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Evolution & Creationism: Terminology in Conflict

Richard Joltes

March 2, 2005

One of the fundamental reasons for the ongoing conflict between the religious and scientific communities involves differences in terminology and word usage. Having heard many lay people scoff “evolution is only a theory” or refer to “the theory of Intelligent Design,” it seems prudent to discuss differences in usage and understanding, as Creationists are misusing the understanding of this and other scientific terms by the average individual to further their own aims.

In science, the word “theory” is not used in the manner understood by most people, i.e. I have a theory that if I do X, Y will result or perhaps my theory is that man was created by divine intervention. They equate the word with “conjecture,” “supposition,” or at worst “guess.” However, phrases such as these fall under the heading of “hypothesis” or “hunch” for the purpose of scientific enquiry. In a scientific context, the word theory is reserved for ideas that have been repeatedly tested experimentally under very rigorous conditions and confirmed to behave as expected. Quantum electrodynamics, heliocentrism, and plate tectonics are other examples of scientific theory; they are areas that have been independently studied and repeatedly verified over decades or centuries using increasing amounts of hard data.

Science also relies on facts, which are either data gathered through observation or instances in which some phenomenon has been tested and verified so many times that there is no longer good reason to suspect any variation in outcome. Even in this case a fact is not immutable, since it is always possible for new evidence to be introduced that will overturn a long-established fact. Evolution is a fact in the respect that we have hard data — an ever-expanding fossil record — proving that species have changed over time; dinosaurs, early mammals, Trilobites, and other forms no longer exist as living species. The exact mechanism by which these changes occurred (e.g. natural selection and environmental pressures) is the realm of evolutionary theory and is based on interpretation of that fossil record and other available data.

The “Intelligent Design” movement is not a monolithic group; it is composed of numerous Creationist organizations with varying agendas and specific beliefs. However, the basic tenet of ID can be summarized by the statement life is very complex; such complexity could not have been arrived at by chance, therefore an intelligent designer must exist. This is not a theory in the scientific sense; at best it’s the hypothesis or thesis statement in an analytical paper and must be supported by massive amounts of confirmatory data in order to be considered proven in any real sense. Even if the initial researcher provided such evidence, his or her findings still must be confirmed and re-tested by others in order to eliminate experimental error or other problems.

However, most of ID’s proofs consist of statements such as “see how complex the human mind is? This could not have happened by chance, and that proves our point.” This isn’t proof. Instead, it’s circular reasoning using the central tenet complex life could not have been arrived at by chance as its core: having accepted that statement, anything deemed “complex” must have originated with the proposed intelligent designer. ID proponents offer no actual proof that chance cannot be responsible for complexity; they simply assert that this is the case.

The inability of ID supporters to see no mechanism by which evolution could work, and their belief that life could have arisen only through the actions of an intelligent designer, reveals a lack of understanding of current science and progress in the field of evolutionary biology over the last century. The fact that anti-evolutionists constantly cite Origin of Species and Darwin’s other writings as the last word on the subject again indicates this is the case. However this inability is also eminently understandable, given the scale of time — millions, if not billions of years — involved, the invisibility of the process to the naked eye, and the complexity of the underlying science. Envisioning the level of change that occurs even over a single millennium is difficult. One may try to imagine, for instance, what everyday life really was like for someone living 1,000 years ago with no electricity, automobiles, printed books, or sanitation. Now multiply by 1,000 and think of 1 million years BCE. The mind boggles. It is nearly impossible to appreciate the immensity of change that can occur over that period of time without a firm understanding of the evidence and evolutionary mechanism as currently understood by science.

Other weaknesses and misunderstandings inherent in the ID argument can be noted through its frequent misuse of other terms and definitions. The ongoing misconception of “survival of the fittest” (italics mine) to mean “best” or “strongest” shows a misunderstanding of the larger concept, which might be better rephrased “survival of a physiological change that proves more fit for a given set of environmental conditions.” Creationists also misinterpret the term randomness as meaning random chance when this is not the case. Evolution does not suggest random chance creates mutations leading to new species: what it says is that variation within a given species can produce a “useful” change leading to improved survivability for that organism, which is then more likely to pass its genes (and thus the useful change) on to succeeding generations. Eyes, wings, and prehensile tails do not magically, randomly appear overnight; instead they develop over hundreds of generations, bit by bit, in response to environmental pressures or other conditions that predispose their owners to an improved rate of survival. Evolution is a cumulative process, not a series of random events that eventually result in a new species.

ID is not scientific theory and is unlikely ever to be, since there is no known mechanism by which its basic hypotheses can be tested for accuracy: we cannot generate an experiment containing all the conditions necessary to prove that complex life can only be generated given the presence of an intelligent designer. There is no body of evidence that confirms IDs tenets, and it is not based on scientific principles; it’s simply an attempt at an end run around objections that Creationism isn’t scientific and is therefore not to be taught in science classes.

Physicist Richard Feynman once said, during an introductory quantum physics lecture to a non-specialist audience, “I’m going to tell you the theory and you’ll think it’s crazy; many of you won’t want to believe it. But it doesn't matter if you like it or not, because it’s the way it is. Nature doesn't care if you don’t like the way she does things; they happen that way whether you like them or not.” ID proponents and other Creationists “don’t like” what the evidence says, and have settled upon a course of obfuscation, word tricks, and manipulation of data in order to discredit evolutionary theory.

Evolution, to the best of our understanding, is “the way it is.” There are, and will continue to be, unanswered questions regarding exact mechanisms and rates of change, but the fundamental theory remains sound after 150 years of challenge and refinement. To state otherwise is to ignore the available data, and those who ignore contradictory data are not scientists.

If ID and other Creation “science” proponents wish to participate in legitimate scientific enquiry and desire active consideration of their ideas by the scientific community, they must adopt and understand the methods and terms used while agreeing to abide by the rules of evidence. Couching religious belief in scientific terms while ignoring the rules of inquiry simply exposes their deceptive practices: there is little difference between them and a TV commercial, where an actor equipped with white lab coat and clipboard throws out pseudoscientific jargon while expounding on a soap powder’s latest whitening agent.

Response from David Morrison:

I applaud Richard Joltes comments on ID and his explanation that it is not a scientific theory. But in communication with the public (and decision makers), I think we might be better off to drop the insistence on the scientific definition of theory. I suggest that it is hopeless to try to convince much of the public that this common word has a different meaning to scientists from any they have heard before — a meaning that is not only different, but actually opposed to the normal usage of this word. Even if we succeed, we will have spent much of our time and effort on definitions rather than on the arguments for evolution.

I have come to this conclusion by noting that even well-educated people (including many scientists) use “theory” with its common meaning of conjecture or speculation. For example, I came across the following last week in Jared Diamond’s new book Collapse. In his Easter Island chapter he equates “theory” with “educated guess” and says that some scientists “tested their various theories of statue transport by actually moving statues, beginning with Thor Heyerdahl, whose theory was probably wrong because he damaged the tested statue...”

I can’t see how we are going to convince many people, including school board members, lawyers, and legislators, if we must first re-educate them that everything they know about the word “theory” is wrong. And we often contradict ourselves, objecting to “evolution is just a theory” because we realize this word implies “conjecture” to most people, and then also objecting to calling ID a theory because it does not meet the rigorous scientific definition of the term.

— David Morrison
CSICOP Fellow

Richard Joltes

Richard Joltes has been researching urban legends, folklore, and other topics of interest to skeptics for over a decade. His background includes academic study in the areas of history, folklore, archaeology, computer science, physics, and chemistry, and he has published articles on the Web as well as in various newsletters and journals.