About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Evolution, Florida and the Grand Canyon

If only one didn’t wish to do something productive with one’s life, creationists would be a perennial source of amusement. Florida creationists, in this particular case. A new set of science standards has just been approved by the Board of Education of the orange juice and hanging chads State, and both sides are claiming victory, according to an article in Science dated 4 March 2008. How can that be?

The new standards refer to evolution as “the scientific theory of.” If you look at it from the point of view of a scientist, that is (half) the way it should be: “evolution” is an ambiguous word, just like “gravity.” We have gravity, the fact (if you don’t believe me, try letting go of a hammer positioned vertically above your head and let me know what happens); then we have gravity, the theory (the current version, embedded in Einstein’s relativity, says that gravity is the degree of deformation of space-time caused by the presence of physical bodies). Similarly, we have a fact of evolution (as indicated by the fossil record, molecular phylogenetics, and all the rest), and a theory of evolution (currently known as the Modern Synthesis, a significant augmentation of Darwin’s original insight).

Creationists, however, are claiming victory because they take the new wording to finally acknowledge one of their endlessly repeated mantras: evolution is “just” a theory, not a fact. In so reasoning (pardon me the over generous use of the term), they miss several crucial points. First, as I explained above, there is a standard distinction in science between facts and theories, and evolution is not an exception. Second, to call scientific theories “just” theories, as if they were hunches, or personal opinions, seriously (possibly willfully) mischaracterizes what a scientific theory is. Evolution, gravity, and continental drift (as in “the theories of”) are complex sets of empirically testable statements, often formulated in rigorous mathematical fashion. They are most certainly not what biologists, physicists and geologists “come up with” on their way to the gym.

In its questionable wisdom, the Florida Board of Education decided to strike a compromise: the words “theory of” would be attached not just to evolution, but also to every other scientific concept, like photosynthesis. Textbooks are going to get a bit longer, more trees will be cut, but I guess it’s a small price to pay for peace between science and religion.

Except, of course, that there is no peace. While conservative FL legislator Marti Coley “applauded” the Board’s decision as “inclusive of a variety of viewpoints” (just as many as one can reasonably have about gravity), the Speaker of the State House of Representatives, Marco Rubio (predictably, a Republican), is not happy. Rubio wants to introduce -- oh novel idea -- a bill to mandate that science teachers can finally present to their pupils unspecified (so not to alert the Supreme Court) “criticisms of evolution.” Donna Callaway, of the infamous Intelligent Design “think tank” Discovery Institute, supports Rubio’s inane idea, commenting “people have asked me why I don’t question math concepts or grammar, I tell them, those things have nothing to do with life. Evolution is personal, and it affects our beliefs.” One ought to deduce from this that if grammar and math did affect her beliefs, Donna would question them. The logic is fascinating.

Be that as it may, there is more bad news for creationists, in Florida and elsewhere: a new study reported in Science magazine has updated the estimate for the age of the Grand Canyon. Alas, the update is not downwards (toward the 4,000 or so years ago that creationists calculate based on Biblical geology), but upwards: 17 million years. Of course, that’s just a theory.


  1. "Evolution is personal, and it affects our beliefs.."

    Unfortunately beliefs are affecting the Speaker's understanding of biology and the real world. Biology is supposed to be about the real material world, not just beliefs.

    Yeh. Why are his unfounded beliefs more important than the well tested "theory" of evolution?

    I think the right answer to "Evolution is just a theory" should be "But Intelligent Design is just a belief, with none of the confirmation by science that the lowly Theory of Evolution has."

  2. I say let them call it "just" a theory. Meanwhile, the kids can learn it, scientists can develop it, and everyone can be happy.

    Like gravity, evolution in the most basic sense is undeniable even by the craziest religious person. Even the food in my cabinets "evolves" in that the presence of food that I buy but do not eat keeps growing in amount.

  3. “people have asked me why I don’t question math concepts or grammar, I tell them, those things have nothing to do with life. Evolution is personal, and it affects our beliefs.”

    Well of course math concepts do affect our beliefs. The concepts of probability constantly poke holes in the bubble of belief that I will a person might win the lottery, or roullette etc..

  4. What does "the age of the Grand Canyon" mean? Does it refer to when water first began to flow in that location? Or is it the age of the rock at the current base of the canyon?

  5. The age of the Canyon refers to when water began to erode the area and form the original two branches. The branches merged later, about six million years ago.

  6. One ought to deduce from this that if grammar and math did affect her beliefs, Donna would question them. The logic is fascinating.

    I'd assume this to actually be true. Most people question things only when they affect these people's beliefs.


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