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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Uncommon Descent Contest 20: Why should human evolution be taught in school? Winner announced

Here’s the reason I asked why human evolution should be taught in school:
I just came across this fact: Human evolution: Little is known other than basic outline

Contrary to widely heard huffing, there are huge gaps in our understanding of early humans. In Nature's 2020 Visions (7 January 2010) Scroll down to Leslie C. Aiello, and we learn
Most of the recent effort in hominin palaeontology has been focused on Africa and Europe. But the announcement in 2004 of the small hominin Homo floresiensis in Indonesia was a warning that we are naive to assume we know more than the basic outline of human evolutionary history. ... Go here for more.

Sorry to be so long judging this one, but there were 143 posts and I had several local issues to deal with at the same time. Now, to business: The winner is Collin at 8. His succinct entry appears below. I would also have awarded a prize to EvilSnack at 48, for this entry, but I only received one copy of David Berlinski's The Deniable Darwin. I will see if I can procure another copy, but if not EvilSnack may contact me anyway. I have other prizes on my shelf.

Winners need to be in touch with me at oleary@sympatico.ca, with a valid postal address. Their names will not be added to a mailing list. There is no mailing list.

Here's Collin:
Human evolution ought to be taught in schools because it is one of the best cases for common descent. This is probably a result of the extra interest among scientists concerning human evolution.

Even creationists and students sympathetic to ID ought to be taught the best argument for Darwinism so that if they want to argue against it they do so against the best scenario the opposition has to offer. Otherwise, those supportive of traditional Darwinism will sense a straw man argument and end up being inoculated against further, more refined and honest arguments.


Some careless creationists in the '80s made this mistake causing further, more compelling arguments to be dismissed before being further evaluated.


Human evolution, being taught, does inform students of a lot of ideas that are not necessarily against ID or even creationism. Presumably even creationists (most of them) will concede that homo erectus did exist as some kind of now-extinct species. Students can be presented with the fact of the bones (or lack thereof) and they can make their own conclusions. My hope is that teachers will present evolution's best arguments but not endeavor to indoctrinate students. Maybe that is a fine line, but it can be done, and is the honest way to go about it.



What swayed me was Collin's emphasis on hearing both sides honestly represented by their own advocates. If schools do not teach students to evaluate on that basis, they are not worth the money we spend on them.

Consider a simple example: Most days, I ride the Toronto Transit System, which features a vast array of busboard ads and subway posters advocating every cell phone offer imaginable. You can be sure that the sales person will not emphasize strongly to the customer, "Our offer is the cheapest - but, of course, we do sign you up for three years, and it costs you $300 to cancel."

The salesperson's competitor does that. The competitor shouts from busboards, subway posters, and billboards, "No contract, no cancellation fee!" That sets the customer thinking about what to ask next time, doesn't it?

Cell phones are a minor matter, of course. But later in life, the student will deal with job offers, marriage proposals, mortgage offers, investment advice, medical plans .... The advocate's offer can only be evaluated by hearing alternatives, clearly spelled out.

One of my major objections to "Darwinism-only" biology education is that - apart from the fact that I don't think it is true - it is not a good way to teach.

Other comments follow:

The whole series is - as usual - worth reading, and I can comment only briefly on a few interesting items.

Leviathan at 1 wonders when we will see positive contributions to understanding design in nature. He or she might wish to check with the Biologic institute. The first step is preventing scientists who want to study design from getting Expelled.

Joseph at 3 thinks that much of what is called "evolution"should be taught in history class. I agree. The subject is old enough now that exploded evolution theories can tell us a lot about the preoccupations of the eras in which they took root.

Painted Turtle at 10: Thanks for recognizing that time, attention, and budget constraints are critical in education. One outcome of the inclusion of propaganda in a school system - pro-Darwin or anti-Darwin - is indeed to lessen the time available for teaching the practical skills all students need.

When working in textbook publishing, I faced this problem all the time. A propaganda fad would roll through the system, and everyone was expected to stand up and salute. Well, I already had to deal with the provincial curriculum guidelines and the teacher reviewers - to say nothing of the great god Market. Even so, that not-so-holy trinity was way easier than propaganda fads.

Joseph at 25 writes, "... if scientists had solid scientific data the public would accept it." I have always found that to be true. Show us a man on the moon, a better cure for cancer, a more fuel-efficient car, a cleaner incinerator, or a job for a son or daughter if they don't drop their science courses. Even show us the creatures of the abyssal depths of the ocean, and we will run over and pay to see them. It's all different when someone tries to explain that human behaviour can best be understood by studying bonobo troupes or wolf packs. It all reminds me of "When we were building Skua Light." Anthropomorphism run mad.

Joseph also makes a very good point at 65: "A dead person has the same chemical makeup as a living person," which shows that life is not reducible to chemistry. Having observed, sorrowfully, the deaths of cats, I can say that it is a stunning transformation from a living creature to an inert mass. The cat, however sick before, was alive, but then literally collapses. Whatever life is, it cannot be mere physics or chemistry. The "information" has left. So the poor creature is a "gone cat."

At 103, Nakashima notes, "I remember vaguely that Oliver Sacks discusses a case in one of his books of a stroke victim, who after his injury could not remember the names of government buildings. “Post office” and “courthouse” had ceased to exist." Ending on a fun note, all I can say is, I should be so lucky. I haven't had dealings with the courthouse, but do wish I could erase the address and all other memory whatever of quite a few bureaucracies.

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