Should Evolution Be Taught in Schools?

Should Evolution Be Taught in Schools?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Aug. 18 1999 3:30 AM

Should Evolution Be Taught in Schools?

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To me Darwinian evolution (including chemical evolution) is today's alchemy. The alchemists knew they could achieve some chemical transformations, and so they saw no reason to set limits. If you told an alchemist he could not change lead into gold, no doubt he would brush your objections aside as unhelpful, and ask why you weren't proposing an alternative method of transformation. Alchemists were trying to solve a problem that wasn't solvable with the knowledge available at the time. The right way to proceed was to abandon their fruitless research program and learn more about the difference between elements and compounds.

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Similarly, the questions "how did life originate" and "how did a hypothetical replicating molecule become a cell" are unsolvable at present, which is why research into these subjects gets no further than speculation and hand-waving. The interesting agenda today is to discover what life is, especially to understand how the genetic information works in the cell and how much of it there has to be. Perhaps after a great deal more is learned about these subjects it will be possible to formulate better questions about origins.

The neo-Darwinian paradigm is nearing a dead end, despite the money and power its adherents have at their disposal. We seem to agree that the finch beak case is the most impressive observed example of natural selection (practically the only one worth putting in a textbook, it seems), and it involves no creating. There is speculation about what natural selection might have done with the horse leg or whatever, and some of it may even be reasonable speculation, but this is no help in solving the massive information creation problem. One of my colleagues will soon be publishing a book reviewing all the experiments with fruit flies and the like, where geneticists have induced mutations. The mutations produce birth defects, sometimes grotesque ones, but they never turn the embryonic development program in a new direction to produce a new kind of viable organism. If Darwinists believe that DNA copying errors power creative evolution, that belief is based on wishful thinking and not on experimental evidence.

I understand why you think I am being evasive in not promoting my own answers, but I am reticent because I think we need a new research strategy, one that allows all possibilities to be fairly considered, rather than more speculation from me. For the record, I have no particular opinion about the age of the earth and accept for purposes of argument the currently orthodox figure of 4.6 billion years. I guess I would say that the current evidence is most consistent with some continuous or intermittent creation process over a long period of time, with new genetic information appearing from some source unknown to science. Do you consider that unsatisfactory? So do I, but it is far worse to pretend that random mutations and nonrandom death can write computer programs. "It ain't the things you don't know that get you in trouble, but the things you do know that ain't so."

I'll address the fossils later if you like, but at this point I should say something about the grass roots rebellion that's going on in Kansas and elsewhere. People have a sense that the scientific establishment is bluffing them and trying to pass off naturalistic philosophy as scientific fact by pervasive innuendo. I remarked in my review of Wilson's Consilience that Darwinism is like two-platoon football. On the offensive platoon are metaphysicians of science such as Dawkins, Gould, Sagan, Lewontin, Pinker, Dennett, and E.O Wilson. These aggressively promote, in the name of science, a naturalistic worldview that leaves room for "religious belief" only if the religion is obediently naturalistic. When the public questions whether the teaching of "evolution" is the opening wedge for just this kind of philosophy, the defensive platoon at the National Academy goes to work and assures us that "evolution" is mainly about innocent things such as insects becoming resistant to DDT, that "accepting evolution ... does not mean rejecting religion," and that (in the words of the Kansas university presidents), "people can believe in both God and evolution." Sure they can, but do they really understand what the scientists mean by "evolution" if they think God is guiding it?

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The result is that the scientific establishment is creating a credibility gap in two senses. First, the claims for the creative power of the Darwinian mechanism go way beyond the scientific evidence. Second, the science educators are not being candid with the public about the religious implications that are obviously there. People are aware of all this, and they know better than to believe the official reassurances. Over to you.

Phillip E. Johnson is professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of four books on evolution and its philosophy, including Darwin on Trial (click here to buy the book and here for more on Johnson's work).Philip Kitcher is a professor of philosophy of science at Columbia and the author of Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (click here to buy the book).

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Last week, the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove evolution from statewide guidelines and to allow individual schools to decide whether and how to include it in their curricula. Should evolution be taught in schools?

To confirmed believers in evolution, the question itself is upsetting. The Darwinian model of evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology. Critics say that failing to teach children about evolution would leave them ignorant and unprepared. (In this week's Time magazine, Stephen Jay Gould calls the Kansas decision the "latest episode in the long, sad history of American anti-intellectualism.") Furthermore, religious groups should not be allowed to edit the curricula of secular, First Amendment-protected schools to suit their particular beliefs.

Opponents of teaching evolution argue that it conflicts with faith-based belief in the origin of humankind. Teaching children to believe only in what is quantifiable and measurable crowds out their openness to religious faith. The Kansas creationists also argued that recent scientific research casts doubt on the validity of evolutionary theory, and thus opens the debate to religious explanations. "Creationism is as good a hypothesis as any for how the universe began," wrote the Topeka Capital-Journal in an editorial.

How do scientific critiques of evolution differ from faith-based ones? Are scientists just as stubborn as religious conservatives in their insistence on one explanation for the origin of humans? In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that the teaching of "creation science" violated the separation of church and state. Does the Kansas approach do the same thing? And is evolution a theory or a fact?

This week, Phillip E. Johnson and Philip Kitcher discuss these and other issues.

--Jodi Kantor