I recall reading a joke some years back that asked, If evolution is true and humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes? Answer – Well, because some were given a choice. I laughed, but there is a molecule of passive truth there. Natural selection, though not offering a choice, is in fact, selective, although blindly so.
I’ve been considering this article for months now. It is no easy task to attempt an empathetic approach to such an emotional and divisive subject—emotional and divisive, of course, for biblical literalists. Yet, in order for there ever to be some progress in finding common ground, first and foremost we must not approach the subject of human evolution in a confrontational manner. We are creatures of reason and through reason we can find solutions—if we want them.
The impetus for moving ahead with this article was provided by a follower of my blog who opined recently that even though he agreed with me that creationism does not belong in science class, he felt that neither does “Darwinism.”
I can understand the blogger’s frustration. There is a world of misinformation about the Theory of Evolution and the great majority of Americans have little or no formal education in evolutionary biology. The great majority of folks have been taught from tothood that God created the world and all thereupon much as we see it today.
But evolution is not a theory of the origin of life. It is a theory of the origin of species—not how life on earth began, but how it became so diverse.
In this article, my intent is not to convince anyone of evolution or creationism, but to try and dispel some misconceptions about science. Understanding these misconceptions is the only way common ground can possibly be achieved.
Many folks over the past century and a half have learned to accept the growing body of scientific evidence for evolution by deciding that evolution was likely the way God chose to create human beings and that the Genesis creation stories are meant as metaphors. That’s fine. After all, nowhere in the corpus of the Theory of Evolution does it deny that a supreme being started the “Ball of Cause and Effect” rolling.
For many, adding to the difficulty of accepting the science is the fact that reading scientific articles on the theory can be quite dry and boring. Most folks have enough on their hands just making a living and finding time to feel at one with the family—to maintain that sense of identity and belonging we humans need. Thus, there is little time or inclination to sit down and educate oneself about evolution.
Too, I am well aware that the idea of human evolution is considered by many theists to be cold, soulless, without purpose, and therefore quite frightening. It is no wonder that biblical literalists do not want their children exposed to the theory and want it replaced in science classes by Intelligent Design (creationism). It is thought, too, that if one accepts evolution, then he no longer has a moral foundation on which to build his life. This is a false notion. A philosophical foundation for a moral and empathetic life can be every bit as strong as a religious foundation.
Greatly complicating the issue of creationism and evolution is our own language, and topping the list of complications is the word, “theory.” Dictionaries offer several meanings and even some of these are lacking.
Merriam-Webster, for example, offers the scientific definition as: “a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena <the wavetheory of light>.”
While this definition is true, it really doesn’t do justice to the word—i.e., it doesn’t explain the special method used to reach scientific acceptability. One is, therefore, left with something akin to the popular definition of the word “theory,” which is a “speculation,” or “hunch,” or “assumption,” as in, “that’s just a theory,” or, “It is my theory that the butler did it.” This popular definition is fine for the general public, but not for science.
Wikipedia has a decent definition in the last sentence of its first paragraph:
A theory is not the same as a hypothesis [Hypothesis: an intelligent deduction or guess based on known facts, experience and past scientific studies] . . . a theory is a ‘proven’ hypothesis, that, in other words, has never been disproved through experiment, and has a basis in fact. (Bracketed comment and italics mine)
Note that the word “proven” is in quote marks followed by a meaning not normally used in everyday language. That is because, ideally, science does not consider a theory to be the final and ultimate “proof.” For example, we all know that gravity exists, but science refers to it as the “theory of gravitation,” which is an ongoing field of science as is the theory of evolution.
Simply put, a scientific theory it is a systematically, methodically and independently tested, best explanation for understanding natural phenomena based on evidence—a theory was a hypothesis, but has withstood the rigors of the scientific method. Here is a simple example of the scientific method:
A scientist observes a natural phenomenon, the origin or nature of which is not fully understood.
The scientist attempts to explain the phenomenon by formulating a hypothesis based on her knowledge of a history of observations, studies and experiments that may be relevant.
The scientist then formulates ways to test her hypothesis such that, if it is true, a particular outcome is predictable.
If, at any time during her testing, she disproves her hypothesis—her prediction was incorrect—she throws out the hypothesis in favor of another that better fits the evidence. Then she sets about testing the new hypothesis.
If, after exhausting all tests, she cannot disprove it, then she publishes her findings and the details of her experiments in a peer reviewed, scientific journal. This allows other scientists in her field to independently duplicate her tests for validation and develop tests of their own in an effort to further verify the hypothesis or disprove it.
After many years of predictions and testing demonstrate that the hypothesis cannot be disproved, the hypothesis becomes accepted as a scientific theory. And, that theory is a tentative conclusion because, ideally, science is always open to new evidence that might render the conclusion false.
This is the scientific method and it is why the theory of evolution belongs in science class. Without it, so much of biology and medical science would not make sense.
On the other hand, a creationist begins with the conclusion that God created everything very much as we see it today (I call this the “Poof Hypothesis,” not meaning to be condescending, but descriptive). Most often the research of the creationist is trying to find ways to refute evolutionary science. He will search in nature or mathematics for facts that might be construed to place some aspect of evolution in doubt. All evidence found that may support evolution is discarded or reinterpreted. At no time will the conclusion—that God created all things very much as we see them today—be doubted. This is not the scientific method, and therefore, does not belong in science class.
So, why is there so much misinformation about the theory of evolution? Sadly, all too often in their zeal to debunk evolution as a science, creationists will propagate incorrect information by extracting out of context comments by evolutionary scientists, thereby misrepresenting what the scientist actually said. For more information on this, see http://ncse.com/book/export/html/6711
Too, we have the ridicule factor:
I would highly recommend watching the free reenactment (video) of the Dover, PA trial, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. The site offers the trial transcript by which one may download to verify the authenticity of the reenactment. The reenactment, however, not only follows the transcripts closely but also demonstrates the unfortunate social cost to the community.
Max T. Furr, author of the novel, The Empathy Imperative, a philosophical/spiritual drama.