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Darwin's Rottweiler and Dawkins's Dogma

Some call him Darwin’s Rottweiler. A man of slight build, wispy silver hair and round spectacles, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins did not earn the fierce nickname for his appearance. He earned it for his vigorous advocacy of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as indisputable scientific fact.

“We have a war on our hands,” the best-selling author said with characteristic conviction, to open his recent speech at the New York Academy of Sciences. A crowd of about 200 eagerly listened to a chapter-by-chapter description of his new book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution—a book Dawkins hopes will arm the defenders of evolution against those who claim it’s “only a theory.”

The question of whether evolution is a theory or fact is not a mere semantics game. It’s so important to the public, to scientists and to Dawkins himself, that it dominates the first chapter of The Greatest Show on Earth. To emphasize evolution’s certainty, Dawkins’s new book even suggests borrowing the word ‘theorem’ from mathematics—meaning a proven statement—and changing its spelling to ‘theorum,’ thus christening evolution anew.

During the question and answer session at the Academy, a young man approached the microphone to ask Dawkins for his response to a New York Times review of his book. In the review, science reporter Nicholas Wade criticized Dawkins for stubbornly calling evolution a fact, arguing that evolution is—and can only be—a theory. “Because the word ‘theory’ is so wantonly misunderstood by lay people,” Dawkins answered the young man, “we are better off using a word that ordinary lay people actually understand”—the word ‘fact.’
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