Was Evolution the Greatest Theory Ever? January 26, 2009

Was Evolution the Greatest Theory Ever?

In the latest issue of Free Inquiry, Richard Dawkins talks about evolution — specifically, the power of Charles Darwin‘s theory.

He calls evolution “a big idea, arguably the most powerful idea ever.”

It echoes Daniel Dennett, who has called evolution “the greatest idea ever to occur to a human mind.”

Specifically, Dawkins uses a formula which he calls the “Explanation Ratio”:

Power of a theory =
That which it explains

That which it needs to assume in order to do the explaining

Dawkins writes:

If any reader knows of an idea that has a larger explanation ratio than Darwin’s, let’s hear it.

What happens when you throw Intelligent Design into that equation?

… intelligent design (ID) is the polar opposite of a powerful theory: its explanation ratio is pathetic. The numerator is the same: everything we know about life and its prodigious complexity. But the denominator, far from Darwin’s pristine and minimalistic simplicity, is at least as big as the numerator itself: an unexplained intelligence big enough to be capable of designing all the complexity we are trying to explain in the first place!

Epic fail.

One last excerpt boggles your mind if you haven’t heard it already:

By the way, Darwin had plenty of other good ideas (for example his ingenious and largely correct theory of how coral reefs form), but it is his big idea of natural selection that I am talking about here. I think it is even more powerful than I have so far suggested. Not only is it the explanation for life on this planet, it is the only theory so far suggested that could, even in principle, explain life on any planet. If life exists elsewhere in the universe (and my tentative bet is that it does), however strange and alien and weird its nature may be (and my tentative bet is that it will be weird beyond imagining), some version of evolution by Darwinian natural selection will almost certainly turn out to underlie its existence. That is at least how I would bet: on the principle that I have called “Universal Darwinism.”

So let’s talk about that question posed earlier:

Can you think of any other idea that would rival evolution in terms of its Explanation Ratio?

(via Free Inquiry)

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  • cathy

    Wouldn’t certain physics theories win because they assume nothing (or virtually nothing)? It seems to me that evolution assumes more than say…gravitational theories which explain a great deal but assume less.

  • There are no good gravitational theories. No, seriously! Physics can describe gravity but they don’t know what it is – they have found neither gravitons nor gravity waves, and there is a complete breakdown between relativistic and quantum gravity.

    HOWEVER, yeah, there’s a theory that explains more than evolution: dissipative structures theory. Because it explains evolution. 😉

  • fmitchell

    IIRC, Special Relativity has only three or four axioms, unless you also count the concepts and laws of Newtonian mechanics and possibly electromagnetics as well. (It’s been awhile since my last physics class.)

  • Eric

    I don’t know if you want to call it a theory, but the periodic table is so damn useful I have to throw it out there. The laws of thermodynamics are also good, especially since they’re a fundamental part of both physics and chemistry.

  • Mike

    I would argue that the idea of the four fundamental forces has the largest value. It’s dead useful in explaining all sorts of stuff. Not that I’m biased by my physics degree or anything.

  • Obviously it’s hard to quantify these things… but I think heliocentrism gives evolution a run for its money. It doesn’t just explain the apparent movement of the stars and planets. It’s the beginning of the entire science of modern astronomy, and our understanding of the earth as one planet among billions, orbiting one star among billions, in one galaxy among billions — instead of thinking of it as the center of everything.

    Evolution is high on the list, though.

  • Big Bang / standard cosmological model. Very very few inputs and it explains the structure, composition, and observed history of, oh, the entire universe. Totally kicks evolution’s ass any day.

  • Wes

    The scenario he’s giving is too oversimplified to answer the question you’re asking, Hemant. Natural selection’s explanatory power only exists in conjunction with several other theories, most prominently the “central dogmas” of genetics and such. Also, how do we quantify “that which it explains”? In terms of sheer size? In that case, life is minuscule and cosmological theories like the Big Bang win hands down. Or should we quantify it in terms of the number of entities whose properties are explained? But then quantum mechanics wins, because there are more subatomic particles than there are anything else. Or should we quantify it in terms of number of “facts” to explain? But how do we divide these up? Or in terms of “complexity” of the phenomena to be explained? But how do we defined complexity? Is a biological system more or less complex than the physics of a black hole?

    Trying to compare explanatory power across scientific disciplines might be along the lines of asking, “Who’s better—Albert Einstein or Thomas Jefferson?”

    That said, Dawkins is right in using explanatory power within the scope of biological phenomena that need to be explained to show why evolution is an immensely better theory than creationism. I think that’s a much better standard to use than “falsifiability”, because as many philosophers have pointed out, falsifiability is a slippery concept. Evolution beats creationism because it has enormous amounts of explanatory power based on very few assumptions, and is entirely consistent with everything else we know from chemistry, genetics, geology, physics, etc. Creationism, on the other hand, requires that one make highly implausible assumptions about the nature of the whole universe, contradicts many of the things known from other disciplines, and since it makes no definite commitments to the way the evidence would be if the proposed theory were true, it can only yield explanations post hoc.

  • 5ive

    Cognitive dissonance theory for the psychological sciences. Although I know many consider Psychology to be a soft or untrue science. But really that theory has huge explanatory power for human behaviour.

  • Pseudonym

    I’m going to vote for Archimedes’ theory that mathematics can be used to make predictions about the physical world. As far as bang for buck goes, I think that beats (and, in a sense, subsumes) evolution.

  • Loren Petrich

    I’d suggest as competition the Standard Model of elementary particle physics, combined with General Relativity.

    The Standard Model has 9 kinds of elementary-particle field and 19 free parameters. GR has one kind of elementary-particle field (space-time as a dynamical entity) and one free parameter (the gravitational constant).

    The SM and GR explain an enormous amount of phenomena, sometimes to extreme precision.

    GR’s Newtonian limit and some of its post-Newtonian effects have been abundantly tested in the Solar System and elsewhere. It has been so successful that we have been able to send spacecraft across the Solar System and have them reach their destinations without much error.

    And the SM? Quarks combine to make hadrons. The most stable hadrons, protons and neutrons, combine to make atomic nuclei. Nuclei and electrons combine to make atoms. Atoms combine to make molecules. Molecules form most familiar macroscopic objects. All of which can be worked out in gory detail.

  • Not only is it the explanation for life on this planet, it is the only theory so far suggested that could, even in principle, explain life on any planet.

    I don’t like this quote, it should specifically refer to an explanation for the variety of life on this planet as ID/creationist types will automatically assume it is referring to origins. I notice lots of scientists getting muddled up with this as well, confusing evolution and abiogenesis. Might be nit-picking but it causes unnecessary arguments!

    Fully agree with the rest of the post though, I really can’t think of any other theory more powerful in Dawkins’ sense of the word. Gives you a cosy glow thinking about it 🙂

  • Richard Wade’s Evil Twin

    What about the famous Fundies-are-from-Space Theory? It explains a host of bizarre, perplexing and otherwise inexplicable behaviors and only makes one assumption, that Fundies are from space!

  • What I am a little confused about in this discussion is the word “assumptions”. What assumptions are made in the theory of evolution? It’s my favourite theory and I don’t even know. Nor could I say what assumptions are made in any of the physical theories above. Instinctively I would say that the assumption is naturalism, for all of them! Scientific theories are all based in the idea that the world is natural and can be studied. Everything else springs from that. And that’s definitely a much simpler assumption than theism.

    Cannonball – I think you’re the one confusing “explaining life” with “explaining abiogenesis. When I (as a biologist-in-training) read that evolution “explains life”, I don’t interpret it to mean “explains the origin of life” – I interpret it to mean that it actually explains LIFE. All of it. Dobzhansky said it best – “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Before evolutionary theory, biology was a loose collection of facts pertaining to living organisms. With evolutionary theory, these facts can all be collected in a meaningful way – explained.

  • Yeah, evolution doesn’t explain abiogenesis (which really makes no sense unless you’re slippin’ in some dualism), dissipative structures theory explains abiogenesis. 😉

    And, honestly, relativity might be as powerful as evolution and atomic theory definitely is, but quantum is a mess. It’s a hundred laws in search of a theory.

  • Evolution theory has been one of the most courageous theories because of the entrenched religious resistance. Many of the other theories in physical sciences were not as courageous because they didn’t challenge people’s pre-conceived notions. (The heliocentric theory being an exception, of course).

    I’d also like to echo that the emerging theory of “dissipating structures” will be very important… that matter tends to “self organize” (If you will) in order to dissipate the most energy… And life (as a phenomena) is a very effective way to dissipate energy. If this theory is true, then life may be quite wide-spread in the universe.

  • The Theory of a Luminiferous Aether. Now rejected but the act of examining the theory and failure of the experiments to demonstrate it are truly inspiring as to the strength of the scientific method. The Explanation Ratio is quite high even though the theory is wrong.

    Evolution is much more elegant an idea though.

  • brad

    That was one of the stupidest articles I’ve ever read. How do you quantify “that which it explains?” Or “that which it needs to assume … ?” In the words of Dawkins himself, “You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that this is ridiculous.”

    One would think that if Dawkins is asking for people to come up with an explanation ratio larger than Darwin’s, that he would at least tell us what Darwin’s explanation ratio is!

  • brad

    Jeff, what is a “courageous” theory? I prefer my theories to be happy.

  • Brian

    The theory that there is no god.

  • Brad, I think a courageous theory is one that if a person holds it they might get killed on that account. 😉

  • brad

    That sounds more like a courageous person than a courageous theory to me.

  • Mark

    The theory of evolution has no practical application. It is useful for nothing other than argument.

    The theory of the atom and the electron is the greatest theory ever developed by mankind. Without the theory of the electron there would be no lights, no computers, no transportation other than the horse and buggy, and no communications other than smoke signals. There would also be no medical equipment or research tools to develop new advances in medicine.

    Did I also mention no web blogs without the electron? Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

  • Siamang

    The theory of evolution has no practical application.


    I guess medicine isn’t a practical application. Nor agriculture.

  • The theory of evolution has no practical application.

    What about that nicely shaped yellow banana that you probably have in your hand? Did those things exist in that form in early human civilization? Or were they slowly cultivated over many many generations?

  • *blinks* Evolution has no . . . practical . . . application. Oh, dear.

    And there is no theory of electricity. What electricity is is hotly debated in physics circles.

  • Aj

    Darwinian theory explains the rise in complexity and diversity of life through gradual natural selection, the survival of genes from their fitness to survive. I can’t think of anything so complex and diverse, and explained by something very simple. Exploring the evidence, finding out what happened, and why we’re the way we are should be enough, knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

    Practical application of Darwin’s theory is not great, its power to explain does not translate into a power to predict future events. It can predict future findings of past events, but it is extremely hard to predict future events in the evolution of life, this limits practical applications.

    Some designers use the same principles to develop things like propellers, and this can only increase as computer simulation becomes more widespread, more accessible. Game theory also benefits from these principles, again using simulations, and I doubt anyone would deny that has practical applications.

    Evolution in the past can tell us something about how a species might evolve. We know that bacteria will develop resistance to anti-biotics, and our immune system is in an arms race between itself and viruses. We’re beginning to use this knowledge to predict and guide evolutionary pressure, like with viruses and agricultural pests.

  • RP

    It seems that the theory of evolution is only valid if and only if you a make an assumption that the Laws physics holds true. Darwin’s theory describes the biochemical process which all fundamentally operate on a set of physical laws.

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