Scientific consensus is the current collective opinion or position of scientists from a particular field. It does not represent evidence for an argument but can be used as validation for a course of action, as formulation of public policy. The scientific community may occasionally issue "position statements" to clarify the consensus and thereby influence decision making on societal issues.
Is there a scientific consensus on evolution?
By one poll, 43 percent of Americans believe that God created humans about 10,000 years ago and that humans have not evolved significantly since. This indicates there is disagreement within the American public regarding the validity of the theory of evolution. Also, there are numerous compilations of quotes that appear to indicate a lack of support for evolution among scientists. In the absence of statements from the scientific community, then, it would seem reasonable to conclude that there is no scientific consensus on evolution.
However, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in their publication "Science and Creationism" answers the question of whether many scientists doubt evolution:
No. The scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming. Those opposed to the teaching of evolution sometimes use quotations from prominent scientists out of context to claim that scientists do not support evolution. However, examination of the quotations reveals that the scientists are actually disputing some aspect of how evolution occurs, not whether evolution occurred. (p. 28)
Why are position statements on evolution made?
Thus scientific organizations have issued a vast number of similarly-worded statements for the purpose of demonstrating that there is in fact a consensus on evolution. Moreover these organizations feel the need to promote evolution as it represents "good" science, and science is essential for the maintenance of our modern lifestyle. The NAS publication notes:
By using knowledge of the natural world to predict the consequences of our actions, science makes it possible to solve problems and create opportunities using technology. The detailed knowledge required to sustain our civilization could only have been derived through scientific investigation. (p. 8)
A citizenry is better prepared to manage issues in a technological society if it possesses facility with concepts of science. This facility is measured within a society as its degree of "scientific literacy." The key to maintaining scientific literacy in society is education, first in primary and secondary students, then at the college level, and finally through self-education.
The scientific community recognizes that teaching evolution to school age children is essential to achieving scientific literacy. The American Anthropological Association (AAA), in its effort to ensure continued effective science instruction, asserts:
As is the case with other scholars, our goals in teaching evolution are to instruct, not to indoctrinate. Anthropologists seek to inculcate a critical understanding of how scientists and other scholars think and work, so that our students will be able to employ anthropological reasoning and methods in their own thinking and research. All students, regardless of religious belief, as a matter of scientific literacy should understand basic principles of anthropology and other sciences relevant to evolution. (Statement on Evolution and Creationism, April, 2000)
The AAA further asserts that the teaching of evolution is sufficiently important that it should not be compromised, stating, "...good science education requires that evolution be presented in the same manner as other well-supported scientific theories, without special qualifications or disclaimers..."
Scientific organizations occasionally feel the need to affirm or reaffirm their position on the theory of evolution. This may be a direct response to events in the public forums. Statements have been made in the context of court decisions involving the teaching of evolution in schools. In the US Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), 72 Nobel laureates and various scientific organizations filed a statement regarding the importance of proper science instruction in public schools. In the 1980's, a number of statements clarifying the scientific consensus on evolution seem by their content to be a response to the impetus of the intelligent design movement at that time.
What is the scientific consensus on evolution?
By their position statements, scientific organizations indicate the highest degree of confidence in the theory of evolution. AAA calls evolution "the best scientific explanation of human and nonhuman biology and the key to understanding the origin and development of life." NAS notes in their statement:
Evolution is a well-supported theory drawn from a variety of sources of data, including observations about the fossil record, genetic information, the distribution of plants and animals, and the similarities across species of anatomy and development. Scientists have inferred that descent with modification offers the best scientific explanation for these observations. (p. 28)
Scientific organizations have gone beyond stating that evolution is important for explaining the diversity of species. It is regarded as a concept that ties together multiple branches of science. AAA calls evolution "a cornerstone of modern science" and "the central organizing principle of the life sciences."
Despite its relative simplicity, the theory of evolution is highly regarded as a powerful and versatile explanation for observations of biological phenomena. Of utmost importance is the observation that it is a theory conforming to established principles of science. AAA notes:
The study of the evolution of humans is a scientific enterprise. Good scientific knowledge possesses these features.
- it explains natural phenomena in terms of natural laws and processes, without reference to overt or covert supernatural causation;
- it is empirically grounded in evidence from observations and experiments; and
- it is subject to change as new empirical evidence arises.
What is the scientific consensus on creation science?
The consensus is that creation-based explanations by comparison do not possess the features of science. NAS explains:
The arguments of creationists are not driven by evidence that can be observed in the natural world. Special creation or supernatural intervention is not subjectable to meaningful tests, which require predicting plausible results and then checking these results through observation and experimentation. Indeed, claims of "special creation" reverse the scientific process. The explanation is seen as unalterable, and evidence is sought only to support a particular conclusion by whatever means possible. (p.8)
By their statements, the scientific community places emphasis on the observation that the theory of evolution is subject to modification from new data. AAA states, "The ability to alter explanations when new evidence or theory is encountered is one of the strengths of a scientific way of knowing." On the contrary, creationist organizations in their statements of faith swear to hold their beliefs firm despite evidence. NAS notes that "[supernatural explanation] contrasts with science, where any hypothesis or theory always remains subject to the possibility of rejection or modification in the light of new knowledge." (p. 25)
Although scientific organizations communicate sensitivity to the religious rights of people, they wish to distinguish between religion and science as it relates to scientific education. NAS in the conclusion to their position statement notes:
No body of beliefs that has its origin in doctrinal material rather than scientific observation, interpretation, and experimentation should be admissible as science in any science course. Incorporating the teaching of such doctrines into a science curriculum compromises the objectives of public education. Science has been greatly successful at explaining natural processes, and this has led not only to increased understanding of the universe but also to major improvements in technology and public health and welfare. The growing role that science plays in modem life requires that science, and not religion, be taught in science classes. (p. 25)
Similarly in their statement AAA states:
Teachers, administrators, school board members and others involved in pre-college education are under pressure to teach creationism as science and/or eliminate or downgrade evolution, to the detriment of public scientific literacy. Many succumb to this pressure, for lack of expressed support from scientists and other community members.
The scientific community feels that the exclusive teaching of real science is critical to society's understanding of science. Scientific organizations hope that by unequivocally stating their consensus on evolution that society will realize the importance of teaching evolution in school.
- Scientific consensus. Wikipedia. Retrieved on 2008-06-20.
- Newport, Frank (June 11, 2007). Majority of Republicans Doubt Theory of Evolution. Gallup News Service. Retrieved on 2008-06-30.
- Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, Second Edition. The National Academies Press. Retrieved on 2008-06-24.
- Hazen, Robert M. (2008). Why Should You Be Scientifically Literate?. American Institute of Biological Sciences. Retrieved on 2008-06-28.
- American Anthropological Association (April, 2000). Statement on Evolution and Creationism. Retrieved on 2008-06-29.
- Edwards v. Aguillard: U.S. Supreme Court Decision. Talk Origins. Retrieved on 2008-06-24.
- December 19, 2002. Statement from Scientific and Scholarly Organizations. National Center for Science Education.
- List of scientific societies rejecting intelligent design. Wikipedia.
- Level of support for evolution. Wikipedia.