Category Archives: Science

‘God intended it as a disposable planet’: meet the US pastor preaching climate change denial

Grace Community Church Worship.jpg
Service at Grace Community Church. Lukasinia own work via Wikipedia

Every so often you come across a piece of writing so extraordinary that you cannot help but share it. One such piece is a sermon on global warming by American pastor John MacArthur. Full of beautifully constructed rhetorical flourishes, it is forcefully delivered by an experienced and impassioned preacher to a large and appreciative audience.

For me, as a man of science, it is the most complete compilation of unsound arguments, factual errors and misleading analogies as I have seen in discussions of this subject. But it’s important because climate change is a big election issue this November in the US, where there is a growing movement of evangelical Christians who deny its existence, while Joe Biden promises a “clean air revolution”.


Read more: Faith and politics mix to drive evangelical Christians’ climate change denial


The minister of the COVID-denying, law-defying Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California – which has encouraged worshippers to congregate as normal despite state COVID-19 restrictions – MacArthur is an impressive figure whose Study Bible has sold almost 2 million copies.

He regards the infallibility of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as essential to his faith, and his sermon about global warming can only be understood in that context. MacArthur’s rejection of the science is shared by other major US ministries and organisations such as Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International and the Discovery Institute.

In this sermon, MacArthur paraphrases “a scientist at Cal Tech” (except not a scientist at all, but the novelist Michael Crichton, best known for Jurassic Park), as saying in a lecture:

Consensus science is the first refuge of scoundrels … invoked only in situations where there is a political, social, financial agenda but no scientific support.

The reverend has the most serious reasons possible for rejecting the scientific consensus concerning the age of the Earth, the origins of humankind, the history and prehistory of the ancient near East and the peopling of continents: it is totally incompatible with the Genesis account of creation, Adam and Eve, the flood and the dispersion of peoples from the Tower of Babel.

Error, denial and misunderstanding

As for global warming itself, the reverend channels standard climate change denial, but all his arguments are unsound and have been convincingly refuted to the satisfaction of an overwhelming consensus of climate scientists (see in-depth discussion at Skeptical Science). He understates the amount of global warming, incorrectly describes the full record as dating back only 30 years, and cites the Little Ice Age as evidence that the changes currently taking place are natural. There’s more:

Here’s the key, friends, this is the real deal. Legitimate science recognises a close correlation between sunspots and climate change … The sun is the source of temperature changes because of its infrared variations. … There is absolutely no evidence that CO₂ contributes to warming. On the contrary the opposite is true. Warming produces CO₂ … It’s the other way round.

Here we have a collection of half-truths and misunderstandings, typical of denialists claiming to represent “legitimate science”. As the graph below shows, the 11-year sunspot cycle is a minor deviation, and the temperature increase since 1980 has occurred despite the fact that over that period the amount of solar energy falling on Earth has gone down slightly. Incidentally, this solar energy input is concentrated mainly in the visible, not the infrared, region of the spectrum, and it is the roughly balancing heat outflow from the Earth that is in the infrared.

Graph showing global temperature change between 1980 and 2015
NASA, Author provided

MacArthur offers a false dichotomy between saying that CO₂ warms the oceans, and warmer oceans release more CO₂. Unfortunately, both these statements are true. There is a positive feedback loop: human-released CO₂ is the primary driver, but its effect is amplified by the fact that yet more CO₂ is then released from non-human sources. Regarding CO₂ itself, MacArthur seems to be even more confused:

By the way, plants produce CO₂. What man produces is marginal … Industry doesn’t affect CO₂ in the environment or atmosphere.

Plants do produce CO₂ but they absorb more than they emit. However, when it comes to humans, their activity may cause only a small imbalance each year between CO₂ emission and natural uptake, but this imbalance is cumulative. CO₂ levels are now 50% above pre-industrial, and subtle atomic differences clearly show that fossil fuel is the source. But according to MacArthur, “There is no scientific reason to believe that ice caps are melting”.

Despite the Arctic Monitoring and Assement Programme’s video on this subject, the reverend does not think that the evidence for ice-cap melting is scientific, and that other factors are at play:

This is all political [and] financial agendas, class warfare, class envy … By the way, US$100 billion has been spent to make a case for global warming … driven by the socialist mentality … even some of the feminist mentality that resents male success.

All is now clear. Talk of global warming is part of a politically motivated conspiracy. But US$100 billion? That’s 600 years’ worth of all federal climate research spending. Clearly, those pesky socialists and feminists are formidable fundraisers. However, none of this matters because environmentalism is fundamentally misplaced. As MacArthur puts it, citing Revelation and the integrity of scripture:

God intended us to use this planet, to fill this planet for the benefit of man. Never was it intended to be a permanent planet. It is a disposable planet. Christians ought to know that.

And that is a statement that would leave anybody who cares about this world speechless.

This piece first appeared in The Conversation, where it has had over 300,000 reads. I thank my editor there, Jane Wright, for many helpful suggestions.

Undark: In Social Insects, Researchers Find Hints for Controlling Disease

Repost from UndarK:

In Social Insects, Researchers Find Hints for Controlling Disease

July 22, 2020 by Michael Schulson

Given that she infects ant colonies with deadly pathogens and then studies how they respond, one might say that Nathalie Stroeymeyt, a senior lecturer in the school of biological sciences at the University of Bristol in the U.K., specializes in miniature pandemics. The tables turned on her, however, in March: Covid-19 swept through Britain, and Stroeymeyt was shut out of her ant epidemiology lab. The high-performance computers she uses to track ant behavior sat idle, and only a lab technician — deemed an essential worker — was permitted to tend to the lab’s hundreds of black garden ant colonies, each housed in its own plastic tub.

With governments across the world now encouraging people to maintain space between one another to prevent the spread of the virus, Stroeymeyt drew parallels with her insect subjects. The current guidance on social distancing “rung familiar,” Stroeymeyt said, “because I’ve been seeing it among the ants.”

Such insights are at the heart of a burgeoning field of insect research that some scientists say could help humans imagine a more pandemic-resilient society. As with humans, fending off Read the rest of this entry

What does Mt St Helens teach us about Noah’s flood? Almost nothing.

CanyonGoogleEarthYoung Earth Creationists (YECs) argue from the rapid and dramatic events observed at the Mt St Helens 1980 eruption to the conclusion that the Earth’s geological record, as displayed for example at the Grand Canyon, could be the results of the even more dramatic events associated with a biblical worldwide flood. Geochristian, in the post I link to below, dismantles specific examples of this claim, and goes on to challenge the view that the Bible describes Noah’s Flood as a worldwide catastrophe anyway. Illustration: Step Canyon, Mt St Helens; Google Earth via Geochristian

Regarding geology, the YEC arguments derive their rhetorical power from the all-or-nothing thinking that runs through all their positions. They claim that Mt St Helens demonstrates the correctness of catastrophism over geological gradualism. If all this much can happen so quickly, why assume that the Earth’s deep geology really required deep time? If the flowing ash and mud from Mt St Helen’s shows lamination and cross bedding, does that not destroy the geologist’s argument that the lamination and cross bedding of shales and sandstones are the result of slow deposition? If in a matter of days snowmelt carved a canyon in the Mt St Helens deposits, would not the waters of a year-long flood have sufficed to carve out the Grand Canyon? If the Mt St Helens eruption rapidly uprooted and re-deposited large number of trees, could not the Earth’s fossil fuel deposits have been formed in the same manner?

Geochristian discusses each of these claims in detail (spoiler; none of them will stand up to examination). What I want to point out here is how much they all have in common. They all depend on imposing absolute either/or divisions on reality, cherry picking similarities and ignoring differences, and imposing the simplest of models on complex reality. The dispute between catastrophism and gradualism, although repeatedly revived by creationists (see e.g. here https://www.allaboutcreation.org/catastrophism-versus-uniformitarianism-faq.htm ) was pronounced dead by TH Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog”,in his Presidential Address to the Geological Society in 1869 https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/SM3/GeoAd69.html. It’s simply a matter of perspective. Catastrophic events do happen from time to time, but not very often, giving the impression of gradualism over long periods of time. Cross bedding can occur catastrophically, in well-understood special circumstances, but geologists have never had any difficulty in distinguishing between what is found in sudden volcanic outpourings and the completely different wind-blown cross bedding observed in desert sandstones, including ironically the Coconino Sandstone within the Grand Canyon itself. Canyons such as Mt St Helens Step Canyon can indeed form very rapidly in uncompacted sediments, but the Step Canyon is straight, and carved on a steep slope through soft debris, while Grand Canyon has bends and is carved through extremely hard rock by a river flowing over a plateau with, overall, a gentle gradient. And the tree debris from Mt St Helens bears no resemblance, either in texture or in amount, to the world’s coal fields.

Next, Geochristian attacks the YEC interpretation of Genesis. In particular, the word “eretz”, describing the territory immersed in the flood, can mean either the Earth, or a more limited region. Here his motivation is to preserve faith in the text, while rebutting the interpretation that requires the flood to be worldwide. My own approach would be rather different. In the biblical narrative, God sets out to destroy mankind, apart from the virtuous relic represented by Noah and his family. This could hardly have been accomplished by a merely local flood, though one could well argue that the author(s) of Genesis did not make a clear mental distinction between local and worldwide. However, the entire problem disappears if you regard the Genesis narrative (or, rather, fused narratives) in context within a much more ancient Mesopotamian literature, and I argue https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2018/11/12/noahs-flood-and-how-to-talk-to-creationists-about-it/ that this is actually more respectful of the text than supernaturalist literalism. However, in my experience discussions between those who do, and those who do not accept a supernatural origin for Scripture are rarely productive.

So why I am I, an unbeliever, re-blogging Geochristian’s material at all? Because as I see it, the crucial gulf is not between religious believers and unbelievers, but between those who are willing to accept reality in all its complexity, and those who prefer to impose their own dogma. And this does not affect only such matters as evolution and the age of the Earth, but such intensely practical matters as conservation, global warming, the regulation of market-based economies, and, right now, our reaction to one particular virus that happens to have mutated and evolved.
h/t Michael Roberts https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2020/05/19/what-does-mt-st-helens-teach-us-about-noahs-flood-almost-nothing/

 

 

 

GeoChristian

All I got from Mt St Helens (MSH) in the days following its May 18, 1980 eruption was a few pretty sunsets. I was an undergraduate student in my first year at the University of Utah, and most of the ash cloud passed far north of Salt Lake City. MSH became more significant for me a few years later as a geology graduate student at Washington State University, where my research project involved analysis and correlation of Cascade Range tephra (volcanic ash) layers buried at various levels in the Quaternary Palouse Loess of eastern Washington. Some of these tephra layers correlated to ancient eruptions of MSH, dated around 13,000 and 36,000 years ago.

Fortieth Anniversary

img571_900w_889h Credit: USGS, Robert Krimmel, public domain

Due in part to easy accessibility, the 1980 eruptions of MSH have been studied more closely than just about any other explosive volcanic eruption in history. Geologists have learned…

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Where rocks touch: geologic contacts

Another delightful posting from my friend Marli Miller.Thanks, Marli. I’ve blogged here earlier myself about the famous unconformity at Siccar Point, and the depositional contact at the Giants Causeway between a later lava flow, and the paleosol formed by weathering of the one before it.

geologictimepics

Geologic contacts are the surfaces where two different rocks touch each other –where they make contact. And there are only three types: depositional, intrusive, or fault. Contacts are one of the basic concerns in field geology and in creating geologic maps –and geologic maps are critical to comprehending the geology of a given area. For those of you out there who already know this stuff, I’ll do my best to spice it up with some nice photos. For those of you who don’t? This post is for you!

Depositional contacts are those where a sedimentary or volcanic rock was deposited on an older rock (of any type). Intrusive contacts are those where igneous rocks intrude older rock (of any type). Fault contacts are… faults! –surfaces where two rocks of any type have moved into their current positions next to each other along a fault.

In a cross-sectional sketch they may…

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Some Assembly Required, Neil Shubin (review) [Long]

Some Assembly Required, Neil Shubin, Pantheon/Penguin Random House, March 2020, ISBN 978-1101871331, publisher’s price HB $26.95, £20.72. Publication date March 17

A shorter version of this review has appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.

This book will be of interest to anyone who is interested in the way in which evolution actually proceeds, and the insights that we are now gaining into the genome, which controls the process. The author, Neil Shubin, has made major contributions to our understanding, using in turn the traditional methods of palaeontology and  comparative anatomy, and the newer methods of molecular biology that have emerged in the last few decades. He is writing about subject matter that he knows intimately, often describing the contributions of scientists that he knows personally. Like Shubin’s earlier writings, the book is a pleasure to read, and I was not surprised to learn here that Shubin was a teaching assistant in Stephen Jay Gould’s lectures on the history of life.

Shubin is among other things Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. He first came to the attention of a wider public for the discovery of Tiktaalik, completing the bridge between lungfish and terrestrial tetrapods, and that work is described and placed in context in his earlier book, Your Inner Fish. The present volume is an overview, from his unique perspective, of our understanding of evolutionary change, from Darwin, through detailed palaeontological studies, and into the current era of molecular biology, a transition that, as he reminds us, parallels his own intellectual evolution.

18 March 2020, this just in:  https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/18/world/fish-finger-fossil-scn/index.html Fish finger fossils show the beginnings of hands; The researchers analyzed the fin to determine its skeletal structure.

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Evolution goes viral! (And how real science works)

I have just one good thing to say about Behe’s book: the rebuttals have introduced me to some splendid science, such as this: a four-mutation sequence with enhanced function at each step, refuting all three of Behe’s arguments; and reproducible!

Telliamed Revisited

This is the fourth in a series of posts about a new book by Michael Behe, Darwin Devolves. Behe is a leading proponent of intelligent-design creationism (IDC), which asserts that known processes cannot adequately account for evolution and, therefore, some intelligent agent must be involved in the process. Behe is a professor of biochemistry, which gives him knowledge and credentials that most IDC advocates do not have. However, my posts explain why I think his logic is unsound and his evidence weak and biased.

In brief, Behe argues that random mutation and natural selection are almost entirely degradative forces that break or blunt the various functions encoded by genes, producing short-term advantages that are so pervasive that they prevent constructive adaptations, which he claims are very unlikely to emerge in the way that evolutionary biologists have proposed. Unlike young-Earth creationists, Behe accepts the descent of living species from common…

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Darwin does devolve. Sometimes. So what?

“[T]here is in fact nothing that can alleviate that fatal flaw in Darwinism” says Professor Behe, stating the book’s central claim in the mendaciously mislabelled creationist web journal Evolution News.

The claim is clickbait, the book title misleading, and the argument long since rebutted. The historical roots of the argument show the close links between what now calls itself Intelligent Design, and biblically inspired “creation science”. The issues are important because the Intelligent Design movement gives a veneer of intellectual respectability to the denial of scientific reality. Read the rest of this entry

Can we trust radiocarbon dating? Update; full paper available

Full paper cited here now publicly available at
https://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2018/PSCF6-18Davidson.pdf

Primate's Progress

Willard Frank Libby, inventor of the method

Can we trust radiocarbon dating? Young Earth creationists tell us that we can’t. After all, it makes the same range of assumptions as other radiometric dating methods, and then some. Other methods benefit from internal checks or duplications, which in the case of radiocarbon dating are generally absent. There are numerous cases where it appears to give absurdly old ages for young material, while apparent ages of a few tens of thousands of years are regularly reported for material known on other evidence to be millions of years old. So can the Young Earth creationist1 objections be rebutted, and if so how?

The principle of radiometric dating is simple.2 If we know how much of a particular radioactive substance was present when a material formed, how much is still there, and

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Teaching evolution in Kentucky, 2: The Case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The thing about teaching is we are never sure we are making a difference.

Jim Krupa takes evolution as his central theme when he teaches biology to non-majors at the University of Kentucky, where the students are most unlikely to have heard about evolution in school, but may well have been warned about its wickedness in church. With his permission, I am posting an article that he wrote in Orion Magazine describing his experiences. The first part dealt with the challenges he faces. This second part describes his response, which centres on a discussion of the nature of scientific reasoning, followed by the case study (described in greater detail[1]in’s American Biology Teacher), and concludes with a discussion of outcomes. Notice how many misconceptions Jim demolishes on the way, including confusion about the  role of theory in science, the curious but widespread belief that evolution science is without practical application, and (particularly important in his local context) the claim that accepting evolution is incompatible with religion.

Jim teaches, and touches the lives of, 1800 students a year – enough, over time, to flip a good few school districts and make a real difference to the cultural climate of the State. And we can be sure that his students will have plenty to talk about with their friends.

Defending Darwin (continued)

By James Krupa

Ivorybill

The (now-extinct) Ivory-build Woodpecker, central to Prof Krupa’s case study

ONCE I LAY DOWN the basics of science, I introduce the Darwinian theories of evolution. Charles Darwin was by no means the first or only to put forth evolution; others came before him including his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who wrote about descent with modification. Later, while Charles was amassing evidence in England for natural selection, one of the most eloquent scientific theories ever, Alfred Russel Wallace was also developing the same theory during his travels in Indonesia. But it was Charles Darwin alone who advanced the theory of descent with modification, with his bold idea that all species belong to the same tree of life and thus share a common ancestor. He also gave us sexual selection theory, which explains how evolution is shaped by competition for mates as well as choice of mates. Too often only natural selection and descent with modification are emphasized in introductory biology classes. I also cover Darwin’s theories of gradualism (including the nuance of punctuated equilibrium); descent from a common ancestor; multiplication of species; and sexual selection. I emphasize that five of the theories explain the patterns of evolution, while natural and sexual selection are the mechanisms that drive evolution. Read the rest of this entry

Teaching evolution to creationists in Kentucky (by one who does it for a living)

Evolution and scientific logic lie at the heart of Prof Jim Krupa’s award-winning biology course at the University of Kentucky, conveyed by a mixture of story-telling, the Socratic method, and student engagement in a case study close to his heart as a naturalist. Jim has kindly agreed to let me post his article in Orion Magazine. The first part (here) describes the  hostile cultural environment in which he is working, why evolution is at the core of his teaching, and how he begins his course by clearing away semantic nonsense, and analysing the concept of scientific theory.

You will find more detail about this in one of his articles in The American Biology Teacher [1]. Jim uses the National Academies definition of a scientific theory as well-attested by observation, but, as he explains there, he is well aware of its limitations, and  anatomises “the” theory of evolution into its separate independent components, before bringing them to bear on the case study that I will be describing the second part of this two-part series.

Defending Darwin

By James Krupa

I’M OFTEN ASKED what I do for a living. My answer, that I am a professor at the University of Kentucky, inevitably prompts a second question: “What do you teach?” Responding to such a question should be easy and invite polite conversation, but I usually brace for a negative reaction. At least half the time the person flinches with disapproval when I answer “evolution,” and often the conversation simply terminates once the “e-word” has been spoken. Occasionally, someone will retort: “But there is no evidence for evolution.” Or insist: “It’s just a theory, so why teach it?”

File:WilliamtyounglibraryUK.JPG

University of Kentucky library building

At this point I should walk away, but the educator in me can’t. I generally take the bait, explaining that evolution is an established fact and the foundation of all biology. If in a feisty mood, I’ll leave them with this caution: the fewer who understand evolution, the more who will die. Sometimes, when a person is still keen to prove me wrong, I’m more than happy to share with him an avalanche of evidence demonstrating I’m not.

Some colleagues ask why I bother, as if I’m the one who’s the provocateur. I remind them that evolution is the foundation of our science, and we simply can’t shy away from explaining it. We don’t avoid using the “g-word” when talking about gravitational theory, nor do we avoid the “c-word” when talking about cell theory. So why avoid talking about evolution, let alone defending it? After all, as a biologist, the mission of advancing evolution education is the most important aspect of my job.

an institution steeped in the history of defending evolution education

TO TEACH EVOLUTION at the University of Kentucky is to teach at an institution steeped in the history of defending evolution education. The first effort to pass an anti-evolution law (led by William Jennings Bryan) happened in Kentucky in 1921. It proposed making the teaching of evolution illegal. The university’s president at that time, Frank McVey, saw this bill as a threat to academic freedom. Three faculty members—William Funkhouser, a zoologist; Arthur Miller, a geologist who taught evolution; and Glanville Terrell, a philosopher—joined McVey in the battle to prevent the bill from becoming law. They put their jobs on the line. Through their efforts, the anti-evolution bill was defeated by a forty-two to forty-one vote in the state legislature. Consequently, the movement turned its attention toward Tennessee.

File:Funkhouser building.jpg

The Funkhouser building. Funkhouser, then Professor of Zoology, was among those who successfully campaigned against a 1921 State bill that wold have made the teaching of evolution illegal.

John Thomas Scopes was a student at the University of Kentucky then and watched the efforts of his three favorite teachers and President McVey. The reason the “Scopes Monkey Trial” occurred several years later in Dayton, Tennessee—where Scopes was a substitute teacher and volunteered to be prosecuted—was in good part due to the influence of his mentors, particularly Funkhouser. As Scopes writes in his memoir, Center of the Storm: “Teachers rather than subject matter rekindled my interest in science. Dr. Funkhouser . . . was a man without airs [who] taught zoology so flawlessly that there was no need to cram for the final examination; at the end of the term there was a thorough, fundamental grasp of the subject in bold relief in the student’s mind, where Funkhouser had left it.”

I was originally reluctant to take my job at the university when offered it twenty years ago. It required teaching three sections of non-majors biology classes, with three hundred students per section, and as many as eighteen hundred students each year. I wasn’t particularly keen on lecturing to an auditorium of students whose interest in biology was questionable given that the class was a freshman requirement.

Then I heard an interview with the renowned evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson in which he addressed why, as a senior professor—and one of the most famous biologists in the world—he continued to teach non-majors biology at Harvard. Wilson explained that non-majors biology is the most important science class that one could teach. He felt many of the future leaders of this nation would take the class, and that this was the last chance to convey to them an appreciation for biology and science. Moved by Wilson’s words, and with the knowledge that William Funkhouser once held the job I was now contemplating, I accepted the position. The need to do well was unnerving, however, considering that if I failed as a teacher, a future Scopes might leave my class uninspired.

I quickly came to the conclusion that, since evolution is the foundation upon which all biology rests, it should be taught at the beginning of a course, and as a recurring theme throughout the semester.

I realized early on that many instructors teach introductory biology classes incorrectly. Too often evolution is the last section to be taught, an autonomous unit at the end of the semester. I quickly came to the conclusion that, since evolution is the foundation upon which all biology rests, it should be taught at the beginning of a course, and as a recurring theme throughout the semester. As the renowned geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” In other words, how else can we explain why the DNA of chimps and humans is nearly 99 percent identical, and that the blood and muscle proteins of chimps and humans are nearly identical as well? Why are these same proteins slightly less similar to gorillas and orangu­tans, while much less similar to goldfish? Only evolution can shed light on these questions: we humans are great apes; we and the other great apes (gibbons, chimps, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans) all evolved from a common ancestor.

Soon, every topic and lecture in my class was built on an evolutionary foundation and explained from an evolutionary perspective. My basic biology for non-majors became evolution for non-majors. It didn’t take long before I started to hear from a vocal minority of students who strongly objected: “I am very offended by your lectures on evolution! Those who believe in creation are not ignorant of science! You had no right to try and force evolution on us. Your job was to teach it as a theory and not as a fact that all smart people believe in!!” And: “Evolution is not a proven fact. It should not be taught as if it is. It cannot be observed in any quantitative form and, therefore, isn’t really science.”

We live in a nation where public acceptance of evolution is the second lowest of thirty-four developed countries, just ahead of Turkey. Roughly half of Americans reject some aspect of evolution, believe the earth is less than ten thousand years old, and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Where I live, many believe evolution to be synonymous with atheism, and there are those who strongly feel I am teaching heresy to thousands of students. A local pastor, whom I’ve never met, wrote an article in The University Christian complaining that, not only was I teaching evolution and ignoring creationism, I was teaching it as a non-Christian, alternative religion.

There are students who enroll in my courses and already accept evolution. Although not yet particularly knowledgeable on the subject, they are eager to learn more. Then there are the students whose minds are already sealed shut to the possibility that evolution exists, but need to take my class to fulfill a college requirement. And then there are the students who have no opinion one way or the other but are open-minded. These are the students I most hope to reach by presenting them with convincing and overwhelming evidence without offending or alienating them.

a question I’ve heard many times: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”

Some students take offense very easily. During one lecture, a student asked a question I’ve heard many times: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” My response was and is always the same: we didn’t evolve from monkeys. Humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor. One ancestral population evolved in one direction toward modern-day monkeys, while another evolved toward humans. The explanation clicked for most students, but not all, so I tried another. I asked the students to consider this: Catholics are the oldest Christian denomination, and so if Protestants evolved from Catholics, why are there still Catholics? Some students laughed, some found it a clarifying example, and others were clearly offended. Two days later, a student walked down to the lectern after class and informed me that I was wrong about Catholics. He said Baptists were the first Christians and that this is clearly explained in the Bible. His mother told him so. I asked where this was explained in the Bible. He glared at me and said, “John the Baptist, duh!” and then walked away.

a biology colleague asked … if I would be teaching evolution as a theory or a fact.

To truly understand evolution, you must first understand science. Unfortunately, one of the most misused words today is also one of the most important to science: theory. Many incorrectly see theory as the opposite of fact. The National Academy of Sciences provides concise definitions of these critical words: A fact is a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it; a theory is a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence generating testable and falsifiable predictions.

In science, something can be both theory and fact. We know the existence of pathogens is a fact; germ theory provides testable explanations concerning the nature of disease. We know the existence of cells is a fact, and that cell theory provides testable explanations of how cells function. Similarly, we know evolution is a fact, and that evolutionary theories explain biological patterns and mechanisms. The late Stephen Jay Gould said it best: “Evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.”

Theory is the most powerful and important tool science has, but nonscientists have perverted and diluted the word to mean a hunch, notion, or idea. Thus, all too many people interpret the phrase “evolutionary theory” to mean “evolutionary hunch.”

Not surprisingly, I spend the first week of class differentiating theory from fact, as well as defining other critical terms. But I’m appalled by some of my colleagues who, despite being scientists, do not understand the meaning of theory. As I was preparing to teach a sophomore evolution class a few years ago, a biology colleague asked how I was going to approach teaching evolution. Specifically, he asked if I would be teaching evolution as a theory or a fact. “I will teach evolution as both theory and fact,” I said, trying hard to conceal my frustration. No matter. My colleague simply walked away, likely questioning my competence to teach the class.

Hear a conversation with James J. Krupa about his experience teaching evolution.

Read the rest of this entry

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