Evolution is ‘Just a Theory’

I laugh in the face of people who use this to dismiss the fact of evolution. I think that they may be confusing this term with the term hypothesis. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. So when the person uses this objection, it just shows that they do not properly understand what facts and theories are. Stephen J. Gould has put this as well as anyone else:

In the American vernacular, “theory” often means “imperfect fact”–part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus the power of the creationist argument: evolution is “only” a theory and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): “Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science–that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.”Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don’t go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s in this century, but apples didn’t suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Moreover, “fact” doesn’t mean “absolute certainty”; there ain’t no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

Evolutionists have been very clear about this distinction of fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory–natural selection–to explain the mechanism of evolution.

– Stephen J. Gould, ” Evolution as Fact and Theory”; Discover, May 1981

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5 Responses to Evolution is ‘Just a Theory’

  1. If Gould is right and ‘fact’ refers to an objective and verifiable observation, and if ‘evolution’ refers to descent from common ancestor, then Gould is wrong when he says that evolution is a fact. “Change in allele frequencies” is a fact, and affirmed by both evolutionists and creationists. But “descent from common ancestor” is not a fact, insofar as it is not an objective and verifiable observation. So you should probably stop laughing at those people.

    If Smith claims that “evolution” (descent from common ancestor) is a fact, and when challenged he defends his claim by proving “evolution” (change in allele frequencies), then he ends up engaging in equivocation, which is a fallacy of ambiguity (when a term has two distinct meanings).

  2. Like I said, the only people who reject evolution are people who are ignorant of the evidence. Simply because a belief which is required to reject evolution disagrees with it, does not mean it is not a fact.

    The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. Biologists consider evolution to be a fact much like physicists consider gravity to be a fact. Like I already stated, because some people reject what observations say, does not mean that it is no longer considered a fact. Rejecting evolution is simply just an absurd notion.

  3. But what is this evolution for which there is “overwhelming” evidence, Justin? See, you are engaging in the very equivocation I showed as fallacious (because the word ‘evolution’ has two distinctly different meanings). To avoid committing the fallacy of ambiguity, you must specify which meaning you are using. When you say “evolution,” do you mean descent from common ancestor? When you say “fact,” do you mean objective and verifiable observation? If so, please indicate the “overwhelming” observational evidence for this sort of evolution.

  4. Alright, I’ll explain this briefly. When I say evolution, I mean that we descended from a common ancestor. Natural selection is a mechanism on how we explain evolution works. Like Gould stated, fact means “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.” Evolution has been confirmed through evidence, and observation.

    Before I continue explaining what fossils say and why they matter, I need to clarify your stance on evolution. Doubting it is of course absurd.

  5. I can accept that a ‘fact’ is something “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent,” so long as you and I can agree over how the “confirmed” element is accomplished. That is why I referenced the scientific usage as “objective and verifiable observation” (i.e., independently confirmable)—which you do agree with, shown by statements like “what observations say” and “evidence and observation.”

    So let’s piece this together and see if we can return to our agreement. A fact is: “an objective and verifiable observation, confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.”


    So please provide such facts, as above, that overwhelmingly confirm descent from a common ancestor.

    (My stance on evolution is irrelevant. The issue is your claim and its burden of proof, which has nothing to do with my stance. Irrelevancies are fallacious, so let’s not make a mess with them.)

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