Posted by: Dan | October 24, 2009

Quote of the Day – Gould and Evolution

In the American vernacular, “theory” often means “imperfect fact”—part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus the power of the creationist argument: evolution is “only” a theory and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): “Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science–that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.”

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 don’t go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s in this century, but apples didn’t suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Moreover, “fact” doesn’t mean “absolute certainty”; there ain’t no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

Evolutionists have been very clear about this distinction of fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory–natural selection–to explain the mechanism of evolution.

Stephen J. Gould, “Evolution as Fact and Theory”; Discover, May 1981

Just a little quibble with this quote though… In it, Gould says that Darwin proposed a theory to explain the mechanism of evolution. That’s untrue – Darwin proposed several, complementary theories to explain evolution, the most notable being Sexual Selection.


  1. It is a funny thing you should be looking at theory and their reasonableness. A new one, contiguous dimensional geometries supports the idea of contiguous worlds greater than this material one we live in. You should check it out.
    A hundred and sixty-six years ago Edwin Abbott wrote ‘Flatland ‘ so that any logical person would understand that contiguous dimensional worlds allows any thinking person to geometrically know how Christianity’s’ spiritual world could be right beside ours. Now ‘Techie Worlds’ examines Christian phenomena: Trinity, Resurrection, Judgment, Soul, and finds that Abbott’s concept provides mechanistically for those phenomena. This is the approach science uses: establish understandings of the real world by testing facts in the context of the theory. With such logical understandings, thinking people can accept Christianity’s teaching of love without bending their intellectual integrity. ‘Techie Worlds’ gives pause to Moslems and pagans by showing how and why the Trinity is. It explains realities that profit all mankind.
    It is so nice to be able to spread the word to people who want to learn important new views. ‘Techie Worlds’ is available at It completely reformats all discussions about God and where He is.


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