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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Darwin, check your mail. Texas needs you.

(I submitted this op-ed to the Austin American-Statesman, but - in their wisdom - they decided not to print it. So I am simply posting it here.):

When I first heard that a group of professors who say they speak for 800 Texas scientists "is challenging the idea that discussion of the weaknesses of evolutionary theory belongs in science classrooms" (Austin Statesman-American, October 1, 2008), I sighed.

Darwin, Texas educators need you and your "bulldog" Thomas Huxley to come back and talk some sense into them.

Huxley once wrote that "irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors." A hallmark of an "irrationally held truth" is that mundane discussion of its strengths and weaknesses is forbidden.

Any theory whose strengths and weaknesses cannot be discussed is not a theory in science. It is a creed. If you want to be received into a sect, you cannot doubt the sect's interpretation of obscure doctrines in Scripture. But you should be surprised and concerned if, when you want to learn about evolution, you are not allowed to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the prevailing evolution theory.

In fact, you should ask, what exactly is going on in science education?

First, as philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn pointed out, all theories are "underdetermined" by evidence. By that, he meant that, at any given time there is usually some evidence or circumstance that does not fit the theory. Progress in science often depends on studying these exceptions with an open mind.

For example, Lord Kelvin remarked in 1900 that there were just “two little dark clouds” floating around Newton's classical "law of gravity" physics. They were Michelson and Morley’s measurements of the velocity of light and the puzzling phenomenon of blackbody radiation. Kelvin was quite sure that these troublesome little clouds would shortly be blown away. Yet modern physics advances—relativity and quantum mechanics—derive from these two little dark clouds, not from the theory to which they were an annoying exception.

Similarly, at a number of points, Darwinian evolution (the prevailing theory) does not accurately interpret the history of life. Here is one example: Almost all the major divisions of life forms came into existence about half a billion years ago during the Cambrian explosion. Some have gone extinct, but few or none have been added. Darwin knew this was a problem, and he blamed the incomplete fossil record. We now have a much more complete fossil record ... and it is still a problem.

Today, we also face another conundrum. Living cells are full of intricate machinery that is essential for life processes, yet life on Earth apparently began almost immediately (in geological terms) after the planet cooled. A recent discovery in Canada's northlands may even have pushed the beginning back another 250 million years. Overall, life is not a story best interpreted by a long slow process of Darwinian survival of the fittest.

Evolution theory is politically sensitive - for a good reason. It has often been used as a creation story of materialist atheism. Of course it need not be used that way in the classroom. But the best way to demonstrate that we do not intend to use it that way is to permit discussion of its strengths and weaknesses. Otherwise, people are quite justified in assuming that it will be presented as the creation story of a creed in which students are invited to put their faith.

In the recent Expelled film, Richard Dawkins ("Darwin's Rottweiler") told Ben Stein that he was prepared to consider that life was brought to Earth by intelligent aliens. Many people are not at all prepared to consider that. But if Dawkins and Stein think that such an idea is worth discussing, then surely the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin's theory should be as well.

In general, the cleverer students always know what is going on. They read the papers, they overhear discussions, they go to blogs. Silenced or blinkered teachers simply lose their respect. The consequences erupt later ...

We have learned a great deal about the history of life in the last few decades, and much of it has not been kind to Darwin's theory. This is a time for exploration, not dogma. Teach strengths and weaknesses.

Denyse O'Leary is a Toronto-based Canadian journalist and author.

(Note: If you live in or near Texas, why not send this to friends who are interested in the intelligent design controversy? Why assume you must wait for the tree chain saw massacre people to tell you "THE TRUTH." Here, we just offer you our best guess, but it is free, and no trees die.)


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