ONLY A THEORY?
that you are a teacher of Roman history and the Latin language, anxious to impart your enthusiasm for the ancient world – for the elegiacs of Ovid and the odes of Horace, the sinewy economy of Latin grammar as exhibited in the oratory of Cicero, the strategic niceties of the Punic Wars, the generalship of Julius Caesar and the voluptuous excesses of the later emperors. That’s a big undertaking and it takes time, concentration, dedication. Yet you find your precious time continually preyed upon, and your class’s attention distracted, by a baying pack of ignoramuses (as a Latin scholar you would know better than to say ‘ignorami’) who, with strong political and especially financial support, scurry about tirelessly attempting to persuade your unfortunate pupils that the Romans never existed. There never was a Roman Empire. The entire world came into existence only just beyond living memory. Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, Romansh: all these languages and their constituent dialects sprang spontaneously and separately into being, and owe nothing to any predecessor such as Latin. Instead of devoting your full attention to the noble vocation of classical scholar and teacher, you are forced to divert your time and energy to a rearguard defence of the proposition that the Romans existed at all: a defence against an exhibition of ignorant prejudice that would make you weep if you weren’t too busy fighting it.
If my fantasy of the Latin teacher seems too wayward, here’s a more realistic example. Imagine you are a teacher of more recent history, and your lessons on twentieth-century Europe are boycotted,
heckled or otherwise disrupted by well-organized, well-financed and politically muscular groups of Holocaust-deniers. Unlike my hypothetical Rome-deniers, Holocaust-deniers really exist. They are vocal, superficially plausible, and adept at seeming learned. They are supported by the president of at least one currently powerful state, and they include at least one bishop of the Roman Catholic Church. Imagine that, as a teacher of European history, you are continually faced with belligerent demands to ‘teach the controversy’, and to give ‘equal time’ to the ‘alternative theory’ that the Holocaust never happened but was invented by a bunch of Zionist fabricators. Fashionably relativist intellectuals chime in to insist that there is no absolute truth: whether the Holocaust happened is a matter of personal belief; all points of view are equally valid and should be equally ‘respected’.
The plight of many science teachers today is not less dire. When they attempt to expound the central and guiding principle of biology; when they honestly place the living world in its historical context – which means evolution; when they explore and explain the very nature of life itself, they are harried and stymied, hassled and bullied, even threatened with loss of their jobs. At the very least their time is wasted at every turn. They are likely to receive menacing letters from parents, and have to endure the sarcastic smirks and close-folded arms of brainwashed children. They are supplied with state-approved textbooks that have had the word ‘evolution’ systematically expunged, or bowdlerized into ‘change over time’. Once, we were tempted to laugh this kind of thing off as a peculiarly American phenomenon. Teachers in Britain and Europe now face the same problems, partly because of American influence, but more significantly because of the growing Islamic presence in the classroom – abetted by the official commitment to ‘multiculturalism’ and the terror of being thought racist.
It is frequently, and rightly, said that senior clergy and theologians have no problem with evolution and, in many cases, actively support scientists in this respect. This is often true, as I know from the agreeable experience of collaborating with the then Bishop of
Oxford, now Lord Harries, on two separate occasions.
In 2004 we wrote a joint article in the Sunday Times
whose concluding words were: ‘Nowadays there is nothing to debate. Evolution is a fact and, from a Christian perspective, one of the greatest of God’s works.’ The last sentence was written by Richard Harries, but we agreed about all the rest of our article. Two years previously, Bishop Harries and I had organized a joint letter to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, which read as follows:
Dear Prime Minister,
We write as a group of scientists and Bishops to express our concern about the teaching of science in the Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead.
Evolution is a scientific theory of great explanatory power, able to account for a wide range of phenomena in a number of disciplines. It can be refined, confirmed and even radically altered by attention to evidence. It is not, as spokesmen for the college maintain, a ‘faith position’ in the same category as the biblical account of creation which has a different function and purpose.
The issue goes wider than what is currently being taught in one college. There is a growing anxiety about what will be taught and how it will be taught in the new generation of proposed faith schools. We believe that the curricula in such schools, as well as that of Emmanuel City Technology College, need to be strictly monitored in order that the respective disciplines of science and religious studies are properly respected.
The Rt Revd Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford; Sir David Attenborough FRS; The Rt Revd Christopher Herbert, Bishop of St Albans; Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society; Professor John Enderby FRS, Physical Secretary, Royal Society; The Rt Revd John Oliver, Bishop of Hereford; The Rt Revd Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham; Sir Neil Chalmers, Director, Natural History Museum; The Rt Revd Thomas Butler, Bishop of Southwark; Sir Martin Rees FRS, Astronomer Royal; The Rt Revd Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth; Professor Patrick Bateson FRS, Biological Secretary, Royal Society; The Rt Revd Crispian Hollis, Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth; Sir Richard Southwood FRS; Sir Francis Graham-Smith FRS, Past Physical Secretary, Royal Society; Professor Richard Dawkins FRS
Bishop Harries and I organized this letter in a hurry. As far as I remember, the signatories to the letter constituted 100 per cent of those we approached. There was no disagreement either from scientists or from bishops.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has no problem with evolution, nor does the Pope (give or take the odd wobble over the precise palaeontological juncture when the human soul was injected), nor do educated priests and professors of theology. This is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact. It is not intended as an anti-religious book. I’ve done that, it’s another T-shirt, this is not the place to wear it again. Bishops and theologians who have attended to the evidence for evolution have given up the struggle against it. Some may do so reluctantly, some, like Richard Harries, enthusiastically, but all except the woefully uninformed are forced to accept the fact of evolution. They may think God had a hand in starting the process off, and perhaps didn’t stay his hand in guiding its future progress. They probably think God cranked the universe up in the first place, and solemnized its birth with a harmonious set of laws and physical constants calculated to fulfil some inscrutable purpose in which we were eventually to play a role. But, grudgingly in some cases, happily in others, thoughtful and rational churchmen and women accept the evidence for evolution.
What we must not do is complacently assume that, because bishops
and educated clergy accept evolution, so do their congregations. Alas, as I have documented in the Appendix, there is ample evidence to the contrary from opinion polls. More than 40 per cent of Americans deny that humans evolved from other animals, and think that we – and by implication all of life – were created by God within the last 10,000 years. The figure is not quite so high in Britain, but it is still worryingly large. And it should be as worrying to the churches as it is to scientists. This book is necessary. I shall be using the name ‘history-deniers’ for those people who deny evolution: who believe the world’s age is measured in thousands of years rather than thousands of millions of years, and who believe humans walked with dinosaurs. To repeat, they constitute more than 40 per cent of the American population. The equivalent figure is higher in some countries, lower in others, but 40 per cent is a good average and I shall from time to time refer to the history-deniers as the ‘40-percenters’.
“I still say it’s only a theory.”
To return to the enlightened bishops and theologians, it would be nice if they’d put a bit more effort into combating the anti-scientific nonsense that they deplore. All too many preachers, while agreeing that evolution is true and Adam and Eve never existed, will then blithely go into the pulpit and make some moral or theological point about Adam and Eve in their sermons without once mentioning that,
of course, Adam and Eve never actually existed! If challenged, they will protest that they intended a purely ‘symbolic’ meaning, perhaps something to do with ‘original sin’, or the virtues of innocence. They may add witheringly that, obviously, nobody would be so foolish as to take their words literally. But do their congregations know that? How is the person in the pew, or on the prayer-mat, supposed to know which bits of scripture to take literally, which symbolically? Is it really so easy for an uneducated churchgoer to guess? In all too many cases the answer is clearly no, and anybody could be forgiven for feeling confused. If you don’t believe me, look at the Appendix.
Think about it, Bishop. Be careful, Vicar. You are playing with dynamite, fooling around with a misunderstanding that’s waiting to happen – one might even say almost bound to happen if not forestalled. Shouldn’t you take greater care, when speaking in public, to let your yea be yea and your nay be nay? Lest ye fall into condemnation, shouldn’t you be going out of your way to counter that already extremely widespread popular misunderstanding and lend active and enthusiastic support to scientists and science teachers?
The history-deniers themselves are among those that I am trying to reach in this book. But, perhaps more importantly, I aspire to arm those who are not history-deniers but know some – perhaps members of their own family or church – and find themselves inadequately prepared to argue the case.
Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the Holocaust, even allowing for eye witnesses to the Holocaust. It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees, somewhat more distant cousins of monkeys, more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips . . . continue the list as long as desired. That didn’t have to be true. It is not self-evidently, tautologically, obviously true, and there was a time when most people, even educated people, thought it wasn’t. It didn’t have to be true, but it is. We know this because
a rising flood of evidence supports it. Evolution is a fact, and this book will demonstrate it. No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it.
Why, then, do we speak of ‘Darwin’s theory of evolution’, thereby, it seems, giving spurious comfort to those of a creationist persuasion – the history-deniers, the 40-percenters – who think the word ‘theory’ is a concession, handing them some kind of gift or victory?
WHAT IS A THEORY? WHAT IS A FACT?
Only a theory? Let’s look at what ‘theory’ means. The Oxford English Dictionary gives two meanings (actually more, but these are the two that matter here).
Theory, Sense 1: A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.
Theory, Sense 2: A hypothesis proposed as an explanation; hence, a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture; an idea or set of ideas about something; an individual view or notion.
Obviously the two meanings are quite different from one another. And the short answer to my question about the theory of evolution is that the scientists are using Sense 1, while the creationists are – perhaps mischievously, perhaps sincerely – opting for Sense 2. A good example of Sense 1 is the Heliocentric Theory of the Solar System, the theory that Earth and the other planets orbit the sun. Evolution fits Sense 1 perfectly. Darwin’s theory of evolution is
indeed a ‘scheme or system of ideas or statements’. It does account for a massive ‘group of facts or phenomena’. It is ‘a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment’ and, by generally informed consent, it is ‘a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed’. It is certainly very far from ‘a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture’. Scientists and creationists are understanding the word ‘theory’ in two very different senses. Evolution is a theory in the same sense as the heliocentric theory. In neither case should the word ‘only’ be used, as in ‘only a theory’.
As for the claim that evolution has never been ‘proved’, proof is a notion that scientists have been intimidated into mistrusting. Influential philosophers tell us we can’t prove anything in science. Mathematicians can prove things – according to one strict view, they are the only people who can – but the best that scientists can do is fail to disprove things while pointing to how hard they tried. Even the undisputed theory that the moon is smaller than the sun cannot, to the satisfaction of a certain kind of philosopher, be proved in the way that, for example, the Pythagorean Theorem can be proved. But massive accretions of evidence support it so strongly that to deny it the status of ‘fact’ seems ridiculous to all but pedants. The same is true of evolution. Evolution is a fact in the same sense as it is a fact that Paris is in the Northern Hemisphere. Though logic-choppers rule the town,1
some theories are beyond sensible doubt, and we call them facts. The more energetically and thoroughly you try to disprove a theory, if it survives the assault, the more closely it approaches what common sense happily calls a fact.
I could carry on using ‘Theory Sense 1’ and ‘Theory Sense 2’ but numbers are unmemorable. I need substitute words. We already have a good word for ‘Theory Sense 2’. It is ‘hypothesis’. Everybody understands that a hypothesis is a tentative idea awaiting
confirmation (or falsification), and it is precisely this tentativeness that evolution has now shed, although it was still burdened with it in Darwin’s time. ‘Theory Sense 1’ is harder. It would be nice simply to go on using ‘theory’, as though ‘Sense 2’ didn’t exist. Indeed, a good case could be made that Sense 2 shouldn’t
exist, because it is confusing and unnecessary, given that we have ‘hypothesis’. Unfortunately Sense 2 of ‘theory’ is in common use and we can’t by fiat ban it. I am therefore going to take the considerable, but just forgivable, liberty of borrowing from mathematics the word ‘theorem’ for Sense 1. It is actually a mis-borrowing, as we shall see, but I think the risk of confusion is outweighed by the benefits. As a gesture of appeasement towards affronted mathematicians, I am going to change my spelling to ‘theorum’.2
First, let me explain the strict mathematical usage of theorem, while at the same time clarifying my earlier statement that, strictly speaking, only mathematicians are licensed to prove
anything (lawyers aren’t, despite well-remunerated pretensions).
To a mathematician, a proof is a logical demonstration that a conclusion necessarily follows from axioms that are assumed. Pythagoras’ Theorem is necessarily true, provided only that we assume Euclidean axioms, such as the axiom that parallel straight lines never meet. You are wasting your time measuring thousands of right-angled triangles, trying to find one that falsifies Pythagoras’ Theorem. The Pythagoreans proved it, anybody can work through the proof, it’s just true and that’s that. Mathematicians use the idea of proof to make a distinction between a ‘conjecture’ and a ‘theorem’, which bears a superficial resemblance to the OED
’s distinction between the two senses of ‘theory’. A conjecture is a proposition that looks true but has never been proved. It will become a theorem when it has been proved. A famous example is the Goldbach Conjecture, which states that any even integer can be expressed as the sum of
two primes. Mathematicians have failed to disprove it for all even numbers up to 300 thousand million million million, and common sense would happily call it Goldbach’s Fact. Nevertheless it has never been proved, despite lucrative prizes being offered for the achievement, and mathematicians rightly refuse to place it on the pedestal reserved for theorems. If anybody ever finds a proof, it will be promoted from Goldbach’s Conjecture to Goldbach’s Theorem, or maybe X’s Theorem where X is the clever mathematician who finds the proof.
Carl Sagan made sarcastic use of the Goldbach Conjecture in his riposte to people who claim to have been abducted by aliens.
Occasionally, I get a letter from someone who ...