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Evolution is Both a Theory and a Fact
Even though I find it almost impossible to believe,
the Gallup Poll reports that only one third of Americans believe that Biological Evolution is "scientific theory well supported by evidence".
In November 2004, Cobb County, Georgia became the latest government entity to have its school board sued* for attempting to include a sticker in its biology texts like the one in the following box.
|This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.|
If the above seems reasonable to you, imagine the following sticker in a physics text.
|This textbook contains material on gravity. Gravity is a theory, not a fact, regarding a physical phenomenon. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.|
While everything presented in school "should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered", to single out evolution for warning, as the sticker proponents do, implies that it is more suspect than other subjects.
The truth is that the Theory of Evolution, the Theory of Gravity, the Theory of Relativity, Atomic Theory, and all other scientific theories of equal stature are "logical, tested, well-supported explanation[s] for a great variety of facts".
To better grasp what this means, you can think of such theories as analogous to living bodies. Bodies are built from cells (that organize into tissues that form organs such as hearts, lungs and brains), while scientific theories are built on facts. Both bodies and scientific theories start small, then develop and mature. However, whereas bodies age and eventually die, scientific theories continue to develop and grow stronger as the work of science adds new discoveries and insights.
More than simply a collection of facts, theories built from scientific discoveries and observations possess great explanatory and predictive power. And, much like living bodies, they are stronger and more powerful than the individual elements from which they are constructed. (The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.) So, just as it would make no sense to say that a body is less important or real than the cells from which it is made, it makes no sense to say (or imply) that a scientific theory is less true than its constituent facts.
To confuse such theories with guesses, hunches,
speculation or conjecture
(as the sticker proponents do with evolution), is to commit a serious
At best this makes evolution sticker disclaimers intellectually dishonest,
while simultaneously demonstrating their authors' profound misunderstanding of science.
At worst, it perpetrates a
Words often have multiple meanings. In this case, according to the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, the word theory can be used to refer to seven different things.
the·o·ry, n., pl. -ries.
1. a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena: Einstein's theory of relativity.
2. a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact.
3. Math. a body of principles, theorems, or the like, belonging to one subject: number theory.
4. the branch of a science or art that deals with its principles or methods, as distinguished from its practice: music theory.
5. a particular conception or view of something to be done or of the method of doing it; a system of rules or principles.
6. contemplation or speculation.
7. guess or conjecture.
—Syn. 1. THEORY, HYPOTHESIS are used in non-technical contexts to mean an untested idea or opinion. A THEORY in technical use is a more or less verified or established explanation accounting for known facts or phenomena: the theory of relativity. A HYPOTHESIS is a conjecture put forth as a possible explanation of phenomena or relations, which serves as a basis of argument or experimentation to reach the truth: This idea is only a hypothesis.
Copyright © 1999 Random House, Inc.
The sticker authors use "theory" in a non-technical sense to imply guess, conjecture, contemplation or speculation (definition #6 or #7); however since the context is technical, definition #1 clearly applies. This play with the word theory makes their sticker argument fallacious.
One could reasonably argue that definition #2 might have applied to Evolutionary Theory when Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. However, the more than 150 years of research and discovery that have developed, expanded and strengthened it since then places it clearly within definition #1 today.
What does it tell
you about the state of scientific literacy
in our nation that only one third of us recognize the difference between a
guess and a scientific theory?
The National Center for Science Education is a good place to follow the ongoing battle over the teaching of evolution.
The Talk.Origins Archive is a collection of articles and essays focusing on the creation/evolution controversy.
NPR's Science Friday broadcast an intelligent discussion of the debate over teaching evolution on November 19, 2004. Their web page devoted to this broadcast contains links to audio in RealPlayer and Windows Media formats, as well as to books and other background material. I highly recommend it.
Textbook stickers are not the only strategy creationists use in their relentless attempt to discredit the Theory of Evolution. In 2002, Scientific American editor John Rennie addressed their attacks in his article, 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense. Pondering it is time well spent. Rennie's article has been widely posted. Here is a Google search with links to those posts.
Another recent creationist ploy can be seen in Jonathan Wells' Icons of Evolution - 10 Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution. Rather than honest inquiries, they are loaded questions of the "When did you stop beating your wife?" variety. Steve Verdon has pulled back the curtain to expose some of their manipulations, false assumptions and illogic. Tony Hiatt, an Indiana high school biology teacher, has posted a thoughtful response to each of Wells' "questions". Links to other reasoned responses to Wells' "questions" and text are available at http://www.indiana.edu/~ensiweb/lessons/icon.cr.html. Included in the last list is a link to the response at the National Center for Science Education. Another page put up by NCSE that is on point is located at http://ncseweb.org/creationism/analysis/icons-evolution
A different set of Ten Questions to Ask Your Neighborhood School About Local Science Education is offered by the AAAS' Project 2061. Seeking answers to these questions could make a real difference in a child's education.
For those looking for a more in-depth examination of the illogic of the creationist position, philosopher Robert Pennock has written the very thoughtful Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism. You can read excerpts here.
David Linder, Professor of Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School has created this great site to use as a jumping off point to explore the evolution - creation controversy.
The Why Files has also put up a section on the controversy, written to appeal to secondary students. On January 27, 2005, they put up a new section focusing on the efforts to teach Intelligent Design.
If you want to read more about the controversy over evolution stickers in textbooks, click here for a Google search results list on this topic.
For additional stickers that put the evolution sticker in perspective, see this page put up by Colin Purrington, Associate Professor at Swarthmore College.
And how about the Periodic Table of the Elements, is it just a theory too?
Long term, attacks on science like those made by the creationists may undermine the way of life we've built over the past several hundred years. For a look at how this might happen, see George Dvorsky's Scientific Ignorance Dooms Democracy.
In the September/October 2005 edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet published Undoing Darwin, an investigation into why Americans are so uninformed about evolution science.
The Smithsonian Institution has put up a splendid site that presents the evidence for human evolution. It is located at http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence
(January 13, 2005) U.S. Federal District Judge Clarence Cooper ruled today that the evolution stickers mandated by the Cobb County, GA school board were an unconstitutional violation of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. He ordered them removed from Cobb County Biology texts. The Judge's ruling is available for reading online at http://www.gand.uscourts.gov/documents/02cv2325ord.pdf
(December 20, 2006) The Board of Education of Cobb County, Georgia settled the lawsuit brought against it by parents upset over its requirement to place stickers in Biology texts.
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original web posting: Saturday, November 20, 2004
last modified: Sunday, August 04, 2013