Understanding Evolution

16 Nov

Last year I wrote a post for anthropology.net called “I Believe in Evolution.”  The title was meant to be an attention-getter, but most readers understand that evolution is not a “belief” in the same sense as political or cultural beliefs.

Scientific theories are evidence-based and must be overwhelmingly supported by the evidence to be generally accepted in the scientific community.  Evolution is one of the most well-supported theories in all of science, withstanding over 150 years of intensive inquiry in fields from Anthropology to Zoology, Geology to Genetics.  No serious or informed person doubts that Homo sapiens evolved from earlier, more “ape-like” hominins.  In contrast, beliefs can be based on absolutely anything (with or without evidence), or nothing at all.  (Whether belief in empirical evidence is itself “just another belief” is an endless philosophical argument that I don’t want to get into here).

So, despite the title that I chose for that post, evolution is more a matter of understanding the evidence for it than believing in it.  Jerry Coyne, author of the highly recommended book Why Evolution Is True, posted a picture (from The Skeptical Avenger) on his website yesterday that makes the distinction between belief and evidence-based understanding very nicely – along with an array of hominin skulls to illustrate the point.

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