Theory or fact?

The account of the origin of life that I shall give is necessarily speculative; by definition, nobody was around to see what happened.  ~ Richard Dawkins 

In science's pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the bottom, far closer to phrenology than to physics. For evolutionary biology is a historical science, laden with history's inevitable imponderables. We evolutionary biologists cannot generate a Cretaceous Park to observe exactly what killed the dinosaurs; and, unlike "harder" scientists, we usually cannot resolve issues with a simple experiment, such as adding tube A to tube B and noting the color of the mixture. ~ Jerry Coyne  see also: Light of the World

Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science -- the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place. Laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes. ~ Ernst Mayr

The basic framework of the theory is that evolution is a two-stage phenomenon the production of variation and the sorting of the variants by natural selection. Yet agreement on this basic thesis does not mean that the work of the evolutionist is completed. The basic theory is in many instances hardly more than a postulate and its application raises numerous questions in almost every concrete case. ~ Ernst Mayr

Another aspect of the new philosophy of biology concerns the role of laws. Laws give way to concepts in Darwinism. In the physical sciences, as a rule, theories, are based on laws; for example, the laws of motion led to the theory of gravitation. In evolutionary biology, however, theories are largely based on concepts such as competition, female choice, selection, succession and dominance, These biological concepts, and the theories based on them, cannot be reduced to the laws and theories of the physical sciences ~ Ernst Mayr

We must ask first whether the theory of evolution by natural selection is scientific or pseudoscientific .... Taking the first part of the theory, that evolution has occurred, it says that the history of life is a single process of species-splitting and progression. This process must be unique and unrepeatable, like the history of England. This part of the theory is therefore a historical theory, about unique events, and unique events are, by definition, not part of science, for they are unrepeatable and so not subject to test. ~ Colin Patterson

The domain of origin science was taken over by operation science. Even the unique, unrepeated events of the origin of the universe, of life, and of new life forms were treated as though the were observed regularities in the present. The difference between unobserved past singularities (origin science) was obscured. The search for natural (secondary) caused for how the universe and life operate in the present was gradually extended to how they originated in the past. Overlooked was the fact that events of origin are not a recurring pattern of events against which a theory of origin can be tested. ~ Norman Geisler 

The theory of natural selection can describe and explain phenomena with considerable precision, but it cannot make reliable predictions, except through such trivial and meaningless circular statements as, for instance: “The fitter individuals will on the average leave more offspring. ~ Ernst Mayr

All too often, there is a slide from science to something more, and this slide goes unmentioned -- unrealized even.  ~ Michael Ruse

I now wish to give some reasons why I regard Darwinism as metaphysical, and as a research programme. It is metaphysical because it is not testable. One might think that it is. It seems to assert that, if ever on some plane we find life which satisfies conditions (a) and (b) then (c) will come into play and bring about in time a rich variety of distinct forma. Darwinism, however, does not assert as much as this. For assume that we find life on Mars consisting of exactly three species of bacteria with a genetic outfit similar to that of three terrestrial species. Is Darwinism refuted? By no means. We shall say that these three species were the only forms among the many mutants which were sufficiently well adjusted to survive. And we shall say the same if there is only one species (or none). Thus Darwinism does not really predict the evolution of variety.  It therefore can not really explain it. At best, it can predict the evolution of variety under "favourable conditions". But it is hardly possible to describe in general terms what favourable conditions are -- except that in their presence, a variety of forms will emerge.

And yet I believe I have taken the theory almost at its best -- almost in its most testable form. One might say that it "almost predicts" a great variety of forms of life in other fields, its predictive or explanatory power is still more disappointing. Take "adaptation". At first sight natural selection appears to explain it, and in a way it does; but hardly in a scientific way.  To say that a species now living is adapted to its environment is, in fact, almost tautological, indeed we use the terms "adaptation" and "selection" in such a way that we can say that, if the species were not adapted, it would have been eliminated by natural selection. Similarly, if a species has been eliminated it must have been ill adapted to the conditions. Adaptation of fitness is defined by modern evolutionists as survival value and can be measured by actual success in survival: there is hardly any possibility of testing a theory as feeble as this.   ~ Karl Popper

Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection in particular is hopelessly metaphysical, according to the rules of etiquette laid down in the Logic of Scientific Inquiry and widely believed in by practicing scientists who bother to think about the problem. The first rule for any scientific hypothesis ought to be that it is at least possible to conceive of an observation that would contradict the theory. For what good is a theory that is guaranteed by its internal logical structure to agree with all conceivable observations, irrespective of the real structure of the world? If scientists are going to use logically unbeatable theories about the world, they might as well give up natural science and take up religion. Yet is that not exactly the situation with regard to Darwinism? The theory of evolution by natural selection states that changes in the inherited characters of species occur, giving rise to differentiation in space and time, because different genetical types leave different numbers of offspring in different environments... Such a theory can never be falsified, for it asserts that some environmental difference created the conditions for natural selection of a new character. It is existentially quantified so that the failure to find the environmental factor proves nothing, except that one has not looked hard enough. Can one really imagine observations about nature that would disprove natural selection as a cause of the difference in bill size? The theory of natural selection is then revealed as metaphysical rather than scientific. Natural selection explains nothing because it explains everything.  ~ Richard Lewontin 

The theory of phlogiston was an inversion of the true nature of combustion. Removing phlogiston was in reality adding oxygen, while adding phlogiston was actually removing oxygen. The theory was a total misrepresentation of reality. Phlogiston did not even exist, and yet its existence was firmly believed and the theory adhered to rigidly for nearly one hundred years throughout the eighteenth century. ... As experimentation continued the properties of phlogiston became more bizarre and contradictory. But instead of questioning the existence of this mysterious substance it was made to serve more comprehensive purposes. ... For the skeptic or indeed to anyone prepared to step out of the circle of Darwinian belief, it is not hard to find inversions of common sense in modern evolutionary thought which are strikingly reminiscent of the mental gymnastics of the phlogiston chemists or the medieval astronomers.

To the skeptic, the proposition that the genetic programmes of higher organisms, consisting  of something close to a thousand million bits of information, equivalent to the sequence of letters in a small library of one thousand volumes, containing in encoded form countless  thousands of intricate algorithms controlling, specifying and ordering the growth and development of billions and billions of cells into the form of a complex organism, were composed by a purely random process is simply an affront to reason. But to the Darwinist the idea is accepted without a ripple of doubt -- the paradigm takes precedence!  ~ Michael Denton

Observational results, too, will speak in favour of the theory as they are formulated in its terms. It will seem that the truth has at last been arrived at. At the same time, it is evident that all contact with the world has been lost and that the stability achieved, the semblance of absolute truth, is nothing but the result of an absolute conformism. For how can we possibly test, or improve upon, the truth of a theory if it is built in such a manner that any conceivable event can be described, and explained, in terms of its principles? The only way of investigating such all-embracing principles would be to compare them with a different set of equally all-embracing principles -- but this procedure has been excluded from the very beginning. The myth is, therefore, of no objective relevance; it continues to exist solely as the result of the effort of the community of believers and of their leaders, be these now priests or Nobel prize winners. Its 'success' is entirely man made.   ~ Paul Feyerabend  

It is easy enough to make up stories of how one form gave rise to another, and to find reasons why the stages should be favoured by natural selection. But such stories are not part of science, for there is no way of putting them to the test. ~ Colin Patterson 

To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story -- amusing, perhaps even instructive, but not scientific. ~ Henry Gee 

Another thing I must point out is that you cannot prove a vague theory wrong. If the guess that you make is poorly expressed and rather vague, and the method that you use for figuring out the consequences is a little vague - you are not sure, and you say, ‘I think everything’s right because it’s all due to so and so, and such and such do this and that more or less, and I can sort of explain how this works'... then you see that this theory is good, because it cannot be proved wrong! Also if the process of computing the consequences is indefinite, then with a little skill any experimental results can be made to look like the expected consequences. ~ Richard Feynman 

These theories appeared to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it... Once, in 1919, I reported to him a case which to me did not seem particularly Adlerian, but which he found no difficulty in analysing in terms of his theory of inferiority feelings, although he had not even seen the child. Slightly shocked, I asked him how he could be so sure. "Because of my thousandfold experience," he replied; whereupon I could not help saying: "And with this new case, I suppose, your experience has become thousand-and-one-fold." ~ Karl Popper

My argument will be that Darwinism is the only known theory that is in  principle capable of explaining certain aspects of life. If I am right it means that, even if there were no actual evidence in favour of Darwinian theory... we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories

One way to dramatize this point is to make a prediction. I predict that, if a form of life is ever discovered in another part of the universe, however outlandish and weirdly alien that form of life may be in detail, it will be found to resemble life on earth in one key respect: it will have evolved by some kind of Darwinian natural selection.  ~ Richard Dawkins   

It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe.  ~ Richard Dawkins   

Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.   ~ Richard Dawkins 

Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved. ~ Francis Crick 

In scientific controversies, there is rarely any argument about facts. It is rather their interpretation that is controversial.  ~ Ernst Mayr

Facts do not "speak for themselves"; they are read in the light of theory. Creative thought, in science as much as in the arts, is the motor of changing opinion.  ~ Stephen Jay Gould   see also: Bias Illustrations

On his standard of proof, NATURAL science would never progress, for without the making of theories I am convinced there would be no observation.  ~ Charles Darwin  

Scientists sometimes deceive themselves into thinking that philosophical ideas are only, at best, decorations or parasitic commentaries on the hard, objective triumphs of science, and that they themselves are immune to the confusions that philosophers devote their lives to dissolving. But there is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.  ~ Daniel Dennett  

Biochemists and biologists who adhere blindly to the Darwinism theory search for results that will be in agreement with their theories and consequently orient their research in a given direction ... This intrusion of theories has unfortunate results: it deprives observations and experiments of their objectivity, makes them biased, and, moreover, creates false problems. ... Assuming that the Darwinian hypothesis is correct, they interpret fossil data according to it; it is only logical that they should confirm it: the premises imply the conclusions. The error in method is obvious.  ~ Pierre Grasse 

There can be no observations without an immense apparatus of preexisting theory. Before sense experiences become "observations" we need a theoretical question, and what counts as a relevant observation depends upon a theoretical frame into which it is to be placed. Repeatable observations that do not fit into an existing frame have a way of disappearing from view, and the experiments that produced them are not revisited. ~ Richard Lewontin 

I can understand such an attitude directed toward photographs of objects -- through opportunities for subtle manipulation are legion even here. But many of our pictures are incarnations of concepts masquerading as neutral descriptions of nature. These are the most potent sources of conformity, since ideas passing as descriptions lead us to equate the tentative with the unambiguously factual. Suggestions for the organization of thought are transformed to established patterns in nature. Guesses and hunches become things.   ~ Stephen Jay Gould 

Frank admissions of ignorance are much to be preferred to overconfident claims to knowledge that in the end cannot be adequately justified. Despite advertisements to the contrary, science is not a juggernaut that relentlessly pushes back the frontiers of knowledge. Rather, science is an interconnected web of theoretical and factual claims about the world that are constantly being revised and for which changes in one portion of the web can induce radical changes in another. In particular, science regularly confronts the problem of having to retract claims that it once confidently asserted. ~ William Dembski

see also: Dogmatic Evolutionism


Evolutionism and atheism

Common Objections

What is the evidence

Intelligent Design  

Theory or fact?  

Scientists and bias  

Evolutionism and scripture


Are Creationists honest?

Audio Video  


Works Cited