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Theories are not facts, like science is not religion

Perhaps life did evolve on Mars. But we'll never see the soul in a microscope or God in a telescope.

Published: Thursday, September 5, 1996


Page: 9A

By DANIEL B. CATON, Special to The Observer

Did life evolve on Mars? Is that a fact? My thoughts drift back to San Antonio, last January.

The American Astronomical Society held its annual winter meeting in a city that has a downtown attraction that Charlotte would kill for. On those four days the delightful lunches on the River Walk would keep me from the fast food joints. Much of the value of AAS meetings is not in the science but in the socializing, and a 'power lunch' is as much a part of a scientific conference as it is for a business meeting. Ideas are traded, acquired, and some held secret. Collaborations of theorists and observers are informally arranged.

On one particular day I was dining with a bright young astronomer, a recent doctoral graduate of UNC-CH, now working at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute. As we ate and chatted startalk, we noted that a pigeon was foraging off the waiter's cart of leftover food. The pigeon had learned a way to assure itself of good, regular food. Certainly, this would give it an advantage in life--survival of the fittest.

Our conversation turned from the evolution of stars (her specialty is the kind of nebulae that our Sun will evolve to eject), to the evolution of animals. She recalled recently reading of pigeons which had figured out how to use mass transit. The details were fuzzy, but she remembered reading in letters to the British journal New Scientist that travellers on the London Underground train had noticed pigeons that would get on board in the morning, ride into town for the day, and then ride back at the end of the day! There must be some advantage to doing this, or they would not do it. Perhaps they are going in for lunch on the River Thames.

Evolution is extremely controversial among non-scientists. The famous Scopes trial was almost rerun this year as state legislators in Tennessee tried to pass legislation prohibiting the teaching of evolution as fact.

I sure hope that teachers are not teaching it as fact. It is not a fact.

While there are observations in nature that are presented with such absolute certainty that we categorize them as facts, evolution is a theory--a model that we use to explain a series of related observations.

Theories come and go, sometimes removing us from the center of things. Examples include the geocentric model of the solar system, and the theory that we were at the center of our galaxy. Both were possible explanations of the data that existed at the time. Each one was abandoned when new observations appeared that could not be explained by the old model. We had to move the Sun to the center of our solar system, and the whole system to the outer region of a spiral arm of our Milky Way Galaxy. That life could evolve on the Earth or Mars is also a theory.

Indeed, the theory of evolution is supported by a wide body of solid biological evidence. It is difficult to believe that life is not billions of years old, evolving on at least one or two planets, and probably infinitely more. If you agree with the counting of the Biblical begats that leads to an age of the Earth of several thousand years, then I'll insist that the universe was created as the ultimate antique reproduction.

Biological evolution is visible during human lifetimes, with examples more familiar than fajita-filching fowls. Scientists keep us one step from of a starving world by developing new grain hybrids, with mutating pests evolving close on their heels. And, human diseases mutate to become immune to our latest antibiotic. If HIV mutates such that it infects more readily, we're all goners. Evolution may be out to get us--we have no guarantee that we are the final product, or even that there is one.

However, what made us truly human, self-conscious and curious, is not a question for scientific inquiry, but for religious introspection. It is not a role of science to examine why we are what we are, and we will never find the soul in the microscope or God in the telescope.

Life on Mars? It's a theory that we will be developing as NASA returns to the Red Planet. The chances should be good. After all, we've found life everywhere we have explored on Earth, from the arctic to deep wells. And, that's not a theory. That's a fact.

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