To quote the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on the subject in 2008, evolution is both a theory and a fact. This may sound confounding, but it is not. Continuing research constantly throws up new information, which adds new dimensions to our understanding of evolution. Not all emerging dimensions can be asserted through experimentation, but some others can be verified, and therefore, it is only fair to say evolution is both a theory and a fact.
Only serious students of science can understand and appreciate the stand of the NAS. There is no ambiguity in the simple fact that Charles Darwin’s theory of the organic basis for biological evolution that started millions of years ago is ongoing and will continue well into the future.
Darwin’s theory has been challenged ever since his Origin of Species was published in 1859. It is mostly religious fundamentalists who take strong objection to the idea that man evolved from monkeys. The majority of them believe that human beings are a special “creation” of god almighty. Quite simply, the theory of evolution is considered blasphemy by them. They have organised themselves to fight against the teaching and propagation of Darwin’s theory in schools and colleges in the United States and in some countries in Europe. They insist that evolution is just a theory, there is no experimental evidence for it, and therefore it should not be included in any teaching curriculum. Imitating the Bible-thumping evangelists in the West, the Quran-thumping Dr Zakir Naik also steadfastly maintains that Darwin’s theory has no scientific basis, otherwise it would have been called Darwin’s facts.
In 1987, the US Supreme Court ruled that creationism is a product of religious conviction, not scientific research, and cannot be taught in schools, since this means enforcing a particular religious point of view on science. After this verdict, appeared the theory of “intelligent design”, that modern-day multi-cellular organisms, including humans, are too complex to have evolved through simple time-bound evolutionary processes. These neo-creationists believe that such living beings could have arisen only through the pre-ordained design of a higher entity, namely god. God is the only intelligent designer.
All these extra-scientific theories and arguments have been shot down by the world’s leading academies of sciences, which is why religious fundamentalists refer to scientists as “godless”. Unfortunately, there is a section of politicians in the US who support the fundamentalists’ point of view and have expressed their solidarity with them by speaking for the theory of creation on the floor of the US Congress. One such politician in the present Vice-President Mike Pence.
When politicians take up their cause, fundamentalists get emboldened. There are several Christian Political Action Committees in the US that pump cash into the campaigns of politicians who support their worldview. If they get elected, they are expected to fight to bring legislation that espouses their beliefs about creation, abortion, intelligent design, gun control laws, stem cell research and so on.
Evolutionary biology is the basis of all the progress modern biology has achieved in the last 100 years. The theory of evolution has contributed to overall human well-being, including treating disease, developing new agriculture, and creating industrial innovations. The core of evolutionary theory is based on the study of past life forms and inter-relatedness in the wonderful biodiversity of present day organisms. The study of past life forms continues to expand in the form of fossil records, and through the application of modern biological and molecular sciences to demonstrate the facts of evolution. As with any growing subject matter, many interesting questions have arisen from these modern researches that need further research and probing. That’s the nature of scientific research. One seldom answers questions definitively, and can only draw temporary conclusions, and go after newly aroused curiosity and questions.
However, the argument against evolution is that the study is incomplete because the evidence is incomplete or incorrect or in doubt. The dilemma these people face is that if they accept the theory of evolution, their belief in religion cannot be reconciled. These basic questions were addressed in “Science, Evolution, and Creation”, a 2008 NAS report. The report is aimed at school board members, science teachers, education leaders, policy makers, legal scholars, parents, and others who might be interested in the quality of school education. It also targets high school and college students and those who wish to know the scientific evidence supporting evolution, and to understand why evolution is both a fact and an ongoing process responsible for the biological diversity we see today.
Colloquially, “theory” refers to a hunch or speculation that needs to be confirmed. A formal definition of “theory” in scientific parlance refers to a comprehensive and cumulative record of observations in nature supported by a large body of evidence. Many scientific theories have been so well-established that it is highly unlikely that their basic tenets will ever be altered. For example, the heliocentric theory, and cell or germ theory of biology, Newton’s laws of motion, theory of plate tectonics. Most such basic foundations of science are still called theories, which does not mean they still need further evidence to determine them.
One of the best utilities of a scientific theory is that it can be used to predict the future course of things of nature. For example, when evolutionary biologists discovered a fossil creature — tiktaalik, a big freshwater fish in the language of the Inuits of northern Canada — that existed some 375 million years ago, they predicted that they would find an intermediate fossil to demonstrate how living organisms made a transition land from water. This confirmed evolutionary theory.
In science, “fact” refers to an observation, measurement, or any other form of evidence that can be expected to appear the same way under similar or identical conditions. “Fact” also refers to scientific explanations that has been repeated experimentally or empirically tested. But science does not stop there. It continues to search for newer forms of experimental verification to further strengthen “facts”. In this respect, evolution is a fact based on previous evidence, ongoing experimental evidence, and efforts to find additional evidences. Since the evidence found thus far is so strong, scientists no longer question the theory of evolution, but continue to seek mechanisms underlying evolution, the speed of evolution and related questions.
Theory in science means the explanation for how a natural mechanism works. It reflects the nature of scientific query, and it differs from religion, which most often runs on diktats or edicts. There is a set of belief systems in religion, and followers take it as sacrosanct without questioning. This is not so in science. Science is always tentative and subject to experimental verification or empirical analysis. Credible science offers a rational explanation of why theory of special creation or intelligent design cannot be a part of science. Modern evidence in support of evolution comes from genomic sciences, based on complete genome DNA sequences of hundreds and thousands of organisms, including humans. DNA sequences have become a powerful tool in establishing genetic relationships between different organisms. DNA has confirmed fossil evidence, and helped advance knowledge of evolution where fossil records are not available yet. A new field of evolutionary developmental biology helps scientists to study how genetic exchanges have taken place between organisms during evolution and have shaped the form and structure of present day organisms. Thus evolution is still a dynamic subject of study.
Today, there is wide acceptance that the evidence of evolution can be compatible with religious faith. In 1996, addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II admitted that “there is significant argument in favour of the theory”. In 2014, Pope Francis averred that “evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation”. The Clergy Letter Project, which supports the teaching of evolution, has been signed by more than 10,000 Christian and Jewish clergy members. Many leading scientists, too, see no conflict between their faith and science. It is only fundamentalists in Islam and Christianity who believe that there exists nothing beyond what exists in the Quran and the Bible. It is not clear what view Hindu religious pontiffs have on the subject, and maybe it is best not to ask for their opinion.
The topic of evolution recently aroused some confusion and mild controversy in India when Satyapal Singh, Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development (HRD), rubbished Darwin’s theory. The country’s science academies countered him and accused him of bringing obscurantism into the field of science. He claimed that he too is trained in science — chemistry, and therefore understands science better than other politicians. Thankfully, better sense prevailed, and HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar assured the nation, particularly the scientific community that he has advised Singh not to assert his regressive ideas about evolution, and let scientists handle it. The controversy has died for now, but one never knows when it will erupt again from the mouth of another fundamentalist member of BJP or some Hindu organisation, who thinks that everything modern science is discovering has already been mentioned in ancient Hindu texts.
These kinds of obscurantist politicians are there in almost all political parties, and cause enormous damage to the cause of scientific progress, and higher education. That is why there is a constant need for creating public awareness about scientific progress regularly by the national science academies, but most of them just do not interact with the public. Dealing with the public is not easy, but one must keep trying, and never give up.
Shanthu Shantharam is a Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. A former biotechnology regulator with the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. Shantharam has served as a consultant to UN-FAO, UNIDO, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank. He was responsible for initiating the development of India’s biotech regulations in the early 1990s when he was a Fulbright Scholar at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute.
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