Looking at the night sky remains a powerful experience. But that experience is now informed not only by the beauty and majesty of the heavens, but by a deeper understanding of nature and by an appreciation of the power of the human intellect.
This triumph of the human mind says a great deal about the nature of science. First, science is not the same as common sense. Common sense indicates that the sun does rise and set. Nevertheless, there can be other explanations of that phenomenon, and one of them, the rotation of the earth on its axis, is responsible for day and night. A concept based on observation proved to need extensive modification as new observations accumulated.
Second, the statements of science should never be accepted as "final truth." Instead, over time they generally form a sequence of increasingly more accurate statements. Nevertheless, in the case of heliocentricism as in evolution, the data are so convincing that the accuracy of the theory is no longer questioned in science.
Third, scientific progress depends on individuals, but the contributions of one individual could be made by others. If Copernicus had kept his ideas to himself, the discovery of heliocentricism would have been postponed, but it would not have been blocked, since other astronomers eventually would have come to the same conclusion.
Similarly, had Darwin and Wallace not published their hypotheses, the concept of biological evolution would nevertheless have emerged as the accepted explanation for the history of life on earth. The same cannot be said in other areas of human endeavor; for example, had Shakespeare never published, we would most assuredly never have had his plays. The publications of scientists, unlike those of playwrights, are a means to an end—they are not the end itself.
What are the scientific methods that have led to our current understanding of the history of life over vast eons of time? They begin with careful descriptions of the material being studied.
The material for the study of biological evolution is life itself. One basic aspect of life is that individuals can be grouped as similar kinds, or species. Another important observation is that many species seem to be closely related to each other. The scientific classification of species and their arrangement into groups began with the publication in 1758 of Systema Naturae, or system of nature, by the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707 to 1778). For example, Linnaeus knew seven dog-like species, and he gave each a double name. Subsequently many more species were discovered and some of the names were changed—and continue to be changed as more information is obtained. The domestic dog is Canis familiaris; the coyote of North America is Canis latrans ; the Australian dingo is Canis dingo; and the wolf of the northern hemisphere is Canis lupus. Thus Canis is the name of the genus of dog-like animals, and the distinctive second name is the species name.
Generations of scientists have discovered new species, described them, and