Evolution Is a Theory ... and That Is Saying a Lot: Know Your Terms When Pursuing Science

By Lorentzen, Laura | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Evolution Is a Theory ... and That Is Saying a Lot: Know Your Terms When Pursuing Science


Lorentzen, Laura, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


"I have a theory," is a statement that most people have made at one time or another as they postulate, at best, their educated guess or, at worst, their hunch.

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To the scientist, however, a theory has a definition different from the term's common usage. What is the nature of a scientific theory? What is and what is not a theory?

These questions are especially important when considering evolution.

A theory must be verified and supported

An explanation does not become a theory unless it is a means of explaining a why or how that is the result of multiple lines of scientific evidence and that is the consensus of the scientific community.

Certainly, a theory may be modified as additional evidence is validated by peer review, and such a practice is the nature of science. As our techniques, technologies and knowledge expand, so too does our ability to gather evidence and facts. So a theory may be modified, revised or discarded because it is not an absolute truth; rather, a theory is the best representation of the truth according to available evidence collected independently by multiple researchers and validated by the consensus of the scientific community.

There's a difference between scientific theories and scientific laws

Scientific theories are not statements awaiting proof that advances them into scientific laws. Rather, scientific laws are generalizations describing how something behaves under a set of conditions. For example, Newton's laws of motion and gravitation were correct in certain conditions but did not hold at high velocities or strong gravitational fields as per Einstein's theories of relativity.

Simply put, to name an explanation a theory is distinct from naming something a scientific law because "theories do not mature into laws." (Lederman and Lederman, 2004, in The Science Teacher 71 (9): 36-9.)

Evolutionary theory has been proven

In the case of evolution, misconceptions as well as misrepresentations may contribute to an incorrect sense about how to assess the matter. Michael Le Page, a science writer for New Scientist, says, "Evolution must be the best-known yet worst-understood of all scientific theories" (New Scientist 16 April 2008, "Evolution: 24 myths and misconceptions." http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13620-evolution-24-myths-and-misconceptions.html).

The origin of species--the thought that life has existed for billions of years in a dynamic, rather than static fashion--is a focal point of the theory of evolution. …

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