Evolution is just a theory…

Evolution is just a theory… May 27, 2012

From my perspective

I figured since science is such an integral part of my belief system now it is certainly something I cannot ignore in this forum. I enrolled in two college courses last August. I’m very busy in the Marines so the opportunity to actually get into a class was something that had not been afforded to me prior. I’m an avid lover of history so the first course I jumped on was U.S. History (1865-Present). The other course was something I really didn’t care too much about: Biology. I had never enjoyed or been interested in science in the least until this class.

I had been an out and out atheist for about 2 years prior to this but had never based my conclusions on whether or not there was a god on any scientific inquiries. As stated above I’m a history buff so what I had done was compare historical notes alongside biblical ones and found the inconsistencies in the Bible to be so astounding that I could no longer accept the rubbish within those bindings as anything more than incoherent ramblings from desert-wanderers. I was about to again embark upon another intellectual journey that would become paramount to the structure of my belief system.

Get to the point…

Okay…okay. Sometimes I can be long-winded.

So the first thing I learned was definitions:

  • Hypothesis–>An educated (or uneducated) guess
  • Science Method–>The 7 step process to test said guess
  •  Theory–>The “why” of something works
  • Law–>The “what” of something that works

Confused? I hope not. It seems pretty simple, right? Well let’s ask a creationist…


hmmm…okay. Maybe he’s got something. Wait a minute!

Evolution has been tested! The first method of dating is Carbon-14 dating which can be utilized to test the age of anything up to around 40,000 years old. I’d say that’s quite a bit older than the 6,000 years that creationists claim we’ve been here.

Another method is Argon dating . With argon dating you can find out how old something is up to about 1.3 billion years ago. There has been debate started by YEC (Young Earth Creationists) scientists who misrepresent data about how accurate that is but I found an honest Christian website that was willing to debunk those lies:

“Rather than checking the accuracy and relevancy of Austin’s quotations from Dalrymple (1969), Snelling and Swenson simply uncritically parroted and perpetuated Austin’s mistakes in their later web essays. This is truly a case of the blind leading the blind!! “

Since that quote was by an atheist scientist the creationists tend to disregard it. Dalrymple showed that sometimes argon dating wasn’t 100% accurate but the percentage for that was minimal. YECs clung to that assertion disregarding other facts.

Theory vs Fact

I’m probably “preaching to the choir” here but I’ll continue on anyways. Every scientific argument I engage in with a theist involves the quote Evolution is JUST a theory. Whenever confronted with this illogical notion that a scientific theory holds no weight I always defer to Inigo Montoya, the greatest swordsman to have ever lived. Let’s see what he had to say about it:

I know what you’re thinking right now.

That’s inconceivable!

Sorry to disappoint. It is conceivable. If the only argument presented against evolution is that it is JUST a theory then that individual is intentionally misleading you, ignorant, or a little of both.

Really, there’s not much more I can say about it. The link above leading you to www.notjustatheory.com pretty much states it better than I can. I’m no scientist so don’t take my word for it. Research!

If you’re not interested in research click here.

-Paul Loebe

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  • dave

    Testability really isn’t as simple as looking for easy confirmations…confirmations should only count if they’re based on risky predictions, which is to say that you would expect a different answer were it not for applying the theory in question. I don’t see how your examples add anything whatsoever to the idea that natural selection tends to cause structures towards perfection.

    Also, a theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory.

    “Evolution” or whatever you want to call what you’re talking about makes no accurate predictions, and cannot explain a great many things. There’s no test to refute it, therefore.

    (Pretty much stole these thoughts from the great Sir Karl Popper. Not that anyone cares because I’ll be pummeled as a Jesus-freak for questioning evolution.)

  • sqlrob

    IMHO, proper responses to “just a theory”

    “Go tell residents of Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and Fukushima that atomic theory is just a theory”

    “Germ theory is just a theory. Wanna swig this ebola?”

    “Electricity is just a theory. Wanna hold this exposed live main?”

  • sqlrob

    “Evolution” or whatever you want to call what you’re talking about makes no accurate predictions

    Jesus freak or ignorant, pick at least one. Kindly learn what you’re critiquing before spouting off.

  • dave

    Oh? It makes accurate predictions? Please share with the class. “…evolutionists are still historians, not prophets.” – Edward Deevey. Ernst Matrix says basically the same thing. Now if you atheists would stop insulting anything that doesn’t correspond with your assumptions then maybe further progress can be made. You don’t need to believe in evolution to be atheist, nor do you have to believe in Young Earth nonsense to be theist.

  • dave

    * Ernst Mayr

  • Tyrant of Skepsis


    I’m not sure whether I should even honor your comment with an answer, but you are likewise either lying or ignorant, or a little of both. There are tons of predictions from the theory of natural selection that have been confirmed, you could simply not be bothered to learn about any of them, or are to invested in your belief system to admit that they exist. Just to throw two of thousands examples out there (i am not a biologist) for your amusement: sex ratios in insect states predicted by the differential equations derived from evolutionary stable fixed points; The location and existence of tiktaalik. One could go on for ages with this, but I doubt you are susceptible to evidence…

  • sqlrob

    ? It makes accurate predictions? Please share with the class. “…evolutionists are still historians, not prophets.” – Edward Deevey

    oooh! Let’s play dueling quotes!

    “What makes evolution a scientific explanation is that it makes testable predictions” Eric Lander

  • Franklin


    Look up the Croatian lizard experiment and tell me that isn’t an example of evolution. Young-Earth Creationism can’t explain it; Old-Earth Creationism can’t explain it; Intelligent Design can’t explain it. Only evolutionary biology can.

  • I’m a fan of Karl Popper too,(platinum rule, FTW – unless you’re not into the platinum rule. In that case, fuck the platinum rule.) but you’re still getting a stern finger-wagging from this guy.

    “Evolution” or whatever you want to call what you’re talking about makes no accurate predictions, and cannot explain a great many things. There’s no test to refute it, therefore.

    False. I’ll assume you meant ‘testable’ predictions (whose accuracy can then be verified). This is simply not true. There are a great many ways to invalidate evolution. If one bunny was found in the Triassic strata… if you accept ‘micro-evolution’ you accept evolution because ‘macro-evolution’ literally is ‘micro-evolution’ on long time scales. (so then you shift the argument towards age of earth / universe). This brings you to verifiable things from many disciplines including radio-isometric dating, dendrochronology, ice core samples, the distance to inter-galactic objects whose light reaches earth… etc.

    Entry level apologists like yourself should read what scientists say to the only modern ‘alternative’ to evolution creationism / Intelligent design (FYI – this is the article that shattered my creationism instantly. Please evaluate this open-mindedly.)

    Karl Popper recanted his statements about evolution / natural selection not being testable. Are you really a big fan?

    Popper notes that theism as an explanation of adaptation “was worse than an open admission of failure, for it created the impression that an ultimate explanation had been reached” (Popper 1976, 172).

    Popper later changed his mind and recognized that natural selection is testable. Here is an excerpt from a later writing on “Natural Selection and Its Scientific Status” (Miller 1985, 241-243; see also Popper 1978):

    Lastly, to my brother Paul Loebe, I’d recommend reading this thoroughly when kicking up the creationist anthill.

  • slc1

    Re Dave @ #1

    Evolution doesn’t make predictions? Tell it to Ken Miller, no atheist he.


  • Paul Loebe

    Micro and macro evolution are terms made up by Creationists. Macro evolution is just the result of many micro evolutions.

  • dave

    Ha ha. Umm…thanks for all the information, fellas 🙂 I really can’t address it all point by point in my phone here. Ill just say we seem to be disagreeing on what ‘prediction’ is. I see it as stating, you know, with accuracy things which will appear as a result of evolution, not confirming suspicions in what will be found in the fossil record.

    Bottom line: I’m not arguing for creationism, and im frustrated when people see that as the only genuine opposition to the theory. There are enough problems on the face of it to address (imho) without introducing new explanatory arguments. This is science. Im not trolling; im just genuinely interested in this stuff and I guess my thinking is a little out of date. Thanks again; I guess I was wrong.

  • Bill


    “Also, a theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. ”

    A pre-Cambrian rabbit fossil would do it. Such a discovery, if true, would throw everything on its head. If such a thing were found all of us “evolutionists” would have some serious explaining to do.

    But let’s not limit it, any pre-Cambrian mammal (or any vertebrate for that matter) fossil would cause problems. I’m also going to use the Theory of Evolution to make a prediction: You can dig all you want and you will never find one because they don’t exist.

    Hey! Look! It’s refutable and makes predictions.

    Genetic mutation between generations is a fact. Natural Selection is a fact. These things are observable and as certain as the existence of the sun.

    The Theory of Evolution is the collected body of knowledge (collected over millions of man-years of observations, research and testing) which explains how these facts work together to produce the variety of life on this planet. In all that time, no one, despite trying their damnedest to do so, have found any evidence to bring it into question.

    But hey! You can be the one! You can overthrow all of it! So get out there are start digging. Find us just one pre-Cambrian mammal fossil and become the most famous person in scientific history. You can do it!

  • Justin Griffith

    “Thanks again. I guess I was wrong”

    AMAZING! AWESOME! Please stick around. Seriously. We need more like you (then again…you are like most of us once were)

    Well. I’ll celebrate Paul Loebe’s post in a completely inappropriate manner. Art-damaged punk rock that name-checks the Princess Bride.


  • Makoto

    @Dave – ” Ill just say we seem to be disagreeing on what ‘prediction’ is. I see it as stating, you know, with accuracy things which will appear as a result of evolution, not confirming suspicions in what will be found in the fossil record.”

    I think you might not understand what predictions mean. They don’t mean “I know what will show up in X years”. They mean “Things will change based on how mutations work”. Mutations are random – some are good, some are bad, some lead to immediate death. Those that aren’t horrible may lead to reproduction, passing on those genes to future generations. Those that don’t die might have kids, and those kids might have said mutations.. maybe they help now, maybe they hurt now, and in either case they might have kids of their own. That’s the future – evolution can’t say if those kids will be redheads or have brown eyes or even have gills. Just that change will happen based on which offspring thrive given environmental pressures over many, many generations.

  • Dave,

    I was fortunate enough to study under David Miller while an undergraduate. He was Karl Popper’s research assistant.

    Popper was keen to distinguish between ‘evolution’ and ‘natural selection’. Any predictions about the latter can only ever be singular prediction, and are therefore not really scientific (since scientific theories are ‘universal hypothesis’). Thus, in order to test any prediction of natural selection, one would have to observe an organism to see whether it successfully reproduces or it does not. Thus, you won’t learn anything, as you have to make the observation to test this single prediction.

    Contrastingly, the process of ‘Evolution’ is testable. ‘Rabbits in the Precambrian’, as the evolutionary biologist JBS Haldane put it, might well falsify any speculations as to the nature of this process.

    I suggest you read Poppers ‘Objective Knowledge’ where he advocates the idea that our ideas about the world might be described in evolutionary terms.

    Here’s more, if you are interested:


    Kind Regards,

    James Sheils

  • Rhoda

    This is a short essay about the hawk moth, whose existence was predicted by Charles Darwin based on his theory of natural selection and his knowledge of orchid pollination:


  • Woof

    “Cosmic evolution”? WTF? I must have missed that in my biology classes…

  • FormerlyNavy

    @Dave #12: Er, out of curiosity…if you don’t go for Creationism, and you don’t go for Evolution…what’s left? Is there some other bizarre theory or idea to explain anything?

  • Compuholic

    Although this is not exactly biology or evolution, there is a completely different angle how the principles of evolution can be tested. And this is the wonderful thing about science, when you have a good theory, its principles can usually be applied in totally different fields, such as computer science.

    In computer science evolutionary algorithms are often used to approximate complicated optimization problems. There are many flavors of evolutionary algorithms. And genetic algorithms are the ones which are the most similar to the type of evolution that biology deals with.

    It works like this: You encode a solution (also called an individual) as a bit string (genome).

    1. You start out with a set of randomly generated solutions

    2. In every iteration the algorithm then picks 2 individuals

    3. Those individuals mate by exchanging parts of their genome

    4. With a relatively low probability a random mutation is performed

    5. The fitness (how good is our new solution?) of the individuals are evaluated and the ones with the lowest fitness rating are removed from the set.

    The biologists here will scream about what a gross oversimplification of evolution this is. But it works. And although many computer scientists don’t like evolutionary algorithms because the results are not fully predictable, sometimes they are the only way to go.

    EAs are used in particular when

    1. The problem itself is not well understood

    2. Other mathematical optimization methods cannot be applied

    EAs have been successfully used in many application such as the design of wind turbines.

    Note that this alone doesn’t tell us that evolution actually goes on in nature. But it tells us that all we need for evolution to happen is a mechanism to create imperfect copies (in theory we wouldn’t even need that, complete randomness would do as well but it would take forever) and an environment with limited resources in which only the fittest survive.

  • F


    It might help you to understand if you get past these two misconceptions:

    I don’t see how your examples add anything whatsoever to the idea that natural selection tends to cause structures towards perfection.

    That’s because this is not a thing, or as the proper answer to many koans goes: Mu. There is no goal to evolution. There is not striving for perfection (whatever that is.) Evolution gives you “good enough”. Sometimes, just barely good enough until a novelty arises in a population that makes it a bit more successful in its environment. Or the environment changes in a way which is more suitable, so now the same traits are better than good enough. Or maybe the population dies out. This is the natural selection bit. The environment isn’t any more goal oriented than mutations.

    I see it as stating, you know, with accuracy things which will appear as a result of evolution, not confirming suspicions in what will be found in the fossil record.

    You can’t really do that, because (see above). Prediction also means making a guess about what you will find, using the rules of your theory, in the group of all things you do not already know. You can use geology to predict where you will find oil. But the oil isn’t made in the future when you find it.

    However, the ToE does make predictions about things like which species or populations will fare better or worse in a changing climate, or an otherwise radically changing environment in the geological short term. You can also turn that around and see how an environment is changing by noting the changes in the ranges which a given species occupies. In fact, you can do both at once if you account for other variables, and other scientists can make the same finding, and no one finds a new variable that could cause the effect or account for all of the effect.

    Regardless, evolution is a fact, we see evidence for it everywhere, whether or not the theory of evolution can explain some particular thing about it. That means doing the work to find out what the mechanism of change was – like introducing the concept of lateral gene transfer rather than mutation for the source of new genetic material in a species.

    The ToE fits the evidence very well, and it has no competition whatsoever. There is nothing which can even hold a candle to Darwin’s original theory of evolution by natural selection, lacking all the stuff we’ve figured out since. There were changes to the theory, but the fact of evolution remains unaltered.

  • In the context of science, the “predictions” a sho-nuff Theory has to make are predictions about new data—information that wasn’t around at the time the prediction was made, and therefore constitutes a valid test of the theory. So when biologists use evolutionary theory to make predictions about the characteristics of fossil specimens that we haven’t yet discovered, they’re testing the theory of evolution, and if a predicted specimen actually does match the prediction(s) on the happy day when said specimen actually is discovered, evolution has passed that test.

    The main problem getting in the way of making exact-to-the-micron evolutionary predictions of What Will Happen In Future is that biology is way the heck messy; there’s far too many relevant variables. Another scientific field which involves heinously overcomplexificationated systems is meteorology. Can meteorologists make exact-to-the-micron predictions about future weather? No, they can’t, just as biologists can’t make exact-to-the-micron predictions about future life-forms. If you think the lack of exact-to-the-micron predictions is a problem for evolution, you should, equally, regard lack of exact-to-the-micron predictions as a problem for meteorology. Do you? And if you don’t, why not?

  • Kevin

    Bacterial resistance was predicted before the first antibiotics were developed, based on the sheer generation-doubling time of the organisms in question.

    I guess there are no antibiotic resistant bacteria, then, if evolution can’t make a prediction.

    In the Miller video above, he notes the fact that humans have one chromosome fewer than chimps — which led to a prediction about finding a fusion junction in one of the human chromosomes. Guess what? We found it — but only after the prediction was made.

    We found tiktallik at precisely the place it was predicted to be by the paleontologists — which is the study of ancient evolution, in case you’re confused by the term.

    And on and on. Every single day, thousand and thousands of researchers in the biological sciences are making predictions based on their knowledge of the theory of evolution. The result is better antibiotics, better treatments for a wide range of human illnesses, better understanding of the ecosystem. Heck, I have a friend who uses evolutionary theory every day to study beetles that are destroying hemlock trees.

    In short, you could not be more mistaken.

    As far as falsifiability, well, a fossil bunny in the Cambrian would do just fine. Finding a true “irreducibly complex” system would also serve (hint: none of the candidates is irreducible; most aren’t even that complex). Proving Lamarckian evolutionary principles would work as well. Just about every day, someone comes up with a bright idea that could, in principle, overturn the notion of variation over time. That none of those ideas have panned out shows you just how robust the theory of evolution is.

  • had3

    You’ve all missed the point of the article! Inigo was bested by Westley and therefore could not be the greatest swordsman. The theory falls on its face when tested.

  • Justin Griffith

    @24 LOL troll. 🙂 He was only mostly dead.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    dave, a poorly educated moron: Also, a theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory.

    This appears to be a response to something, but no one mentioned refutability until you did. Anyway: Evolution by means of natural selection could have been refuted by any of the thousands of tests to which it has been subjected over the last 150 years. But it wasn’t, probably because it is true.

    Oh? It makes accurate predictions? Please share with the class.

    Should camelid fossils be found in North America? Evolution says yes.


    Camels currently exist in Asia and Africa, llamas currently exist in South America. No camelid species are currently native to North America. Since anatomical comparisons, DNA comparisons, and breeding experiments tell us that camels are related to llamas (and alpacas, vicunas, etc.), and given what we know from geology about past plate motions which brought various continents into contact at various times, we can predict that camelid species once inhabited North America. Then we can verify this prediction by going out and finding the fossils.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    James Sheils: Popper was keen to distinguish between ‘evolution’ and ‘natural selection’

    A valid distinction. Not a lot of people outside science are familiar with the neutral theory.

  • GvlGeologist

    Coming in late to the discussion:

    I HATE the phrase, “educated guess”. It’s content free. It doesn’t state what you’re educated about, what your guessing about, or what the goal of the hypothesis is. A much better definition of a hypothesis is a “testable explanation for observations”. Now you know what the hypothesis is based on (observations), what your goal is (explaining the observations), and what you’re going to do with it (test it to see whether you can prove it wrong).

    A couple of other points – 14C dating using mass spectrometry can go back ~60,000 years, and the 1.3 billion year date quoted is not the maximum age of K/Ar dating, it is the half-life of 40K. K/Ar (or Ar/Ar) dating can go back to the origin of the earth, at 4.5 billion years.

    And by the way, I predict that Dave will crop up again and again, forgetting entirely that his statements here have been demonstrated to be baseless. Call me cynical.

    By the way, is there no longer any way to make superscripts? I used [sup] (with angle brackets) and it didn’t work.

  • jaxkayaker

    Since Dave has admitted his error, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and not dogpile on too hard. However, I will point out that even if Popper had never recanted his stance on evolution and natural selection, that wouldn’t have made him correct. Pointing to a claim by a famous (or other) person as your argument for your position is no argument at all, it’s a logically fallacious appeal to authority.

    Also amusing is that Dave would appeal to the authority of Ernst Mayr in his attempt to disprove evolution, given that Mayr was one of the foremost evolutionary biologists of the 20th century, and was one of the participants in the conference which culminated in the modern evolutionary synthesis. Mayr wrote many books for consumption by both the technical and lay reader. I highly recommend one of his last popularizations of the science of evolution, “What Evolution Is”.

    Oh, and chalk up another vote for not using “educated guess” as the explanation of the term “hypothesis”. I additionally recommend “Science, Evolution and Creationism” (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11876) and “Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science” (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=5787) from the National Academies Press

  • jaxkayaker

    Sorry for the double post, but I forgot to point out that microevolution and macroevolution are perfectly good terms used by real biologists, but are frequently abused by creationists. The textbook we use at my university (a public university, not a creationist/ Christian “university”) uses those terms. I just taught them to a class last week.

  • Paul Loebe

    The terms microevolution and macroevolution are still just evolution. It makes absolutely no sense to me to explain macro and micro. With one you automatically get the other. It is a useless term.

  • Randy

    Nice post Paul and I hope you are enjoying learning more science. I would like to nitpick on one item, however. The definition of hypothesis. I am a high school science teacher and have long been troubled by the definition offered by teachers in classrooms across the country: an educated guess. I am troubled by the word guess. I think hypothesis is more substantial than a guess. I teach my students that a hypothesis is a testable prediction and/or a possible explanation in need of testing. I do this because I am uneasy about them focusing too much on the notion of guessing. I’d be interested in the thoughts of others on this. Are my concerns misplaced or overblown?

  • Paul Loebe

    Semantics. Guess, prediction, and hypothesis are all synonyms.

  • jaxkayaker

    Paul – It’s not just semantics. Macroevolution (=speciation) often (but not always) results from the accumulation of changes (mutations) occurring in microevolution, but microevolution doesn’t invariably result in macroevolution. Researchers have been recently (last 30 years or so, IIRC) observing microevolutionary change in species of Darwin’s finches on islands in the Galapagos archipelago (varying selection pressure with variation in rainfall), but no recent macroevolutionary (speciation) events.

    On the other hand, speciation or macroevolution can sometimes take place in one big step by duplication of the entire genome (autopolyploidy) or combination of two independent genomes in hybrids (allopolyploidy), resulting in a new lineage reproductively isolated from the parental lineage(s). Autopolyploidy is probably responsible for the existence of two species of grey treefrog in the eastern U.S., one of which has twice the chromosome number of the other, but are otherwise nearly physically identical. Allopolyploidy is likely the means by which parthenogenetic lizard species of the genus Sceloporus evolved.

    And a hypothesis is not just a guess, nor is a prediction just a guess. Sometimes a hypothesis is not distinct from a prediction, other times a hypothesis has multiple predictions associated with it. A hypothesis is a testable, falsifiable explanation for observed data. A prediction is the rationally expected, logical outcome of observations, hypotheses or scientific principles. When your time permits, take a look at those Nation Academies pubs I linked earlier. I believe the PDFs are available as free downloads. They specifically discuss the terms hypthesis, theory and laws to try to educate the general public, just as you are attempting to do with your post.

  • Justin Griffith

    @34 I personally agree that it’s important, and not semantic to define these terms accurately.

    @ Paul – If somebody is going to debunk something, they need to be fluent in the target’s jargon – hence explaining that microevolution IS macroevolution on long timescales is worth pointing out. This shifts the argument towards even more scientifically verifiable arguments – age of the earth, etc.

    One nit-pick @34

    but no recent macroevolutionary (speciation) events.

    This isn’t true. Speciation has been observed.

  • jaxkayaker

    Probably my last comment on this topic, since we all have other things to do.

    Paul – a better explanation to you might be that the distinction between theory and hypothesis is also a semantic distinction, but important because it can be misleading if the distinction is not properly made. In vernacular English, there is no distinction between theory and hypothesis, but in the jargon of scientists and philosophers of science, there is a distinction, and it’s an important one. The same is true of hypothesis versus guess and microevolution versus macroevolution. It sounds as though your instructor was trying to keep things simple in an introduction to the subject, which is necessary, but oversimplification can be misleading.

    Justin – if you re-read my comment, you’ll find that I was referring to not having observed recent speciation events specifically in the case of Darwin’s finches, not that we’ve never observed speciation. I was giving Paul an example of microevolution that hasn’t yet resulted in macroevolution, and might never do so. Quote mining and quoting out of context to alter the meaning of what was written is a creationist tactic. I’ll assume you just mis-read what I wrote. I’m well aware that cases of speciation have been observed.

  • Paul Loebe

    Very well. Perhaps the use of the word guess was not definitive enough for the context of the meaning for hypothesis. There are bigger fish to fry.. Thanks for helping me understand a little better. Again, I am no scientist. I prefer the social sciences to the physical ones.

    All in all: good stuff!

  • Justin Griffith

    Yes, I did misread it. Damn – and I spent like 3 extra minutes searching for that particular hyperlink.

    @Paul Indeed, Good stuff.