roger_highfield's picture
Director, External Affairs, Science Museum Group; Co-author (with Martin Nowak), SuperCooperators
Evolution is True

Politicians, poets, philosophers and the religious often like to talk about the truth. In contrast, most scientists would think it overblown to describe a field of research as being 'true', though they do all seek the truth of mathematics: for example, quantum theory is true in the sense that experiment after experiment supports its predictions about how the world works, no matter how odd, unsettling or counterintuitive.

In the same way, when I studied chemistry at university, I was never told about the truth of the Periodic Table, though I did marvel at how Mendeleev had glimpsed the electronic structure of atoms. But why do some biologists talk about the truth so much when it comes to evolution? After all, one can hardly say that everything that is written about evolution is "true". But it is a mistake to counter irrational beliefs with rhetoric about the Truth.

Intelligent design and other Creationist critiques have been easily shrugged off and the facts of evolution well established in the laboratory, fossil record, DNA record and computer simulations. If evolutionary biologists are really Seekers of the Truth, they need to focus more on finding the mathematical regularities of biology, following in the giant footsteps of Sewall Wright, JBS Haldane, Ronald  Fisher and so on.

The messiness of biology has made it relatively hard to discern the mathematical fundamentals of evolution. Perhaps the laws of biology are deductive consequences of the laws of physics and chemistry. Perhaps natural selection is not a statistical consequence of physics, but a new and fundamental physical law. Whatever the case, those universal truths—'laws'—that physicists and chemists all rely upon appear relatively absent from biology.

Little seems to have changed from a decade ago when the late and great John Maynard Smith wrote a chapter on evolutionary game theory for a book on the most powerful equations of science: his contribution did not include a single equation. 

Yet there are already many mathematical formulations of biological processes and evolutionary biology will truly have arrived the day that high school students learn the Equations of Life in addition to Newton's Laws of Motion.

Moreover, if physics is an example of what a mature scientific discipline should look like, one that does not waste time and energy combating the agenda of science-rejecting creationists, we also need to abandon the blind adherence to the idea that the mechanisms of evolution are Truths that lie beyond discussion.

Gravity, like evolution, exists but Newton’s view of gravitation was absorbed into another view that Einstein devised a century ago. Even today, however, there is debate about whether our understanding of gravity will have to be modified again, when we are finally enlightened about the nature of the dark universe.