It’s just a theory…

In the recent Republican debates, three of the Republican candidates raised their hands when asked if any of the candidates did not believe in evolution. In the ensuing media attention to this, more than once I heard the old canard “It’s not a law, it’s just a theory.”

Why do I say this is a canard? Because it shows a profound mis-understanding of scientific terminology, a misunderstanding that the opponents of evolution deliberately encourage.

Just what is a scientific law and how does it differ from a scientific theory? A scientific law is an observation about the behavior objects in the physical world. Newton formulated the law of gravity. He observed how objects attracted each other and was able to deduce formulas that quantitatively described how they interact. This is actually a very weak assertion. What a physical law says is that we have seen a particular behavior and have not seen any exceptions, so we guess that it always holds and we probably can use the law to predict future behavior.

A scientific theory, on the other hand, is an attempt to understand why and how a particular behavior occurs. Thus we have a single “law of gravity” but many “theories of gravitation”. Once a phenomena is understood and explained, then we can make much stronger
assertions about the future behavior regarding that phenomena.

The only reason that we do not have a “law of evolution” is that evolution is more subtle and
happens over a longer time frame than most phenomena that have laws associated with them. Because of this, the law and the theory came simultaneously, and since a theory is the stronger claim, we now have a theory of evolution rather than a law of evolution.

In truth, now that we know where to look, evolution can be observed in action. New species have formed, existing species have changed. As the then-not-yet-famous Dr. Richard Dawkins said, “we have stronger evidence for the existence of evolution than we have for the existence of Julius Caesar.”

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by tim on June 20, 2007 at 10:54 am

    Ron Paul is the only Republican worth considering. It is nice to see the “Barry Goldwater / Libertarian” wing of the party trying to get rid of the neocon trash.
    I don’t agree with everything he says but if I agree with everything anyone says then I’m not thinking hard enough for myself.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Joseph Villa on June 21, 2007 at 5:56 am

    Evolution is an idea of how things came to be. We don’t know, because we weren’t there.

    People choose what ideologies to follow. Some choose Christianity if it fits them, some choose Islam, and some choose the idea that some how we came from nothing. As a guy who believes there is a God, I believe that religion is an idea, just as evolution is an idea, just as global warming is an idea. There is some proof on all ends of the debate, but whether it’s true or not.. who knows? Our technology is still not even close to being advanced. Hell, we cant even send the space shuttle to space without the possibility of it blowing up!

    The major hole that I feel is in the evolution argument is that animals act on instinct and humans act upon individual thought. If this was something that evolved into all animals, than it would be a little less special. But we as humans have the ability to think and act not based on purely instinctive thoughts but with compassion and detailed intentions. That is the difference and why no matter how many times i’m shown a monkey using a stick to pull out ants or a bear playing with a ball, it won’t hold a candle to the kinds of ingenuity and innovation brought by humankind in its very short existence.

    Oh and I happen to like Fred Thompson, if anyone was wondering.

    Reply

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