General Question

Harold's avatar

Is it even possible that the theory of evolution will one day be proved wrong?

Asked by Harold (4117points) June 5th, 2009

Many things accepted as fact by the scientific community in the past have been subsequently proved wrong by further discoveries. Do you think this could possibly ever happen with the origins of life?

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28 Answers

laureth's avatar

Let me first say that the theory of Evolution has very little to do with the origins of life, and much more to do with what happened after that.

Like all scientific theories, it became a theory (instead of a hypothesis) by having the evidence to back it. Hypotheses are thrown out all the time, because they’re just untested or minimally tested ideas that sometimes are rubbish. Once a hypothesis becomes a theory, it is fairly solid, with much supporting evidence.

Of course it is possible that this theory could be unproven, I guess, but with the full massive weight of information and support holding it up, it would be very unlikely. Impossible? No – the right evidence could even disprove the theories of Gravity, Relativity, and Thermodynamics.

dynamicduo's avatar

Extremely doubtful. Each piece of evidence we discover fits perfectly into the theories. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying it’s extremely improbable. Probably as probable as every human spontaneously exploding one day.

Please note, the theory of evolution and natural selection are different than the theories regarding the origins of life. However, even with the origins of life, some scientists in a lab recently demonstrated one of the first building blocks.

So I’m going to go with a big resounding No, evolution will likely never be disproven, and our knowledge of the origins of life will only become more logical and refined as we go on.

Harold's avatar

Thankyou Laureth, good answer. However, although I understand that evolution only explains what happened after life originated, I do wonder how they can be disconnected.

Thankyou also dynamicduo. I appreciate your comments.

laureth's avatar

Evolution is about how different life forms react to their environments in such a way as some thrive and live to reproduce, and some die off and leave few or no descendants. Through this process of natural selection, the most fit life forms make more of themselves, and thus we moved from the simplest forms of life to the vast array of living things today (each one suited to some ecological niche). This is of course very simplified.

What it does not address (and is separated from) is how that first living thing came to be. Natural selection cannot happen to life forms if there are no life forms to be selected for (or against). Natural selection does not explain how the first amino acids formed, or how they came together to make the first cell or virus or whatever. Only once that first whatever formed into a living thing were the pressures of natural selection able to bear upon it.

Odysseus's avatar

YES.
.
Once upon a time we were primitive beings,,, once upon a time the earth was flat,,, once upon a time it was thought impossible to instantly communicate with someone on the other side of the planet.

Most things we thought impossible hundreds(even thousands) of years ago has become possible.

Therefore…....
Anything is possible !

marinelife's avatar

Strongly recommend Bill Bryson’s book “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”

If your concern regarding evolution being disproved is related to Christian faith, the two are not mutually exclusive. Evolution is a method, not a cause.

mattbrowne's avatar

It is possible, yes, but very unlikely. In my opinion evolution theory will move up to the next level. There are still many unclear aspects, for example the punctuated equilibrium versus the theory of phyletic gradualism. But the basic principles will most likely survive, like selection acting on mutation, speciation and isolation etc.

Newton’s laws are still very useful in most cases, although Einstein’s general relativity is far more precise.

DarkScribe's avatar

Sure they will. Right after they prove that the “Moon” we see every night is a passing spaceship full of alien teenagers doing rude things out of the window.

crisw's avatar

“However, although I understand that evolution only explains what happened after life originated, I do wonder how they can be disconnected.”

They are already disconnected. The theory of evolution is that all living things are related through common descent with modification. This has zero connection with how life got here in the first place. It also has more evidence for it and less likely to be false than almost any scientific theory you can name.

All scientific theories could be shown to be false- because if it isn’t falsifiable, it isn’t a scientific theory.

mattbrowne's avatar

We might find the missing links how life got started here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_smokers

As @crisw said, this is outside the scope of evolution and a different branch of science.

pikipupiba's avatar

Already has been. Even Darwin didn’t believe in it by the end of his life.

Evolution (not by natural selection, that is an obvious truth) would be impossible if any part of any living thing was found to be too complicated to have evolved one tiny part at a time. The flagella on a bacterium is one prime (but not the only) structure that fits this description.

noelasun's avatar

Evolution as it exists today isn’t just one theory. It’s sometimes used to describe an overarching theory, or a concept…
What I’m saying is, evolution is probably here to stay, but when future generations speak of evolution, they also probably won’t be talking about the same evolution we’re talking about.
(I’m thinking of what happened to atoms, etc.)

crisw's avatar

@pikipupiba

Please stop copying random junk from creationist websites.

“Even Darwin didn’t believe in it by the end of his life.”
This is so wrong that even Answers in Genesis says not to use it.

“The flagella on a bacterium is one prime (but not the only) structure that fits this description.”
Nope. Again, very wrong, and even a few mintes research would show this. There is ample, plentiful and thorough documentation of the probable evolutionary path of the flagellum from a structure used by earlier bacteria to inject substances into cells.

Critter38's avatar

The theory of evolution will continue to evolve as we continue to refine and add to our understanding of the underlying mechanisms and their relative importance. So I have every expectation that the theory of evolution will not be the same in 10 years, let alone 100.

However, for something to overturn evolutionary theory, it would need to provide a superior and fundamentally different scientific explanation that better accounts for homologous structures, vestigial organs, genome order, biogeography, fossils and the order of their occurrence, etc.. etc…

No contenders so far. I’m not holding my breath.

nice to see you back Laureth! :)

Ivan's avatar

Of course. All scientific theories, by the very definition of the term, are falsifiable (as crisw alluded to). However, given that evolution is resoundingly and undeniably supported by essentially all evidence from nearly every branch of science, it’s very unlikely.

Darwin's avatar

I, too, think that the theory of evolution is very unlikely to ever be proven wrong. However, our understanding of the precise mechanism or mechanisms by which evolution occurs may change greatly over time. In essence, the theory of evolution will itself evolve as we get more information about its workings.

RedPowerLady's avatar

Oh ya, I think it is possible. Many scientific theories have been backed up by strong evidence only to be drastically changed at a later time or disregarded altogether. And they were vehemently believed in as well. I do not think that adaptation, as it relates to evolution, will be disregarded. There are some components such as that which seem quite solid. However, I do believe that it is possible the theory itself will become a secondary theory, “disproven”, or warped into something that does not resemble the theory as we now understand it (considering, as someone else mentioned, that it is not just one theory even now).

Now I’m outta here because I don’t want to argue with the evolution die-hards about my beliefs

mattbrowne's avatar

@crisw – When discussing the bacterial flagellum we should note that we still lack scientific explanations when studying molecular evolution. I think Darwin’s theory has to be complemented by other principles of nature which includes of course the origin of life itself. However, creationist magic is counterproductive and should be ignored. Our understanding of evolution works best when we take the simplest living cell as a given. But how did this incredibly complex molecular machinery evolve? We’ll find answers, but at the moment we are still in the dark.

And we should look at the dark places which black smokers call their home.

Harold's avatar

Thankyou all- I was not trying to disprove it by asking this question. I was just interested to see who thought that it was possible that something supposedly set in concrete might be fallible.

Darwin's avatar

Sigh

The Theory of Evolution is just that, a theory, defined as a “well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena, or a tentative insight into the natural world; a concept that is not yet verified but that if true would explain certain facts or phenomena.”

A theory is not set in concrete. A theory is never unable to change or be changed. Eventually, however, if a theory reaches a point where it seems to have been proven beyond all possible doubt, it becomes a law, such as the Law of Gravity.

It is still the Theory of Evolution, with a lot of evidence that backs it up. It is not yet the Law of Evolution, where it is completely accepted, fully explains speciation and species change, and no questions remain.

Nonetheless, as an evolutionary biologist, I firmly believe that science is on the right track as to how species came to be and how new species can arise from existing ones.

Ivan's avatar

@Darwin

“Eventually, however, if a theory reaches a point where it seems to have been proven beyond all possible doubt, it becomes a law, such as the Law of Gravity.”

No. Theories and laws are two completely separate things. Theories do not graduate into laws. There will never be a law of evolution. There is both a law of gravity and a theory of gravity that exist simultaneously.

Critter38's avatar

A scientific law can still be overturned, it just needs new facts to arise. There is no circumstance in science where we assume that no new evidence is possible…even when it comes to laws.

Laws generally consist of analytical statements, often containing a constant. So they don’t venture into theoretical explanation of processes, but rest in the world of observation. So we can make a very clean statement about a pattern (hence their frequency in physics)...eg. the general law of gravitation, that generally holds true. But evolutionary theory explains the processes that facilitate the fact that species evolve.

Which brings up the next issue…laws may not be universally true. Newton’s laws are still laws even though relativity replaced them. This is because they still hold to be substantially true for most human observations (except at very high speeds, very strong gravity, or very small scales). So a law can be invalid some of the time and still be a law. Also, there is no scientific law making body…it is merely common usage that stipulates whether something is a law or not.

Check this out for interest. It specifically discusses evolution and its distinction from physics and associated laws.
http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/evolphil/predict.html

Ivan's avatar

@Critter38 Excellent answer.

DarkScribe's avatar

@Critter38 A scientific law can still be overturned, it just needs new facts to arise.

Let me know when they overturn the law of gravity will you – I have always wanted to fly.

Oh, and if they discover that the speed of dark exceeds the speed of light, that would a handy thing to know.

Fyrius's avatar

I see this quote hasn’t been thrown around yet. Going to rectify that now.

Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian. – J. B. S. Haldane (on what could make him lose confidence in the theory of evolution)

Critter38's avatar

@DarkScribe I take the underlying point. Scientists are generally extremely careful to point out the limitations of current knowledge and the importance of working with probabilities rather than certainties. Unfortunately for those accustomed to thinking in absolute truths this provides a rather handy loophole to exploit when making spurious god of the gaps arguments. Essentially the “Ahhhh, so you’re not certain….hmmm… Therefore you can’t rule out the ‘possibility’ that a supernatural misogynist magically farted into existence all creatures great and small.”

So although I acknowledge that evolutionary theory ‘could’ be overturned, I also acknowledge that words like ‘could’, and ‘possibly’ and ‘perhaps’ are so inclusive as to cover that which is reasonably likely, ridiculously unlikely, as well as that which is impossible without inventing other impossibilities to make it all seem more possible, through the shear collapsing weight of stupidity.

Basically people confuse the fact that just because they (or some goat herder 3000 years go) imagined something, and just because we can not categorically exclude anything from that which might be possible, ‘therefore’ what was imagined somehow hurdles the logic and evidence barrier in our heads to become a reasonable supernatural account of the world around us for us to live by.

Alas, I digress…my point…After 150 years of supporting, extensive, and overwhelming evidence from mutliple scientific fields for the fact that species evolve, I place the possibility of evolution being proved wrong in the exclusive “fucking ridiculously unlikely” pile.

I hope my position is clearer now…:)

thanks Ivan. I just didn’t want people to think, from Darwin’s comment, that there was a ladder of truth that evolutionary theory hadn’t yet assailed…and hence wasn’t ‘yet’ a law

nice link fyrius

tiffyandthewall's avatar

i have no intelligent answer, but i thought that first sentence said “Many things accepted as fact by the scientific community in the past have been subsequently proved wrong by fluther discoveries.”, and it was kind of a “hell yeah!” moment.

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