The Fact of Evolution


Evolution is often described as a "theory." While this is certainly technically true, it is misleading to dismiss evolution as "just a theory" (an unfounded idea), as opponents of evolution like to do. This illuminating work of popular science amply demonstrates that there are few more well-established facts in the scientific canon than that life evolved on earth.

Walking the reader through the steps in the evolutionary process, the author uses plenty of real-world examples to ...

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Evolution is often described as a "theory." While this is certainly technically true, it is misleading to dismiss evolution as "just a theory" (an unfounded idea), as opponents of evolution like to do. This illuminating work of popular science amply demonstrates that there are few more well-established facts in the scientific canon than that life evolved on earth.

Walking the reader through the steps in the evolutionary process, the author uses plenty of real-world examples to show that not only does evolution happen, it must happen. The author analyzes evolution as the unintended consequence of three independent facts of the natural world that we can observe every day: (1) the fact of the replication of life forms (producing offspring); (2) the fact that offspring are not identical (variation); and (3) the fact that not all offspring survive (selection). Viewed in terms of this analysis, evolution is no longer debatable; in fact it has to occur. It is simply the inevitable consequence of three obvious, observable, factual natural phenomena.

The book also covers new discoveries in evolution, many of which have occurred in the last twenty years of the "genomic revolution" and have strengthened Darwin’s basic idea. In addition, the author discusses complex theoretical issues such as speciation, phyletic gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium, the "Evo-Devo" paradigm, and the concept of bauplane, as well as the facts of primate and hominid evolution.

Well-organized, clearly written, and accessible, this book is ideal for students or any interested lay readers.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Dozens of observed instances of speciation illustrate Smith's technical points about how environmental pressures force evolution forward...Also attentive to the historical development of evolutionary theory, Smith instills in his readers the provisional and exploratory character of science, encouraging them to make their own discoveries in the list of books and websites with which he closes."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616144418
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 5/24/2011
  • Pages: 250
  • Sales rank: 1,445,409
  • Product dimensions: 8.78 (w) x 6.08 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Cameron M. Smith, Ph.D. (Portland, OR), is a prehistorian at Portland State University’s Department of Anthropology and a popular science writer. He is the author of The Top Ten Myths about Evolution (with Charles Sullivan) and, in addition to his scientific works, has published articles in Scientific American MIND, Archaeology, Playboy, Spaceflight, Skeptical Inquirer, and The Writer.

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Read an Excerpt



Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 Cameron M. Smith
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-441-8

Chapter One


Evolution is change, adaptation to new circumstances. Evolutionists see a world of process, of flux, incomplete, imperfectly known. —A. Kehoe, What Darwin Began: Modern Darwinian and Non-Darwinian Perspectives on Evolution

In January 2008, the world's leading scientific journal, Nature, carried an editorial titled "Spread the Word: Evolution Is a Scientific Fact, and Every Organization Whose Research Depends on It Should Explain Why." Speaking for the world of science, Nature publicly established evolution as a fact, in black and white, and called on educators worldwide to teach it as a fact.


Evolution has been referred to as a fact by many, and for a long time. Today evolution is considered a given in the life sciences, as gravitation is considered a given in physics. A universe of detail remains to be investigated in the domain of evolution, and discoveries in the life sciences, which occur every single day, ensure that our understanding of evolution is constantly updated. Even twenty-five years ago evolutionary biologist Niles Eldredge wrote:

Evolutionary theory is currently in a state of flux. There is far less agreement on basic elements of evolutionary theory now than there was ten years ago.... Though some biologists may long for the halcyon days when nearly everyone agreed on the essentials of a single, simple and quite elegant evolutionary theory, the zest for renewed explorations in evolutionary theory is more than adequate compensation. The fervor of argument in evolutionary biology these days is the surest sign of its intellectual health: evolutionary theory, perhaps now more than ever before, is an active, vital, and truly scientific endeavor.

Despite occasional mass-media hype that some new finding means that "evolution is dead," evolution is certainly not dead; it is actually buzzing with life, as we'll see throughout this book. Still, drama sells; a recent National Geographic issue carried a cover story titled "Was Darwin Wrong?" The article concluded that he was not wrong about the basic principles of evolution, but the striking title is memorable.

Charles Darwin (1804–1882), who proposed the basics of evolution as we understand them today, might well have been wrong about many things; indeed, he lived before the genes, as we know them today, were even understood. But, as we'll see, he was not wrong about the basic facts of the evolutionary process. For over 150 years, scientists have scrutinized Darwin's theory, searching the natural world—from the seafloor to the high mountains—for anything that would disprove it, and they have tested it with laboratory experiment. While many other theories have been rejected in the past 150 years, Darwin's has not.

If things are so clear, why did science—spoken for at large by Nature—take so long to publicly declare evolution a fact? There are at least two reasons.


While there are many scientists and they discover new things every day, science at large—meaning general consensus—moves slowly. A century or a century and a half is not so long; the great biologist Ernst Mayr (1904–2006) was born only twenty-two years after Darwin's death, and modern field studies consume entire careers. Another titan of biology, Carl Woese (b. 1928), who worked for years on the problem of the basic classification of life-forms, recently described his years of labor:

You got up in the morning, ate breakfast and came into the lab. And then you put these silly X-rays up on your wall. And you looked intensely. But you had to be intense to get through this task. This happens on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, week after week and ultimately year after year. I would finish the day, having looked at these films for many many hours, and I would go home saying to myself "You have destroyed your mind again today." That's how it felt.... All my mental energy was used up.

This went on for ten years, but it culminated in a fascinating new understanding of the origins and evolution of life. The scientific community—who demand evidence for claims (as characterized by the Royal Society's motto, Nullius in Verba, loosely translated as "take nobody's word for it")—are normally slow to overturn basic concepts.


Nature is a British journal, and in Britain there has been far less public acrimony over the "theory of evolution" than here in the United States. Why not, then, declare evolution a fact earlier? Because in Britain the very lack of debate caused evolutionary principles to be accepted as fact early on. The obvious did not need stating. While the details of Darwinian evolution have been debated from day one, Darwin's essential points were so convincing that they were rapidly accepted in Britain and on the continent. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in November 1859, and by 1863 biologist T. H. Huxley (1825–1895) wrote that "all other theories are absolutely out of court." And these other theories (we'll come to the distinction between fact and theory below) were not "out of court" simply because Huxley greatly admired Darwin. They were "out of court" because year by year alternatives to Darwinian evolution, based on worldwide, independent studies focusing on independent lines of evidence—such as embryology (the development of life-forms before birth), paleontology (the study of ancient life-forms, performed in the 1800s by examining fossils), and botany (the study of plants)—all pointed (as Huxley noted and as we'll see in this book) in the same direction; Darwin was right.

Things were very different in the United States, where Darwin's ideas took more than a decade to catch on widely. But by the 1920s, when most American scientists believed that Darwin was essentially correct, a strong opposition to evolution appeared. It is interesting (and transparently self-serving) that this opposition did not come from any branch of science; it was not ecologists (who study ecosystems) or ornithologists (the studiers of birds), for example, who opposed evolution with stacks of new data. Instead, the opposition to the science of evolution came from a completely different domain, that of religion.

Religion does not normally reach into, say, the domains of plumbing or aircraft engineering or songwriting; those are outside its practical knowledge. How, then, could it claim to have anything to say about biology? The answer is very old and serves even today; for the religious fundamentalist (of whatever faith), humanity is a special creation, a product of the divine mind of God. But Darwinian evolution implies that humanity is actually one of many millions of life-forms that have appeared on Earth in the last few billion years. The two approaches were for a long time essentially irreconcilable, but as early as the 1940s the evangelical American Scientific Association reversed its early rejection of evolution, negotiating that evolution occurred but was occasionally mediated by divine intervention. This is a position that at least allows some scientists and some evangelicals to co-exist. But since that time a vocal and often well-funded religiously based opposition to evolution has flourished in the United States. Remember, these groups do not provide new data or logical disproofs of evolution. They always, ultimately, argue that their bible is inerrant and that evolution, not conforming to the Bible, must be in error. Such critiques continue today. What do they have to do with Britain's journal Nature declaring evolution a fact in 2008?

Ultimately it has to do with global interconnection. The Internet and satellite communications have "shrunk" the world. What people do in one country has strong and immediate effects in other countries. With the rise of American antievolutionism in the last decade, it was Nature's responsibility to declare evolution a fact in the public sphere. After giving the US National Academy of Sciences "three cheers" for publishing a position paper calling evolution a fact, the Nature editorial continued: "Creationism is strong in the United States and, according to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, worryingly on the rise in Europe."

As goes America, so goes the world (at least in some things). Antievolutionism is often linked with antiscience itself, which would have the human mind retreat to an essentially medieval worldview. Enough was enough; Nature had to establish evolution as a fact in public.


I mentioned before that the Royal Society's motto is Nullius in Verba, or (essentially) "take no person's word for it," indicating science's demand for data to back up claims. Extraordinary claims, the late astronomer Carl Sagan liked to say, demand extraordinary evidence. This demand is one of the hallmarks of scientific thought, rooted in Renaissance principles of free inquiry, and it relates generally to the scientific method of generating knowledge. Science recognizes no real authority. No matter how erudite or well educated you are, no matter whom you've studied with or whom you know, if your data don't back up your ideas, nobody is going to believe you. Nullius in Verba. Show me the beef, we said in the 1980s; show me the money, in the 1990s. Nullius in Verba for over four hundred years. In Paradise Lost by John Milton (1608–1674), the archangel Michael says to Adam: "Be lowly wise: Think only what concerns thee and thy being." A greater contrast with science could not be found.

So, just because Nature—or any other respected journal—declares evolution a fact does not make it a fact (if you could make things factual simply by declaring them, our universe would be strange indeed). Nature's declaration tells us only that there is consensus among the scientific community that Darwinian evolution does occur; that it is a fact.

Why the consensus? Easy. As even T. H. Huxley noted before 1900, so much evidence points in the same direction; Darwin was right. We'll look more closely at how science (and evolutionary science) works, but for the moment, keep in mind that two aspects of scientific knowledge-generation make testing out ideas—at least in principle—straightforward. These are testing to disprove an idea, and independent verification of ideas. We'll see each below in a brief look at how science generates knowledge, including facts.


In science, if you observe something, like the fall of a pen to the floor, you may devise a hypothesis to explain it. A hypothesis is usually a statement of your belief about the relationship of something to something else. For example, my hypothesis about the pen falling to the floor may be that "pens are attracted to carpets." That sounds ridiculous because we have plenty of evidence to the contrary; and in the same way, "nutty" hypotheses can often be quickly spotted and weeded out by what science already knows. But let's say you don't know anything about the properties of pens and carpets, and this hypothesis is considered reasonable. It hasn't been shown to be true; it's just passed your initial "baloney detector," and you decide to move on to the next method of testing hypotheses.

Each hypothesis—remember, just a statement about the relationship of something to something else, normally—can have test implications. These are things you would expect to observe if your hypothesis is correct and things you would expect to observe if your hypothesis is not correct. If you do a number of tests releasing pens above a carpet, and the pens repeatedly land on the carpet, you haven't learned much. If all you needed to prove something were a demonstration of what you already believe, well, again, think of how strange a universe it would be. No, for science you need to refine your hypothesis for a test implication that would show that your hypothesis is wrong; a test to disprove. For example, I could come up with a test implication to disprove my own hypothesis about pens being attracted to carpets. If you were to stand in a wood-floored room in which some carpet has been mounted on a wall, and then hold the pen next to the carpet on the wall, and then release the pen, if the pen hits the floor rather than the carpet, you can say that your hypothesis about pens being attracted to carpets is suspect. You could continue to disprove the hypothesis by mounting carpet on the ceiling and letting go of the pen, and so on. Eventually you would reject the hypothesis that pens are attracted to carpets because they do not always move toward carpets. Instead, you rework your hypothesis to state that "all other things being equal, less massive objects (like the pen) are attracted to more massive objects (like the earth)." Now you devise test implications to disprove that hypothesis, and you run those tests. But they don't disprove it; time and again, no matter how hard you try, you can't disprove the hypothesis. Over time you may become so certain about its explanatory value that you take it for granted in your other investigations. It can always be questioned and tested, but you've done that, and it is reasonable to move on.

Another way to evaluate an idea or hypothesis is to have it tested independently. This means having people other than yourself do the tests, to guard against bias; it also means devising other ways to test the hypothesis than were originally used. If testing to disprove doesn't disprove, and other scientists are coming up with the same results—even when they devise the most diabolically clever ways to disprove an idea—scientists begin to accept that they have discovered a reality. They move toward considering the hypothesis or idea confirmed.

Confirmed hypotheses are considered knowledge, and that knowledge is used in the generation of larger, more overarching explanations of observations, which we call theories. So, for example, many tests show that your less-massive to more-massive attraction hypothesis is so useful that you might combine it with other hypotheses to form a larger explanatory device called gravitational theory, which explains a great many observations; in fact, it's so accurate a description of the relationships between things that it can be used to make very precise predictions about, say, launching an airplane or using the force of gravity to "sling-shot" space probes throughout the solar system.

In the same way, evolutionary theory is so named because it is a proposed explanation of many, many observations. And it is a fact because so many tests that might disprove it have been done, and it has not been disproven; we'll see that throughout this book.

As important as words are, a lot of the wording here does not matter.

What matters is, first, whether or not there is a world external to humanity; and the word from science is, yes, there is. The planet Saturn—which existed independent of humanity long before humanity existed—would not cease to exist if humanity were to become extinct. We humans did not invent Saturn; we discovered it. Second, if there is a reality external to humanity, can we learn about it and make generalizations about how that reality works? Again, the answer is yes; aircraft do not fly because of some supernatural power, they fly because we have learned to build wings that provide lift in certain circumstances. Whether we call our learnings hypotheses, theories, facts, or laws is not as important as knowing that we can indeed learn about the universe we live in, including the universe of living things.


Excerpted from THE FACT OF EVOLUTION by CAMERON M. SMITH Copyright © 2011 by Cameron M. Smith. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Figures....................9
List of Tables....................11
Chapter 1: Nullius in Verba....................23
Chapter 2: The Fact of Replication....................37
Chapter 3: The Fact of Variation....................69
Chapter 4: The Fact of Selection....................103
Chapter 5: The Fact of Speciation....................137
Chapter 6: The Fact of Evolution....................177
Chapter 7: Evolution in Action....................183
Chapter 8: The Mirror-House of Evolution....................211
Chapter 9: The Grand Illusion....................245
Websites for More on Evolution....................315
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