolution does and intelligent design does not.

Here are a few major pieces of misinformation routinely offered as contradictory evidence toward evolutionary theory.

"Evolution says that humans evolved from apes." What evolution says is that humans and chimpanzees likely shared a common ancestor between five and seven million years ago. If you substitute any other animals for humans and apes in the preceding sentence, it quickly becomes apparent that no modern living organism could have evolved from any of its contemporaries. Living organisms must have evolved from ancestor species, and biologists classify species by their relatedness to each other based upon genetic and fossil evidence.

"No missing link has ever been found between apes and humans." Assuming the speaker meant "the last common ancestor" instead of apes, this statement is still incorrect. Missing links, actually known as transition fossils, can be viewed at museums around the world. Thousands of transitional human fossils have been discovered, leaving little doubt that there were once numerous species within our genus.

"Evolution says that life arose spontaneously." While evolution has much to say regarding the origins of life, it is not intended to be a theory about life's origins. Secondly, spontaneous generation was disproved in a series of brilliant experiments by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century.

Evolution comes under attack by those who seek to impose their inconsistent beliefs upon society. A powerful theory like Darwin's that explained life without incorporating a divine being was bound to find fundamentalists up in arms. Our generation is witness to a major paradigm shift in thinking about our origins, and I, for one, embrace it.

Stephen Dunn is a senior genetics major. He studies protein-protein interactions of the Src oncogene with Dr. Collins. Send questions, comments, and criticism to snk8@unh.edu.


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