How the Scientific Theory of Evolution Was Developed, and How and Why It Continues to Evolve
(As All Good Scientific Theories Should)

For all the controversy surrounding evolution, you would be justified in thinking the theory of evolution stands on shaky ground as far as the scientific method goes. In fact it was through standard, rigorous applications of the scientific method that scientists came to their current understanding of the evolutionary process.

Science investigations begin with one or more questions about phenomena observed in the natural or physical world. The theory of evolution attempts to answer three basic questions: Why are there so many different forms of life, when based on environmental conditions there could be fewer? Why have most species gone extinct with others taking their place in the environment? How did the many different types of organisms come to be?

Before looking at how the scientific method was applied to the Theory of Evolution, it is important to understand that the Theory of Evolution, was not developed from one hypothesis or one study. Biological evolution is genetic change in a population occurring over several generations. That evolution happens is a fact. It is a fact that populations of organisms evolve. (The science supporting this statement is very solid, and so substantial it would take several lengthy books to share all of it.) The theory of evolution attempts to explain how and why evolution has happened in the past and continues to happen today. The theory of evolution has many different parts, each one attempting to give more information about how and why organisms evolve. Applying the scientific method to specific limited aspects that look at how and why evolution occurs, has resulted in a well-substantiated, multi-varied, and complex scientific theory.

Every well-done experiment conducted in the field of biology uses and supports the Theory of Evolution. This is because at its most basic, the theory of evolution is the foundational tenet of biology. Countless well-done experiments have been conducted that have improved our understanding of evolution. Because of this I am going to limit down the examples I use for this article. I would like to show you how the scientific method has been applied to develop this theory and how the understanding of the Theory of Evolution has evolved through continued investigations using the scientific method. Every well-done experiment in science uses the scientific method. Science is not just a collection of facts. It should not be taught that way, and it cannot be adequately learned that way. Science is a method. To really understand science, it is essential to understand the method used by scientists to develop scientific theories and scientific models. Understanding this method is essential to understanding how scientists develop both of these and why these theories and models can and should evolve through continued experiment.

It Starts with a Question

Observations are not just made during an experiment. Before scientists develop a hypothesis they make observations about something in the natural or physical world. It is from these initial observations that scientists come up with what they are going to study in the first place. After initially wondering why something is happening, scientists continue observing the phenomenon until they think they have a possible answer. This is where the process of developing an hypothesis begins.

A Possible Answer to the Why and How: The Hypothesis

  • Jean Baptiste Lamarck hypothesized that traits organisms acquire in their lifetime can be inherited by their offspring. For example, the offspring of a long-distance runner could inherit his parent’s ability to run long distances. We now know that Lamarck’s proposed mechanism for evolution was incorrect. He was correct, however, in hypothesizing that organisms inherit traits from their parents, and that inheriting these traits can result in the traits becoming more common in populations of organisms. In other words, he was correct that populations of organisms evolve.
  • Charles Darwin agreed with Lamarck that organisms evolve. Darwin hypothesized a different mechanism for evolution, called natural selection. Natural selection is the process where organisms have a better or a worse chance of survival because of their traits. According to Darwin, over generations organisms with beneficial traits live longer and have more offspring. Therefore they are more likely to pass their traits on to their offspring than those organisms with harmful traits. This results in the natural selection of beneficial traits, which therefore become more common within a population than harmful traits. Darwin’s mechanism for evolution was only part of the story. Scientists now understand that there are other mechanisms for evolution in addition to natural selection.
  • Gregor Mendel hypothesized a mechanism for how traits were inherited. Mendel proposed that organisms have a pair of factors inherited in discrete, unchanging units, now called genes, that control the appearance of a given trait, and that organisms inherit these traits from their parents. Mendel was correct when he proposed that discrete units control traits and are inherited from an organism’s parents. We now know, however, that Mendel was only partially correct when he proposed that genes are unchanging units. Sometimes genes do mutate and change.

To Be Meaningful in Science the Hypothesis Must Be Testable: The Procedure

Once a hypothesis has been proposed, the scientist needs to put together a plan, a procedure, for how they are going to rigorously test their hypothesis. It is important that the procedure be very specific to the hypothesis. A good procedure is detailed and complete enough that another scientist can duplicate the experiment exactly. It is essential that the experiment be well-controlled and that the procedure focuses narrowly on the specific observations the hypothesis is based on.

The procedures scientists use today are much more sophisticated than those used by Lamarck, Darwin, and Mendel. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the work of these three men has been repeated enough that there is no need to continue to repeat the experiments. The second is that the tools used today are more advanced. Modern tools enable scientists to look at organism’s cells, cell structure, and genetic makeup.

Testing the Hypothesis: Conducting the Experiment and Making Observations

Once a procedure is decided upon it is time to conduct the experiment. If the observations confirm the hypothesis the researcher must do two things. First they must re-examine the procedure to make sure there isn’t another possible answer for what they are observing. After that the scientist needs to repeat their experiment many times. Mendel, for example, used thousands of pea plants for his experiment, which he repeated many times over several years.

If the observations are not what the scientist expects they need to look at their procedure to see if the problem is with it or if all or part of their hypothesis needs to be rejected. Lamarck’s hypothesized mechanism for evolution was discarded based on casual observations. Sometimes, though, the answer to what is being observed isn’t as easy to figure out. Darwin’s hypothesis that natural selection is the mechanism for evolution is a good example. Darwin was correct that populations can evolve through natural selection, but there are other mechanisms of evolution. It was observable that populations sometimes evolve in ways that are harmful.

“Mutation, migration, and genetic drift may cause populations to evolve in ways that are actually harmful overall or make them less suitable for their environments. For example, the Afrikaner population of South Africa has an unusually high frequency of the gene responsible for Huntington’s disease because the gene version drifted to high frequency as the population grew from a small starting population. Finally, the whole idea of ‘progress’ doesn’t make sense when it comes to evolution.”

That means Darwin’s hypothesis would sometimes be invalid and sometimes be confirmed. When this happens, the researcher must determine if the hypothesis is too big and possibly needs to be narrowed down. For example, Darwin’s hypothesis could be corrected to say “natural selection is a mechanism for evolution”.

Analysis: The Data and Results

A meticulous analysis of the data and results is critical. This is what the conclusion is based on. Once a scientist concludes that his data and research gives him specific answers about a process, he shares his research including the data and results. Other scientists pore over the data analysis looking for holes and missteps. It has been through the meticulous analysis of the data and results from vast numbers of experiments conducted by many different researchers that scientists have come to understand that evolution occurs, and they have come to some conclusions about how and why it occurs.

A More Complete Understanding: The Conclusion

If you think of a theory as a puzzle, the conclusion from each experiment is a piece of the puzzle. When the conclusion is that the hypothesis is incorrect, then the puzzle piece doesn’t fit, and doesn’t give information about that theory. It does, however, give information about what isn’t happening, which is important information.

A conclusion that validates the hypothesis gives information about the theory, but it isn’t the entire completed puzzle. Instead it leads to a more complete understanding of the pieces that make up the theory. Once the conclusion has been accepted as a sound explanation through numerous experiments conducted by numerous scientists, more and new experiments (all using the scientific method) can be built from that piece. Just like a puzzle piece, the experiment gives information about how to build a complete picture from the pieces already in place.

Lamarck, Darwin, and Mendel all contributed to our understanding of the Theory of Evolution. Each of them observed something in nature, hypothesized a possible mechanism explaining what they observed, tested hypotheses, meticulously analyzed data, and came to conclusions based on experiments. Through years of applying the scientific method by these scientists and others, it was shown that part of each of their hypothesis was valid, and part was incorrect or incomplete. That is how science works, through stops and starts, failed experiments and successful ones. That is how researchers arrived at today’s Theory of Evolution. This is a theory that will continue to grow and evolve as more experiments, all using the scientific method, are conducted. These experiments will build on those areas where an understanding of the process is solid, and attempt to find answers for those areas where science, as of yet, does not have an answer.

This was originally published on the Pandia Press blog: