Evolution as article of faith

evolnIn The New York Times, reporter Amy Harmon wrote about a Florida ruling that requires state schools to teach evolutionary biology. Her lede began with the story of a high school teacher who attempted to instill evolution’s principles into his students:

David Campbell switched on the overhead projector and wrote “Evolution” in the rectangle of light on the screen.

He scanned the faces of the sophomores in his Biology I class. Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as fact. His gaze rested for a moment on Bryce Haas, a football player who attended the 6 a.m. prayer meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the school gymnasium.

“If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”

In February, the Florida Department of Education modified its standards to explicitly require, for the first time, the state’s public schools to teach evolution, calling it “the organizing principle of life science.” Spurred in part by legal rulings against school districts seeking to favor religious versions of natural history, over a dozen other states have also given more emphasis in recent years to what has long been the scientific consensus: that all of the diverse life forms on Earth descended from a common ancestor, through a process of mutation and natural selection, over billions of years.

My problem with the story was not Harmon’s presentation of creationism. It accurately summarized creatonism’s tenets and the broader claim that science does not deal in ethics.

No, my problem with Harmon’s story was its presentation of evolution. It posits a scientific consensus on this idea. Is that true? I have my doubts. Three years ago, Michael Powell of The Washington Post wrote a fair minded and balanced story about Phillip Johnson, the father of the intelligent design movement.

Harmon’s story does not address those doubts. Instead, she treats evolutionary theory as a consensus opinion. Her story would have been better had it defined consensus and conceded that evolution is a bit of an article of faith.

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  • Brian Walden

    Overall I enjoyed the article, especially the length of it, but one thing really stuck out to me. Mr. Campbell taught his students this:

    “Faith is not based on science,” Mr. Campbell said. “And science is not based on faith. I don’t expect you to ‘believe’ the scientific explanation of evolution that we’re going to talk about over the next few weeks.”

    Where are the complaints from the people who want to keep science and faith separate? If a teacher who was a proponent of ID made the exact same statement he’d be in hot water. Not only is Campbell committing a cardinal secular sin by making theological statements in a science classroom, his statement is untrue. Yes science and faith deal with different truths, but they are not mutually exclusive. True faith encompasses everything that is scientifically true and cannot contradict scientific truth.

  • Scott M.

    What, they don’t mandate teaching man-made global warning?

  • Robert Welbourn

    “It posits a scientific consensus on this idea. Is that true? I have my doubts.”

    Well, I doubt that you’d find many university biology departments that don’t regard evolution as an integral part of the science.

    And evolution as an article of faith? I don’t think so. The evidence for it is just overwhelming, ranging from palaeontology to comparative anatomy, developmental biology and molecular genetics.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Again, the key question is one that transcends the lab — whether the process of evolution, or gradual change over time, is random and without purpose. That is where the late Pope John Paul II drew the line between science and philosophy. The question focuses on the ability to prove this, to move past faith in the lack of a designer. Reporters have to deal fairly with believers on both sides of that question.

  • http://www.disssentfromdarwin.com Robert Crowther

    There is no scientific concensus on Darwinian evolution. Recently, science writer Susan Mazur reported on a meeting of some of the world’s most prominent evolutionary biologists at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Altenberg, Austria. They were there because “recognize that the theory of evolution which most practicing biologists accept and which is taught in classrooms today, is inadequate in explaining our existence. It’s pre the discovery of DNA, lacks a theory for body form and does not accommodate “other” new phenomena.” (see http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0803/S00051.htm)

    At http://www.dissentfromdarwin.comthere is a list of over 700 PhD scientists who have some doubts about Darwin’s theory. The statement they’ve signed onto says “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

    Learning about both the evidence that supports Darwinian evolution, and the scientific that challenges it is the responsible way to teach and do science.

  • http://joe-perez.com Joe Perez

    News alert to Mark:

    Evolution is not an article of faith.

    TMatt gets it right, though.

    Again, the key question is one that transcends the lab — whether the process of evolution, or gradual change over time, is random and without purpose.

    I agree wholeheartedly. But what does this have to do with how SCIENCE should be taught in science classes in public schools?

    I note that Tmatt is quick to change the subject from the stated purpose of Mark’s post — to claim that reporters are biased if they claim a scientific consensus for evolutionary biology — a ridiculous claim, to the very different subject that science and philosophy are distinct subjects. One can wholeheartedly agree with Tmatt and believe that intelligent design could be taught in a high school philosophy course while disagreeing with Mark’s waste of pixels.

  • http://liberalpastor.blogspot.com/ Jay Steele

    tmatt says reporters “have to deal fairly with believers on both sides of that question.” This is the “fair and balanced” view of a reporters job. There are two sides to every story and it is the reporters job to give each side a chance to tell its version of the story.

    Imagine how Watergate would have unfolded in today’s media environment. A break-in is reported at Democratic offices in the Watergate building. What does the White House think of this? “It’s a shame but we didn’t have anything to do with.” There you have it. He said, she said, who knows what the truth is.

    A reporters’ job is, or ought to be, to ferret out the truth and not worry about being respectful to either side.

    The truth is that there is no controversy among reputable scientists about evolution. There is overwhelming consensus. Evolution lays the groundwork for everything we know about genetics, paleontology, biology, and more. Are there things we don’t know yet? Sure. Are there different ways of interpreting the data we have? Sure. But the evidence supporting evolution continues to pour in, and the knowledge gained continues to drive new scientific discoveries about everything from germ mutation to the discovery of oil.

    It simply isn’t true, Mark Stitcherz, to report that there is no scientific consensus about evolution. Please, we don’t need more “fair and balanced” reporting here at this site.

  • http://notes-from-offcenter.com Drew

    Newsflash – evolutionary biology and its various offshoots have moved way beyond Darwin.

    So what if the article said “overwhelming majority” of scientists? Because that’s absolutely true. This piece seems like semantic hair-splitting in order to make a rhetorical point that is not accurate.

    ID is NOT science, it’s philosophy of science. You can do absolutely nothing with it in the lab and it does nothing to falsify the evidence that a bio 101 student learns regarding evolutionary processes. I do think that more science programs can use more philosophy since that would help students better discern the difference between ID and doing science.

  • Jerry

    Reporters have to deal fairly with believers on both sides of that question.

    I believe that the republican party has sold its soul to the prince of lies in exchange for power. Any story about the republican party must give equal attention to my side of that question. And for what it’s worth there are many that think so. Should a story about the earth should give equal attention to the flat earth society? Should a story about space travel should give equal attention to those who believe that its all lies? Should a story about Easter give equal attention to those that believe He did not die on the Cross but instead survived and moved to India http://www.geocities.com/athens/delphi/1340/jesus_in_india.htm

    In other words: that principle is dumb. There may be many different opinions. There may be only one valid one. It’s perfectly possible to believe in both evolution and God at the same time: “God is who – evolution is how”.

  • Martha

    “Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as fact.”

    Ah – so the students do indeed come from six-day, young earth, strict Creationist backgrounds? Because that opening is a little ambiguous – I was raised to ‘take the Biblical creation story as fact’, insofar as I was raised that “God made the earth and God made the sky/God made the fishes and the birds that fly/Animals, flowers, trees so tall/God made everything, great and small” (flashback to when I was four years old and starting school there, folks).

    However, there was no problem about teaching evolution in Biology class. Not on the part of the nun who taught us, not on the part of the Sisters of Mercy who ran the school, not on the part of the Bishop – no-one.

    Which does make me boggle when I read these kinds of stories – so what exactly *were* the Florida schools teaching in Biology before ‘evolution became mandatory’?

  • Martha

    Liars, idiots, uneducated hicks – my, my, my. The company I’m keeping, eh?

    Not totally convinced by Intelligent Design, since I think that although there are some good objections, way too much is made to lean upon very little evidence, and there’s a lot of wishful thinking and ‘God of the gaps’ style argument. I think BobC, if in a rather heated manner, has hit upon the basic bone of contention – on the one hand, a random, unguided, non-designed process of environmental factors impacting upon organisms, the pressure of natural selection weeding out the ‘unfit’ – a purely materialististic and atheist viewpoint. On the other, creation ex nihilo by God (or gods, or the pixies, or whomever).

    And then there are those of us who think that there need not be a huge disconnect between God who made the universe and all the natural laws therein, and the running of those processes in this fallen world.

    Can evolution (or cosmology, or whatever) prove there is no God? Until we absolutely understand every little nuance, and can see this in action, and can account for every step – no. Does this mean that believers must build bonfires out of “The Origin of Species” and close their minds down? No.

    What I do wish is that the positions would be honestly stated – if you’re plugging evolution in schools because you’re an atheist and think religion is poisonous rubbish, please say so. Don’t make it a lofty battle of principle about scientific truth.

  • MikeT

    “Instead, she treats evolutionary theory as a consensus opinion. Her story would have been better had it defined consensus…”

    How’s this: The vast majority of biologists — you know the people who actually know about biology — accept the Theory of Evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of life we see all around us and how it got to be the way it is. That qualifies as consensus any way you cut it.

    And that’s biological scientists, NOT the dentists, medical doctors, mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists, veterinarians, etc., etc., that make up almost all of the so-called “Dissent From Darwin” list.

    The evolution-deniers cannot attack evolution scientifically and they certainly have no competing scientific theory to offer. Their only tactic is to dishonestly claim scientific controversy where there is none.

  • MikeT

    I’m curious: I’ve tried to post a comment twice and it hasn’t showed up. I think I’ve done everything correctly. So what’s happening?

  • Robert Camp

    There are a few things that need to be cleared up here. The first, and most important, is that it is only out of ignorance or deception that one would suggest there is no scientific consensus on biological evolution. As others have said, and notwithstanding the Discovery Institute’s puny list of (mostly) non-biologists, there is absolutely no question that a strong consensus on evolution is present within the biological academic community. The following are just a few links to sites that demonstrate this consensus (truth in advertising – the last link is an article of mine),

    http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/3201_statements_from_educational_o_9_12_2005.asp
    http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/2712_statements_from_scientific_an_12_19_2002.asp
    http://www.csicop.org/intelligentdesignwatch/teach-controversy.html

    Second, to continue the truth in advertising theme, it should be noted that commenter Robert Crowther is a paid shill for the Center for Science and Culture, the creationist, “Intelligent Design”(ID) pushing arm of the aforementioned Discovery Institute. Crowther makes a habit of misrepresenting both the science and scientists when it comes to evolution, and it’s not a stretch to describe his first sentence as a lie (Crowther cannot plead ignorance).

    Crowther’s misrepresentation of the Altenberg conference is nearly as disturbing. The scientists present there have seen creationist comments like Crowther’s and have decried such deceptive rhetoric. Massimo Pigliucci, the organizer of the conference had this to say in response,

    “Now, did you see anything in the above [paragraph] that suggests that evolution is “a theory in crisis”? Did I say anything about intelligent designers, or the rejection of Darwinism, or any of the other nonsense that has filled the various uninformed and sometimes downright ridiculous commentaries that have appeared on the web about the Altenberg meeting? Didn’t think so. If next week’s workshop succeeds, what we will achieve is taking one more step in an ongoing discussion among scientists about how our theories account for biological phenomena, and how the discovery of new phenomena is to be matched by the elaboration of new theoretical constructs. This is how science works, folks, not a sign of “crisis.””

    There is, however, one sentence in Crowther’s comments that is unobjectionable: his last. Of course since ID is demonstrably not science the sentiment does not mean what he thinks it means, and it further establishes his ignorance of science that he doesn’t understand how discussing where a theory is strong and weak is an integral part of teaching the methodology of science, and it already happens in any effective science class.

    It can only be to the good for everyone to heed Crowther’s call to learn about the evidence. I would only add that one should understand what it is that constitutes scientific evidence, and where that can be found (the peer-reviewed literature).

    “Consider the source” is always good advice.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    To say there’s a consensus around evolution in biology is like saying there’s a consensus around gravity in physics — there may be ongoing dispute over what gravity actually represents (weak force, strong force, whole ‘nother force), but gravity is pretty much a given in every predictive model there is in biology.

    Alternative theories that explain as much or more of reality as observed are welcome at the table — bring ‘em on!

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Hey everyone,

    Please confine your comments to the journalism. That’s all I was trying to do – honest.

    I am no expert on evolution, but the WaPo raised serious, honest questions that the NYT story did not even bother to acknowledge. Can we agree that Harmon of the NYT should not have been so confident about evolution?

    Jerry,

    Come on, my brother from the Bay Area (or I hope you are the Jerry who comments here regularly). My post had nothing to do with party politics.

    Joe Perez,

    My post did not charge, contra your comments, that the reporter was biased. It said, and I maintain, that the reporter should have not expressed absolute certainty about evolution.

  • MikeT

    “Can we agree that Harmon of the NYT should not have been so confident about evolution?”

    No, the question was over it positing “scientific consensus…” Since there IS scientific consensus it is completely justified. Do you agree that there is scientific consensus that the Earth is a sphere or that it orbits the Sun? There are people that believe otherwise; does that throw doubt on the scientific consensus. Are journalists re

  • Brian L
  • http://liberalpastor.blogspot.com/ Jay Steele

    No Mark, we cannot agree. The Washington Post article was about a lawyer who is not a scientist raising questions about evolution. That’s fine, but it has nothing to do with the scientific consensus – that would be among scientists – which is crystal clear about evolution. The New York Times article reported this as a matter of fact, which it is.

  • Jerry

    Can we agree that Harmon of the NYT should not have been so confident about evolution?

    My point was that he should be confident about evolution.

    Jerry,

    Come on, my brother from the Bay Area (or I hope you are the Jerry who comments here regularly). My post had nothing to do with party politics.

    I was using politics as just one example of the absurdity of trying to question something as established as evolution and in trying to cast the situation as being between two points of view.

    I’m particularly sensitive to cases where people try to create a false dichotomy in science between presumed atheistic science and religion where God is presumed to act in only certain ways. To me science including evolution illuminates the beauty and precision of how God’s world operates.

    So if the media is going to report on this situation from a non-science oriented point of view, I want them to include people with beliefs like mine :-)

  • MikeT

    “Can evolution (or cosmology, or whatever) prove there is no God? Until we absolutely understand every little nuance, and can see this in action, and can account for every step – no.”

    Science will never be able to disprove the existence of God (nor prove it, either). Science doesn’t work that way. It is a tool for learning about the natural world. Anything not of that world — the supernatural — by definition falls outside the purview of science.

    Trying to force religion into science or science into religion distorts and taints both.

  • FW Ken

    So Jerry, which evolution are you advocating? When I was a kid, the classic Darwinian model was all the thing, and an almost risque “catastrophic evolution” was proposed. Then they found the KT boundary. oops. There really are issues – purely scientific – with old-line Darwinian theories, as noted in #5 above.

    Don’t get me wrong, I pretty much accept that some sort of evolutionary process occurs; or, rather, that various processes occur to effect changes in biological organisms. As my Baptist Sunday School teacher put it, God created the heavens and the earth. How he did it is an separate issue. Certainly, as a Catholic today, evolution/creationism simply isn’t an issue for me.

    I do have some concerns when teachers present evolutionary theories in a way that undermines the first part of that proposition – you know, that “random, unguided, non-designed process of environmental factors” business as Martha puts it, and I think evolution has become a surrogate issue through which different groups seek control of this society, in this case, through the schools.

    The bottom line is that yes, journalists should be fleshing out the issues around evolutionary theories. They should be able to present the real scientific questions without whackjobs like #10 above screaming “fundamentalist magic!”. They should also be flushing out instances where public school teachers do undermine religious belief.

  • Stoo

    evolution is a bit of an article of faith.

    It’s only an article of faith as much as gravity or quantum mechanics. ]

    Or rather, it’s only an article of faith as much as me assuming the universe really exists and I’m not a brain in a jar is an article of faith. The idea of “faith” becomes a bit of a triviality here.

    Can we agree that Harmon of the NYT should not have been so confident about evolution?

    There’s nothing wrong with being confident about Evolution being the accepted theory that has survived rigourous testing and explains the natural diversity we see. Because… that’s exactly what it is. There’s no serious dissent form within the experts, and no solid grounds for Journalists to question it.

    Other people prefer supernatural explanations and, sometimes, those shou

  • Stoo

    Crikey double post.

    Meant to say that other people prefer supernatural explanations, and sometimes those should be mentioned too depending on the context of the article. But not in the context of accepted scientific competition.

  • Baudrillard

    Can we agree that Harmon of the NYT should not have been so confident about evolution?

    No. A number of commentators here have ably demonstrated that a supra-majority of biologists accept the usefulness of the theory of evolution as a means of explaining numerous and various natural phenomena. The reporter of this particular story stood on firm footing.

  • benjdm

    What I do wish is that the positions would be honestly stated – if you’re plugging evolution in schools because you’re an atheist and think religion is poisonous rubbish, please say so.

    No one does this. Usually, the position is that in a person’s epistemology, science is a primary method of obtaining knowledge about the world. Some hold theology as an additional method, some do not. Of those of us who do not, we still plug evolution in schools because of its scientific support, not because we think religion is poisonous rubbish.

  • Matt

    Can we go back for a moment to the quote brought out by comment #1?

    “Faith is not based on science,” Mr. Campbell said. “And science is not based on faith. I don’t expect you to ‘believe’ the scientific explanation of evolution that we’re going to talk about over the next few weeks.”

    “But I do,” he added, “expect you to understand it.”

    I didn’t particularly appreciate the article’s “heartwarming” science-teacher-confronts-religious-ignorance tone, but in this quote Mr. Campbell espouses exactly the point of view that a science teacher should espouse.

    Science is a method of learning, not a set of tenets to be believed. Within the assumptions of methodological naturalism that underlie science, evolution indeed “has long been the scientific consensus”, and (sorry, Mark) Harmon was entirely appropriate in saying so. Futhermore, there are a number of good reasons why this is true, and the science teacher’s job is to make sure that his students understand that.

    However, what one believes depends in part on how one views the underlying assumptions. Scientific evidence should make some important contributions to that determination, but it is ultimately beyond the realm of science.

  • Stoo

    Yeah, that’s just an unhelpful reaction really.

    We plug evolution because… it’s the established scientific theory and this is science class. Science is about building testable, predictive explanations based on observations of the natural world. That has lead us to evolutionary theory.

    Some biologists do think religion is poisonous rubbish but that’s really not a requirement for the post.

  • http://notes-from-offcenter.com Drew

    “Can we agree that Harmon of the NYT should not have been so confident about evolution?”

    Again, no. It is simply reasonable to be confident about evolution and that is what the majority of comments here are arguing quite correctly. This means that it is unreasonable to give equal footing to other scientific explanations for selection, adaptation, diversity, etc. because they have not been confirmed as valid or true. Indeed, they cannot be substantiated through scientific procedure because such a procedure would confirm that evolution is true! Hence it is treated as fact in the scientific community. Fact. If something is a fact like dropping a ball off a table (see analogy in comment #16) then we can be quite confident of gravity. To say that the reporter should have not been so confident is a sign of ignorance to the evidence in my judgment.

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  • Dave

    I’m afraid we’re losing track of the fact that this reporter was covering the teaching of biology to kids.

    An Australian email buddy and I are kicking around the idea that some of what the physicists call “dark matter” may have aggregated in the Sun and the Earth. This notion might, ultimately, lead to modification of theories of the composition of the Sun and the Earth.

    Are our ruminations going to be rushed into high school geology or astronomy classes? Absolutely not! What kids get in the classroom is an age-appropriate version of the best consensus that scientists in the field can come up with. If they’re interested in the growing edges they can major or minor in the field in college, but that would be a distraction at lower grade levels.

  • Brian Walden

    Matt #28, My problem isn’t with Campbell saying that science is not based on faith. That’s an absolutely correct statement and I agree with your post.

    What bothered me was Campbell’s statement that “Faith is not based on science.” I think I see the difference in our interpretations. I interpreted Campbell as saying “Faith is not based on [scientific fact]” and you interpreted him as saying “Faith is not based on [the scientific method]” The latter statement is obviously true, but I strongly disagree with the former.

    I reacted the way I did because I assumed Campbell was saying that faith has no basis in scientific truth, essentially creating a divide between faith and reason. The “science-teacher-confronts-religious-ignorance” tone of the article, which you noted, may have tainted my interpretation of Campbell’s statement. If he instead meant something similar to your comments, I don’t have a problem with it.

  • Martha

    “Science doesn’t work that way. It is a tool for learning about the natural world.”

    Hallelujah! Testify, brother, testify! Amen! ;-)

    MikeT, I agree totally. That’s why I’m both intrigued and saddened to see stories like this, where the teaching of science is embroiled in a wider controversy about keeping religion out of schools, making it a shibboleth to test the adherence of the officials involved to the self-proclaimed obviousness of the superiority of the rational, scientific mind to the superstitious religionist, and using it as a pretty blunt instrument to promote atheism on one hand and on the other, shrieking about persecution and godlessness and coming across as exactly the kind of caricature of brainless zealots the opposition paints.

    Teach the blinkin’ thing as a module of Biology, using whatever latest consensus is agreed upon; touch upon the competing theories; don’t use it as an excuse to make smart remarks about the stupidity of religion or ‘this proves God didn’t create the world’ and just let the kids go to church or Sunday school or be taught by their parents about religion without needing to weigh in on one side or the other.

  • Martha

    “‘What I do wish is that the positions would be honestly stated – if you’re plugging evolution in schools because you’re an atheist and think religion is poisonous rubbish, please say so.’

    No one does this. Usually, the position is that in a person’s epistemology, science is a primary method of obtaining knowledge about the world. Some hold theology as an additional method, some do not. Of those of us who do not, we still plug evolution in schools because of its scientific support, not because we think religion is poisonous rubbish.”

    Sorry, benjdm, but some people do have that agenda:

    “http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article4485275.ece

    Sir, In her article about episode 1 of my television documentary, The Genius of Charles Darwin, Libby Purves says that I offered the children a choice “as stark as any bonkers tin-hut preacher from the Quivering Brethren shouting: ‘Repent or burn!’ Evolution or God — take your choice, kid! The moment one of them found an ammonite on the beach, Professor Dawkins demanded instant atheism” (Opinion, August 7).

    That is unjust, to the point of outright mendacity, and an insult to any professional educator. It was the creation-indoctrinated children themselves who made the leap: “Evolution = atheism”. I was scrupulously careful not to make that connection in the presence of the children, although I have made it elsewhere, spelling out the nuanced argument in The God Delusion.

    She goes on to say, “OK, he is provoked, as we all are, by nutters. But most believers are not creationists.” I expect it’s true that the few believers Libby Purves meets over canapés are not creationists. But “most believers”? Most believers in Bradford? The Scottish Highlands? Pakistan? Indonesia? The Arab world? South America? Indeed, North America? Polls suggest that more than 40 per cent of the British population are creationists. For the subset who call themselves believers, the figure must be considerably more than 50 per cent. Please don’t say “most people”, when what you really mean is Islington and Hampstead Garden Suburb.

    Related Links
    Richard Dawkins, the naive professor
    Professor Richard Dawkins

    New College, Oxford”

  • Brian

    This was a very well-done article, and it sounds as if Mr. Campbell is a very competent teacher.

    I hope sometime someone will address in an article the relationship between the creation/evolution debate and currents in popular thought. Both hardcore atheists of the Dawkins variety and young earth creationists seem to still be living within an enlightenment/positivist framework. I bet many respectable sources (including scientists and theologians) who would say that this either/or approach is passe, to say the least.

  • Harris

    The missing element in the discussion is that Mr. Campbell was one of the authors of the state standards. This was a case of rubber meeting road — that was the story.

    Read that way, the story is also about how to communicate across some significant cultural gaps.

    Since the story is told principally from the teacher’s perspective it misses the wrestling, doubts, confusion etc. of the the students. We get some of it, but mostly it is the story of the Noble Teacher Bringing Light. That’s one of the great American Stories, but it can push the religious kids to the side. Perhaps this more rounded view would have been a different story.

  • Martha

    And for my positively last comment on this, I think there shouldn’t be any controversy about teaching evolution as part of the science curriculum.

    As I mentioned, I’m flabbergasted that the Floridia Department of Education only got around this year to ensuring it was part of the curriculum in all schools.

    If there are parents or religious bodies who have difficulties with reconciling evolution (and geology) with a strict six-day Creation, it’s up to them to handle the topics with their kids. Certainly, no teacher should – as was painted rather alarmingly in that article – be wary of what they’re going to teach in class because it might scare off students out of the class or get the teacher in trouble.

    But by the same token, the teaching of evolution as part of the science curriculum in schools should not be trumpeted as part of a campaign to overcome the benightedness of superstition by the clear light of science ‘proving’ God is not necessary and hence does not exist.

  • http://notes-from-offcenter.com Drew

    @ Brian #36 It is passe. I am actually disheartened that in 2008 we are re-hashing this late 19th century controversy as if it is something novel. It’s probably best suited for a history course in the framework.

  • Jerry

    So Jerry, which evolution are you advocating? When I was a kid, the classic Darwinian model was all the thing, and an almost risque “catastrophic evolution” was proposed. Then they found the KT boundary. oops. There really are issues – purely scientific – with old-line Darwinian theories, as noted in #5 above.

    Not being an evolutionary biologist, I don’t think my opinion matters. But that’s one of the fun things about science – our understanding about how the world works is always, um, evolving.

  • http://home.earthlink.net/~keitheterin keith

    A lot of comparison here of evolutionary theory to gravitational theory. I’ve seen gravity tested. I didn’t know anyone could test evolution. How is it testable? I would seriously like to know. As far as I can tell it’s just accepted.

  • MikeT

    Keith, here’s a recent but already classic example: Evolutionary theory PREDICTS that there will be transitional forms and PREDICTS that such transitional forms will show a mosaic of old and new characters. You’re interested in how certain fish moved onto the land and led to amphibians. You know that amphibians appear in the fossil record of a certain age. So you PREDICT that the transitional form existed a bit earlier (in this case the Devonian).You PREDICT that the transitional form betwen fish and amphibians lived in tropical bottom-land, with sluggish streams and swamps (in this case Ellesmere Island in northern Canada, which had a tropical climate in the Devonian). So you go to Ellesmere Island and look around for a bit (say five years) and there they are: fossils of Tiktaalik, an almost perfect transition form between fish and amphibians with a mosaic of primitive fish and derived amphibian characters. Exactly as PREDICTED by evolutionary theory. Every one of those predictions TESTED evolutionary theory.

    Don’t believe me? Google “Tiktaalik” and read the details yourself. By all means, read the Creationist websites that have tried in vain to pooh-pooh the discovery, but also read the actual science and make up your own mind.

  • http://home.earthlink.net/~keitheterin keith

    Thanks, MikeT, for that very specific example that gives context for what you mean by “tested.” That helps a lot, really. Are you the MikeT that is friends with BrantH?

  • http://ncseweb.org Josh Rosenau

    Can we agree that Harmon of the NYT should not have been so confident about evolution?

    No, we cannot. To understand why, we cannot “confine []our comments to the journalism,” because the question is about the status of science. To determine what the science is, a reporter could take several paths.

    One could simply quote someone who thinks HIV causes AIDS and someone who doesn’t (Philip Johnson would work here, as well). Oops, wrong topic. I mean, one might dig up a creationist who rejects the mass of scientific knowledge acquired over centuries through a process of careful testing and agreed to by the overwhelming majority of scientists, and more importantly of scientific papers. Either way, one would be doing one’s readers a disservice. The earth is round, HIV causes AIDS, and evolution is one of the best-tested of scientific theories, and remains the foundation of modern biology, biotechnology, medicine, and a range of other fields outside the biological sciences.

    The second path a reporter might choose would be to ask a bunch of scientists what they think, and report the results of that survey. But deadlines being what they are, that’s unrealistic (and besides, science isn’t about personal opinion, it’s about what the data show). So the reporter could go to a resource like Voices for Evolution, which contains statements from every major scientific society that deals with evolution, as well as civil liberties groups, educational groups, and religious organizations, all stating that evolution is good, widely accepted science and that there are no scientifically credible alternatives to it. For instance, the American Institute of Biological Sciences states:

    The theory of evolution is the only scientifically defensible explanation for the origin of life and development of species. A theory in science, such as the atomic theory in chemistry and the Newtonian and relativity theories in physics, is not a speculative hypothesis, but a coherent body of explanatory statements supported by evidence. The theory of evolution has this status. The body of knowledge that supports the theory of evolution is ever growing: fossils continue to be discovered that fill gaps in the evolutionary tree and recent DNA sequence data provide evidence that all living organisms are related to each other and to extinct species. These data, consistent with evolution, imply a common chemical and biological heritage for all living organisms and allow scientists to map branch points in the evolutionary tree.

    Biologists may disagree about the details of the history and mechanisms of evolution. Such debate is a normal, healthy, and necessary part of scientific discourse and in no way negates the theory of evolution. As a community, biologists agree that evolution occurred and that the forces driving the evolutionary process are still active today. This consensus is based on more than a century of scientific data gathering and analysis.

    Because creationism is based almost solely on religious dogma stemming from faith rather than demonstrable facts, it does not lend itself to the scientific process. As a result, creationism should not be taught in any science classroom.

    Therefore, AIBS reaffirms its 1972 resolution that explanations for the origin of life and the development of species that are not supportable on scientific grounds should not be taught as science.

    Or, the reporter could survey the scientific literature itself. This is time-consuming, but would reveal that evolutionary biology produces many testable hypotheses, and that those predictions are tested in fields from paleontology to developmental biology, from the search for life on other planets to the search for cures to deadly diseases. One would find no research testing any of Philip Johnson’s claims, because they are not, in fact, scientific.

    As a wise man once said, there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals. Treating ID creationism as the equivalent of an actual scientific theory is just this sort of inequity, and any journalist who did that would be doing their readers a disservice.

  • MikeT

    Keith, no, sorry. I’m sure there are many MikeT’s.

  • Dave2

    Mark Stricherz wrote:

    No, my problem with Harmon’s story was its presentation of evolution. It posits a scientific consensus on this idea. Is that true? I have my doubts. Three years ago, Michael Powell of The Washington Post wrote a fair minded and balanced story about Phillip Johnson, the father of the intelligent design movement.

    Harmon’s story does not address those doubts. Instead, she treats evolutionary theory as a consensus opinion. Her story would have been better had it defined consensus and conceded that evolution is a bit of an article of faith.

    and later:

    Can we agree that Harmon of the NYT should not have been so confident about evolution?

    This criticism of Harmon’s story is just shocking. It makes sense only if we overlook the fact that the basic tenets of evolutionary biology are the object of rock-solid scientific consensus. It is downright shocking to see a journalist (who may be expected to have some minimal contact with the world of science) who is unaware of this fact.

    tmatt wrote:

    Again, the key question is one that transcends the lab — whether the process of evolution, or gradual change over time, is random and without purpose. That is where the late Pope John Paul II drew the line between science and philosophy. The question focuses on the ability to prove this, to move past faith in the lack of a designer. Reporters have to deal fairly with believers on both sides of that question.

    This marks the third time in a couple of years that tmatt has characterized science as a creature of the laboratory (which overlooks almost all science ever). He also misunderstands the nature of evolutionary biology: just as Kepler’s laws of motion remain silent about discredited alternatives involving angelic planet-pushers, likewise evolutionary biology remains silent about its theological alternatives. And he misunderstands the nature of the ‘flood geology’ / ‘creation science’ / ‘intelligent design’ movements in American politics and religion. Their attack on evolutionary biology does not concern the mere possible involvement of overarching divine guidance. It concerns evolutionary biology itself: its geological timeline, its claims of common descent, its explanations of the complicated structures found in sophisticated animal life and in molecular biology, etc. Indeed, the Biblical creationism so prominent in American culture sees fit to jettison basic geology, astronomy, and cosmology as well.

    Martha wrote:

    Can evolution (or cosmology, or whatever) prove there is no God?

    But it is crucial to separate biology from cosmology, and separate both from philosophical arguments for atheism. Biology, the discipline under fire in American public schools since the dawn of the twentieth century, has absolutely nothing to say about the origin of the universe. And it has nothing to say about the existence of a creator god. Biology studies living things — that’s it! And what gets it in trouble is mainly that its findings contradict enormously popular literalist readings of the Torah.

    keith wrote:

    A lot of comparison here of evolutionary theory to gravitational theory. I’ve seen gravity tested. I didn’t know anyone could test evolution. How is it testable? I would seriously like to know. As far as I can tell it’s just accepted.

    And at this point I might as well sit down and cry. This, a million times this, is why science education is important.

  • Lee Bowman

    There are a few things that need to be cleared up here. The first, and most important, is that it is only out of ignorance or deception that one would suggest there is no scientific consensus on biological evolution.

    … there is absolutely no question that a strong consensus on evolution is present within the biological academic community.

    No doubt, with the Darwinian postulate of natural selection remaining central in the current synthesis. While it’s almost universally been termed ‘fact’, both by the scientific community and the popular press, I predict that its days are numbered. While an adaptive mechanism, and perhaps to produce diversity, it’s role in altering ‘body plans’, and in complex organ and biologic system formation may soon be relegated to antiquity.

    Robert Crowther wrote:

    There is no scientific consensus on Darwinian evolution. It’s pre the discovery of DNA, lacks a theory for body form, and does not accommodate “other” new phenomena.

    Actually there is almost unanimous agreements on the prime mechanism for innovation and taxonomic progressions, that being the selection by natural means of random mutations, resulting in heritable genomic alterations that if beneficial, may become fixed in the population. But the kicker is that this agreement may be more contrived than real, bolstering Crowther’s statement.

    Self Organization, plasticity and an “extended synthesis” are terms that are emerging as relating to the source of biologic novelty, with natural selection taking more of a back seat in the evolutionary process, at least by some of those who attended the Altenberg conference. In an interview with attendee Stuart Newman by Susan Mazur, Newman states [15:58]

    … the forms that you get are not due to Darwinian selection; they’re due to the inherent properties of the system. But, many of those forms may not be viable, that you might get forms due to physical organization … They’ll be a shakeout, some of them will survive and others won’t. So in that sense, the Darwinian mechanism is a kind of culling process.

    It doesn’t create the forms, but it basically determines which ones of them will persist in the world. So there is a role in Darwinian selection. It’s not building up forms in an incremental fashion, or at least by-and-large it isn’t. It’s culling these self organized forms, and just selecting among them.

    He talks about ‘self organization’ starting at [28:55].
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3516772316650379357

    While his statements may raise more questions than they answer, they tend to take away some of the pizzazz from randomness, and tend to make Mt. Improbable just that.

  • Dave

    Keith wrote:

    I’ve seen gravity tested.

    The germane place of gravitation in comparison with evolution is not the commonplace experience of seeing things fall, but the theory advanced to explain it. That theory is General Relativity (aka “the other GR”). GR has been tested at a few points but, for example, one of its basic assumptions, that gravitational influence moves at the speed of light, has never been put to the test. Yet there is no religious-based movement trying to shoehorn alternatives into public education.


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