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Slam Dunk? Once Again, It’s the “Evolution Is a Theory” Thus “Overwhelmingly Supported” Fallacy

slam dunk

University of Glasgow chemist Paul Braterman explains – in The Conversation, republished by Newsweek – “How to slam dunk creationists when it comes to the theory of evolution.” Oh, do tell us now.

He begins:

The 2001 discovery of the seven million-year-old Sahelanthropus, the first known upright ape-like creatures, was yet more proof of humanity’s place among the great apes.

Stop right there. We almost didn’t get past that opener. Sahelanthropus is the species that, if accepted as a human ancestor would displace the prized australopithecines from our ancestry, and completely mess up the standard evolutionary tree. It’s also thought by some to just be a female gorilla. Could there be more bluffs from Dr. Braterman in this piece?

Indeed. Basically, he’s responding to the unsophisticated argument that since evolution is a “theory,” “we should be free to teach other theories alongside evolution in our classrooms.” Certainly, that’s not how we argue. See Casey Luskin’s post warning against the “just a theory” approach to critiquing evolution.

Braterman again:

How to respond? The usual answer is that we should teach students the meaning of the word “theory” as used in science — that is, a hypothesis (or idea) that has stood up to repeated testing.

He goes on to quote the National Academy of Sciences:

“The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.” Attaching this label to evolution is an indicator of strength, not weakness.

He concludes:

The correct response is to say that evolution is a theory – like gravity is a theory – and then redirect attention to the evidence. And that evidence is overwhelming.

Protein chemist Douglas Axe of Biologic Institute responds with a series of apt tweets. Summarizing:

US National Academy redefined “theory” for propagandistic reasons. According to Academy bluff, theory = “a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence.” The intended implication is that scientists only call something a theory if it’s overwhelmingly supported and accepted. That’s baloney!

He cites a number of relevant instances of how the word is actually used in scientific literature.

  • “There are currently 2 opposing theories concerning the nature of pain,” from “Pain Mechanisms: A New Theory,” in Survey of Anesthesiology
  • “Two opposing theories of cellular electrical potential,” in Bioelectrochemistry and Bioenergetics
  • “…reconciles the opposing theories for the inheritance of the disorder,” from “The inheritance of essential familial hypercholesterolemia,” in The American Journal of Medicine
  • “…there are essentially two opposing theories for the formation of fibrous veins,” from “Experimental simulation of the formation fibrous veins by localised dissolution-precipitation creep,” in Mineralogical Magazine
  • “Acute myeloid leukemia and Langerhans’ cell histiocytosis: Multiple theories for an unusual presentation,” in Leukemia Research

It’s simply not the case that science only attaches the word “theory” to an idea when it has been unassailably nailed down, being “overwhelmingly supported and accepted.”

Meanwhile, proponents of Darwinian evolution share a tendency to a brittle resistance to having their theory, idea, whatever, questioned. Why is that? You don’t find the same thing in discussions of the theory of gravity.

Axe again:

The problem with Darwinism isn’t that it’s a theory, but rather that its proponents guard it so defensively. Must be a very weak theory.

That sure sounds about right. Dr. Axe’s book, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed, is out now in paperback, by the way.

Photo credit: An actual slam dunk, by Trevor Mahlmann photos.trevormahlmann.com (Iowa State Photos) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.