C Rulon: Is Evolution a Fact?

By | May 3, 2011

By Charles Rulon
Emeritus, Life Sciences
Long Beach City College

The following Q&A evolved from numerous questions raised by my students over the years.

Q. My pastor told us that evolution is a weak theory on the verge of collapse. Is this true?

No. Evolution’s funda­mental prin­ciple—the shared ancestry of living organisms—has over­come all scientific challenges. It has been scien­tifically settled for over a century. We really are related by common ancestry to gorillas, kangaroos and starfish. The National Acad­emy of Sciences in its sec­ond edition of the booklet Sci­ence and Creat­ion­ism even stated that our evo­lu­tion is consid­ered a “fact” by scien­tists the world over be­cause the “evi­dence in support of evolution is so strong that scientists no longer question whe­­ther or not it took place”.[1] Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, as usual put it bluntly:

“Evolution is not a theory, and for pity’s sake let’s stop confusing the philo­sophically naive by calling it so. Evolution is a fact.”

Hundreds of thousands of dated fossils, including tens of thousands of transition­al forms found in museums around the world, have clearly demonstrate the evol­u­tion of major types of organisms (including us) from earlier forms. Strong evidence for our evolution also converges from the fields of genet­ics, molec­ular biology, embryology, com­par­a­tive anatomy, comparative phy­si­ology, tax­on­omy and biogeo­graphy. In fact, few, if any, scienti­fic con­cepts in the last 150 years has been more exten­sively tested and more thor­ough­ly cor­robo­rated than our evolution over the last several billion years.

Today almost every major sci­en­­tific organi­­za­tion in this country and throughout the world has published statements support­ing its reality.[2] In addition, over two dozen top scien­­tific orga­­ni­­­­za­tions have pub­lished state­­ments support­ing the use of evolution in biology class­rooms as the “mega-theme” upon which an under­­stand­ing of the life scien­ces must hang. The National Science Edu­ca­tion Stand­ards even specifies that evo­l­u­tion is to be taught as a fundamen­tal, basic concept in science in grades 9 through 12.[3]

Q. Still, aren’t there many unanswered questions surrounding evolution?

Of course. Since biological evolution spans billions of years, with hundreds of millions of different species having evolved and then mostly going extinct, questions will always remain regarding specific evolutionary mechanisms, the speed of evolution and exactly what evolved from what. But one thing essentially all scientists doing real science agree upon is the fact of evolution itself.

Q. Are you saying that you, personally, have no leaps of faith when it comes to evolu­tion?

Right, unless you would consider it a leap of faith that:

—Our planet really does exist about which scien­tists are able to obtain reliable know­­ledge.

—Hundreds of thousand of scien­tists over the past 150 years and across the globe have not been perpetrating a gigantic hoax.

—Some supernatural entity didn’t plant all of the mountains of evi­dence for evolution down to the very last detail.

Remember, the scien­ti­fic method has proved it­self over and over again to be the most power­ful tool we’ve ever dis­cov­er­ed for under­standing how our world works—not the way we might want things to work, but the way things actually seem to work.

Q. So scientists absolutely know that we evolved?

Philosophers debate the meaning of the word, absolute, and whether or not the abso­lute truth about anything can ever be known. Per­haps there are no absolutes in sci­ence, only varying degrees of probability. How­ever, for any number of scien­tific theories this level of certainty is very high. There are laws and mega-theories of physics for which no excep­tions have ever been found. Today there is no doubt that the earth goes around the sun, that germs cause a variety of dis­eases, and that all life on earth evolved. The fact that jet airplanes, satellites, computers and cell phones work so well attests to the strength of the scientific method and of relevant scientific theories.

But all scientific theo­ries (unlike re­li­g­ious dogmas) are con­stantly open to the possi­bility of modification, even rejec­tion in light of new evi­dence. Even incre­d­i­bly well-docu­mented theories could conceivably become part of (or give way to) even more grand theo­ries not even imagin­able at this time. Evolution is not some kind of religious dogma for me that I’m clinging to like millions of Americans cling to the totally dis­proved Genesis crea­tion­ myth.

Q. Is natural selection also a fact?

No. But natural selection, as the primary (but not only) mechanism driving evolution, is considered a very strong theory. It’s a mind­less automatic process where the constant appearance of random genetic variety is followed by fitter organisms surviving and reproducing, while the less fit are weeded out. That’s it. No evidence of an Intelli­gent Designer directing the process; no evidence of superb planning. In the extremely unlikely event that natural selection was ever to be re­plac­ed, evolution would still stand. All of the fossil and non-fossil evidence would still exist.

Q. Couldn’t Darwin have been biased by his athe­ism?

As a youth Darwin firmly be­lieved the Bible to be the in­spired word of God and spent three years at Cambridge preparing for ordina­tion as a clergy­man. Yet, through his prolonged study of nature it slow­ly became apparent to him that his creation­ist beliefs were false. In the last half of his life, Darwin was probably an agnostic, not an atheist. However, even if Darwin had consciously or unconsciously twist­ed the data to fit some atheistic ideology, other research­ers would have eventually caught his fabri­cations and correct­ed them. This is how science works.

Q. How can evo­lu­tion be scientific since it hap­pened only once and no one saw it? It’s not reproducible.

How do we know about any­thing that has hap­pened in the past? Because evi­dence is left be­hind. The scientific fields of astron­omy, his­tori­cal geo­logy, ar­chae­ology, paleontology and physi­cal anthro­po­logy all rely on the col­lect­ed evidence of events that happened only once and were never di­rectly seen by humans.

Regarding evo­lution, scientists have evi­dence from many differ­ent scien­tific fields. There are mil­lions of fos­sils. There is abundant molec­u­lar and ge­netic evidence. There is consid­erable evidence from compara­tive anatomy and from biogeo­graphy. If all this data is collect­ed in a scien­tifi­c man­ner and if the theory which explains this data also makes new and pre­cise predic­tions which can be checked out, then the theory (in this case, evo­lu­tion) is defi­nitely scien­tific.

Besides, much of the evidence for evolution is re­pro­ducible in that other paleon­tolo­gists can go into the same geolog­i­cal areas and dis­cover similar fos­sils. The ages and authen­­tic­ity of these fossils can be dou­ble-checked by inde­pendent labs. In thou­sands of instan­ces, rocks have been dated by two or more different ra­dioactive clocks and the ages deter­mined have been in good agree­ment.

Remember also, no one has ever seen radio waves, X-rays or electrons. But we’re quite sure they exist be­cause we see the evi­dence of their reality when we turn on the radio, study an X-ray film, or correctly pre­dict the operation of electrical de­vices. And if a murder suspect left his finger­prints on the murder weapon, the vic­tim’s blood is under the sus­pect’s finger­nails and there’s a strong motive, it’s usu­ally an open and shut case even though no one actually saw the murder. Con­versely, millions of people claim to have seen things which have never been found to exist at all, like ghosts and space aliens.

Some final thoughts

Today, the mega-theme of biological evolu­t­ion is securely tied by literally thou­sands of lines of evidence anchor­­ing it to virtually every other area of human know­ledge. Thus it would appear to be the height of scientific ignor­ance, stub­born­ness and/or religious blindness to reject evolu­tion just because it sounds too impossible, or because it’s personally dis­taste­­ful, or because it conflicts with a literal read­ing of one specific ancient creation story. One might just as well reject gravity.

But that is what has happened. Today, tens of millions of Americans (including mem­bers of Congress, at least two U.S. Supreme Court Justices and one-third of all high school biology teachers) are convinced that evolution is a spiritually bankrupt speculative philoso­phy, not a sci­entific fact—that only an atheist could ever believe this Satanic idea—that Christ didn’t die to save some evolved monkeys!

[1] To obtain a copy of Science and Creation­ism, go to their web page .

[2] This list includes the National Academy of Sciences, the American Astro­nomi­cal Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Science Teachers’ Association, the American Geophysical Union, the Paleontological Society, the National Associ­ation of Geoscience Teachers, the Association of American State Geo­lo­­gists, the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, the Geological Society of America, the American Chemical Society, the Botanical Society of America and the American Association of Physics Teachers.

[3]As a reflection of this certainty and its impor­tance, the California Depart­ment of Edu­cation man­dated back in 1990 that, as of 1992, biological evolu­tion was to be included as one of six basic science themes for all the high schools in Cali­fornia. Their publication, “The Science Framework for Cali­fornia Public Schools K-12″ (1990) referred to bio­log­ical evolu­tion as a fact and natural selection as a theory (p. 134). There has been contin­uous strong religious pressure to have this mandate watered down.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *