Technicianonline.com, which appears to be the student newspaper from North Carolina State University, has a new editorial called “Evolution: theory not fact” by deputy viewpoint editor Madison Murphy. It not only mischaracterizes evolution, but makes the crucial mistake of dismissing evolution as not a fact but “only a theory” (not her words, but an accurate characterization). Murphy begins with a somewhat misguided definition of evolution:
The theory of evolution can be explained simply: Complex creatures evolved from simplistic creatures over time. All creatures come from a common ancestor. Over time, mutations in genetic codes were maintained as they aided in survival. This process of mutation is called natural selection. Eventually, these mutations build up until a complex creature is the result.
Leaving aside the hilarious misuse of the word “simplistic,” this paragraph gets natural selection wrong in several ways: mutations aren’t “maintained”, but increase in frequency; the currency of selection is reproduction, not survival alone; and selection is not just a “process of mutation”, but a process that involves the selective disposition of mutations via a deterministic process of gene sorting.
She then appears to favor teaching alternative creationist views, a deeply misguided notion, but in the process also conflates those views:
There are opposing theories to evolution, however, and they are also some of the most controversial theories to ever be discussed in science, politics, religion and education. These opposing theories are creationism and intelligent design. Some people lump these two together, but they are slightly different.
The theory of intelligent design states that the creation of a complex being could not have happened randomly or by chance. There had to have been a higher power that created this complexity. However, according to intelligent design, this “designer” could have been anyone.
The theory of creationism, on the other hand, states the designer was God. The extremes of creationism vary as well. Some people believe in what is strictly stated in the Bible in Genesis without any room for other possibilities. Others, such as Catholics, believe evolution could have occurred the way Darwin describes, but by the power of God. This belief also says evolution cannot account for the creation of the human soul.
Well, yes, IDers do avoid identifying the designer, but the differences are deeper than this. Many advocates of intelligent design do admit that species evolved over time, and often did so via natural selection. Some, like Michael Behe, even admit common ancestry of species. IDers usually affirm that not that all organisms were created ex nihilo, but that some features of organisms, like the famous bacterial flagellum, couldn’t have evolved via Darwinian natural selection, and thus required a designer. Both ID and straight Biblical creationism are creationist theories, as is the theistic evolution described by Murphy in the last sentence.
But I weep for Murphy, and also for her biology professor, when she writes stuff like this:
Recently, I was sitting in a class in which my professor began to speak about evolution. As a believer of Biblical creationism, my interest is often piqued when evolution is brought up in a class. Normally, I do not mind a discussion of the theory since it’s so widely accepted by my peers. However, this time, it was different.
My professor started talking about the Theory of Evolution as if it was a fact. This is a problem. Evolution is not a fact, it’s a theory.
Defined, a theory is “an unproven assumption.” Let’s treat it as such. I have no problem learning about evolution if it’s presented as what it is: unproven. I don’t even mind learning about evolution without any mention of intelligent design or creationism, if it’s presented as a theory. But, when a professor begins to speak of it as though it’s a proven fact, I get bothered.
A scientific theory is not an “unproven assumption.” Doug Futuyma explains the difference on p. 613 of his book Evolution (the textbook we’re using this quarter in my introductory evolution class). Not only Murphy, but all of us would benefit from reading these two short paragraphs:
A theory, as the word is used in science, doesn’t mean an unsupported speculation or hypothesis (the popular use of the word). A theory is, instead, a big idea that encompasses other ideas and hypotheses and weaves them into a coherent fabric. It is a mature, interconnected body of statements, based on reasoning and evidence, that explains a wide variety of observations. It is, in one of the definitions offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, “a scheme or system of ideas and statements held as an explanation of account of a group of ideas or phenomena; . . .a statement of what are known to be the general laws of something known or observed.” Thus atomic theory, quantum theory, and plate tectonic theory are not mere speculations or opinions, but strongly supported ideas that explain a great variety of phenomena. There are few theories in biology, and among them evolution is surely the most important.
So is evolution a fact or a theory? In light of these definitions, evolution is a scientific fact. That is, the descent of all species, with modification from common ancestors is a hypothesis that in the last 150 years or so has been supported by so much evidence, and has so successfully resisted all challenges, that it has become a fact. But this history of evolutionary change is explained by evolutionary theory, the body of statements (about mutaitons, selection, genetic drift, developmental constraints, and so forth) that together account for the various changes that organisms have undergone.
And, of course, the myriad of facts supporting the theory of evolution is the subject of my book, Why Evolution is True.
What is most striking is that Murphy, like a Muslim who sees a teddy bear named Mohamed, is “deeply offended” at the idea that evolution might be true and its detractors blinkered:
This particular professor went on to state that those who don’t believe in evolution are wrong. He said that there are so many facts proving it’s truth that one would have to be ignorant not to believe it. I found this to be deeply offensive. I am not ignorant simply because I choose to believe one theory over another.
Yes she is, and for several reasons. First, Biblical creationism is not a “theory,” it’s a fiction. Choosing to believe that over the fact of evolution is ignorance in the worst sense.
There are two ways to construe “ignorance”: as simple non-acquaintance with facts, or acquaintance with facts but choosing to ignore them. The former is no crime, and is easily remedied by, say, reading my book. The latter is an intellectual crime, and it’s one that Murphy has committed. She is indeed ignorant in the second sense because she chooses to ignore the incontrovertible scientific evidence rather than the unsupported claims of her faith. And she characterizes herself as a “Biblical creationist,” which means she ignores not only the evidence from biology, but from physics, geology, and astronomy as well. She apparently thinks the earth is just a few thousand years old. Now that is ignorance—willful, blind, obedient-to-God ignorance.
The misguided notion of evolution as “only a theory” reappears in Murphy’s closing:
If professors or teachers at any grade level are going to teach evolution, they should make sure their students are aware that it is a theory and not a fact. If a student who had never been taught evolution before had been sitting in that class, they would forever think evolution is a fact and those who believe otherwise are nutcases.
Not only do professors need to be wary of what they’re teaching, but students must also be cautious. Students, never take anything a professor says at face value. I encourage you to research things for yourself and make an informed opinion. You never know when someone could be teaching you theory and not fact.
Yes, Ms. Murphy, evolution is a theory and a fact as well. Those who don’t accept it either don’t know the evidence or, as in your case, are blinded to that evidence by adherence to religion. Perhaps Murphy’s evolution professor didn’t give that evidence, and if that’s true he should have. That’s why my first two lectures in Evolution are on the evidence for it, and why I wrote my book. But before dismissing evolution as “only a theory,” Murphy should have “researched things for herself”. She obviously didn’t.
Murphy’s piece has garnered 259 comments at the site. Most of them are right on the mark, but some miss it widely. Here’s an example of each (click to enlarge):