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June 2, 2009 | by  | in News Opinion | [ssba]

Monkey men vs. the scientific method

“Why aren’t there monkey men running around now then?” This stands out in my mind as the most memorable argument against evolution from a member of a disturbingly large group of students at my high school who didn’t ‘believe’ in evolution.

Annoying as it may be, at least it’s a statement that invites a retort­—it might be poorly informed, and the question-asker may not really be interested in the reply, but the question implies that should there be an answer that satisfactorily explains why there aren’t monkey men running around now, the objection no longer holds. It’s a spectre that can be vanquished: if science were a ghostbuster, and the monkey men question a ghost, that ghost would be no match to the proton-pack of rational explanation.

What is really infuriating is arguments of the form: you only think that because you believe in science; I don’t think that because I believe in [insert system of belief here]. Ugh.

Unless we’re gonna get all post-modern and/or metaphysical up in here (which we’re not), then one of these things is not like the other: belief, science, feeling, dogma. Hint: the answer is ‘science’.

At the foundation of science is the scientific method, which is, in essence, nothing more than a darn good way people have worked out to find stuff out about the world.

The scientific method is a systematic way of investigating and trying to understand stuff and acquiring new knowledge. It’s a system that ensures that the body of knowledge that we call science is constantly updated and adapted to reflect the most current understanding of the world, and that that knowledge is based on evidence that is observable and measurable.

Although scientific investigation had been going on since Aristotle’s day, Ibn al-Haytham was the first to describe a method of conducting science close to the way we do it today, in his 1021 book about light. Al-Haytham and his contemporaries tested competing hypotheses by experimentation and mathematical interpretation of experimental data during the Islamic Golden Age of science. In the mid 13th century, Roger Bacon wrote about science verifying conclusions by direct experimentation for the Pope; in the 17th century Galileo Galilei used experiment to investigate motion, against a backdrop of a suspicious conservative religious society. Philosophers Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, David Hume and Immanuel Kant further developed the theory of science, and in 1934 Karl Popper advanced the idea that empirical falsifiability should be at the core of science; that science should make predictions that can be proven false by objective experimentation.

In essence, the scientific method goes something like this: observe unexplained phenomenon → form a hypothesis (a conjecture about a possible explanation for the phenomenon) → deduce a prediction (if your hypothesis is correct, what you expect to see) → test the hypothesis, trying to show the opposite of what you predicted → if your prediction was incorrect, go back and form and test another hypothesis.

The best part of the scientific method happens when you correctly predicted what would happen. When this happens, it doesn’t mean that your hypothesis was correct, you are right, and you can go around telling everyone you’ve proved an amazing fact. The scientific method as described by Popper does not verify; it can only falsify. No matter how much experimenting you do, you can never prove your conjecture is right, yet only one experiment can prove you wrong. Because of this, if science is pretty sure of something, you can be suitably impressed— that something has presumably held up to a hell of a lot of attempts to disprove it.

This is, to my mind, the most important difference between dogma and science: science is open to and actually invites critique, whereas dogma is pretty hostile to any kind of dissent.

So, why aren’t there monkey men running around now then? After all, there are still apes in the world (we evolved from apes, not monkeys) and there are people in the world, but there aren’t any in-betweens. The question is a misunderstanding of what humans evolved from: humans and the apes in the world today (like chimpanzees and gorillas) both evolved from long extinct species. Apes aren’t our ancestors, but our cousins. There’s a great list of 24 myths and misconceptions about evolution, including the monkey-men objection to evolution.

I hope you don’t get the wrong idea from this column: I’m not criticising your particular system of belief. What I am saying is that science and belief systems are apples and oranges—they’re just totally different things (why does that saying use apples and oranges? They’re actually pretty similar). Okay, so I am obviously a bit of a science fan-girl, and I don’t think that science and dogma are different but equal, unless you mean ‘different but equal’ in the USA-pre-civil-rights-movement sense of the phrase, or equal in the way your mum says it when she says “I love you and your [perfect, over-achieving sibling] equally”. But you get my point. You don’t believe in science the way you believe in the tooth-fairy. You accept what science shows because it shows it convincingly.

Did you read my column last week in Salient’s super-online-only edition? If so, here’s a Wolfram Alpha awesomeness update for you: input “answer to life, the universe, and everything” to the answer engine, and you’ll get the correct answer (which, as you know, is 42).


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