Evolution is fact as well as theory. There is no scientific controversy about this. It has advanced way beyond what Darwin could have imagined, and well-meaning commentators who forget this risk doing more harm than good. (And come to think of it, have I too misframed the problem by using the word “defend”, as if there were something that could sensibly be attacked?)
On Friday, the Forbes Magazine website carried an article entitled Creationism Has No Place In A Science Class. While sincerely intended as a defence of evolution, this article is so laden with rhetorical, logical, historical, and scientific errors that it plays straight into the hands of the creationists. If anyone were to defend atomic theory in the same way that this article defends evolution, the absurdities would be obvious. It is a sad comment on the extent to which we have allowed the enemies of reason to dictate the agenda, that articles like this continue to see the light of day.
To begin at the beginning:
More than 150 years since Darwin published his Theory of Evolution, it still has the capacity to stir controversy.
Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. Evolution happened, and continues to happen, and that is fact, not theory. We have theories of how it happens, and all or nearly all of these rely on Darwin’s seminal insights, but we also have direct information that Darwin could not even have dreamed of. It is not evolution itself that stirs controversy, but the nonscientific opposition to it, based entirely on religious obscurantism. And while the article does not define creationism, the only kind of creationism that pretends to a place in the science classroom is the late 20th century absurdity of “creation science,” and its pretentious relative, “Intelligent Design.”
The author goes on to describe a UK academic study of attitudes towards evolution as a “contribution to the debate.” The study’s authors would be horrified, since they themselves take the truth of evolution for granted. The debate to which they are contributing is not about whether we should teach creationism. On the very contrary, it is about how to teach evolution to students who are drawn to creationism for reasons that had nothing to do with science.
The article tells how the Christian Schools Trust claim to teach creationism “in a balanced way.” A little digging would have shown that the Trust has a policy, publicly available through its founder’s Ph.D. dissertation, of teaching evolution in such a way that it will not be believed (I have commented on this dissertation before; see here).
The final paragraph reads:
Critics of evolution claim that it is just a theory for which there is no proof. It is true there is no definitive proof, and nor is there likely to be, but there is a vast amount of evidence in its favour. Whether you choose to believe it is sufficient is up to you, but it is there. By contrast, there is no scientific evidence for creationism. It may be true, but it is a matter of belief and its proper place in schools is in religious studies class. Creationism is not science, and has no place in a science class.
This is even worse than the beginning. Science does not do proof, in the sense of mathematical certainty, but it can and does do proof beyond all reasonable doubt, and that we have for evolution. Consider the fossil record, vestigial organs, frozen in bad design, meticulously detailed anatomical homologies, DNA evolutionary trees that match those based on comparative anatomy, evolution in the laboratory, in nature and under our direction in the farmyard, and the way in which different species are distributed. Any one of these (and there are more) would be enough to convince, were it not for religiously motivated opposition. If this evidence is not sufficiently definitive, I can only wonder what definitive evidence could possibly look like.
And I do not understand the claim that creationism “may be true.” Philosophical creationism, the idea that a god or gods created and guide the universe as a whole, is indeed a belief worth examining in the religious studies class. Creationism as opposed to evolution is something quite different. It is the belief that different kinds of living things owe their existence to separate miraculous acts of creation. Not only is this contrary to the evidence, but it reduces God to the level of an incompetent trickster who needs to keep on cheating. In itself, deserves no more respect than any other intellectual pathology, and the only debate is about how to reach those misled by it.
Image: Phylogenetic tree of life, by Ivica Letunic after iTOL through Wikimedia commons. Vertebrates to left of top centre.
Part I,Dalton and Darwin
Don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. Don’t say “theory of evolution” when you mean the established historical facts of change over time and common descent. And above all, don’t say “Darwin’s theory of evolution” except in the historical context of the evolution of ideas. If you do, you are guilty of scientific, logical, historical, and pedagogical errors, and playing into the hands of our Creationist opponents.
Dalton is to the modern atomic theory, and the modern atomic theory is to chemistry, as Darwin(not to forget Wallace) is to evolution, and as evolution is to biology. But we don’t call our present perspective on atoms “Dalton’s theory”, and indeed, unless we are speaking historically, it sounds odd to even talk about “atomic theory” when we discuss atoms. So why should we refer to “Darwin’s theory”, and indeed why should we talk about the “theory of evolution” when we really mean the fact that evolution has taken place? I argue here that we shouldn’t, and that, given the ongoing opposition to the central facts of biology, it is actively damaging to do so. Read the rest of this entry