Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Don't Call it the 'Theory' of Evolution!

What's in a name? A lot. How many times have you seen the argument, "Evolution is just a theory. It's never been proved!"

Evolution is, without a doubt, supported by more evidence than any other field in the history of science. Genetics, immunology, diseases and parasites, taxonomy, fossils, dozens of radiometric techniques ... the list goes on and on and on – thousands and millions of facts and observations, every one of them in agreement with the predictions of Evolution.

It's time to stop calling it a theory. It's Evolution Science.

Scientists use the word "theory" in a different way than the general population. To a scientist, a "theory" is a model that describes a system in an accurate and predictive way. But to the public, a "theory" is something uncertain, something tentative, something that may very well turn out to be false.

The valance model of chemistry is a wonderful theory (roughly, the "ball and stick" model of molecules). It describes a great deal of organic chemistry remarkably well, but falls apart when the electrons' orbitals start to span more than two atoms. Is it "just a theory"? Does the fact that the valence model breaks down for complex aromaticity, tautomers, metal bonds and hydrogen bonds, make it "wrong"?

No! The concept of right and wrong doesn't apply to scientific models. The right terminology is useful. The valence model is useful for most organic compounds, and beyond that, you have to use a quantum-mechanics theory – another model. Quantum mechanics are far more predictive, under a much wider range of atomic configurations, than the valence model, but even quantum mechanics breaks down under extreme heat (relativistic velocities), and doesn't tell you much about radioactivity. Is it "wrong"? No, it's just not useful outside the constraints of the model.

Here's where we scientists are doing ourselves a disservice. The concept of modeling a complex system is fairly esoteric philosophy. The average non-scientist wants to know, "How does it work?" Or, "Is Einstein right or wrong?" The concept of a model's domain (the conditions under which the model is predictive) is not something you're going to read about in the morning newspaper.

We need to start using the same terminology as the general public. It's time to abandon the Theory of Evolution. It's Evolution plain and simple, right alongside Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology and Astronomy.

In the common parlance, evolution is a science. It's a model of a very complex system, the system of life on Earth. The basic facts of evolution have been proved so far beyond any reasonable doubt, that it would be fair to call it 100% certain. Sure, there are interesting details, we're still finding unusual species that force us to rethink some of the details. We're still filling in the corner cases and details. But to say that the core ideas behind evolution science are anything but 100% proved is a huge mistake.

So stop calling it a theory. And whenever you hear someone else say, "The Theory of Evolution," consider a gentle reminder that the proper term is "Evolution," or "Evolution Science."


  1. So why don't we call it the dogma of evolution? Clearly you are really agitated by those with different views from your own. And it is the accuracy of a model that is the question that true science deals with. If you are now saying the accuracy of the evolutionary model is beyond question, you are no better than the religious fanatics you hold in contempt. We have not left the dark ages, have we?

  2. Clearly you are not a scientist. Only a non-scientist would accuse me of saying evolution is proved beyond question, and in fact, that's not what I said. Typical for Christian (or other) apologists, you take a scientific statement and twist it into something else, and then try to refute that rather than what the author wrote.

    I wrote that evolution is "supported by more evidence than any other field in the history of science." Not once did I say evolution is beyond question. The part that you, and other religious apologists, don't understand is the difference between 99.999999% and 100.00000%.

    Could evolution be proved wrong? Yes. Will it? Never. The evidence is overwhelming. That's why we should stop calling it a theory, because religioius apologists just don't take the time to understand the difference between 100.0000000000000...% and anything less.

  3. "Could evolution be proved wrong? Yes. Will it? NEVER. The evidence is overwhelming."

    That right there is infallible rampaging dogma, bitch.

    These are your very own words and like I said this dogmatic attitude makes you equals with the raving religious fanatics. You guys should hold a convention sometime!

    I rest my case. Thank you for your adherence to the religion of science. A great reward awaits you.

  4. Whoah, stop right there with your fanaticism! The whole point of science is that it is always improving on theories and refining things. Gravity, which we are pretty damn sure about, is still defined as the Theory of Gravity because it's still under investigation. As soon as you start believing in thinks without questioning them you become like your enemy.

  5. Fundie madman has a point: "Never"?

    That's dogma.

    I also disagree with your proposal. Should we call it "Evolution Science"? Nah. That makes it sound too much like creationism.

    Let's call it what it is: Evolution FACT. Evolution IS a fact. The *theory* of Natural Selection is a model which continues to.. er.. evolve.

    We could, perhaps, start calling Natural Selection a fact, but I think we'd do better to point out that the *Theory* of Gravity is just that: a theory.

    And one which was superceded by Einstein.

    Never? Ask Newton.

  6. We don't need to change the name. We need to educate the public about what it means to say that something is "Scientific Theory".

  7. you anonymous idiots are taking his comment out of context. But he is basically right. Evolution will pretty much never be proven wrong. If you had taken the time to read his actual article you would notice that if anything Evolution would be proven to either work, or not work in certain conditions. There will never be some article that will say "EVOLUTION DOES NOT EXIST!" you would have to discover something that explains how we came to be, how animals came to be, how microbial matter gains immunity, how a single celled organism suddenly became a multi-cellular organism, how certain species of fish began walking, leading to the explosion of species all over the world, etc. etc., If you can find something that explains all of that (WITHOUT using a magic man) then the "theory" of evolution might have a contender.

    As of right now the theory of Evolution is the best way to explain the question of how we came about.

    Its not a dogma, its not a "religion of science" its smart people who know what they are talking about, who have spent the better part of their entire lives to these subjects. And who, when peaked by curiosity, would rather answer that question than say "MAGIC MAN DONE IT!"

  8. you may firmly believe Evolution, you may know many "facts" that prove evolution, but before anyone goes making decisions, you learn all you can from BOTH sides. Too many people simply believe one thing ans never bother looking at the other, "The Religion Virus" is very clearly an anti-religious/christian site. Check out Evolution, and for details on the Christian side, if you don't look at both sides of an arguement then you are just as dogmatic as anyone else.

  9. A lot of Atheists grew up in religeous households. When the facts they were presented with no longer fit their world view, they changed the world view rather than the facts. Saying that BOTH arguments need to be taken in equal consideration is fundementally retarded. We don't need some Maori tribesman's opinion on the economy the same way we don't need religeous views on science.

  10. I don't fully understand here, does he mean evolution as means of creation of all species? or simply the long term adaptations that resulted in things like Darwin's Finches or the penicillin resistant bacterium?

    If it's the 2nd then I wholeheartedly agree.

    "The basic facts of evolution have been proved so far beyond any reasonable doubt, that it would be fair to call it 100% certain." it most certainly would NOT. The current model of evolution contains more brick-sized holes than a priest's window during the enlightenment, such as the emergence of the virus and a few other similar micro "non-organisms" that currently HAVE no place in the evolutionary tree, I am not trying to argue with the basic facts that have been established, but before we proclaim anything as drastic as that we will have to have more data than we do now.

    "Could evolution be proved wrong? Yes. Will it? Never." and why is that, exactly? Truly you are the on who is not a scientist. A devout atheist can be no truer a scientist as a devout Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or worshiper of Zeus. to be an atheist is to be as closed to the idea that there is a god as a mono/molti theist is to the idea that there isn't one. A scientist neither embraces nor dismisses an explanation (ANY EXPLANATION no matter how profound) no matter how much he may dislike it.

  11. Anon - First, you have a gross misunderstanding of what the word "atheist" means. Do some research.

    Regarding evolution, all you've done is assert that there are some details (not "brick-sized holes") that are yet to be filled in. It's like you're looking at the Great Wall of China and found one rock loose and you start hopping up and down proclaiming that there's no Great Wall.

    And what exactly is a "devout" atheist? I don't assert that there are no gods. I merely look at the world and see absolutely zero evidence for gods, and no need for them in science. Belief in gods is no more or less useful than belief in the Easter Bunny. Does that make me "devout"? And how does that evidence-based philosophy interfere with my ability to do good science?

    I don't claim that fairy tales can't be true. What I claim is that there is vast evidence against fairy tales. If we discovered that fairy tales were true, it would invalidate a thousand years of science. When I say that evolution will never be proved wrong, it's clear that what I mean is that it is staggeringly improbable.

  12. a "devout atheist" is one who holds the belief that there are no gods as firm in their heart as a religious man holds the belief in their own gods.

    and yes, it does. you believe in evolution over religion so strongly that you just glossed over one of the largest problems with the theory to date as if it were a single stone in a wall, the emergence of the virus is completely unexplainable using Darwin's model. Now, Darwin had the excuse of his final publication being released some 20yrs. before the discovery of the virus. You don't. And neither does any other "Man of Science" that refuses to question the (address it as you like but the correct term is still theory) of evolution. "It's a model of a very complex system, the system of life on Earth." the accepted model of evolution is not accurate outside the common definition for "life" which viruses are only excluded from because they hadn't yet been discovered when we first created the definition, but now it's probably more because no one wants to change it because they won't be able to respond to statements involving viral evolution with "a virus is not technically a living thing". it may actually be an inaccurate model even within the definition for "life". as i said we will need far more data to make a conclusive judge if it is to even be called an accurate model let alone fact.

    one other thing, i have read a few of your other articles and would like to tell you something i read a long time ago, in a book

    "a fool, a smart man, and a wise man stand in a clearing, thinking abut the air, the fool says, "i see no air" and so tells the smart man it does not exist, the smart man builds microscope and says, "i see the air" and so tells the fool it does exist, the wise man says "i breathe the air, and so it does not matter"

  13. Great rant but I have to say, as a scientist myself, you are completely wrong. Evolution is a theory and as someone rightly pointed out, so is gravity. In fact gravity is a weird one as it currently does not fit in with the general theory of relativity; currently we are ignoring this massive flaw in physics and hoping that the Higgs boson sorts it all out nicely for us.

    Evolution is the best theory that fits current evidence but nothing is ever absolute. The more work I do in my field (structural biology), the more I find it facinating that the majority of work I do is based on abstract theories. Not things we see around us, but observations, fitted nicely to some mathematics which seem to work according to how our human brains take in the world. It could be entirely WRONG. Thoughts like that just boggle the mind.

  14. I do also agree with the last Anon poster that there are a lot of holes in the theory of evolution. I am reading a brilliant book at the moment which brings together a lot of current theory on evolution on some of those 'holes' (some which the book even admits aren't perfect 'fixes'). The book got me really excited whilst at the same time realising there is so much more we need to know (Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution)

  15. Niki – thanks for the pointer to "Life Ascending". The reviews are great, and it's on my reading list.

    We have to be careful about saying there are "holes" in the theory of evolution. Anyone who thinks there are holes needs to read Isaac Asimov's brilliant essay, The Relativity of Wrong. Asimov, in his usual down-to-earth way, explains that simple terms like "right" and "wrong," or in this case holes in a theory, completely miss the mark. Read it ... I'm sure you'll enjoy it.


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