anatomy suggests, then an intermediate true fly with four wings should have existed—and in 1976 fossils of such a fly were discovered. Furthermore, geneticists have found that the number of wings in flies can be changed through mutations in a single gene.

Something that happened in the past is thus not "off limits" for scientific study. Hypotheses can be made about such phenomena, and these hypotheses can be tested and can lead to solid conclusions. Furthermore, many key mechanisms of evolution occur over relatively short periods and can be observed directly—such as the evolution of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

Evolution is a well-supported theory drawn from a variety of sources of data, including observations about the fossil record, genetic information, the distribution of plants and animals, and the similarities across species of anatomy and development. Scientists have inferred that descent with modification offers the best scientific explanation for these observations.

Is evolution a fact or a theory?

The theory of evolution explains how life on Earth has changed. In scientific terms, "theory" does not mean "guess" or "hunch" as it does in everyday usage. Scientific theories are explanations of natural phenomena built up logically from testable observations and hypotheses. Biological evolution is the best scientific explanation we have for the enormous range of observations about the living world.

Scientists most often use the word "fact" to describe an observation. But scientists can also use fact to mean something that has been tested or observed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples. The occurrence of evolution in this sense is a fact. Scientists no longer question whether descent with modification occurred because the evidence supporting the idea is so strong.

Don't many famous scientists reject evolution?

No. The scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming. Those opposed to the teaching of evolution sometimes use quotations from prominent scientists out of context to claim that scientists do not support evolution. However, examination of the quotations reveals that the scientists are actually disputing some aspect of how evolution occurs, not whether evolution occurred. For example, the biologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote that "the extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology." But Gould, an accomplished paleontologist and eloquent educator about evolution, was arguing about how evolution takes place. He was discussing whether the rate of change of species is slow and gradual or whether it takes place in bursts after long periods when little change occurs—an idea known as punctuated equilibrium. As Gould writes in response, "This quotation, although accurate as a partial citation, is dishonest in leaving out the following explanatory material showing my true purpose—to discuss rates of evolutionary change, not to deny the fact of evolution itself." Gould defines punctuated equilibrium as follows:

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