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Dawkins Does It Again

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins has come out with another excellent book, The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution.  Let him tell you about it:

And get ready for the Christian fundamentalist to have a class-A  panty wadded snit  about it..  Over at Pharyngula Professor Myers points out the pathetic review done by the New York Times of the book by Nicholas Wade.  He points out this tired old chestnut trotted out by Wade:

There is one point on which I believe Dawkins gets tripped up by his zeal. To refute the creationists, who like to dismiss evolution as “just a theory,” he keeps insisting that evolution is an undeniable fact. A moment’s reflection reveals the problem: we don’t speak of Darwin’s fact of evolution. So is evolution a fact or a theory? On this question, Dawkins, to use an English expression, gets his knickers in a twist.

As Prof. Myers points out, this argument has been dismantled and refuted and shown to be a completely ignorant statement by anyone who clearly does not understand the term “Theory” as applied to science.

In the American vernacular, “theory” often means “imperfect fact”—part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus the power of the creationist argument: evolution is “only” a theory and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): “Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science–that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.”

Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don’t go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s in this century, but apples didn’t suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Moreover, “fact” doesn’t mean “absolute certainty”; there ain’t no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

Nor does “teaching the other side” of evolution in the classroom merit equal time with evolution. “Teaching the other side”  is Christian code for teaching the biblical Genesis creation myth and wrapping it in scientific jargon to give it some credibility.  It is not “the other side” of evolution just as a flat earth occupied by pink unicorns and garden fairies which all other celestial bodies rotate around in paroxysms of joy the “other side” of astronomy.

I enjoy Dawkins’ style of writing and his keen insights.  I can’t wait to sink my teeth into this book.  Or the neck of the next fundie that tells me that evolution is “just a theory.”

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