Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact.1
But what does this actually mean? What does it mean to say that evolution is a ‘fact’? Is evolution truly incontestable, or are there legitimate doubts which should discourage our assent? If one viewed the statistics for the acceptance of evolution, particularly in America, one would be forgiven for asking whether evolution really is an indisputable fact. In a Gallup poll taken this May, 46% of those Americans surveyed believed that ‘God created humans in present form’.2 With what assurance, then, can evolutionists speak of evolution as a fact?
Evolution is clearly an important idea. Theodosius Dobzhansky, a central figure in the formulation of the neo-Darwinian (or ‘modern’) synthesis, famously stated that ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’.3 Echoing Dobzhansky, Richard Dawkins has said that ‘Without evolution, biology is a collection of miscellaneous facts.’4 And Graham Cairns-Smith has gone so far as to define biology as ‘the study of the causes and effects of evolution’.5 But what do we mean by ‘evolution’? If evolution is a fact, what exactly is purported to be a fact?
Philosopher and mathematician William Dembski, a leading exponent of so-called Intelligent Design (ID) theory, contends that the Darwinian establishment is guilty of ‘equivocation’ over the term ‘evolution’:
The fallacy of equivocation is the fallacy of speaking out of both sides of your mouth. It is the deliberate confusing of two senses of a term, using the sense that’s convenient to promote one’s agenda.6
Agendas aside, are there multiple senses of the term ‘evolution’, and, if so, what are they and are they true? Dembski asks, ‘Is it a fact that organisms have changed over time? There is plenty of evidence that appears to confirm that this is the case. Is it a fact that the panoply of life has evolved through purposeless naturalistic processes? This might be a fact, but whether it is a fact is very much open to debate.’7 Dembski’s implication is that Darwinians employ the broad term ‘evolution’ in discussion so as to assert the factuality of those disputable elements of the theory by disingenuously sneaking them in under the cover of those elements which are not disputable. If we are to say that evolution is a fact, then, we must break down the term and see whether each of its constituent elements may be confirmed. If each facet can be considered veridical, then we can justifiably proclaim evolution (in a broad Darwinian sense) an established fact–a fact beyond reasonable, serious, sane, informed, intelligent doubt.
Darwinians are quite prepared to distinguish the elements of evolution. Michael Ruse proposes a three-fold division:
First, there is what we might call the putative fact or happening of evolution, the claim that organisms did not arrive here on earth miraculously, but by a process of descent. Second, there is the question of the paths taken in the process, what evolutionists call phylogenies. Did birds evolve via the dinosaurs, or directly from more primitive organisms? Third, there is the matter of the mechanism of evolution: the causes behind the process.8
This division is helpful, although clearly the elements are interdependent. Ruse notes elsewhere that ‘any such division is somewhat artificial. You could hardly have a path of evolution without its being a fact, and mechanisms which take us nowhere are surely not all that evolutionary.’9
One last question remains, however, and that is what do we mean by ‘fact’? It is an apodictic fact (that is, absolutely and eternally true) that 2 + 2 = 4; however, if we are to speak of evolution as a fact we clearly cannot do so in an identical manner. Scientific theories, unlike mathematical equations, are not absolutely certain,10 and, unlike mathematical theories, they are vigorously challenged and contested. And neither are they permanent; theories are revised, modified, supplemented and, where necessary, abandoned and supplanted. A scientist does not aspire to establish a theory as incontrovertible–such an aspiration is denied by the nature of the enterprise. The scientist aims to construct a theory which adequately accounts for the observed phenomena and which yields testable predictions. And they are aware that the theory will not remain unchanged due to experimental disproof or explanatory inadequacy. In science, facts, like species in the living world, are not immutable. In that case, when evolutionists speak of evolution as a ‘fact’ they do so bearing in mind that our current understanding will probably be subject to revision. Thus Stephen Jay Gould wrote,
Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth… In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.”11
So, then, using Ruse’s terminology, we have (1) the happening of evolution, (2) the path of evolution and (3) the mechanism of evolution. I propose to examine each of these three elements in an attempt to confirm, or disconfirm, them. Some of the elements may be more certain than others, and none will be apodictic, but if we can satisfactorily establish each of these constituents, then, yes, we may declare evolution a fact.
In the next post in this series I shall discuss the first element of the theory of evolution: the ‘happening’ of evolution.
References & Notes
- R. Dawkins, The greatest show on Earth: the evidence for evolution, (London: Bantam Press, 2009), p.8.
- Gallup poll: ‘Evolution, creationism, intelligent design’, available at http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/Evolution-Creationism-Intelligent-Design.aspx.
- T. Dobzhansky, ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’, American Biology Teacher, 35: 125-129, (1973).
- R. Dawkins, ‘The joy of living dangerously: Sanderson of Oundle’, in A devil’s chaplain, ch.1.8, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2003), p.58.
- A. G. Cairns-Smith, Seven clues to the origin of life, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p.1.
- W. A. Dembski, Intelligent design: the bridge between science and theology, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p.115.
- M. Ruse, ‘Is there a limit to our knowledge of evolution?’, BioScience, 34 (2): 100-104, (1984), p.100.
- M. Ruse, Taking Darwin seriously, 2nd ed., (New York: Prometheus Books, 1998), p.1.
- Immanuel Kant wrote, ‘Pure natural science cannot altogether refuse and dispense with the testimony of experience; hence with all its certainty it can never, as philosophy, rival mathematics.’ (Prolegomena to any future metaphysics that will be able to come forward as science, translated by P. Carus, revised by J. W. Ellington, [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1977], §40, p.69.)
- S. J. Gould, ‘Evolution as fact and theory’, in Hen’s teeth and horse’s toes: further reflections in natural history, chap.19, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1983), p.255.