Tomorrow is February 12th, the birthday of Charles Darwin. Darwin Day celebrations provide us an opportunity to reflect on the amazing impact his magnum opus, On the Origin of Species, has had not only on shaping the field of modern biology, but on pushing to the forefront of ideas, a rational understanding of the world that thoroughly supplants superstitious explanations. The day also provides us with a nice opportunity to consider some common – shall we say – semantics around the subject of evolution. Let me explain what I mean.
Sometimes I am asked whether or not I “believe” in evolution.
It’s one thing to ask if someone believes in something that has not been proven true, like, “do you believe in ghosts” or “do you believe in leprechauns?” But it’s a different animal entirely to ask if someone believes in something that is taken by rational people to have already been proven true.
In other words, when most people ask the question about “belief” in something, they are asking because there might be good reasons not to believe. As with ghosts and leprechauns, that reason is simply that there’s nothing to suggest they are real. So I’m usually a bit bewildered by questions of belief in things that are demonstrably true, because the very nature of the interrogation implies that there might be some rational room for doubt.
Asking if I believe in evolution is tantamount to asking if I believe in germs or if I believe that the deer tracks in the snow indicate that a deer recently passed by. These aren’t beliefs that are open to doubt. They are things well studied and well understood, even if they aren’t directly observed.
So regarding evolution, where does this question come from? Unlike cells and deer tracks, I brace myself for questions of belief in evolution because experience has taught me that the person asking such a question is very likely preparing to pounce with the latest creationist mumbo jumbo. So the question really comes in two parts: “do I believe in evolution,” and “why do I not believe in creationsim?” And so the dance begins.
“Yes,” I will say, “evolution is true because we have multiple lines of evidence to show it’s true.”
“No,” I will say, “the second law of thermodynamics does not disprove evolution as the earth is an open system with a constant supply of energy we call the sun.”
“Yes,” I will say, “the fossil record is quite real and radiometric dating is getting more, not less, accurate.”
“No,” I will say, “things are not intelligently designed by some cosmic architect; they are adapted to their environments through the process of natural selection, giving them the appearance of design.”
Rinse and repeat.
The fact remains that evolution is scientifically solid and that’s about as solid as anything is ever going to get. Given that, we should be as confident discussing evolution in mixed company as we are discussing electromagnetism, heliocentrism, or gravity. Therefore I normally follow my initial incredulous, “Believe?” with a gentle rewording of the question like so:
“It’s not that I ‘believe’ in evolution per se, it’s that I understand why evolution is true.”
I should also add that while it might be tempting to simply avoid confrontation in the company of scientific illiteracy, that would be a mistake. Science advocates have to be vigilant when we talk about what might be considered by some as “politically” or “theologically” controversial scientific topics like evolution. They are not controversial. They are facts.
When it comes to promoting a scientifically literate population, we have to have some guts. If the Gallup, Pew, and Harris polls are to be trusted, then there is a very good chance that one day at dinner, or at work, or yes, even at church, you will be presented with someone who bases their beliefs on something other than reality.
Remember, it’s not that you believe in evolution over some alternative valid explanation, it’s that you understand evolution; so don’t back down.