New Poll Says 40% Don’t Believe In Evolution. So What.

Who would've believed it?
Who would’ve believed it?
How many Americans know how an internal combustion engine works? There’s no numbers, but saying “Maybe half, perhaps more” doesn’t feel wrong, does it? Test it yourself by asking your friends and neighbors next time they start the car, “What makes this thing go?”

Aspirin: how many know how it works? Surely not more than ten-percent. Maybe slightly more can tell you what a CPU does. Maybe fewer know their cell phones were actually radios; even fewer would understand how radio waves propagated.

That’s just the practical side of things. Ask anybody to explain the special theory of relativity, or gravity, or to define a quark, or what valency is, or what the indefinite integral of exp(x) dx is, or what happens at a synapse, or even what a synapse is, or how thunder is produced, or the difference between fission and fusion, or…

Skip it. You get the idea. No more than a fraction know these things, and probably no more than a fraction ever will. This is a matter of only small lamentation to anybody who understands that human beings are vastly more interested in their own daily lives than in the dry abstractions that are anyway “handled” for them by a small all-volunteer army of geeks and scientists.

Now, how many people understand evolution? Got to be somewhere near the levels for these other things. But who cares whether people understand evolution—its mechanisms, theoretical constructs, limitations—when what is really interesting is how many people believe in evolution.

Everybody believes in the powers of aspirin and gravity, even if they don’t understand them. But how many people believe in string theory or believe in the energy landscape theory of protein folding? Not only do many not believe in these things, they don’t give a damn one way or the other. To which most of would say, bowing to the inevitable limitations of human intelligence, so what.

But evolution is different. Here belief is mandatory, the very mark of civilization. Understanding is beside the point. Ye must have faith, and public faith at that.

Thus there was much routine hand-wringing over the new survey by Pew research (never minding their ambiguous questions) where it was revealed only about three out five adults “believe” in evolution.

This isn’t much of a change from the last such survey, but there was an increasing divide between those who self-identify as Republicans and Democrats, such that fewer Republicans than before say they do not “believe.”

Proselytizing atheists are keen on evolution not for the sake of scientific knowledge—if they were then they would moan and groan just as loudly that the populace doesn’t understand protein folding or how to define inertia. The demand belief because it is their contention that evolution does away with God and religious explanations of the role of mankind. To a PA, to say you believe in evolution is equivalent to saying you disbelieve in God.

This is absurd. And false. And silly, especially considering PAs think they are more rational-than-thou. It is perfectly possible to be an orthodox, doctrine-loving, politically incorrect Christian and “believe” in, and even understand. evolution, as is the case with, for example, Catholics and some mainline protesting Christians. Evolution in no way dispenses with God. No science (defined as investigation of the contingent) ever can.

But you have to hand it to the proselytizing atheists. They managed to goad a small segment of protesting Christians (mostly evangelicals) into agreeing that if evolution is true then God is defunct. The PAs created so big a stink that many Christians were tricked into putting more emphasis than they otherwise would have on certain peripheral views, like the harmless but false proposition that the earth is only six-thousand-years old.

People have many false but harmless beliefs. Why is it so important to correct beliefs about evolution above all others? Obviously, because of the PA’s false belief that evolution eliminates (or, worse, “explains”) God. Evangelicals are half the problem, though. Even if they don’t believe evolution, politically they ought to say they do. This would demoralize all but the most blowhardy of the PAs. Meanwhile, evangelicals should adopt a for-the-sake-of-debate posture and argue (correctly) that evolution does not preclude God. Heck, they might even win a few converts from the PAs once the PAs realize they’ve been spouting nonsense.

The evolution wars haven’t been all bad. Evangelicals have been a blessing to evolution. If it weren’t for evangelicals’ sharp and in many cases accurate criticisms, PA scientists would have become fat and happy with some egregious errors. Much as the evolutionary psychologists have become. Belief in flying spaghetti monsters is more rational than embracing some of the preposterous propositions they cherish.


  1. A big part of the problem is the forced choice of a survey question. That is, asking people to answer a question that they may never have considered in any depth. The other part is that many people dislike the natural selection explanation of evolution more than the mere observation of it and this is the question that they are really answering. It has always been my observation that you have to ask a question at least three times, slightly altered each time, before you get a useful answer, even for trivial questions. The first time only gets their attention and not their understanding. That said it also may be that evolution is a topic that engenders strong opinions in the majority of people and thus your objections are misplaced.

    I find it difficult to give credence to your last paragraph without specific examples. After all the field of solid state physics, to give one example, has made tremendous advances without sharp and accurate criticisms from evangelicals.

  2. Briggs,

    “Only atheists and fundamentalists read the Bible literally.” Hmmm.

    Lets’ rewrite that assertion: Only fundamentalist statisticians read the definition a P-values literally.

    All others, of course, simply bend it to fit their statistical worldview, so to speak.

    The use of the term “fundamentalist” above is in the form of a question-begging epithet — ’cause no one wants to be termed a “fundamentalist.” But at its root, fundamentalism is all that is left once relativism is set aside as unconscionable.

  3. note: Since being termed a fundamentalist is repugnant to many, I tried to hide my grammar fundamentalism by substituting ‘a’ for ‘of’ before the term P-valuse in my post above :)’smiley face’

  4. Yes, it’s true as you say that not many folks can explain how a car works.

    That said, very few people would claim that a car is powered by an invisible male being who bends the laws of physics to make it all happen.

    However, 40% or so of the American public give that very same explanation for the history of life on earth.

    They say it was done by an invisible male being who bent the laws of physics to make it all happen. Not only that, they claim that the invisible guy listens to every single word they say, and that the Ruler Of The Universe (as they style him) might even bend the laws of physics for them if they ask in the right way. And with a pure heart.

    As such, your attempt to equate not understanding how a car works with Christian creationism theology is … well … let me call it a false equivalence, and leave it there. When someone doesn’t understand how a car works, they say “I don’t know”. They don’t claim Divine intervention.


  5. Pollster: “Do you believe in Evolution?”

    Pollee: “Define evolution.”

    Pollster: “I’ll take that as a no.”

  6. Scotian, great points on the problems with survey questions.


    Sorry, Willis, but you are projecting quite a bit there. Sure, there are some people who reflexively reject anything that comes under the heading of “evolution,” but there are many legitimate scientific issues with evolution (broadly defined), that don’t have anything to do with prayers or bending the laws of physics.


    One big problem with surveys like this (and with many debates on the subject) is pinning down exactly what is meant by “evolution” and precisely how it is supposed to work. There are many claims coming under the heading of evolution, ranging from the obvious and well-supported to the outrageous and wildly-speculative. And, ironically, the more important and more sweeping the claim, the less detailed and less supported is the explanation.

    After years of involved study and debate, I have found what I have put into a simple maxim:

    “The perception of evolution’s explanatory power is inversely proportional to the specificity of the discussion.”

  7. Eric: I agree with you that what is meant by evolution needs to be clearly stated. Many times I am corrected if I say evolution says where we came from. Many people apparently don’t consider evolution to explain our origin, they only believe the natural selection part.

    Willis: So a “big bang” is so much more rational? Yeah……It’s fallacious to believe that because someone points out the holes in these theories that the only alternative is that they are a creationist. “I don’t where the universe came from” is perfectly acceptable.

  8. Here’s my take.
    Evolution is a fact based on years of geological study.
    The mechanism is the theory of Darwin. Many people state that evolution is “just” a theory without distinguishing between the two. We also know that Darwin’s theory is incomplete due to a lack of knowledge of genetics in his day.
    Also, Sheri, no one states they know where the universe came from, just how it started which is the Big Bang theory.

  9. Evolution is NOT a fact. It is a theory that is constantly changing. Cold blooded dinosaurs, warm blooded dinosaurs, missing links….It can never be a FACT. We cannot prove it because no one was there. It cannot be falsified, and the probability of it being true cannot be calculated. It’s theory, more an hypothesis actually, and always will be.

    I agree. No one knows where the universe came from, which means it is entirely possible it was created by God.

  10. Willis, yes but when the car doesn’t work they often take the Lord’s name in vain. 🙂

    Sheri, I think that you are conflating two aspects of the question. For example there are different theories of gravitational attraction that are used to explain the observation (fact) of falling bodies. There are also different theories of evolution used to explain the observation of descent with modification.

    Evolution always seems to get people’s knickers in a twist and I don’t think they present objections in a completely honest way but skirt the issue. My metaphors of the day.

  11. Scotian: That, I think, is the problem. The theory of evolution–whatever theory one is referring to–needs to be clearly defined. You’re the first person I have had say to me there are different theories of evolution to explain observations. It certainly wasn’t taught in school.

    Have you considered that theory of evolution itself may not be the problem, but rather the way it is presented?

  12. New Poll Says 40% Don’t Believe In Evolution. So What.

    So… it gives Mr. Briggs a chance to rant and make conjectures about what/how people of different opinions think?

    So… we can have more stereotypes in our society?

    If you want to know about the public understanding of evolution, the scientific explanation of human origin, then a different questionnaire will have to be issued. Which could be a difficult task.

    Whether or not one believes that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning is a straightforward question, I think. The survey can help us understand our society better. While I don’t know what caused the differences among groups, I find the results interesting!

  13. Sheri, “It certainly wasn’t taught in school.” Are you sure? It has been my observation that when people re-read old textbooks they are surprised at what was included. Three come to mind: natural selection, sexual selection, and genetic drift. The first two are due to Darwin.

    “Have you considered that theory of evolution itself may not be the problem, but rather the way it is presented?” Not for a moment! I think that the dislike is visceral.

  14. How many Americans know how an internal combustion engine works?

    Every educarted person knows the cylinders each contain one of Maxwell’s demons who push the pistons down.

  15. Scotian: Okay, you are entitled to your opinion on why people don’t like evolution. Some place I have a link to an article that may at least show you one person does not appear to have judged evolution viscerally, if I can find it. Meantime, go with what you want to believe.

    Go Canucks!!: Yes, that seems to be true.

  16. Scotian,

    Rereading my high school textbook would not necessarily show what I was “taught.” Curriculum takes on various forms, with the taught curriculum many times separate from the textbook, mandated, tested, etc. curricula.

  17. We were taught 2 theories of evolution. Darwin and LaMarcke. The second one was dismissed as Darwin’s theory was more rigorous. Natural selection ruled.
    By the way, evolution is observed every day in Petrie dishes around the world. Every winter new viruses appear. Drug resistant flora and fauna evolve too.

  18. Go Canucks!!! : Yes, this illustrates why people have difficulty with the question. If we look at natural selection, this is easily seen in the world. If we look at whether or not this accounts for all life on earth starting from an amoeba (or whatever it was), then there’s questions. JH makes this point. How you ask and how clearly you define “evolution” makes a huge difference. Even with JH’s example, one could ask “how much different is different?” Do you mean people looked like apes, were apes, had a common ancestor or did they look exactly like they do now? Each question will undoubtedly yield different responses. It’s a very complex question with no simplistic answers.

  19. Scotian,

    And Brigg’s assertion above, way above, is not a No True Scotsman Fallacy until he redefines the term upon challenge. Until then, it remains a Question-Begging Epithet.

  20. Jim Fedako,

    I accept that criticism. Let me instead stick with the proposition that “The earth is only 6000 or so years old” characterizes the divide I wish to emphasize. There are those who hold it true, and they tend to read the Bible more literally, i.e. more fundamentally, than those who hold it false.

    My sympathies are with the “fundamentalists”, of course, but I do not hold the proposition true. I only want to emphasize that the proposition’s “truth value” is a matter of almost no consequence to anybody. Just as the truth value of the proposition “Neutrinos have no mass” is of no interest to most of humanity.

    The main point, which is getting lost, is that atheists have latched onto evolution and “the” criterion for being scientifically literate, eschewing all other matters, most of which are vastly more important to the daily lives of people. Like the workings of internal combustion engines and aspirin. Atheists do this because they figure that once you “accept” evolution you must reject God, which is absurd.

  21. The structure of the DNA cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution. Evolutionary theory as proposed by Darwin 2 centuries ago and 1.5 centuries before DNA was discovered, should be rechecked for accuracy.

    Evolution is written within the DNA program itself. It is pre-programmed in there:
    A number of leading proponents of Darwinian evolution claim that “junk DNA”—the non-protein-coding DNA that makes up more than 95% of our genome—provides decisive evidence for Darwin’s theory and against intelligent design, since an intelligent designer would not have littered our genome with so much garbage. In The Myth of Junk DNA, biologist Jonathan Wells exposes their claim as an anti-scientific myth that ignores the evidence, relies on illegitimate theological speculations, and impedes biomedical research. After reading this book, your view of the genome will never be the same again.

  22. alex,

    All these criticisms of evolution are well and good. They are necessary, important, interesting, even in many cases correct. But my point is political.

    Wouldn’t it be fun to see what happens if those who hold evolution in doubt (and there is still much to hold in doubt) say, “Well, even if evolution is true, it in no way obviates the necessity of God. Even accepting evolution as written does not in any way do away with teleology. No matter what, it makes more sense to believe in God.”

    Take one year with everybody doing that. Show that it is flawed metaphysics really driving these discussions, not flawed physics.

  23. Go Canucks!!!: Thank you. I will read through the entry more thoroughly when I have more time and follow the links.

  24. To obviate the necessity of God in anything, first one has to understand why God does not exist, or why God does exist and if He exists what tricks has He got up His sleeve.

    ..and as you say evolution does not prove or disprove God, and yes I agree, it’s all political really. It is in the globalists’ grand design for the domination of the human mind. If one can control the thoughts of the masses, then bingo one can rule over the whole world. It’s like a sort of an atheistic world caliphate.

  25. ..and what always stopped tyranny is Christianity. Christianity has an inherent code that excludes tyranny and evil from winning over Mankind. That’s why we (western Man)are where we are today and why other societies try to imitate us in many ways, including the way we dress up.

    Now the atheist globalists want to do away with all this in their drive to dominate the world after having lost the last round with the fall of Soviet communism. That event spawned this atheistic take-over by stealth instead of by force.

  26. Sheri, “How you ask and how clearly you define “evolution” makes a huge difference.” I don’t know what you mean by this. For example there are many details in Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation. How do you account for helium balloons and buoyancy, motion through a viscous fluid, orbital motion about a lumpy planet, and so on and so on. They are very complex questions without simplistic answers. But I do not see people writing books questioning the existence of gravity the way that they do evolution or implying that physicists are fools. There is something visceral here. I am sure that any of your questions can be answered by a standard book on evolution.

    Briggs, I believe that the reason that atheists, or the left in general, have latched onto the evolution question is that it is the Achilles’ heel of conservatism in much the same way that belief in CAGW is for the left. This does not apply to everyone, of course, but enough to be an embarrassment. The funny thing is that many on the left dislike much of evolution as well.

  27. Briggs, “Even accepting evolution as written does not in any way do away with teleology.” Yes, that is the question isn’t it. It is difficult to see how it does not do teleology serious damage. I also think that religious people who accept evolution like to avoid these aspects of evolutionary theory. The non-overlapping magisteria of Stephen Gould is his attempt to skirt the issue. I am not saying that I have the answer to this conflict but I do not think that the issue can be dismissed out of hand.

  28. Scotian: Newton’s Laws of Motion and Gravity are not equal to the Theory of evolution. Why do people insist that circumstantial evidence based on interpretation of phenomena they never observed are equal to actual physical laws that can be seen and observed? There is a absolutely no way these are equivalent. Even basic science says laws and theories are not equal. It’s not visceral, it’s basic science. When people don’t confuse laws and theories, I’m fine with their assertions. Okay, maybe it’s visceral that I just don’t like bad science.

  29. Sheri, when have you ever seen a physical law? Have you ever seen the elliptical path of planetary motion? It requires an enormous amount of calculation to convert the astronomical observations into an ellipse. Newton’s laws are an abstraction no less than natural selection is. Can you see F = ma?

    “Even basic science says laws and theories are not equal.” I must have missed this class. What I remember is that the terms “law” and “theory” are just fashion. For example Ohm’s Law is much less exact than Maxwell’s Equations which are not as advanced as Quantum Theory and, of course, the general theory of relativity is an advance on Newton’s Laws.

  30. Any theory of the origin of a ‘first human’ can never be proved (or disproved), scientifically. Unless “Human No.1” is capable of self-replication, there must be a fertile pair (at least). So the word ‘human’ in that statement must be plural.

    It is impossible to perform a scientific experiment to replicate the implied process of evolution as an originating cause [Viz. Step 1: Form a series of new planets, each orbiting its own Sun and consisting of …; with a Moon orbiting at … cycles per revolution; Step 2: Do nothing to Planet 1 and see what happens (the control); Pour a flask of amino-acids onto Planet 2 and see what happens; Release a breeding pair of dinosaur on Planet 3: Place a breeding pair of gibbons of Planet 4, etc., etc.; Step 3: Watch what happens with no intervention by “the observer”.]

    If evolution implies the appearance of man “ex nihilo”, the experiment must at least last long enough to allow the “possible outcome”; and who will be around to observe during the implied 15,000,000,000 years.

    I’m reminded of the Reinhold Niebuhr (?) prayer:

    “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
    courage to change the things I can;
    and wisdom to know the difference.”

    Anyway, who says there MUST be a beginning? Where is the positive evidence that “a beginning” is more plausible than “continuous existence”?

    As I understand this world, “Time” is a mental construct we use to describe “Change” in numerical terms, and we all know that “Change is the only thing that is Constant”, don’t we?

    My scientific definition of “Constant” is: “never-ending (or -beginning)”. The idea of an “origin” surely contradicts the demonstrable fact of “constancy”. For any “God concept” to be coherent, it must, at the very least, be “consistent” and free of “contradictions”.

  31. You may think this argument is pointless because of Scotia’s comments but he is correct. Following is the Wikipedia quote on gravity,

    “It is hypothesized that the gravitational force is mediated by a massless spin-2 particle called the graviton.”

    You can study a falling apple and formulate rules, laws, consequences but that does not tell you what gravity is.

  32. To paraphrase my favourite politician, Mr Al Gore, when asked why he was/is a fundamentalist he stated that that was the way he was brought up. That was the way his neighbours were brought up.
    Religious belief in these communities start at childhood and it is hard to flush all your beliefs in the toilet just because some else tells you that you are ….. (Add your own word)

  33. Canucks: My objection had to do with reducing terms in science to meaninglessness. If there is no difference between a law and a theory, throw out both terms and call them ideas. There was, at least at some point in time-space in the past, a difference between the law of gravity and the theory of gravity. Now, apparently, everything is the same. I would guess hypotheses are equal to laws and theories are used interchangeably, too. So the discussion is pointless if words have no meaning.

  34. Sheri, valiant effort, and thanks for your thoughts!

    But as Go Canucks!!! inadvertently demonstrates my point, the problem lies in clearly defining evolution. Go Canucks!!! says “By the way, evolution is observed every day in Petrie dishes around the world. Every winter new viruses appear. Drug resistant flora and fauna evolve too.”

    Yep, just like I said. The term encompasses everything from the obvious and the well-supported to the outrageous and the wildly speculative. And the only concrete examples that are ever offered are from the ‘obvious and well-supported side of the spectrum;’ examples that hardly anyone, even the most ardent fundamental creationist would object to. So a huge part of the issue lies in pinning down what evolution means, and unfortunately it is one of the most slippery words in the English language.


    Sorry, Briggs, for getting into the (likely) problems with the survey. As for your question, you are quite right that one could accept nearly all of what comes under the heading of evolution and still profess a belief in God.

    Yet, there is an underlying current in evolutionary thought that, while not logically required, is pervasive. Namely, that evolution is the result of purely natural and material processes without any intelligent guidance or input. That is the assumption underlying nearly every evolutionary proponent’s viewpoint. The upshot of this is that, at the very least, there is nothing for your alleged God to do. And certainly God can’t be called the “creator.” So at best, God is viewed as an irrelevancy. At worst, nonexistent.

    Again, this doesn’t logically follow from an objective observation of the evidence. But it is a pervasive underlying assumption of what evolution means to most people who haven’t thought about it in detail, on both sides of the aisle. As a result, the political and social baggage carried by the evolution debate is strongly felt, and almost certainly comes through in these kinds of surveys.

    Particularly if terms are not well defined at the outset.

  35. Eric, “Namely, that evolution is the result of purely natural and material processes without any intelligent guidance or input.” This is an assumption of all science, not just evolution. There is no malice in it and you make the same assumption yourself in everyday life. As you go about your daily tasks you expect cause to follow effect as it has countless times before. You do not worry that a capricious spirit may reverse the order of events to spite you. How would a theory of evolution that required intelligent guidance work? I have no personal problem with adding God into the mix, but why would you expect any scientific theory to do so and what do you gain by it?

    Sheri, “So the discussion is pointless if words have no meaning.” Oh, words have meanings, just not the meanings that you want them to have.

  36. “What I remember is that the terms “law” and “theory” are just fashion. For example Ohm’s Law is much less exact than Maxwell’s Equations which are not as advanced as Quantum Theory and, of course, the general theory of relativity is an advance on Newton’s Laws.”

    I cannot discuss “fashion”.

  37. Sheri I don’t really see what the problem is. Some scientists have preferred a comparison to the legal system and thus you get natural law while others, less pompous perhaps, prefer the term theory. One also sees equation and rule in use, but there is no progression from one to the other. Sure you will see definitions like this on the web:

    but they are mostly nonsense or at best a misguided attempt to create order out of the chaos of fashion. You can not dispute evolution or natural selection by noting that the word theory rather than law is used. You have to discuss the thing itself.

    I should note that in mathematics things are more rigorous, as expected, at least in the distinction between hypothesis and theorem. They also like to use the word property.

  38. Briggs, while your comments on the PA’s are right on, I think you inaccurately characterize the young earth creationists (YEC’s) – just as do the PA’s.

    YEC’s (in my experience) object to evolution, not because accepting it means that God doesn’t exist, but because it is contrary to their belief in what the Bible has to say about creation. They object to their kids being taught evolution in school because that undermines their Biblical literalism, rather than directly contradicting the idea of God.

    While I disagree with them on evolution, they are a far better bunch than the PA’s.

  39. Briggs,

    I think you displace the debate by using a poor choice of examples.

    Not believing in evolution is not the same as not understanding how an internal engine works. There are many people that do believe in evolution and would not be able to explain how it works.

    Not believing evolution would be more akin to believing that the earth is the center of the universe.

    Although the theory of evolution do not disprove god in any, it is usually religious folks that will not believe in it because it contradicts their reading of the Bible.

    Denying evolution which is a verifiable fact demonstrate a troubling aspect of society. One that society can’t either teach those people or those people lack any common sense to think for themselves and allow ministers to dictate how to live their life and what they can and can’t believe.

  40. @Sylvain, you miss the whole point of Briggs’ post.

    Beyond that, evolution is not a verifiable fact. It is a good, solid theory but you need a significant knowledge of biology to really appreciate that. Most people don’t have that, just as (as Briggs points out) they don’t understand how an ICE works.

    Your position asks people to believe based on authority, which is ironic since you criticize their belief – which is itself based on authority (of the Bible or their pastors).

    An understanding of evolution is simply not necessary for most citizens. If you aren’t a biologist or working in certain areas of clinical research, evolution is pretty much irrelevant.

  41. “If you aren’t a biologist or working in certain areas of clinical research, evolution is pretty much irrelevant.”

    I think it’s highly likely that evolution is irrelevant to the work of most biologists.

  42. Ironic. The topic of Evolution devolves. Nothing like referring to a 300 page book to devolve a conversation. Having a conversation with someone incapable of summarizing is often pointless anyway.

  43. Evolution, like medicine, economics and the climate, cannot be summed up neatly in a few words or a few, easy to understand mathematical formulas. This is an epistemic issue and can never be resolved due to the complexity of the subject(s). It is a limitation of our minds.

    Willis has it right. The Great Divide is whether or not you believe there is a man in the sky who has supernatural powers.

  44. John Moore – No scientific theory is a verifiable fact. Legitimate theories are those that have a great deal of supporting evidence but are (conceivably) possible and easy to disprove.

    Examples: Newtonian gravity is a theory that has been shown to have flaws, which didn’t previously show up because either measurements had not been done with sufficient accuracy or the flaws only show up in places not previously looked at (high velocities and very strong gravitational fields) – or both. General relativity corrects these flaws, but itself has problems in areas not previously looked at – this time, the region of the EXTREMELY small.

    Evolution neatly explains the variety of life forms on a world that must have been lifeless to start with. Admittedly, this also requires abiogenesis for the starting phase; but evolution theory has nothing to say about where the first organisms came from. Sure, there are problems; but most of them can be explained by the rather obvious fact that fossilisation is rare and very unreliable. And it’s very easy to disprove; as has been said before by others, a rabbit skull in Precambrian rock would do that very neatly indeed.

    Creationism is not a legitimate theory. It has no postulated mechanism except “God did it” and is not disprovable. To borrow a phrase from Pauli, it isn’t even good enough as a theory to be wrong.

  45. Thanks for that final shout out to evolutionary psychologists, latter day keepers of the Just-So Stories.

    Whenever I’m confronted with an ev-psych devotee, I ask them to explain why dogs love to hang their heads out the window during a car ride. Oh yeah, it goes all the way back to Dino riding with Fred Flintstone….

  46. Fletcher–Creationism in not a legitmate theory. However, teaching evolution without explaining the shortcomings and the ways it can be falsified–i.e. as “fact” and something we “know” is just as dishonest. If we are using a theory in science, it must be made clear that this is what we know as of now, subject to change. I started questioning the whole evolution mess when the archeologists decided they had put the dinosaur bones together “wrong”. Then there was the whole warm-blooded/cold-blooded debate. Followed by the science fiction on Discovery Channel that shows the colors of dinosaurs and the world they lived in. The lines between fact and fiction are completely blurred for evolution. What I had been taught was “true” was in no way true. Teach it for what it is, and I don’t have a problem with it. Same for climate change “science”. Put in those p values, explain the 95% number from the IPCC is a vote, not a mathematical equation. I’m only asking forthe limits to be taught, rather than presenting a theory as something that is never wrong and represents a fact in the world. Not an alternative, just a proper presentation. Teach the limits of science and stop trying to use it to replace God as all-knowing and never wrong.

  47. Sheri, I think that you are engaging in a form of special pleading. You are demanding that evolution teachers preface their lessons with a mea culpa like statement of limitations, but I very much doubt that you demand this of anyone else and certainly not yourself. I do not see any statement of limitations following the various assertions made in your posts.

    When I present a lecture on Newton’s Laws of motion I do not dwell on their limitations and I certainly do not add a “God willing” at the end of each lesson. This would be an incredible waste of limited lecture time and would be very confusing to the students. I believe that your last sentence betrays your actual concern. You want scientists to know their place and you want that “God willing”.

    Mike, dogs want to feel the wind flowing through their luxuriant flaxen hair. 🙂

  48. Scotitoan: I certainly did not ask you to add “God Willing” at the end of the lecture. In fact, I believe I made it very clear I did not want creationism included.
    My desire for science to know and state it’s limitations has nothing whatsoever to do with God, belief in him or otherwise. It has to with accuracy and honesty.
    If you list where is should have put limitations on statements I made, I will consider those areas that I should have limited. I believe I was very clear about what I wanted but if I was not, I will correct it. (Please note: I gave myself a warning on my climate change blog for violating my own rules. I agreed that if I did that twice more, I would ban myself from commenting.)

    I have write-up on this at:

  49. Sheri, well a good example would be this statement “My desire for science to know and state it’s limitations has nothing whatsoever to do with God, belief in him or otherwise. It has to with accuracy and honesty.” You should add that this is just your theory that this correctly describes your motives, that it is based on no evidence at all, and that a serious competing theory is that the exact opposite is true. I would never demand that you do this, but it would be consistent with the shackles that you wish to place on discussions of evolutionary biology.

    In your linked article you discuss uncertainty in QM but do not mention that the accuracy of predictions in this field are many times greater than that of classical mechanics. You say that “it should be made very clear how theories work.” So, how do theories work?

    By the way, I do not consider the current problems in climatology to be an example of the limitations of theory. I think that we are dealing with what Langmuir called pathological science and in some cases fraud. This can not be fixed by noting that it is just a theory.

  50. I cannot possibly know my own motives? That would assume that I cannot know myself and thus no one else can know themselves. Your point would be realistic if I was ascribing motivations to you. I will agree that if we assume humans cannot know themselves, then you have a point. I would need more evidence, however, that I cannot know my own motivations. (I’m unclear as to how my knowing myself relates to evolutionary biology theories–can you help me out on that one? Is there something in evolutionary biology that would indicate humans do not know their own minds and motivations?) We can dig this clear down to nihilism if you want–it’s a waste of time but entertaining nonetheless. If we can know nothing–wait, that was my objection with the fluid language…….

    How is it useful to teach children that dinosaurs were in “fact” cold-blooded, then in “fact” may be warm-blooded, to tell them you put together the skeletons wrong before but you are sure you got them right this time? That seems like asking for cynicism on their parts. Kind of like salt is good for, salt is bad for you, no wait, it’s not. Wouldn’t it have been better to tell them that so far as we know now, this theory best explains things but is open to modification as more evidence becomes available?

    Yes, the QM predictions work in most cases. My point was that even if we can predict, we still cannot say with certainty that the mechanism we are describing is the correct one. There have been theories that “worked” until we found a better one. That is how theories work–they are our best explanation at this time. They are always subject to revision or rejection.

    I agree that the current problems in climatology cannot be fixed by pointing out the limitations of the theory only. I do feel that the certainty and appeal to authority are very powerful motivators for belief and used to limit questioning. Had the original uncertainty be made clear, it might have helped. Might. It is fraud and pathological science. My intent was not to “fix” the science, since it really can’t be, but to perhaps introduce some doubt if the true uncertainty were known. It’s probably wishful thinking on my part.

  51. @Fletcher “No scientific theory is a verifiable fact.” Exactly my point. Beyond that, you seem to imagine that I am a Creationist, which is most certainly not true – see below – as you do,

    I find evolution to be a rich theory with a lot of explanatory value. It also has predictive value and is thus testable (in part) in a Popperian sense, which is not appreciated by many anti-evolutionists. Specifically, evolutionary theories can predict finds yet to be made, whether in fossils or taxonomy or molecular biology.

    @MattS “I think it’s highly likely that evolution is irrelevant to the work of most biologists.” – It’s relevant to an awful lot of biology. Field biologists use it in trying to understand behaviors and traits. Those working in microbiology use it all the time – for example, in the case of host-parasite co-evolution. Molecular biologists use it in trying to understand genomic issues. Evolutionary psychologists use it, too often, to produce popular nonsense. Oh well.

  52. Sheri,
    “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as others see us!
    It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
    An’ foolish notion.”

    “Wouldn’t it have been better to tell them that so far as we know now, this theory best explains things but is open to modification as more evidence becomes available?” I have no problem with this in general and in fact I would say that this is already done in general science courses, although poorly. My question is two fold. Why single out evolution for special treatment? Also why not apply this to all fields of study? In an history course you would need to spend a great deal of time explaining the limitations of source material and the propaganda nature of public schools. In a civics class you would have to make it clear that the theory of government that is being presented is simplistic and may turn out to be completely wrong. At Sunday School you should then mention the hearsay nature of scripture, the physically implausible events, and so on. Hey, you may be on to something here, but all or nothing I say.

  53. Be careful what you wish for.

    First, science is not religion and religion is not science. Religion makes no claims about not being faith based (and if it does, then, yes, I object) which immediately makes it different from the standards we use for science. Second, yes, I fully believe that all disciplines should address their inherent limitations. History is accurate only until the last living witness dies, and possibly not that far back. We rewrite history all the time–and my mother from the South had learned a very different history that we did living up North. Civics–yes, tell them this is simplistic and may not resemble real life. Religion–yes, as noted, it is already faith-based, but I have no objection to people asking questions about why there are differing versions of the Bible, differing accounts of events, how some events seem physically implausible (though I would note that these actions are generally labeled as outside the normal realm–as in acts of God or miracles) and so on. I encourage people to ask these questions. I ask them. I study various religions to learn what they believe. I don’t find this threatening or wrong. Questions are good.

    I must sign off now. I have to get back to my cooking. If you hear the sound of a smoke alarm, you’ll know it’s me!

  54. Isn’t it possible to believe in evolution and creationism simultaneously?

    I can accept the “old earth” creationists better than the “young earth” creationists. Arguments that Satan placed dinosaur fossils on earth to confuse us are particularly bothersome. But, I have no desire do disabuse a YEC of his beliefs.

    As a believer in evolution, I do have some questions that I don’t feel cannot be explained by evolution alone.

  55. Doug M – Yes, that apparent dichotomy is possible. Creationists, particularly YECs, would have you think that it isn’t. The key is the fact that the existence or otherwise of abiogenesis (bearing in mind that it only had to happen once, four billion years ago, and the conditions on the early Earth were completely different from today) and the validity or otherwise of evolution as an explanation of the variety of life on Earth today have no connection with each other.

    It is entirely possible that some intelligent entity (who, by the way, wouldn’t have had to be an omnipotent God but could just as well have been someone from a race of advanced aliens) put the first simple organisms here by hand, so to speak. It is also entirely possible that some form of self-organising complex system, a precursor to today’s complex life, fell into place under the urging of nothing more than the laws of nature.

    We can’t possibly know for sure which of these alternatives is true. Even if humans manage to set up such a self-organising system, it doesn’t mean that’s what happened first time.

    Of course, the laws of nature mentioned above may have been put into place by an omnipotent. For what it’s worth, my opinion is that there is much more grandeur in the idea that God created the Universe with a set of laws that would inevitably, in the fullness of time, lead to the evolution of life, intelligence and consciousness than in the idea that She put together the entire, monstrously complex edifice by hand. Whether it took six days or 13.7 billion years doesn’t make any difference, in this context.

    And BTW, anomalous fossils as a deception are only the smallest part of the deception that would have had to be committed. Other things include sedimentary rocks, isotope ratios in all the rocks and fossils on Earth, extra tree rings (there are living trees older than 4004 BC), the details of the Hertzprung-Russell Diagram for various star clusters, and of course the very existence of the cosmic microwave background. All of these would have to be a lie for YECs to be correct.

    I’ve had YECs (this particular bunch were Witnesses) try to convince me that the Grand Canyon and the geology of England’s Lake District were carved out during the Noachic Flood. To me, it sounded like the ravings of a madman.

  56. The alien origin theory is certainly possible, but it just pushes the origin of life off to somewhere else, so it really resolves nothing.

    As to the deception idea… one could just as easily posit that everything was created one second ago, with everything in accordance with the laws of physics to appear as if it were consistent with a 13bn year old universe. Of course, such a theory simply does not belong in the realm of science.

  57. Scotian:

    “This is an assumption of all science, not just evolution. There is no malice in it and you make the same assumption yourself in everyday life. As you go about your daily tasks you expect cause to follow effect as it has countless times before.”

    Your last sentence above is correct. And we have never witnessed natural causes producing the kinds of large scale functional systems that we find in biology. But we do see intelligent beings producing these kinds of systems all the time, as they have countless times before. Thus the rational inference, is that such systems likely came about through intelligent intervention, rather than the purely natural causes we see active in the world.

    As to your first sentence above, accepting only natural causes is in fact not an assumption of all science, and science would certainly not crumble if we were open our minds to the possibility of intelligent input in the cosmos or the origin and development of life on Earth. Ironically, those who most strenuously advocate methodological naturalism when it comes to questions about origins are quite happy to give a pass to other areas of scientific endeavor, whether forensics, archaeology, SETI and so on. As a result the objective observer might be forgiven for noting that the insistence on methodological naturalism is borne not so much of scientific necessity, but rather of an a priori philosophical commitment as to the kinds of questions and answers that are allowed to be asked when the discussion turns to origins.

  58. One more thing: The known, and admitted, problems with and unknown details of the process by which evolution happened (and is still happening, else superbugs wouldn’t be a problem right now) do not mean that the basic concept is incorrect.

  59. Eric,
    This is the watchmaker argument of William Paley and has been dealt with many times starting with Darwin himself.

    I am a little curious as to why you think that the fields of forensics, archaeology, and SETI dispense with cause and effect?

  60. RE: “Proselytizing atheists are keen on evolution not for the sake of scientific knowledge—if they were then they would moan and groan just as loudly that the populace doesn’t understand protein folding or how to define inertia. The[y] demand belief because it is their contention that evolution does away with God and religious explanations of the role of mankind.

    “Obviously, because of the PA’s false belief that evolution eliminates (or, worse, “explains”) God. Evangelicals are half the problem, though. Even if they don’t believe evolution, politically they ought to say they do.”


    1) Proselytizing atheists (PAs), at least those I’ve read, are ‘keen on evolution’ only to the extent the evidence indicates evolution has & continues to occur — and that certain religious groups hold dogmatically to anti-scientific views, essentially force-fitting facts to conform to religious beliefs (e.g., evolution is observed in bacteria, with drug-resistant types being one such small example). It’s the anti-science they bemoan, NOT that evolution proves or disproves anything about any deity.

    2) Certain evangelicals illustrate the tendency of the inclination to invent/define God in our image (Biblically this arrogance is presented in God making humanity in His image). For whatever reason one needs, or want’s, a certain belief (be it God, global warming, that putting ice on frozen fingers will prevent frostbite, etc.) one is inclined to invent whatever rationalizations needed to achieve it.

  61. “What I remember is that the terms “law” and “theory” are just fashion.”

    FYI. The way it works is that there are Facts, Laws, and Theories.
    1. Facts are observations, preferably metrical ones. Falling bodies are facts.
    2. Laws are regularities among the facts, preferably expressed in mathematics, the privileged discourse in science. That equal areas are swept in equal times is a law. Insert equation here.
    3. Theories are stories or narratives we tell ourselves to “make sense” of the facts. From these stories, the laws can be deduced and the facts predicted. A good theory can predict facts that were not used to develop the theory in the first place. (Otherwise, the reasoning remains circular.) Newton’s law of universal gravitation is a theory. From it, you can derive the equal area law, the rate of fall in a gravitational field, etc. and you can predict facts like the position of the planets and the path of a baseball.

    No amount of supporting data will convert a theory into a fact. For any finite body of facts there will always be multiple theories that can account for them. Feynman noted this in his lecture on the slit experiment, but it has been demonstrated by logical analysis. (“Stars are facts; constellations are theories.”)

    Instrumentalists don’t even worry of the theories are true, only in whether they are useful.

    Theories can be falsified. Facts cannot be: they can only be inaccurate or imprecise.

    Newton’s theory did not have “flaws.” Einstein corrected nothing. Newton did assume that the speed of light is infinite; but for all practical purposes at the time, it was.

  62. ‘Newton’s theory did not have “flaws.” Einstein corrected nothing’ Sorry, but it did (and does) and he did correct it – in regimes which had not previously been explored. Newtonian gravity does not account for the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, for example; it also does not account for the decay of the orbits of various binary neutron stars, nor does it account for gravitational lensing.

    “Correcting” is perhaps the wrong word. “Refining” might be better. Newtonian mechanics is sufficient for programming space probes; but general relativity is necessary for such apparently mundane tasks as GPS position calculation. If GR was not taken into account, GPS calculated positions would be out by tens of metres.

  63. It was an extension. The real revolution was in eliminating “forces” and “absolute space.” (Einstein regarded “space” and “time” as metaphysical intrusions on what should be empirical science.) Newton was not flawed insofar as no one cared about stuff that was really, really fast. In the world of everyday experience, Einstein’s formulae reduce to Newton’s, the distinction between theory and laws.

    I had also read somewhere of a paper published prior to Einstein that did account for the precession of Mercury using Galilean/Newtonian mechanics.

  64. YOS, “Newton’s law of universal gravitation is a theory.” Did you just say that with a straight face? What you have described is the modern fashion or attempt to clean up historical usage. You would have been on firmer ground if you had combined this with Newton’s laws of motion and called it classical theory, but this is still an example of presentism.

    By the way Kepler’s equal area law does not require Newton’s law of universal gravitation as any ol’ central force will do. It is a consequence of the conservation of angular momentum.

    Also, how are you going to fit in terms like principle, rule, conjecture, and a whole host of fashionable statements?

  65. YOS, “I had also read somewhere of a paper published prior to Einstein that did account for the precession of Mercury using Galilean/Newtonian mechanics.” Not correctly, this is the lumpy sun effect.

  66. Scotian:

    “I am a little curious as to why you think that the fields of forensics, archaeology, and SETI dispense with cause and effect?”

    Where did I ever say that? What I am pointing out is that one of the causes that exists — one that we see in action virtually every day — is the purposeful action of intelligent agents. Thus it is not logical to refuse to even consider the possibility of that cause in the case of origins, particularly when we are very happy to consider that cause in other areas of science.

  67. Eric Anderson on 7 January 2014 at 12:29 pm said:

    … What I am pointing out is that one of the causes that exists — one that we see in action virtually every day — is the purposeful action of intelligent agents. Thus it is not logical to refuse to even consider the possibility of that cause in the case of origins, particularly when we are very happy to consider that cause in other areas of science.

    Despite that comforting claim, it would be a rare geologist who ascribed the timing of volcanic eruptions to “the purposeful action of intelligent agents”. And an atmospheric physicist who claimed that the appearance of afternoon tropical clouds was the direct result of “the purposeful action of intelligent agents” would not be believed.

    Thus, it is NOT logical to consider the possibility of that type of causation in many areas of science.

    But let us presume that your argument is correct, and that when we see a watch we should consider the possibility of a watchmaker. Let us follow that line of thought and see where it leads. Your argument goes as follows

    If “watch” implies “watch-maker”, that is to say a man who made the watch, then “man” implies “man-maker”, that is to say a God who made the man.

    But if that is the case, then it logically and inexorably follows that “God” must imply “God-maker” …

    So I’m just curious as to who/what you think the God-maker might be … and when you’re done answering that, who is the God-maker-maker?

    The Sufi Mulla Nasruddin was once publicly challenged by a rube regarding Nasruddin’s claimed wisdom and knowledge. The rube thought Nasruddin wasn’t as wise as he claimed, so he asked Nasruddin “What holds up the earth?”

    The Mulla just smiled and said “It rests on the back of a giant turtle.” And all the people nodded approvingly, they knew their Mulla would have the correct answer.

    Well, the rube knew he had Nasruddin then. He knew he could prove the Mulla wrong. So he slyly and softly asked the question he knew would stump the Sufi, “And what, great holy man, holds up the giant turtle.”

    Nasruddin just looked on him with pity and said to general applause, “My poor fellow, didn’t you know? It’s turtles all the way down!”

    So yes, in some scientific cases we need to consider the purposes of intelligent agents.

    But in other scientific cases, the claim that complexity requires or even implies an intelligent agent just leads to turtles all the way down.

    Best regards,


  68. Eric, “Thus it is not logical to refuse to even consider the possibility of that cause in the case of origins, particularly when we are very happy to consider that cause in other areas of science.” With the possible exception of psychology I’m not sure that we do. In your example of forensics the intelligence of the perpetrator is not really taken into account. Fingerprint analysis or DNA testing place an individual on the scene but says nothing about intelligent agents. You are just repeating the Paley argument. To say that the obvious and visible actions of people must lead us to assume a guiding spirit behind every natural phenomenon is a form of animism. All we have done is push it back to deep time. But as I’ve said, I have no objections to the religion so much as to the demand that scientists somehow tack this onto the front of every scientific theory. What purpose does this serve unless as I have already said, it is a result of a visceral rejection of natural selection?

  69. “Thus it is not logical to refuse to even consider the possibility of that cause in the case of origins, particularly when we are very happy to consider that cause in other areas of science.”

    A hypothesis about an alien (or other natural intelligence) planting or creating living material, and one about God doing so, are quite different, unless one hypothesizes a God arbitrarily constrained to behave like a natural creature – an unsatisfying and unprovable constraint.

    In the alien case, one can hope to derive testable hypotheses based on the physical law limitations that constrain the alien. This would constitute scientific inquiry, although it would also constrain “creation of life” to “creation of life on earth,” punting the ultimate question.

    Science cannot study or use in hypotheses an unconstrained God, because the God can create effects without a prior cause, and the existence of the God can have no prior cause.

  70. Sorry didn’t have time to read all the comments but…

    as per usual Briggs dispenses some wonderful insights in the text. As a reasonably committed Darwinian I may not agree with all your views but I honestly think I agree with you more often than I do with others who claim inspiration from Darwin.

    Most specifically what offends me about most “scientists” is that they are not really acting like scientists. They accept the most ludicrous arguments based on the flimsiest evidence if it seems to validate their view of what “smart people” accept. My deepest laughter arrives when reading “New York Times progressives” reader comments on scientific issues. Their arguments always boil down to: “I think the same way smart people do!”

    “Global Warming” is always the funniest topic to read their confused comments on, but evolution must come in a close second. I have asked dozens upon dozens of “smart” people WHY they say they believe in evolution and NEVER got a decent answer. I understand evolution pretty damn well and am still willing to change my position if new data compel an amendment to my understandings.

    Anyway… thanks again Briggs. Always well reasoned articles.

  71. It’s turtles all the way down!”

    And to this day there are those who think an infinite sequence explains something.

  72. It all comes down to faith anyway. We are told evolution takes place over billions of years. We never live long enough to see or know it our selves. We can never “know” evolution from experience, it comes down to faith. Faith in scientists who conduct experiments and write theories. Faith that what they write or say is true. We don’t apply their theories, test them ourselves, we take their word, and act/live accordingly. That’s faith. Faith is not limited to religion, everyone puts their faith in something/one. The issue is, what is our faith in?

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