Field of Science

Belief in evolution

In an interview published August 1st, 2009 [sic!], Eugenie Scott explains why we must not say "believe in evolution:"
So you urge scientists not to say that they “believe” in evolution?!

Right. What your audience hears is more important than what you say.… What [people] hear is that evolution is a belief, it’s an opinion, it’s not well-substantiated science. And that is something that scientists need to avoid communicating.

You believe in God. You believe your sports team is going to win. But you don’t believe in cell division. You don’t believe in thermodynamics. Instead, you might say you “accept evolution.”
I have been pondering this issue on and off all day, and now I have resolved why it is that I disagree.

I accept that it is politically correct to not say "believe in evolution." I mean that literally, that it's the correct thing not to say because of politics, if the political goal is for people to accept that evolution is to be taught in science classes in schools. That's Scott's job, to defend the teaching of evolutionary biology.

However, the thing that I have today resolved is that science is an endeavor that owes its success in part of of being politically neutral. Yes, of course scientists are not neutral on the question of whether they want evolution or creationism taught in science classes, but rather, science has succeeded because of the insistence on calling things by their right name. To tell it like it is. That goes for theories that people don't much care for for political reasons (something that E. O. Wilson had to deal with in excess in reaction to Sociobiology, especially by the hands of Marxist colleagues Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould), and it also goes for the use of words, because it is by these words we share that we share the ours ideas about nature. It is important for communication that we use the same words to mean the same things, and that implies that we can't change the meaning of words already in use (at least, it isn't easy). To "believe" is one such word, and Scott's difficulty is of course that when scientists say they believe in evolution, some laymen will take it to mean that the scientists believe in evolution in the same way that they believe in God, namely by faith (meaning belief regardless of evidence). I used to think of belief have two different meanings like this, but I don't anymore.

Take, for example, a die. Before you roll it, you may say that you believe that you will get a six. This would be contrary to the evidence (which is that the chance that it will be a six is only 1/6), so I would never say that I believe I will get a six - rather, I believe I will not get a six. This of course is true for any of the possible outcomes, which thus looks like I believe none of them will happen. But that's not the case, of course. I believe very strongly that I will get one of the numbers 1 through 6. So, whether I base my guess about the outcome on evidence (in this case probability theory and observations of many previous rolls of dice) or faith, they are both called belief.

I can hold a belief about the world, and it is called "belief" whether it is based on evidence, not on evidence, or contrary to evidence. But I will not stop saying the semantically correct phrase "I believe in evolution" just because I should be afraid that it will be taken to mean the wrong thing, namely that since it's just belief, then it isn't based on evidence.

I believe in evolution because there is so much evidence for it.


  1. thinking about this for a while I would like to point out that science is not about absolute terms. Hence it will never produce accurate knowledge about what is true, only about what is false. So in my opinion, if something is scientifically "true" we can still only believe it to be true.
    Take the example of the die: you can not say with honest certanty that the die will show a 6 in 1 out of 6 cases. Repeat the experiment long enough, and at some point the die will break, or something weird will happen. Just because you haven't experienced something, doesn't mean it is non existence...
    I am fine with using the term "I believe" when I use probabilities. The theists should say: "I know god!", because that is what they actually mean.

    Cheers Arend

  2. Michael emailed me this:

    Dear Bjorn,
    I tried to leave a comment but there was some technical problem re the blog mechanism(Tunnel not available??) Anyway I just thought I might draw your attention to a revolutionary hypothesis present in a book called Intelligent Design Message from the Designer.My concern is not with the author but with the hypothesis his book contains.It just could be that this is one of those ideas that science is in danger of over-looking,simply because it does not come from a scientifically credible source, and if it is science fiction, then as one famous person said, it ranks alongside the most breath-taking of it's kind, but if it is true it is earth-shaking.Here one is presented with a very big picture re humanities origins, where one has to look for evidence in historical and religious texts and connect this information with what is happening in the world today, including such issues as population growth,the environment, what is happening in science, particularly genetics and not least of all the , shall we say 'scientifically risky' subject of life in other solar systems and the subject of extra-terrestrial vehicles, or HTV's - Higher Technology vehicles.

    Now if our scientists can create life artificially through the synthesis of DNA, (see Craig Ventner GENESIS II )then why should there not be more advanced scientists in other solar systems, capable of much more advanced science?.Understanding this hypothesis, gives one a sensible and logical reason, why as yet these scientists, assuming for the sake of argument that they do exist, have not as yet choose to come down to announce themselves officially. They are simply waiting for our humanity to connect up the dots and understand our true origins and as a humanity to control our aggression sufficiently for it to be possible for them to come down.I mean if you were an advanced scientist, from another solar system, would you want to come down to a planet where people are killing there own, let alone complete strangers? Here we have a compromise between Evolution and all the world's religions, which allows all parties to have a slice of the 'cake of truth'.

  3. (Part 2 from Michael.)

    To start with the planet is extremely old, and is a sort of 'living machine'. There have been many humanities on this ancient planet that have disappeared for the rather self-evident reasons we can see today, over-population and environmental degradation and not least nuclear war. The potential for nuclear war in this hypothesis is rather high, though today it is relatively less than say 20 years ago. The central argument in this hypothesis is that point when a human race reaches the level of technology where nuclear weapons are used in war, - the ' Oh my God the kids have found the matches stage', in our case 1945 and Hiroshima, then from that point forwards that race enters a potentially self-destruct phase and everything starts to accelerate. One can compare the rate of progress in genetics alongside space technology in the last 65 years, alongside population growth, and the change is astonishing. Population growth has been about 4.5 billions in the last 65 years. The dangers of nuclear war are central to this argument.Until we get rid of all these ghastly weapons we remain in this state of potential self-destruct and it could be precipitated for many reasons such as destabilization resulting from the economic crisis, or by accident or terrorism, as I am sure you will be aware.

    Returning to our scientists creating life, I feel it is credible that in the course of time , with the progression of design they will create more an more complex organisms and should our humanity be so lucky as not to self -destruct, before we reach interstellar technology, then we may eventually be able to create man 'in our own image' Then the buckle will be closed and our scientists will become like those scientists of old,whom our ancestors 'mistook' for 'gods', So the argument is essentially progression of design, as evidenced by the theory of Evolution, and presumed understandably to be nature, being replaced by the idea of progression of design by advanced science, over a much shorter period of time compared to the geological assumptions. I know it may sound incredible, but the moon landing was famously discounted by a famous scientist, but it did happen.I have a great 'belief '' in scientific progress and the possibilities for the future., Religion from Latin, ligere - to tie a knot, re-ligere= a linked understanding. So Science/Knowledge is de-facto the new 'religion' of the the 21st century.

    With this hypothesis comes the explanation that all the worlds religions were simply for 'good measure ' to ensure that our humanity would be able to survive on it's own that scientifically difficult period we would enter in our future with the discovery of nuclear technology.We in other words are on our own but not alone. There are traces of evidence in all of the worlds religious and historical texts. Of all of these, Buddhism without the mysticism is nearest the truth .That said the Bible contains the scientific framework and what could be said to be the key to the current Ufo debate.. This idea on first inspection seem like science-fiction, but I do know this that the dangers of nuclear war are not. I just wonder when the 'penny is going to drop' amongst the scientific community, before the bombs or after.? What this argument is about is the demystifying of the old understandings and the spiritualization of science.

    Kind regards

  4. I guess nobody excludes that life might have come from a different planet (panspermy I guess is the theory called).

    But again and again, there is the theory of evolution
    and the theory about the origin of life
    and they are about two different things.

    I know evolution and believe it to be the true explanation for the artenfrage, but I doubt most of the ideas about the origin of life, we simply don't know enough about it to make a prediction...

    Cheers Arend


    We are in outer space, living peripherally on the outside shell of planet Earth, multicellular life began here, where water is found as solid, liquid and vapor and as a pure chemical compound, in solution with mineral salts, and chemically bound in other molecules. The water planet.

  6. Hi Dude,

    how do we know that? It is a process taking place at a moment far before we can be certain about most things. In order to be scientifically sure about it, we have to be able to reproduce it. And also show that simmilar conditions were there at the origion of life. And that has not worked yet.
    I am not saying that I don't think it happend that way, quite contrary. I "believe" in spontanious origion of life due to self organisation, but I am far from being certain.

    Cheers Arend

  7. sociobiology made grandiose claims and was always short on evidence. Name-calling (mostly crude McCarthyite Red-baiting) was its preferred vehicle of propagation, and you're carrying on the not-so-grand tradition, I see.

    When, again, did sociobiology defeat the Red hordes and become the actual scientific consensus?

  8. Marion, you assume too much based on what I said. Never mind political reactions in science. "That goes for theories that people don't much care for for political reasons (something that E. O. Wilson had to deal with in excess in reaction to Sociobiology, especially by the hands of Marxist colleagues Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould)"

    You take this to mean that I think sociobiology have become mainstream? Why?

    The point I make is merely that Wilson proposed a theory to explain some phenomena in the light of biology, and many people didn't like it because of political implications (which is not acceptable criticism in science).

    Got a problem?


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