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Is the More Comprehensive View of Evolution Scientific?

continued from: Is The Limited View of Evolution Scientific? .

By "comprehensive" view of evolutionary theory, I mean evolutionary theories that make claims about the past - particularly the claim that evolution was the mechanism by which life on earth originally arose and became what is is today. (This differs from the limited view as described in the earlier post, which I consider as theories that only consider current and ongoing processes).

Again, I'm considering whether or not such theories meet the criterion of falsifiability, which must be met for a theory to be scientific. And again, although the non-falsifiability of a theory makes it non-scientific, that does not mean that it isn't true - it means that it cannot be dealt with from within scientific methodology.

I'm going to subdivide the comprehensive view into two other types. The first category will be specific comprehensive evolutionary theories. These are theories that make very specific predictions about what earlier life on earth was like (and makes specific predictions about the future). The second category will be general comprehensive evolutionary theories that more or less state that evolution is the mechanism by which life formed and evolved without providing specific predictions about what past life would have been like or about future life.

Specific Comprehensive Evolutionary Theories

Since these theories make specific predictions, they will be (partially) falsifiable. Predictions about the future are easy enough to falsify - just wait to see what happens. Predictions about what life in the past was like are not quite as easy. In some cases, it may be the case that the evidence to falsify (or confirm) a prediction is no longer present. In these cases, the prediction does not meet the falsifiability requirement. But we probably shouldn't assume that we couldn't ever come across some evidence that could falsify a prediction about past life. In the future we might find some new method by which we can gain information about the past, and that new methodology may well be able to falsify predictions that we couldn't falsify before. So predictions about past life on earth should be considered at least possibly falsifiable.

It is important to note that I've been referring to specific predictions as being falsifiable or not rather than the theory as a whole. There is an important difference between the predictions a theory makes and the whole of a theory itself. Imagine, for example, a situation in which some leading evolutionary scientist made a number of predictions about past life on earth. And it so happens that some new archeological findings show that these predictions were wrong. Are evolutionists going to say "Well then, I guess they falsified evolutionary theory,"? Of course not. The general part of the theory will be held on to, and only the particular formulation of evolutionary theory will be considered as mistaken. Which brings us to:

General Comprehensive Evolutionary Theories

General comprehensive evolutionary theories are the foundation of specific theories (though they also stand on their own). They don't make specific predictions. Rather, these theories simply assert that evolution was the mechanism by which life on earth formed and came to be what it is today.

These theories do not meet the falsifiability requirement. There are no specific predictions necessary to a general comprehensive evolutionary theory - the claims are very general. So general, in fact, that there is really no evidence that could falsify them.

This is evident when you consider what sort of evidence could possibly falsify the most general comprehensive evolutionary theory. Even if man and dinosaurs lived together, that wouldn't falsify a general theory. The general theory would simply imply that evolution worked out in such a way that dinosaurs and man happened to live at the same time.

The David E. Thomas April Fool's Joke

This site explains why David E. Thomas played the man being eaten by a dinosaur joke to point out the gullibility of creationists. He writes:

Earlier this year, I debated Paul Gammill at our January 13th NMSR meeting. Gammill presented the case for "Intelligent Design," and I presented the case for "Evolution." Both of us had agreed to present hypothetical findings which could, in principle, falsify the theory each of us was defending. One of the arguments I presented as something which would certainly call evolution into question, if it were ever discovered, would be to find the bones of a human and a dinosaur inextricably linked, as shown below.


from http://www.nmsr.org/april_fool.html

Response to Thomas:

Thomas is correct in asserting that the finding of such a fossil (the bones of a man inside a dinosaur's stomach) would falsify some specific evolutionary theories - those predicting that dinosaurs and man did not live at the same time. But as I mentioned before, such a finding would not mean that Evolution (that is, the general evolutionary theory) had been disproven. Perhaps we just got something with the specific theory wrong, and it turns out that the mechanism of evolution had man and dinosaur living side by side.

Conclusion:

Any specific evolutionary theory may well be falsifiable, assuming that the kind of evidence that would be needed to falsify it has survived to our time. But we should remember that it will likely be difficult to tell whether evidence that would falsify specific predictions simply never existed or if it just doesn't exist anymore. Still, in general, specific evolutionary theories have at least the possibility of being falsifiable, and are thus potentially scientific.

But "Evolution" in general is not falsifiable - mostly, perhaps, because its claims are so general that they could accomodate pretty much any evidence found (from the past or the future). Thus, Evolution (general evolutionary theories) are non-falsifiable and non-scientific.

Again, I want to emphasize the fact that the non-scientific status of general evolutionary theory does not make it false. It may not (depending on your epistemology) even mean that we don't have good reason to believe in general evolutionary theory. To put my own cards on the table, I happen to consider the general theory of evolution as being probably true, despite its being a non-scientific theory.


Is Evolutionary Theory Scientific?
Is The Limited View of Evolution Scientific?
Man Living with Dinosaurs?
Is the More Comprehensive View of Evolution Scientific?


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