The meaning of scientific theories

The meaning of scientific theories

Regarding Rabbi Boteach’s column of Sept. 9, he says that he is not a scientist, yet he doesn’t hesitate to cast doubts on it. Natural Selection was Darwin’s theory of how evolution occurs. In 1972, evolutionary scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge proposed an additional mechanism, which they called “punctuated equilibrium.” That is, species are generally stable, changing little for millions of years. This leisurely pace is “punctuated” by a rapid burst of change that results in a new species and leaves few fossils behind. It is not accepted by all evolutionary biologists, but that is the nature of a scientific theory. A theory explains the prevailing evidence in a rational manner, and predicts ways in which it can be tested. If further evidence appears that can’t be incorporated into the theory or explained by it, the theory is either amended or discarded for a better one. The relative importance of punctuated and gradual patterns of evolution is a subject of debate and research.

This is the way that science works.

As far as the old criticism that no one has ever seen evolution occur, I refer the rabbi to Gould’s article “Hooking Leviathan by its Past” (in “Dinosaur in a Haystack”, paperback ed., 1995, p. 359). The descent of whales from land-dwelling mammals is a compelling example of evolution. It is documented by a rich fossil record of intermediate forms spanning the land to water transition; and by other evidence, which testify that cetaceans (whales) have a close affinity to mammals, in particular, the hippopotamus. A series of easily dated fossils have shown how whales evolved from a land mammal and returned to the seas.

For Boteach to say that “the evidence for natural selection is at best anecdotal, based on contemporary observation” may be true strictly speaking, but is misleading. It calls into doubt not only evolutionary science but earth science, and the science of plate tectonics, cosmology, solar evolution, etc.