Polls indicate that a substantial percentage of the American public has doubts about the idea of evolution by natural selection. But just how strongly do working scientists believe in this idea? Is there a consensus view and if so, does it differ from the public’s?
One way to address this question would be to actually present the various arguments and evidence that have been offered on the matter. However, these are somewhat complex and nuanced, so this would require quite a lot of training and expertise, which we don’t really have and which would take a long time to acquire. This is a distinct disadvantage, given that time is of the essence, since our primary goal is to influence policy makers to do something before many more Really Bad Things (RBTs) occur. Indeed, many RBTs are already occurring, and the consensus view is that these are completely overwhelming all other RBTs known to arise from all other causes, or at the very least they surely will soon. Careful science takes lots of time, and that’s a luxury we just don’t have I’m afraid. The consensus viewpoint from a wide variety of sources, especially on the internet, is that this is an emergency situation we’re talking about.
A much better approach would be to search the scientific literature with a search tool like the Web of Science, and then have a group of people look for key indicators of scientists’ positions in the papers returned. However, this approach generates quite a huge amount of information, the sheer volume of which must be pared down for sake of tractability. Scientific papers tend toward the long and aggravatingly complex, where various substantive arguments are (sometimes) made and things like that. Some of them just go needlessly on and on frankly, full of graphs and numbers and whatnot. Who’s got time for it?
Abstracts however, and better yet, titles, are much shorter and easier to handle. If one has a key search phrase in mind, one can skim through an abstract quickly and determine exactly what those authors think about the issue, and why, as long as one is willing to make the effort to read between the lines. Moreover, even most scientists don’t read entire papers anyway, except for those few who are unconcerned about affecting policy makers, and who are often frankly quite obsessive as to scientific arguments, “methodologies” and similar pedantry. This is a serious problem, but not one we can address here, although we consider our work a first step in the right direction.
So, onto the results. Our search resulted in 487,629 papers that mentioned “evolution” or “natural selection” in the abstract. However 451,412 of those could not definitively be placed into one of our seven position-defining categories*, no matter how hard we tried with our group of 20 reviewers. [The consensus view among us is that these reviewers are completely independent and objective; their common participation at our web site devoted to presenting pro-selection arguments, but nothing to the contrary, is just not relevant in this case.**]
Of the remaining 36,217 papers, 35,167 (97.1%) supported the consensus position that over half of the observed evolution over the twentieth century is due to natural selection. The fact that only 126 of these 35,167 papers were actually focused on critically evaluating the topic at hand, i.e. the different possible mechanistic explanations of observed evolutionary change and/or speciation (e.g. random drift, founder and other stochastic events, mutation rate variation, instantaneous genetic barriers, etc), is an irrelevant point, a complete red herring. We can reasonably assume that in at least the majority of 50% of the time, none of these 35,167 authors would indicate agreement with a position that they themselves had not carefully investigated, without having more than half of a predominantly pretty good reason for so doing***. It’s just not really half as difficult as people make it out to be when you boil it down. As we have now done. For you.
In conclusion, there is very clearly a very strong consensus as to the influence of natural selection on evolution during the twentieth century and this consensus has been increasing as the evidence increases. It is important that policy makers realize this and take action. Please pick this up and disseminate it widely so everybody knows about it; everyone else is, so you will be part of the consensus effort if you do. Thank you.
* These categories define the level of endorsement of evolution by natural selection. For example, Category 1 entails what we call “explicit endorsement with quantification”. An example of this level of support would be given by the statement : “The evolution during the 20th century is caused mainly by natural selection, especially since the late 1980s”.
**Our methods involved having each abstract read by two people. The consensus view among us was that these people were independent and highly unbiased. Papers on which no consensus could be reached by these two were decided by the consensus opinion of the results of ten coin flips.
*** This basic concept was first elucidated by Hall of Fame baseball star Yogi Berra, who at some point or other is said to have first discovered that “at least 50% of baseball is half mental”. Even Yogi himself did not at that time realize that this concept describes a fundamental property of the universe.