As a typical student attending a typical secular university, I am more than familiar with the general consensus regarding the theory of evolution. Evolutionary theory is put forth with such confidence by the academic community that many have come to regard it as unquestioned fact. My humble goal is to question this conception.
Consider the recent controversy concerning the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools. I’m sure many of you have heard of the now infamous stickers placed on textbooks in Cobb County, Georgia. The stickers read something like this: “Evolution is a theory, not a fact.” What are we to think of this? Are these stickers just another campaign by extreme Christian fundamentalists? Maybe. However, there may be an alternative interpretation.
I think we can bring some clarity to the dispute over these stickers by articulating the sharp distinction between fact and theory. A “fact” is simply some state of the world. That a species exhibits observable changes over time is a fact. In contrast, a “theory” is a set of statements or laws that attempt to provide an “explanation” of some state of the world. The explanation of the observable changes within a species over time, by means of natural selection, is a theory. Theories are, therefore, in themselves not facts; they explain facts.
I think we can now understand at least part of the motivation behind these stickers. They were meant to challenge the perceived teaching of evolution as “fact,” and they were meant to make clear the accurate understanding of evolution as “theory.” To suggest otherwise, suggesting that such an understanding is entirely fallacious, threatens the very scientific status of evolutionary theory itself.
Maybe you’re thinking, “So what if it’s just theory and not fact? It’s not like the proponents of creationism have any “real” arguments to dispute evolutionary theory.” Well, there are, in fact, “real” arguments that call into question the credibility of evolutionary theory.
Let me first remind you that because evolutionary theory is a theory, it must, in order to retain its scientific status, be continually checked against empirical evidence. Therefore, if there is some body of evidence for which evolutionary theory cannot account, this provides at least some reason to doubt its validity. The question, then, is whether there is any such evidence. It seems there is. Renowned biochemist Michael Behe, in his book entitled “Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution,” presents a formidable objection to evolutionary theory based on evidence from biochemistry.
In his “Origin of Species,” Darwin stated if it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” According to Behe, such organs exist at the molecular level; organs he calls “irreducibly complex systems.” A biological system is irreducibly complex if (1) it is made up of a number of different components, all of which are necessary in order for that system to perform its function, and if (2) the removal of any one of the components would result in that system’s inability to perform its function.
One example of an irreducibly complex system is the bacterial flagellum. The bacterium’s flagellum propeller is so remarkable, in fact, that it can spin at ten thousand revolutions per minute, stop, and in an instant, start spinning at the same speed in the opposite direction. Now, the flagellum is irreducibly complex because if you were to remove any of its component parts, you would get not a slower moving flagellum, but a flagellum that doesn’t move at all and that cannot function. Therefore, because irreducibly complex systems have to be fully present, as they could not have ever existed without all of their component parts already there, in order to function at all, it is prohibitively improbable that they could have come about by the kind of gradualism required by evolutionary theory. Indeed, the very existence of these systems, some argue, necessitates a Creator, for only a Creator could have brought these fully present and fully functioning systems into being.
What I want to make clear is that advocates of creationism aren’t a bunch of dogmatic Christians who ignore the scientific evidence by, as it were, sticking their heads in the sand. Moreover, the evidence for their claims doesn’t come from biochemistry alone, but also from the fields of cosmology, physics, and astronomy (just to name a few). Their goal, therefore, is to provide the best explanation of the scientific evidence at hand, and their claim is that the existence of a Creator does just that.
I want to encourage those who read this to conduct their own investigation into the matter. Don’t go on merely believing what you’ve been told by the academic community. Don’t even go on merely believing what I’ve told you in this column. Go beyond all of this and wrestle with the evidence yourself. If you do, you just might find the Truth.
John Parra is a junior philosophy major.