11/27/2009 02:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Game over

There are times when all good women, and men, need to come to the aid of the party. Times when profound changes in understanding occur. Times that put a stamp on a man (or woman) for better or worse. Times that try men's souls.

We have just celebrated the 150 year anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. There had been other ideas about where species came from - creation, inheritance of acquired characteristics - but Darwin (and Wallace) put an end to all that, once and forever. The combination of natural selection producing change in response to environment, and geographic separation letting that change produce different species, was so simple, and yet so profound, that it was game over. Oh there were all kinds of details Darwin didn't know about, and that have been worked on by tens of thousands of other scientists ever since - genes, DNA, exactly how separation causes species to diverge, how genes control development, the real age of the Earth, continental drift, the climatic changes of the past, the extent of the fossil record, and so on. But none of it mattered, none of it affected the basic theory. Game over.

Oh and game over for the combination of religion and science which was so common in Darwin's time. After 1859 it was no longer possible for a scientist to be religious. A true scientist. Anyone who claimed to be both a god-botherer and a scientist was either a fool or a liar.

One hundred years later another shift of a different kind. For years doctors and biological scientists had happily smoked cigarettes. Both groups had often appeared in the media to promote cigarettes, as being not only not bad for you but indeed possibly good for you, as smoking cowboys rode off into the sunset. But from the time the statistical link between heart disease and lung cancer and smoking was demonstrated, it was no longer possible to call yourself a scientist and promote tobacco. Oh, sure, there were details to be worked out - how did smoking actually cause the cell damage, what were the active ingredients, how did they relate to other environmental factors like diet and air pollution, and what about genetics. But these were details, the game was up, smoking was bad for you, devastatingly bad for you, and anyone who claimed to be a scientist and not understand that was either a fool or a well-paid liar. They were certainly not scientists.

And so to the third of this trio, climate change. From the mid 1990s when the physics of CO2 absorption of radiation was combined with measurements of rising CO2 levels caused by burning fossil fuels and observations of global warming, it was no longer possible to be a scientist and a climate change denialist. Anyone who claimed to be both was either a fool or a well-paid liar. Oh sure, there were all kinds of details to be sorted out relating to CO2 absorption by the oceans, positive and negative feedback mechanisms, research into CO2 levels in the distant past, measurements of glacial and polar ice responses, analysis of responses to warming in the ecology of plants and animals, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Work of tens of thousands of real scientists over the last 15 years have greatly refined the understanding of climate systems and how they work in detail. But nothing has altered that initial breakthrough in understanding about the role of CO2 in the atmosphere and the origin and implications of its rise and rise.

You think you know scientists who accept religion, but who don't accept evolution, tobacco effects on health, or anthropogenic climate change?

No, you don't.

But real science on The Watermelon Blog