General Question

Pandora's avatar

Has the theory of evolution been proven?

Asked by Pandora (23363 points ) October 17th, 2010

This is not a religous debate question. Something else sparked this question that got me wondering. I saw a documentary about the beginning of life and there seems to be some large gaps in the evolution chain. So it got me wondering.
Evolution is still called a theory and so that means that scientist still don’t call it a fact.
So is it theory or fact?
Not looking to debate, simply want to know have all the bugs been worked out or is it simply still a theory?

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66 Answers

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

Strictly, no. However in science a hypothesis does not earn the title of ‘theory’ until it is supported by a weight of evidence large enough that it would take decades of work and a large number of inconsistencies before the fundamentals of the model would be reasonably doubted. Evolution is as solid a theory as you are likely to find in science, but it is not considered a fact because there is still a chance, however minute, that it is inaccurate.

Even Einstein’s theories of Relativity are still considered theories, even though they have been proven to be correct to one part in one trillion. That small margin of error is where it contradicts quantum mechanics, and is where it requires refinement.

talljasperman's avatar

Obviously not or we would call is the Law of evolution

Lightlyseared's avatar

@talljasperman the theory of gravity has been proven either but you’re not going to jump out off 30 floor building now are you. The problem is scientists use language in a diferent ways to non scientists. To a layperson a theory is a guess, nothing more. To a scientist a theory is a description of the way the world works that can be tested against reality using experimentation.

ragingloli's avatar

@talljasperman
In science, a “law” is nothing more than a part of a surrounding theory.
Evolution is a fact and the theory of evolution explains the fact.
As for its certainty, the theory of evolution is the one with the most evidence in support of it in all of science.

Thammuz's avatar

@talljasperman no we wouldn’t. Much like we don’t call a banana peel “banana”

The_Idler's avatar

We know that many different lifeforms have existed in the history of the world. We know that there has been significant & continuous progressions of genetics and features over time, shown in countless examples of “evolutionary histories”.

Evolutionary theory is an explanation of the mechanics of the process which has made this the case, and also happens to be the only theory relating to the origins of humanity, which logically explains the existence and nature of the evidence described above…

It is the simplest and therefore most probable comprehensive theory of the diversity & history of life. The nearest explanation, in simplicity & probability, which includes “God”, would be exactly the same, but with God existing and doing nothing. God is therefore made redundant by evolutionary theory (w/ regards to actually consciously moulding man from nothing), and that is why some people don’t like it.

In direct response to your question, there is no such thing as proof in the real world.

Fyrius's avatar

Proven? Yes, it certainly has been.
Conclusively proven? No. That’s impossible. There’s no such thing.
For all intents and purposes, though, it might as well be. It’s as well-supported as scientific models get. There is enough evidence to raise its probability close enough to 100% that the difference doesn’t really matter any more.

Here’s another take: Common descent is a fact, and as far as humankind knows, evolution is the only way to explain how that happened.

marinelife's avatar

“Theory” in Science: A theory is really one of the pinnacles of science – what nearly everyone strives to make out of their hypotheses. A hypothesis is elevated to a theory when it has withstood all attempts to falsify it. Experiment after experiment has shown it sufficient to explain all observations that it encompasses. In other words, a “theory” has never been shown to be false, despite – usually – hundreds if not thousands of separate attempts to break it. It explains the observations with one or more mechanisms and, because it provides that mechanism, it is considered to be above the level of a Law. Examples these days are the Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, the Germ Theory of Disease, and yes, the Theory of Evolution.”

This article has a really good discussion of the difference between theory in colloquial speech and a theory in science.

cockswain's avatar

Two of the most compelling facts that we evolved from primates are the fact that we have 46 chomosomes and chimpanzees have 48. It has been genetically shown to the base pair, where those chromosomes fused on chromosome 2.

Second, there are viruses called Endogenous Retroviruses (ERVs) that have inserted themselves into various places across the human genome. It would be unlikely if we had one such similar insertion in common with a chimpanzee in the exact same location. As it turns out, there are something like 16 of these insertions.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Einstein’s work is still called the “Theory” of Relativity not the “Law” of Relativity even though gravitational lensing and time dilation have been measured to within a fraction of a % of his predictions. Even though it is a theory, it is the best predictor of certain actions.
Same with the Theory of Evolution. If you study DNA, the genetic clock, and microbiology and match it to environmental pressures you can make very good predictions and explanations for certain traits. You can use the knowledge of DNA and evolutionary theory to engineer advanced energy crops and medicines that did not come over on the ark. I personally have some genetically modified energy crops growing on my land that will be equivalent to 500 gallons of heating oil per acre. .The Theory of Evolution, the study of genetics and will of science made that possible. If you have to call it a theory that’s ok with me.
I will change my avatar now so you can see a section of the crop. Give me a minute….Done!

mammal's avatar

isn’t it more like it hasn’t been disproved? So it remains currently valid.

Thammuz's avatar

@mammal No, not really. Many things cannot be disproved, this doesn’t make them valid. Evolution has been proved to a really good extent, it is physically impossible to prove any theory of that complexity beyond any doubt, it is however pretty much sci-fi territory the idea that tomorrow someone might find something that undermines it to any serious degree.

gorillapaws's avatar

It is a theory, and a fact at the same time. Theories and facts aren’t mutually exclusive.

I honestly can’t see how people can deny evolution when there’s proof such as The E. coli long-term evolution experiment by Richard Lenski. You can literally see evolution occur in that bacteria over many years.

Also, don’t make the common mistake of confusing abiogenesis and evolution. Abiogenesis is about how very simple life arose “from nothing” which is a very different question than evolution. Evolution deals with how did life get from very simple single-celled organisms into the diversity of life on the planet today.

Let me put it this way, the only way evolution could ever be false is if God is actively and deliberately creating billions of examples of it to intentionally trick mankind into believing it’s real. I don’t know any Christians (or any other faith for that matter) who believe God would behave like such an asshole trickster with a sophomoric sense of humor.

If there really is a God, then evolution was the mechanism he must have used to create generate the diversity of species as we know it. Furthermore, by studying science and evolution, you gain insight into the “mind of God” and how he works. As a logical consequence from this point, denying evolution and the other instruments of “God’s will” is actually blasphemy.

poisonedantidote's avatar

Is it a theory or is it a fact? well, its both.

In science, theory has a different meaning than when you or i use it. when we use it, we mean theory as in a guess, a hunch, a hypothesis. but in science, a theory is the explanation of the facts.

In science, theory is the highest status an explanation can have. a theory never becomes a fact in science. it can not be proven, it can only be disproven.

you also have other theories, such as say the theory of gravity. while its a theory, if you drop a hammer it will fall to the ground. so, hammers fall to the ground because of gravity, and that is a fact. however, the theory of gravity explains why it falls, namely it fell because of the gravity well created by the mass of the earth. so, you have the facts and the theory that explains the facts.

Likewise, with evolution, evolution is a fact. meaning things do evolve, we have observed speciation in larger animals, and we have observed microscopic life evolve in the lab. it is a fact that things such as nylonase did not exist and now do because of evolution. Then, as well as these facts, you have the theory of evolution, that explains why and how these facts are the way they are.

Im not sure if i have explained it too well there. The main thing to know, when you hear someone say “evolution is just a theory” is that this person probably does now know what theory means in this case. otherwise you would not say “just” a theory. the theory of evolution has more evidence for it that probably any other theory. so saying “evolution is just a theory”. its a bit like saying, buy my product, “its only a billion dollars”.

I wont mention religion much, as you say its not about that, but its worth noting, that its only really when there is religion in the equation, that people challenge evolution. you dont tend to see it for any other theories, like gravity, germs, the atom, and so on.

Is evolution a theory? yes.

is evolution a fact? yes

has evolution been proven? no

will it ever be proven? no

do theories ever become laws? no

Rarebear's avatar

here we go again.

mammal's avatar

@Thammuz but it is a falsifiable theory, therefore subject to the Scientific test of truth, until falsified. Isn’t this Karl Popper’s position? As opposed to the existence of God which can neither be proved or disproved scientifically.

Nullo's avatar

Evolution has not been proven; that would require observers posted at the far ends of time, and as yet we cannot do that. Natural selection, the driving force in evolution, has been observed, and indeed, has been borrowed (artificial selection) for a very, very long time.

Thus, objectively, evolution could, under ideal conditions, create the variation in species that we see. It could not kick off life—abiogenesis is just another name for spontaneous generation, and is about as reasonable.

Frankly, it makes more sense for God to have done things.

ragingloli's avatar

@Nullo
abiogenesis is just another name for spontaneous generation
No, it is not. Spontaneous generation means complex lifeforms popping into existence from dead matter, like mice coming from grain, or mosquitos from mud.
Abiogenesis is the gradual emergence of simple chemical self replicating systems from non-life.

Frankly, it makes more sense for God to have done things.
And that is why you could never be a scientist, because as soon as a scientists starts resorting to a supernatural excuse, his discovery stops. It happened to a lot of scientists, like Newton, Huygens, even Einstein.

Pandora's avatar

Actually when I’m talking about evolution I am talking about the very beginning of having a “live” single cell multiply. After seeing the program, I researched on line to see if anyone has been able to give a reseasonable explanation to how a rock of a planet that was probably formed from several rocks floating in space where there is no air or oxygen and exposed to radiation was able to have a cell come out of no where and suddenly multiply.
I do believe that evolution has been proven, in the sense that we came from animals and even from the ocean. What I have a problem with it that we came from a random living organic cell.
No one seems to know what made up that cell to make it a living thing.
It feels a bit like the chicken and the egg question. Can we prove that chickens come form eggs yes. Can we even prove that chickens make eggs? Yes. But which came first?
Well more than likely the chicken came from some bird that had an egg that mutated to chicken, but as you go back all the way to a cell. Where did the cell mutate from?

poisonedantidote's avatar

“Actually when I’m talking about evolution I am talking about the very beginning of having a “live” single cell multiply.”

The theory of evolution explains the diversity of life, not its origin. evolution has nothing to say on how life started, it does not even try to, evolution only explains the diversity.

The origin of life would be aboigenesis, or panspermia hypothesis.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Life is endemic to the universe. Where the conditions are right for life to arise and flourish, it will. It now appears that earth was first colonized by microorganisms, and by the building blocks of life, from space. Where that life originated is anyone’s surmise at this point.

roundsquare's avatar

Technically, its possible that evolution is false. Tomorrow, some evidence could come up that throws the whole thing into question. But it would be very surprising.

Pandora's avatar

@poisonedantidote Thank you for the clarification. But it all had to begin somewhere. So where and how?

poisonedantidote's avatar

@Pandora have a look at this youtube channel. specifically the documentaries on the origin of life. zuke969

You will find a lot of useful explanations there. i could explain it as i understand it, but ill probably blur the edges a little doing it from memory. you can find detailed explanations for things such as, how to get amino acids and self replicating protens simply by mixing different kinds of gas. information about methane ‘breathing’ microscopic life forms and how life one earth looked before oxygen existed on our planet, also after oxygen, how life has been affected by cold and heat and disaster, it talks of RNA, DNA and all kinds of things.

Thammuz's avatar

@mammal Well, sure, it’s just that then and there i read your post as “there is no proof for it but there is none against it either”

poisonedantidote's avatar

In my laymans understanding of the topic, it goes something like this… the planet is formed by matter falling in to a gravity well. we develop a core, several layers, and the outer soft layer, with water and gases. this gas and years of lightning, leads to amino acids, and self replicating proteins. at this point you start to get a kind of melting pot for life.

Over time you get to a point where RNA shows up and things start to replicate faster than they are destroyed, and a run away effect happens, leading to the first strand of DNA, and outer cell to protect the DNA, and from there, evolution takes over. cells mutate over time, better ones survive bad ones die off. eventually you start to get bigger cells, and types of life that do new things, like produce oxygen, and you get your first photosynthesis life. and then muti cell life, and eventually reptiles and mamals and t-rex and jesus and fridge magnets, guns, wallmart and q&a sites.

ragingloli's avatar

@Pandora
You can also watch this one

Pandora's avatar

I read some theories on line, but the most it seems to come down to is that some chemicals that once existed, simply don’t exist now, that were the beginning components of making RNA and DNA.
Nobody seems to know if they still exist or have ever existed. It is just a theory.
Nothing has been found in its basic form that can replicate the first sign of life. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible. Simply not proven.

Lightlyseared's avatar

@poisonedantidote Yes but where did the gravity well come from?

@Pandora You can make stuff that replicates the first signs of life in a lab from base elements and the appliaction of heat and pressure.

Mamradpivo's avatar

Yes. Case in point: domesticated animals that can no longer interbreed with their evolutionary ancestors. Case in point: different species of evergreen trees in geographically similar areas on different continents.

I’m growing very tired of the ‘evolution is a theory’ canard. It’s just a religious person’s way of trying to sow doubt among stupid people.

gorillapaws's avatar

I may be wrong, but my understanding of the state of science is that evolution is as close to certainty as any theory is ever going to get. The origin of life research, is comparatively still in it’s infancy, with multiple credible hypotheses.

Pandora's avatar

@ragingloli Loved the music.
@Mamradpivo Not trying to sow doubt. I really couldn’t care about other people belief system. You can believe in God or not believe. I don’t believe I was put on this earth to save anyone. Just trying to understand something I thought was proven without a doubt until I saw this program.
If it were not for questions we would all be ignorant and still living in caves picking fleas off each others or dead for lack of survival skills which require thinking and questioning.
I still believe that when in doubt about something, that it is best to ask a question and try to find an answer (for me) than blindly nodding at things as if you know. I don’t care if others wish to know or not. My opinions or thoughts aren’t going to make waves in the scientific community or in the religious one. You give my question more importance than it is due.

Ivan's avatar

No theory has been proven. Theories do not graduate into facts.

Mamradpivo's avatar

@Pandora No offense intended, and I apologize for over-reacting. My wife and a lot of my friends are biologists and I recently had to fight off an exuberant seatmate on a long flight who wanted only to discuss some crackpot theory he seems to have dreamed up about why God allowed some animals to evolve. I imagine I’m projecting here.

poisonedantidote's avatar

@Lightlyseared the gravity well would have been cause by matter. small bits of dust stick and gas stick to each other thus creating bigger clumps of dust and gas that pull is more matter, until you get a planet.

where did the matter come from, lets wait and see what the guys at cern say, it could turn out to be the higgs boson.

flutherother's avatar

The theory of evolution says that the fittest will survive and that random changes in a species occasionally produce a difference that is beneficial to survival. The process remains deeply mysterious and Darwin’s theory is by no means the last word on the subject. How would he define ‘the fittest’ anyway other than as that which survives, which is simply going round in circles.

ragingloli's avatar

The “fittest” is the one best adapted to the environment it lives in, thus having an advantage in finding food, hunt prey, evade predators, resistance to diseases and other environmental dangers compared to others of its species. Other factors may include a better ability to cooperate with others, which means social skills, thus increasing survivability via “strength in numbers”, stronger drive to protect offspring and mates, better ability to attract mates, etc. pp..
It really is not hard to understand.
Also, it is not primarily about survival.
It is about procreation. Survival is just the prerequisite to that ultimate goal.

Lightlyseared's avatar

@flutherother natural selection (ie survival of the fittest) is only one of the mechanisms of evolution. There are several others.

Fyrius's avatar

@flutherother
Simply put, fitness just means being good at procreating as much as possible. The whole idea is that organisms that are better at procreating a lot will procreate more than organisms that are worse at it. It’s almost a tautology.

It’s true that Darwin’s word isn’t the final one – and that’s also why the evolutionary biologist haven’t just been playing Tic Tac Toe for the past century and a half – but there is nothing “mysterious” about the mechanism involved. The basics are easy to understand and have been observed and replicated quite often enough.

crisw's avatar

@Pandora

geez, go out of town for the weekend and all sorts of interesting questyions get asked!

“After seeing the program, I researched on line to see if anyone has been able to give a reseasonable explanation to how a rock of a planet that was probably formed from several rocks floating in space where there is no air or oxygen and exposed to radiation was able to have a cell come out of no where and suddenly multiply. ”

No one proposes hat cells just sprang de novo from nothing. There were many intermediate steps that took billions of years between the first organic molecules and the first cell. And there are may ideas of how these steps took place. Here is one explanation that I wrote on one of the contending theories that I think has a fair bit of research to support it.

“I really couldn’t care about other people belief system. You can believe in God or not believe.”

Just to be perfectly clear, one can be religious and still accept evolution. Evolution is not a belief system.

Pandora's avatar

@Mamradpivo Appology accepted. But remember the next time you are stuck with someone who wants to pick your brain (and you think his ideas are crack pot) that many of the crack pots of yesterday are considered genuis before their time. Questioning leads to discovery.
@crisw, Thank you for your article. It is well written but it still doesn’t make things any less a theory.
I’m not comparing it to religious beliefs. Like I stated in the beginning this is all for my own curiosity. I was simply repling to what @mamradpivo stated.
I guess its something that will always remain a mystery to me. Perhaps I don’t have the intellect needed to totally understand how something so random could come to happen. Or maybe I will never get it the same way I don’t understand, how is it that when I am on a roll with a thought my husband seems to know the perfect time to interupt. Like as right now. AUGGGHHHHH!
Talk to you guys later. Thanks for the answers. At least I did get an answer to the straight question.
@FireMadeFlesh I liked your explanation best. At least with numbers like that I know to keep pounding this question would have the same result of bashing my head against a rock. Some answers of the universe will probably never be known, at least not in my life time.

cockswain's avatar

Why do people think “theory” may mean “slightly possible”?

gorillapaws's avatar

@cockswain because they’re too lazy to read the previously linked articles that do a great job of explaining it.

@Pandora if you’d bother reading those links, you’d realize that being a theory is actually the highest, most sophisticated level in science.

Pandora's avatar

@gorillapaws Sorry I missed your link but I have looked at others. Althought going to Zuke 969 was sending me into a bunch of links that eventually provided me a nice afternoon nap. Some were too long winded and never seeming to reach the point.
As you pointed out what I was originally asking about abiogenesis. Simply didn’t know there was a different name for it. Especially since science programs tend to say words like evolution when talking about gradual development or anything over time.

gorillapaws's avatar

@Pandora I was referring to this link that @marinelife posted explaining that theories are actually the highest form that a hypothesis can attain.

Your statement “it still doesn’t make things any less a theory.” Would be equivalent to an olympic runner saying “It’s a shame I only won the gold, but I guess it’s the best I could come up with.”

crisw's avatar

@Pandora

“it still doesn’t make things any less a theory”

As others have pointed out, this is in no way a deficit. I am not sure what, exactly, you are looking for. The point is, we do have theories for abiogenesis, and we are gathering more data that can be plugged into these theories all of the time. As we do so, some theories will be discarded and others will gain more evidence. That is how science works.

“Some answers of the universe will probably never be known, at least not in my life time.”

This is true, But it doesn’t mean that the answers do not exist.

iamthemob's avatar

@ragingloli stated: Evolution is a fact and the theory of evolution explains the fact.

But @Ivan stated: No theory has been proven. Theories do not graduate into facts.

This again, I think, reveals the problem when discussing evolution, particularly when it’s a discussion between people in a scientific field and people with any other educational background or any other profession. When you say “fact” as a scientist to a non-scientist, particularly when saying evolution is a “fact,” it generally will mean something that has been proven to be true. When you say “theory” as a scientist to a non-scientist, it’s going to sound often like something you think happens, but haven’t shown yet.

I think this is why the debate gets so frustrating. How can it be a fact when there are, in some cases by necessity, certain evidentiary pieces missing? (I say this only to emphasize the confusion that such a statement can cause, not to undermine the profound strength of the evolutionary model). Thereafter, explanations run the danger of sounding like double-speak.

crisw's avatar

@iamthemob

Evolution is both a theory and a fact.

Organisms evolve. That is fact- proven fact. We can see it all around us, as bacteria mutate and breeders create new breeds.

Just how and why evolution happens is what the theory of evolution attempts to explain.

Similarly, gravity is both a theory and a fact. We can see it exists every time we drop something. The theory of gravity attempts to explain how gravity works.

iamthemob's avatar

@crisw

And that’s what I’m talking about. It sounds like double-speak if you don’t state clearly what you mean by fact and theory in both cases, and what you mean by “evolution the fact” and “evolution as the theory to explain the diversification of species.” If not, it appears as if you’re saying one thing, and then saying the complete opposite of the thing.

mattbrowne's avatar

No scientist has been able to refute it.

So, it’s the best we got. Like other scientific theories, it can explain present and past phenomena, and it can make reliable predictions about the future.

CaptainHarley's avatar

The Mathusian paradigm has been repeatedly disproven, largely due to improvements in agricultural productivity.

Actually, water seems to be the limiting factor.

cockswain's avatar

But the underlying concepts play an important role in natural selection. In the absence of squeezing more calories out of foods and agricultural advancements, the idea of finite resources as a limiting factor in population growth is legitimate.

But I’m no expert on this, so if someone has a good counter-argument I’m willing to reconsider my position.

CaptainHarley's avatar

The other side of the coin is that birthrates all over the world have been dropping for the last few years. It’s as if all the women in the world had gotten their heads together and decided “fewer babies!” : )

cockswain's avatar

That appears to be a function of industrial nations, in that they have less children. Probably in part because they don’t need to have 8 kids to ensure 4 survive to help on the farm, and also because there are greater career opportunities for women.

Pandora's avatar

—@CaptainHarley ;p We have. Its called a bad economy and everyone is too busy being on their computers to make whoopie. LOL

CaptainHarley's avatar

@Pandora

LMAO! I seee! : D

Actually, this trend began long before the current economic doldrums hit.

CaptainHarley's avatar

@cockswain

There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to this a all. It’s not confined to industrialized nations.

cockswain's avatar

No pattern at all? Sure there is. It’s not perfectly linear and there are outliers, but the trend is generally there. Here’s one article to peruse. If you google “birth rate by country” or “birth rate by GDP” you’ll see more info supporting the general idea.

CaptainHarley's avatar

I can’t find the article that originally peaked my interest on this topic, but this one presents a fair outline: http://www.city-journal.org/2010/20_1_birthrates.html

cockswain's avatar

I don’t have time to read the whole thing, but just skimmed it. Your article states: For decades, demographers and economists have watched the world’s fertility rate plunge as countries grew wealthier and more urban. These days, fertility rates in much of the industrialized world are far below replacement levels—that is, the number of kids that parents must have to replace themselves and adults who remain childless. Though the steepest declines happened first in wealthy countries like Japan, Italy, Germany, and Spain, even many developing countries have seen their fertility rates head downward.

This is what I’m saying. The US stands as the most glaring outlier in this trend, but the general trend is there. Unless I’m misreading something, I think you helped me support my point. If this were a sporting event, I feel like you would have intercepted my pass, but then ran towards your own endzone. : )

cockswain's avatar

After reading the article a bit more, it occurred to me we may one day face the problem of young people not being able to care for all the elderly as effectively as we can now. The elderly will be an enormous financial burden for the working class, and hopefully they remain compassionate enough to not turn their backs.

CaptainHarley's avatar

LMAO @cockswain

If you say so. : )

Your point about the elderly is well-taken. Sad. I am 67 years old and would rather DIE than be placed in a nursing home, or even in an old soldier’s home.

cockswain's avatar

I’m 34 now, and if the current trend continues there will be far more retirees than workers to support social security and health care when I retire. I wonder how that generation will regard us.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Can you say, “elderly burden,” boys and girls?

Pandora's avatar

We are going to be set afloat on icebergs

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