We stated in the first sentence of this section that zoology is the scientific study of animals. A basic understanding of zoology therefore requires an understanding of what science is, what it is not, and how knowledge is gained by using the scientific method.
Science is a way of asking questions about the natural world and obtaining precise answers to them. Although science, in the modern sense, has arisen recently in human history (within the last 200 years or so), the tradition of asking questions about the natural world is an ancient one. In this section we examine the methodology that zoology shares with science as a whole. These features distinguish the sciences from those activities that we exclude from the realm of science, such as art and religion.
Despite the enormous impact that science has had on our lives, many people have only a minimal understanding of the real nature of science. For example, on March 19, 1981, the governor of Arkansas signed into law the Balanced Treatment for Creation- Science and Evolution-Science Act (Act 590 of 1981). This act falsely presented “creation-science” as a valid scientific endeavor. “Creation-science” is actually a religious position advocated by a minority of the American religious community, and it does not qualify as science. The enactment of this law led to a historic lawsuit tried in December 1981 in the court of Judge William R. Overton, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Arkansas. The suit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 23 plaintiffs, including a number of religious leaders and groups representing several denominations, individual parents, and educational associations. The plaintiffs contended that the law was a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits “establishment of religion” by the government. This prohibition includes passing a law that would aid one religion or prefer one religion over another. On January 5, 1982, Judge Overton permanently enjoined the State of Arkansas from enforcing Act 590.
Considerable testimony during the trial dealt with the nature of science. Some witnesses defined science simply, if not very informatively, as “what is accepted by the scientific community” and “what scientists do.” However, on the basis of other testimony by scientists, Judge Overton was able to state explicitly these essential characteristics of science:
- It is guided by natural law.
- It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law.
- It is testable against the observable world.
- Its conclusions are tentative, that is, are not necessarily the final word.
- It is falsifiable.
The pursuit of scientific knowledge must be guided by the physical and chemical laws that govern the state of existence. Scientific knowledge must explain what is observed by reference to natural law without requiring the intervention of a supernatural being or force. We must be able to observe events in the real world, directly or indirectly, to test hypotheses about nature. If we draw a conclusion relative to some event, we must be ready always to discard or to modify our conclusion if further observations contradict it. As Judge Overton stated, “While anybody is free to approach a scientific inquiry in any fashion they choose, they cannot properly describe the methodology used as scientific if they start with a conclusion and refuse to change it regardless of the evidence developed during the course of the investigation.” Science is neutral on the question of religion, and the results of science do not favor one religious position over another.