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”. 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. 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.
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!
 To obtain a copy of Science and Creationism, go to their web page
 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.
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.