Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 June, 2007, 12:00am

This week: Keeping an open mind

Recently I came across a piece of news that reminded me why I love science so much. There is a new theory that recent discoveries about DNA show mutations of a few core genes help drive the big splits in the animal kingdom and are the cause for major and abrupt changes in the transition between species rather than through the slow and tortuous process of natural selection.

Scientists have long searched for the missing links between species, such as the proto-humans that evolved into Homo sapiens, or the dinosaurs that developed feathers and decided to take wing and become birds, or the first fish that decided to walk on four legs rather than swim.

For my peace of mind, I have always thought it unsurprising that these transitional species have not been found in fossil records because it's a big world. It has been a long time since these species died out and they probably did not live for very long in the geological time scale.

Don't get me wrong, there have been many discoveries you could categorise in the transitional species basket, such as the famous Archaeopteryx, the dinosaur-like bird with feathers.

But to truly prove the theory of evolution, a complete fossil record is needed with almost all the species leading up to the modern species in question. To put it simply, it is all lost in time and quite unlikely for scientists to have a complete picture any time soon.

It's a sad conclusion but scientists whose job it is to look for these fossils never give up and find heart to continue with the search with every new discovery.

The theory about DNA evolution does not change anything about the theory of evolution, nor does it exclude it, but it does shed light on the existence of some amazing, or I dare say miraculous and abrupt changes in our fossil records that seem unlikely to have occurred through mere small random mutations.

The theory, simply put, helps explain that survival of the fittest is not the only factor in evolution; DNA and what happens inside the living cell also makes a difference and is also partly responsible for the planet's biodiversity.

For me this is not just some curious titbit of information. Like many discoveries in science, it helps renew my faith in science and human ingenuity.

It reminds me to approach even age-old axioms with an open mind, that even a universally self-evident truth can be improved upon or even proved wrong.

That is the beauty of science; any theory is constantly challenged, refined and further explained rather than held as absolute truth.

Some may say that it is a sceptical way to relate to the world we live in, but given the lack of absolute evidence, it is a reasonable way to live and to improve ourselves.

Another example of how science has proven itself against its own standards and philosophy - and where scientists have proven to practise open-mindedness rather than dogma - lies in the history of the theory of gravity.

Remember your old physics textbook and the picture of Isaac Newton getting hit on the head with an apple? He came up with the formula that predicted gravity and it is this force that creates the acceleration of the apple that hit his head.

At its time, such an easily proven revelation may have seemed miraculous and the formula for acceleration due to gravity seemed infallible.

But as time wore on, the theory was improved upon and scientists realised that the gravitational force applied to all masses and was not limited to things falling out of trees.

In the age of quantum physics and Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, ironically it is gravity that is still the major mystery that defies explanation in light of other discoveries.

Here is an example where scientists in this case have challenged a theorem and have found it inadequate to describe the universe as we know it and are continually looking to improve the answer rather than believing in it like gospel.

Even in science, where we perform controlled experiments and have provided the world with amazing theories, there are still many things we do not know and many things that we think we know that could well be proven wrong or improved upon in the future.

It is important that despite disagreements, we all keep an open mind and at the very least be tolerant of other people's ideas.

As some theologians would argue, science and the Good Book are readings from the same page.