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Evolutionary theory revisited

September 7, 2017

It’s a few years since I put up this post about evolutionary theory, but I am recycling it in response to coverage of AN Wilson’s recent biography of Darwin. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen reviews of it; if they are accurate it’s a character assassination of Darwin and (much more seriously) claims that his theory of evolution by natural selection is wrong. Well, it’s not wrong, of course, according to what evolutionary biologists have to say on the matter. It both baffles and infuriates me that non-scientists feel free to pontificate on evolution. What makes them think they’re qualified?  They would not dare to announce that other scientific theories are wrong. Or come to think of it, maybe they would; there are plenty of non-scientists who deny global warming. Perhaps ideology will always trump evidence, outside of the scientific community. But I do not think that is a good thing. Anyway, here is my original post:


A news item on BBC Radio 2 at 8 a.m. last week was about an interesting new scientific idea. Apparently aggression was a bigger factor in human development than was previously thought, and the evidence for this is to be found in the human hand, which is much easier to ball into a fist and use as a weapon than the hands of other apes. So far so good, and I was rather enjoying the rare experience of listening to a news item that was actually about an advance in knowledge, as opposed to a piece of celebrity gossip or report of some disgusting atrocity. But then the newsreader ruined it. Human thumbs, she said came to be longer and stronger than those of ‘the apes from which evolutionary theory maintains we descended’.

It’s as though the concept of evolution has to be handled with tongs. It beggars belief that a newsreader would distance herself from any other scientific theory in so conspicuous a way. One can’t imagine an announcer referring to gravity as ‘the force which gravitational theory maintains attracts bodies to the earth’; or to the sun as ‘the star which the heliocentric theory maintains our planet orbits’. Why didn’t the newsreader just say ‘the apes from which we descended’? What could have been the purpose of that phrase, evolutionary theory maintains?

The question is rhetorical, of course. The purpose of the distancing phrase was to protect the sensibilities of those who choose not to believe in the well-attested fact of evolution by natural selection. Two key words are clearly designed to give comfort to the creationist. One is maintains. You can maintain anything, even the most absurd and wrong-headed notions, if you are sufficiently dogged.

The other word is theory. In everyday parlance, a theory is conditional and unsubstantiated. You can take it or leave it. It’s just a theory, and theories are often proved wrong. This is quite unlike the concept of a theory in science. In science a theory is considerably stronger than a hypothesis: it has evidence from experiment and/or observation in its favour. The evidence will have been tested mercilessly, in an attempt to falsify the theory. Ultimately, of course, most scientific theories end up being falsified in some particular or other, but that seldom means they are completely overturned. What happens is that a more complete, more refined version of the theory replaces it, which accounts for the evidence even better, and has better predictive power. Then that new theory, too, is tested to destruction, and so it goes on. This is completely unlike the lay-person’s idea of a theory, as being one among a collection of equally suitable possibilities, like a rail of garments in a shop – something you can try on to see if you like it and discard if you don’t.

Of course the theory of evolution by natural selection in its present form could one day be falsified. But only when a better theory comes along, which better explains the fossil record, the DNA evidence and actual observed instances of evolution (eg the way bacteria have evolved to resist antibiotics). It will be a refined, extended, improved theory of evolution, not a crude denial of it. I don’t think it’s tendentious to say that such a theory is not going to be found in the Bible or the Koran.

Which brings us back to where we started. Creationists don’t disbelieve in evolution by natural selection because they have a better theory. They don’t have a theory at all. Their belief is dictated by what it says in an ancient book. Evidence doesn’t come into it; the driver of belief is the impiety of doubting what the ancient book says.

The BBC newsreader, or whoever wrote her script, was clearly bending over backwards not to give offence. But why should it be offensive to state that we descended from apes? This is current scientific knowledge. Not a single practising scientists doubts it. It couldn’t be overturned without overturning the whole of biology, zoology, geology and chemistry as we know them. Obviously people can believe what they like – actually, I can’t, personally, but often find myself having to believe things I wish were not true – but anyway, lots of people can believe what they like, and they are welcome to do so. But they shouldn’t expect others to respect their irrational beliefs. The BBC’s mealy-mouthed form of words was a small victory for the forces of unreason.

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  1. Spiritman permalink

    Bravo. Very eloquently written.

  2. Why, thank you!

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    According to the last census Jedi is the seventh most popular faith in the UK. Presumably the BBC will give similar consideration to avoid offending such a large number of people.

  4. Tim Crannigan permalink

    Interesting, and of course, I regard evolution theory as a no-brainer. Ironically, i equally regard Creationists as ‘no-brainers’ (see what I did there?).

    However avoiding offence to misguided fools is tempting when there’s so many of them…

    (although that is the US who won’t be listening to Radio 2, I grant you!)


  5. “It both baffles and infuriates me that non-scientists feel free to pontificate on evolution. What makes them think they’re qualified?…”
    “…there are plenty of non-scientists who deny global warming.”

    This is a poor example and thereby a poor extension of the argument. There are quite a few prominent scientists that also deny global warming. The strength of the consensus over Evolution is not equal to the consensus over Global Warming. And why people disbelieve Evolution, as you have shown, is also far easier to pin down than why people deny Global Warming.

    Many people, like me, who do not have much natural inclination, understanding or knowledge of science simply “believe” in the methodology, sciences and scientists. Which is quite ironic.

    There is a hint of “censor” about your comment. As if you think that non-scientists, regardless of their motives or understanding, don’t have the right to voice their opinions in public. Why should it be *only* the qualified who have the right to speak on such fundamentals?

    Is it better to be a completely disconnected sheep like me or someone who tries to grapple with the subject, fails and voices dissent?

    [[Not a single practising scientists doubts it.]]

    This is not quite true. Believe it or not, there are scientists who are not religious, atheists and scientists who challenge aspects of [Darwinian] Evolution. People like Lynn Margulis, Jerry Fodor and Raymond Tallis come to mind.

    • Perhaps “not a single practising scientist’ was overdoing it. I don’t know the work of the other scientists you mention, but I am familiar with the work of Jerry Fodor. He does not doubt evolution in the slightest; but he thinks that other factors besides natural selection play an important part (in fact he says that natural selection is ‘tuning the piano rather than composing the melody’). Anyway he certainly would not deny that we are descended from apes; or indeed that we are apes. At any rate I am sure you will grant me my main point, which is that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus in favour of evolution. Now, I don’t at all wish to argue that no one is allowed to question a scientific consensus. Let them publish scientific papers or books challenging the mainstream view, if they can get them published, or argue about it in the pub if they can’t. But it is not the role of the BBC to cast doubt on a well-attested scientific theory in a news report about a discovery that presupposes the truth of that theory!

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