It has been noted that Ben Carson, a Republican candidate for president and a top neurosurgeon from a top medical school, doesn’t “believe in” evolution. Gail Collins, in a funny op-ed piece in the New York Times, brought this up again today.
I know the concentration of people who think humans evolved from earlier primates is much greater among scientists than it is among the general population (a Gallup poll in 2014 showed only 19 ± 4 percent of the general population believe humans evolved without God’s guidance to our present form, compared to more than 95% of scientists) and that these proportions have changed a little over 30-plus years (the percentage of people who believe humans evolved under God’s guidance dropped from 38% in 1982 to 31% in the 2014 poll op cit.).
And this equating of Dr Carson and neurosurgeons in general with scientists in general is why Ms Collins’s incredulity is so funny: Lots of surgeons are scientists, but not all of them, and Dr Carson is most definitely not a scientist. The difference between a scientist and a neurosurgeon is parallel to the difference between a mechanical engineer and a mechanic. Perhaps that would be a better way to frame Dr Carson’s “beliefs” about evolution.
Both professionals have something to do with cars, yes, but a mechanic doesn’t need to know anything about the laws of thermodynamics, while a mechanical engineer needs to know almost everything about those laws. And just as I wouldn’t look to a mechanical engineer to fix my transmission, I wouldn’t look to someone trained as a mechanic to come up with a new design for a biofuel-burning engine. False equivalency like this is a common comic device, and that’s what makes the op-ed so roll-on-the-floor funny. We need all the humor we can get more than a year out from the election.
Evolution (bad & good mutation) is not the origin of life
When biology teachers talk about evolution, especially in religious schools, they are often confronted with false equivalencies that rival the one Ms Collins played on in her piece. For example, schools in Cobb County, Ga., around Atlanta, once had to put a sticker on every biology textbook given to students that read:
This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.
One of the biggest misconceptions teachers in our schools face about evolution is that most people don’t know the difference between how different species developed and how life began on Earth. Even Cobb County’s official sticker conflated the two completely different areas of science. A US District Court ruled in Selman v. Cobb County School District (2005) that the schools had to remove the stickers, but a court can’t change what people believe. The misconceptions were only beginning—or continuing.
One misconception is about the use of the word “theory.” The sticker correctly asserts that evolution is a theory, but the word “theory” means something different to scientists than it does in common usage. Scientists consider a “theory” to be a way of explaining why something happens the way it does.
As a theory, evolution is a way of explaining why different species are formed. To be brief, small changes accumulate, and after enough changes that result in enhanced survival, the organism is a new species. Evolution will never become a “law” in science, since laws, like the laws of thermodynamics, don’t explain anything at all. They’re simple observations.
For example, the First Law of Thermodynamics, sometimes called the conservation of energy, says that whenever we add heat to a volume of gas and use the expansion of that gas to do work, as in the pushing down of a piston in an internal combustion engine, the total change in internal energy is equal to the heat added to the system minus the work done by it. That is, the total energy remains constant.
This example of a law is not an explanation of why the energy stays constant; it is, rather, a description of how much energy the system has before and after adding heat and doing work. Theories in science that have been tested and proven are just as true as laws, but theories deal with explanations and laws with simple descriptions.
Both laws and theories work with “facts.” A fact just means something happens, such as this:
- If I lift up a pencil and let it go, it will fall to the ground unless something stops it.
We can use a law to describe what happens in this scenario. One such law is Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, which gives us a formula to predict how fast the pencil will fall. Or, we can use a theory about certain attractions to explain why it happens. A theory might be Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, which explains why things fall and expands on Newton’s laws.
In other words, facts just are, laws describe those facts and don’t change, and theories change or get expanded as new evidence is discovered in order to take that new evidence into account.
A hypothesis is what theories start out as. Suppose I make the following hypothesis:
- The pencil falls to the ground because of magnetic attraction.
Then I would go about testing this hypothesis and quickly discover that nonmagnetic objects fall to the ground just as fast as magnetic objects. This observation, a fact, would disprove my hypothesis, which would therefore not rise to the status of a scientific theory.
In science, anything that is called a “theory” has been tested and shown to be accurate in predicting the observed facts. New species develop—this fact is undisputed—and evolution correctly predicts that development.
To explain this, Charles Darwin first proposed the hypotheses of natural selection, the survival of the fit, and so on. As he and other scientists tested these hypotheses and evidence continued to be collected, the hypotheses were found to be correct in that they accurately predict what happens in the world. They’re still called “theories” since evolution will never be a law, but as a theory, it fits the facts quite well.
Science (evolution) isn’t “believed in” like religion
Finally, I wish writers would stop saying people “believe in” or don’t “believe in” evolution. Evolution is not a belief; it’s a scientific theory. Religion is a “belief.”
To explain what I mean, take a look at a Christian Bible, which talks about “faith” as being “blind.” I’m certainly no Bible scholar, but my overwhelming understanding of the Bible, which I’ve read cover-to-cover three times in my life, twice in a guided course, is that it is about the salvation of our souls, not about how species evolve.
Just as I wouldn’t look to a mechanical engineer to fix my transmission, I don’t look to the Bible for science, and I don’t look to science for faith.
Jesus himself, in John 20:29, says people who “believe without seeing” are “blessed,” as he compares them to Thomas, who asked to see proof of Jesus’ resurrection. The apostle Peter, on whose faith Jesus said he would build his church, says people who never saw Christ are still “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for [they] are receiving the end result of [their] faith, the salvation of [their] souls.” This “belief” in Christ is enough.
That doesn’t sound anything like science to me. Science is about observing things in the world and describing those natural phenomena and explaining why they happen—and trying to control those things that might benefit mankind. Religion is about things we can’t see, and by that, I don’t mean the forces of gravity. Christ is before all things. In him, everything comes together and holds together.
So, since different species pop up over time, people of profound faith have only two options:
- Admit they don’t understand what evolution is all about
- Admit they have misinterpreted Sacred Scripture
If option #1 is your choice, please stop telling schools how they should teach this important material. If option #2 is your choice, please consult with a priest or minister to come to a deeper understanding of Sacred Scripture and of your love in Christ.
Any other option is incompatible either with the fact that species evolve or with the fact that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Assuming Scripture is the inerrant Word of God, our interpretation of that Word must be wrong if we interpret the Bible to say that evolution does not occur. Because it does.