Science in Christian Perspective
SEMANTIC PROBLEMS IN THE CREATION-EVOLUTION DEBATE
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Montclair State College
Upper Montclair, NJ 07043
From: PSCF 38 (September 1986): 206-207
Statement of the Problem
The positions for and against evolution or creationism have been extensively argued for some time now, with no real resolution in sight. Scientists, convinced of what they consider to be creationism's obvious "unscientific" character, have boldly declared the battle to be won, although serious debate as to the precise meaning of the Darwinian synthesis still goes on in some scientific circles.1 Creationists, for their part, have continued to challenge and debate the fundamental principles of evolutionary biology, by denying the notion that evolution is the only plausible explanation of the origin of life and change in nature.
Neither side seems able to begin a meaningful dialogue with the other, and this is entirely understandable, given the adverse nature of their respective metaphysical positions. Part of the problem, however, seems to stem from nothing more than a simple lack of understanding between the two groups, brought about by the difference in how certain key concepts are defined. When two opposing parties cannot accept a set of basic definitions or concepts on which they both can agree, there is little hope of one side ever accepting (or even understanding) the views of the other. Many of the fundamental disagreements within the creation-evolution debate, when carefully analyzed, appear to be the result of careless or inaccurate use of language. The following examples, drawn from both creationist and evolutionary literature, clearly illustrate that both creationists and evolutionary scientists, confident of the correctness of their respective positions and the error of their opponents' point of view, and eager to convince others of the soundness of their ideas, are often guilty of using ambiguous or incorrect language. Meanings are sometimes obscured (often unconsciously), and precise definitions made elusive, often tending to discredit opposing viewpoints. As with all passionately held beliefs, it is difficult for one to remain totally objective, especially when being confronted with an opposing point of view; yet in order for meaningful dialogue to take place, it is essential that a careful analysis of key concepts and definitions be undertaken. It is only after each side clearly understands the other that fruitful discussion can begin.
Examples From Scientific Literature
Many leading scientists are totally convinced that the mechanism of natural selection as outlined by Darwin, combined with twentieth century discoveries in biochemistry and genetics (referred to as the "synthetic" theory of evolution in scientific circles), gives us the only correct explanation of change in nature. This dogmatic acceptance is of course quite unscientific in character, because every scientific theory, no matter how well it has withstood the test of time, is forever open to revision or even rejection. If one reads the current evolutionary literature, however, this careful, tentative attitude is almost totally absent.
Many of the semantic problems result from the different ways in which the words "fact" and "theory" are defined. According to Stephen Jay Gould, geologist at Harvard and a leading evolutionist, "facts" are the world's data. "Theories" are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.2 Yet scientists often make the mistake, when discussing evolution, of using these two words as they are more commonly employed, rather than in the specialized way in which science uses them to explain the status of an idea. (The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, broadly defines a "theory" as "hypothesis or supposition," and a "fact" as "truth" or "reality."). In an article in Newsweek, for example, Gould professes that "evolution is a fact, like apples falling out of trees."3 Dr. Carl Sagan, astronomer at Cornell and one of the more outspoken proponents of the power of the scientific method, affirms that "evolution is a fact amply demonstrated by the fossil record and by contemporary molecular biology."4 In his popular television series Cosmos, seen by millions on public television (and later a best-selling book), he states simply, "Evolution is a fact, not a theory,"5 Sir Julian Huxley, biologist and grandson of Thomas Huxley, the great biologist of Darwin's day, declared at the 1959 Darwin Centennial celebration at the University of Chicago that " . . . we all accept the fact of evolution.... The evolution of life is no longer a theory. It is a fact. It is the basis of all our thinking."6
A few scientists have long been aware of this problem and the confusion that often results. Professor Arthur David Ritchie of Cambridge, in his 1923 work entitled Scientific Method: An Inquiry into the Character and Validity of Natural Laws, wrote that "of course this (careless) use leads to some abuse in common speech so that 'theory' comes to mean simply what other people believe, 'fact' what I believe."' Philip Kitcher, whose 1982 book Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism contains a devastating attack of the creationist position, nevertheless tries to explain away this apparently deliberate misuse of language in science by declaring that "[scientists'] enthusiastic assertions that evolution is a proven fact can be charitably understood as claims that the (admittedly inconclusive) evidence we have for evolutionary theory is as good as we ever obtain in any field of science."6
Examples From Creationist Literature
Pro-creationist literature also contains many ambiguous definitions which are susceptible to multiple interpretations. While scientists sometimes use the words "fact" and "theory" in such a way as to make evolution appear to be a well established reality, creationist writers often apply the word "theory" as it is more commonly used (basically defined as a conjecture or guess) to illustrate that evolution is a questionable doctrine. They also criticize (and quite correctly) scientists' misuse of the word "fact" to denote evolution as a settled scientific issue.9 Although this criticism is entirely justified, it also serves at the same time to obscure the debate ever further.
For example, Dr. Kelly L. Segraves, director of the Creation-Science Research Center in San Diego, during a March 1981 court trial against the teaching of evolution in California public schools, asked in his complaint that educators "stop teaching evolution as a fact in public schools"10 (emphasis mine). Other writers concentrate on the tentative nature of all scientific suppositions to show that rather than being an asset to further research and new knowledge, this feature of the scientific enterprise is actually a fundamental weakness of the scientific method. Robert E. Kofahl, a leading creationist, writes that "Science cannot discover absolute truth because science is always changing ... No scientific theory can be 'proved' and the theory of evolution cannot even be tested as can the theories of experimental science."11 This of course is true, but it is also true of many other well established scientific theories. Even Einstein's Theory of Relativity is not totally proved in the sense that a better explanation may someday be found. There are also many theories, such as those in the fields of astronomy and cosmology, that are, of course, totally beyond the realm of direct testing or verification, and some theories, such as Einstein's, may predict phenomena that have yet to be observed. The creationists' tendency to present the tentative nature of science as a liability rather than an asset only serves to further discourage any meaningful discussion.Conclusion: Toward a More Fruitful Dialogue
2. Stephen Jay Gould, "Evolution as Fact and Theory," Discover, May 1981, p. 35.
3. Jerry Adler and John Carey, "Enigmas of Evolution," Newsweek 29, March 1982, p. 46.
4. Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden (New York: Ballantine Books, 1977), p. 6, footnote.5. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), p. 27.
6. "Evolution a Fact, Darwin Fe'te Told," New York Times, 26 Nov. 1959, p. 24.
7. Arthur David Ritchie, Scientific Method: An Inquiry into the Character and Validity of Natural Laws (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1923), p. 156.
8 Philip Kitcher, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationtsm (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982), p. 34-35
9. For an excellent discussion of this problem, illustrated with numerous examples taken from scientific literature, we Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? (New York: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 1967), Chapter 1: "Is Evolution an Established Fact?"
10. James Gorman, "Creationists vs. Evolution," Discover, May 1981, p. 33.
11. Robert E. Kofahl, Handy-Dandy Evolution Refuter (San Diego, Beta Books, 1977), p. 13, 18.