Creation v. Evolution Metaphor Watch: Do We “Know” That The Earth Is Old, and That Plants and Animals Have Changed Over Time, or Do We Just Have a “Theory” About These Two Things? The Problem of Factive Verbs.

In June of 2006, when 68 national and international science academies, including the US National Academy of Sciences, put out a strongly worded statement saying, in essence, that we know that the earth is old and that plants and animals have changed over time, were they merely blustering, and using their collective authority to shut down debate?

Or is it true that we really do know that the earth is old and that plants and animals have changed over time?

Here’s the exact language of the 68 signatories to the statement, (which can also be read in full here). The placing of the words “facts” and “established” in caps in the statement below is mine, and is not in the original:

We agree that the following evidence based FACTS about the origins and evolution of the Earth and of life on this planet have been ESTABLISHED by numerous observations and independently derived experimental results from a multitude of scientific disciplines.

The collective signatory statement then lists off four things that are facts which have been established, and which, because they are long, I’ll distill to a straightforward formulation of twelve words:

The earth is old and plants and animals have changed over time.

Notice that the above quoted statement says that the age of the earth, and the evolution of plants and animals, are things that the scientific community has been able to establish with evidence, facts, observations, and experiments.

These are words directly in the statement.

In other words, insofar as we value evidence, facts, observation, and experiment in drawing conclusions, we can say that the antique age of the earth and the evolution of animals and plants has, over the past two centuries, been scientifically established.

ESTABLISH, and in the past tense as established, is a very strong, emphatic verb. It is akin to LEARN (as in “I have just learned that my father has died”) or to KNOW (as in, “I know that my father has died”) or to DISCOVER (as in “I discovered that my father had died yesterday”).

Other verbs like this are admit, perceive, recognize, secure, confirm, observe, show, and remember.

Grammarians call these factive verbs.

The linguist Steven Pinker, in his book The Stuff of Thought (2008), gives this particularly dishonest and pernicious use of a factive verb:

When [President] Bush said that the British government had “learned” that Saddam had sought uranium, he was committing himself to the proposition that the uranium seeking actually took place, not that the British government believed it did. (8)

Factive verbs are extraordinarily tricky to use, for we all know (know itself is a factive verb!) that we cannot ever really know things with absolute and complete certainty, and yet factive verbs function in sentences in this absolute fashion.

They are meant to set before the mind something that is to be treated as true. And yet, when we are trying to speak carefully and honestly, there is always a feeling that we should qualify our factive verbs, especially when put in the past tense, as in established, for they seem to want to deconstruct themselves.

And, indeed, the collective international academies’ statement on the age of the earth, and of evolution, does step back from its use of the factive verb established, which it used toward the beginning of the statement, and concludes with this qualifying sentence:

While acknowledging certain limitations, science is open ended, and subject to correction and expansion as new theoretical and empirical understanding emerges.

So does science establish things, or is it open-ended ?

Obviously, in attempting to use language to talk about science we are stuck with the paradox that it does both. Scientists establish things that we can treat as true, and they stay open to new information, which might even overturn those things that science seemed to have established.

And this is a rhetorical opening, via the imprecision of language, that creationists exploit whenever they gleefully declare that evolution is “just a theory.”

But the emphatic nature of the collective academy of sciences’ statement should not be downplayed.

It is meant to be strong.

It is implying that a person who does not simply ignore or discount evidence, facts, observation, and experiment in drawing conclusions, need never lose sleep over the thought that one day, over the course of her life, she might find a NY Times front page headline that says: 

Scientists Discover Earth to Be 10,000 Years Old and All the World’s Fossils Deposited by a Catastophic Flood! 

This is not because scientists are in conspiratorial cahoots with the NY Times to conceal from the public the truth, but because the two centuries of accumulated evidence against such a notion is huge, and not likely to be overturned—though it is not, logically or empirically speaking, impossible.

The factive verb established is something that the collective academies’ statement used to assert that a reasonable person is warranted in believing the earth is old and plants and animals change over time—even while staying open to new information.

Likewise, a person who does not believe that the earth is old and that plants and animals have changed over time, may someday be proved “right,” but if they are, it is not because their belief, in the present, has any WARRANT. It is unsupported by evidence, experiments, facts, and observations.

Put simply, the collective academy of science statement is saying, in essence, that if we have discovered something that appears, by overwhelming evidence, to be true, we’ll tell you that, and you can treat it as true. And if we discover something that we thought was true, and yet proves later not to be true, we’ll tell you that too.

Put yet another way: Scientist know what they know about the age of the earth and the evolution of species because they have mountains of evidence to support what they are saying, but they still qualify that evidence by saying, “We could find new pieces of evidence and change our minds.”

By contrast, young earth creationists don’t have serious evidence supporting their view, and yet they are emphatic about their certainty, and are determined, against all evidence to the contrary, NOT to change their minds.  

Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, playing on the factive verb phrase to know, perhaps said it best:

To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Creation v. Evolution Metaphor Watch: Do We “Know” That The Earth Is Old, and That Plants and Animals Have Changed Over Time, or Do We Just Have a “Theory” About These Two Things? The Problem of Factive Verbs.

  1. Ken says:

    I suppose their manifesto had a political aim.

    I wonder if there is any significance to the omission of an affirmation that natural selection, meaning the struggle to survive in the face of limited resources, has been the way evolution has occurred.

    The age of the earth is an important part of the argument that natural selection is the primary agent and sufficient agent.

    I think what many Americans believe is that life has evolved from one or more original species, but I think many are skeptical that natural selection is a sufficient agent or don’t even realize that when scientists speak of evolution they do mean evolution by natural selection.

    Darwin seemed to be quite clear in saying that evolution was not guided by God. I wonder why the scientists who signed the manifesto did not affirm that.

    One can affirm the statements in the manifesto and still believe that God has been part of that slow process of evolution. It is much harder, perhaps impossible, to affirm that natural selection explains how evolution occurred and at the same time affirm a belief that God was involved or even that God is relevant in any way to life or the cosmos.

    Theology has more at stake than creationism. Science has more at stake that the age of the earth. Natural selection is the ultimate critical issue for both.

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