Grammar and Evolution

"Blue Marble" view of Earth (NASA image)

I don’t believe in evolution.  I teach evolution to my children both explicitly and implicitly.  I choose science and history materials with evolution and  13 billion-year-old universe base.  Like the theory of relativity, quantum theory, and atomic theory, I teach and speak the theory of evolution.  But I don’t speak of believing in evolution.

The following entry for believe comes from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

Main Entry: be·lieve
 Etymology: Middle English beleven, from Old English belēfan, from be- + lȳfan, lēfan to allow, believe; akin to Old High German gilouben to believe, Old English lēof dear — more at love
Date: before 12th century
intransitive verb 1 a : to have a firm religious faith b : to accept as true, genuine, or real <ideals we believe in> <believes in ghosts>
2 : to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of something <believe in exercise>
3 : to hold an opinion : think <I believe so>transitive verb 1 a : to consider to be true or honest <believe the reports> <you wouldn’t believe how long it took> b : to accept the word or evidence of <I believe you> <couldn’t believe my ears>
2 : to hold as an opinion : suppose <I believe it will rain soon>

As a transitive verb (a verb requiring a direct object to be complete), the correct statement would read, “I believe evolution (creationism),”  which isn’t the language I’ve read in the ongoing, often nasty, dispute regarding evolution and creationism.  Perhaps some say, “I believe the theory of evolution (creationism) to be true,” but most often, I see the verb used in the intransitive form, where it cannot take a direct object.  As in, “I believe in evolution (or creationism).”  Note the definitions for believe as an intransitive verb from the Merriam-Webster citation above: to have a firm religious faith, to accept as true genuine or real (such as believing in ghosts or ideals), and to hold an opinion.

Since when did science use words more appropriate to faith and philosophy?  As used in the evolution/creationism debate, belief is used as an intransitive verb.  That’s the type without the direct object, the one defined largely as opinions and religious faith.  That’s not science. 

I don’t know which side of the debate started referring to the holding of scientific theories of the start of life as beliefs, but since I’ve never heard the word used that way for quantum theory, atomic theory, or other scientific theories, I’d boldly guess it wasn’t the evolution folks.  No matter which, it’s the wrong word for the conversation.  Just semantics?  I don’t think so.   The words we choose frame the conversation.  I, for one, commit to keeping this firmly in the realm of science, where it belongs.

Postscript:  For the spiritual side of my musings, visit Finding My Ground.

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7 thoughts on “Grammar and Evolution

  1. Good point! Was this in response to the Facebook group? A lot of my online friends recently joined the “I homeschool and I believe in evolution” group on FB and I didn’t because the wording just seemed wrong. It makes it sound as if we all get to choose what we want to be true. I would have preferred “I homeschool and I teach evolution.”

  2. Great post! I have never agreed with the phrase “believe in” in reference to scientific theories like evolution OR God. If God is there, he’s there. By saying I believe in Him, it’s a little like doubting His existence.

    Then there’s the Terry Pratchett theory of belief: “Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman. ”

    “You can’t believe in Great A’Tuin… Great A’Tuin exists. There’s no point in believing in things that exist. .. If they exist, you don’t have to believe in them… [they will go on existing] whether you believe it or not.”

    “Just because the Gods exists isn’t a reason to go around believing in them”.

  3. I’ve read many secular scientific articles/books with the word belief used. (“Scientists now believe dinosaurs became extinct due…” etc). It’s become synonymous with “think” and “have overwhelming evidence for.” It would be silly to use the word belief for something we’re sure exists, like the postman, but science is ever-changing and for many, an element of faith exists. Not all theories are equal, some have more data backing them up, and despite the overwhelming evidence for evolution, some people still have a hard time accepting it, i.e., believing in it. Eventually that word will drop away from the discussion. Hundreds of year ago people were arguing about whether or not they believed the earth was round, with the Christians saying it couldn’t be true because the bible describes the earth as having 4 corners. No one today “believes” the earth is flat. It’s just going take time.

    • As a transitive verb, the use of believe works, as the definition bears out. As an intransitive (I believe IN dinosaurs), it doesn’t belong in scientific discourse. As a transitive verb (I believe the science of evolution), it’s a better match to scientific lingo, but I don’t see it used that way. I’m objecting to it’s use in the intransitive and don’t want to use that language in the discussion (see my other blog on why I’m not having that discussion). If discussing the theory of evolution with those who hold to a different theory of origins were all about science, we’d never see “believe in”. But it’s not. It’s a potent mix of science and religion, and I won’t go there. Thanks for joining the discussion!

  4. I understand what you’re saying, but most people aren’t aware of this grammar point, and even if they were, they may not be too worried about it. Many may see it as splitting hairs. 🙂 (Being an English-lover and wanna-be grammar geek, I do care, but we’re not in the majority.) And I do understand that you’re saying *you* don’t want to use this language, and I respect and applaud you for it. For some reason, when I click your link, it takes me to my own blog on WordPress.

  5. You’re right. Most people don’t care, but this grammar geek with hold her ground and use appropriate language. Thanks for understanding my point (and that link is fixed).

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