evolution and facts

carter pate (CPATE@UTCVM.UTC.EDU)
Tue, 5 Mar 1996 15:09:30 EST

The Tennessee legislation deserves all the attention it gets for its foolish-
ness over evolution! But should we run around like Chicken Little every time
an attention-huyngry politician "plays' tp the ancient icons in the gallery?
We can get so upset we lose perspective.

Why would a respectable anthropologist like Gabriel Lasker be moved to write
the following in a book otherwise notable as a succinct summary of the evidence
on human origins (at the time of its writing)?

<Scientists consider as factual an observation that is capabl;e of being ob-
<served by others. A factual statement is one that contains enough informa-
<tion so that anyone can see its truth for himself, or at least can test its
<veracity by explicit techniques and known instruments without reliance on
<hidden assumptionss or occult knowledge. Human evolution is a fact, not
<just a theory. It has the same kind of status as any other "fact" studied by
<scholars. (Gabriel Lasker, The Evolution of Man, New York: Hold, Rinehart
and Winston, 1961, p. 7.)

One can beg to differ on a fine but important point of philosophy of science.
How can one get all the relevant facts, the "whole picture" of evolution into a
range precise enough to observe and measure? "Fact" is too small to encompass
the grandeur of the idea of evolution! And must we force the argument into
binary polarization by counterposing "just a theory"? A theory is a theory is
a theory. And a fact is a fact is a fact! But like yin and yang, they can't
get along very well without each other. Compare theories of gravity and tecton-
ic plates!

Even scientists can sometimes get overemphatic in their rhetoric. But when
they do, they weaken their arguments. I could still use Lasker's account of
actual facts as a good reference, despite this faux pas. But in demanding
that evolution not be taught as a "fact", the Tennessee Legislature is legis-
lating an oxymoron that attorneys will tear to shreds.

Peace and perspective, everyone!