Actually, evolution IS just a theory. The thing is that in science the word “theory” means something very specific. In our everyday language, theory means a guess or an idea. Like when someone says, “My car is making a weird noise but I have a theory about what might be wrong.” In science, theory means “a well developed explanation for a phenomenon supported by evidence.” Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge. The National Academy of Science describes a theory as “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment.” A theory is considered stronger the more phenomena it can explain and by its ability to make falsifiable predictions about those phenomena. Theories are improved (or, sometimes, replaced by better theories) as more evidence is gathered. This is the strength of the scientific method – over time the theory gets better at predicting and explaining.
So, evolution is just a theory, but in science that’s nearly as good as it gets. Evolution is a theory just like electricity, gravity, magnetism, plate tectonics, and lots of others. So why the controversy? We have to be clear in saying that among biologists there is no controversy. In fact, evolution was pretty much completely accepted about ten years after Darwin presented his work in 1859. Why, then, are some insisting on a continued “debate” 150 years later?
At one parent-teacher conference, I had some parents say they were interested in what I was teaching about evolution but wondered when I might be telling the students about “other” explanations. I replied, “What other explanations?” Wait a minute! How could I be so closed-minded?! Shouldn’t we be “teaching the controversy”? Shouldn’t we make sure students are exposed to the alternative explanations? One of our goals is to make students think for themselves isn’t it? Don’t we want to present them with different points of view and then encourage them to decide for themselves? The answer is yes – in a debate or perhaps an ethical discussion. Not in the case of a scientific theory. When it comes to a scientific theory, there ARE no other explanations – that’s how it got to be a theory. Just like there are no alternative explanations of why two magnets are attracted to one another or why an apple falls when you drop it. Our chemistry teacher doesn’t teach about the parts of the atom and then say “Ok class, now you decide for yourselves if you believe this to be the structure of the atom.” We don’t accept or reject theories based on how we feel about them or what we learned as children. We do so based on evidence. Science doesn’t progress by what we “think.” It progresses by what we observe, measure, and test. It has nothing to do with belief.
It is part of the agenda of certain groups to create the belief that there is a “debate” about the validity of evolution theory or that there is some kind of controversy. This is simply not reality. The theory of evolution has been singled out of all (well, maybe with the exception of big bang theory) other theories as controversial because it conflicts with the creation story as it appears in the Christian bible. Creationists have created a false dichotomy wherein one must choose either the biblical account found in Genesis or evolution theory. They would have us believe that the issue is much larger than it actually is. In 1950, Pope Pius XII stated that there is no conflict between Christian belief and evolution, a position confirmed by Pope John Paul II in 1996 and again at the Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories conference, held in 2009 at the Pontifical University in Rome. In 1998, The National Center for Science Education found that at least 77% of churches in the United States support evolution education. These religious groups include the Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, National Baptist Convention (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), National Baptist Convention of America, African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Episcopal Church, among others. In 2006, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement supporting evolution. The Clergy Letter Project is a statement signed by over 13,000 clergy in the United States supporting evolution education and rejecting the teaching of creationism. If we look at popular opinion outside the United States we see that most people accept the evolution as the explanation for the diversity of life we see on the planet.
Other than a relatively small group of people making a lot of noise, there really is no controversy involving evolution. Of course evolutionary biologists are debating points within the theory but no serious biologist rejects the theory as not explaining what it purports to explain. So, for those of us in education, especially science education, let’s get to the matter of teaching science and avoid wasting time with silly arguments about pseudo-debates. For those who may have encountered any kind of resistance to the teaching of evolution, or pressure at all to teach creationism (in any of its forms) in a science class, try to point out that evolution is a scientific theory like any other. As long as gravity is taught in science classrooms, so should evolution.
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