Not just in Kansas, Anymore....

Richard Pyle deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG
Sun Jul 29 17:55:53 CDT 2001

I want to start by thanking everyone for their most helpful feedback, both
on this list, and via private messages.  All opinions (both positive and
negative) were taken into serious consideration as we prepared our final
draft testimony.

I have combined my responses to several postings within this one message, so
as not to exceed the daily 4-message limit (and not clutter your inboxes!).

Mary Barkworth wrote:

> I learned of the THEORY of gravitation, the THEORY of relativity.  I see
> no problem about talking about the THEORY of evolution. Being a theory
> does not imply that it is not reliable. I hope that aircraft designer
> are familiar with the theory of gravitation (not to mention a few
> others).  I am really bothered with the concept of teaching evolution as
> fact.  Please note that I mention it as a theory in the same context as
> the theory of gravity.

Yes, this is exactly the sort of red flag that I was hoping would be
discussed.  Our sentiments in our draft testimony about the distinction
between evolution as "fact", vs. evolution as "theory" are based is part of
the comments of Douglas Futuyma, in his book "Science on Trial".  The very
first sentence of the original preface reads:

"Evolution has, by now, the status of fact."

He eleborates on his reasoning for this in greater detail in Chapter 9:
Scientific Knowledge.  I'd be happy to forward quoted exerpts to anyone who
is interested.

Mary later wrote:

> The fact is that the apricot falls. The theory of gravity offers an
> explanation of why it falls.
> The falling of the apricot is one of many facts that led Newton to come
> up with a general theory to explain why things fall (and a few other
> things as well).
> Biological organisms differ.  The theory of evolution offers an
> explanation of why they differ.  The explanation involves mutation and
> natural selection, not just natural selection. It has been found to have
> great predictive power and explanatory power.

We quickly realized that the issue of whether Evolution represents "fact" or
"theory" ultimately boils down to what you mean by the term "Evolution".
The word literally translates to "change", and my understanding is that
population genetecists define it as changes in gene frequencies with
reproductive populations over multiple generations.  In this sense, I
believe it is safe to say that "Evolution" is, indeed, a "fact".  Futuyma
goes further to say that the notion that different populations/species of
organisms have descended from common ancestry also falls within the scope of
the "fact" of evolution.  My understanding of the word "theory" is that is
offers an "explanation", or describes a "mechanism".  In this sense, the
leading "theory" of evolution is that of natural selection (along with
genetic drift, and various subsets of natural selection, such as sexual
selection, etc.).

> The developmental sequence of change is probably theory in my book; the
> differences between the organisms would be facts.

Here's how I would put it:

That a rock falls toward the Earth, is a fact.  "Gravity" is a word used to
refer to this fact. Newton and Einstein have proposed theories to account
for and explain the observed fact of gravity.

That populations of organisms change over multiple generations, is a fact.
"Evolution" is a word used to refer to this fact. Lamarck, Wallace, and
Darwin have proposed theories to account for and explain the observed fact
of evolution.

Ron Gatrelle wrote:

> The word theory simply acknowledges that something, some factor,  might
> (could) be discovered or come into play later that would alter the present
> facts.

In this sense, would you agree that the Copernican heliocentric solar system
is a theory?

Ken Kinman wrote:

>      However, I'm not sure it such a good idea to state that
> evolution is a
> fact.  A good sophist can too easily take such a statement and
> turn it into
> a narrow semantic debate, and then all your other points can get
> lost in the
> shuffle.
>      I think it might be a little better to say something to the
> effect that
> the Theory of Evolution, like the Theory of Gravity, is overwhelmingly
> factual, so much so that they are widely regarded as natural "Laws".

Yes, indeed - this reflects a common sentiment among those who responded to
our draft testimony. Many agreed with the Futuyma perspecive of evolution as
"fact", but only as a point between and among scientists. There are really
two different questions:

1) Whether the scientific community regards evolution as a "fact"; and
2) Whether the presentation of evolution as fact to a lay audience strikes a
ressonant, or dissonant chord; and whether it serves as a politically
tactful, or counterproductive approach to resolving the creation vs.
evolution dispute in a public forum.

My feeling tends to be that the answer to number 1 is a solid "yes", but my
feeling about number 2 is a wishy-washy "probably not".  Thus, we have
revised our testimony accordingly. We didn't do this without reluctance,
however.  I find it disturbing that Geologists can agree amongst themselves
that it is a "fact" that the Earth is greater than 6,000 years old, and say
so publicly without political concern; yet we biologists need to "tone down"
the public explanations of our field of research for political reasons.
Nevertheless, the pragmatist in me is more concerned with nipping this
political issue in the bud, than the scientific purist in me is in making a
point regarding an ethical we have conceded in our testimony

Once again, many thanks to everyone for their most helpful suggestions.  I
am still happy to send the final draft of our testimony to anyone who is
interested, and there is still time before the public hearings to modify our
oral testimony - so please keep the comments (private or public) coming!

Much Aloha,

Richard L. Pyle
Ichthyology, Bishop Museum
1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
email: deepreef at
"The views expressed are the author's, and not necessarily those of Bishop

More information about the Taxacom mailing list