Ever heard the expression, “Evolution is just a theory”?
It’s often used by creationists who deem the theory of evolution, an observation initially put forth by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species, as an insult to their religion because it isn’t consistent with the accounts of the Bible, Quran, etc.
The notion that all life evolved from a single-celled organism, affectionately known as LUCA (Last Common Universal Ancestor) simply doesn’t jive with being taught that a God created man shortly after the start of time.
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I will explain, albeit quite simplified, why that is a profoundly wrong and insulting statement to make to discredit evolution.
There are generally accepted levels that answers to questions can be given or assigned, from a scientific perspective. Since science is what brought you the theory of evolution, that’s what should be referenced when discussing it.
Because this is a simple blog post and not a thesis, think of this as just a Cliff’s notes version to explain the basic concept. So please no attacks if you think I left something important out. But by all means, feel free to chime in below if you want to add anything.
Anyway, enough babbling, here goes…
The lowest level assigned to the answer to a question would be a guess. A guess is when you have no evidence you are basing your guess on, you’re just picking something that seems to make the most sense to you and going with it. We all do it, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s just not science.
With an educated guess, you still haven’t actually gathered evidence or done any work you could call science, but now you have some knowledge that leads you to your guess so it’s not just a garden variety random guess as above.
This might also be a situation where you might ask a physicist, for example, about a question that could be answered by physics. If they don’t know the answer, yet based on what they do know, they make a guess, that’s an educated guess.
For the first time, we’re talking about actually doing some science. You’ve now gathered evidence, potentially by doing a study of some sort, and this is the conclusion the evidence has taken you to. This is better than a guess because you’ve actually done some work to come to this conclusion, observed the results first hand, and therefore your conclusion is evidence-based, not something conjured up in your imagination alone.
I’ll spend the most time on this one, since it’s the one in question.
Where a hypothesis is something that is based on you doing some science, it is usually on one specific question with one specific answer, like what are the atoms that make up a water molecule? Then you grab a microscope, and determine the answer to be two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen. A simple question—a simple answer.
A theory however, is typically related to a large collection of hypotheses that all come together to tell a big story, such as the case with evolution.
If I can use a simple analogy; I will compare scientific theory to a jigsaw puzzle depicting Albert Einstein.
Think of a hypothesis as a single piece of the puzzle you’ve tested and confirmed it’s part Einstein’s likeness.
But a theory is what the puzzle itself depicts, composed of pieces that have all been determined to specifically fit in it. That puzzle still has a few pieces missing from it you haven’t found yet, so you don’t entirely understand what the complete puzzle looks like. For instance, if the pieces depicting Einstein’s hair are missing, you can still reasonably assume it’s a picture of Einstein by the face, you’re just not sure what his hair looked like at the time the picture was taken.
In science, it’s only accepted theory if no single piece has ever been proven wrong or falsified. If one piece turns out to be false, scientists must effectively scrap the whole theory, and remove any assumptions they might have made to that point.
If your goal is to entirely complete the jigsaw puzzle you think is a picture of Albert Einstein (and that is the goal), you get a box with a thousand pieces, and you find that one or more of them is clearly not a representation of Einstein, you know that puzzle can never represent what you thought it should and therefore it cannot be Einstein.
In the case of evolution, there are thousands of independent studies on different aspects of evolution, most of which have been peer-reviewed, never been proven wrong or falsified, and that all consistently support the theory of evolution—each one completing a larger and larger chunk of that particular puzzle.
The part we don’t understand is exactly how Earth went from a lifeless state to a with-life state, because no one has ever been able to create life from no-life in a lab yet. Nor can we go back in time and observe it to study it.
Although, there’s pretty decent understanding as to how it might have happened—that’s a story for another day, and someone much more knowledgeable than I.
Something that has also never been falsified, but unlike a theory, leaves no questions to be answered, and is largely deemed to be factual by the entirety of the scientific community. Barring any fringe folks most scientists disavow, anyway.
It’s also more like a hypothesis in that it’s usually very specific in nature, as opposed to complex theory.
We understand them, we know them to be consistently true, and we’re readily able to replicate the results every single time we either test them, or use them to test something else.
An absolute is something that is indisputable fact. For the most part, science would say you can never know an absolute, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Quite the contrary. Technically, I’d argue everything is essentially an absolute—facts are all around us. Something either is or it isn’t.
But the problem for us unfortunately, is that you can’t know any of them absolutely, because you can never know what you don’t know.
On any subject, there may be something you’re unaware of that changes everything (like Einstein’s thoughts on gravitation waves which forced a rethink of Isaac Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation), so you always have to remain open to new information.
Now that we’ve covered those, the reason it’s both wrong and insulting to say the theory of evolution is “just a theory” is due to the fact that thousands of scientists have done hundreds of thousands hours of work over the centuries on thousands of different aspects of evolution.
Work which is really hard to do, requires vast knowledge, is reviewed by their peers, and consistent with what you’d observe in the natural world. And all of it supports the theory of evolution, and is drastically different from creation.
It should also be pointed out that DNA has largely confirmed evolution true via mapping out genealogies of all living things. It’s also interesting to note that DNA wasn’t discovered until long after evolution was theorized. Much like when people thought the Earth was round, but then we went out to space and proved it is round by observing it.
So back to our “Evolution is JUST a theory” folks, most people who make this argument are people who are religious.
They’ve done no tests to confirm what their religion says is true, they’ve merely read a book that may or may not be true. They may accept it as faith, but this why it is called faith, not science.
While their belief might be right, demeaning thousands of brilliant minds who have done a lot of hard and painstaking work when they’ve done, is profoundly insulting and ignorant when we see all the things around us that science has answered, and answered correctly.
This could be the curing of a myriad of diseases, being able to put a man on the moon, splitting an atom, or simply making a working smart phone. Science has a pretty amazing track record of being right.
Even if you are religious, let me ask you this. If you were feeling chest pains, and afraid you might be about to have a heart attack, are you calling 9/11 to summon a doctor first (a scientist), or would you call your priest and ask them to say a prayer first?
If the answer is option one, you’re already instinctively putting your faith in science over religion, as I’d argue you should.