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A President of the United States Must Acknowledge Evolution as Scientific Fact

2011 August 22

In the 152 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, there have been veritable mountains of evidence supporting the claims therein. In addition to the fossil record that Darwin cites, modern science has witnessed the development of radiocarbon dating (which is used to mark with staggering precision the age of organic matter) and molecular biology (which has allowed for the careful examination and comparison of genetic structures within organisms), the three of which together have collaborated to produce an overwhelming and irrefutable mass of substantiating evidence. No other scientific explanation for the progress of organic life ever offered has approached the elegance of Darwin’s theory. As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has said, “Evolution is as much a fact as the heat of the sun.” Acceptance of evolution as the method by which life on earth has and is perpetuated is compulsory for every thinking mind on our planet. Yet doubt regarding this fundamental scientific truth still permeates not only our citizenry, but our elected government. This detail, demonstrated almost weekly on the campaign trail, is not only disappointing, it is dangerous.

Over the last few months, an array of Republican presidential candidates has confessed skepticism about one of science’s most well established facts. Texas Governor Rick Perry told a South Carolina supporter last Friday that “God is how we got here. God may have done it in the blink of the eye or he may have done it over this long period of time, I don’t know. But I know how it got started.” This came just one day after he told a woman and her child in New Hampshire,

How old do I think the earth is? You know what, I don’t have any idea. I know it’s pretty old so it goes back a long, long way. I’m not sure anybody actually knows completely and absolutely how long…how old the earth is. Your mom was asking about evolution and it’s a theory that’s out there. It’s got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both Creationism and evolution in our public schools, because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.

Let’s take this in parts.

How old do I think the earth is? You know what, I don’t have any idea. I know it’s pretty old so it goes back a long, long way.” Let us be thankful that the Governor does not write the textbooks that he so hesitantly distributes.

I’m not sure anybody actually knows completely and absolutely how long…how old the earth is.” We do, in fact, know the age of the earth. Any glance at a textbook or idle wandering through a museum will confirm that the earth is 4.54 billion years old. (“Pretty old,” indeed.)

“Your mom was asking about evolution and it’s a theory that’s out there.” This seems a bit of an understatement, does it not?

“It’s got some gaps in it.” I certainly hope the gaps the Governor is referring to are not gaps in the fossil record, because complaints about missing fossils have been exploded consistently and thoroughly by every evolutionary biologist who has written on the subject. Every fossil ever found has been discovered precisely where it would need to be were evolution a fact. I would challenge the Governor to produce any legitimate piece of fossil evidence that contradicts Darwin’s theory. Lest the Governor echo the tired moan that there is not enough fossil evidence, I repeat my suggestion that he visit any natural history museum at all.

“In Texas we teach both Creationism and evolution in our public schools, because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.” This, if true, would make the young man demonstrably smarter than Governor Perry, which should surprise no one.

Of course, Governor Perry follows from a long tradition of willful ignorance. The Governor’s opponent, Representative Michele Bachmann, blathered incompetently on the very same subject earlier this year. Following the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, Representative Bachmann told reporters:

I support intelligent design. What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to come down on one side of a scientific issue or another when there is reasonable doubt on both sides.

What Representative Bachmann fails to understand is that intelligent design is completely devoid of science. All science has been put on the table and literally every detail ever observed verifies Darwin’s theory of evolution. Evolution is not a “scientific issue,” it is a scientific fact, which has no “side” on which to “come down.” To claim that there is “reasonable doubt on both sides” is an outright falsehood.

In 2006, Representative Bachmann claimed that “there is a controversy among scientists about whether evolution is a fact… Hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel prizes, believe in intelligent design.” No such controversy exists, and when challenged to produce the name of any Nobel Prize laureate who believes in the argument from design, the Representative instead answered a question that no one asked.

Much of the confusion seems to come from a misunderstanding of the word “theory.” While “theory,” in the common sense, can refer to a speculation, a hypothesis or a conjecture, each of which requires no demonstrable evidence or testable predictions, in the scientific sense—in which the word is used in “the theory of evolution,” say—it refers to a hypothesis that makes testable predictions which have been verified by an overwhelming array of factual evidence. A theory in this sense is a hypothesis for which the truth has been so well demonstrated that it has no legitimate equal.

Some are further confused by the concept of a scientific “law,” imagining that if evolution were so thoroughly established that it would become “the law of evolution.” This is a misapprehension. Theories do not become laws. There is no direct progression between them. A law is a fact which describes a body of observations, such as Newton’s Law of Gravity. Newton observed an unerring truth and used his law to describe it. However, his law does not explain gravity. This is the work of a theory. While Newton’s Law describes gravity, we use Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to explain it. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity will never become Einstein’s Law of Relativity. This would have no significant meaning.

Critics repeat tediously that evolution is “just a theory,” which, I suppose, is meant to imply that theories and facts are mutually exclusive. The problem here is that the word “theory” is being used in the improper sense, rendering the whole idea meaningless. That evolution is a theory in no way precludes it from being a fact. Douglas Futuyma, an American biologist who has written textbooks on the subject, describes a fact this way: “A fact is a hypothesis that is so firmly supported by evidence that we assume it is true, and act as if it were true.” The National Academy of Sciences published a book about evolution, in which was written the following:

Scientists most often use the word “fact” to describe an observation. But scientists can also use fact to mean something that has been tested or observed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples. The occurrence of evolution in this sense is fact. Scientists no longer question whether descent with modification occurred because the evidence is so strong.

Let it be said again: Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is a fact.

Governor Perry and Representative Bachmann, among many others, have denied the undeniable. Such driveling nonsense might make for an amusing farce if it were not so pervasively dangerous. To disregard such an exhaustively demonstrated scientific fact as evolution reveals either a critical distrust of evidence in favor of baseless speculation, or a passionate insistence upon ignorance. Either of these qualities should immediately disqualify any candidate for the leadership of this or any country.

The President must routinely consider the advice of experts in various fields, from foreign policy to environmental policy to healthcare to economics to war. For the President to neglect the consensus of those respective advisors (consensuses which are rarely so immovable or factually substantiated as the consensus in the scientific community surrounding evolution) would be intolerable and grave. If the President of the United States can disregard a basic fact about the development of organic life in the face of literally mountainous corroborating evidence, how can we expect him or her to be able to reason soundly enough to effectively lead a country? Candidacy for the President of the United States must be conditional upon the ability to distinguish evidence from mythology, the appreciation of overwhelming expert opinion and, consequently, the acknowledgement of evolution as scientific fact.

 

One Response leave one →
  1. G Dersham permalink
    November 25, 2011

    Very well done. Dawkins would be proud; have you sent it to him?

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