Why evolution isn’t “true”

How many people in the US, do you suppose, believe in evolution? According to a survey reported in The New Scientist in 2006, a high percentage don’t. Another survey carried out here, indicated that 50% of us Brits don’t either.

If only, as Ian Stewart reminded us in the 2009 Lunar Society Annual Lecture, it were zero percent who believed in evolution!

For the theory of evolution is not a belief system. I was reminded of this when following one of John Brockman’s tweets (@edge) to the hugely enjoyable series of brickbats between Jerry Coyne (who’s written the book Why Evolution is True) and Massimo Pigiliucci.

The debate is important, even without the engaging vitriol and neat turn of phrase (very neat in Jerry Coyne’s case). Not because there’s a right or a wrong, and right must win. Nor because one party is telling a “truth” and the other lying and the “truth” must out. But because out of such debate we may see that it’s inappropriate as well as unproductive to see “science downgraded to just another belief system”. (I’m quoting from Keith Richards’ Introduction to The New Optimists.)

It’s a pity Jerry Coyne used the word ‘true’ in the title of his book; evolution is no more ‘true’ that the incidence of webbed toes in my family (a Mendelian explanation fits the evidence there) or the ‘look’ of my great-grandmama playing hit and miss across the faces in the family album (no-one, not even the finest of scientists, has a clue as to how).

Let me quote further from Keith’s Introduction, and note the warning inherent in these words:

There are shifts in mood, attitude and policy that are drawing science into new alignments which may have profound consequences for all of us, and in the public arena the sound of something different and altogether more worrying: a disturbing categorisation of science and religion as alternative belief systems. This first surfaced in the protests of creationists but is currently most strident in the climate debate, where words like religion, agnostic and believer are bandied about. If we are not to be misled by such talk, there has never been a more important time to listen to the voice of science and the ideal that it represents.

As the contributions in this collection demonstrate, scientists have different views about issues related to global warming, as they have different views of most things. But what they all agree on, what they are committed to, is doing science. For them, it’s not a question of whether or not they happen to believe in their findings – it’s whether they got the science right.

That’s not how most people see science. Science, as any daily newspaper will tell you, is about discoveries, facts, finding the truth and changing the world. For professional scientists, living down the wilful distortions and extravagant promises made on their behalf by the popular press is an occupational necessity, but seeing science downgraded to just another belief system is harder to swallow. Scientists, like the rest of us, have plenty of beliefs, but the pursuit of science does not allow the luxury of indulging them at the expense of proper procedure.

Watching Juliet Coates take us around her lab, catching the enthusiasm she has for her work and its importance in furthering our understanding of plant life seems far removed from the arguments about creationism that are hurled at scientists working in the States. Nonetheless, whether in the States or in Timbuctoo, evolution is no more “true” than belief in fairies or (Terry Pratchett’s) small gods. There is, however, infinitely more evidence for the former.

2 responses to “Why evolution isn’t “true””

  1. […] important ideas echo what I said in a blogpost last summer Why evolution isn’t true. Here I quoted from Keith Richards’ brilliant Introduction to The New Optimists where he […]

  2. […] or preventing serious illness — debate informed by evidence, not by hunch, by  intuition or by belief, however weird, wonderful or […]

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