Is Evolution a Theory, a Fact, Or a Law? -- Or, None of the Above?

by David N. Menton, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1997 - 2002 Missouri Association for Creation, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.

I have heard many Christians say that evolution doesn't concern them because, after all, it's "only a theory." Presumably they think that the word "theory" means about the same thing as a "pipe dream." But the term theory, at least as it applies to experimental science, has a much nobler meaning than that. A scientific theory is a careful attempt to explain certain observable facts of nature by means of experiments. Since many Christians have concluded that evolution is incompatible with the Biblical account of creation, we would do well to investigate if evolution is a fact or a theory -- or perhaps neither.

There is a widespread misconception that good theories grow up to be facts and that the really good ones finally become laws. But these three categories of scientific description are neither directly related nor mutually exclusive. It often occurs that a single natural phenomenon can be described in terms of a theory, a fact, and a law -- all at the same time!

Consider the well-known phenomenon of gravity. First, there is a fact of gravity. While we cannot actually see gravitational force itself, we do observe the effects of this force every time we drop something. There is also a theory of gravity that addresses the question of how this force we call gravity really works. While we don't know how gravity works, there are theories that attempt to explain it. Finally there is the well-known law of gravity. This law, first formulated by Isaac Newton, a believing Christian and creationist, is a mathematical equation that shows a relationship between mass, distance and gravitational force. So, in summary, a scientific fact is an observable natural occurrence; a scientific theory is an attempt to explain how a natural occurrence works; and a scientific law is a mathematical description of a natural occurrence.

Science itself is the whole process of making careful observations of certain facts of nature and then constructing and testing theories that seek to explain those facts. Scientists call these attempts to test their theories experiments. Experimental science, better known as empirical science, is the kind of science that is responsible for the marvelous technological achievements that make our life easier. One has only to consider what it would be like to endure surgery without anesthesia to appreciate the contributions of empirical science to our lives.

The most important requirement of empirical science is that any object or phenomenon we wish to study must first be observable. While we may assume the existence of events not witnessed by human observers, such events are not suited to study by empirical science. Secondly, the event we wish to study should be repeatable. Unique and unrepeatable events, such as the Babylonian Empire, are the subject of history, not empirical science. Finally, any theory we might propose as an explanation for an observable and repeatable event must be testable: we must be able to conceive of an experiment that could refute our theory if it were wrong. If one were to propose an explanation for an event in such a way that no one could conceive of any way to test or refute it, it wouldn't be a theory at all, but rather a belief. Beliefs, of course, are not necessarily wrong, they just aren't well suited to study by empirical science.

What then shall we say of evolution? First, evolutionists tell us that major evolutionary changes happen far too slowly, or too rarely, to be observable in the lifetime of human observers. The offspring of most living organisms, for example, are said to remain largely unchanged for tens of thousands, or even millions of years. Second, even when evolutionary changes do occur, evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky tells us they are by nature "unique, unrepeatable, and irreversible." Dobzhansky concludes that the "applicability of the experimental method to the study of such unique historical processes is severely restricted." Finally, evolutionist Paul Ehrlich concedes that the theory of evolution "cannot be refuted by any possible observations" and thus is "outside of empirical science."

Still, the occurrence of evolution is widely believed by the scientific community to be a "fact" and those who dare to doubt it are not endured gladly. The Encyclopedia Britannica confidently assures us that "we are not in the least doubt as to the fact of evolution." In his textbook Evolution, Joe Savage says "we do not need a listing of the evidences to demonstrate the fact of evolution any more than we need to demonstrate the existence of mountain ranges." In another textbook, Outlines of General Zoology, H. Newman arrogantly declares that evolution has no rival as an explanation for the origin of everything "except the outworn and completely refuted one of special creation, now retained only by the ignorant, the dogmatic, and the prejudicial."

What exactly is the "observable fact" of evolution? First you should be aware that evolutionists recognize two types of "evolution" -- microevolution, which is observable, and macroevolution, which isn't. So called "microevolution" is a process of limited variation among the individuals of a given species that produces the sort of variety we observe among dogs. Macroevolution, on the other hand, is a hypothetical process of unlimited variation that evolutionists believe transforms one kind of living organism into a fundamentally different kind such as the transformation of reptiles into birds or apes into people. Obviously, no one has ever observed anything remotely like this transformation.

The very name "microevolution" is intended to imply that it is this kind of variation that accumulates to produce macroevolution, though a growing number of evolutionists admit there is no evidence to support this. Thus, an observable phenomenon is extrapolated into an unobservable phenomenon for which there is no evidence, and then the latter is declared to be a "fact" on the strength of the former. It is this kind of limitless extrapolation that comprises much of the argument for evolution.

In conclusion, macroevolution is not observable, repeatable, or refutable and thus does not qualify as either a scientific fact or theory. Evolution must be accepted with faith by its believers, many of whom deny the existence, or at least the power, of the Creator. Similarly, the Biblical account of creation is not observable, repeatable or refutable by man. Special creation is accepted with faith by those who believe that the Bible is the revelation of an omnipotent and omniscient Creator whose Word is more reliable than the speculations of men. Both evolution and creation, however, can be compared for their compatibility with what we do observe of the facts of nature. In future essays we will see that creation by intelligent design is a vastly more reasonable explanation for the origin of the complexity we see in living things than is evolution by mere chance and the intrinsic properties of matter.

Originally published in St. Louis MetroVoice, October 1993, Vol. 3, No. 10

© 1997 - 2002 Missouri Association for Creation, Inc.
All Rights Reserved