Both extremes wrong in evolution debate
October 17, 2003
Some people think evolution should not be mentioned at all in public schools, while others think any evidence that may contradict evolution should not be allowed.
Both views reflect poor science, and if either side wins, students will lose. Unfortunately, that’s just what might happen in Minnesota.
Although many people view Darwinian evolution as a valid explanation, others have begun questioning parts of this theory.
For example, a growing number of prominent biologists are continually signing on to the following statement: “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.” [In this commentary the term “evolution” refers specifically to Darwinian evolution.]
Written in 2001 to encourage open-mindedness within the scientific community, signers include Nobel Prize nominee Fritz Schaeffer, and author of Evolutionary Biology, Stanley Salthe.
Dr. Salthe adds: “Darwinian evolutionary theory was my field of specialization in biology… I wrote a textbook on the subject thirty years ago. Meanwhile, I have become an apostate from Darwinian theory… biology students at least should have the opportunity to learn about the flaws and limits of Darwin's theory while they are learning about the theory's strongest claims.”
Minnesota is currently setting new content standards for K-12 science education. Committees have written a draft of these standards and, along with Education Commissioner Cheri Yecke, are inviting feedback from people like you at public hearings and through email letters. (See www.education.state.mn.us for information and a copy of the standards.)
I commend the standards committee for its good emphasis on knowledge and the scientific method. However, I’m concerned that some citizens and committee members want Darwinian evolution taught as undisputed fact while prohibiting any critical analysis of this and other scientific theories. This is no less biased than those who do not want evolution mentioned at all. History reveals how such suppression of data actually hinders science, while honest inquiry promotes it.
For example, the earth-centered theory of the solar system proposed by Ptolemy in the first century was upheld as absolute truth for 1,500 years. Unfortunately, bias from the church suppressed the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and others who challenged this theory with scientific evidence. Isaac Newton’s publication about gravity and the sun-centered theory in 1687 finally overcame this bias and exposed the earth-centered theory as dogma, not scientific fact.
Faith in God influenced these latter four scientists’ pursuit of scientific discovery, so their conflict was not with religion but rather with bias against other theories. Those who would forbid any challenges to Darwinian theory are displaying this same kind of partiality.
Instead of answering these challenges with evidence that supports their theory, some defenders of “evolution-only” are taking another tactic – accusing all critics of trying to bring religion into the classroom. However, critical scientific analysis of Darwinian evolution is not religion, and exploration of all the facts should be encouraged.
Such exploration exemplifies the scientific method, which begins with observation and leads to a hypothesis (an educated guess that tries to explain the observation). This hypothesis is then tested, and if test results contradict the hypothesis, it is discarded or revised. A hypothesis that has been tested and supported by large amounts of data becomes a theory. A theory that withstands rigorous testing by many independent scientists over time eventually becomes a scientific law.
All theories and even scientific laws must be tentative. For example, who would have thought Newton’s Laws could ever be contradicted? Yet, Einstein and other scientists found that these laws could not explain certain complex problems. Quantum mechanics became the new guiding principle, though Newton’s Laws are sufficiently accurate for most aspects of daily activity.
The scientific method that has been so instrumental in advancing science requires that all scientific theories and even scientific laws at least be open to further testing. We should not be afraid to question and analyze scientific evidence; data that is valid will stand the tests.
We have the opportunity to set responsible and rigorous standards for science education in Minnesota. We should help students practice the scientific method in all areas of science, including the study of evolution - let’s not encourage them to violate it.
Jean Swenson, of St. Paul, has a bachelor's degree in elementary education with a minor in science, and a master's in counseling psychology.
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