Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Death of Gonzago

Evolution is the most outstanding example of science that the world has ever seen. The framework of evolution has been constructed from thousands of hypotheses, each of them tested and confirmed. It is true that evolution, as a whole, cannot be tested; it is simply too big. But all of the hypotheses of which evolutionary theory consists have been proven.

The scientific mindset, in all walks of life, consists of testing hypotheses with evidence. When I hypothesize that someone has done something (usually something bad), based on circumstantial evidence, I then gather direct evidence to test my hypothesis. This sometimes leads me to reluctantly consider that my hypothesis was wrong. The scientific method leads to honesty and fairness in human interactions because it forbids us to draw conclusions from our hunches. A hunch is a good hypothesis with which to begin, but it must be tested before you conclude that someone is guilty of wrongdoing.

One of the most famous, though seldom recognized, examples of someone using the scientific method is Hamlet. He was thoroughly convinced that his uncle had murdered his father, and became king. After all, his father’s ghost had told him so. The murder was particularly gruesome. “Sleeping within my garden, my custom always of the afternoon,” said the ghost, the uncle sneaked up with a vial of poison, and “in the porches of my ear did pour the leperous distilment, whose effect holds such an enmity with the blood of man that…with a sudden vigor doth posset and curd, like eager droppings into milk…”

But how could Hamlet convince anyone that the king was a murderer? How did he, himself, know that he was not crazy? He needed to test his hypothesis.

The opportunity came when a troop of actors came through Elsinore. A brilliant experiment popped into Hamlet’s mind. He asked the troop leader if they could perform The Death of Gonzago. They said they could, and Hamlet arranged for its performance. In this play, a murder was enacted that was exactly the same as the way Hamlet’s uncle poisoned his father. Hamlet’s hypothesis was that if the king was guilty, he would react strongly upon seeing the murder enacted. If the king seemed unmoved, it might mean he was innocent, or it might mean he was just a cool liar. But it was an experiment worth doing. The experiment made Hamlet particularly excited, with the kind of glee a scientist often feels: “The play’s the thing wherein we will catch the conscience of the king.”

The experiment worked. The king, stood up and walked away during the enactment of the murder. As it turned out, though, Hamlet was not able to use this evidence to prove the king’s guilt. Or at least he didn’t. But it was a good, scientific try. And it convinced him that he was not just imagining what the ghost of his father had told him.

The anti-evolutionists take the first thoughts that pop into their heads and run off to metaphorically murder scientists (the way Hamlet, assuming the bulge behind the curtain was the king, stabbed Polonius) without carefully testing their hypotheses. In contrast, the patience of evolutionists, testing tens of thousands of hypotheses, one strand of DNA at a time, one fossil at a time, has led to the construction of the greatest structure of knowledge the world has ever known.

Also, please remember to tell your associates about this blog, and to vote Democratic (the less unsatisfactory choice) in the upcoming midterm elections.

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