The abductive oomph of evolution

Alas, I am busy beyond reason. Two papers are due (overdue) and summer activities are keeping me dancing. So It’s time to back up and look at some posts you may have missed in my early years . . . er . . . early months. I’ll start with some of those that define science to remind you why evolution is so important as an explanation of the data we find in the biological and geological sciences (and actually scores of sciences from anthropology to economics). Also, from the looks of things only about six people saw this back in the day, so I don’t feel too bad reposting. Here it is again!

“Ah. I understand the source of your misperception, but this is not sleepwear, and I do not have a ‘missus.’” — Star Trek the Next Generation, Data to Jack London (Time’s Arrow, Part ?)

The fancy word for today is abduction. Not the kidnapping type. Abductive reasoning is a way to make an inference. A way to reason. A way to get at the truth of things. Science uses it a lot. Let me illustrate with an example. Suppose I walk into my house and find on the table a nicely decorated chocolate cake, the kind with beautiful red frosting roses gracing the sides. Moreover, (I love that word, it just sounds so philosophical, moreover, it adds a sense of grace to your argument) in the sink you find some cake pans piled on the kitchen counter with that dark bit of cakey stuff that sticks to the bottom of recent baking events.

In the sink are soaking some bowls in a milky white liquid that reminds you of diluted batter. Sticking out of these bowls are some beater heads that go to the mixer in your kitchen. On the counter are the bags used for squeezing frosting out of decorative little metal things that no one knows the name of and the little metal things. Red frosting is found all over these things. In the garbage are two empty boxes of Betty Crocker cake mix and two empty cans of chocolate frosting. On the fridge is a note pinned by a magnet from my son to my wife that reads, “Mom, Sally Gleason called to remind you that you promised to make a cake for her daughter’s reception tomorrow.” The note was dated yesterday (don’t your children date their notes?). I know that my wife has been the only one home because my kids all left for school before I did and they had plans after school that I know will keep them away until evening and my wife said she was not going anywhere today, because she was going to catch up on her blogging.

So here is my explanation of the cake: Despite what she said she was going to do, my wife went and bought a cake at the store. My son must of have come from school early because he is the only one that likes pancakes, which explains the batter in the bowls and mixer. My neighbor came by and asked to use our garbage and disposed of her cake baking packaging. My other son must have brought the dirty pans from his HomeEc class to wash, in which class they must have made cakes, and my son must want his mom to make a cake for some reason because he obviously is lying about the note. Also my daughter has been using her mother’s cake decorating accessories for playing scientist again. I’ll have to speak to her.

Or maybe my wife is an international spy! She had to make it look like she was home all day to trick the other spies who are watching her, so her man Q made the cake and supplied the supporting materials, including calling my son with a voice digitizer-disguiser-thing claiming he was Sally.

The other explanation is: my wife made the cake and the leftovers are still lying about.

Why is one explanation better than the others? All are possible. Both explain the evidence. Why does the last seem more reasonable? Well, it explains everything without adding any new hypotheses. It seems more probable. My son has to come home to make pancakes in the second. Every single piece of evidence has to be explained with a separate story. From a strict scientific view both explanations cover the data. The last explanation, however, requires just one hypothesis, the others keep adding them. We call this parsimony or inference to the best explanation. We take the inference that requires the least cast of supporting hypotheses. The first or second could be true. One of those could have been what happened, but my heavens we had to believe a lot of coincidences or conspiracies to get at the explanation.

Consider DNA, the fossil record (lining up so nicely from simple Cambrian species, through primitive invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, hominids), Geological stratigraphy, radiometric dating and the physics behind it, comparative anatomy, the geographic distribution of species, the developmental pathways in embryonic development, known protein relationships among body chemistry (ours is closer to chimps than chickens, etc. (and it all lays out nicely along evolutionary lines), known mechanisms like natural selection that explain it, and scores and scores of specific discipline specific evidence, and you start to get the idea why evolution is the only reigning paradigm. And why it is considered true.

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7 comments to The abductive oomph of evolution

  • Mark D.

    With regard to evolution considered as “common descent”, I think you are absolutely right and the abductive evidence is compelling.

  • I suppose I’ll have to agree with you.

    And yet, I wonder if you secretly don’t wish that your third explanation could be supported. That’s the one that would let you cut a piece of your wife’s cake for an afternoon snack, and still possibly survive the evening.

  • Good description of abduction. I agree with your explanation of why evolution is the reigning paradigm, let’s just make sure we don’t become so dogmatic in our adherence to evolution that we do not give a fair shake to legitimate competing theories, whatever they may be and whenever they may come.

    Re: (Last line) “And why it is considered true”
    I like how this conclusion stays true to the limitations of abduction. In abduction, the theories that we accept (and reject) are justified by the evidence of observation, but that evidence is inductive as is the theory/hypothesis which was constructed from the evidence. In this case we cannot be certain, just confident at best. To move beyond the uncertainties of abduction and induction, evolutionists need to work on obtaining conclusively verifiable evidence of common descent. Until this evidence is forthcoming, we will have to rely on inductive evidence to support macroevolutionary claims.

    2 cents.

  • “To move beyond the uncertainties of abduction and induction, evolutionists need to work on obtaining conclusively verifiable evidence of common descent.”

    Here’s a twist on our roles, I don’t think science of any kind can move beyond abduction and induction and that no science will obtain conclusively verifiable evidence in the way you are looking for. As I’ve argued, science tells us how to bet. Evolution is the odds-on favorate, to the point it’s the only horse in the race. It explains all the data, makes accurate predictions and has produced a flurishing and productive research program. Nothing more can be asked of good science. It will continue to be tested, nuances sorted out, and challenged by new data. When it changes it will be through science and all that that means. Right now it looks true from every direction you look. To bet against evolution is to misunderstand the odds.

  • SteveP,

    A crucial, falsifiable test of a fundamental hypothesis derived from a scientific theory is well within the bounds of science. It happens all the time in physics, chemistry, and the social sciences. It does not happen very often in evolution.

  • As often as in the others.

  • Steve,

    If it happens as often as in the others, then you may want to reconsider your view that evolution or a science of “any kind can [not] move beyond abduction and induction and that no science will obtain conclusively verifiable evidence in the way you are looking for.”

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