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Science should prevail at the Texas Education Agency
January 16, 2008
Michael Dowd's voice is a welcome addition to the evolutionary landscape. His movement, roughly encapsulated by its slogan "Thank God for Evolution", is a much needed perspective in contemporary American popular consciousness. But its necessity here and now belies the sad condition of our culture.
In 1859, Darwin wrote "I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone. ... A celebrated author and divine writes that 'he has gradually learned to see that it is just as noble conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self development into other needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the actions of His laws.' " (Origin of Species, First Edition, 1859). We may note that Darwin was careful to attribute this view to a third party, and did not embrace the compatibility between theology and evolution himself. However, the metaphysical views of the author of evolutionary theory are largely irrelevant: Darwin's achievement stands on its own merit. As the modern theory of biology, the profundity of its insight and its fruitfulness are continuing sources of inspiration for any one seeking greater understanding, whether they hold religious views or not.
Isaac Newton was also an alchemist, and incidentally held many heretical religious views regarding the idolatry of the Trinity. Many of his metaphysical views regarding the existence of absolute space time that were later abandoned. And in fact, his physical laws of motion and gravitation were revised and or replaced by twentieth century revolutions in physics. This latter fact is sometimes seized upon by postmoderns to support the view that all science is relative, there are no scientific truths. The postmodernist view was originally a perspective of the left, but right wing conservative evangelicals conveniently exploit a position on scientific relativism to cast doubt on evolutionary theory in support of creationism or intelligent design (I leave this irony aside to pursue a larger point).
There are indeed many puzzles and problems for evolutionists to deal with. And the evolutionary "paradigm" (Thomas Kuhn's terminology from his 1971 masterpiece The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) may eventually be overthrown. We see no hint of this as yet, although some sociobiologists no less confident in evolution than Darwin (such as E. O. Wilson) hope for "the crackle of thin ice" (see Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, 1975). But this is all part of what Sir Karl Popper called "the adventure of science." Popper wrote in 1959 "We, and those who share our attitude, will hope to make new discoveries." (The Logic of Scientific Discovery).
These discoveries never come by ignoring our most successful scientific theories. They come by having a great deal of confidence in, say, Newtonian mechanics, gravitational theory, or evolution, and testing, exploring, observing with a precision impossible without these theories, and running up against their limitations. Although evolutionary theory does not presently display any serious shortcomings, the possibility that it may be augmented or overthrown is exciting. And the insight provided by evolution as it stands is profound and inspirational. Darwin wrote "when we no longer look at an organic being ... as something wholly beyond comprehension, when we regard every production of nature as one that has had a long history ... how far more interesting — I speak from experience—does the study of natural history become!"
It is more than interesting. At the exit of the "Splash!" exhibit at our beloved Barton Springs is a quote by American Naturalist John Muir that eloquently captures one of the deeper implications of evolutionary theory: "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." How does this idea render our existence less meaningful? Where is the threat to metaphysical speculation? The only tension is between literal, fundamentalist dogma and enlightened understanding. It is unspeakably sad that we will revisit this debate in the Texas Education Agency hearings on textbook adoptions later this year.
I teach future math and science educators in the well-regarded UTeach program at the University of Texas. A significant minority of students each year are creationists. Their viewpoints are expressed and discussed, and we all have the opportunity to see the stunted vision of biology they represent. I have every confidence that due to the almost heroic efforts of people like Michael Marder, co-director of the UTeach program, and other scientists at UT and around the state, efforts of fundamentalists will be thwarted at TEA. But the effort itself is a detraction. My students, and to my mind teachers generally, are negatively affected by our backward state of affairs. Evolution is taught and will be taught. But it is done so too little, too late, and too defensively. My son is in the eighth grade in public school, and has never been exposed to evolutionary theory. What a shame. One operative term in pedagogical theory today is "making connections." Teaching today is not supposed to be about memorizing facts and theories in isolation, but about seeing connections between disciplines. What could be a better tool for this idea than evolutionary theory? We learn about connections between species and environment, between natural history and organism, between biology and chemistry, between geology and ourselves.
Denying the connections implicit in modern biology goes hand in hand with denying global warming, and hence failure to appreciate evolution is not just bad for education. Finally, evolution is a singular example of a revolutionary scientific idea that a middle school student can understand. They cannot understand relativity or quantum mechanics, or even fully appreciated the revolutionary nature of Newton's Laws. However, by learning evolution early and often, students have the opportunity to share in one of the most dramatic events that can possibly take place on the human stage: a scientific revolution. The fact that we are denying them this opportunity is tragic, and may indicate that our culture is destined for what is as much a part of Darwin's theory as is evolution itself: extinction.
Leon, a lecturer in the department of philosophy at the University of Texas, is the author of "Science and Philosophy in the West."