Can Evolution Be As Certain as 2+2?
Evolution is accepted as the fundamental theory of life because, well, we see evidence of it all around us. Not because it has been irrefutably, mathematically proved—at least not yet.
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
Mathematical proofs feel both beautiful and inevitable. Once you understand a proof of, say, the Pythagorean theorem, you can be sure this knowledge won't be contradicted by any future discovery nor changed by any new insight. So you can use your knowledge to measure distances or map people's Netflix tastes with utter confidence. Unsurprisingly, as I heard the cosmologist Mario Livio say recently, "most working mathematicians are Platonists"—convinced their proofs and concepts exist independently of the human race, eternally out there, waiting to be discovered.
Biology isn't like this. Evolution is accepted as the fundamental theory of life because, well, we see evidence of it all around us. Not because it has been irrefutably, mathematically proved. Does this matter?
Gregory Chaitin thinks it does. In fact, he has said, "it is scandalous that we do not have a mathematical proof that evolution works!" Hence one of his ongoing intellectual quests, described engagingly in this talk: The development of "metabiology." Metabiology is to be a model of life that will let researchers "represent mathematically the fundamental biological principles of evolution in such a manner that we can prove that evolution must take place." Metabiology is to relate to real life forms the way a mathematician's perfect sphere relates to a blood cell or a fish egg. "I am trying to find the Platonic ideal of evolution,the archetypical behavior, not the messy version that takes place in the real world!"
A Euclidean version of evolution would be a powerful tool. For one thing, I think it would settle the question of whether we'll find life beyond Earth (because we'd know that life must evolve under x and y conditions the way we know that two parallel lines can never meet). For another, it would let the human race reduce the scope of its ignorance. With irrefutable proof, we can be sure of what we know about evolution. Without it, we're like Europeans who used to think all swans were white. We can't be sure there isn't a black swan out there somewhere. With proof, we would be.
But, um, among the most important mathematical proofs of the 20th century are Kurt Godel's two incompleteness theorems, which showed, first, that any mathematics with whole numbers will contain unprovable propositions, and, second, that it's impossible to prove that such a system is free of self-contradictions. Accepting those proofs seems to require accepting that we can't be sure of mathematics after all. Chaitin wrestles interestingly with Gödel's theorems here. Platonists (who included Gödel) are convinced mathematics can't have a Black Swan problem. But the debate is open.
Orangutans join humans and bees in a very exclusive club
- Orangutan mothers wait to sound a danger alarm to avoid tipping off predators to their location
- It took a couple of researchers crawling around the Sumatran jungle to discover the phenomenon
- This ability may come from a common ancestor
In a breakthrough for nuclear fusion research, scientists at China's Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) reactor have produced temperatures necessary for nuclear fusion on Earth.
- The EAST reactor was able to heat hydrogen to temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius.
- Nuclear fusion could someday provide the planet with a virtually limitless supply of clean energy.
- Still, scientists have many other obstacles to pass before fusion technology becomes a viable energy source.
Journaling can help you materialize your ambitions.
- Organizing your thoughts can help you plan and achieve goals that might otherwise seen unobtainable.
- The Bullet Journal method, in particular, can reduce clutter in your life by helping you visualize your future.
- One way to view your journal might be less of a narrative and more of a timeline of decisions.
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