Theories do NOT become laws

Michael Doyle’s post about evolution and students’ acceptance of evolution brings up another misconception about how science works. Many (most) people believe science ideas progress through a hierarchy.  They believe ideas begin as hypotheses, then with some evidence they become theories and finally, when the evidence becomes overwhelming, the idea becomes a law.  Without any hesitation: this hierarchy is WRONG!!!!  The difference between theories and laws has nothing to do with how much evidence supports each.  The difference also has nothing to do with how well the idea is accepted in the scientific community.

Theories cannot become laws because each serves a different purpose.  Let me explain (and yes, this is a simplified explanation). Theories are a set of ideas that help to explain how or why natural phenomena occur.   Laws are usually mathematical relationships that describe what happens.

Perhaps some examples will help illustrate the points.  The Gas Laws are mathematical formulas that describe what happens in the natural world.  For example, the Gas Laws predict with great accuracy that if I double the temperature of a sealed gas (at constant volume) the pressure will double.  This relationship is mathematical and tells me what will happen; therefore, this idea is a law. However, to explain why gases behave this way we must utilize kinetic molecular theory.  The particles of a gas bounce off of one another in elastic collisions (think billiard balls in 3D).  If we double the temperature the tiny spheres move twice as fast and collide with the container with double force.  This double force exerted on the container results in double pressure.

Neither of these ideas (gas law or kinetic molecular theory) is more accepted than the other.  They are both useful for understanding matter.  The theory is not below the law.  In many ways, the theory is more useful than the law because it tells us why something happens, not just that it does happen.

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Now let’s apply this to evolution.  Oftentimes, people dismiss evolution because they believe it to be “just a theory”.  Yet, according to the above, a theory explains how or why something happens.  The explanation is the part that Darwin provided (“evolution” predates Darwin).  Darwin provided a mechanism, a “how” for evolution. Darwin’s theory of natural selection is not a theory because it does not have sufficient evidence, it is a theory because it explains how species evolve.  So evolution by natural selection is not “just a theory”, it is the most empirically supported, scientifically accepted, way to explain how species evolve.

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For those who really want a stretch let me pose some questions:

1) If laws are usually mathematical, does biology have laws other than Mendel’s?

2) Considering that theories are “sets of ideas”, in what way do theories make use of laws?

This entry was posted in Life Science, Nature of Science, Physical Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Theories do NOT become laws

  1. Pingback: Evolution, GOD and complete Chaos - Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Conservatives, Liberals, Third Parties, Left-Wing, Right-Wing, Congress, President - Page 33 - City-Data Forum

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  5. RadThadd says:

    I really like this post, screw what those cavemen believe, they say: “Oh, if you got monkeyzess how you evilve to humanzess nowzah?!”… I respond: “Apparently, life must adapt to its environment, otherwise it will be left behind. You’re living proof of this.”

  6. ben says:

    Explain a theory cannot turn into a law.

  7. Amie says:

    Biology laws. Just guessing but as the chemical changes in photosynthesis are a constant chemical change from water, CO2 to sugar and O2, is that type of thing a law?
    Two sex cells with 23 chromosomes becoming a 46 chromosome person?

  8. Tito says:

    The theory can change. You can come up with all type of theories for why 2+2=4

    Dont confuse/compare abstract theories like evolution to quantum theories which prove to be true every day in the labatory. Theories come in all type flavors. Theoretical chemistry, theoretical biology, quantum theories. These are all different flavors which are rooted in MATHEMATICS. Evolution is not. Apples and Oranges, my friend. Dont confuse yourself other people

    Natural selection is just an opinion since evolution apparently takes over millions of years and we have no steady record from the past. Its all broken up and theres huge gaps in historical evidence. According to modern science we have no idea what it was like before the Ice Age, 12,000 years ago or so.

    Theres evolution within the species, but to think we went from bacteria to fish crawling out the water then morphed into monkeys then eventually turned into humans, that is an absurd atheist joke.

    The theory that Adam was created from clay, blood and fluid sounds more logical than evolution. Adam is from this planet which is 70% water and the human body is also made up of 70% fluid. There is a relation. I can say my theory holds scientific ground and makes logical sense.
    And if you want to be realistic both theories[adam and evolution] sound like fantasy stories..but that is why its called FAITH when you believe in something you cant prove.

    The master of theories who gave birth to quantum mechanics, Nielson Bohr, was a christian. Einstein was a jew. ULTIMATELY the discussion ended with them arguing about what God would and wouldnt do.

    I would highly suggest for everyone to watch a 3 part documentary on the Atom by BBC. Watch the 3rd part to see Einstein and Bohr.

    • RJSparling says:

      Natural selection is a phenomenon that has been directly observed. This direct observation has been within species, and it is the same evolution that leads to speciation. There are no limits to the extent that evolutionary changes can take, so your claim that fish to human evolution is without basis. Additionally, your story about Adam is ridiculous because there was no historical “Adam” and the Adam that you mean is not even a good hypothesis.

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