In a recent interview promoting his creationist propaganda film, "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," Ben Stein stated that Darwin had no Idea about the complexity of the cell, was totally ignorant of DNA, RNA, the Human Genome, how chromosomes and genes worked, etc. To Ben Sein I say: EXACTLY!
Exactly, Ben. Charles Darwin did not know about these things in the nineteenth century. He was ignorant about a great many things that would come later, both in general science and in his field of biology. And yet, he still managed to come up with an exquisite, unifying theory of biological sciences that would be reinforced and strengthened by those future discoveries of things he could not even conceive of. It was the understanding that his theories brought that even allowed us to discover things like DNA in the first place.
And it isn't just discoveries in the field of biology that have given countless pieces of empirical evidence in support of evolution, but discoveries in the fields of geography, geology, chemistry, genetics, climatology and several other sciences that I've probably never even heard of. For the sake of argument, however, let's focus just on biology for a moment, with a quick detour through physics.
The holy grail of physics is a universal, unifying Theory of Everything. Currently, we have String Theory, M-Theory, various forms of Quantum Mechanics, Thermo-Dynamics, Gravity, Relativity, etc. Physicists have been looking for a single Theory that ties all these things together for a long time. Albert Einstein attempted it, Carl Sagan tried, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Wolfram and hundreds or thousands of physicists whose names are not known outside of the scientific sphere. Still, it eludes them.
The theory that has so long eluded physicists has a cousin, though. One, unifying theory that connected all the other theories of a particular scientific discipline. One that, once discovered, became the foundation, the underpinning of the entire study, allowing a deeper understanding of that science that, in turn, resulted in an explosion of new and exciting discoveries and advances in that science that would not have been possible otherwise. In the field of Biology, that universal, unifying theory is called Evolution.
Prior to Evolutionary Theory, biology was a lot like physics is today; a lot of individual, unrelated theories, each explaining an aspect or small group of aspects of life. One day, we may have an equivalent theory in physics. When that happens, we'll have the key to the secrets of the universe. Our understanding of the way matter and energy work at every level from the sub-atomic to the cosmological will surge forward, growing exponentially and allowing for technological advances beyond our imaginations. While such a theory would give the fundamentalist Christians far more trouble than Evolution ever could, we'll save that topic for another day. So, how come no one's come along with weak or insubstantial evidence and made the claim to have found such a theory? Because it would never hold up. Science has a very strict way of disseminating, testing, verifying and insuring the accuracy of information. By the time the general public hears about a scientific discovery, it's already been making the rounds for months or even years. Here's how it works, to the best of my understanding:
-Through the scientific method, a discovery is made
-The scientist or team that made the discovery documents, to the smallest detail, the process they used to test, reproduce and validate the discovery, as well as what other science or knowledge they built on to arrive at their conclusions. All referenced works are listed in an incredibly thorough bibliography.
-This paper is sent to scientific peers, other accredited scientists that specialize in the same field or related fields relevant to the claims set forth in the paper.
-These peers, which often number in the hundreds or thousands, review the paper, checking sources, verifying claims, and using the (verified) results of their own research to cross-check the paper's claims.
-If inaccuracies are found, these are reported back to the scientist or team that submitted the paper, and further tests are done.
-Once the peer review process is complete and all the information in the paper has been determined to be as accurate as can be determined with current knowledge, it is finally released for public dissemination, where anyone can read the findings.
-As more evidence and information become available, more papers will be written, each with the possibility that future discoveries may disprove previous ones, thus furthering our collective knowledge of life, the universe and everything.
There are a couple of reasons I point out the steps in this process. First of all, it is to illustrate that scientific discoveries are not really open to debate by people like Ben Stein. By the time Stein hears about them, the most knowledgeable people in the field have already worked tirelessly to ensure its accuracy. Secondly, it is to illustrate the rigorous process that any scientific claims must go through. It takes a million collaborative pieces to form a theory, but only one tiny inconsistency or piece of contradictory evidence to destroy it. Because of the process outlined above, the general public never hears about theories, hypotheses or discoveries that don't stand up to scrutiny. Yet, in over 150 years, Evolution has added billions of pieces of evidence to support it, including things that its discoverer could never have conceived of. Yet, in those 150 years, it has stood up to scrutiny, without a single piece of contradictory evidence. All it would take to disprove Evolution would be a certain type of fossil that is older than it should be, or younger than it should be. Or a gene sequence that wasn't what we would expect through evolution. Or something even smaller.
So, how smart was Darwin? He was smart enough to figure out the key to understanding life on Earth without the benefit of seeing it at work at the cellular level, without the benefit of observing the patterns in genetic tests that show it, without having the tiniest idea that something like DNA even existed. Figuring out Evolution with nineteenth century technology and science is the equivalent of the Wright Brothers skipping straight to building the Concord.
I'd say he was pretty smart.