‘What would change your view on evolution?’

I hear that question posed from time to time. Sometimes it is directed at me, but more often I hear it directed towards established (and often famous) scientists. It’s usually a product of creationist rhetoric where the answer doesn’t really matter. Regardless, it is an interesting question.

What would change my view on evolution?

It depends what is meant by “change”. My view on evolution changes quite frequently, actually. Sometimes it’s a qualitative change: the relationships between our known ancestral cousins are always shifting ever so slightly. Often, there is little consensus about where to place certain members of the genus Homo on the evolutionary tree. As new evidence is found, as more research is done, as further facts come to light, my views are always changing on that aspect of evolution.

And then there are quantitative changes. One excellent example comes from the discovery of tetrapod footprints. That discovery pushed the evolution of tetrapods back about 18 million years. All the relationships between species of that general time period stayed the same, but our view of when tetrapods began to populate the land changed.

And then there are all sorts of other changes, like recently when it was shown that natural selection works differently on allele fixation in sexually reproducing populations versus more simple asexual populations. (That was also a qualitative change, but on the genetic, not taxonomic, level.)

So if that is what is meant by “change”, then there are all sorts of examples that show how my views on evolution are, well, evolving. The same can be said of biologists around the world. But what if by “change”, the real question being asked is, What would make me dismiss evolution? Then the answer is very different.

As I recently explained, a basic fact of science is that it does not tend to operate on individual studies. It requires a body of evidence to change views. For example, I reject a connection between cell phone use and cancer. Studies have shown possible links, but they have been far from conclusive, weak even. And more importantly, there is a body of evidence showing no significant link. I’m going with the evidence in bulk, not the individual packaging. This relates directly to the question of what it would take to get me to dismiss evolution because there is a famous quote by J.B.S. Haldane I had in mind when starting this post. When asked what it would take to change his mind, he retorted,

Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.

But that wouldn’t change my mind. My very first suspicion would be fraud; I suspect little more from creationists (and we know how much they would be promoting such a discovery). But let’s say it came from a reputable research team, then what? I would admittedly be perplexed. There is no reason a fossil rabbit ought to be found in that era, but that doesn’t mean we get to throw out such a well established theory as evolution. We know evolution is true insomuch as we know gravity is true. It would necessarily take more than a few rabbit fossils to alter the unifying theory of biology, just as it would take more than an apple falling up for us to alter the theory of gravity. Even if we could never explain the fossils satisfactorily, I would have no doubts that evolution still formed the basis of my field of choice.

What would change my view would be the discovery of a number of fossils in all the wrong places. We would need to start finding mammals and birds dating back 800 million years; we would need to see dinosaur fossils embedded in the rocks of 20 million years ago; we would, yes, need to see rabbit fossils in the Precambrian. No, I don’t need these specific examples, but I do need these sort of examples. I don’t want just individual anomalies that fly in the face of modern theories. I need more than that: it takes a body of evidence to start changing my view. Because that’s how science works.

When raising taxes works

There are a few times when I think raising taxes is a good thing. If the unemployment rate is down? You might want to raise them. If it’s on an industry that is making more than it could ever need (i.e., the oil industry)? You might want to raise them. If the tax rate is extremely low already and you need funds, a la Illinois? Raise them. That doesn’t mean we always want high taxes. We don’t. But this no-taxes-ever mentality needs to stop. It’s just plain bad economics/greed.

Recently the mayor of Omaha raised taxes and some fees. He was heavily criticized, and in fact, he was almost recalled. But it’s a good thing that city has Jim Suttle.

[Recall] Organizers accused Suttle of supporting excessive taxes, breaking his promises and pushing for changes that threaten the city’s economic future.

But the tax increases helped the city generate a $3.3 million surplus by the end of 2010 and restore its AAA bond rating, meaning it can borrow money on more favorable terms.

It seems to me that the primary motivation for low taxes in all scenarios, aside from the usual greed and dismissal of poor people, is that people think the sooner they get money, the better off they will be. But that is not always the case. In fact, when it comes to investing in infrastructure, something the U.S. has largely been ignoring for the past couple of decades, it is absolutely the long term view that wins. In Omaha’s case, the investment was in gaining a better bond rating. (That isn’t to dismiss the short term win here as well; the massive increase in revenue has helped with the city’s current fiscal crisis.)

So are there times when it is best to raise taxes? Absolutely. In Omaha’s case, it has very low unemployment (4.7%; 4.4% for Nebraska). That doesn’t mean it would always be good to raise taxes. If the city had no shortfall, then why do it? But in tough times, people have to learn to sacrifice. I know that’s an unpopular notion in the 21st century, but it’s the only way a healthy economy can be sustained sometimes.