What’s Wrong with “Belief in Evolution”? Part 2

Rodin's The Thinker. Photograph: Frank Kovalchek, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the first part of “What’s wrong with ‘belief in evolution?’” I drew attention to the fact that it’s often problematic to talk about belief in evolution but—indulging my penchant for nitpickery—I argued that two diagnoses of the problem, denying that “belief” is used in science and asserting that “belief” is ambiguous, misrepresent the linguistic facts.

A third diagnosis is that “belief” is distinctively associated with religion. Christians believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible; religions are belief systems; credal statements are sometimes called statements of belief; and so on. Talking about belief in evolution therefore misrepresents evolution as religious, or at least quasireligious, in nature.

Considered as a claim about meaning, perhaps as claiming that to say “I believe...” is to say “I believe...as a matter of faith,” the third diagnosis is clearly wrong. There’s nothing contradictory about saying “I believe...on the basis of overwhelming evidence,” after all, and there are plenty of contexts in which “belief” is used without any whiff of faith.

True, there’s obviously something correct about the third diagnosis, considered just as a claim about the ability of talk about belief to call religion to mind. But it’s not a tremendously informative diagnosis, and it doesn’t really help to explain why talk about belief is associated with skepticism—arguably the more urgent problem.

So can the more urgent problem be usefully addressed? I think so. First, let me tell you about what I believe. I believe that 2 is the only even prime; I believe that Columbus is the capital of Ohio; I believe that I can ride a bicycle fifty miles in three hours. That’s not all that I believe, of course, but three examples are plenty for present purposes.

In typical conversations, it would be unnecessary, unhelpful, or downright weird for me to talk about those beliefs. For when I can prove, cite evidence to establish, and (perhaps with a tailwind) demonstrate those things, I really don’t need to discuss whether I believe them. (The present context is thus not a typical conversation!)

So if I were to say, in a typical conversation, I believe that 2 is the only even prime, that Columbus in the capital of Ohio, or that I can ride a bicycle fifty miles in three hours, I would be conveying the impression (although I wouldn’t be stating) that I can’t prove, cite evidence to establish, or demonstrate so.

Again, the claim is not that “I believe that 2 is the only even prime” means that “I can’t prove that 2 is the only even prime.” The former doesn’t entail the latter; there’s nothing contradictory about saying, “I believe that 2 is the only even prime; indeed, I can prove it.” But the former conveys—or to use a term from linguistics, implicates—the latter.

(Note to aficionados of linguistics: I’m trying to conduct the discussion at a high level of abstraction—from such a height that the differences among Grice and Sperber and Horn can’t be descried. I’m assuming, I believe correctly, that the implicatures to which I appeal are pretheoretical data rather than constructs of any particular theory of implicature.)

I believe in evolution; I believe that all living organisms on earth share a common ancestry. But because I’m in a position to make a stronger claim, that I am able to cite evidence to establish that all living organisms on earth share a common ancestry, it is in general misleading—but not false—for me to say that I believe in evolution.

If I say that I believe in evolution, and it’s not a strange navel-gazing context like the present context, then my audience would be entitled to reason, plausibly if not unassailably, “If he were able to cite evidence to establish evolution, then he would have said so; since he didn’t, he must not be able to do so.”

That, I think, is the main reason that talk about belief in evolution is problematic. Not much depends on it, I concede: it’s hugely more important for scientists and science educators to avoid talk about belief in evolution than it is for them to accept or reject any particular explanation of why it’s problematic. But it’s still nice to get it right, isn’t it?

None of the foregoing is incompatible with any of the good advice in the literature about avoiding talk of belief in evolution. It really is a better idea to talk about accepting evolution—and, so as not to convey the impression that evolution is special, to talk about accepting the special theory of relativity and the kinetic theory of gases and so on, too.

By the way, the earliest recommendation for using the phrase “accept evolution” rather than the phrase “believe in evolution” I have been able to locate is, to my surprise, from none other than my colleague Eugenie C. Scott, who in a paper published all the way back in 1987 wrote,

Do your physical anthropology students “believe in” evolution? You probably don’t. Physical anthropologists, as scientists, accept evolution as the best explanation for a massive amount of data from many scientific fields. We tend to (or should) use the term “believe” to refer to opinions rather than scientifically supported statements. The general public, by and large, does not. One regularly hears “Do you believe in evolution” and “Do you believe in creationism” spoken as parallel constructions. This makes dealing with creation and evolution issues more difficult.

When I asked her about it, she wasn’t aware of having introduced anything particularly novel there, but I can’t find a previous recommendation to use “accept evolution” rather than “believe in evolution” in the literature. If you know of a printed source, please leave a comment or drop me a line with the reference!

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.