Let's Stick to Facts on Evolutionary Theory

12/03/2012 10:31 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2013

In a column elevated by erudition but ultimately marred by muddled thinking, Nicholas Wade, writing in The New York Times tells us that, because U.S. Senator Mark Rubio answered a reporter's question about the age of Earth with a moronic dodge, scientists should respond by admitting that evolution is a "theory." That will fix things.

Pardon me?

Mr. Wade noted that Rubio said, "Whether the earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries."

Uh-huh. Rubio is a possible Republican contender for the 2016 presidential race. And talk about mysteries: What's the matter with this party?

Mr. Wade discussed how, historically, certain Protestant sects came to assert that every word in the Bible was literally the true word of God. He further noted:

"atheists like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins beat the believers about the head, accomplishing nothing; fundamentalist Christians naturally defend their religion and values to the hilt, whatever science may say. A scientific statesman, if there were such a person, would try to defuse the situation by professing respect for all religions and making a grand yet also trivial concession about the status of evolution... evolution is both a theory and a fact... no fact is better attested. But... evolution is a theory; no one talks about Darwin's 'fact of evolution.' Unlike a fact, a theory cannot be absolutely true... The theory of evolution, though it has no present rivals, is still under substantial construction."

Well, so is music theory. Mr. Wade waded deeper into this muddle of his making, continuing:

"By allowing that evolution is a theory, scientists would hand fundamentalists the fig leaf they need to insist, at least among themselves, that the majestic words of the first chapter of Genesis are literal, not metaphorical, truths. They in return should make no objection to the teaching of evolution in science classes as a theory, which indeed it is."

I don't get it; do you? How do fundamentalists need permission to insist on what they already believe? And, why would they need to "agree" that evolution -- meaning that life evolves and new species come from common ancestors -- should be taught as a theory rather than as the proven, settled science it is? In many states, that, for them, would be a major coup.

I encourage you to read Mr. Wade's column yourself, because it strikes me as very peculiar coming from such an experienced science writer. But I'd like to focus on just one point: Mr. Wade helped perpetuate a common, major confusion about what's meant by the word, "theory."

The biggest misconception about evolution is that it's "only" a theory. To most people, a theory is an untested hunch. But in science, a hunch is called a hypothesis. If a hypothesis is tested and confirmed repeatedly, and if all the confirmation creates a body of knowledge useful for predicting events, the knowledge is called "theory." That's very different.

Imagine a child sitting at a piano for the first time. They notice that some keys sound dissonant together, and others harmonize. Eventually, the child may know how notes will sound before hearing them played; that's music theory. It's not "just" a theory. It's an understanding of music so thorough that one could compose a symphony despite being completely deaf -- as Beethoven did.

This predictive sense of theory is the same way scientists use the word. Atomic theory predicted that a series of procedures would cause a big explosion. Germ theory predicts that if surgeons wash their hands, fewer people will die of infections. Evolutionary theory can predict, for example, that excessive fishing will create smaller fish. It explains why malaria and insects develop resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. Evolution is as scientifically accepted as gravity. And while we don't quite understand how gravity works, we know a lot about how evolution works -- much more than Charles Darwin, even with all his genius, could have dreamt.

Scientifically, there is nothing to "concede" about evolution. That life evolves is proven, used in agriculture, feared in medicine, and observed in nature. Fundamentalists are not arguing fine points of evolutionary conjecture about kin versus group selection or the genetics of altruism. They are arguing that the world was created in six days and hasn't changed since. How very silly of them. And how embarrassing, and dangerous. Handing people fig leaves doesn't strike me as adequate when they'll need a decent suit if they want to look civilized.