Evolution is factual science, the best type of theory

Evolution is factual science, the best type of theory
By HAROLD KROTO - Daytona Beach News-Journal - 2/15/2008 - original
On Tuesday, Florida's State Board of Education will adopt new standards pertaining to the teaching of science in our state's public schools. Most significantly, the new standards are expected to acknowledge that evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology.

Now comes word that some influential state lawmakers want to ensure that evolution in the new science standards has the word "theory" before it. So the standards would say "theory of evolution." These lawmakers say that this will stress the fact that evolution is a theory, not a fact -- and they are said to be considering asking the Legislature to force the State Board of Education to adopt the wording change if it doesn't do so on its own.

What these lawmakers fail to appreciate is that there are two types of theory -- scientific theories and unscientific theories.

Scientific theories are those that are considered "true" or "facts" because they have been found experimentally to work and we know why they work. Unscientific theories, however, have been found wanting when similarly experimentally tested.

A few examples of "true" theories or "facts":
Newton's Theory of Gravity is a "fact" because, among many other things, it enables us to launch satellites into correct orbits and get men to the moon.
Einstein's Theory of Relativity is a "fact" because, among many other things, it has enabled us to obtain electricity from nuclear fission and is needed in GPS technology.
Mendeleev's Periodic Table Theory is a fact because, among many other things, it underpins the whole of the chemical sciences and governs all reactions leading to materials such as plastics and the silicon in chips and the synthesis of drugs.
Quantum Mechanical Theory is a "fact" because, among many other things, it explains the structure of the Periodic Table and was fundamental to the creation of such
Darwin's Theory of Evolution, likewise, is a "fact" because, among many other things, it underpins every aspect of biology and medicine and is, for instance, absolutely crucial in our never-ending battle against life-threatening diseases.

The 1859 treatise by Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species -- By Means of Natural Selection, is arguably the most beautiful example of a "factual" or "true" scientific theory. Darwin's theory is as fundamental to biology as Mendeleev's Periodic Table Theory is to the chemical sciences. It explained perfectly Darwin's exhaustively meticulous, carefully documented, painstakingly detailed and accurately recorded observations. Not only were Darwin's original observations explained, but every pertinent observation made since has fitted perfectly. For the last 150 years, supporting evidence has flooded in from every branch of the sciences: paleontology, anthropology, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, geology, etc. There are millions of pieces in the jigsaw puzzle, and they all fit perfectly.

Furthermore, understanding evolution as fact is absolutely crucial to a wide range of humanitarian issues: the development of effective antibiotic strategies for fighting diseases, for example. Penicillin is a miraculous drug that has saved countless lives -- it works almost every time, and when it does not work, we know why and can try to devise an alternative strategy. Or consider DNA fingerprinting, which has led to the release from prison of numerous innocent people -- many from death row -- and to therapies for safeguarding the lives of children who have serious genetically transmitted illnesses.

There are, of course, many theories that do not appear to work at all. Is it not odd -- indeed, hypocritical -- that most of the people who are violently opposed to the teaching of evolution seem to prefer to put their "faith" in medical advances that have arisen as a consequence of our understanding of evolution before resorting to the strategies offered by the alternative, unscientific theories such as "creationism" that they are hell-bent on foisting on our young?

Basically, the fact that so much medical science works so well on so complex a system as the human body is the most obvious and compelling vindication of the science of evolution at almost every level.

It is truly criminal to interfere with the scientific education of the next generation of young scientists, and if these people get their way, they will seriously impede scientific progress and in particular the ability of the next cohort of young scientists to create the defenses we shall need in the fight against debilitating diseases over the next century.

I hope the people of Florida are intelligent enough to recognize that the present campaign is as detrimental to their interests as it is misguided, and as fundamentally anti-humanitarian as it is intellectually dishonest.
Kroto is the Francis Eppes Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University. A 1996 co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, he is the director of the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology.