Those who think the “Intelligent Design” advocates are a bunch of religious whackos show that they have simply not looked into the issues being raised before the Kansas Board of Education.
Regarding evolution, there is much that classical evolutionary theory answers well, and much that it does not answer well.
Evolutionary theory proposes that there are two fundamental engines behind the advancement of species. The first engine is mutation, genetic change that can be passed on. This produces some difference in an organism that can be passed to its offspring, so the mutation must be present in reproductive cells.
The second engine is natural selection. This “selects” mutations that happen to be somehow “beneficial.” The next generation has statistically more of the “chosen” genetic material because the gene provides some reproductive advantage. So those creatures with this gene produce more offspring, whether because of more aggressive mating behavior, resistance to disease, longer life — anything that allows a species with this gene to reproduce more than those without it.
The theory goes that these two engines, over time, have produced all the biological diversity we see around us. Both these engines are absolutely necessary for evolution and work together. A simplistic summary would say that mutations provide the opportunity for advancement, and natural selection “chooses out” certain genes.
So what does evolutionary theory explain well? The concept of natural selection has become so well established by the weight of evidence that anyone who would try to argue against it will be shown foolish. It is impossible to ignore the variation of species over geographical areas, and the recognition that these variations have become established as adaptations to their environment by natural selection.
And where is the problem? It is in the concept of beneficial mutation. Natural selection is powerless if there is no new genetic material to work with. But that’s where, in evolutionary circles, we instantly move from science to faith. In fact, there is no evidence for the existence of beneficial mutations in complex organisms.
With all the biologists observing life on this earth, there is not, at present, even a single example of a variation in a species that is replacing its peers due to some genetic advantage. Secondly, with all the bombardment of fruit flies with X-rays over the last 100 years, no new species of fruit flies has come about which is replacing the ones that have been around for ages. Lastly, looking in the fossil record, you cannot show any two species that have come from a common ancestor.
Now before anyone blows a gasket, it is obvious that mutations happen. Cancer typically results from mutations we do not want. Also at the viral level, changes (mutations) happen regularly. But the leap in complexity from virus to sexually reproductive mammal is too many orders of magnitude to make bold assumptions. In complex organisms, we simply don’t have any examples of this taking place, and the fruit flies are still fruit flies.
The Sickle Cell Anemia gene in the malaria belt is sometimes used as an evolutionary example. It is an excellent example of natural selection taking a broken gene and, due to special circumstances (resistance to malaria,) selecting it out. But the sickle cell gene is not replacing the gene for normal red blood cells in general. When fully expressed, it is clearly not beneficial.
So beneficial genetic mutation lacks any scientific examples in higher species. This is one of the two foundational engines of evolution, and there is no science to back it.
Now this is not to say that Intelligent Design is the New Science. Rather, just like what is already being taught, it is an interpretation which, when applied to available data, provides an interesting perspective.
Still, those who despise Intelligent Design (like Bonnie Erbe) reject it less because they know much about it and more because they are fighting for their own faith in gradual naturalism and religiously refuse to consider evolution’s glaring weaknesses (or because they simply dislike Republicans and their current supporters.)
So teach natural selection. But regarding the means for the advancement of species, we already teach one belief that is completely unsubstantiated. Why not teach two? They explain advancement differently based on differing assumptions (beliefs,) and both present interesting views of the data available. This would truly improve science education by separating facts from the interpretations which can so easily become dogma.
Marty Pomeroy lives in Framingham.