Why I do NOT “believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution”

File:Origin of Species title page.jpgFact not theory; 150 years on from Darwin’s watershed publication; evidence not belief. Words matter.

A recent Harris poll asked Americans “Do you believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution?” Others more eminent have commented on the answers; I would like to comment on the question.

Darwin, of course, never used the word “evolution,” but let that pass. As for the rest, it would be difficult to cram a larger number of serious errors into so small a space. Errors of presentation, of logic, and of scientific and historical fact, all of which play into the hands of our Creationist opponents.

Start with the obvious, the word “theory.” In common language a theory always involves speculation. In academic discourse, it means a coherent set of ideas that explain the facts. Calling something a theory in this sense tells you nothing at all about how certain it is. A theory can be wrong (phlogiston theory), known to be approximate from the outset (ideal gas theory), very close to the truth but since improved on (Newton’s theory of planetary motions), or as certain as human knowledge ever can be (number theory in mathematics). Of course you can explain all this, but you should not put yourself in such a vulnerable position in the first place. It wastes time in debate, or in the classroom. It puts you on the defensive, and thus, paradoxically, confers legitimacy on the attack. It allows the focus to shift from what we know about the world to the words we use to talk about it. This takes us away from science to the domain of the philosophers, lawyers, and expositors of Scripture who are fighting on behalf of Creationism.

And so it distracts from what you should be talking about, namely the facts. Evolution, whether we mean changes in the genetic make-up of populations over time, or the common descent of living things on earth, is a fact. It is supported by, and explains, innumerable more specific facts concerning the fossil record, molecular phylogeny (the same kind of evidence that is used every day in DNA paternity tests), the frozen-in historical accidents of organs that have lost or changed their function, the distribution of species throughout space and time, and much more besides. Creationism cannot explain these facts, except by appeal to the whims of the Creator.

Next “Darwin’s.” Darwin did indeed have a theory, as independently had Wallace, which was that different species had arisen gradually by natural selection operating on variation. This he supported by meticulous observation, but the range of evidence available to him was far more limited than what we have today. He lamented the poverty of the then known fossil record, laments that Creationists echo to this day as if nothing had changed. He knew nothing about mutations or even about the existence of specific genes, and so he had no idea how new variants could arise and spread. His assumption of gradualism is in contrast to later ideas such as punctuated equilibrium, and we now know that much if not indeed most variation arises through neutral drift. Thus not only do we know far more facts about evolution than Darwin could have dreamt of, but our theories, too, incorporate numerous additional concepts.

Finally, worst of all, “believe in.” Believing always carries with it the feeling that disbelief is an option. Some members of the jury believe the witness, others don’t. Some people believe that Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States, but no one would say they “believe” that Barak Obama is the current incumbent, because no sane person doubts it. I don’t “believe in” atoms, or gravity, or quantum mechanics, because I regard them as established beyond dispute, although our notions about them will no doubt continue to change as we learn more. And exactly the same is true of evolution.

Does it matter? Yes, it matters enormously. Creationists often maintain that evolution and Creation are both beliefs, whose respective advocates differ, not about observable facts, but about how those facts are to be interpreted. They obsess about Darwin, referring to evolution as “Darwinism,” and to those who accept this reality as “Darwinists.” The aim here is to bypass 150 years of experimental and intellectual discoveries, to bog us down in the day disputes of the late 19th century, or even (“Darwin’s doubt,” see here and here) to enlist Darwin himself as an unwitting ally.  And they contrast evolution, as “only” a theory, with facts or even with scientific laws, in order to claim that it is far from certain and that different views deserve a hearing.

Most people have not thought long and hard about evolution. And in the US at least, much of what they have heard about it will have come from its theologically motivated opponents. These opponents, whether through “statements of faith” that make obscurantism a virtue, or through “academic freedom bills” that disguise telling lies to children as open intellectual debate, use carefully crafted words to stake spurious claims to the moral high ground.

We should not, ourselves, be using words that help them do this.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on March 9, 2014, in Charles Darwin, Creationism, Education and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. ”Believe in”. Yes, never thought about it like this. Excellent.

    However, I do believe in chocolate cake. 😉


  2. JSintheStates

    Good article! (You’re preaching to the choir!) Terrible title!


  3. excellent title, i knew what you meant, and it is a good point to make.


  4. Rocky S. Stone

    Excellent post!


  5. Is agree wholeheartedly about the language surrounding such polls, but in the case of this particular poll it seems to me that the real headline is that across the full range of pseudoscience beliefs things seem to be moving in the right direction http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/mid/1508/ArticleId/1353/Default.aspx

    It looks like demographic changes in the States may well be moving things in the direction of rationalism. It maybe slow progress, but demographic change will be very hard from creationists to combat


    • Very much as you say regarding the results (even if 20% more Americans still say they believe in angels than say they believe in evolution). But my point is about language in general, not just in the poll, and how we need to take it back.


  6. A great exposé on how language is used (purposely and/or accidentally and/or unwittingly, and/or nefariously, etc.) to lead us astray.


  7. I don’t believe in science, I trust it.


  8. “This takes us away from science to the domain of the philosophers, lawyers, and expositors of Scripture who are fighting on behalf of Creationism.” This statement would have been more reflective of actual events in your lifetime if had read “atheists fighting on behalf of evolution.” In your bio, you claim quite a bit of time in and familiarity with the US. From a US perspective, your observations on the public debate are backwards. If philosophers and lawyers are fighting on behalf of Creationism, it is a merely a defensive effort and not very successful at that. Expositors of scripture stay on their own turf and rarely even engage. It is atheists and evolutionists with their lawyers and philosophers (professors, usually) who have taken and still take the battle to the courts. And win. Yours is a ‘straw man’ argument that only “takes us away from the domain” of rational thought you are attempting to inject into evolutionist thinking.


    • I have never heard of “atheists fighting on behalf of evolution” other than as an exercise in applying labels by conservative media. Creationists yes, because religion and their specific brand of creation is their driving force. Most “evolutionists” are religious. Religion is quite common and it doesn’t prevent science, or reality, from occurring. 🙂 Lots of people protest the watering down of science education with non-science and their’s is a positive push for acceptance of science fact – the fact that they have red hair, short legs or don’t believe in certain things is beside the point.


      • Nicholas, have you never heard of the ACLU? Perhaps you have never heard of atheists fighting for evolution because they haven’t had to since it is now enshrined in science education in the US. But, that wasn’t always so even well into the second half of the 20th Century. Lawyers have indeed been involved using the First Amendment/government spending argument to squelch any mention of religious belief juxtaposed against the theory of evolution. As for the theory, if it is truly fact as Paul suggests, it has had quite a record of evolving over the last century. Facts don’t change, but the theory has. I’m not arguing for creation here; just suggesting that if one is going to claim some knowledge of what happened over the last million years or so, it would be advisable to reflect some knowledge of the last hundred. Your last sentence echoes what the President of Harvard Medical School said in explaining why evolution has no place in their curriculum.


      • [deleted to avoid tedium]


      • Well I have to reply…but briefly.

        Teddy: Yes I have heard of the ACLU they are long established defender of freedoms. That includes religious freedoms. For some reason they are often thought of as an “atheist” or “anti-religious” organisation by some people in the US, conservatives mainly. This is plainly nonsense but has annoyed enough people that there even web sites set up listing all the cases where the ACLU have acted in defense of the religious and religious liberty. So clearly you do not know what you are talking about if you are suggesting they are an example of “atheists defending evolution”, especially as evolution is one specific area of science that has nothing to do with religion itself.

        Evolution is “enshrined” in education, because it is current factual science, just as maths is. If you want American children to get the best education, that is a good thing.

        but this ” if it is truly fact as Paul suggests, it has had quite a record of evolving over the last century” shows a very poor understanding of science and the scientific process. So much so that there is no point in even going into it, I suggest you read some elementary books or even start with wikipedia and read up on science generally and evolution specifically.


      • Ok. 2 each (+ Nicholas’ technical self-correction) is enough. It should be clear where my own sympathies lie, and why. I’ve deleted my own reply to Teddy as superfluous.


      • please correct where i suggested Math(s) is a current science – i am sure you knew what i meant 🙂 Geology may be a good replacement as a specific area of science


  9. I am (finally) reading a book about Charles Darwin. I like to know about people, and choose not to vilify, whether I agree with them or not. However, I will say that I do not understand why a Christian would say, “I do not believe in evolution;” yet, some do. Perhaps it comes from a fear of getting in an area where folks like Hawkings live. (Of course, he is in many ways amazing. I am not qualified to define him, but I do resent some of his comments.)

    During the fifties, much was being said about Darwin, and I supposed that those great men of much learning had solid reasoning behind their seeming distress of such “disrespect for God Almighty.” Well, silly me. Now, being more mature, I suppose, I prefer to learn, and argue only with those who can speak without hate or blasphemy. Whether about religion, politics, or war, I have definite opinions, but these opinions probably reflect in a way my lever of learning, and I realize this, but I also realize that just as Darwin did not use the word Evolution, the Christian Bible does not use the word Creationism, and uses the word (KJB) only three times.

    As of yesterday, I was given a book claiming that Hitler was an evolutionist, thus a racist. Well, this is news to me, and is what brought me to this site. Maybe, I am feeling some protection toward Darwin, and perhaps “Darwin’s Plantation,” by Ham & Ware will induce me to learn more, instead of just irritating me. None of us should be afraid of knowledge, but please use caution when attempting to strip one of his/her beliefs. If you truly believe that our Creator is simply a crutch, then why are you using such disdain to knock it down. I love science, and Spinoza is my favorite philosopher. His writings are rather difficult, but he was a good man. Can we be as much so? Let’s find a way to bridge the huge gap that is making us so unlovely. Darwin, God, nor Huxley are not our biggest problems. Lack of respect is.


    • Hitler was a CREATIONIST, and let’s make sure that everybody knows it. (He was also a self-proclaimed Christian, and advocate of Faith Schools)

      Hitler’s Table Talk, July 25, l942: ‘From where do we get the right to believe, that from the very beginning Man was not what he is today? Looking at Nature tells us, that in the realm of plants and animals changes and developments happen. But nowhere inside a kind shows such a development as the breadth of the jump, as Man must supposedly have made, if he has developed from an ape-like state to what he is today.’

      See also: for multiple religious statements by AH, including this gem:

      “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith.” (Wikipedia AH religious views)


      • Hitler also wrote that nazism was based on science and could notnco-exist with religion. His speeches that spoke of an Almighty were included because he lacked fortitude at that time to do away with it. He needed people to think of nazism as a religion and himself God. Im quite sure that he would have enacted the destruction of all opposing belief eventually.


  10. Nicely put. Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ goes to great length to explain the various meanings of theory. In common use it means hypothesis but not in a scientific sense.


  11. What this comment shows is the piece being translated into Arabic by the Iraqi Translation Project, of which more later. I can only express my admiration for those involved in such a project under such difficult circumstances


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