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     Response to ACLU ID FAQ: Part 6

     "Is evolution 'just' a theory?"

by Casey Luskin

FAQ 6: "Is evolution 'just' a theory?"
  • 6a. "No. Calling evolution a theory, not a fact, as in the Dover policy, exploits the common definition of 'theory' as a hunch or a guess."
  • 6b. "In science, however, a theory is a systematic explanation of phenomena. The National Academy of Sciences has said that, 'evolution is one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have.'"
  • 6c. "And National Geographic wrote in November 2004 that 'the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.'"

  • Response:
    FAQ 6A. "No. Calling evolution a theory, not a fact, as in the Dover policy, exploits the common definition of 'theory' as a hunch or a guess."

    The Dover policy regarding calling evolution a "theory" is confusing. The policy requires that a statement be read to students when they start studying origins. Here is part of what must be read to students according to current Dover policy: "Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations." Not only is their oral statement awkwardly written, what doesn't make sense is that it seems to question the validity of Darwin's "theory" but then at the same time says that a "theory" is a "well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations." Their definition of theory might be correct, but it seems like under their definition, you would not expect them to call evolution a "theory," because that would imply it has high evidential support. Additionally, the statement is confusing because it does not recognize that, strictly speaking, science does not find "facts," and therefore, strictly speaking, it would be improper to call any scientific "theory" a "fact."

    Personally, I think this whole argument over whether or not evolution should be called a "theory" is a semantics issue which could easily be avoided if people just used terms consistently in all contexts. To me, it doesn't matter so much what terminology people use as long as they use terms according to their proper definitions, and there is an acceptable way for skeptics of evolution to express their views. Much of this portion of the response is thus dedicated to elucidating the best way for skeptics of evolution to express their views while not misusing terminology. I thus have a few bones to pick with people on both sides of the debate on this matter. Since, I'm a skeptic of Darwinian evolution, I'll start by "encouraging" people on "my side" first.

    Some thoughts for skeptics of Darwinian evolution:
    I think skeptics of Darwinian evolution should stop using the "evolution is 'just a theory' not a 'fact'" line. The first time I heard the phrase used was from a Darwinist complaining about it. Now when I hear skeptics of evolution say "evolution is 'just a theory,'" it comes off as a meaningless and uninformed statement. Saying something is "just a theory" does not mean that the concept necessarily lacks evidentiary support. It's not a good way of expressing skepticism about Darwinian evolution. In my opinion, it is a meaningless statement which assumes that a "theory" is something which lacks evidentiary support. That's a wrong understanding of the word "theory."

    Secondly, in my opinion, discussions of evidence are what matter most. Saying that Darwinian evolution is "just a theory" makes it sound like you don't know much about the evidence against it, and that the only objection you can muster is based upon semantics or rhetoric. As stated previously, calling something a "theory" doesn't necessarily tell you about the state of the evidence.

    Thirdly, sometimes the "evolution is 'just a theory'" line comes off like the speaker thinks "evolution is just a guess so I don't have to believe it if I don't want to." In fact, Darwinian evolution is not merely a "guess" and most Darwinists will provide many reasons why they think it is the best explanation for the diversification of life. If you think that Darwinian evolution is wrong, then you should be able to provide reasons beyond just stating "it's 'just a theory'." The best strategy is to be able to give a few specific reasons why you question Darwinian evolution other than saying something that sounds like "it's just a guess and so I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."

    I'd much rather that skeptics of Darwinian evolution understand the evidence so they can list 5 or 6 major categories of evidence as to why it has problems, rather than just stating "it's just a guess" or implying that "scientists don't really know for sure and therefore I choose to disbelieve without any real reasons." Responses coming from such a mindset indicate ignorance of the evidence on the part of the skeptic of evolution, and being uninformed will not get you anywhere in this debate. Your arguments are much more compelling and you appear much more informed and if you can say "I think Darwinian evolution is wrong because of X, Y, and Z" rather than saying "Darwinian evolution is 'just a theory' so why should I believe it?"

    Some thoughts for proponents of Darwinian evolution:
    Firstly, I agree with proponents of Darwinian evolution that the "evolution is 'just a theory'" line not only misuses the word "theory" (in the technical sense) but generally comes off as a meaningless statement. However, I have also witnessed that when a skeptic of Darwinian evolution even uses the word "theory" in any context, that some evolutionists will immediately nitpick or ridicule over a semantic issue which is totally irrelevant to discussions of the evidence.

    Darwinist scoldings of those who use the word "theory" to mean something that may or may not have high evidential support should be tempered. In my personal experience, many scientists often use the word theory akin to a "conjecture," "unvalidated hypothesis," or an unknown or relatively low level of evidentiary support. To witness this fact, perform a pubmed search for the phrase "new theory" and you'll find hundreds of hits showing scientists using the word "theory" to describe a new idea which can explain a lot of things, but may not yet be "well-substantiated" or enjoy a high level of evidentiary support.

    Yet when a skeptic of Darwinian evolution uses the word "theory" and isn't clearly trying to imply a high level of evidentiary support, it seems like alarm bells often go off and proponents of Darwin's, um, idea, immediately correct the person, in a condescending manner. The fact of the matter is that (as shown in Table 7) none of the common dictionary definitions for the word "theory" define it as something which necessarily has high evidentiary support. While the technical definition of "theory" does imply it is a "well-substantiated explanation," the fact remains that in acceptable common (and sometimes even scholarly) parlance, even among scientists, "theory" is often used precisely according to its common definition of a conjecture, or unvalidated hypothesis. Thus, my encouragement for proponents of Darwin's idea is to avoid using their current rule which goes something like this:
    1. Non-evolutionists can use the word "theory" to mean something which may not have high evidentiary support when talking amongst themselves. They can also use "theory" in its technical sense as something which does have high evidentiary support when talking amongst themselves.
    2. Evolutionists, including evolutionist scientists, can use the word "theory" to sometimes mean something which may not have high evidentiary support, and sometimes mean something which may not have high evidentiary support in just about any context
    3. But when non-evolutionists talk to evolutionists and use the word "theory" to describe "evolution," they get scolded if they do not recognize that a the technical definition of "theory" implies a high level of evidentiary support.
    There are many informed people in this debate who use the word "theory" to describe Darwinian evolution who are not intending to express that they think it has high evidentiary support. This is acceptable in the common parlance. Those who correct those using the common definition would do best to acknowledge that the person is not ignorant nor out-of-line, but merely inform them of the occasionally-used technical definition of "theory." On this count the ACLU and NAS (in S & C) actually deserve praise, because both do acknowledge that those who take the word "theory" to mean something that doesn't necessarily have high evidential support are still consistent with the primary common definitions. In other words, they don't ridicule them. If only the NAS and ACLU would apply their criticisms fairly to the hundreds of scientists who use the word "theory" according to the common definition in the technical literature. It sure looks like they single out skeptics of Darwinian evolution for special correction to me.

    A Semantic Interlude:
    Regardless, this issue boils down to one of semantics, and generally speaking, I think a bigger deal is often made about it than needs to be made. Darwinists will define a theory as something like a well-substantiated idea in science which has received wide experimental support and gained the acceptance of many scientists. But does this make evolution a "fact"? Numerous commentators have observed that science doesn't find facts. Prominent Darwinists have used the word "theory" to describe evolution, but of course they mean that Darwin's "theory" has been "so thoroughly tested and confirmed that [it] is held with great confidence." (S & C, pg. 1)

    Under the ACLU's definition of "theory," a theory may be in the eye of a beholder. What is supported by much evidence to one person may not be supported by much evidence in the eyes of another. Thus, perhaps for the members of the Dover School Board, evolution is indeed a "theory" in the sense of its common definition. Regardless, the ACLU should be commended for recognizing that the understanding that a theory is like a "guess" is not completely outlandish because that is its common usage. Nonetheless, the ACLU is correct that in science, a theory means something that has more evidentiary support than a mere guess. Perhaps, then, to use ACLU-sanctioned diction, Dover should have stated that "evolution is just a hypothesis, not a theory." Consider the more detailed discussion in Table 7.

    Table 7. Comparisons of Darwinist, and dictionary definitions of scientific terminology, as well as suggestions as not to how not to incur scoldings from Darwinists who may not use the "common" or "non-technical" definitions.
    Darwinist Definition(s)
    Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language ("WEUDEL") (1996) Definition(s)
    Commentary on Darwinists vs. WEUDEL, and also commentary on how to use terminology that pleases the ACLU
    "A tentative statement about the natural world leading to deductions that can be tested." (S & C, pg. 2) "a proposition or set of propositions set forth as an explanation for the occurrence of some specified group of phenomena, either asserted merely as a provisional conjecture to guide investigation (working hypothesis) or accepted as highly probable in light of established facts." Here the Darwinists are not in great conflict with the dictionary. Both agree a hypothesis is basically an explanation about what might be true, which is intended to then be subjected to experimental testing and verification.

    Proposal for how to avoid a scolding:
    For skeptics of Darwinian evolution, both the dictionary and Darwinist definitions of the word "hypothesis" might best characterize how they feel about Darwinian evolution: "Darwinian evolution is just a hypothesis because it does make testable statements about the natural world but it does not rise to the level of a 'theory' where it is a well-substantiated explanation." If a skeptic of Darwinian evolution calls it a "theory," they may be told that a theory is a well-substantiated explanation, and therefore it is assumed they used the word "theory" wrongly because everyone knows they are skeptical of Darwinian evolution. Using the word "hypothesis" could help you avoid a scolding, because under the NAS and WEUDEL definitions of "hypothesis," such a statement could be an acceptable method of indicating that one believes that Darwinian evolution is not necessarily strongly supported by the data.
    "a systematic explanation of phenomena" (ACLU ID FAQ)

    "In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, and tested hypotheses. The contention that evolution should be taught as "theory, not as fact" confuses the common use of these words through the accumulation of evidence. Rather, theories are the end points of science. They are understandings that develop from extensive observation, experimentation, and creative reflection. They incorporate a large body of scientific facts, laws, tested hypotheses, and logical inferences." (S & C, pg. 2)

    "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 or hypotheses." (S & C, pg. 28)
    WEUDEL's common, or non-technical definitions:

    1. a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena: Einstein's theory of relativity. 2. a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact. 3. Math. a body of principles, theorems, or the like, belonging to one subject: number theory. 4. the branch of a science or art that deals with its principles or methods, as distinguished from its practice: music theory. 5. a particular conception or view of something to be done or of the method of doing it; a system of rules or principles. 6. contemplation or speculation. 7. guess or conjecture.

    After the entries, WEUDEL discusses usage of the word "theory":

    1. THEORY, HYPOTHESIS are used in non-technical contexts to mean untested idea or opinion. The THEORY in technical use is a more or less verified or established explanation accounting for known facts or phenomena: the theory of relativity. A hypothesis is a conjecture put forth as a possible explanation of phenomena or relations, which serve as a basis of argument or experimentation to reach the truth: This idea is only a hypothesis.
    WEUDEL's technical definition of "theory" is consistent with the Darwinist definition. However, WEUDEL's common, or non-technical definitions of "theory" differ greatly from the Darwinist definitions. In light of WEUDEL's common definitions, Darwinist scoldings of those who use "theory" to imply something that doesn't necessarily have high evidentiary support should be tempered for three reasons:
    1. The Darwinist definition directly contradicts WEUDEL's 2nd, 6th, and 7th definitions "theory," each of which explicitly disclaim that a theory necessarily implies something with high evidentiary support.
    2. In fact not a single one of WEUDEL's non-technical definitions for "theory" necessarily require high evidentiary support, such as a "well-substantiated explanation."
    3. Many scientists, even in technical writing, often use the word "theory" according to common definitions (1) and/or (2).
    Darwinists should thus realize it is neither unreasonable nor odd for a person use the word "theory" to describe a scientific idea which may not have high evidentiary support. If one questions Darwinian evolution, one could say it is "just a theory" and not be inconsistent with WEUDEL, but one would likely receive scoldings from Darwinists who always define "theory" to imply a high level of evidentiary support.

    Proposal for how to avoid a scolding:
    To reiterate, because this is just an issue of semantics, if one wants to avoid a Darwinist scolding, one might say: "I realize that when many Darwinists say evolution is a 'theory,' they mean it is enjoys a high level of evidentiary support. But I disagree and think evolution is 'just a hypothesis' because it does not deserve to be called a theory under such a definition of 'theory.'" This could convey one's sentiment that evolution does not necessarily have evidentiary support and thus would not violate the ACLU/NAS schema for definitions of scientific terminology.
    Fact / Proof
    Fact: "an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and for all practical purposes is accepted as 'true.'" (S & C, pg. 2)

    "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." (S & C, pg. 28)

    Proof: "Truth in science, however, is never final, and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow." (S & C, pg. 2)
    Fact: "1) something that actually exists; reality; truth. 2) something known to exist or have happened. 3) A truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true: 'Scientists gather facts about plant growth.'" Sometimes we run into confusion over whether or not science finds "facts" or whether something can be "proven." Philosophers of science generally agree that, strictly speaking, science does not "prove" things and it does not find "facts." For example, one book reviewing philosophy of science so lawyers can accurately use scientific evidence reminds that "hypotheses are never affirmatively proved, they are only falsified." (Judging Science, MIT Press, 1999, pg. 38). This is also why the NAS writes, "[t]ruth in science, however, is never final, and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow." (S & C, pg. 2)

    The most that can be said for a scientific claim is that it is universally accepted by all scientists and has an extremely high level of experimental or evidentiary support. When something reaches this level, it may be called a "fact" or a "law" even though strictly speaking, scientists don't find "facts." This is why the NAS rightly says that a fact is something which "for all practical purposes is accepted as 'true'" because they know that strictly speaking, there are no true "facts" in science. But for all practical purposes, there are some things which have been confirmed over and over again to the extent that nobody questions them. Yet when scientists use "fact" in this context, they are using a common or colloquial understanding of fact--not a strict understanding of "fact" according to philosophers of science.

    Inconsistency comes when Darwinists, particularly Darwinist philosophers of science like Michael Ruse, are permitted to say that "Evolution is a fact, fact, FACT!" (Ruse, Michael, Darwinism Defended: A Guide to the Evolution Controversies, p.58.) Even the NAS writes "[S]cientists can also use fact to mean something that has been tested or observe so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples. The occurrence of evolution is in this sense a fact." (S & C, pg. 28, emphasis added) But yet when ID proponents say "Evolution is not fact, fact, FACT!" Darwinists tell us we're using the wrong terminology because science doesn't find facts. The problem is that when scientists speak as such, they are using a common, non-technical understanding of "fact." Thus we have a contradiction in how Darwinists treat themselves versus skeptics of evolution:y

    Fact: Common definition: something we observe, or for all practical purposes, is widely accepted to be true.
    Technical meaning: there is no such thing as a "fact" in science
    Theory: Common definition: a "hunch," "guess," or "conjecture" which may or may not be true.
    Technical meaning: a well-substantiated explanation receiving high evidentiary support
    The inconsistency exists because Darwinists permit themselves to use the more forceful language of "fact" under its common definition to describe evolution, but do not permit skeptics of Darwinian evolution to use the word "theory" according to its common definition to do the same. Furthermore, when an ID proponent says that "evolution is not a fact" they are scolded and told that "science doesn't find facts--it cannot prove anything." This may be a valid point--for under such a rationale evolution is not a fact because nothing in science, strictly speaking, is a "fact." But then Darwinists like Michael Ruse remain unscolded when they proclaim that "Evolution is a fact, fact, FACT!"

    Proposal for how to avoid a scolding:
    Because the NAS acknowledges that some things can be, for all practical purposes, called "facts" and because some evolutionists go unscolded in calling evolution a "fact," a skeptic of evolution may safely use the word "fact" if they state something like this: "I realize that strictly speaking, science cannot 'prove' things and does not find 'facts.' But I do not believe evolution is a 'fact' in the sense I do not think it has been repeatedly confirmed. Rather, it is best characterized as a 'hypothesis' where it does not necessarily have high evidentiary support." Under such a statement, a skeptic of evolution will acknowledge that strictly speaking, science does not find facts but also accurately communicate why they believe it is incorrect for scientists to call evolution a "fact."
    What's the point of this table? The ACLU/NAS have insisted that people use specific definitions of scientific terminology, particularly with regards to the word "theory." Skeptics of Darwinian evolution are often scolded when they do not use the preferred Darwinist definitions of the terminology. In short, the dictionary definition of "theory" implies that it does not necessarily have any evidentiary support. The technical definition does imply high evidentiary support, but many scientists nonetheless use the word "theory" by its common definition to imply an unknown level of evidentiary support. Those who use a theory by its common definition should not be scolded do not completely misuse the term. If correction is needed, they should be respectfully about the technical definition of "theory."

    Secondly, Darwinists often scold ID proponents when they say "evolution is not a fact" because they are told science does not find facts. Yet when Darwinists say "evolution is a fact," no scolding is given. In reality, science does not find "facts" for hypotheses are never affirmatively proven. Darwinists would do better to do away with this inconsistency by not scolding ID proponents, or more pro-actively reprimanding Darwinists who proclaim evolution is a "fact."

    At the end of the day, this is simply an issue of semantics, and so if one wants to convey their belief that evolution lacks high evidentiary support, it is easy to do that within the confines of the ACLU/NAS definitions of scientific terminology. The best thing one can do is to simply understand their terminology and express an understanding of the different ways these terms can be used. To express your skepticism about Darwinian evolution, but also demonstrate a working knowledge of the original and Darwinist definitions of the terms (and avoid a scolding), one might say something like this: "Although the dictionary does not define a "theory" as something with high evidential support, scientists sometimes use the word "theory" to mean a "well-substantiated explanation." Under such a definition, I believe Darwinian evolution is not a "theory," but rather that it is just a "hypothesis"--something which makes predictions which have not necessarily received high levels of confirmation. Also, science does really not "prove" anything and, strictly speaking, does not discover "facts." Some scientists, however, call things "facts" when they have been repeatedly tested and confirmed. In this sense I believe Darwinian evolution is, for all practical purposes, not a "fact" because it has not been repeatedly confirmed by the evidence." A statement like this might not be appropriate for education policy, but for individual skeptics of evolution voicing their views, hopefully this will help you dodge those nitpickers of semantics avidly waiting to distract you into their little grass hut on the roadside of the actual debate.

    Legal Implications of stating "evolution is 'just a theory' not a 'fact'"
    All of this talk about semantics is nice, but what are the constitutional implications of calling evolution a "theory" and "not a fact?" This exact issue was recently dealt with in the case Selman v. Cobb County Board of Education. As of the posting of this commentary (Feb, 2005), only the District Court's decision has been issued in the case, and so the decision could be modified by higher courts on appeal. Judge Cooper, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, ruled that the phrase "[e]volution is a theory, not a fact, concerning the origin of diving things" in Cobb County's disclaimer is unconstitutional. This is important because, to reiterate, the Dover School Board has a similar statement in its policy over teaching evolution: "Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations." Judge Cooper's rationale for finding the phrase "[e]volution is a theory, not a fact" unconstitutional was essentially as follows: "in light of the historical opposition to evolution by Christian fundamentalists and creationists in Cobb County and throughout the Nation, the informed, reasonable observer would infer the School Board's problem with evolution to be that evolution does not acknowledge a creator." (Selman v. Cobb County Board of Education, pg. 37.) If Judge Cooper's decision is not overruled on appeal (assuming there is one), then this will undoubtedly become an argument made by the ACLU in the case in Dover. There are many things wrong and scary about a legal argument like this. I'm not going to develop them all here--but I'll outline them under two major points:

    1. Judge Cooper's Reasoning Threatens Political Liberties and Religious Freedom
    Firstly, this decision threatens the rights and political liberties of religious persons to advocate for social policies in our democracy. You may or may not agree with many of the views of "Christian fundamentalists" or "creationists," but if you agree with fundamentally-American bumper-sticker-sentiment that "I may not agree with what you advocate, but I will defend to the death your right to advocate it," then I hope you will be sensitive to what is wrong with Judge Cooper's decision.

    In short, this decision doesn't say that religious persons cannot advocate their views, but it does say that if their views make a dent in the actual public policy arena, then those policies may be struck down because of the very fact that the people who advocated that policy tended to have a particular religious belief. It effectively takes away the right of many religious persons, where their religious group tends to advocate a particular policy, to see their political goals in democracy fulfilled. According to Judge Cooper, whether or not the policy has high secular or social value is immaterial: all that matters is that people of a particular religious belief were known as commonly advocating that position. If this isn't un-American, what is?

    To illustrate why the "effect" of a policy should be based upon secular understandings of social utility, and not social perceptions, consider the fact that religious activism has had very strong historical ties to the Civil Rights Movement, the Abolition Movement, and advocating for many social welfare programs. Thus, I see very little keeping Judge Cooper's form of logic from having been used in the past to say something like this: "In light of the historical opposition to slavery by Christians throughout the Nation, the informed, reasonable observer would infer that Congress' problem with slavery to be that slavery is against Biblical notions of treating people with dignity and respect." or perhaps in the future as something like this: "In light of the historical opposition to abortion by Christians throughout the Nation, the informed, reasonable observer would infer the legislature's problem with abortion to be that abortion is kills a human with a soul, which is a fundamentally religious viewpoint." Some might reply "Slavery is different because many non-Christians supported abolition, and many 'Christians' supported slavery. In contrast, the 'evolution is a theory, not a fact' line is supported almost exclusively by religious fundamentalists." I would argue this objection fails because, according to the Darwinist contingency, many Christians today support teaching evolution-only in schools. There is not unanimity among Christians on this point. The fact that we label those Christians who question evolution as "creationists" or "fundamentalists" does not mean that one viewpoint is inextricably linked to one religious viewpoint. We could argue about this at length, but the short if it is "why should the religious beliefs of people contending for a public policy matter when doing constitutional analysis of that policy?" Such a rule seems discriminatory.

    Even if Judge Cooper's decision is permitted to stand, it should not have an effect on the policies advocated by the ID movement. Firstly, the ID movement is not religiously homogenous, and therefore it is difficult to say which religious view would be endorsed, if a school board adopted its policies. Secondly, the policy advocated by the ID movement is not to use the "evolution is a theory, not a fact" line but simply to "teach the controversy" over evolution. There are a variety of secular advocates of "teaching the controversy" who are completely removed from the ID movement. John Angus Campbell reviews some of these educators and concludes: "That professional science educators, none of whom are associated with ID (and for all we know may be critical of it) would come to the same conclusion as ID advocates about how to best teach evolution is not surprising. The idea of teaching [controversies] is arguably the oldest idea in our common educational tradition. (John Angus Campbell in Darwin, Design, and Public Education, pg. 20-21 (Michigan State University Press 2003) Thus, it would appear that the policies advocated by ID movement are not as severely threatened by the logic of Judge Cooper.

    2. Judge Cooper's Form of Reasoning Poses a Threat to Science Education
    We cannot judge the constitutionality of a policy based upon the religious views of the people advocating it. Rather such analysis should be based only upon whether or not the policy has a secular effect when implemented.

    The fact that religious people advocate for a view does not mean that the government therefore endorses all the religious views of those people who advocate it. The way that "endorsement" analysis is used by Judge Cooper bases unconstitutionality not upon whether religion is actually established, but upon whether reasonable people would think it is established. What people think is not supposed to be the constitutional standard, but rather the standard is whether there actually is government establishment of religion. To explore this reasoning, consider the two following statements:
    1. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1)
    2. "The Big Bang theory implies that the universe has a beginning some 12-13 billion years ago."
    Obviously statement (1) would be unconstitutional to teach in schools, while statement (2) is taught unchallenged (and rightly so) in public schools every day. But it just so happens that many Christian creationists advocate for both of these positions. Old earth creationist groups like Reasons to Believe (RTB) make it the primary focus of their efforts to argue that statement (1) and statement (2) are ultimately harmonious, and base much of their apologetic for Genesis 1:1 and the Christian faith upon Big Bang cosmology. Where I come from in Southern California, I have found that RTB has done a good job of making their views and arguments very well known in the community.

    Most would agree that it is not unconstitutional to teach the Big Bang in schools because it represents a curricular policy devoid of religious content or religious underpinnings. In short, it is an inference based upon scientific methods applied to astronomical data, not a religious theory of origins. (Malnak v. Yogi, 592 F.2d 197, 209 (3rd Cir. 1979) (Adams, J., concurring).) The Big Bang may be harmonious with some religious views, but the Big Bang Theory itself is not a religious concept, for it is based upon scientific methods of obtaining knowledge. Furthermore, it has nothing to do with traditionally religious topics like God, the Bible, or morality. Religion is notoriously difficult to define both in law and philosophy, but we might say that teaching the Big Bang fails a famous legal test for religion given by Judge Adams in Malnak v. Yogi. Adams' gives the following criteria for determining if a curriculum establishes religion:
    1. The nature of the ideas in question (i.e. do they deal with questions of “ultimate concern”);
    2. Degree of “comprehensiveness;”
    3. Presence of formal, external, or surface signs
      (paraphrased from Malnak, 592 F.2d at 208-210 (Adams, J., concurring).)
    The point here is that the Big Bang theory lacks religious content. Thus, it doesn't matter who advocates it, or who agrees with it, because when it is taught, it won't have the effect of establishing religion. But the exact same could be said about a school board which adopts the "evolution is a theory, not a fact" line.

    Saying "evolution is a theory, not a fact" lacks any religious content. What matters is not who advocates it, but rather what effect it will have when it is read to students. The "evolution is a theory, not a fact" line may be supported by many religious people (just like the Big Bang Theory), but the line itself completely fails Judge Adams' test for religion. Just like the Big Bang, the phrase may touch upon an "ultimate question" (i.e. like where we came from), but it is not a "comprehensive" answer to that question and there are not formal, external, or surface signs associated with such a phrase. If we disregard Judge Adams' test, it is still difficult to argue that the phrase "evolution a 'theory' and not a 'fact'" has any religious content under any understanding of religion.

    The flaw in Judge Cooper's reasoning is now fully exposed. The teaching of the Big Bang would never be struck down simply because many people might view it as endorsing the apologetic arguments of many Christian creationists. This is because how people perceive an educational policy cannot dictate what is taught. Many courts have agreed that the fact that people perceive an aspect of the curriculum as establishing religion will matter much less than whether the policy actually establishes religion: “If an Establishment Clause violation arose each time a student believed that a school practice either advanced or disapproved of a religion, school curricula would be reduced to the lowest common denominator, permitting each student to become a ‘curriculum review committee’ unto himself or herself.” (Brown v. Woodlands, 27 F.3d 1373, 1379 (9th Cir. 1994) .)

    “The Establishment Clause is not violated because government action happens to coincide or harmonize with the tenets of some or all religions.” (Fleischfresser v. Directors of School. District 200, 15 F.3d 680 (7th Cir. 1994).)
    What matters is not what students think about a policy, but whether the policy actually establishes religion. If students started thinking that because many Christian creationists think the Big Bang theory supports Genesis, that therefore in teaching Big Bang cosmology, the school endorses creationism, a court would simply reply "the Big Bang is a scientific theory, based upon scientific methods of research, and is devoid of religious content, so there is no establishment of religion regardless of what some students think." Judge Cooper's reasoning could thus theoretically threaten the teaching of the Big Bang in schools. But the real danger with Judge Cooper's reasoning is that if it is applied fairly, his logic threatens the teaching of evolution.

    Judge Cooper struck down the "evolution is theory, not fact" (paraphrased) line under the effect prong of the Lemon test. To repeat this clause, the Lemon test's effect prong requires that a policy's: "principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion..." Judge Cooper found that a policy which teaches evolution as "theory, not fact" (paraphrased) endorses the views of Christian creationists, making those who are not Christian creationists feel like political "outsiders:" "Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community ... [T]he Sticker sends a message to those who oppose evolution for religious reasons that they are favored members of the political community, while the Sticker sends a message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders." (Selman v. Cobb County Board of Education, pg. 31)(citations to Lynch v. Donnelly ommitted).) Yet what happens to the many curricula across the nation where evolution is taught as fact (as is advocated by the NAS)? Evolution also is widely known to be strongly advocated by many atheists. I won't quote them all here but those familiar with ID literature realize that a slew of famous evolutionist scientists (Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, William Provine, George Gaylord Simpson) can be quoted stating that evolution supports at least the view that we are here as a result of random chance, and at most atheism itself. After all, the Third Humanist Manifesto states that “Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing.” (Humanist Manifesto III). It has been common for atheists to show up at school board meetings and advocate the teaching of evolution-only (i.e. evolution as "fact"). My point is not to claim that evolution is necessarily anti-religious, but just to highlight the fact that a lot of people see evolution as important to their philosophical worldview. In fact, Judge Cooper himself acknowledges in his decision that many people see evolution has having important religious implications: "This matter involves one of those instances where science and religion both offer an explanation to resolve a controversial issue - namely, the origin of the human species[.] This issue historically has generated intense controversy and debate precisely because of its religious implications and the belief of some that science and religion cannot coexist."
    "Neither the former policy nor regulation explicitly references evolution, but both imply that a significant number of Cobb County citizens maintain beliefs that are deemed to conflict with evolution."
    (Selman v. Cobb County Board of Education, pgs. 2, 5)
    If evolution can have religious implications, or at least many people think it does, then what happens when a school board chooses to teach evolution "as fact?" Wouldn't that seem to imply that the school board has not endorsed the views of religious fundamentalists and creationists thus "inhibiting" their viewpoint? Or, perhaps more likely, many people might perceive the school board as having endorsed atheism (even if such a school board didn't intend to do that, just as Cooper found that Cobb County school board didn't intend to endorse Christianity). What would happen if a school board adopted this statement by the NAS: "[S]cientists can also use fact to mean something that has been tested or observe so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples. The occurrence of evolution is in this sense a fact. Teaching evolution as such almost certainly would make people like "fundamentalist Christians" and "creationists" feel like political outsiders, because this endorses a view which is supported by many atheists and is directly contrary to their views. Remember, I'm not arguing that evolution necessarily implies atheism, I'm just applying Cooper's form of logic to the realities of this debate. Judge Cooper might remind us that fundamentalist Christians are not the benchmark for how a reasonable person would interpret a policy. But hey, when well over 40% of Americans say evolution conflicts with their religious beliefs, I suppose courts may want to pay attention to that fact when they think about what a reasonable American thinks.

    Yet the teaching of evolution "as fact" has indeed been challenged under such grounds. One famous case was Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District (37 F.3d 517, 521 (9th Cir. 1994)), where the Ninth Circuit said that evolution may be taught "as fact" (Peloza at 520) because evolution is not a religious belief system but simply a scientific theory. The court did not care if some people subjectively felt teaching evolution endorsed atheism: "At other times [Peloza] claims the district is forcing him to teach evolution as fact. Although possibly dogmatic or even wrong, such a requirement would not transgress the establishment clause if "evolution" simply means that higher life forms evolved from lower ones. ... 'Evolution' and 'evolutionism' define a biological concept: higher life forms evolve from lower ones. The concept has nothing to do with how the universe was created; it has nothing to do with whether or not there is a divine Creator (who did or did not create the universe or did or did not plan evolution as part of a divine scheme)." (Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District, 37 F.3d at 520-521 (emphasis in original).) Here I agree with the Ninth Circuit because they did much better to look at the effect of teaching evolution by examining whether it has religious content or has religious a basis, rather than adopting Mr. Peloza's arguments that teaching evolution advances the religion belief system of atheists. But the approach the Ninth Circuit took highlights a trend where courts treat creationists and evolutionists inconsistently. The following discussion is a loose legal argument, but it fits the pattern well: When creationists complain that teaching evolution "as fact" makes them feel like political outsiders, courts look at the religious content of the policy of teaching evolution and find that such a policy has no religious content because evolution is not a religious theory. They thus find it is permissible to teach evolution in schools. Evolutionist policies are accepted.

    But when evolutionists complain against teaching evolution as "just a theory, but not a fact" makes them feel like outsiders, courts do not look at whether that policy is devoid of religious content. Rather, they look at how such a policy makes people feel (i.e. like making non-creationists feel like outsiders). Because such a policy is what is advocated by creationists, courts say it makes non-creationists feel like political outsiders. Creationist policies are therefore be rejected.

    The court seems to pick and choose its approach so as to disfavor the religious creationist. This inconsistency favors evolutionists because in the first case, no consideration is given to how creationists feel when their policies are denied, and in the second case, no consideration is given to whether the creationist policy is devoid of religious content.

    In reality, courts should ALWAYS simply look at the content of a policy and never look at "how it makes people feel." If we simply look at the religious content of policies, then teaching evolution "as fact" (which Peloza says is acceptable) should be no more constitutional than teaching evolution "not as fact, but as theory." Courts have already done the former, it's time they treat this issue fairly and consistently and do the latter--even if that might benefit creationists. Doing so means Cooper's form of logic must be rejected.
    I realize this legal argument is loosely based, but it seems that were courts to apply Judge Cooper's logic tightly to the teaching of evolution, they would be forced to strike it down on very similar grounds to why he struck down teaching the "evolution is a theory, not a fact" phrase.

    Conclusion of this point:
    I believe evolution can and should be taught in schools, and I don't really believe that teaching evolution necessarily has to endorse (in a legal sense) atheism, humanism, etc. I'm just trying to show that Judge Cooper's logic will lead him to a place he doesn't want to go. If teaching evolution as "theory not fact" has the primary effect of advancing Christianity because some people will see such a policy as endorsing the views of Christian creationists, then it follows that teaching evolution as "fact, not theory" has the primary effect of "inhibiting" Christianity and likely endorses the religious viewpoints of groups such as atheists, which tend to advocate such evolution-only curricula policies.

    If you agree with me that rejecting the political policies of creationists would not send a message of non-endorsement (because obviously the policy would be rightly rejected on secular grounds, not because of the religious views of the advocates), then I have made my point: neither rejection nor acceptance of the political policies of creationists should reasonably imply non-endorsement or endorsement of their religious views. Endorsement is not the proper benchmark to decide these cases: we merely have to determine if the actual policy itself injects religious content into the curriculum. If so, then only then would religion be established.

    In short, as I stated previously, I do not think that people, and more importantly school boards, should use the "evolution is a theory, not a fact" line. But I will defend their right to adopt that line, because it's an American, democratic right they have.

    FAQ 6B. "In science, however, a theory is a systematic explanation of phenomena. The National Academy of Sciences has said that, 'evolution is one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have.'"

    Similar to the National Geographic citation (discussed below), the ACLU is appealing to an authority to claim that evolution is an unquestionable fact. A brief critique of the NAS's view of the controversy has already been made above. To repeat a highlight of that critique, the NAS wrote that "it is the job of science is to provide plausible natural explanations for natural phenomena" (S & C, pg. 7). The NAS has basically hard-coded naturalism into its definition of science--if it ain't a naturalistic cause, they reject it immediately. It is clear that the NAS has a bias towards the naturalistic, and that they are not even considering intelligent design as a viable hypothesis. For them, the only game in town is evolution, regardless of the state of the evidence. It should be unsurprising that an entity which states that only "plausible natural explanations" are acceptable in science has therefore concluded that "evolution is one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have." Naturalism permits them no other options for what they can use to explain biological origins. Furthermore, ID cannot be accepted because they have created a definition of science which they (mistakenly) think excludes intelligent design a priori.

    Furthermore, it should be repeated that NAS members, particularly their biologists, have a large imbalance in their philosophical beliefs towards atheism or agnosticism which makes it hard to believe that they are an objective source with regards to evolution and intelligent design. To reiterate, in 1998, legal scholar and award winning historian of the creation-evolution controversy Edward J. Larson, along with Larry Witham, described the results of their survey of the religious beliefs of scientists. They found that religious beliefs among evolutionary biologists are uncommon: "The [NAS science and creationism] booklet assures readers, “Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.” NAS President Bruce Alberts said: “There are many outstanding members of this academy who are religious people who believe in evolution, many of them biologists.” Our survey suggests otherwise." (Edward J. Larson & Larry Witham, “The More They Learn The Less They Believe,” Nature, 394:313 (June 1998).) Again, to reiterate, the authors found a “near universal rejection of the transcendent by NAS natural scientists,” which was particularly acute among NAS biologists, where only 5.6% believed in God. In fact among NAS scientists, belief in God was the “lowest” for biologists. Thus, while there may be evolutionary biologists who are religious, when scholars surveyed religious beliefs of evolutionary biologists, they found that contrary to what both Bruce Alberts and the ACLU suggest, there are not "many" evolutionary biologists who themselves are religious.

    If the NAS is perhaps a biased source, then perhaps the ACLU is relying upon an improper authority to establish that evolution is a widely supported theory. In fact, there are some very recent examples where evolution made some very poor predictions. Here's a quickie:

    In 2003, Scientific American published an extensive article discussing how much "junk-DNA" may have functionality. ("The Gems of "Junk" DNA," Scientific American, Nov. 2003, by W. Wayt Gibbs.) The upshot of the article is that some types of DNA which biologists now see as playing important functional roles in the cell “were immediately assumed to be evolutionary junk” and "long ago written off as irrelevant because they yield no proteins." (emphasis added) The article states that the "assumption [that the DNA was junk] was too hasty" and "[t]he failure to recognize the importance of introns 'may well go down as one of the biggest mistakes in the history of molecular biology.'" (emphasis added) If the article is correct, then evolutionary assumptions caused "one of the biggest mistakes in the history of molecular biology." (emphasis added) This implies that sometimes expectations and predictions from evolutionary theory are not met, and the theory is not always very useful after all.

    Many other examples of failed predictions could also be given. A few famous ones include the failure of the fossil record to validate Darwinian gradualism (and the inability of punctuated equilibrium to solve the problem), the fact that convergent evolution often pops up in unexpected places such that predictions from common descent with modification have often made it very difficult to reconstruct phylogenies, and the lack of plausible explanations for the origin of irreducible complexity in biology.

    FAQ 6C. "And National Geographic wrote in November 2004 that 'the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.'"

    Many may think that National Geographic is an unbiased authority when it comes to the origins issue. In fact the ACLU is counting on the fact that the public (and possibly a judge) who reads their arguments will take the statements of National Geographic as objective, and compelling. Unfortunately National Geographic is not unbiased when it comes to evolutionary theory and the origins issue.

    Firstly, consider the Archaeoraptor debacle, where in November, 1999, National Geographic placed on its cover an illustration of an unpublished fossil (called "Archaeoraptor") which they used to hastily bolster their main point that "We can now saw that birds are theropods just as confidently as we can say that humans are mammals." The Archaeoraptor fossil later turned out to be a fake, leading the curator of birds for the National Museum of History at the Smithsonian Institution to state that "National Geographic was not interested in anything other than the prevailing dogma that birds evolved from dinosaurs."

    To their credit, National Geographic later recanted publishing the fossil--but a bias had been cleary exposed. Furthermore, the "recantation" itself was microscopic--what was once a cover-article was repudiated in a deeply buried one-paragraph letter-to-the-editor published in their March, 2000 issue. National Geographic has quite a history of hyping up claims about evolution and publishing one-sided articles which give the feel of that they are trying to function as evangelists for evolution.

    Thus, it came as no surprise when National Geographic's November 2004 article, "Was Darwin Wrong?," (by David Quammen, pg. 4-35) also came off as an advertisement for evolution. Statements like "Evolution is a beautiful concept" (pg. 8) should have been followed up with something like "Go buy evolution at your local biology class." Furthermore, the author seems fairly out-of-touch and uninterested in why many people are skeptical of evolution. He stated that creationists are "proselytizers and political activists" and that for many people it is "confusion and ignorance" which causes them to doubt evolution. The author cannot even fathom that there are legitimate scientific critiques of evolution, and therefore presents the issue in a very one-sided manner.

    Here's the primary evidence cited for evolution in the article, followed by various web-articles offering an alternative viewpoint which challenges the "overwhelming evidence" proposed in the National Geographic (many of these links are off-site):
  • Embryology: See Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells; Icons Still Standing, a defense of Icons of Evolution
  • Paleontology: Rebutted in Punctuated Equilibrium and Patterns from the Fossil Record (see also Icons Still Standing, a defense of Icons of Evolution for a discussion of the horse and Problems with Evolutionary Explanations of the Fossil Record for a discussion of the alleged evolution of whales)
  • Biogeography: See Icons Still Standing, a defense of Icons of Evolution for a discussion of Galapagos Finches
  • Morphology (i.e. distribution of characteristics): Discussed in Design vs. Descent: A Contest of Predictions; also, there could be "common design" where a designer reuses parts that work!
  • Homology: See Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells; Icons Still Standing, a defense of Icons of Evolution
  • Vestigial Organs: See various pages rebutting these claims on other sites, such as Snakes with legs? A preliminary reply; whale pelvises: To make a tail for a whale, The strange tale of the leg on the whale; Male nipples prove evolution?;
  • Antibiotic and Pesticide Resistance: Rebutted in Icons Still Standing, a defense of Icons of Evolution and The Implications of Antibiotic and Antiviral Drug Resistance for the Power of Darwinian Evolution; see also The Evolution of Antibiotic Resistance
  • Convergent Evolution: this is considered by some to be a major problem for evolutionary theory. See Design vs. Descent: A Contest of Predictions and Icons Still Standing, a defense of Icons of Evolution for discussions.
  • A creationist organization has published a full review of the National Geographic article at National Geographic Shoots Itself in the Foot--Again!.
  • Why would the ACLU so casually cite National Geographic in its public statement about evolution and ID? The likely reason is that most Americans unfortunately still believe that National Geographic is an unbiased, neutral Fourth-of-July-and-apple-pie source of information on origins. After all, nobody wants to slander National Geographic--look at all the great work they have done to open up the eyes of Americans to the cutting edge of science and human diversity in our world. Indeed, National Geographic has done a lot of great things. But perhaps, just perhaps, this is an example of entity with a wonderful historical track record of getting things right gets one issue very very wrong. And they get it so predictably and forcefully wrong that one wonders if there is not an agenda in the organization's hierarchy promoting a single-minded perspective on an issue in a manner that smacks of propaganda. In fact, one wonders if National Geographic's November, 2004 advertisement for evolution was actually a coordinated effort where Darwinists requested such an article so they could cite it in their current legal battles over teaching intelligent design. It would not surprise me at all if Darwinist activists at the NCSE and/or ACLU requested that National Geographic throw together its advertisement for evolution the moment it realized that there would be an imminent lawsuit over teaching intelligent design.

    Nonetheless, as far as constitutional matters are concerned, even if the ACLU is correct, this point is moot. The Supreme Court in Edwards made it eminently clear that it is not unconstitutional to critique prevailing scientific theories in public school science classrooms: "We do not imply that a legislature could never require that scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories be taught." (Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. at 593) Of course any policy from a school board would have to pass the purpose prong of the Lemon test, but critiquing evolution is clearly not in-and-of-itself unconstitutional, regardless of what the ACLU claims is the "overwhelming" state of the evidence. The job of courts is not to decide if the evidence for evolution implies that it should not be critiqued, but simply to decide if the actions of a public school curricula establish religion. It seems clear that sanctioning the critiquing of evolution is within the discretion of local school districts and is not unconstitutional. Thus, there is nothing unconstitutional about teaching evidence against evolution. Indeed, Congress seems to have supported such an act with the "Santorum resolution," which passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 91-8 and stated: "It is the sense of the Senate that: (1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; (2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject." This seems to provide Congressional sanction for the policy of helping students to understand the controversy over evolutionary theory, which would seem to imply that teaching them about scientific evidence which challenges evolution is a legitimate pedagogical act.

    Does any of this have any relevance to Pandas? Pandas does not simply critique evolution--it also offers the theory of intelligent design as an alternative explanation for the origin of some aspects of life. If intelligent design does represent a scientific theory, then teaching it is permissible. Again, in Edwards, the Supreme Court found that teaching more scientific theories about origin can increase the effectiveness and comprehensiveness of a curriculum: "If the Louisiana Legislature's purpose was solely to maximize the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of science instruction, it would have encouraged the teaching of all scientific theories about the origins of humankind." (Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. at 588) This statement was made after the Court's observation that the law at question in Edwards would ban the teaching of evolution if creationism was not taught. This could result in a decrease in the amount of science students learned, and thus the Court found the policy did not seek to maximize the "comprehensiveness and effectiveness" of the curriculum. If there is no "balanced treatment" policy, and students will still learn about evolutionary theory, then teaching students about intelligent design should increase the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of the science curriculum.

    Assuming a secular purpose, there does not seem to be any chance that the fact that the a curriculum critiques evolution out of Pandas would be declared unconstitutional for that simple reason.

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    Note and Update
    Original note with corrected URLs: This musing is merely a commentary on the "ACLU's 'Intelligent Design' FAQ" as found on the ACLU website. While I am a lawyer, and this response to the ACLU ID FAQ mentions the case over teaching intelligent design theory in Dover, Pennsylvania, this commentary is not intended to be legal advice for anyone. This is simply my thoughts about the claims made by the ACLU in its ID FAQ on their website. Some of their claims, and thus some of my commentary relates to case law, but much of this discussion is also completely unrelated to legal issues. A full legal discussion about whether or not it is constitutional to teach intelligent design would go into much more depth than the commentary made here. This is not intended to fully or adequately discuss the general question of whether or not it is constitutional to teach intelligent design theory. My purpose here is simply to respond to the various sorts of claims made by the ACLU in its ID FAQ. If readers have further questions about the author's opinion, they are invited to contact the author at

    Update [10-26-05]: Also, these response pages were originally posted on February 11, 2005. I just learned today that as of September 16, 2005, the ACLU had published an updated ID FAQ at the same URL where the original FAQ was located. Thus, I apologize if there has been any confusion as this response was written months before the new FAQ replaced the old one. Thus, this response here is in response to the original ACLU ID FAQ which is still available at I have tried to change links to the ACLU's ID FAQ throughout my response to reflect the change in their URLs. I would also like to thank the ACLU for making me aware of the changes in the URLs and their FAQ.

    [Addendum added 2/22/06: I realized today that this FAQ had previously stated that I was not a lawyer. That is because I wrote this before I was admitted to the California bar. I am now an attorney and have updated this page accordingly today.]