Should Evolution Be A Law Rather Than A Theory?
    By Oliver Knevitt | April 23rd 2013 08:00 PM | 37 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    In a nutshell: I like fossils. But even more than than that, I like arguments about fossils. Which is why my current occupation as a PhD researcher...

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    "Yeah well, it's just a theory".
    Seven words that make my blood boil.

    This same point has been made in every evolution-creation debate there has ever been, and it provokes the same exasperated response from the evolution camp every time.

    "Evolution is both a fact AND a theory. You're misunderstanding scientific terminology. What about the theory of gravity; if you don't believe it then you don't just float away!"

    The problem is based on the dichotomy between the colloquial use of the word theory and the scientific use. This is a dichotomy that the public is not generally aware of. Many are sympathetic to the idea of teaching evolution side by side with creationism because "after all, aren't they both theories"?

    It's not just a disjunct, however. The two definitions of the word are diametrically opposed. 

    1. A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.
    6. An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture.

    What has brought this on, you may ask? Well, my article last week was about the most irritating words used in reporting evolution stories in the media. I received an email from Larrie  D Ferreiro who argues that actually, the most irritating term using in discussion evolution stories is the prefix "theory", which is like painting a big, red target on ourselves. As he puts it, perhaps we should think about removing their weapon of choice.

    From: Dr. Larrie D. Ferreiro
    To: Oliver Knevitt
    Subject: The most irritating term in evolution reporting is THEORY 
    Dear Dr-to-be Kneviit,
    By way of introudction, I'm a UCL and Imperial College London grad, PhDin history of science, technology and engineering.   My recent book "Measure of the Earth" (Basic Books, 2011) describes an 18th century Geodesic  Mission to the Equator to determine the true shape of the Earth, and at the same time prove or disprove Newton's laws.  
    I argue that the most irritating term in evolution is the use of the phrase "theory of evolution", instead of "law of evolution".  Why do biologists and paleontologists continue to paint a huge, flashing target on their profession by using the term "theory of evolution", i.e., inviting criticism by allowing creationist and anti-science opponents to focus on the word "theory"?  There is a perfectly acceptable alternative, "law of evolution", which, etymologically speaking, would stop many (not all) arguments dead in their tracks. 
    The precedent for this is, of course, the "theory of gravity", in which Newton's ideas of attraction were opposed both politically and by those with the religious conviction that it eliminated the hand of God -- they preferred the great, swirling ether of Descartes, which he claimed had been set in motion through divine action (this was all c. 1720-1745).  Newton's ideas won out, not merely because the science had proved it correct (the Geodesic Mission I mentioned was part of that), but because the political landscape changed -- and in part because scientists were by then using the phrase "law of gravity".  
    Today, we don't call it the "theory of gravity" -- we call it the "law of gravity" because it fits the facts as nothing else.  Evolution has long since been proven to fit the facts, so I argue that we need to start using the word "law" instead of "theory".  We also refer to various other theories as "laws" -- Newton's laws, Maxwell's laws, Ohm's law, etc.  so there is ample precedent for throwing away "theory" and replacing it with "law".   Yes, it may be scientifically proper to say "theory", but the political anti-science wing latches on to "theory" as the road to doubt, and politics trumps science every time.   
    Dr. Larrie D. Ferreiro

    So. Is this an intractable problem? Stephen Jay Gould wrote about what we mean by theory extensively, and of course, the ideal situation would be for widespread teaching of the difference. If we taught the theory of evolution from the ground up, and from an early age, then people would not fall for such vacuous statements.

    But this is wishful thinking. It seems likely that we will persist with high school biology taught without reform for some time as it is: a hobbled together mishmash of case studies and bastardized explanations. Without a coherent and unified teaching of biology, centred around evolutionary theory, the general public will continue to treat evolution as almost akin to hypothesis, and doubt it. Not, I should reiterate, just doubting that natural selection is the theory that explains evolution; instead doubting that evolution itself occurred, it being a mere hypothesis to explain life.

    Perhaps the question boils down to this. Do we think that public disenfranchisement with evolution is sufficient cause to change our definitions?

    If so, and we decide that theory is an tainted and schizoid word to be junked, then there are two alternative words we can use to describe evolution. We could instead refer to it as evolutionary science or as the law of evolution.

    The first option is, semantically speaking, less destructive. We're not bending definitions here; evolutionary theory really is a mix of facts and testable explanations.

    However, the term "evolutionary science" is undeniably somewhat underwhelming. it is rather vacuous, because it doesn't really have a formal definition like theory does. I can put my finger on why it is so unappealing. It feels a little like a me-too move. After all, we have creation science and creation scientists. Yes it's an abhorrent use of the word, but to me it still feels like we're legitimising them by setting ourselves up as an equal opponent. So, unfortunately, I don't think this would solve the problem.

    The second option, however, really plays with how we should accurately define evolution. Can we really call evolution a law? Colloquially, we refer to gravity as the law of gravity. So why not the law of evolution?

    Here, we have the same issue that we had with the word theory, except that the colloquial definition is not the polar opposite of the philosophical one. Collquially we think of a law as rule; a decree that is never broken. The philosophical definition, which is something which many debate over, is something akin to a set of rules that link facts.

    Evolution aside, you probably won't be surprised to learn that many have pondered whether natural selection can be termed a law. Ultimately, it still needs to be testable to be a law. Personally, I'm happy to call natural selection a law. Here's why.

    A law must be able to say that given a certain set of conditions, the outcome we get arises according to a particular function of parameters. So, in natural selection, our starting conditions are replicating entities having heritable variations in a competitive environment. The outcome is increased fitness of the entities. The function is the adaptive design and environmental variables.

    The key here is that it is not sufficient to say that if we have the perfect conditions for natural selection then wherever the conditions apply, natural selection results. Instead, the way I've laid it out, based on reading this paper (paywalled, sorry), it means that we have a framework that is testable and predictive. In other words, we have a law of natural selection.

    When we talk about evolution as a whole though, I think we lose this rigidity. This may be a banal point, but what about extinctions? The best way to look at it, I think, is that evolutionary theory is a mosaic of facts and testable explanations, laid on the foundations of the law of natural selection; the most important force in evolution (but not the only one). We would lose some of this nuance if we went the whole hog and called it the law of evolution. 

    This is not to mention that the philosophers would probably disown us. We can't have a special use of the word law just for evolution. It's also not feasible to have one rule for us scientists, the "ones in the know", and another rule for the members of the public. It would not help our cause if we undermined their trust.

    So let's again return to the question. Is public disenfranchisement with evolution sufficient cause to change any definitions?

    Begrudgingly, I'd have to say no. I'm no philosopher, but I don't think law really does justice to what evolutionary theory is. In a way, the word law is just too boring and doesn't capture the breadth of different ideas that surround evolution. Let's face it: gravity is boring. It's the sort of thing that deserves to be called a law. If evolution were a law, it would be choc-a-bloc with caveats and exceptions. It simply doesn't capture the unprectiveness, nuance, and expanse of evolution.

    Which means that we're still in the intractable situation we were in before, or rather, now. Unless anyone else disagrees, of course, in which case, I'd like to hear your thoughts.


    Gerhard Adam
    I don't think it's worth the fuss and bother.  Most people that question evolution aren't going to be swayed by changing the terminology.  In fact, it will make it appear even more that biology is trying to force a definition on everyone.

    This isn't the only issue either.  We've already heard about the requirement that a theory must be capable of being "falsified", despite the abuse that that engenders.

    Similarly you don't want to open the door to the creationist argument claiming that "irreducible complexity" is also a law, etc.  In short, I don't see that it changes anything, except to escalate the controversy to a different level.

    In the end, what difference does it make if people accept evolution or not?  Other than the frustration of dealing with people that don't understand it, what's really at stake?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Greg M.
    Yes, Gerhard is right. If not about the word theory, there will be another semantic circle-jerk. You cannot teach those who do not want to learn.
    Begin with this assumption: it's all a joke. Then you will see the humour in everything.
    There is an enormous weight to the words we use. For example the people opposed to abortion call themselves "Pro Life" while those favoring abortion rights call themselves "Pro Choice." Scientists need to use terms people understand in order to communicate with the general public. We can't be caught up by some "elitist" term like "Theory of Evolution" if people understand it to mean that it is a guess, rather than the scientific meaning of theory. Science is under assault by a dedicated group of religious fanatics and corporate hacks who are using the misunderstanding of terms and playing on failure of many people to understand the basic principles to discredit science itself. it is a political game and not just scientists, but the entire country is suffering through bad decisions and fear because of that attack on science qnd the doubts it creates. The term THEORY is a self made strawman that is easily punctured and ridiculed by those who chose to misrepresent reality. Without a doubt we should be calling it the "Law of Evolution" as presenting it as verifiable fact. Stop playing the stupid self-defeating practice of only using the term Theory when we should be calling it a law.

    This is a little funny, because in physics we try to throw out the term "law" for similar reasons - it is as misleading as "theory". The replacement would be a step backwards if not clearly presented as "emergent law" (like those of thermodynamics).

    Your problem is that whatever term you use, its public perception is dynamic and changes to what you cannot control. So you either keep changing the terminology every few years like how you talk about black, sorry, colored, sorry, whatever the term is now people, and then get charged with that you make it all up as you go along, or you at some point go: "Stop, here is the limit, either agree to this terminology or feel my powers of excluding you from the discourse among experts", after which you don't care if they turn around and go "see, he suppresses the truth".

    BTW, your argument for "law" is bio-centric. Bio-centric evolution misses the main point of evolution, namely that life evolved (already via non-bio evolution).  If you don't want to claim that life started by something else rather than evolution ("our starting conditions are [already] replicating entities"), you must become more open toward algorithmic, general evolution.
    Terms do matter in many ways but good arguments (logic) backed up with  evidences matter most. Well, as one said, "No one can destroy an idea it can only be surpassede by a better one."
    I genuinly don't see the problem with the word "theory". ET is a good scientific theory; creationism, intelligent design are bad scientific theories.

    The fact that X and Y are both "theories" doesn't entail that they are of comparable scientific value.

    I prefer David Deutch's proposition that we call EVERYTHING a "misconception." When the time is ripe, people are more likely to abandon a "misconception" than a "law" and rigidity is what keeps us from advancing as fast as we otherwise would.

    Evolution is a phenomenon. We can observe and study it. The field of study around it is evolutionary biology.

    Evolutionary biology has many theories. Some, such as the Theory of Acquired Inheritance, have been largely discredited (with the possible exception of some epigenetic versions). Others, such as the Theory of Selection, the Theory of Universal Common Descent, the Theory of Genetic Drift, and the Theory of Endosymbiosis have withstood the rigors of testing. Current work is mostly on the particulars of how these theories play out in various evolutionary lineages.

    So there is no "Theory of Evolution", really.

    I would suggest,Darwin's law of evolutionary process may gain general acceptance with the public since it is less confrontational with religion.Most of science gets it's funding and advancement from the general public so it's no good just dismissing public opinion.The Bible very much agrees with evolution and hence the institution of marriage i.e.that species survive by the breeding and nurturing of offspring by their genetic parents[darwin's finches] and that in pests and deseases when this process is suddenly cut{by resting agriculture the seventh year and quarantining desease} species do not survive very well.No doubt though this religious axis of evil the Baptist/anglican/catholic cult will twist the bible to belittle science and keep the public in darkness as much as possible,they even get into politics to supress this truth.

    Greg M.
    I agree with some of what you say, Don. The problem is that there are militants on both sides and, although it is possible for religion and evolution to be synthesized into a coherent worldview, there are "creationists" who deliberately seek to twist words as well as "evolutionists" who attack religion and claim that it is irrational. That being said, I equally take offense to individuals who use evolutionary theory to explain away contemporary social phenomena and promote a specific type of lifestyle. One cannot use the theory of evolution to write "just-so" stories, i.e., ad-hoc hypotheses.

    Overall, I'm willing to respectfully discuss evolution and religion with open-minded people, but I have little patience for those who choose to debate with a closed-mind while advancing an agenda.
    Begin with this assumption: it's all a joke. Then you will see the humour in everything.
    "The Bible very much agrees with evolution..."
    Really? Where might I find this agreement? I've read the Book cover to cover about 12 times and don't remember that part.
    Evolution of species can be proven by anyone with a basic understanding of genetics but that does not create a proves that certain genetic markers help a certain animal to survive in certain environments and when a mating couple produce! A new species erupts! No, just the natural, "Creator designed" method for His creation to adapt.

    Gerhard Adam
    That is so far into left field, it's not even wrong.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I always understood a "law" to be something that could be expressed in a simple mathematical expression, subject to "proof" in the algebraic sense. Things that can be expressed this way can be laws, while other equally well tested (and equally true) ideas that can't but work through weight of evidence and not algebraic proof get called theories. Is that not the difference?

    Given that the only serious misuse of the term "theory" is by creationists who believe they have a divine monopoly on truth, I would suggest calling it a FACT.
    Gerhard Adam
    I would suggest not talking to creationists.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I know what you mean :) I once compiled a list of phrases that should ring warning bells. "Only a theory" was quite high on the list, though "water vapour canopy" was naturally enough, at the very top. However I do have some sympathy for the victims who are not hard-liners at all but have had their understanding of science poisoned by the rhetoric. They are likely to repeat the nonsense and they deserve proper answers.
    Herne Webber
    I have a simple solution to the initial question: Use "Laws of Evolution," plural.  The plural indicates that there are multiple areas within the Sciences that support Evolution, covering that we have Laws of Natural and Sexual Selection (or not, depending on species), plus the rules governing Biology at the cellular level (gametogenesis, mitosis, etc.), and finally, it infers that we are relying on the Laws of Chemistry and Physics upon which Biology rests.

    I have heard an ignorant man (okay, it was the Dugger dad) laugh as he described how ridiculous the Sciences were, since each dating system ended up supporting the others, in what he interpreted as a circular, thus baseless, argument.  It is beyond me how he can't see that entirely different systems of radiological and fossil dating techniques supporting each other is exactly like his Bible having FOUR gospels to support his Jesus' story.
    I agree with Richard Dawkins on this Gerhard,we can no longer let the religious get away with"not talking to them".Since 9'11 we can see where this gets us.I heard Dawkins debating archbishop Pell of melbourne Australia and Pell was saying that if there was no hell then Hitler got away with causing the death of 60 million people.It was actually a roman catholic german chancellor who persuaded Hindenburg {against his better judgement] to appoint Hitler in his stead and a handfull of catholic m.p.s who held the balance of power in the centerist party who swung it Hitlers way to pass his "enabling act"giving Hitler absolute power {the pope was directly involved in this].Religion is mindless adherance to a set of rules and there seems no reasoning with them.I am a religionless christian but i find i have more in common with a reasonable atheist like Dawkins who wants to build a brotherhood of man than unreasonable religious Archbishops.

    Gerhard Adam
    I agree with Richard Dawkins on this Gerhard,we can no longer let the religious get away with"not talking to them".  Since 9'11 we can see where this gets us.
    I think you know this has little or nothing to do with religion.  It certainly isn't because we didn't talk to them.  9/11 was political as are all such conflicts.  Even the traditional conflicts with the church [or any religion] are political.

    Unfortunately most atheists I know are just as rabidly "religious" of their anti-belief as those that are religious.  As soon as one engages in the discussion it is hard to argue otherwise.  The point being, there are many things that I don't believe in, but I don't feel compelled to make that a cornerstone of my life, nor of discussions with others.  Lack of belief is just that.  It doesn't require my going about convincing others.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Great reply, although it's probably an exaggeration that most atheists are just as rabidly "religious" of their anti-belief. Don't confuse the majority with the vocal minority ...

    I think the right answer to religious objections against ET is a Laplacian shrug: "ET is science; it doesn't use the hypothesis of a god and doesn't need it."
    I think biologists should stress that ET is a natural science, just like physics, chemistry, plate tectonics etc. As such it has a certain methodology it shares with physics, chemistry etc.: no teleology; observations of objective reality; only scientific explanations etc.
    If people want to formulate religious or moral opinions about ET then that's fine with me. But these opinions are not science and can't have any influence on the scientific content of ET.
    The discussion between religious people and atheists makes me sometimes uneasy, because it creates the impression that ET is about religion. It isn't. God is not a part of ET and ET doesn't have anything to say about god.
    If a creationist claims that the earth is 6000 yrs old, a scientist has to point out that the claim is contradicted by an enormous amount of scientifc evidence - of course. But the claim is not wrong because it's based on the bible. It's wrong no matter what the source of the claim is. And for the rest: "Sire, je n'ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothèse."

    If a biologist is invited to a discussion about god and religion, the only proper response is: "As a biologist, I've little to add to that discussion. God nor the bible are part of science. The only thing I could do for you is point out which statements are scientific and which are not."

    Gerhard Adam
    Part of my reasoning for not discussing it, is that it seems to be a waste of time in people that choose to remain ignorant.  That may sound harsh, but let me explain my rationale.

    Just like we have this guy posting now about how the science is all unfounded nonsense, and only God makes sense, yet he is clearly mistaken and he doesn't actually believe that himself.  How do I know?

    Because when he gets ill he will go to a doctor who will treat him with the best methods that science knows.  Oh, he may pray, but you can bet that he won't go to a church when he needs surgery.  That's the hypocrisy of such a process.  When it's convenient they claim that science is only revealing when God has created, and when it's inconvenient then they want to argue that science is defying God.  The truth is that they are clueless about what any of it means. 

    So, I don't really feel like wasting my time with people that simply live according to whichever "truth" is the most convenient at the moment.

    As an example, I got into a debate with someone once about the 10 commandments, and argued that he didn't really believe, for example, in the commandment against taking the Lord's name in vain.  He argued that he most certainly did believe it, to which I asked ... then why are you comfortable using profanity that invokes it?

    Again, the response is that ... well, I know it's a sin, and that's why I'm forgiven.  To which my response is that do you do the same thing with something like gravity?  Do you insist on walking off the roof of a building knowing that it is a "sin" against gravity?  Do you expect to be forgiven?

    Of course not, because you really believe in gravity and you know that it is unequivocal.  The other is simply something you choose to believe when it suits you, because in the end, you know there are no real ramifications.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Oh, I don't even accuse "them" anymore of hypocrisy. Biology (or physics) is not a theory about hypocrisy, nor about attitudes towards the ten commandments, nor about the crimes committed in the name of religion etc. ET is about scientific knowlegde for which religious convictions - almost by definition - are utterly irrrelevant. ET has a scientific methodology and a scientific domain; if "they" wish to intrude on that domain they should be confronted with the scientific knowlegde as it stands and it should be made very clear that god nor the bible are acceptable arguments in a scientific discourse.

    That's about all you can do as a scientist, I think.

    "So you think that the earth is 6000 yrs. old? Hmmm, fine, OK, now come back if you have scientific evidence and don't let the door knob hit you on the back on the way out."

    Gerhard Adam
    You're right, of course.  I'm just feeling a bit ornery today .. :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    I'm just feeling a bit ornery today .. :)

    What do you mean, "today" ?

    Just kidding, friend. ;-)
    Gerhard Adam
    Let's just consider that I"m evolving :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    Seems I read somewhere that for an experiment to be accepted as fact, it must be able to be replicated. Cold fusion for instance. Where is the replicable aspect of evolution? Why has evolution apparently new species suddenly cropping up lately. Evolutionist pick up a tiny tooth fragment and declare a new species of hominid has been discovered, there are big write ups, Nat Geo specials and Readers Digest articles...with no proof offered at all. And you call religious people weird? Call it a theory or fact or hogwash, it sounds like hyper-intellectualism to me.

    Gerhard Adam
    You read [something other than the Bible, I mean]?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    Thanks for the link :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    You are most welcome.  I since found a lot more pdf links - at the foot of Virpi Lumaa's web page.
    Oliver Knevitt
    Deletion fodder, but the replies and the links were so awesome I didn't have the heart! Wanted to watch the video but I was worried it wouldn't be safe for work...
    Video?  If you mean the link on Virpi Lummaa's page, that's audio + full text of the lyrics.  Safe?  I can guarantee that it's safer than triacetone triperoxide.  Is that safe enough for you?  ;-)
    I agree on the PR grounds that evolution could be called a law.  
    However as the term "law" is used as in "Law of Physics" I don't think so.  The "Laws" of physics are so fundamental that their truth could never be denied.  

    The laws of conservation of  {Energy, momentum, mass, charge, 4-momentum, ...} are such laws.  They are basic and provable on almost purely mathematical grounds.  They simply must be true.

    Evolution is almost there.  However unlike the laws of physics one cannot prove evolution with a pencil and paper. 
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    ... unlike the laws of physics one cannot prove evolution with a pencil and paper.

    I'll take that as a challenge.  ;-)
    this is a very minor complaint but ya well its just a theory is 6 words...

    One of the most profound statements made on science 2.0 [and yet so simple] was made by Hank ,I've dubbed it 'the Hanks field' because it's much more important and fundamental to science than the Higgs field Hank once said "science is about law",like relativity ,gravity and evolution,something we all knew but never actually put into words like Einstein,Newton and Darwin.I think it would be great if we could have a debate about what law is,so I will make a contribution to start.A Law must be something we can define by words otherwise its not a law.God said"let it be and it was".A law has to be enforced with a penalty for breaking it otherwise it's not a law.A law must be consistently enforced because if it's here one day but not the next we can't trust it to be a law.Evolution as a process fits all these criteria proven over a very long period of time,it is consistently going on today all around us and if we are willingly ignorant of this process we will be punished for breaking it and we will not survive as a society,a world,a species.For the sake of the human race,opposition to Darwin in all it's forms must be engaged and debunked by scientists,and incidentally Gerhard concerning oppositions,you appear to have been nobbled by the religious lobby who would indeed have us believe that 9/11 was not about religion but politics as the same lobby said about terrorism in Northern Ireland but when was there ever a catholic member of the U.D.R. or a protestant member of the I.R.A.?

    If i could have only had a chance to reason with the man who cried "God is Great "when he flew that plane into the world trade centre,I would have reminded him that Allah was the God of Abraham who replied to Abrahams pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah to be spared from punishment for breaking God's law[of evolutionary process]that he would not allow the innocent to be punished with the guilty,and yet in Allah's name he was going to do just that.Likewise,President Bush who says he believes in God the father of Jesus Christ ,the same God of Abraham sends missiles on Iraq killing innocent and guilty together.These religious people have hidden agendas disguised as politics ,else why is America supporting a genetically pure Jewish nation of Israel if it's not the influence of the religious right in America,Influenced by t.v.evangelists who believe this has something to do with Jesus's return to earth,That he is literally going to float down from some clouds in the sky and all the christians are going to float up to meet him.We can't let them get away with this,It's causing so much human suffering,science has to tackle this head on,without fear of offending someones' religion,religious politicians must be challenged on what they believe and not allowed to get away{as the catholic leader of the opposition party in Australia Tony Abbot has]with saying they keep their politics separate from their religion,they do not.