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Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science
and observation in which inferences are made, and hypotheses generated from those inferences are tested.
For instance, particle physicists cannot directly observe subatomic particles because the particles are too small. They must make inferences about the weight, speed, and other properties of the particles based on other observations. A logical hypothesis might be something like this: If the weight of this particle is Y, when I bombard it, X will happen. If X does not happen, then the hypothesis is disproved. Thus, we can learn about the natural world even if we cannot directly observe a phenomenon—and that is true about the past, too.
In historical sciences like astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, and archaeology, logical inferences are made and then tested against data. Sometimes the test cannot be made until new data are available, but a great deal has been done to help us understand the past. For example, scorpionflies (Mecoptera) and true flies (Diptera) have enough similarities that entomologists consider them to be closely related. Scorpionflies have four wings of about the same size, and true flies have a large front pair of wings but the back pair is replaced by small club-shaped structures. If Diptera evolved from Mecoptera, as comparative anatomy suggests, scientists predicted that a fossil fly with four wings might be found—and in 1976 this is exactly what was discovered. Furthermore, geneticists have found that the number of wings in flies can be changed through mutations in a single gene.
Evolution is a well-supported theory drawn from a variety of sources of data, including observations about the fossil record, genetic information, the distribution of plants and animals, and the similarities across species of anatomy and development. Scientists have inferred that descent with modification offers the best scientific explanation for these observations.
Is evolution a fact or a theory?
The theory of evolution explains how life on earth has changed. In scientific terms, "theory" does not mean "guess" or "hunch'' as it does in everyday usage. Scientific theories are explanations of natural phenomena built up logically from testable observations and hypotheses. Biological evolution is the best scientific explanation we have for the enormous range of observations about the living world.
Scientists most often use the word "fact" to describe an observation. But scientists can also use fact to mean something that has been tested or observed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples. The occurrence of evolution in this sense is a fact. Scientists no longer question whether descent with modification occurred because the evidence supporting the idea is so strong.
Why isn't evolution called a law?
Laws are generalizations that describe phenomena, whereas theories explain phenomena. For example, the laws of thermodynamics describe what will happen under certain circumstances; thermodynamics theories explain why these events occur.
Laws, like facts and theories, can change with better data. But theories do not develop into laws with the accumulation of evidence. Rather, theories are the goal of science.
Don't many famous scientists reject evolution?
No. The scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming. Those opposed to the teaching of evolution sometimes use quotations from prominent scientists out of context to claim that scientists do not support evolution. However, examination of the quotations reveals that the scientists are actually disputing some aspect of how evolution occurs, not whether evolution occurred. For example, the biologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote that "the extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology." But Gould, an accomplished paleontologist and eloquent educator about evolution, was arguing about how evolution takes place. He was discussing whether the rate of change of species is constant and gradual or whether it takes place in bursts after long periods when little change occurs—an idea known as punctuated equilibrium. As Gould writes in response, "This quotation, although accurate as a partial citation, is dishonest in leaving out the following explanatory material showing my true purpose—to discuss rates of evolutionary change, not to deny the fact of evolution itself."