Here’s a disturbing thought, scientists understand the Earth in about 4,540,000,000 years old. Reportedly, up to 70 percent of Americans, a country whose citizens have conquered the world and one could reasonably expect to be intelligent and educated, believe a religious text that claims the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Further, they claim, man is not an animal and has no relationship with apes.
The weapon of choice in this assault of misinformation is the deliberate misuse of the common understanding of the word ‘theory’ as a substitute for the scientific use of the word.
It’s only a theory
In common language one can have a theory about anything, for example, ‘I have a theory that my wife secretly likes football’. This common use of the word is a substitute for conjecture or hypothesis. One is unlikely to say “I have an hypothesis that my wife secretly likes football”.
When scientists begin observing and studying a process of any kind, they begin with just such a ‘theory’ but of course they call it by its proper name, a hypothesis. At this point, the hypothesis is like the title of a book, a very long way from becoming a scientific theory or explanation of how a process works.
Over many years of research, testing, publishing results, experiments by other scientists attempting to prove the hypothesis wrong and finding other disciplines to back up the work, it may finally make the first stage on the way to becoming a scientific theory.
Now it must be predictive, that is to say, ‘if this hypothesis is correct, then we could expect X event to occur when we do Y or we could expect to find X if we look in this place Y’.
One of the few ways to prove that the hypothesis is true is to predict an unknown and then find it exactly where it was predicted to be. This most severe testing must be done endlessly but by then we know the hypothesis is true and the scientists can set down the mechanism of how it works. How it works = scientific theory and this is very long way from simply saying ‘I have a theory my wife secretly likes football’.
Most (but not all) have no problem accepting The Heliocentric Theory (the explanation of how the planets orbit the sun) or the Theory of Gravity and many others. The Theory of Evolution is in the same class. There is no doubt, no room for conjecture and no room for opinion. The Theory of Evolution has been confirmed in many different ways and is beyond all doubt.
Of course for science, as certain as the facts are, that is not sufficient. Science demands that we establish the same information, the same conclusions from an entirely different perspective. The age of the earth and the evolution of life are inextricably linked and over the last century prediction about the age of the earth has been confirmed by a dozen different methods from radioactive decay rates, ice cores, geology, tectonic plate history and many others.
Not all can be in error and in fact, none are in error. If just one was wrong, then speed of light would also be wrong, the rate of radioactive decay would be wrong and modern life in cities could not exist.
Science theory is evidence based conclusions, not scientific opinions or conjecture. The whole raft of science endeavour is evidence piled upon evidence from many disciplines. It is this cross checking, the prediction of results in another discipline and finding those results come to fruition is what makes scientific theory so robust.
Light – the speed of.
Astronomers recently found a galaxy whose light has be zipping along towards us for the last 13,300,000,000 years and some of it only arrived this morning. MACS0647-JD is not a large galaxy as it only takes about 300 years for the light from the outside stars to hit those in the middle of the pack and it’s not a very glamorous name for what may be the first galaxy, but that’s what we have called the light picked up by one of the Hubble Telescope’s programs called the Cluster Lensing and Supernova survey.
(How to make a galaxy)
Now if the fundamentalist view, found in some politicians who control a lot of nuclear weapons is true and the physicists are wrong, we have a real problem. Almost all technology relies on the speed of light to be constant in a vacuum but obviously, the speed must be highly variable to fit with the Biblical view. Light must be able to go much faster at times and at any moment we could lose access to all our technology, mobile phones, computers and global positioning would collapse.
One of the methods used to establish the age of the earth (which gives the same answer as other methods) is by measuring the generally stable rate of radioactive decay. If the earth was only a few thousand years old, then the decay rates must be variable and are therefore unstable. This poses an enormous risk to nuclear power plants world-wide which could undergo melt down at any moment.
Nuclear weapons could likewise spontaneously explode. If the earth was only a few thousand years old, we would need to shut down all nuclear related activities and remove global positioning from all aircraft and that’s just for starters.
Horses and zebra have a recent common ancestor and are still genetically 94% the same
Lions and tigers have a recent common ancestor and are still genetically 96% the same
Humans , chimps and bonobos have a recent common ancestor and are still genetically 98% the same
Flat Earth Fundamental Theists (yes they really exist) believe the earth is 6,000 years old. They go to great lengths to assert that man did not descend from apes and/or apes never evolved into humans and they are absolutely right. (On the last point, obviously.)
Apes don’t and never have changed into humans. There is not a scientist in the world that would disagree. We absolutely did not evolve from monkeys or apes and no one from Darwin onwards has ever claimed we did.
Our common ancestor was another animal altogether, not ape, monkey or human. The best evidence so far is an animal called Darwinius Masillae which looked a bit like a lemur but the scientists are still trying to determine that one way or the other. What they don’t disagree about is there definitely was an animal that evolved into the various forms of apes we see today. (Why you don’t really have a birthday)
Chimps and bonobos are so close they can mate (in captivity anyway) and we are genetically extremely close to them. Our little group is fairly close to the two gorilla species and all five of us are related to the orangutan.
To see how this came about, there is a great example going on today in the Galapagos Islands where a recent lava flow separated the local population of tortoise into two halves. As they will never be able to meet, each side will evolve slightly differently to match the area’s flora. If the rain on one side of the lava flow causes the cactus to grow taller, the tortoise on that side will change shape over the next thousand generations to adapt. Over thousands of years, they will look very different. If the area remains stable, over hundreds of thousands of years, they will lose the ability to cross breed with the tortoises on the other side. Over millions of years their outward appearance can change so dramatically, partly in response to their environment, they could be unrecognizable as tortoises, an entirely different species in fact.
In our case, we can see the different ‘races’ of humans that have evolved over the last ten or twenty thousand years. If we look at evolving into a new species, that takes thousands of thousands, that is, millions of years. Our common ancestor with other apes lived 50 million years ago and that’s plenty of time to change shape. Even that massive amount of time is only a small fraction of the earth’s age.
Many other descendants of Macillae have already gone extinct but our little gang of five are still here, for now.
After millions of years and millions of earthquakes, lava flows, river course changes, continental drift, ice ages and similar events separating animal populations, you can easily see how it happens. No omnipotent beings were required.