Evolution and the Rules of the Game

By Dr. Carolyn Reeves
used with permission

When even professional educators and scientists cannot agree on a simple disclaimer stating that evolution is a theory (as in Cobb County Georgia schools), how are students expected to understand what’s going on? The purpose of this article is to present some of the basic rules of the game of science and to show how evolution fits into the scheme of things. Think how confusing it would be to play in a soccer game without knowing the rules. In the same way, evolution controversies will never make a lot of sense until one gains an understanding of the rules of the game of science.

Science and Related Fields

Most people probably think of science in terms of finding a cure for cancer or building a rocket to the moon, but neither of these activities falls into the territory known as science. Instead, these examples belong to the field of technology or “applied science.” Technology includes all engineering fields and other ways in which scientific knowledge is used to benefit society. The emphasis of technology is on how to make something work efficiently rather than on explaining the principles of why it works. Moral decisions must be made about whether or not to develop certain technologies, while scientific knowledge is usually considered morally neutral.

Sometimes the field of natural history is also mistaken for fundamental science, because it includes descriptions of plants, animals, and other natural objects and devises ways in which they can be classified. Natural history differs from science in that describing, identifying and classifying things are done without explaining why or how things occur as they do. The early enthusiasts of this field included birdwatchers and people who collected butterflies, wildflowers, and herbs.

The Beginnings of Science

Science eludes a good definition, but loosely stated it seeks to understand and explain the natural world rather than build useful things or describe nature. There are two ultimate goals of science. One is to discover repeating patterns in nature and the other is to provide explanations of things that have been observed in nature. Repeating patterns may ultimately be expressed as natural laws, and explanations may ultimately be expressed as theories.

Science, technology, and natural history do overlap at times, but many of the misconceptions about science can be minimized by focusing on the fundamentals of the nature of science. As we know it today, science has not been around nearly as long as most other fields of knowledge. It seems to have had its origins in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, even though advanced systems of mathematics, technologies, and philosophical reasoning existed much earlier in other cultures.

Seeing no practical uses for mere explanations, many people during the early days of science considered its study a frivolous waste of time. Technologies were valued because they had practical benefits. Almost everyone supported designing and building machines that made work easier or faster, while only a few considered it important to understand and explain the underlying scientific principles. Many people also enjoyed observing or collecting plants and animals, because it was an interesting thing to do; however, they seldom pursued ways to find explanations for how or why questions about the things they collected.

Still, the earliest European and American scientists were driven by inner passions to understand nature. They were enthralled to find that nature was predictable, orderly, and capable of being systematically investigated. This was enough to attract a small eager following who were interested in finding explanations for ordinary things observed in nature, regardless of its usefulness to society. They parted ways with the majority and considered it important to give rational answers to such questions as why smoke rises, why there is a reflection of trees on a calm lake, or how stars move as they do in the sky.

Many of the early scientists were Christians who considered their work to be a godly calling. They felt it gave glory and honor to God to discover the mysteries of the natural world. The writings of Newton, Copernicus, Kepler, and other famous scientists are filled with references and praise to the God who created and established the heavens and the earth with predictable laws and order and precision.

The first scientists used formal deductive reasoning techniques, but they soon found that experiments and inductive reasoning provided better methods for studying nature. Over the years empirical methods for finding answers to questions about nature emerged and were refined, along with ways for correcting and amending the answers. Science continues to work according to many of these time-tested ways, although with much more sophisticated equipment, tools, and processes.

The Science Family and Their Characteristics

The term “science” is difficult to define, because so many different fields are found under its umbrella. Listing general characteristics of science is more useful than finding one definition that fits everything classified as science.

Although there is no standard list that applies equally to all fields of science, it is useful to think in terms of a science family in which members have most of these characteristics, as well as some possibly unique ones. As we know them today, scientific fields range from inductive sciences that attempt to explain how nature works to historical sciences that attempt to reconstruct the history of living organisms. Some of the characteristics that apply easily to fields of inductive science may not apply to the field of historical science, while other characteristics are likely to be common to all sciences. Nevertheless, viewed from the family resemblance analogy, the following characteristics are useful ways to better understand science.

  1. Scientists are motivated primarily to better understand the physical universe and to provide explanations for things that have been observed in nature, regardless of how that knowledge will be applied. The goals of science can be summarized by the phrase repeating patterns and the word explanations.

  2. Technology is different from science in that moral decisions must be made when deciding if and how knowledge will be applied for use in society. Scientific knowledge is neither good nor bad unless it is used as part of a technology.

  3. Science is capable of being tested or falsified. When the conditions of a scientific test are carefully regulated, the test can be repeated and similar results will likely be obtained. Experimental testing is not always possible, but most scientific explanations can be subjected to methods designed to see if it can be falsified.

  4. The most important characteristic of science is that it is driven by empirical evidence rather than by predetermined conclusions, personal beliefs, or biased ideas. When a hypothesis is scientifically tested, scientists should be willing to accept or reject it on the basis of the evidence, regardless of their personal opinions.

  5. Science uses precise terminology without unnecessary language. For example, a scientific report might describe a tree as “50 meters tall” rather than as “a very tall tree.” A scientist would describe a sea star as having “pentaradial symmetry” instead of “the beautiful shape of a star.” The more precise language gives scientists something they can measure or test as they seek answers. Scientists are careful about their wording because they want to communicate clearly and eliminate confusion.

  6. Science is not a collection of proven facts. Scientific explanations are tentative or developmental, so that scientists are willing to change their minds or adjust their explanations if necessary as a result of further research. Scientists are also open to criticisms and suggestions from other scientists. A scientific fact is an observation, a measurement, or a set of data. Facts are the starting point for research, not the end product. The conclusion of a research project is a tentative explanation that agrees with the facts being investigated. This is one of the hardest concepts about science for students to grasp, because most have been incorrectly programmed to think in terms of “scientifically proven facts”.

  7. All scientific explanations are not equal. Some have low levels of certainty while others have high levels of certainty, depending on the kind and amount of evidence that supports the explanation.

  8. Critical peer reviews provide a self-correcting process. When a research study is finished, it is generally published or made available in some way for other scientists to analyze. As other scientists analyze and examine each other’s work, they point out errors, weaknesses, or alternative interpretations. If new research provides similar results, the explanation is strengthened. Thus, as errors and weaknesses are corrected or new evidence is added, scientists become more confident their explanation is correct. Even then it doesn’t becomes a proven fact. It just attains a higher level of certainty.

  9. Another way in which scientific knowledge becomes more credible is by its ability to make accurate predictions about things in nature.

  10. Scientific research is conducted in a variety of ways. Science is not limited to just one scientific method. Experimental hypothesis testing is often presented in textbooks as the scientific method, but it is not the only method used by scientists to do research. Correlational research, reconstruction of past events, theoretical mathematical analyses, and many other methods are also used to better understand the natural world.

An Example of Scientific Research

There is no one formula or method used by all scientists in conducting research, but there is a general way in which science usually works. The process typically begins as scientists observe things in nature and begin to ask questions about them. They then offer possible explanations for their questions. Using carefully designed empirical methods, scientists investigate one possible explanation at a time, accepting or rejecting each on the basis of the evidence.

For example, someone might observe that a group of birds frequently congregate on a particular wire or antennae every day just before sundown. Possible explanations for this preference could include updrafts that make flying easier, the amount of sunlight, a convenient location to food or water or nests, the presence of leader birds, or something else.

Suppose a scientist decided to look for an explanation of this bird behavior. The scientist would first collect facts about the birds and the location being studied. The fact-finding phase might involve months of measuring temperatures, wind speed, and amount of sunlight; counting the number of birds observed at various times of the day; looking for possible leader birds; and looking for nests and food in the area. This phase of the research would enable the scientist to come up with some possible explanations and to decide on a plan of research. During the research phase, each logical explanation would probably be tested.

Reaching a final conclusion would depend on the strength of the evidence obtained and the thoroughness of investigating all known possibilities. It would be entirely possible that something not considered or tested was the actual cause of the birds’ preference for this location. It would also be possible that their preference was the result of a combination of things.

Even if the scientific researchers had strong personal beliefs about what caused the bird behavior, they would accept scientific evidence over personal opinions. They would also keep an open mind to evidence presented by other researchers, regardless of whether it contradicted their own findings or not.

Good scientists would go a step further than just being willing to listen to opposing evidence. As a normal part of the scientific process, they would present their research in some way to other scientists and invite them to critically review the entire process from the original observations to the conclusions.

Evolution’s Place in the Science Family

It is useful to understand how evolution fits into the scheme of science. Evolution provides an explanation for where all living things came from. Scientific explanations tend to fit into one of two categories—(1) inductive sciences that attempt to explain how nature works and (2) historical reconstructions that attempt to figure out how things in nature came to be. The question of where living things come from must be investigated by historical reconstruction methods, because events from the far past cannot be observed or repeated. Experimental testing is conducted when the purpose of the research is to explain how nature works and when variables can be controlled.

Evolution, Exceptions to the Rules, and Special Claims

1. Claims that evolution is a fact.

Some evolutionists are fond of referring to evolution as “the fact of evolution”. In spite of the popular term “scientifically proven fact,” scientific explanations and theories never turn into facts. Explanations can be based on strong compelling evidence or on relatively limited evidence. Even if the accumulated evidence for an explanation becomes quite strong, a good scientist will still leave room for the possibility of adjustments or even rejection.

The evidence for evolution can be found in any biology textbook. Because observations of major changes, such as reptiles changing into mammals, are not observable or repeatable, small-scale examples of how natural selection and mutations work are presented as evidence. Another type of evidence is based on similarities between groups of living organisms, such as in anatomy, genetic sequencing, and embryology. The fossil record is considered by many to be evidence for evolution, while others consider it a challenge to evolution.

Unless students understand that scientific knowledge consists primarily of explanations supported by various levels of evidence, they will probably hang on to the common misconception that evolution, as well as everything else in a textbook, is a “scientifically proven fact.” The bottom line is that evolution is not a fact. It is a theory supported by a moderate amount of evidence.

2. Claims that evolution is unchallengeable.

Evolution currently enjoys a no-debate status in most textbooks, peer-reviewed scientific journals, and classrooms. Evidence for evolution is allowed, but scientific evidence that challenges evolution is often not permitted. This is much like being on a jury in which the prosecution is allowed to tell the jury what might have happened, but the defense is not allowed to speak. The jury would be forced to reach a verdict on the basis of one perspective. Generally, students must evaluate claims for evolution on the basis of an unchallengeable naturalistic account.

3. Different definitions for evolution.

Most scientific terms are very specific, but the term evolution is vague because different definitions are used interchangeably. Sometimes evolution refers to changes that occur from one generation to another. This is easily observable and can even be referred to as a fact. The more common definition is one based on the theory of common descent. According to this idea, evolution is defined as the processes by which all forms of living things descended from a single common ancestor.

4. Claims that evolution is true because it is the only naturalistic explanation for the origin of life.

A common argument for maintaining the no-challenge status of evolution is that it is the only purely naturalistic explanation for the origin and diversity of life. For those who define science as a study of nature that is limited to naturalistic explanations, then any inclusion of an intelligent designer or a supernatural cause is grounds for elimination. For those who define science in terms of empirical methods of research, there is no such limitation.

5. Claims that challengers to evolution have a religious bias.

Sometimes all evolutionists are accused of being atheistic and all intelligent design theorists and creationists are labeled as Christians. The truth is that neither theistic nor atheistic beliefs should exclude anyone from conducting scientific research. One of the purposes of using empirical methods is to filter out personal biases and beliefs, so that conclusions are based as much as possible only on the available evidence.

So, how do we study origins?

Science is primarily about methods of study. The most important thing about scientific research is for it to be is based on empirical methods. These time-tested methods are designed to minimize personal biases and beliefs, so that as much as possible conclusions are based on the evidence only. Empiricism also enables researchers to filter out factors unrelated to the explanation being tested. This is true even if there is empirical evidence that an intelligent designer was involved in the origin of life.

Note: This article incorporates materials from my book, Understanding Science While Believing the Bible. See here to preview this book.