Sahelanthropus, evolution, and the word “theory”; what Mike Pence really said

The now Vice-President of the United States stands accused of having said that evolution is “just a theory”; see here and here. No he did not say that. What he did say (full text below, with notes) was far, far worse. Much more detailed and much more dangerous.

L: Pence being sworn in as a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee (CNN)

After reminding us that he was trained in law and history, he mangles the historical facts and legal significance of a key court case (the Scopes trial).

By quotemining a secondary source,* which he treats as if primary, he twists the then-recent discovery of Sahelanthropus into an argument against the underlying science. It is changeable, he argues, therefore it is uncertain.

He justifies this manoeuvre by harping on the ambiguous word “theory”, and making a falsely rigid distinction between theory and fact.

Sahelanthropus tchadensis SmithsonianR: Sahelanthropus tchadensis, photo from Smithsonian Human Origins website

And worst of all, he asks his colleagues to “demand [emphasis added] that educators around America teach evolution not as fact, but as theory”. The proponent, when it suits him, of small Government wants Washington to tell teachers how to teach.

Pence has been accused of stupidity because of the factual and logical errors contained in his speech. On the contrary, the speech is a well-constructed piece of rhetoric directed at a specific intended audience. It skilfully deploys techniques of distortion, disinformation, and distraction to accomplish its goals; goals now crowned with personal success, and with the possibility of even greater personal success once Trump goes. To fail to recognise this is to remain in ignorance of some of the most powerful forces that have helped make the US what it is today.

Here is Pence’s speech in full (text in red), as it appeared in the Congressional Record under the heading “THEORY OF THE ORIGIN OF MAN”, with my own inserted comments:

Mr. PENCE. Mr. Speaker, I have always been interested in origins. Even though my training is in the law and in history, it has ever been an avocation of mine to contemplate and to study the origins of man and of life here on Earth.

Many theories of origins have been propounded throughout our Nation’s history. In 1859, a sincere biologist …

First Pence refers to his genuine academic credentials (he has a history degree from a private Liberal Arts college and a JD from Indiana University); then he establishes a claim to reasonableness by acknowledging Darwin’s sincerity and scientific status, while damning with faint praise

… returned from the Galapagos Islands and wrote a book entitled “The Origins [sic] of Species,” in which Charles Darwin offered a theory of the origin of species which we have come to know as evolution.

Voyage_of_the_Beagle-en.svgR: The voyage of the Beagle, 1831 – 1836, © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, FAL.

No, Darwin had not just “returned from” the Galapagos Islands; his visit was part of a five year round the world journey, after which he spent another two decades collecting further evidence and clarifying his ideas before going public. I do not believe that Pence is ignorant of this.

YoungDarwin L: Darwin 4 years after his return. Watercolour by George Richmond, 1840, via Wikipedia. Public domain

Charles Darwin never thought of evolution as anything other than a theory. He hoped that some day it would be proven by the fossil record but did not live to see that, nor have we.

Darwin repeatedly refers to “my theory”, but there is no doubt from his autobiography that from the outset he regarded it as essentially true. He did indeed famously lament the incompleteness of the fossil record, but within 4 years of the initial publication of On the Origin of Species, the most striking of all intermediate forms, Archaeopteryx, had been discovered and described, in time to be included in the 4th Edition.

Below, R: Archaeopteryx, the “Berlin specimen,” showing leg feathers later removed in cleaning (from Vogt, C. 1880. Archaeopteryx macrura, an Intermediate Form between Birds and Reptiles. Ibis 4:434-45) Public domain, via Wikipedia. The 1863 specimen, referred to by Darwin, can be seen in London’s Natural History Museum; the image is copyright but can be seen here.

Berlin arhaeopteryxI have discussed the complex pitfalls of the word “theory” elsewhere. Here I would simply point out that Pence in his use of the word has managed to combine two separate logical fallacies. He has imported the connotation of uncertainty that sometimes (not always) attaches to the word “theory”, thus assuming what he needs to prove, and has used this to bolster his dismissal of everything discovered in the past 150 years

In 1925 in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, this theory made its way through litigation into the classrooms of America,

No it didn’t! As I discussed in an earlier post, Scopes was found guilty of breaking the then law in Tennessee, and the scientific community’s wish to use this as a test case was frustrated when the Tennessee Appeals Court quashed the conviction on a technicality. The relevant act was not repealed until 1967, and the key court cases, (Epperson v Arkansas, McLean v Arkansas, Edwards v Aguillard, Kitzmiller v Dover) were even later. These cases established that creationism and Intelligent Design may not be taught in publicly funded schools in the US, because they lack scientific merit, so that the only reason for teaching them is religious, in violation of Church-State separation.

And we have all seen the consequences over the last 77 years: evolution not taught as a sincere theory of a biologist, but rather, Mr. Speaker, taught as fact.

Again, a false dichotomy hingeing on the ambiguity of the word “theory”. It is not possible to comment on the alleged consequences of teaching evolution as fact, since Pence does not tell us what particular consequences he has in mind.

Unless anyone listening in would doubt that, we can all see in our mind’s eye that grade school classroom that we all grew up in with the linear depiction of evolution just above the chalkboard. There is the monkey crawling on the grass. There is the Neanderthal dragging his knuckles and then there is Mel Gibson standing in all of his glory.

For what it’s worth, no one portrays Neanderthals (or modern monkeys, for that matter) as our ancestors.** In 2002 it was not yet known that they interbred with modern humans, but it had been known since 1975 that they were no mere knuckle draggers.

It is what we have been taught, that man proceeded and evolved along linear lines. But now comes a new find by paleontologists. In the newspapers all across America, a new study in “Nature” magazine, 6- to 7-million-year-old skull has been unearthed, the Toumai skull and it suggests that human evolution was actually, according to a new theory, human evolution was taking place, and I am quoting now, “all across Africa and the Earth,” and the Earth was once truly, and I quote, “a planet of the apes on which nature was experimenting with many human-like creatures.”

Paleontologists are excited about this, Mr. Speaker. But no one is pointing out that the textbooks will need to be changed because the old theory of evolution taught for 77 years in the classrooms of America as fact is suddenly replaced by a new theory, or I hasten to add, I am sure we will be told a new fact.

This is an example of a common denialist argument; the science has changed, therefore the science is unreliable. Pence is referring, as mentioned above, to the discovery of Sahelanthropus, who lived 6 to 7 million years ago, one of a number of recently described species intermediate between humans and pre-human apes. This added to the body of fossil evidence whose alleged inadequacy he had used earlier to attack evolution. But now Pence uses it to claim that the standard science is unreliable, like a witness who changes his story under cross-examination. The argument is actually a nasty double-bind. When the fossil record was sparse, evolution was unreliable for lack of supporting evidence. But when the missing evidence is unearthed, that very fact is used to claim that evolution is unreliable because the narrative has changed.

Note by the way that Pence speaks as if he is quoting Nature, when in fact he is quoting USA Today.*

The truth is it always was a theory, Mr. Speaker. And now that we have recognized evolution as a theory, I would simply and humbly ask, can we teach it as such and can we also consider teaching other theories of the origin of species? Like the theory that was believed in by every signer of the Declaration of Independence. Every signer of the Declaration of Independence believed that men and women were created and were endowed by that same Creator with certain unalienable rights. The Bible tells us that God created man in his own imagine, male and female. He created them. And I believe that, Mr. Speaker.

Nonsense. Pence is twisting the meaning of the word “created” in the Declaration of Independence to imply special creation (as if the Founders, or Pence himself for that matter, believed in a separate act of creation for each individual). How stupid!

No it isn’t. With the subtlety of a salesman posing a busty blonde on the bonnet of a sports car, Pence is establishing an emotional link from bible-based evolution denial to patriotism and the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In doing so, he is picking up on his claim to be a historian, and positioning himself, not as anti-intellectual, but as challenging the intellectual monopoly of the evolutionist elite. Clever stuff.

I believe that God created the known universe, the Earth and everything in it, including man. And I also believe that someday scientists will come to see that only the theory of intelligent design provides even a remotely rational explanation for the known universe. But until that day comes, and I have no fear of science, I believe that the more we study the science, the more the truth of faith will become apparent. I would just humbly ask as new theories of evolution find their ways into the newspapers and into the textbooks, let us demand that educators around America teach evolution not as fact, but as theory, and an interesting theory to boot.

Again, seeming reasonableness, damning science with faint praise, and confusion between the ongoing development of our theories of evolution, and the ever stronger evidence for evolution as historical fact. Pence was speaking when Intelligent Design was still news, and the humiliating court defeat of its scientific pretensions was still three years in the future.

But let us also bring into the minds of all of our children all of the theories about the unknowable that some bright day in the future through science and perhaps through faith we will find the truth from whence we come. [Ends]

What if anything does this last sentence signify? The only meaning I can find is that Pence is asking us to treat the Genesis account as if it were a scientific theory. And with total disregard for logic, he is discarding what we do actually know by calling it “unknowable”, and then sixteen words later is expressing the hope that, “perhaps through faith”, we will some day come to know it.

But, as I argued earlier, such rational analysis is beside the point. The purpose of the speech was to rally the evangelical Right behind him, and in this, as we have seen, he was completely successful.

So successful, as a commentator (“Professor Tertius”) has pointed out, that we may not have noticed the careful ambiguity that enables creationists across the spectrum, and even some guided evolutionists, to see him as one of theirs.

Never underestimate your opponent.

* The erratic link,, is to an article by Tim Friend, a journalism graduate, whose words are being quoted.

** Modern humans, as we now know, interbred with Neanderthals, so that (unless perhaps you come from some parts of Africa) you have Neanderthals among your ancestors. But this shows Neanderthals as a close sister species, not predecessors.

An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.


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 20, 2017, in Charles Darwin, Creationism, Darwin autobiography, Education, Fossil record, Politics, Religion and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. May I point out that to say that all men are created equal is to speak of individuals, not a population. To confuse what is true of individuals with what is true of the group is a variation of the fallacies of composition and division. Does one think that the scientific study of reproduction casts doubt on the belief that individuals are creatures of God?


    • Well put. But Pence doesn’t care; the connection he wants to estabish between “all men created equal” and creationism is emotional, not logical.


    • I think it is a very debatable point some individuals are far more gifted than others. Some with great intelligence others with a gift of good health. Our western society favours the intelligent they get the best jobs and lead the most fulfilling lives.


      • FWIW, “equal” does not mean equal in ability. It means equality, for example, in the right to pursue happiness, but does not claim equal ability to attain it.

        But this is getting off-topic, so I will close this sidebranch to the main discussion.


  2. The word theory is an unfortunate one and the general public interpret it to mean a set of ideas to explain something that are still open to debate. Concept is another misleader , the concept of alien life or the concept of gravity. Language is loose communicator and the scientist is saddled with it like it or not. Richard Dawkins explains this very carefully in The Blind Watchmaker and uses the word hypothesis for unproven scientific ideas. Lawyers are master’s of language they can wriggle out of almost anything, it’s their job but we need remember they are bias.
    Mr Pence makes his case by starting with denial and then proving he is correct. He does not want to believe evolution it upsets his mindset.
    It is disturbing to many who regard humans as special but science often disturbs us. When I saw my first live monkey in the zoo I sensed that this animal must be a near relative.


  3. Pence is far, far, far more dangerous than Trump.


  4. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    Vice Pence’s ideas are not worth a farthing let alone a ha’penny. (Sorry, this is a quarter or half penny to youngsters

    Liked by 1 person

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