"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" In Biology Instruction

Stephen C. Meyer
The Washington Times
July 4, 1996
Print ArticleIn many circles, to question Darwin's theory of evolution is to invite ridicule. Darwinism seems so obviously true that criticizing it is tantamount to saying the earth is flat or that gravity doesn't exist-a sure sign of mental defect.

Nowhere does such certitude reign more vehemently than in America's science education establishment, where substantive objections to Darwinism are deemed unworthy of discussion and viewed as a religious intrusion into the science classroom. California's influential science guidelines, for example, admonish teachers to tell students: "I understand that you may have personal reservations about accepting the scientific evidence, but it is scientific knowledge about which there is no doubt." The skeptical student is advised to "discuss the question further with his or her family or clergy."

Nevertheless, all across the country-from Maine to California, from Virginia to Washington state-school boards, teachers and parents have begun to defy the expertise of professional science educators. Many are now insisting that students to gain access to scientific information challenging the contemporary Darwinist account of biological origins.

Such initiatives have earned scorn from many in the media and the science education establishment. Yet far from threatening science education, greater openness in the biology curriculum is now necessary if students are to achieve scientific literacy and to escape ideological indoctrination.

Current biology instruction presents only half the scientific picture. For example, none of the standard high school biology texts even mentions the Cambrian explosion, arguably the most dramatic event in the history of life. Indeed, fossil studies reveal "a biological big bang" near the beginning of the Cambrian period 530 million years ago. At that time, at least fifty separate major groups of organisms or "phyla" (including all the basic body plans of modern animals) emerged suddenly without clear precursors. Fossil finds have repeatedly confirmed a pattern of explosive appearance and prolonged stability in living forms-not the gradual step-by-step change predicted by neo-Darwinian theory.

Yet students aren't told about these findings. Some science educators justify the omission on the grounds that it would confuse students. But scientific literacy requires that students know all significant facts whether or not they happen to support dominant theories.

Or consider another example. Many biology texts tell about the famous finches in the Galapagos Islands whose beaks have varied in shape and length over time. They also recall how moth populations in England darkened and then lightened in response to varying levels of industrial pollution. Such episodes are presented as conclusive evidence for evolution. And indeed they are, depending on how one defines evolution.

Yet few biology textbooks distinguish the different meanings associated with "evolution"--a term that can refer to anything from trivial change to the creation of life by strictly mindless, material forces. Nor do they explain that the processes responsible for cyclical variations in beak length or wing color do not explain where birds, moths and biologists came from in the first place. As a host of distinguished biologists (e.g. Stuart Kauffman, Rudolf Raff, George Miklos) have explained in recent technical papers, small-scale "micro-evolutionary" change cannot be extrapolated to explain large scale "macro-evolutionary" innovation. Leading evolutionary biologists know this distinction poses serious difficulties for neo-Darwinism. Students should too.

Indeed, students should not only know the strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian theory, they should know about alternative theories, whether materialistic, evolutionary or otherwise. Most importantly, they should know that many scientists do not accept the Darwinian idea that life arose as the result of strictly mindless processes-that many scientists see powerful evidence of intelligent design.

Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, for example, has just written a book entitled Darwin's Black Box (The Free Press) that examines the intricate design evident in the microscopic world of the cell. Behe explains that during Darwin's time the biochemistry of life was as mysterious to scientists as the wires and chips inside a computer are to small children today. As long as scientists didn't know how the biochemical machinery worked, they could reasonably believe that life had gradually self-assembled. Now that we know the inner workings of living systems, however, we can no longer entertain such superstitions.

In one section, Behe examines the complex machinery of an acid powered rotary engine. What does this have to do with biology? Curiously this engine does not power a lawnmower or an automobile, but the propellor-like tails of certain bacteria. Behe shows that this molecular motor requires the coordinated interaction of some two hundred complex protein parts. Yet the absence of almost any one of these proteins would result in the complete loss of motor function. To believe this engine emerged gradually in a Darwinian fashion strains credulity. Natural selection only selects functionally advantageous systems. Yet motor function only ensues after the necessary parts have independently self-assembled-an astronomically improbable event. Behe concludes that a designing intelligence played a role.

The A.C.L.U. and the National Center for Science Education (N.C.S.E.) have opposed supplementary textbooks that expose students to such scientific developments and perspectives. One text written by Professor Dean Kenyon, a prominent evolutionary theorist turned design advocate, has encountered particular opposition. The N.C.S.E. has tried to equate his book, Of Pandas and People, with fundamentalist religion and the discredited "creation-science" movement, despite the book's endorsement by scientists from Princeton, Yale and Oxford.

N.C.S.E. spokesmen claim that any reference to intelligent design constitutes religion not science, since a preexistent intelligence cannot be observed. Yet scientists often detect unobservable entities-quarks, forces, fields, the big bang-from their observable effects. Darwinists themselves postulate unobservable "transitional" organisms and allegedly creative processes that occur too slowly (or too quickly) to be observed.

Others object to presenting design theory simply because it may have religious implications. Yet origins theories often have religious or philosophical implications. The present crop of biology texts makes no attempt to hide the anti-theistic implications of contemporary Darwinism. Douglas Futuyma's book tells students that Darwinism makes "theological explanations" of life "superfluous." Kenneth Miller's book insists that "evolution works without either plan or purpose." Indeed, by denying any evidence of intelligent design in nature, Darwinism promotes an anti-theistic philosophy known as materialism.

The threat of indoctrination does not come from allowing students to ponder the philosophical issues raised by the origins question. Instead, it comes from force-feeding students a single ideological perspective. Rather than censoring Darwinist texts or asking teachers to avoid the origins issue, parents and school boards concerned about anti-theistic indoctrination should now demand full scientific disclosure. Honest liberals will insist on nothing less.