Don’t Blame Fundamentalists for Evolution Controversies

The evolution controversy is getting out of hand. Passions have yet to cool in Kansas, where a 7-3 majority of the state board of education has made evolution a centerpiece of the state’s new science standards. But already there’s another donnybrook brewing in Pennsylvania-also over state science standards.
And that’s not to mention all the lesser scuffles over the last two years in Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

Why does this controversy continue to blaze? The conventional answer is that the controversy is fanned by “religious fundamentalists” who mistakenly believe that evolution threatens their religious beliefs and sense of meaning. As Eugenie Scott, of the California-based National Center for Science Education, put it, “I think there’s often a sense that accepting evolution means losing one’s sense of purpose and meaning, the specialness humans think they have because God personally created them. To them, evolution makes distant the personal, hands-on God they grew up with.”

Although that answer plays well in newsrooms, it overlooks a serious source of conflict: namely, the shabby maneuvers prominent science educators have pulled to advance the cause of evolution in public schools.

Such maneuvers are easily spotted in Kansas’ recently approved science standards. Lauded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) as “a model for other states,” the standards are more aptly described as a model of subterfuge.

For example, the standards state that “natural selection and its evolutionary consequences provide a scientific explanation for the fossil record that correlates with geochemical dating results. The distribution of fossil and modern organisms is related to geological and ecological changes.”

Contrary to what this statement seems to say, the fossil record has always been a liability for conventional evolutionary theory.

According to that theory, species are gradually transformed by random genetic changes that are preserved through natural selection. As changes accumulate over many generations, they may produce new limbs, tissues and organs. Given enough time, organisms may change so radically that they bear almost no resemblance to their original ancestor.

If the theory were true, the fossil evidence should show lots of gradual change, with one species slowly grading into the next. In fact, it should be hard to tell where one species ends and another begins. But that’s not what we find.

As Darwin himself noted, “The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed on the earth, [must] be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graded organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory.”

That problem remains with us today. Most fossil species appear all at once, fully formed, and change very little throughout their stay in the fossil evidence. Several years ago, this situation led noted paleontologist Niles Eldredge to remark, “Either you stick to conventional theory despite the rather poor fit of the fossils, or you focus on the [data] and say that [evolution through large leaps] looks like a reasonable model of the evolutionary process-in which case you must embrace a set of rather dubious biological propositions.”

That problem reaches dramatic proportions with what paleontologists call the “Cambrian explosion,” which began about 530 million years ago. Over a period of only five to ten million years, a flash of geological time, virtually every major animal group (or phylum) appears in the fossil evidence. This is precisely the opposite of what conventional theory would lead us to expect.

So, far from being a bulwark of support for conventional theory, the fossil evidence is something that must be explained away. Of course, the science standards don’t directly contradict this. But the statement is so thoroughly weaseled that you’d never guess how problematic the fossil record really is.

Why the weaseling? Because the science education establishment desperately wants to insulate the science classroom from dissent–and one of the best ways to do that is to deny that there are any problems.

That works particularly well with another maneuver, which is to define this dissent as “unscientific” and ban it from the classroom. Kansas’ new standards do this with flair.

After first defining science as “human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe,” the standards state that if a student raises a question that is “outside the domain of science,” the teacher should respectfully “explain why the question is outside the domain of natural science and encourage the student to discuss the question further with his or her family and other appropriate sources.”

Thus, if a student questions the proposition that all organisms were produced by the blind processes of natural selection and genetic drift, he is politely told to take a hike–no matter what evidence he can produce.

Although such maneuvers may seem clever to the AAAS, NAS and NSTA, the only thing they do is confuse people and stir up animosity and suspicion. That’s hardly a recipe for good science education, or a healthy society.

Let’s bag the maneuvers–and give our kids an honest chance to think things out for themselves.

Mark Hartwig, Ph.D., is a Fellow of Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture.

Mark Hartwig

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Mark Hartwig has a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in statistics and research design. He was an early organizer of the intelligent design movement and for 10 years was managing editor of the journal Origins Research, now published as Origins and Design.