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LostInParadise's avatar

Is the theory of evolution falsifiable?

Asked by LostInParadise (26035points) February 1st, 2017

The philosopher of science, Karl Popper, said that for a study to be considered as part of science, its hypotheses have to be subject to experiments which can test the hypotheses and which may give negative results.

I am having an argument with someone who claims that the theory of evolution does not satisfy Popper’s criterion. I may be wrong on this, but I believe that the discovery of DNA and the tree of life derived from it agreed almost completely with the prior tree of life constructed using just fossil and structural evidence. If this is true then the agreement between the two can be considered a pretty good test of the theory of evolution. Am I right? If not, is there some other test that evolution can be subject to?

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14 Answers

gorillapaws's avatar

Yes. All it would take is one example (thoroughly vetted of course) to debunk the Theory of Evolution. So far no known life form in the entire known history of life has done so. This is why the Theory of Evolution is a fact.

Soubresaut's avatar

I think proving evolution itself wrong would be difficult at this point, given everything we know now about life has supported (if not demonstrated) the evolutionary process, and maybe that’s why your friend thinks it’s impossible to give it a negative result now.

But in theory, the same landmarks that support evolution today could have swung against evolution —we could have discovered fossils that showed even the similar-looking creatures meandering around on earth had no common ancestors, they just always were what they are now; we could have discovered there was no common genetic code between all of life; we could have discovered that creatures do not, in fact, slowly change over time (or we could have discovered that those changes are not related to forces pressuring species); etc., etc… I know those few examples I offered don’t scratch the surface of evidence in favor of evolution.

I think the case of evolution is more a case of no experiment succeeding in debunking it, rather than not being able to debunk it.

Seek's avatar

fossil rabbits in the Precambrian is the famous answer to this question.

kritiper's avatar

No, not logically and/or scientifically.

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

In theory any scientific theory is falsifiable. I have my theory that this theory will not.

ragingloli's avatar

Sure. You could show that the fossil record is a deliberate deception, or that fossils are not actually remnants of dead animals.
You could show that animals do not pass on genes to their offspring.
You could show that survival is completely random and that the environment has absolutely no bearing on who succeeds or fails..
Just like you could prove the Earth is not round, by showing that it is flat.

CWOTUS's avatar

I think that as @gorillapaws has noted, if you find evidence in the fossil world (or replicable experimental result) that defies expected predictions, then yes, the theory is falsifiable. You just need to find the evidence that does so to perform the falsification. But more important in terms of general theory, there has to be “a perceived way” to make the falsification; an identification (if only in theory) of the type of evidence that would provide evidence that “your theory said this would not happen, but here is the evidence that it did happen”.

For example, if a credible researcher finds evidence of modern horses that predate what are presumed to be the ancient ancestors of what we now recognize as a horse, then that might prove (might prove) to falsify what we believe we know about horse evolution. On the other hand, it might just help to evolve our own thinking about the theory, and to modify it for that species. But if that’s done widely enough, for enough species, then the Theory of Evolution would need to be re-thought.

Just because one cannot find the evidence to disprove a theory does not mean that “it’s not science because it can’t be proven false”. What matters – in scientific terms regarding the way we regard theories – is that “a method to disprove the theory” is understood, and we state, in effect, “we know what we don’t know, and what we’re speculating on”. If you find evidence that disproves our speculation, then obviously the theory that we used to support that speculation is incorrect.

CWOTUS's avatar

You might enjoy this link on the exact topic, which lists better than I have some specific ways that the theory could be disproven.

Pachy's avatar

Yes! Trump is living proof.

MrGrimm888's avatar

I would think one could point out viruses. They evolve fast enough for us to witness the changes. It may not prove that everything evolves, but it should prove that it occurs…

CWOTUS's avatar

Ah, the problem with that idea, @MrGrimm888 is that that’s a supporting idea for evolution; it’s not a way to disprove it. The idea of falsifiability is “What kind of evidence would disprove the theory outright, or would demonstrate flaws that haven’t been considered in the theory?”

Pointing out evidence in support of the theory, while it certainly helps to bolster the experimental and observational proof, doesn’t provide a way to falsify the theory.

Darth_Algar's avatar

I think some folks are often confused about just what “falsifiable” means. It doesn’t mean that it is proven false, it means that a scenario can be conceived, if not actually tested, in which the hypothesis or theory might be proven false. Evolution is falsifiable. Rabbits in the Precambrian, as noted above, would be one scenario. An extra-terrestrial civilization appearing to us and showing that they have been genetically manipulation life on Earth all these eons would be another, albeit, far-fetched scenario. In other words it could be tested

God, on the other hand, in not falsifiable, since “God” is a nebulous, poorly-defined, concept that is defined differently for each person. It is not testable as there’s no solid definition of what “God” is, and no imaginable scenario that would disprove it. Same as the invisible giant tea kettle orbiting Jupiter. Maybe you can’t demonstrate that it is there, but you can’t prove that it’s not there ether.

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