Is the Theory of Evolution Really a Matter of Faith?

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Leonard Steinhorn is a Professor of Communication at American University, Author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, and a member of the HNN board. Charles Steinhorn is a Professor of Mathematics at Vassar College.

There are moments in history when wrongheadedness leads to interesting insights. Perhaps this is one of them.

Consider the Republican presidential candidates who said they didn’t “believe in evolution” at a debate earlier this year. They may have been onto something – but for all the wrong reasons.

The truth is, we don’t believe in evolution either. But we don’t have to, because we know it to be factually true. And that’s the nugget of insight that’s too often been missing from the public debate ever since Darwin first laid out his theory of evolution almost a century-and-a-half ago.

As a natural phenomenon based on scientific evidence, evolution is not a matter of belief or faith, any more than gravity or genetics, and to ask whether someone believes in it is a nonsensical question, much like asking if someone believes in subatomic particles.

Yet read the popular press and you’d think that the truth of evolution is based not on science or knowledge but on one’s personal worldview irrespective of evidence or proof, as if one’s approach to evolution should be no different from the act of believing in, say, immaculate conception or the existence of God.

Recently we conducted a newspaper database search of the phrase “believe in evolution” and found nearly a thousand citations from the last five years. Typical is a New York Times article that describes a married couple as “Christians who believe in evolution,” which suggests that scientific evidence and facts, like religion, can be true or false based on whether we believe in them or not.

The generous interpretation is that the press is simply lazy, preferring shorthand to a more accurate description, which might say that so-and-so “accepts (or doesn’t accept) the fact that evolution has occurred.” Stating it that way would acknowledge the fact of evolution and show that those who refuse to accept it are denying established evidence and proof.

Press reporting may also reflect a larger ignorance of science and specifically the meaning of “theory” as applied to natural phenomena. In science, “theory” has nothing to do with its popular usage as a notion or opinion, as when someone might offer a “theory as to why Bush went to war.”

Rather, a scientific theory offers a coherent and conceptual explanation for facts and evidence that have been observed and accumulated; it must be predictive and capable of testing by further scientific observation.

Thus the theory of evolution aims to make logical and rational sense of the facts of evolution, proposing mechanisms to explain how evolution occurs. Those who attack evolution as merely a “theory” misunderstand what a scientific theory is.

Compounding the problem is the he-said, she-said style of journalism so prevalent today, which leaves media vulnerable to a trap set by proponents of the latest attack on evolution, “intelligent design,” which is little more than an artifice devised to inject religion into the biology classroom.

Rather than portray “intelligent design” for what it is, a clever recycling of a centuries-old philosophical argument to "prove" the existence of God that has been dressed up as a scientific theory, the press reports it as an alternative to evolution and quotes advocates who complain about “viewpoint discrimination” against their cause.

This manufactured controversy will gain more media attention in 2008 with the release of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a movie promoting “intelligent design” that stars actor Ben Stein, who claims it will chronicle how “freedom of inquiry in science is being suppressed.” Stein demonizes “Big Science” as an entrenched establishment that squashes dissent, claiming scientific credibility for “intelligent design” when in fact there is none.

Thus evolution simply becomes merely another “viewpoint” in the public debate, lending plausibility to the idea that it is a notion to be believed rather than a scientific fact to be known.

And that illustrates a larger problem that far transcends the evolution discussion. For years, many religious conservatives have tried to blur the line between their beliefs and objective truths. If belief masquerades as fact, and if the press allows them to coexist on an equal footing, then fact becomes just another opinion and belief gains credibility as an alternative. The media simply play along, reporting the controversy, as if no side has a greater claim to truth.

Nor is science the only field jeopardized by this blurring of belief and truth. It touches history and every other discipline dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.

So when Republican presidential candidates say they don’t believe in evolution, bravo for them. If only they – and the media covering them – understood the real meaning of what they say.

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Carol Hamilton - 1/7/2008

I've read that when non-scientists use the word "theory," they really mean "hypothesis."

As for facts existing independently of theories, there's always Dr. Johnson's argument against Bishop Berkeley.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/6/2008

The crucial argument between philosophy of materialism and philosophy of idealism is the argument of primacy of MATTER over
Idea. The crucial argument between
theory of evolution and religion is the argument of primacy of
empirical EVIDENCE over BELIEF/FAITH, which makes these two views of the world (or theories, if you want) intellectually TOTALLY incompatible with each other.
Empirical evidence is the material thing, i.e. the matter, belief/faith is the idealistic thing, i.e. the idea. Therefore, there is no "fine line", i.e. essential difference between the views of dialectical materialism and theory of evolution, whereas the religious beliefs/views and evolution are diametrically opposite.
Catholic church has been furiously opposing theory of evolution (and other scientific theories) for many decades. It is only recently with the tremendous advance of modern technology based on science (not on religion) and inescapable usage of this technology and heavy dependence
on it by church and masses of religious people itself, many Catholics and the clergy itself HAD NO CHOICE, but to accept many scientific advances, including theory of evolution (though many still can "afford" to oppose the latter, because it has no direct links to the quality of their lives).
So, to preserve the validity of the basic religious beliefs the church "adjusted" its argumentation
to make it, at the least, superficially fit the modernity, by advancing the "idea" that science and religion are two SEPARATE provinces of human knowledge about our universe, in general, and human nature, in particular.
The big lie about it is quite transparent: religious beliefs are not KNOWLEDGE, they are just BELIEFS/FAITH. Knowledge is a set of FACTS or RULES or ALGORITHMS learned to be practically used to create MATERIAL difference; it is not coincidental that people say that one does not really know something, unless one can USE it. Moreover, that set rules may and does change with time, since it is FALLIBLE, in principal.
Beliefs, and religious beliefs, in particular, comprise a set of IDEAS that are not necessarily have to be used for the material (not meaning economic or financial)advance/change, and they are INFALLIBLE, in principal.
Therefore, the latter cannot, again in principle, constitute real knowledge. Q.E.D.

Dialectical materialists never stated that religion is the root of ALL evil, since in their view it is just a part of evil, the same as it is not ALL good, but just partially good.
Nothing/nobody in this world is absolutely evil or absolutely good, since evil and good are just anthropological/human ideas developed historically, which
have nothing to do with the material world per se, except in the sense of being the creations of the matter's motion in the human brains.

Ms. Reyes, following her well-established ideological pattern, just trying to deepen the confusion existing in the minds
of the majority of American public, using its poor education in philosophy and science.

Nancy REYES - 1/5/2008

The problem is that the press and too many discussing the problem mix up the scientific theory of evolution with the philosophy of materialism, that insists that only scientific knowledge is valid.
Those wishing to insist on the philosophy use Darwin to bash religion, which they see as the root of all evil.
What annoys me is that few report that Catholics see this fine line and support both God and evolution. Yet when Bishop Schoenborn wrote his editorial explaining the confusion, too many interpreted it as anti science, which it was not.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/4/2008

Actually, the entire dialogue/argument is as old as our civilization: it is essentually the argument between materialism and idealism, as dialectical marxist philosophy defines them.
The main, and perhaps, the only reason it emerges in this country (and hardly anywhere else in the civilised world) time after time is the practical absense of teaching the basics of philosophy of science and religion to school kids and college students, especially dialectical materialism. No other philosophical theory has ever been able to come close to the clarity, depth, empirical evidential support and encyclopedic width of the latter one. But in the US this THEORY is known only to a narrow circle of professional philosophers.

Joseph Mutik - 1/3/2008

If "intelligent design" it's a scientific contraption the above question is unavoidable. A scientific theory has a basic principle (or principles) and this principle (those principles) can be replaced when new experimental facts are discovered.
As someone said above a scientific theory is a belief but it isn't an absolute belief, the belief is changed by new facts. One has to make up her/his mind, if "intelligent design" is science it doesn't solve my problem because a scientific mind always asks what was before (like the quark as the basis of the nucleus), if the question is forbidden or not asked we have disguised religion.
In the beginning .... but what before the beginning?

E. Simon - 1/2/2008

Well isn't that a very convincing little vignette!

Quentin Patch - 1/2/2008

DNA is encoded building instructions for us. Language takes a conscious mind to select and place the correct characters for my cell to act upon to get more me. Who wrote the software for my squishyware, a rock?
not smart enough. And even a 100 IQ rock would not be motivated to write my necessary code.
Fallen together by accidents. ho ho ho. "once upon a time, long, long ago and in a land far, far away, rocks wrote DNA for the first time and there were legs, wings and completely functional living things." G'night, kids.

Anne Gilbert - 1/1/2008

The problem with this assertion is that evolution *is* "provable". Not only is it "provable" by various means, it is happening around us, all the time, every day, if we have the desire to to see it. Every time a mutation, even one that, say, "creates" a red-haired child in a family of brunets(yeah, this sort of thing actually does happen), that is evolution in action. Every time disease sweeps through some population of organisms and some survive where most of them didn't, that, too, is evolution. You don't have to have a time machine to see this. Work on genetics and patient observation of the rise and fall of populations "proves" that evolution happens, all the time, everythwere. So no, evolution is not "unprovable". In fact, it is very "provable". Darwin and those who followed him, just gave us the means to prove it.
Anne Gilbert

David M Rice - 1/1/2008

The only word I can think of to describe your "time travel" assertion is.... well... "stupid" covers it. Were you present when you conceived? No? Then how do you know you were conceived? How do you know you were born?

If one cannot know anything about the past without traveling back in time and observing an event, why are the prisons filled with people who have been convicted of crimes nobody saw? After all, finger prints left at the scene of the crime could have been planted, or mistakenly identified by the lab.

Nobody has ever observed Pluto orbiting Sol completely: therefore by your "reasoning" we cannot say that it does unless we travel back in time a few hundred years and watch it.

Frankly, your claim is just absurd.

We know evolution is a fact because we observe evolution happening; we know evolution WAS a fact because we observe it to have happened--- in DNA, in the fossil record, and in geological distribution to name just three of several tests.

Evolution is an observed fact; any politician who wants to be hired for a government job, such as Party member Ron Paul, should know that fact. Stating he does not know evolution is a fact, and stating he rejects evolutionary theory because he does not know it correctly explains evolution, means Party member Ron Paul is too ignorant to be hire. It is like someone admitting they don't know Earth is an oblate spheroid; it is like admitting one doesn't know Earth orbits Sol and not the other way around.

E. Simon - 1/1/2008

Yes, that's true. Mathematicians, at least as I understand it, have a different meaning for the word "theory" than do scientists - including physicists. Number theory, etc. If there aren't sufficient facts to take it from being merely a branch of theoretical physics to actual theory, than "model" sounds like the correct term. So that's probably where the confusion came about. Theoretical physics is such a prominent field that such an elegant model therein came to acquire the tag of "theory" regardless of how well it could actually be supported within a strongly empirically-grounded framework.

John Pieret - 1/1/2008

String theory is a mathematical model that was only considered as potentially empirically true because of its "elegance." Of course, as a mathematical model, the "theory" itself is (presumably) absolutely true as long as the equations are correct, math being purely deductive from agreed premises. Whether it, in fact, describes the empiric world is another matter and mathematicians may have a different meaning for the word "theory" than empiric scientists. In any event, the empiric scientists are now beginning to deny that string theory can even properly be called "science," much less a "theory."

A well-supported theory in science, like evolution, is a "belief" in the same sense that I "believe," should I hit my thumb with a hammer instead of the nail I'm trying to drive, that it will hurt. In short, it is an inference about how the world actually works based on overwhelmingly confirmed experience. It may turn out that somehow it isn't true that hammers striking thumbs causes pain, but I'm going to be careful with the hammer anyway.

Steven F. Sage - 12/31/2007

The media-clever proponents of 'intelligent design' took care early on to grab control of the vocabulary for this so-called debate, and invariably referred to biological evolution as "Darwin's Theory". For the scientifically ignorant, that semantic formula had the shorthand effect of dismissing out of hand all scientific observation after Darwin, and before Darwin as well. As if one man, Charles Darwin, could have articulated such an explanation, i.e., as Pallas Athene was said to have been born in an instant from the head of Zeus. And as if the broad outlines of what Darwin (and Alfred Wallace) articulated had not been confirmed subsequently by legions of reserchers great and humble since the 19th century. Presented with this semantic formula of a mere 'theory' hatched by just one man, 'Darwin', the vast masses of ignorami are then further faced with an apposition. To accept the mere 'theory' of this one lone nut is, moreover, to flout revealed scripture. Nothing less than personal salvation is at the heart of the matter, in the minds of such people.
The practitioners of biological science seem to have been unaware of the semantic coup which boxed them in, since most scientific spokespersons responded within the linguistic parameters of their opponents. Scientists did so without pausing to see how the language shaped the debate as perceived by those broad masses who identify themselves as religious believers, or churchgoers.
It isn't too late. Practitioners of biological science need not buy in to the semantics of "Darwin's Theory", so-called. At stake is still the control of educational budgets and curricula. Legislators at state levels can still be influenced, but not if just a 'theory' touted by one eccentric Englishman is set up against the putative word of the Deity.

E. Simon - 12/31/2007

String theory may be a bit "further" from the facts than other theories, but let's stick with Ted's proposal about the distinction between a theory and a mere idea. That string theory is more idea than theory is the point. Descriptors such as "well accepted" and "controversial" just will just bring the public away from their responsibility to accede to the notion that facts and empiricism are the crucial point of the matter. As we can see with the false "controversy" of global warming, some bad apples will apparently take a lone dissenting voice here or there and manufacture a "controversy" out of nothing, out of something that at least doesn't exist as such within the discipline of science. It's hard for them to know the difference and subsequently purge their minds of such nonsense, no matter how compelling a case is made, as we can see. Plus, it's a travesty the amount of resources that had to be expended just to reverse course on the "global warming as controversy" fiasco, and I'm not even sure how successful that push to reverse course back into the bounds of reality has yet been.

Randll Reese Besch - 12/31/2007

I left out the word "not the center of our solarsystem."

Randll Reese Besch - 12/31/2007

Hypothesis is an idea not theory. A working hypothesis is used as a baseline for study of the available evidence and interpretaton there of.
When Wegner prposed continental drift in the 1920's it was ridiculed because there was no explanation for the mechanism he suspected from observation. It wasn't till the 1960's when more data on the earth was known. The same with string theory for years. Even the idea that the earth was the center of our universe took time and more observation and emperical thought invovled before it was accepted,by most. Just understanding how and why the planets move went from Newton,Kepler to Hubble. The same with evolution. If Intelligent Design re creationism wants to be accepted they need to follow the procedures of scientific inquiry first. This is what they do not do. That is their failing. A du ex machina isn't in science and should never be.

Carl Schmidt - 12/31/2007

The test of a theory is that it lays a foundation of reasonable hypotheses that are born out when tested. That is exactly what the theory of evolution provides but understanding that evidence requires some knowledge of science. Frankly, the fossil record provides the time machine, unless you believe the devil has a fossil factory running full time. One prediction of evolution is that there should be evidence of the relationship between species found in the fossil record, and that is exactly what is observed. There is strong evidence for the relatedness and evolution of a variety of species, including humans, found in fossils. Evolution also leads to a hypothesis that genes should show extensive relationship between species. Modern molecular genetics provides a description of the relationship between both existing and extinct species (i.e. Neanderthal DNA has been sequenced). For example, sequence data provides clear evidence for the relationship between the bacterial enzyme that breaks down ethanol, and the human enzyme that breaks down ethanol. This is a small description of extensive evidence or data that supports the fact that evolution occurs. Unless you want to get bogged down in some silly Philosophy 101 argument about the nature of reality, a vast amount of evidence provides clear support for evolution.

Ted Herrlich - 12/31/2007

I disagree. I think you are demanding a level of proof (100%) that truly doesn't exist. While there are some things that will never be able to be tested directly , e.g. observing the birth of life on Earth, the inferences made through how life behaves and is modified generation to generation gives a much higher level of acceptability to Evolution than Intelligent Design. Don't believe me, check out http://www.butler.edu/clergyproject/rel_evol_sun.htm and see what 11,000 Christian Clergy think of Evolution and teaching it in school science classes.
We didn't see the breakup of Pangea (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pangaea) to accept Continental Drift as a major part Geological theories.
One day we may actually witness life developing on another world and I am sure some responses to that will be "Well just because it happened like that on another planet, doesn't mean that's how it happened on Earth!" Some people just refuse to accept the evidence.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/31/2007

Ted, Good point about the dishonest use of the term "theory" by ID proponents. However, scientists themselves muddle the term, by using it to refer to both well accepted theories and controversial ones. String Theory is a good example of the latter, as this Scientific American article notes.

That does not excuse the clear dishonesty that you point to, but it does help to explain why a casual observer can be fooled by it.

Kate Ashmun Pitrone - 12/31/2007

The test of any scientific theory is that it can be proven by observable, repeatable tests. Until we have time travel, how can anyone know how the world began or how or whether we evolved? How can anyone KNOW any of it? All of this is a matter of conjecture and interpretation of available evidence, which is necessarily incomplete. Therefore, both sides make leaps of reason based on prior belief, to cover gaps of knowledge. The faithful admit this as an act of faith while the scientific community does not.

Ted Herrlich - 12/31/2007

I believe (pun intended) that people who disbelieve in any form of radiocarbon dating want to disbelieve in it. They display an amazing ignorance of science by choice. They fail to understand that the same science forms the basis for their car running, but then why distract them with details. I have a friend who is a Young Earth Creationist and the one day I saw him on the side of the road after running out of gas, I didn't get a chance to comment on it because he immediately told me he prayed for help and I appeared. My answer was to suggest that he actually put gas in his car because the science behind it requires gas and praying for gas doesn't fill the tank!

Mike Schoenberg - 12/31/2007

I had a similar point back in the '80's when the Shroud of Turin was being displayed. All the evidence was based on carbon dating, but if a scientist was to use the same process for the age of the earth or any other non-religious item, so much bah, humbug.

Thomas Edward Leonard - 12/31/2007

When discussing whether or not the the theory of evolution is valid or not, my simple question to the steadfast adherents of creationalist argument is: how can you ignore the empirical conclusions found in radio carbon dating?

Ted Herrlich - 12/31/2007

I agree with what you said, but I think you are missing the mark in how the words "Belief" and "Theory" are used by supporters of ideas like Intelligent Design. Most word in the English language have multiple definitions, these two are no different. But when the Discovery Institute calls Intelligent Design a theory, they are using the definition of a theory as an idea. It makes their statement true. However when they say "Evolution is just a theory" they are attempting a lawyers word trick to make people think that they are two sides of the same coin. In reality a scientific theory has significant more credibility than just being an idea. It's an artificial dichotomy and lawyering word trick that Professors Steinhorn are addressing. If the press would stop enabling this to happen then the politicians would get away with less pandering.


Ted Herrlich - 12/31/2007

Wonderful article, it addresses the marketing tactics of "Belief in Evolution", "Evolution is just a Theory", and takes a broader look at how "belief" is impacting more than just science. Plus how the press gives it an unearned legitimacy by treating it like it was actually a theory rather than what it really is, a mask over religion. Thank you Professors Steinhorn!

As I have always believed (pun intended) science works whether you believe in it or not. If religion worked the same way, how many different belief systems would exist?

I am not doing this to knock religion, since I know most of the Christians in the world agree with me on what Intelligent Design really is and hate the way the Discovery Institute is trying to use them to advance their very fundamentalist agenda. One of my friends was furious about an article that equated belief in God with being anti-science and pro-Intelligent Design. I sent him a link to this article, I can't wait to hear his comments!


E. Simon - 12/31/2007

Thanks for this comment. Although I'm not sure that facts cannot exist independent of belief.

In any event, I think you touch upon the crux of the issue when mentioning a sense of insecurity. Western moral norms are entirely predicated upon the belief of an ordered existence and a creator with whom to credit it. There's a strong psychological and cultural attachment to these assumptions-assumptions that Occam's razor should illustrate as serving nothing more than just that purpose. But who needs philosophy and empiricism when you have the subjective "truth" of a bunch of much more comforting conjecture? Apparently not your average American.

Brad D Hume - 12/31/2007

I would like very much to applaude the post by Steinhonr and Steinhorn but as a historian of science I can only sigh at their lack of understanding of the history of evolutionary theory or their distinction between theory and belief.

Scientific theories are a collection of principles and facts which scientists use to explain the world. They are, in short, beliefs. Organisms exhibited design and signs of the creator very readily seemed obvious to early nineteenth century biologists and it was those biologists who opposed Darwin the most. Darwin's theory was not widely accepted by biologists until the 1940s and there were at least three competing theories -- that is, matters of belief about how evolution works -- until what we call the modern evolutionary synthesis was achieved. That synthesis was the product of researchers working on evolutionary mechanisms (not just Darwin's), genetics, and population genetics. Each of them had their own theoretical diffuculties and once they were united they also faced debates within the scientific community. That community had to rally around the theory -- that is, they had to come to believe in it -- before they could go on with their work.

Science is about belief because it depends upon theories that make sense of the world. If one wishes to argue that other forms of belief are less credible then make that argument. I believe that science gives us great accounts of the world but I do not believe that it gives us truth. Nor did the scientists of the nineteenth century who were most accutely aware of the fact that they gave us knowledge of the phenomena of the world and not of the world in itself (Kant's noumena). That dilemma has never been resolved and it is perhaps because of this that God can always creep into our sense of insecurity.

Scientific theories are a form of belief but based on standards that defy other forms of interrogation because they demand their own falsification. But, in the end, they remain beliefs perhaps as flawed as the religious attacks and perhaps much better off because of their standards.

The authors are correct to say that challenges against evolutionary theory have no scientific basis because there are no scientinsts, no laboratories, no journals (that are scientific), and no scientific organizations which support them. They have, in short, no credibility in the scientific community and there is no obvious reason to entertain any of their claims.

What they are up against, however, is a defiance that they recognize: the candidates who name claim that their beliefs are as credible as those of the scientists as they deny with regard to evolution. They can deny evolution as a theory but we can hold up the facts to the contrary as best we can. The sad truth is, that the facts are the facts and evolutionists and creationists can interpret them as they like because no fact exists independent of a theory -- that is, of a belief.

E. Simon - 12/30/2007

The premise is an interesting one - that the media feed the blurring of the distinction between facts and belief by merely asking the question of what they believe. Honestly I don't know enough about the media and communication to have an opinion about that. Paul's statement has played out on a blog I've visited as a lack of regard for empiricism, evidence and by extension, judgment - seeing as how he is a physician and therefore in a better position to transcend the "debate" over empiricism versus human "special-ness" rather than to either cater to it or be a part of it, which his response proves to be the case.

Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" would be a good idea to revisit, given the futility of this persistent cultural warfare between mutually inclusive epistemologies. Perhaps I'm just a pessimist to think that friction over this matter won't just go away just by having the press decline to ask the question. Or, we could just have more honest, less pandering politicians from which to choose who know what good judgment is and refuse to be a part of hypothetical value judgments that require nonsensical trade-offs.