Life Science Blog

Darwin’s Rottweiler and Dawkins’s Dogma

Is evolution a theory or fact?

October 22, 2009

Some call him Darwin’s Rottweiler. A man of slight build, wispy silver hair and round spectacles, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins did not earn the fierce nickname for his appearance. He earned it for his vigorous advocacy of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as indisputable scientific fact.

“We have a war on our hands,” the best-selling author said with characteristic conviction, to open his recent speech at the New York Academy of Sciences. A crowd of about 200 eagerly listened to a chapter-by-chapter description of his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution—a book Dawkins hopes will arm the defenders of evolution against those who claim it’s “only a theory.”

The question of whether evolution is a theory or fact is not a mere semantics game. It’s so important to the public, to scientists and to Dawkins himself, that it dominates the first chapter of The Greatest Show on Earth. To emphasize evolution’s certainty, Dawkins’s new book even suggests borrowing the word ‘theorem’ from mathematics—meaning a proven statement—and changing its spelling to ‘theorum,’ thus christening evolution anew.

During the question and answer session at the Academy, a young man approached the microphone to ask Dawkins for his response to a New York Times review of his book. In the review, science reporter Nicholas Wade criticized Dawkins for stubbornly calling evolution a fact, arguing that evolution is—and can only be—a theory. “Because the word ‘theory’ is so wantonly misunderstood by lay people,” Dawkins answered the young man, “we are better off using a word that ordinary lay people actually understand”—the word ‘fact.’

Open just about any biology textbook and you will read the following: Evolution is both fact and theory. The fact of evolution is that populations of living things change over time, both in their genes and in their observable traits: this has been confirmed by countless observations in nature and experiments in the laboratory. The theory of evolution refers to scientific explanations of how exactly populations of organisms change over time. This is analogous to gravity as both fact and theory. The fact that objects with mass attract one another has always been true—apples have always fallen to the earth—but the explanations for this phenomenon, the theories of gravity provided by Galileo, Newton and Einstein, have changed throughout the history of science.

Richard Lenski—an evolutionary biologist at Michigan State University renowned for his ongoing evolution experiment with the bacterium E. coli—confirmed via e-mail that he thinks of evolution as both scientific theory and fact. However, Lenski also sees Dawkins’s point: “I think that Professor Dawkins seeks to emphasize the facts of evolution because so many non-scientists are confused about the difference between a robust, coherent, consistent, and well-supported scientific theory, like evolution, and the informal sense of a theory as some sort of hunch or even guess. So it’s a matter of the best way to educate people, and that depends on the audience. I agree with Professor Dawkins that scientists need to emphasize the ‘incontrovertible fact’ of evolution for many non-scientists.”

For many scientists, this lack of confidence in the common reader is justified. There is substantial evidence for an alarming level of scientific illiteracy in the world, particularly in the United States—a fact Dawkins loves to reiterate. “I shall be using the name ‘history-deniers’ for those people who deny evolution: who believe the world’s age is measured in thousands of years, and who believe humans walked with dinosaurs,” he writes in his new book. “To repeat, they constitute more than 40 percent of the American population.”

According to a 2009 Gallup poll, only 39 percent of Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution,” 25 percent confirm they do not believe in evolution, and 36 percent don’t have an opinion either way. Proponents of intelligent design—who assert that natural selection cannot explain the complexity of human beings and many other life forms—routinely slight evolution as a mere ‘theory’ despite overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrating it’s far far more than some hunch.

Acknowledging this widespread misunderstanding, are public intellectuals like Dawkins really justified in the construction of a deliberate oversimplification, a convenient white lie for all those “non-scientists” and “ordinary lay people” out there? Is it really so difficult to grasp that evolution could be both fact and theory?

There is a great paradox here. Dawkins—who recently retired as Oxford University’s Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science—has been consistently praised for communicating science to the public in lucid, engaging and intelligent prose. In a series of wildly popular books he has coined more useful and elaborate metaphors—like the selfish gene, extended phenotype and blind watchmaker—than perhaps any other living science writer. He is known for his insistence on writing about important and complex subjects to as large an audience as possible, refusing to dumb down his material.

Despite this, Dawkins is adamant that evolution should be taught as fact and not as theory because he fears too many readers are too ignorant and weak-minded to understand how evolution could be both a theory and fact. As he wrote in the 2005 issue of Natural History Magazine, “Evolution is as much a fact as the heat of the sun. It is not a theory, and for pity’s sake, let’s stop confusing the philosophically naive by calling it so. Evolution is a fact.”

About the Author

Ferris Jabr

Ferris Jabr has a Bachelors of Science from Tufts University and an MA in journalism from New York University. You can follow him on Twitter @ferrisjabr.



Luis Dias says:

A “Fact” is a theory as well. No “Facts” are absolutely true. All “Facts” are empirical facts, i.e., observation facts. Evolution is a fact, and this is no “white lie” or any of that idiotic crap I constantly read in newspapers (wonder why newspapers are dying?!?), it flows directly from the definitions of words.

Evolution is as “fact” as saying that the sun is up there in the sky, okay?

So, when will you retract this piece of garbage, and remake it to be a proper piece of journalism? Ah… yes, sometimes I fantasize too much.

Ferris Jabr says:

Hi Luis, thanks for commenting.
I agree that evolution is a fact. Evolution definitely happens: science has confirmed this in so many ways. I don’t personally think it’s at all reasonable to deny the fact(s) of evolution.
One of my larger points, though, is that evolution is both fact and theory, in the scientific sense. In the scientific sense, a theory is an explanation or framework – usually, as with evolution, a very well-established explanation/framework with lots and lots evidence that fits it very well.
I do not see why this concept is so difficult to grasp – it’s taught in most biology books at many high schools and colleges across the nation – and I think that Dawkins should take the time to explain it properly to his audiences, instead of assuming they are incapable of understanding.
There is definitely widespread apathy and misunderstanding, but I think certain aspects of Dawkins’s response to these problems – as discussed in the article – are not justified or helpful. Overall, however, he has immensely benefited public education on evolution as one of the most talented and respected living science writers.

palaeodave says:

This article makes me think that you hadn’t read any further than the first chapter when you wrote it. Dawkins certainly refers to both the fact and theory of evolution and makes the distinction between them quite clear.

blitz442 says:

Was this article poorly edited? You correctly note the difference between the fact of evolution (nonconstancy of populations and common descent)and the theory (the mechanisms of change). Since the subject matter of TGSOE the evidence that evolution has occurred, and not so much about the mechanisms, how then is Dawkins not justified in referring to evolution as a fact in this context? If he was referring to the entire theory of evolution, including the mechanisms, as a “fact”, then you would have a case. But I don’t see Dawkins doing this at all.

And then you have this strange comment: “Despite this, Dawkins is adamant that evolution should be taught as fact and not as theory because he fears too many readers are too ignorant and weak-minded to understand how evolution could be both a theory and fact.”

Where on Earth did Dawkins ever say that he fears his readers would be “too ignorant and weak-minded”? Why would he even bother writing a book if he thought that? Is this an actual statement from Dawkins or just something you made up?

John Mclean says:

I just wonder if Ferris Jabr actually knows the difference between Fact and Theory or does he have a cognitive bias when wrote this article. Richard Dawkins constantly refers to the word theorem, you must remember that when Darwin published his work there was little evidence to support it at the time, however in 150 years there is now a huge body of empirical support for evolution, so he refers to evolution as a theorem. It is blatently obvious that Ferris has not read this book and what he did digest he did not really understand. Thank rationalility that Darwin finnally does have a rotweiller since he has never been unable to defend himself since he decided to publish his work after his death. Darwin never claimed evolution to be fact, however as with all real science he left us something that could be falsified, and todays evidence would have surely made him like Dawkins also lose the use of the word theory in his language. It is also worth mentioning that the earth is not truly round or a sphere but a pretty close to it, therefore is this theory still a theory. When comparing contrasting theories for the beginnings of life one theory is still very flat whilst the other is pretty close to being round.

pastor Hugges says:

Evolution did not happen. there are no facts to prove that it did. ONLY ASSUMPTIONS. such as the big bang theory, how did it happen if all the planets have different chemical make up and they all came from the same thing? there are no facts to prove that creation happened but there are most definitly no factts to prove evolution.

Regina says:

Free knowledge like this doesn’t just help, it promote decyoracm. Thank you.

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