Evolution: How vs. What
Updated: Jul 31
How vs. What: why it’s important in evolution discussions
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” ~ Charles Darwin. The Decent of Man
“Evolution is a theory, and it’s a theory that you can test.
We’ve tested evolution in many ways. You can’t present good evidence that says evolution is not a fact.” ~ Bill Nye
When a committed anti-evolutionist views the three whale evolution videos I produced, the evidence for whale evolution is so overwhelming that often a very predictable response occurs. Rather than address the evidence and why we know whales evolved, the person pivots and attempts to divert to what I call the “whataboutthisthen?” response. What usually follows is a listing of many of the amazing adaptations of cetaceans with the accompanying challenge of how could all of this have come about naturally? But the “what” comes before the “how” in nearly all investigations and this attempt is what is called putting the cart before the horse.
This “butwhataboutthisthen” also can happen when discussing the DNA evidence for evolution, as detailed in my site discussions of shared ERVs, human chromosome 2 fusion, shared DNA repairs, shared duplications and pseudogenes - but to a lesser extent. Shared ERV objections for example often start by trying to show that retroviral insertions are not random or that the LTRs are original and not a result of past retroviral insertions. Or, since no one saw the HC 2 fusion, the evidence for it is dismissed. Having failed to discount the incredible DNA evidence for human evolution, the anti-evolutionist will often then appeal to the amazing complexity of 3 billion human DNA nucleotides (the “steps” of the DNA “ladder”) and run the Intelligent Design flag argument up the flagpole. Given the complexity, they ask how could the DNA have evolved by only natural means? Or, give up completely and move directly to abiogenesis, which has no direct involvement with evolution (see abiogenesis). Thus the mound of evolutionary evidence “what” we observe is completely bypassed as if it magically is not central to the discussion. The origin of species is a different topic from the origin of life. Appealing to gaps in knowledge and holding them up as evidence is not evidence. By ignoring the evolutionary evidence and diverting to “hows” and abiogenesis, the attempt is made to avoid addressing the overwhelming facts that support evolution. This avoidance of evidence, of what we do know, and pivoting to demanding to know how something occurred first, usually also includes wanting to know to their level of satisfaction. Experts and specialists in various scientific fields are simply dismissed. But must we always know how something happened before we accept that it DID happen? Absolutely not! Yes, to fully understand something it is important to know the “how” and we strive for that. Scientists are constantly working on how something came about, to close those unknown loops. But our curiosity starts with just observations, the plain facts or proposed hypotheses to test. In Hollywood, scientists are often portrayed as shouting “eureka” upon making a discovery, but rather most often it’s a phrase quietly uttered, “well, that’s funny” or, “well, that’s interesting” and then the search for how the observation could be explained is on. In the following section I will present multiple examples of why we put the “what” before the “how” and more importantly that the observations can often stand alone as a conclusion without knowing how something occurred. These two questions are thus separate and we can know that the “what” is true and practical without knowing the “how”. I have not in general discussed how whales evolved nor the mechanisms that produce evolution. We must begin at the beginning - observations or tested hypotheses and knowing evolution is true because of what we know before proceeding to investigating how species arise. Ignoring observations is a diversion from addressing the fact of evolution. Mechanisms are not unimportant, but they in nearly all cases follow observations and hypothesis testing first.
I will list several examples of why knowing the “what” is independent of the “how” because in my experience this attempt to discount evolution evidence by demanding exactly how something happened, usually to their satisfaction, is an excuse and false justification for rejecting sound and robust evidence for evolution. This method of avoiding the obvious is a very insightful demonstration that the rejection of evidence for evolution is usually rooted in presuppositions and an allegiance to anti-evolution views at any cost. Throwing out the “butwhataboutthisthen” is a type of cognitive dissonance avoidance defense mechanism and attempt to divert the discussion from the facts before them rather than a sincere question.
1. Aspirin. It’s pain relief and anti-inflammatory properties were known for 4,000 years. Humans derived its main ingredient, salicylic acid, from various tree bark species, including the willow tree. Our ancestors knew what it was useful for without knowing how it worked. In 1971 scientists noted how aspirin operated by blocking prostaglandins. In 1976 researchers discovered how aspirin further worked by binding to the specific enzyme cyclooxygenase, (COX), and lowering prostaglandins. For 4,000 years we acknowledged what aspirin was good for and used it without knowing the how.
2. Court cases. Many murder convictions around the world have occurred even though a body was not recovered and sometimes not even the murder weapon. In 2000, Gregory Chrysler and Lawrence Weygant were convicted of murder by beating a coworker to death even though the body and bat were never found (July 2000 Times-Herald Record). Unwitnessed, and the “how” evidence was never found. Enough other evidence can be presented to show an event must have happened in the past. In court cases, this can include DNA forensic evidence, phone records and GPS information, etc. The how is not necessary to reach a solid conclusion of what must have happened.
We can be certain whales and humans evolved by the massive amount of confirming evidence and the consilience of that evidence. The how is not critical but we’d like to have that also. DNA paternity testing as evidence alone is 99% certain even though where, when and how the conception occurred may not be known. IVF? Consensual? Rape? Hotel room or at home? Time of day? It is not necessary to confirm paternity or rule out candidates to know all the aspects of how the conception occurred to answer the biology question. Legal and moral questions may need the "how" inputs however. 3. Sun rises in the east. For thousands of years people knew the sun rises to our eyes always in the east. They could predict it and navigate by the stars without knowing how the sun and stars formed and why the sun appears in the east to us. 4. Driving a car. Most people drive their cars without knowing how all the specific systems work. They know what a car is without knowing how it all works. With an internal combustion engine, it is not necessary to know how each system in the car engine works in order to drive and use the car (coolant, gas/air combustion mechanics, air conditioning, etc.) How many of us can describe in detail how an automatic transmission actually works? Does that stop us from using cars? If the exact "how" something evolved in all it’s steps is not completely worked out, does that mean we are justified in not accepting that it did evolve if the evidence is compelling and massive that evolution must have taken place? 5. The vacation cabin. After many months, you return to your wonderful vacation cabin only to find it destroyed. Only the chimney is left standing. Debris is everywhere. No witnesses are available. The fact that your cabin, or what is left of it, is in shambles cannot be denied. But how did it happen? Hurricane? Tornado? Forest Fire? Earthquake? Mad neighbor? Gas explosion? Those possibilities will be investigated, especially by the insurance company, but does the how in any way change the fact that it has been destroyed? Do you withhold a conclusion of total destruction for months or years of denial awaiting a final “how”? What if it is never concluded exactly how it was destroyed? Does that change the fact that it is no longer there? Are we to dismiss the overwhelming evidence that whales evolved or the incredible DNA evidence that humans have evolved because someone is dissatisfied with the explanations of how it happened? 6. Building fire. Recently (2023) a large apartment fire occurred in a nearby town close to me. It started on the fourth floor and since it was an old building, the building was a total loss. No one died but two fire fighters were injured. As we watched the building on fire and the roof caving in on the news, they noted that no one knew how the fire started. Electrical? Candles? Smoking? Does how the fire started in any way impact on the fact that the building was on fire and ultimately destroyed?
7. Caffeine. The scientific name is 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine. First discovered in China around 1000 BC in the form of tea it was later discovered as coffee in Ethiopia around 850 AD. This is the most widely used drug in the world for thousands of years but was it necessary to know how it worked for people to use it as a stimulant? It wasn’t until the 20th century that researchers determined that caffeine works by attaching to the body’s A1 adenosine receptors, not allowing adenosine to act to make you sleepy. This in turn raises your dopamine and glutamate levels and you feel more energetic. Did not knowing the exact biochemical mechanism, the detailed how, in any way keep people from using caffeine for thousands of years, of knowing that it was useful and what to use it for?
8. Cholera. The disease cholera has been with humans for hundreds of years. There have been numerous outbreaks and several pandemics. It may infect up to 4 million people per year and may kill up to 140,000 people per year through copious diarrhea and dehydration. One of the pandemics reached London in 1854 and John Snow mapped cases in the Soho part of the city demonstrating hot spots in that area. He had the water pump handle removed with the immediate result of a decrease in cases. In 1883 the causative bacteria was finally identified to western science.
It would be over a hundred years before the exact mechanism for how the bacterial toxin causes the severe diarrhea was revealed. The toxin activates through ADP a cellular signaling GTP protein. This causes CTA1 loop changes that allow NAD+ to bind to the active site and causes electrolyte shifts and ultimately death in some cases. Was it necessary to know all the details of how cholera, through its toxin, causes disease and sometimes death in order to know that the etiology was a bacterial species and its toxin? Could we use basic observations that the cause wasVibrio cholerae without knowing exactly how it produced disease? Knowing how it causes disease can help in designing drugs and treatment but does it change the fact of the causative agent? Does demanding to know exactly how whales and humans evolved change all the evidence that we have showing evolution did happen? Is it justified to withhold agreement that evolution in these two examples happened because every possible step in how it occurred may not be available yet ? https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/history-of-cholera
How vs. What and Einstein?
Scientist : Einstein's theory of general relativity has been validated and corroborated by evidence.
Critic : Einstein's theory of relativity cannot be valid until you explain the origin of space-time.
Scientist : Listen, there is evidence for this theory, let's talk about that.
Critic : If you cannot explain the origin of space-time, your theory is false, because where did the space-time needed by general relativity come from ? It's a religion because you can't explain the origin of space-time
~Adeleke Emmanuel Oluwasegun
When examining the overwhelming evidence that evolution must be true, how it happened is an important secondary question, but it is not critical and does not carry the force of disproving evolution. Actual and theoretical examples were discussed showing that how is not critical to reaching a solid conclusion and even practical considerations in many cases. An appeal by someone that they will not accept the evidence for evolution until they know exactly how it happened is really an avoidance maneuver, and rarely sincere in my experience. It is a red herring. Wanting to know how evolution unfolded can be a sincere inquiry and centers around how new information for natural selection to operate on becomes available. Those sources are known and found by a search of the literature.
There will always be unknowns in science - it’s one reason for scientific activity. Not knowing everything does not mean science does not know enough to make sound conclusions regarding observations and revealed insights through experimentation. We don’t need to have perfect knowledge to have secure knowledge and reach sound conclusions. How and why are often what drives our curiosity but it usually starts by noticing observations and data. Those must be acknowledged first. Evolution is true not only because it fits observations but because it passes testing and makes verifiable predictions. How it occurred, the pace, and other considerations are still areas of active research and debate but the fact of evolution is settled science.