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Einstein and Darwin: A tale of two theories

Neil deGrasse Tyson, head of the Hayden Planetarium and co-author of the book "Origins," discusses the dramatically different places that relativity and evolution hold in science and culture.
Albert Einstein, shown at left in a 1938 photo, revolutionized physics and became a cultural icon. Charles Darwin, shown at right in a circa-1880 painting, laid the foundation of modern evolutionary theory, and today that theory is a cultural flashpoint.
Albert Einstein, shown at left in a 1938 photo, revolutionized physics and became a cultural icon. Charles Darwin, shown at right in a circa-1880 painting, laid the foundation of modern evolutionary theory, and today that theory is a cultural flashpoint. Univ. of New Hampshire via AP file, Rischgitz via Getty Images file

One scientist came up with a new way of explaining how biology works. A generation later, the other one came up with a new way of explaining how physics works.

Today, after a century of scrutiny, both explanations still pretty much hold up. But in popular culture, physicist Albert Einstein is idolized, while biologist Charles Darwin's legacy is clouded  with controversy.

Why do Darwin's theories on the origin of species, put forth in 1859, hold a status so different from that of Einstein's theories on relativity, published between 1905 and 1916? Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York's Hayden Planetarium and co-author of the book "Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution," reflected on that question during a recent interview at the University of Washington.

Here's an edited question-and-answer transcript of the interview:

MSNBC: Einstein and Darwin seem to hold two different places in our society. One is virtually a pop culture icon, while some people almost want to take down the other guy's statues. Why is that we have two different approaches to these people, even though they developed theories that are in very similar states of evidence?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: While they were both scientists, Einstein was the first very public scientist who was visibly active in social causes as well as political causes. I don’t know that the same was true with Darwin. I know he was well known in his day. I know his book, "On the Origin of Species," was a best seller. But I don’t know that he was active in politics, influencing governments. I don’t know that he was approached by a sovereign nation and was asked to be its president, as Einstein was with the new state of Israel, for example.

As a citizen, as a public scientist, I can tell you that Einstein essentially overturned a so strongly established paradigm of science, whereas Darwin didn’t really overturn a science paradigm. There was a paradigm there, but it was a gradual process: “Does evolution work as Lamarck said, with the inheritance of acquired traits? No, it doesn’t” … You can see the evolution of an idea there, settling on what works, whereas Einstein took Newtonian physics and said this is incomplete, which is something that was unimaginable for the hundreds of years that we were doing Newtonian physics.

My read of history is that people wanted to get opinions on everything from someone who was so widely recognized as being so smart.

It’s kind of like the situation with rock stars today: You want to know what Bono thinks about global hunger, even though he made his money as a musician.

Exactly. So Einstein is not necessarily an expert in these other fields. Not even necessarily informed in these other fields. But people know that he’s a deep thinker. So what are his deep thoughts about Jews and Arabs, and the civil rights movement, and the bomb, and Nazi Germany? He became this sounding board for people to try to get some point of view from someone they implicitly trust, from a smart person.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, on Wed., March 16, 2005. (Photo by David Friedman /
Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, on Wed., March 16, 2005. (Photo by David Friedman / Britt-Friedman /

So there’s that factor that distinguishes Einstein from Darwin. But I think there’s a stronger factor: There is no science in this world like physics. Nothing comes close to the precision with which physics enables you to understand the world around you. It’s the laws of physics that allow us to say exactly what time the sun is going to rise. What time the eclipse is going to begin. What time the eclipse is going to end. What time the meteor is going to hit.

Do you remember when David Levy and Carolyn and Gene Shoemaker discovered a comet, and they had a few measurements of it, and they said, ‘The next time around, it’s going to slam into Jupiter.’ And what’s remarkable is that no one questions that. Because they know it is the powers of understanding, derived from the fundamentals of physics, that give you that capacity to basically predict the future with high precision.

Biology doesn’t do that. Chemistry doesn’t do that. You can predict reactions, yes. You can get an understanding of how things work, yes. Darwin’s theory of evolution is a framework by which we understand the diversity of life on Earth. But there is no equation sitting there in Darwin’s “Origin of Species” that you apply and say, “What is this species going to look like in 100 years or 1,000 years?” Biology isn’t there yet with that kind of predictive precision.

So, when we speak of the theory of relativity, and the theory of evolution, they are each extremely important ways of understanding the world. But the tool kit that comes with the relativity theory, that comes with any physics theory, has a level of precision that puts it just in another category. It’s not simply an organizing principle.

When you predict that the sun is going to rise at 7:22 tomorrow morning, and someone wants to debate you … you’re going to be wasting your time having that conversation. Just walk away from it, because you know in advance what’s going to happen.

For that reason, Darwin’s theory of evolution, because it’s a theory of biology, because biology is a different kind of science from physics, it looks to the outsider as if you can just jump in and claim that things are just not what the biologist sees them to be. Now of course that’s false, but I’m just submitting to you that when you have your tool kit of predictive powers, that’s kind of like an armor at the perimeter. You’re not going to get past that to say that somehow that equation is wrong. The equation is demonstrably correct, so go home.

The trouble with evolution
Since evolution is an organizing principle of biology that allows you to understand phenomena, there are people who resist it.

Now the way I see it, that level of resistance is not fundamentally different from the resistance that prevailed when Copernicus and Galileo demonstrated that Earth goes around the sun and not vice versa. We didn’t have Newtonian gravity back then. You couldn’t predict, with high precision, the clockwork solar system. That would have been a new word back then: “solar system,” implying that the sun is at the center of things.

Back then, you had religious types arguing this, saying that it was against scripture, against God, against God’s way, God’s will. Back then, of course, the church was very powerful. They were basically the state in Italy. So there was the power to enforce a point of view, which made it bad for your health to espouse views that were different from people’s interpretation of scripture.

Today, I’m happy to report that they don’t burn people at the stake if they claim that Earth goes around the sun, or that there are other stars that might have other planets that themselves could have life. It’s statements like that that got Giordano Bruno burned at the stake in 1600, just 10 years before Galileo really came on the scene with his “Starry Messenger,” reporting that Jupiter had moons, which made Jupiter the center of that motion, and not Earth.

So things were changing rapidly back then, from burning Bruno at the stake, to putting Galileo under house arrest, to modern days, with the Catholic Church issuing statements saying evolution’s OK. So history has shown that some theistically based belief systems have been able to adapt to the prevailing discoveries of science. Those that don’t will be left behind. And if you’re left behind, you become disenfranchised from the forces that control emerging economies.

We’re in the 21st century. The emerging economies are going to be scientifically and technologically driven. We’re not agrarian anymore.

What were the consequences in the mid-1800s of saying you didn’t believe Darwin? There weren’t any, really. But today, with biotech companies, there is no understanding of biology without the theory of evolution. And so if you say, ‘I don’t believe the theory of evolution, I think we were all specially created,’ you must understand the consequences of it to your own employability.

Now if you don’t want to become a scientist, then maybe it doesn’t matter. Fine. There are plenty of professions that do not involve scientists. But as I said, the emergent economies are going to be scientifically and technologically driven, with biotech front and center. If you’re coming in saying that there was Adam and Eve, you’re not going to get past the front door. Because they can’t use your knowledge base to invent the next vaccine, the next medicine, the next cure for cancer. That knowledge base does not track into discoveries we know are awaiting us in the halls of biotech firms.

You’re saying that your perspective on those theories affects the pace of innovation?

Yes. And I would add this, just to nip this argument over “theories” in the bud: Until Einstein, all tested, confirmed physical theories were labeled laws. There’s Newton’s three laws of motion … the laws of gravity … the laws of thermodynamics. When Einstein came along, he showed that Newton was incomplete — not wrong, but incomplete, describing just a subset of reality. Einstein showed that a deeper understanding was required to account for this reality. At that point, physicists – I think not even consciously, just sort of subconsciously – stopped calling things “laws.”

There are no “laws” of physics in the 20th century. It’s quantum theory … the theory of relativity … you just look in the books, they all use the term “theory.” I think it’s a recognition that someone who comes after you may achieve an even deeper understanding of how things work. But “deeper” doesn’t mean that what you did is no longer valid. It just means that there’s a larger sphere of understanding that awaits you, in which what you just learned is embedded.

It’s like the old classical Venn diagram: Here’s the Newton universe. The Einstein universe is now that, enclosing Newton. Einstein’s equations look like Newton’s equations, when you put in low gravity and low speeds. They all reduce, and they’re identical to Newton’s equations. Because Newton’s equations work: They don’t suddenly fail to work in the regime in which they were demonstrated to work. They don’t become undone. They’re still there.

So now we know that general relativity is incomplete, because it doesn’t marry with quantum mechanics. They don’t talk to each other. We know that already. So now we are asserting that there’s yet an even bigger circle out there, that would include quantum mechanics with general relativity. And this is what the string theorists are doing. That’s what drives them. They’re not driven by some whim.

Right. It’s not a mere desire to come up with something esoteric.

They’re not doing this just for the hell of it. No. There’s a gap there. And that deeper understanding, like I said, is an understanding that encloses the previous understandings because they’ve already been demonstrated to work.

But the change in vocabulary is not received the same way by the public. They hear the word “theory” and they say, “Well, it’s only a theory. Tomorrow it could be different.” Well, if it’s different tomorrow, it’s because we’ve found something that’s even more powerful than this. It’s not because we looked and found something completely different over here.

Now, the word “theory” is also used to describe ideas that are very tentative. That’s true. So now we’re stuck with a problem: We’ve got evolutionary theory, quantum theory, all very well tested and very well established – and now we’ve got somebody’s theory on the frontier of the science, that will probably be shown to be wrong, because most fresh theories are wrong. But they keep you investigating. You’re hacking through the brush and bramble, trying to make a clearing where you understand what’s going on. There’s an unfortunate mismatch in the way scientists use the word “theory” and the public’s interpretation of the word, as applied to these century-old understandings of the world.

So that’s unfortunate. But what the public needs to understand is, there is nothing more powerful than successful theories. They organize ideas in ways that grant you a power of understanding that is without equal in any system of human thought that has ever come before.

Do you expect that there would be a test down the line that would enable the confidence in Darwin’s theory to be solidified to the point that the Copernican view of the solar system holds today? Are there tests that can be done to show that kind of precision that we have for planetary motion nowadays?

There are two issues there: Let me unpack them to make them separate. The issue of precision simply distinguishes Einstein from Darwin. I think that alone is not what accounts for the resistance that we see in the various communities.

Most of what Einstein said and did has no direct impact on what anybody reads in the Bible. Special relativity, his work in quantum mechanics, nobody even knows or cares. Where Einstein really affects the Bible is the fact that general relativity is the organizing principle for the Big Bang. That’s where it affects origin science, and then you have the religious community reacting to that.

Going back to the analogue with Copernican systems, I think it’s a matter of time. The world fully accepted the heliocentric model long before Newton came out with his laws of gravity and laws of motion. Copernicus’ book was 1543. Newton was 1687, OK? That’s 130 years.

Now it’s been 130 years since Darwin. So you have to ask, what is your measure of this resistance? Is it most of the world? No, it’s not most of the world that’s resisting this. It’s a small subset of the world. One might even say the holdouts. But they need to understand that their counterparts in the past were no less passionate about their objection to a scientific discovery as people objecting to the sun going around the earth or vice versa.

They were no less passionate in the invention of the microscope, the discovery of germs: that when you got sick, it wasn’t because God made you sick, it was because you exposed yourself to these microorganisms. And I can hand you these microorganisms and you’ll come down with all these symptoms. That discovery removed God from many equations that people had going in their head for why you got sick.

There’s a famous statement about venereal disease… when penicillin was demonstrated to cure venereal disease, there was some bishop who at the time said that this medicine was the work of the devil, because it allows you to fornicate and not face God’s punishment. And you still see a little bit of that with the AIDS virus. But by and large, people are not thinking that germs are handed off by supernatural powers.

So I think it’s a matter of time. There’s an old saying about the evolution of every great truth: First, people say they don’t believe it; then, they say it contradicts the Bible; and third, they say they’ve known it all along.

So just give them a little more time. They might warm up to it.

On the other hand, Einstein’s work was inspired by the incompleteness of past theories – how some experiments showed that the way scientists thought the world worked in the late 1800s was just plain wrong.

There were some gaps in physics, and if you did not have foresight, you might think, “Oh, they will just resolve themselves. Add a little decimal place, and they’ll fix themselves.” But they were not fixable by themselves. It took someone like Einstein, and the other forward-thinkers around him, to figure it out.

Would you say that the analog for the present age are the discoveries about the accelerating universe?

Yeah, we’ve got gaps today. We don’t know what dark matter is. We don’t know what dark energy is. We don’t know what was around before the Big Bang. We don’t know what’s going on at the center of a black hole. We don’t know how gravity can merge with quantum mechanics. We don’t know how galaxies formed. There are major areas of the unknown that remain today. But that’s the nature of science.

And are those the sorts of things that could spark the sort of inspiration that Einstein had?

I would hope. What you really want out of this is to have someone come up with an explanation of, let’s say, dark matter — and just as part of the accoutrements of the theory, it explains 10 other things. That’s what happened with relativity.

Einstein said, ‘Well, here’s the speed of light,’ and so on, and all of a sudden general relativity explained Mercury’s precession around the sun, it explained the bending of starlight, it explained all this stuff. He didn’t start the day with that objective, but that’s what gives you that much more confidence in the theory. If you start the day wanting to explain something, then you’d wonder whether somebody made something up just to account for it. ...

Einstein was explaining stuff for free. And that power of understanding led to extreme confidence that he was on the right track, and was deeply plugged into how nature worked.