When it came out a hundred and fifty years ago, it brought forth a fire storm. Often, when it's talked in school, it still brings forth a fire storm. Only a few states explicitly teach it. It's been called "just a theory", been misconstrued in every way possible and is even rejected by biologists whose fields make without it. That is the "theory" of evolution.
On Friday in Social Studies, the topic came up. We were talking about Social Darwinism which, of course, is the theory of evolution being applied socially. My Social Studies teacher as well as those in my classroom were using language that was incorrect. This may seem like a minor thing but it really irked me anyway. It's intellectual dishonesty and as a scholar and skeptic, that irks me.
The following are common misconceptions and misunderstandings of evolution and the language surrounding it.
1) It's "just a theory."
I put the word "theory" in quotation marks for a reason. It's been misused and manipulated so many times. It's been made to look like evolution was just a guess Charles Darwin came up with. In every day vernacular, a "theory" does mean a guess. However, in science, the word "theory" is the closest thing to a fact. A fact would be the sky is blue (that would also be considered an observation). A theory is not so easily observed but is accepted as true. Rather, a theory is an explanation coming from a series of facts. It's what the facts put together. When something becomes a theory, it basically has been questioned extensively by scientists and no one has found holes in it. It means that scientists, with the information that they have at that moment, can find no other explanation. Take this example. There are clouds in the sky. My hip scar throbs as does the scar's on my knees and my grandmother's arthritic joints. The weather man predicts rain. It isn't necessarily a fact that it's going to rain but considering the facts, that's the most reasonable thing we can conclude. Unless new evidence comes into light, there's no reason to believe otherwise.
This belief has lead to the belief that evolution shouldn't be taught in a science class as fact or that it should be taught alongside intelligent design. "Intelligent design" is a guess. This isn't about "both sides of the story". Intelligent design hasn't undergone the same degree of scrutiny as evolution and hasn't got nearly the amount of evidence for it. I do agree that intelligent design should be taught. It just should be taught in a Social Studies classroom under the title of "religion". Evolution is far more than "a guess."
Gravity and germs are theories too. They are equally as valid as evolution. Rejecting evolution is equivalent to rejecting those. In America, you are free to believe what you want. However, your beliefs should not be taught in a science classroom if there is no scientific evidence to back them up.
Teaching evolution is considered a guess because some people think it is is wrong. There's a lot of facts that people don't believe. Can you imagine what the following would be like if "both sides of the story" were taught, even if one side went against evidence? Elvis is dead. Or he might be alive. The Holocaust might have happened. Or it might not have.
2) "In evolution, something comes from nothing."
"Something comes from nothing" is an incredibly misleading statement. First off, the people who say this usually are combining the Big Bang theory and evolution. These are two completely different theories that should be treated as such. Evolution states that species gradually evolve over millions and billions of years through the process of natural selection. Basically, the ones more suited to adapt will survive to produce offspring while those who aren't suited to adapt die. This, over time, means that animals with certain characteristics will survive and gradually all of those in that species will have those characteristics. This isn't "something coming from nothing." It's not like this happens overnight or even over the process of centuries. This happens over a period of time longer than we can imagine. Anyway, isn't that what creationism is? Something coming from nothing? I mean it's nothing, God, and then bam! There's something, created by God in only seven days. One creationist girl I met said that God was always there. If God was always there, then what was He doing? Where did he come from? I digress, this post is not to criticize creationism but to bring about the truths about evolution.
3) "According to evolution, humans come from monkeys."
This isn't even true but it's blatantly false. Biologists DO NOT think that people come from monkeys, although humans and monkeys share 99% of DNA. Humans and monkeys are believed to both come from the same ancestor.
4) "Evolution is survival of the fittest. Survival of the fittest means the strongest survive."
This doesn't necessarily come from people who don't recognize the validity of evolution but from people who don't understand it. "Survival of the fittest" means "survival of those most able to adapt". That doesn't necessarily mean the strongest. My Social Studies teacher used this to mean the smartest but it doesn't mean that either. It means the ones most able to adapt. For example, in the business world today, social skills and ability to work with technology are also needed. The person who is super book-smart will not win over the very sociable person who works great with technology but may be of mediocre intelligence. This wouldn't be limited to the smartest person.
5) "Evolution is immoral."
I never understood this one, though I've heard it often enough. Evolution states nothing about morality but simply about the way nature works. Maybe it's because it doesn't come with a set of moral code with it. Creationism, on the other hand, is a part of a religion which does have a set moral code. Is gravity immoral? Evolution, unlike creationism, does not come with a set of code. That is an entirely different thing.
6) "Evolution isn't compatible with [insert religion here]."
It's not just atheists who buy into evolution. Plenty of Christians, Muslims, Jews and those of other religions accept it. The Catholic Church has even accepted it. Of course, I can't answer for them but they made it work. Obviously, there must be some way they've made it fit.
7) "Evolution isn't important."
Evolution is the core of biology. Without it, the rest of it doesn't make sense. Biology explains the natural world and it explains to us where we came from. Many may find it boring (which is fine. I find a lot of science boring too) but that doesn't make it any less true or any less important. When evolution is not taught, children are being cheated out of the truth.
Evolution is probably the most misunderstood part of science but it's also one of the most important. Rejecting evolution is rejecting science. There's no way around it. No amount of politically correct language is going to change that.