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Entry 438, on 2006-12-06 at 17:03:26 (Rating 3, Science)
I listened to a podcast today which discussed what was the greatest scientific theory or discovery, from the perspective of changing really basic ideas about the world, and how we fit into it. There were many ideas thrown in: relativity, quantum theory, celestial mechanics, mathematical methods such as calculus, etc. But I concluded in the end that the greatest is the theory of evolution.
Why do I think evolution is so great? First, its one of the few major theories which has survived for so long (150 years) with only minor revisions (most significantly from gradual smooth change to sudden burst of greater change). Second, it is the fundamental basis for a huge area of science, that is the whole of modern biology. Thirdly, a more subtle but significant observation: it has displaced the mythology of religion and other superstitious beliefs.
What do I mean by this? Well which theory makes a lot of theology useless? Most religions include a myth about the origin of life and especially humans. If this is made obsolete by science it really affects the religion. That is no doubt why religions, especially fundamental Christianity, are so antagonistic to evolution. Other theories don't take over an area of knowledge from religion. People have trouble relating to relativity, but the origin of life, including themselves, is far more personal.
So I think evolution is the greatest scientific discovery. It has changed the way we think about ourselves. We are just another part of nature, not a special creation of some deity. Maybe that has made modern environmentalism more prominent. If we are part of nature we don't really have the right to exploit and destroy it. Its changed the way biology thinks about living things, and biology is a hugely important science from a theoretical and practical perspective (to modern medicine, for example). And evolution has provided a model which can also be used to explain other phenomena. For example, the evolution of the Earth's surface through geological processes, the evolution of the stars, and even the Universe as a whole. These are different types of evolution: natural selection is the most important process in biological evolution, but less important or irrelevant elsewhere, but the idea of evolution itself is the same.
Evolution is simple and easy to understand for anyone who wants to bother. There is no complex maths required to understand the basics. People should accept it for the wonder it is instead of ridiculing it and pretending some ancient myth involving a non-existent god is true instead.
Comment 1 (281) by chris on 2006-12-06 at 21:05:49:
Was the podcast the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, by any chance? You should come on over to the messageboard. There are a few other Kiwis there, and the discussions cover a lot of what you write on your blog (even Macs vs Windows in one thread...).
Comment 2 (282) by OJB on 2006-12-07 at 08:46:01:
Indeed it was. I have considered getting into the message boards for some time now, but I'm worried I'll spend too much time there!
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