Some misconceptions by the defenders of the Theory of Evolution

Evolution is, in fact, the foundation of the entire science of modern biology and much of modern medicine. No, there is no absolute ''proof" of evolution, but that's not how science works. The evolutionary theory of origin of species is supported by abundant evidence from the fossil record and genetics research—indicating, for instance, that both humans and modern apes are related to primates who lived millions of years ago or that modern birds are related to dinosaurs. Says Boston Globe's resident conservative columnist Cathy Young in Reason: Fact and Fiction on Evolution: Intelligent design's five favorite myths

It strikes me that there are some very basic misconceptions that many defenders of evolution (among whom, if it came down to it, I count myself) are missrepresenting what evolution is and what the evidence for it is, thus making it more controversial than it really is a obscuring some of the real puzzles in evolution. Here are some of the relevant points.

  1. Evolution, of course, is not a theory, it is a fact. A fact of biology, in the same way that 'gravity' is not a theory or 'global warming' is not a theory. These are all observable facts. The theory only offers a mechanism (a set of principles) explaining how these phenomena work and providing some preditions as to their future behavior.
  2. When we speak of the 'theory of evolution' we really mean 'theory of evolution by natural selection'. There were many 'theories of evolution' before Darwin (Lamarck's being the one most commonly mentioned). The reason that there is only one theory of evolution now is that none of the others could account for the wealth of phenomena associated with evolution and predict future behavior. Both of which Darwin's theory excels at.
  3. The 'fossil record' is not necessarily evidence of the theory of evolution. It is just something that can be explained by it. Not only did Darwin not use fossils as the basis of his theory; he probably couldn't have done so. Because the fossil record is so fragmentary, it probably does not provide enough material to glean the principles of 'natural selection of random variation' from it. Of course, once we have the 'theory' we can make sense of the record much better than we could before.
  4. Genetics in itself is also not evidence for evolution. It is another theory that describes the mechanism of inheritance of random and non-random features. Theory of evolution cannot work without some sort of theory of inheritance. Genetics seems to be the one that currently makes the most sense but I bet that within a hundred years, we will have a very different picture of how inheritance works.

In short a theory is a set of principles we can use to make sense of the phenomena that present themselves to us (through all kinds of sensory and non-sensory inputs). We each operate with a large number of theories about the world around us every day. Scientific theories are just one kind of theories. And formalized (Popperian) theories are a subset of those. Intelligent design is a theory but not a scientific theory. As such it should be allowed in the 'science' classroom only as an example of a non-scientific theory to allow students to study the contrast. Furthermore, intelligent design is not really a 'theory of evolution', i.e. a set of principles explaining what we see in the world around us (Steve Jones has loads of examples of this in 'Almost Like a Whale', his update of Darwin). It is merely a theory of 'creation'. TEBNS is not necessarily a theory of creation (although the stories told to explain creation within the framework are fairly compelling). All it does is describe what happens to populations.

To me it indicates that both sides have taken the wrong approach both to the theory of evolution and the teaching of it. Its defenders are so stuck on explaining Dinosaurs and how we 'descended from the apes' that they forget TEBNS's many non-controversial aspects, and often end up teaching bad science. Its detractors are wrong by attacking it as 'just a theory' because it makes them look bigoted (and many of them are the latter) and divorced from reality.

Here's a suggested compromise set of points that I (an atheist proponent of the theory of evolution and the teaching of science in general) would be happy for teachers to discuss with (and not just read to) a class of science students:

  • Theory of Evolution explains many things in the world around us that are facts. It is so well established that it could even be called 'a law of evolution'.
  • One of the things it tries to explain is the origins of life on Earth. For this, other theories exist that do not try to explain the other things Theory of Evolution explains.
  • At the moment, any theory of the origin of life is a matter of faith. As any faith, a faith in a particular model of the origin of life is informed by any individual's (or group's) experience which can take many forms, from religious allegiance to scietific knowledge.

(This is of course not the sort of wording that might be appropriate for most classrooms.)