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August 03, 2005

It's more than just science

Usually I agree with Charles Krauthammer, but tonight on Special Report w/Brit Hume, he said some things that gave me pause. The discussion among the All-stars for the second segment was about the teaching of Evolution/Intelligent Design. Now while it's true that I may disagree with Krauthammer's position about this, but that's not what I want to discuss here.

First Krauthammer said that "Evolution is the foundation" of all areas of science
"take it away and you have nothing left."

While I could grant that evolution has stimulated a lot of biological discoveries and research, we could still talk about all those results without demanding that evolution is true. Without evolution, we could still talk about mitosis. We could still study the genus and species (not to mention the phylum) of all sorts of animals and insects. Science education and scientific research wouldn't stop without evolution. The same way astronomy didn't end when we realized the cosmos didn't revolve around the earth

So, if it ever happens that we consider not teaching evolution, don't worry about the rest of science disappearing. It will all still be there.

Second, after Bill Sammon said that Red Staters would come to the polls if there was an initiative to teach intelligent design in schools, Krauthammer said "Science is not determined at the polling place."

He's right, Science is not determined at the polling place, but educational guidelines about school science classes are determined at the polling places in the sense that they are determined by state wide school boards, which are responsible to the electorate in some way.

If the Ohio school board wanted to require science teachers to teach Scientology as scientific fact, they have to know that Ohio parents would stage some kind of revolt. Whether that is protests or moving kids to private schools, or most extreme, moving kids to another state - there would be repercussions. The knowledge of that fact is what keeps school guidelines from being as liberal as they would probably like them to be.

Posted by Abigail at August 3, 2005 08:45 PM

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Evidently you don't realize that taxonomic group names like “genus” and “species” reflect evolutionary relationships! Furthermore, evolution has not just “stimulated… discoveries and research”, it is increasingly the underlying basis of many of these discoveries. Without evolution we could NOT “still talk about mitosis” because we learned about mitosis from other organisms, not from humans. It is only because of evolutionary relationships between organisms that we have been able to extrapolate findings from model organisms to humans. As another example, take Eric Kandel, a Nobel laureate at Columbia University. He identified molecular processes that occur during learning and memory in sea slugs. He studied sea slugs because their nervous systems and their genomes are simpler than - though still related to - those of mammals. His findings have been applied to mammals by thousands of other neuroscientists with great success because processes fundamental to learning and memory are conserved throughout evolution. This illustrates an important point: organisms that don’t superficially resemble us still have biology in common with us. This is why the National Institutes of Heath - which provides the bulk of medical research funding in our country - supports thousands of labs that work on fruit flies, worms and even yeast. Our tax dollars would not be spent in such large amounts just to study the biology of a fly. Our tax dollars are spent in such large amounts because how genes work in flies (which are easy to study) tells us a lot about how genes work in humans (which are hard to study). The bulk of research funding still goes to mammalian work, however, because the closer the evolutionary relationship between two animals, the more the biological processes of these animals resemble one another.

As further evidence of this point I refer you to what I said in an earlier post at SCO: “If you really don't believe in evolution then I suggest you reconsider why you trust western medicine. After all, medications are [identified] by drug companies in screens involving animals. Anything that works [on animals] is then tested on humans. The reason why animals are used first is because their bodies work like ours do. In fact, the closer the evolutionary relationship, the better model an animal is for drug studies. This is why rats are used instead of chicks and why monkeys, whose gene sequences are greater than 99% identical to those of humans, are the best test subjects of all.”

I’m digressing from my point, which is to urge you to stop fighting the teaching of evolution in schools. You have churches to teach creationist theory; the classroom is for science. Churches are not asked to teach evolution or even creation ideas from other religions. Science teachers should not be asked to teach ideas that have no scientific basis, that is, that are based on faith alone. Some creationists argue that evolution is just a “theory”, akin to creation, but they should keep in mind that all scientific ideas are referred to as “theories” when enough evidence exists to support them. I cannot think of another “theory” for which the evidence is more overwhelming than evolution. If you don’t believe me, then please read a book about evolution before you decide you know enough about it to oppose its teaching.

One last point: our military superiority and our economic strength depend on scientific research, yet fewer American students are pursuing science and engineering. How long will it be before our national defense and our economic power begin to decline as a result of undermining science education?

Here are some others’ thoughts about the debate over teaching evolution, as excerpted from letters to the NYT on May 22:

1) While both scientists and laypeople may debate nuances of Darwin's theory of evolution, we cannot lose sight of what we know for certain about the fossil record and of scientific facts indicating that the complexity and variety of organisms appearing on earth increased incrementally over several billion years. This is not to deny the possibility that a creator or intelligent designer could have somehow "orchestrated" these events, but is clearly dissonant with more literal views of creation.

2) Buried in the faulty rhetoric of intelligent design theory is the presumption that the human mind should be able to comprehend everything about the world. This position, completely ungrounded in science or religion, is perhaps the most arrogant claim one can make on behalf of our species. Modern understanding of the wonders of nature is built on an appreciation that ecosystems behave in fundamentally unpredictable ways that we know we cannot describe with even our most sophisticated scientific laws. As much as anyone would want science to be able to explain everything about the world we perceive, the very nature of science must always leave something out. What is left out is nothing more than a reflection of the limits of science and the humans who do its hard work.

3) As a historian of science and advocate of science education, I am deeply concerned by the concerted political push to eliminate the study of evolution in the schools. What concerns me most is that students from those schools will one day become doctors and other health care providers. Diseases are much too complex to be left in the hands of someone who does not understand how organisms adapt and evolve. I, too, hope that school boards will come to their senses. In the meantime, though, my advice is to avoid being hospitalized in Kansas.

4) While "The Evolution of Creationism" (editorial, May 17) is basically sound, I beg that you please, please, please stop referring to "intelligent design" as a "theory." It is not a theory. It is not even a hypothesis. It is not testable. It is not falsifiable. It is not science.

5) The creationists like to state that evolution is nothing but a theory. The existence of God is also a theory. One theory has libraries full of supporting data, while the other lacks a single verifiable fact in support. Therein lies the debate, or lack of one.

Posted by: dem at August 4, 2005 09:07 AM

Intelligent design does not rule out relationships and similarities between different types of life. In fact, it would make it more likely.

Posted by: Shadowmom1 at August 4, 2005 12:50 PM

Saying that we can't talk about any scientific discoveries we made because of the theory of evolution without evolution, is like saying that we have to throw out the murder weapon because it was obtained through false testimony or something like that.

This isn't a court of law with technicalities and miranda rights. We could conceivably discover that evolution, in the way that we know it today, is not true, and still know all the other things we've learned about science in the last 100+ years.

Please keep in mind that my argument was not that we should stop teaching evolution in schools, I was only saying that science would not disappear in large chunks if we were to discover that it did not need to be taught.

As for rats, I don't know any evolutionary theory that allows for monkeys to have evolved from rats before they evolved into humans. The fact that they are mammals helps a lot and the fact that humans and other animals have biological similarities does not necessitate evolution.

But again, this was not my point.

And by the way, I am a scientist after I'm not against it or anything :)

Posted by: Abigail at August 4, 2005 01:32 PM

I cannot think of another “theory” for which the evidence is more overwhelming than evolution.

Okay, wow. I'm pretty sure quantum electrodynamics could take it in less than one round.

Posted by: scientist at August 4, 2005 05:21 PM