Location: Texas

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Evolution Is A Fact

More evidence for those that will listen:

When non-biologists talk about biological evolution they often confuse two different aspects of the definition. On the one hand there is the question of whether or not modern organisms have evolved from older ancestral organisms or whether modern species are continuing to change over time. On the other hand there are questions about the mechanism of the observed changes... how did evolution occur? Biologists consider the existence of biological evolution to be a fact. It can be demonstrated today and the historical evidence for its occurrence in the past is overwhelming. However, biologists readily admit that they are less certain of the exact mechanism of evolution; there are several theories of the mechanism of evolution. Stephen J. Gould has put this as well as anyone else:

In the American vernacular, "theory" often means "imperfect fact"--part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus the power of the creationist argument: evolution is "only" a theory and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can't even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): "Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science--that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was."
Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don't go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's in this century, but apples didn't suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Moreover, "fact" doesn't mean "absolute certainty"; there ain't no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

Evolutionists have been very clear about this distinction of fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory--natural selection--to explain the mechanism of evolution.

- Stephen J. Gould, " Evolution as Fact and Theory"; Discover, May 1981

Gould is stating the prevailing view of the scientific community. In other words, the experts on evolution consider it to be a fact.

And for those that won't listen:

"... there are many reasons why you might not understand [an explanation of a scientific theory] ... Finally, there is this possibility: after I tell you something, you just can't believe it. You can't accept it. You don't like it. A little screen comes down and you don't listen anymore. I'm going to describe to you how Nature is - and if you don't like it, that's going to get in the way of your understanding it. It's a problem that [scientists] have learned to deal with: They've learned to realize that whether they like a theory or they don't like a theory is not the essential question. Rather, it is whether or not the theory gives predictions that agree with experiment. It is not a question of whether a theory is philosophically delightful, or easy to understand, or perfectly reasonable from the point of view of common sense. [A scientific theory] describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you can accept Nature as She is - absurd.

I'm going to have fun telling you about this absurdity, because I find it delightful. Please don't turn yourself off because you can't believe Nature is so strange. Just hear me all out, and I hope you'll be as delighted as I am when we're through. "

- Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988),
from the introductory lecture on quantum mechanics reproduced in QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Feynman 1985).

Clayton Cramer blogs on intelligent design and quotes my e-mail to him.


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