Do You Believe in Evolution?

No, don’t answer. It’s totally a trick question. It’s like asking “Do you believe in string theory?” or “Do you believe in photosynthesis?” or “Do you believe in the ideal gas laws?”. It would be silly, because we generally don’t talk about any of these things in terms of belief. They are scientific theories. They are either correct or they are not. Time and experiments and empirical evidence will show which. Whether or not people believe in them has absolutely no relevance to whether or not they correctly explain something useful about the way the world works. The only thing that makes evolution any different is that people who see it as conflicting with their religious beliefs have sought to discredit it and dragged it into the conversation about belief. And now people are so used to hearing evolution talked about in the realm of belief that they don’t think to question whether it even belongs in there or not.

Now, I’m not saying that anybody has to accept the theory of evolution (although “because it conflicts with my religious beliefs” is just as bad a reason not to accept evolution as it was for people not to accept that the Earth revolves around the sun*). There are plenty of reasons to accept a theory or not. Many theories are proven wrong, in whole or in part, by later scientific discoveries. If new data is found that contradicts a theory, scientists will adapt and develop a new theory or change the old one. That’s what science is all about. You fit the theories to the data, not the other way around. But just because we know that scientific theories might not be correct or complete is no reason to dismiss them. It just means that the scientific theories we have are the current best explanation we have for the way the world works. Perhaps we’ll improve upon those explanations some day, but for now they’re the best we’ve got (and for a scientific theory, that means that there is lots of evidence backing it up and it probably makes useful predictions that can be used in a variety of applications, so please don’t dismiss any scientific theory as “just a theory”, because there is nothing “just” about scientific theories).

So yea. Evolution. It’s a scientific theory. Let’s talk about it like we would talk about any other scientific theory. Whether or not you ‘believe’ in a scientific theory is a red herring.

That is my rant for the day about the way that evolution gets (mis)discussed.

* See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo#Controversy_over_heliocentrism for more information.

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5 thoughts on “Do You Believe in Evolution?

  1. Actually I would go as far as to say that evolution is imply undeniable if we look at the genetic information we have today. Many folks belonging to the YEC, and ID camp have been fed wrong ideas about evolution. So yeah, a lot people do not accept evolution because they are mostly misinformed.

    It is no different than people labeling all atheists as arrogant or people labeling theists as narrow-minded or hypocrites. The truth is those who do not accept evolution simply do not understand it.

    I always find Hawking’s definition of a good theory as an initial test for any theory:

    “…a theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements. It must accurately describe a large class of
    observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.

    For example, Aristotle believed Empedocles theory that everything was made out of four elements, earth, air, fire, and water. This was simple enough, but did not make any definite predictions. On the other hand, Newton’s theory of gravity was based on an even simpler model, in which bodies attracted each other with a force that was proportional to a quantity called their mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Yet it predicts the motions of the sun, the moon, and the planets to a high degree of accuracy.

    Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory. As philosopher of science Karl Popper has emphasized, a good theory is characterized by the fact that it makes a number of predictions that could in principle be disproved or falsified by observation. Each time new experiments are observed to agree with the predictions the theory survives, and our confidence in it is increased; but if ever a new observation is found to disagree, we have to abandon or modify the theory.”

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  2. As a slight deviation, String Theory is not a theory in the same way evolution, atoms, quantum mechanics and gravity are. String theory is still a hypothesis. If true, it explains a lot and it is an excellent internally consistence hypothesis. But until we get some empirical data to support it (c’mon Large Hadron Collider!!) it is actually a hypothesis.
    But it is a great analogy for when you ask a creationist why they don’t believe in evolution; just like the average person with String Theory, the average creationist doesn’t understand evolution.
    Obviously, if you ask a creationist whether they believe in evolution they definitionally respond “no”. But the honest answer would be “I don’t understand it”.
    Creationists say we don’t one animal turning into another kind of animal as if the word “kind” means anything and as if that is what evolution predicts, but it doesn’t (evolution predicts variation and specialisation within a taxonomic group, or, if you prefer, within a branch of the phylogenetic tree).
    Creationists say there aren’t enough fossils, as if (a) more fossils won’t just give them more gaps to laugh at (1 -> 5 HA! That’s a massive gap!; 1 -> 3 -> 5 HA! That’s 2 gaps!; 1 -> 2 -> 3 -> 4 -> 5 OMG!! 4 gaps and you still believe it? That’s more faith than I have!) and (b) there is no genetic or anatomical evidence.

    Their objections betray the fact they don’t understand it. It’s like objecting to String Theory on the grounds that string is made from cotton or wool.

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  3. That’s not really a deviation at all. I’m glad you brought it up. I was actually considering talking about string theory a bit when I was writing my post, but I decided not to because I don’t really understand it (which is evidently not the sort of thing that would stop a creationist from talking about evolution). Most of what I know about string theory is what one of my physics geek friends told me about why he doesn’t buy it. He said basically the same things about it that you did and lent me a book about the subject. I haven’t started reading it, yet, though, so I decided not to risk making myself look like an idiot by talking about things I only know about from something vague my friend said last month…

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