The evolution of editing

A friend invited me along to a talk the other day at Duke University by Richard Dawkins. He is a retired professor, noted author and outspoken atheist.

Dawkins is perhaps best known for his book “The God Delusion.” His latest work is “The Greatest Show on Earth,” in which he makes a case for evolution.

Before a full house at Duke, Dawkins opened his lecture with a bit of editing advice concerning the word “theory.” That word, as applied to evolution, he said, allows some people to be skeptical of evolution or dismiss it altogether. After all, “it’s just a theory.”

Dawkins suggested this edit: instead of calling evolution a “theory,” call it a “fact.” The National Academy of Sciences would agree.

“Theory” is a tricky word that has more than one meaning. Here are two from Webster’s New World College Dictionary:

  • “A speculative idea or plan as to how something might be done.”
  • “A formulation of apparent relationships or underlying principles of certain observed phenomenon which has been verified to some degree.”

It goes on:

“Theory, as compared here, implies considerable evidence in support of a formulated general principle explaining the operation of certain phenomena [the theory of evolution].”

Science asserts that this definition of theory is the one that applies to evolution. It also works for other scientific theories including the heliocentric theory, which states that the sun is the center of the solar system, with the planets revolving around it. But hey, it’s just a theory.