Three Persistent Myths In The History Of Science
by John A. Davison
05 June 2010
In presenting this brief essay I am going to use the technique that was employed by the Southern preacher who was asked to what he owed the success of his sermons. He responded with "First, I tell 'em what I'm gonna tell 'em, then I tell 'em, then I tell 'em what I done told 'em."
I also suspect that very few will accept my conclusions which will be nothing new for me. I add at the outset that little of what I present is original with me. What may be original is my willingness to stake my reputation as a scientist on what I am about to present.
Not only am I going to identify three persistent myths, but I intend to prove that they are myths. I realize that is a tall order and I am delighted to undertake the challenge that such a task involves.
I will present these proofs in the inverse order of their longevity with the most persistent and oldest myth first and the most recent myth last.
So here they are as employed by the successful preacher.
Man has free will.
Darwinism was the mechanism for organic evolution. Note my deliberate use of the past tense.
Oil is a fossil fuel.
Before I proceed further, let me prime the pump of undeniable Truth with a few advance warnings.
"It is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for believing it to be true."
"An hypothesis does not cease to be an hypothesis when a lot of people believe it."
".the easiest person to fool is yourself."
Richard P. Feynman
"Whoever undertakes to set himself up as judge in the field of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods."
I love Einstein's metaphor of the "waves of laughter" doing the shipwrecking. Oh if only it were that simple!
First, man most certainly does not have Free Will and never did have. If that were true there would be no war or conflict of any kind because everyone would intellectually realize that it is a crime to kill a fellow human being. I am sure that assertian will raise certain hackles so I will not bother with such trivia and get right to the formal proof that Free Will is myth.
The proof comes from the findings of investigators who were not in the least interested in the question of Free Will. They were interested in the question of Nature versus Nurture in influencing human behavior. They took advantage of a natural experiment provided by pairs of homozygotic (identical) twins which had been separated at birth or very early in life and put up for adoption. By finding these long separated twins and reuniting them later in life, the investigators discovered that every character they learned about by observation and interview showed some shared hereditary components. As expressed by one of the primary investigators, Thomas Bouchard, a psychologist at he University of Minnesota -
"Bouchard would later insist that while he and his colleagues had fully expected to find traits with a high degree of heritability, they also expected to find traits that had no genetic component. He was certain, he says, that they would find some traits that proved to be purely environmental. They were astonished when they did not. While the degree of heritability varied widely - from the low thirties to to the high seventies - Every trait they measured showed at least some degree of genetic influence. Many showed a lot."
William Wright, Born That Way, page 40, (1998)
What makes this study so significant is that the results were not anticipated by the investigators. The history of science is rife with the significance of the unexpected result. Friedrich Wohler (1800-1882) did not expect to be able to synthesize urea, a compound that until then had been thought to be strictly the product of living activity. Furthermore, that is not what he was trying to do. That unexpected result heralded the birth of what we now call organic chemistry. The unexpected result found by the Bouchard group serves to explain why this study has been to a large extent neglected. Since the twins' world views, whether atheist or devout, conservative or liberal, etc, you name it, are to large extent shared predetermined characters, it is not surprising that this most significant study has been largely ignored. The average human being is convinced of his own mindset and not in the least interested in considering that he might not have been objective in reaching that position. Such a fundamental feature of the human psyche is bound to have far reaching affects, affects not necessarily for the good of society as will become evident.
Certain individuals exhibit the extremes to which an innate ideology can distort their perspective beyond the range of what can be considered normal behavior. There are many who accept the Bible verbatim from cover to cover. At the other extreme are those like Clinton Richard Dawkins and Paul Zachary Myers who spend enomous amounts of energy denigrating all faith based institutions and the individuals associated with them. Dawkins' recent suggestion that Pope Bendeict XVI should be arrested the moment he sets foot on British soil can hardly be regarded as a reasoned reaction to the Holy Father's planned visit. Furthermore, such behavior may inflame like minded souls to potentially criminal acts of violence. Such ravings should be exposed as dangerous. I am baffled by the extent that a fine mind can descend to such depths. It cannot be the result of reason alone. I am reminded again of Einstein's steadfast determinism -
"It is abhorrent to me when a fine intelligence is paired with an unsavory character."
There is a recent interesting manifestation of the role of a predestined mindset presented in the book "The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Poltical Madness" by Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr, M.D., (2006). Rossiter, a forensic psychologist treats the liberal mindset strictly in environmental terms, making no mention of the work of Bouchard and his colleagues or of William Wright's book. I cannot imagine a more dramatic proof that we are blinded by our genetic predispositions. Rossiter is absolutely convinced of his thesis which is why he neglects to consider an alternative explanation.
It should surprise no one that I must agree with Einstein's life long determinism -
EVERYTHING is determined.by forces over which we have no control."
My emphasis in caps.
Einstein's determinism has now been experimentally verified by the carefully controlled studies on identical twins. Verification is the sine qua non for every scientific advance, the same criterion that subsequently verified his 1905 hypothesis of relativity. If Free Will can be abandoned as I insist it must, it will greatly facilitate the understanding of why the next two myths must be abandoned as well.
My next myth to be destroyed is Darwin's Victorian fantasy that Natural Selection of randomly generated genetic variations provides the mechanism for evolutionary change. I will not spend much time on this one because I have already dispensed with the Darwinian model with my essay "What's Wrong With Darwinism? Suffice it to say that the same acid test of experimental verification that disposed of Free Will has also disposed of Darwinism countless times, most notably by a Darwinian selectionist himself, Theodosius Dobzhansky. Dobzhansky set out to transform, by artificial selection, the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster into a new member of the same Genus. In other words Dobzhansky tested the Darwinian proposal in the experimental laboratory. He failed, admitted he failed, yet remained a convinced Darwinian selectionist nevertheless, as near as I can tell, for the rest of his life. What is curious about Dobzhansky is that he was a student of Leo S. Berg before Dobzhansky left for the New World. Berg, who dismissed Darwinism must have been very disappointed to see his student adopt Darwinism when he arrived at Columbia University where he fell under the influence of Thomas Hunt Morgan and the other geneticists who had fervently adopted Mendelism (1900) as the mechanism for the realization of Darwin's Natural Selection. Fortunately for Berg, he was long dead when Dobzhansky wrote the following in the Foreword to the 1968 edition of the English translation of Berg's "Nomogenesis or Evolution Determined by Law."
"A majority of evolutionists, including the author of this Preface, consider L.S. Berg's theory of nomogenesis erroneous."
Oh the power of majority opinion! Dobzhansky's history illustrates the validity of Einstein's insight into the nature of the human condition -
"Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinons which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions."
Albert Einstein. Ideas and Opinions, page 28.
Theodosius Dobzhansky, a brilliant scientist, will always be a mystery in the annals of experimental biology because he failed the ultimate test of every scientist's integrity which is to follow the trail of the truth wherever that may take him. I am convinced that if Dobzhansky had remained in Russia with his mentor, Leo Berg, that Darwinism wuld have disappeared long ago as a credible explanation for organic change. Dobzhansky simply responded to the "social environment" in which he found himself when when he arrived in the New World, a social environment to which the notion of a purposeful evolution was anathema and largely remains so to this very day.
The last myth to be exposed is the notion that oil is a fossil fuel. Oil, a generic term, can be produced by living organisms. Olive oil, castor oil, cod liver oil etc are all products of the metabolism of living organisms and so it was only natural that subterranean oil was also assumed to be the product of once living creatures, for some bizarre reason in the popular culture - dinosaurs. So entrenched is this notion that Sinclair Oil Company continues to use the green dinosaur, affectionately known as "dino," as its logo!
What happens when an animal dies? Its remains are rapidly converted to CO2 and H2O by bacteria on the surface. More likely, the animal will be consumed by other animals thereby conserving the biomass. Either way everything ends up as part of the surface metabolism of the planet. The same can be said for much of plant life. We now know that oil exists deep in the earth far below any levels that could possibly ever have been associated with surface life. Russian investigators in particular questioned the biogenic origin of oil suggesting that hydrocarbons were a natural constituent of the earth's interior in no way related to surface life. Thomas Gold (1920-2004) championed the abiogenic theory here in America and was instrumental in the disposing of the myth that oil is a fossil fuel. While all the evidence against biogenesis of oil is beyond the scope of this essay, I am convinced with Thomas Gold that both oil and hard coal are products of processes that never had anything to do with living things. Furthermore, experiments by Gold and others have verified that hydrocarbons can be generated from non organic sources under the conditions that must prevail deep in the earth. I join with others by offering the following challenge. Demonstrate in the experimental laboratory how reptile flesh can be converted into crude oil.
Once again we see the persistence of a transparent myth in the face of incontrovertible, scientifically derived evidence to the contrary.
Fossil fuel, Darwinian evolution and Free Will are all myths and all for exactly the same reason. They have all failed the acid test of experimental verification. Galileo, the father of experimental science, pointed the way with -
"Facts which at first seem improbable will, on scant explanation, drop the cloak which has hidden them and stand forth in naked and simple beauty."
The three myths that I selected, and God knows there are plenty more, all met their fate in exactly the same way. They succumbed to the instrument that Galileo invented - the experimental laboratory.
And so I end this brief essay, confident that my thesis will be ignored as most human beings will continue to follow the dictates of their congenital predispositions to believe what they want to believe, what they have always believed, what they always will believe, helpless victims of their destinies to fulfill their role in a cosmic Plan drawn up millions of years ago, a Plan now in its final stages of completion. I am not the first to capitalize the word plan.
"I believe there is a Plan, and though in the slow course of evolution there have been ups and downs, and what look like mistakes, the plan has gone on; and we may feel sure that it cannot fail to reach its goal."
Robert Broom, Finding The Missing Link, page 101.
Untested belief is the mortal enemy of Truth and Knowledge and has no place in science.
Recommended further reading.
"The Deep Hot Biosphere: The Myth of Fossil Fuels" by Thomas Gold.
John A. Davison, Professor Emeritus of Biology, University of Vermont. Mailing address: L4 Grandview Drive, South Burlington, VT 05403