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What Makes Evolution a Theory?

2008.November.26

[What follows began as an unsolicited response to another blog; the blogger was discussing education in Texas and her openness to creationism being taught in classrooms on the basis that Evolution was a theory. It’s not so much about politics as it is about science, and it may be a bit dry.]

It’s fine to be skeptical of evolution based on the data you have seen, but “theory” as it is used by the scientific community does not mean quite the same thing as a “theory” on prime time cop dramas. A “theory” in science is often a pattern that, no matter how sound, cannot be directly observed within the human experience. In fact, the word’s connotation in science is no weaker or stronger than terms such as “law” or “principle”.

In today’s scientific community, a theory is regarded as a very serious and credible structure, whose scope is beyond our reach for irrefutable proof. Established theories are never so much disproven as they are re-interpreted. For most of human history, light seemed to be instant and straight, but we now believe it simply moves faster than we can notice and bends for great amounts of force (i.e., the gravity of a planet).

Calling something a theory can simply mean that the phenomena described are either too small in scale (such as gravity, which occurs at the sub-atomic level) or too great in scale (such as might occur over eons, like evolution) to be observed first-hand. These types of theories are “proven”* in the sense that they exist as whole and complete systems that feature consistent behaviors and structures as best we can observe – and, yes, theorize; what makes them seem less sound is that their scope usually gives them limited scientific predictability (but improvements in weather prediction over the last few decades imply that with enough data, even the least predictable phenomena could one day become predictable; maybe that is Google’s true goal).

(*Since language itself is only an approximation of our perception of what we define as reality, “proven” science is constantly being honed and modified in its own terms.)

I don’t want to rock your world or anything, but most every scientific discovery since Einstein began with theorization: thought experiments were developed and their answers were tested using observable apparatus. The ones that were found consistent with theory went on to become microwaves and cell phones and laptop computers, but they can never be called “true” because our human senses cannot directly observe the waves that heat water molecules, the radio waves that transmit our voices, or the microprocessors that translate key-punching flurries into wordy and unsolicited scientific lectures.

Think of the Theory of Evolution as a law that cannot be demonstrated before our eyes. The data supporting it might be re-interpreted, explained in a different light, but the logic that exists there is unlikely to ever be entirely disproven.

What I find alternately amusing and frustrating is that fundamentalists on both side of the issue refuse to see the gaping holes in their own beliefs that allow for a distinct possibility of overlap. My best friend, a fairly fundamentalist Christian for as long as I’ve known him, was a whiz at biology in high school and saw potential everywhere for biological phenomena to be the methods God uses to implement His will. He observed that the creation of the Old Testament fairly accurately described the sequence of Earth’s development and life thereupon (especially if, as my friend supposed, those seven days were seven of God’s days, rather than days of men) and he saw potential for evolution to be God’s method of influence.

Coming from the opposite end of the belief spectrum, I have my own theory (as in hypothesis) about how evolutionary study could one day trace all life on Earth back far enough to actually pinpoint a moment of creation (and perhaps, therefor, a creator?).

But in this country, we aren’t really fond of finding common ground with those who question our view of the world.

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3 comments

  1. I have had these debates so much on line that there is no prospect of the beginning and no vestige of an end (Hey, how’s that Hutton humor for you?). My argument usually comes down to the fact that the creationists say the evidence is there, but hidden/suppressed/ignored. To that I always say 1) it’s called ‘faith’ for a reason. What does faith mean? It means believe WITHOUT physical proof, and is not faith required by and for your religious beliefs? and 2) If the evidence existed to prove the scientific merit of creationism, and thus, the existence of God, who would pass that up? As one myself, I can tell you that a scientist’s first goal is glory and fame. The second goal is usually to disprove other work and elevate your own in the process. So, according to many creationists, every scientist in the world, in a coordinated effort, would have to pass up the greatest discovery in the history of human kind to preserve the dogma. There are people in Roswell, NM that would have trouble swallowing that whopper.


  2. I took a class on extra-terrestrial life, and the professor, while explaining the requirements for “life,” pointed out how everything is set to work like, well, clockwork. If you have the necessary ingredients, the elements mix the way they’re supposed to and life is formed.

    To him, this was proof that there was no God – there was no need for a God, since it all worked without His help.

    To me, this was proof that there had to be a God, someone who SET UP the system to work like clockwork. Why is it so hard to think that God made evolution happen?

    Evolution is a fact. While we may not be able to observe it unfolding in our life time, how can you look at a cat and not see how this creature is related to a lion or a tiger? These animals came from the same thing, they evolved from one into the other.

    Really, it’s not that complicated. Is it?


  3. I agree about things not being as complicated as we want them to be. I think we tend to overthink not only that which is beyond our comprehension, but that which is beneath it also.



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