The facts of evolution – and jealousy

Craig Venter

Craig Venter

Some time ago (Evolution – a theory or a fact?) I made the observation:

“Our knowledge about evolution includes facts (e.g., fossil records, genetics, molecular biology of DNA), theories (e.g, natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift) and speculation (e.g., much of evolutionary psychology). Just like any other body of scientific knowledge.”

We could add that although many ideas in evolutionary psychology are speculative, some of these are firming up. Steven Pinker does a good job of separating the more reliable ideas from the more speculative (see his books: The Blank SlateHow the Mind Worksand The Stuff of Thought). Similarly, some of the theories, such as natural selection, are now so well supported by factual evidence they are beginning to be accepted as facts in themselves. A bit like the laws of thermodynamics.

However, when it comes to the basic facts there are just so many of them now. Darwin discussed things like homological similarities between species, geographic distribution,  selection during domestication, hybridisation, embryology, etc. Then there is the fossil record – which is still improving dramatically today. But the field of molecular biology is producing so many useful facts about evolution it enables us to develop our theoretical understanding of the evolution of humans and other species in a way which we would not have believed possible 60 years ago.

More about that below.

Dawkins and Venter on the facts of evolution

Richard Dawkins has famously said that those who reject the facts of evolution are either ignorant or dishonest. Some creationists, who seek to demonise Dawkins,  interpret this as a comment on the entirety of evolutionary science  – but Dawkins knows too much about science to mean that. However, there are clearly people around who remain ignorant about the facts of the fossil record and molecular biology. And then there are creationist activists who just lie about those facts.

Recently Dawkins interviewed Craig Venter about some of these modern facts of evolution – the work he and his research company have done on the genomes of humans and other species.

Its a great interview. I really appreciate the way that Dawkins is using different formats to get across information. In this video he and Venter stroll through the laboratories of the Venter’s company. This provides a great background to the discussion.

After having spent a research career getting by with limited facilities, laboratory space, assistants and instrumentation, I can’t help feeling jealous about the resources available in this field today. The nature of these resources and how rapidly they are improving, comes through very strongly in the interview.


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3 responses to “The facts of evolution – and jealousy

  1. One qualm I have about what you say it that you only talk about evolutionary psychology whereas there are a number of different approaches to evolutionary explanations of human behaviour: memetics, sociobiology, human behavioural ecology and gene-culture co-evolution. What is more, often evolutionary psychology is not the best developed of the lot. So, what you say about it being speculation – while being true of much of evolutionary psychology is probably less fair a claim to make about much of gene-culture coevolution or human behavioural ecology, two approaches that tend to be much less speculative and a lot more data-driven. This is not to claim that e.p. is garbage and the other approaches all-powerful. I tend to agree with Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown’s conclusion – as expressed in their survey of the field, Sense and Nonsense – that a pluralist approach is necessary in this quickly developing area. Thankfully, that is precisely the direction things do seem to be heading in, as evidenced, for example, at this April’s European Human Behaviour and Evolution meeting in St. Andrews where evolutionary psychologists and others all mixed together to everyone’s benefit. In a sense, I’m just nitpicking but I guess these nits have become fairly significant to me over the last couple of years.


  2. Pingback: Smart Bombs: Mark Dery, Steven Pinker on the Nature-Nurture Wars and the Politics of IQ |

  3. Do you have a listing of the facts of the fossil record? ie: what was found?

    I am trying to find that and can’t seem to find it. Seems like a lot of starting and stopping of species in the rock formations.

    There’s a lot of hand waving and commentary but I can find just the facts.

    Can you point me in the right direction?


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