Sunday, August 23, 2009

Putting the History into “Natural History:” A Proposal to Shift the Debate over Evolution

Evolution can be divided into what I would like to refer to as theoretical evolution and practical evolution. There is the theory of evolution that species can evolve over time, most likely through some variation of Darwinian natural selection. The truth of this claim can easily be demonstrated scientifically in that operating on the assumption that evolution is true allows us to make certain successful predictions as to what will take place in the world. For example the whole process of proscribing antibiotics relies on the assumption that the bacteria in question will evolve. Evolutionary theory even allows us to predict precisely how bacteria will evolve. (Yes evolution is a theory, but so is gravity. All you anti-evolutionists out there please get over it.) This theory of evolution, though, is a different from practical evolution, which I would like to deal with here. For evolution to hold, one needs to be able to go from saying that evolution is physically possible to saying that it actually happened and that it accounts for the diversity of life on earth.

Opponents of evolution are fond of arguing that evolution is not a science. In a sense they have a point, evolution, at least as a something that has happened in the past, is not subject to scientific analysis. Opponents of evolution will take this line of argument further and challenge evolutionists to prove that the conditions of life on earth were not radically different and that scientific laws were not different then. This speaks to a major limitation of the scientific method. The scientific method requires one to be able to make future predictions. All the demonstrations of scientific principles working in the here and now will not demonstrate that things were not different in the past. If this is a weakness of science I would point out that this also illustrates the hypocrisy of anti-evolutionists, particularly those who are religious fundamentalists, to engage in such a naked display of selective self serving empiricism.

I am not troubled by this challenge to evolution because, as a historian, I deal with things that are outside of the scientific method and do not yield future predictions on a daily basis. For example, as a historian, I accept the existence of Napoleon Bonaparte as a historical fact. This is the case despite the fact that there is no scientific experiment that can confirm this; there is no future event that I can predict based on my acceptance of the Napoleon “theory.” I believe that Napoleon was a real person and that he led France during the Napoleonic wars because there are literally warehouses of documents from all over the world that, when interpreted through the lens of the historical method, say that he did. It would have required that the entire human race conspired to invent such a character or for some alien power to come and brainwash all humans for us to come up with a different solution. I cannot “prove” that a worldwide conspiracy or an alien brainwashing did not take place, but I am required by the principle of Ockham’s razor to accept the simplest interpretation of these warehouses of evidence that Napoleon really did exist. Anyone who doubts the existence of Napoleon or who wishes to consider “alternative” theories deserves a one way ticket to a padded cell, a straight jacket and a lifetime supply of happy pills.

This notion of historical fact suggests an obvious response to the argument that evolution is not a science; agreed that practical evolution is not a science, it is history. The evidence for evolution having happened is of the same nature as the evidence for any historical event. No historian has personally witnessed the rise of ancient civilizations, the move from hunter gatherer societies, to agricultural societies, to urban cities, the change from bronze work to iron, or the invention of the wheel. The historian is faced with layers of archeological evidence; he sees the remains of more complex cultures situated above the remains of less complex ones and sees that the former has a carbon dating that points to a later time. The simplest narrative that can be constructed from this, in terms of Ockham’s razor, is of the evolution of civilizations from hunter gatherer societies all the way through urban iron making societies with complex governments and not any Garden of Eden, flood or tower of Babylon dispersion narratives. The historian therefore comes to accept the evolution of civilization narrative despite the fact that these events cannot be reproduced in a laboratory nor can they enable one to successfully predict any future phenomenon. Similarly with evolution, we are called to interpret a body of evidence consisting of different organisms in different strata of rock. The simplest narrative that we can fit the evidence into is not some supernatural being bringing all creation into existence in a matter of days but of different organisms existing during different periods over the course of hundreds of millions of years. We therefore assume the later. From science we already know of the theory of evolution via natural selection and its extreme plausibility. We therefore take evolution via natural selection as our vehicle to get us from earlier organisms to later ones.

To move away from theory, this understanding of evolution, as a type of history, should have practical implications. May I suggest that evolution be taught not as science but as history? The study of nature as a historical field already exists and is known as environmental history. Examples of this type of history are Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and, on a more popular level, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. Ohio State has Professor John L. Brooke working in environmental history. (He guest lectured once in my historiography class where he devoted himself to attacking Diamond.) This growing field should be expanded by placing those who deal with practical evolution in this field with the title of natural historian. The fact that this newly expanded field would require people with strong scientific backgrounds need not make it any less a historical endeavor. Historians who deal with firearms during the Napoleonic wars need to know something about physics in order to understand the practical implications of different gun designs.

This could make for an excellent opportunity to increase the public awareness of evolution. Just as schools teach American and European history, they should also have to teach natural history. This would be the grand narrative of evolution. Rather than a decrease in the amount of time devoted to teaching students about science, this would, in practice, serve to increase the amount of science as more time could be devoted in science classes to actual science, including the theory of evolution. Finally it should be said that this plan holds within it the seed for a new form of environmental conscious-raising. Just as traditional history is useful, for better or worse, for strengthening the student’s willingness to identify with the state, natural history could be useful in getting students to identify themselves with the planet. We are part of this grand narrative of the evolution of life on earth. This story began millions of years before we were born and hopefully will continue for millions of years after we die. Let us make us make sure that we do something positive with this small role of ours.


jewpublic club said...

Then why not pare it with history of creationism?

Izgad said...

The issue of creationism would remain the same whether we are teaching history or science. For example when I teach history of the Holocaust I do not teach “alternative” views about whether the gas chambers were really air raid shelters or not. I do talk about Holocaust denial, but as a counter point to real history based on the historical method. Whether evolution is a science or a history, it would seem like a reasonable lecture or two to talk about why evolution is fact and why the “alternatives” do not stand the test of science and history.