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Evolution No More a Fact than the Civil War

There's a minor brouhaha over Nicholas Wade's review of Richard Dawkins's latest book, "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution". Wade claimed that Dawkins had confused fact and theory, which prompted quite a few letters to the editor explaining Wade's mistake.

Now, I don't often get involved in discussions in the comments sections on websites, but I did leave a couple comments on this one. Rather than give a long introduction, I'll jump right to quoting the relevant comments from the article. Here is the original comment that prompted me to reply.

These people who keep arguing that evolution is a fact because there is so much supporting evidence for it are very funny. Evolution is a fact only if you can directly observe it happening. Otherwise, it is not a fact and will never be a fact. What is a fact is the evolutionists religious zealotry… ;)

— island

I responded thusly.

Island wrote: "Evolution is a fact only if you can directly observe it happening."

Aside from the observed instances of evolution (Lenski's e. coli experiments are a popular recent example), this statement seems to imply that nothing from history can be a fact, since events that happened in the past can no longer be directly observed. I don't think that's the way most people use the word, since, for example, I think most people would call it a 'fact' that the U.S. Civil War occurred, or that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the U.S. There are other forms of evidence besides direct observation.

— Fatboy

Island responded to my comment as follows (this is the comment that made it worth reposting this whole exchange).

The civil war may be a fact, but you can't *know* this beyond any shadow of a doubt. You can know it beyond any *reasonable* doubt, however, so we can have an extremely high degree of certainty that it happened, but that is not the same thing. We can confidently assume that humans evolved from apes, because there is much supporting historical evidence in support of this assumption, but it will always be an assumption, and will never be a knowable truth…. or a fact.

— island

I responded again.


You're playing semantic games. You say it's not a fact that the Civil War occurred. Your definition of 'fact' is different from everybody I know personally, but at least now it's clear why you argue that evolution isn't a fact.

However, if something has to be proven 'beyond any shadow of a doubt' to be a fact, and the Civil War doesn't meet that criteria for you, I'm curious if there's anything that you would consider a fact. After all, one can always fall back on solipsism or Last Thursdayism to cast doubt on just about everything.


Island did follow up with a long comment, and a link.

Fatboy, you miss the point that the scientific method is not “solipsism” and there can be no room for slopiness in this because theories are **always** subject to a better theory as defined by efficiency, or accuracy in conjunction with Occam.

As I stated, “degrees of certainty” (or our confidence level), increases with the strength of evidence, and I don't expect evolutionary theory to be radically overturned because of this, but it is a fact that a better theory will always be possible that approximates the historic record more accurately or with equal accuracy, but in less steps than Evolutionary theory does.

In this case, “evolution” didn't necessarily occur via the criterion that define our current understanding of the process, and the author might choose not to incorporate the term into this theory. In which case, “evolution” never was a fact.

Like I said, I don't expect it, but there is no room for play or you are not representing science like you claim to be, which is the point where the lies embellishments and distortions of this politics hurt science.

My personal beef is the way that this ideological mentality predetermines the assumptions about impetus behind some of the less-well defined mechanisms of evolutionary theory that are automatically taken to be of random or accidental nature, rather than of necessity or natural law, because evolutionists wrongly perceive such an admission in favor of the creationists position.

Which, unfortunately, justifies the pressure of the “other side” in order to counterbalance the dogma of the left.

And those are observable facts… ;)

— island

This is an excellent example of what I am talking about:


— island

I responded one last time.


I was all ready to go with another long explanation of 'facts' and levels of certainty, but decided against arguing over semantics. If, as you already stated, your definition of 'fact' precludes including the occurrence of the U.S. Civil war in that definition, you're clearly using a definition well outside the standard usage. If 'fact' is to have any meaning at all, it must surely mean 'very high level of certainty', and not 'absolute 100% certainty'.

When you wrote, "theories are **always** subject to a better theory as defined by efficiency, or accuracy in conjunction with Occam," you're pedantically correct, but really stretching the point. Larry Woolf's quote of Gould above explains this point better than anything I could write, so there's no need for me to dwell on it.

To steer this back to the topic of the article, it seems that you may also be missing the point of what Dawkins wrote originally. Descent with modification occurred. We can be as sure of that as we can of the existence of the Roman Empire, the occurrence of the Civil War, Armstrong and Aldrin landing on the Moon, or the idea that the Earth orbits the Sun, whether you're willing to call those things facts or only grant them high levels of certainty. That's not being disingenuous. There really is that much evidence supporting common descent.

Now, there's the separate issue of what drives that evolution, the 'mechanisms' as you put it. That's where the theory comes into play, and is also where more of the uncertainty is, concerning natural selection, sexual selection, group selection, or genetic drift, to name just a few. We still know that those things occur, because they have been observed, too (except group selection - it's still questionable). However, there is a question as to how important each has been to the history of life on this planet.

— Fatboy

For reference, the Gould quote was this.

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 do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in midair pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.

As another aside, I know I didn't address the link that island provided, but I think Douglas Adams already covered the anthropic principle quite well. (I've also seen an even less reverant refutation of the anthropic principle.)

This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in - an interesting hole I find myself in - fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.

If island responds again, I'll include the response here. However, I'm not sure if I'll leave any more comments on the NY Times site. There's an old saying about arguing with fools, and when someone resorts to saying that the historicity of the Civil War is something we can't be sure about, they may not be the type of people you want to be seen arguing with.

(There's always the chance that perhaps I'm a victim of Poe's Law. Island did, after all, leave a winking smiley in two comments. However, I get the feeling that island is being serious.)


As you are probably well aware by now, 'island' is one of those people who seems to have convinced hiomself that he knows all things about all issues, and if you do not agree, you are wrong/stupid/incompetent/etc.

See his antics explored here.

Never wrestle with a pig. You'll get muddy, and the pig will like it.

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