Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Accept Evolution, Eat People

During the weekend Donna Garner, a former language arts teacher in Central Texas and a conservative activist, circulated an email in response to the recent move by the Texas State Board of Education to close a long-standing loophole in their policy on the teaching of science. Previously, it was a requirement to debate the "strengths and weaknesses" of the theory of Evolution (or any scientific theory). A requirement, even if the matter was not prompted by students. In practise, this has been used as a back door to introduce creationist and intelligent design arguments into the classroom. Not actual scientific weaknesses, but religious criticisms. Science is not debated in terms of strengths and weaknesses, but in terms of evidence. But I'll return to that point.

She begins:

Dear Friends of Students:

This year, 2009, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (born in 1809), author of Origin of the Species. Atheist groups across America are using this anniversary to move aggressively to force all 50 million public school students to be taught that macro-evolution (life spontaneously springing from a chemical reaction with all life stemming from that common chemical reaction and becoming different species through mutations) is a fact–without allowing the teaching or discussion of the scientific “weaknesses” increasingly being discovered concerning the theory of evolution. Texas, with its 4.7 million students, was selected as the first state to conquer. And, so far, the atheists are winning in Texas.

Let's just take a look at what has been said and left unsaid in her opening statements.

Garner immediately puts a suggestion into our minds without backing it up. "Atheist groups are using this...", "the atheists are winning". Immediately the subject is not education, but religion. In her mind (and she wants us to join her there), this is not about science, but faith. No names are named, no figures cited. We are to assume that science advocacy groups such as Texas Citizens for Science, The Texas Freedom Network and countless others are atheistic in nature. The atheists are doing this, and presumably it's part of a grand plan. A war to be won at terrible cost to you the reader, a cost to be outlined later.

Next she both introduces and defines "macro-evolution" and states that everyone will be forced to learn this thing that she has defined as fact. Macro-evolution is a term not used in the scientific literature or in text books, so it is good that Garner defines it for us. But her definition does not actually match up with anything taught in US schools. Her target, Evolution, does not attempt to explain the origins of life itself (which are not conclusively known) but merely the origin of the great variety of life that we now see. That origin is indeed a common ancestor, but for now at least, Garner's "spontaneous springing [of life] from a chemical reaction" remains within the realms of hypothesis. If it is taught at all, it is taught in that context. Macro evolution then, is something of a Straw Man.

Finally, she implies that Evolution has "scientific weaknesses" that are, she says "increasingly being discovered". Well I'm quite sure that evolution does have flaws, but with what relevance to high school students? With what support within the expert community? If a fringe group of historians contend that Abraham Lincoln's murder was motivated by Wilkes-Booth's phobia of beards (or something more plausible perhaps) we're not going to open up the floor for students to specifically "debate the weaknesses" in the theory that the assassination was politically motivated. This is not an end to questions about the motive or the politics which formed it, but the dishonest notion that a meaningful debate exists in the field is not entertained. And of course, the curriculum for a given subject should reflect the consensus of the relevant experts.

As for weaknesses "increasingly being discovered", well there's certainly nothing new in the pseudoscience that Ms. Garner will shortly inflict on us.

Let's move on.

For more than 20 years, the rule in Texas has been to teach both the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. Last week, by a margin of 1 vote, the Texas State Board of Education voted to remove the word “weaknesses” so that only the strengths of evolution could be “analyzed and evaluated” in all Texas public schools. The final vote is in March, so there is time to make a difference.

As I indicated previously, the "strengths-versus-weakness" model of debate or analysis is a curious idea, and it is not really one which applies to science, assuming we are seeking to invite serious debate in a classroom. If evolution is open to being "analysed and evaluated" (and of course it is), it stands to reason that this should be on the basis of evidence.

Some evidence will support evolution and some, if evolution is incorrect, will contradict it. The thing about scientific theories is that we do not weigh-up the "pros and cons" of a theory when deciding if it is legitimate. If one piece of evidence contradicts the predictions of a theory (and it can be shown that the evidence is real and reproducible), then the theory is dead. Totally dead. No balancing of strengths or weaknesses. The theory is in the bin and we have to build a new one. One piece of falsifying evidence automatically outweighs all the "strengths" we could care to present.

The strengths and weaknesses method of debating science is perhaps a reflection of a science curriculum that does not address how hypotheses, evidence and theories are constructed in science. Or perhaps it is a back door designed to allow spurious attack upon theories which are seen to contradict an agenda.

Garner then lists who voted on the new wording and how, providing contact details for each so that we can phone up and demand that somebody think of the children. I'll cut this on the basis of it also being really boring.


Garner continues with an attempt to make "the atheists" look like hypocrites. After all, everyone knows that if you're a hypocrite, you're wrong about everything, right? Ad hominem much?

Charles Darwin, in Origin of the Species said the following concerning the proper evaluation of his theory: “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts on both sides of each question.” Too bad Darwin wasn’t on the State Board of Education to vote to keep “weaknesses” in.

Darwin, of course, was stating the obvious. That we must consider all the evidence before making a decision about something. Ms. Garner won't like to admit it, but Evolution was accepted by scientific consensus by this very means a very long time ago. Debate over the course of some decades by the finest minds in science.

In a pedantic point, Darwin's book was not called "Origin of the Species" but "On the Origin of Species", being as it is a work explaining the emergence of species plural. You'll also note that it is not called "On the Origin of Life", and thus must not have anything to do with Garner's proposed "macro-evolution".

At least, he was intellectually honest about his theory.

Ah, "at least". Suggestion once again. He wasn't honest about everything. This casts doubt on evolution. Painful.

He recognized that science advances by constantly probing and questioning, not by censorship, intimidation, or indoctrination.

Are we talking about the advancement of science? I'm quite sure that Darwin would also have recognised that continuing to debate a scientific theory 100 years after it has come to be considered accurate by scientists is rather counter-productive. But that is not even the issue here. Whilst we should certainly teach our children about gravity, it wouldn't exactly be "scientific" to perpetuate a debate on the matter on the basis that we should never stop questioning. We never do stop questioning these theories, but what Ms. Garner has failed to grasp is the nature of that questioning. Scientific research. Experimentation. Not debate in a room full of teenagers. How would such a debate advance science or some other subject such as history?

We have debate in the public between creationists and evolutionists, although that debate is painted as a scientific one, the matter has already been resolved in the scientific community for some 100 years or more. Finally, we have debates like these. The reader can see Ms. Garner's side, and the side of people such as me. So it doesn't really look like anyone is pulling off the censorship routine. Or at least not doing it well. So I'm sure Darwin would be more than satisfied (well of course I'm not sure, I never knew the guy and neither did Ms. Garner). The question that remains is whether that debate has any place in the class room.

The 3 Republicans don’t seem to get it. They want to water down the current standard to eliminate any airing of “weaknesses” by eliminating the word “weaknesses.” The battle is over that one word. It needs to be there. As a lawyer, I know more than most that words are important. So don’t be fooled, the retention of the word is worth all of us fighting for.

Again, the "strengths versus weaknesses" model of assessment does not really work for science and really should be scrapped entirely in favour of teaching kids how to assess scientific evidence, form and test hypotheses and build theories.

Garner then decides to elaborate further on her definition of Evolution. In doing so, she describes a theory that only appears in one kind of text book or scholarly publication anywhere: creationist ones.

Short primer on evolution: In describing evolution, there are 2 catagories: (1) Micro-evolution, and (2) Macro-evolution. Micro-evolution (small changes over time within the same species) is something we can observe today (bugs become resistant to drugs; birds beaks grow longer, moths change colors).

Biologists make no such distinction, and for a very good reason. There are no differences in the underlying mechanisms that drive the micro or the macro. Evolution is driven by replication, mutation, genetic drift, natural selection, gene transfer. Ask creationists what micro-evolution is driven by and they'll give the same answer. So it's rather like making a distinction between taking a walk in your garden (by using the easily provable micro-walking) versus going down to the shops (which would require the obviously impossible macro-walking).

If we're agreed that some evolution can generate some variation, then why can we not agree that more evolution can generate more variation?

But Garner has evidence that there's a difference between the macro and the mirco.

I personally think it makes perfect sense that a good Designer would design each creature with built-in abilities to adapt to survive. But the debate before the Board is not over micro-evolution, but over the teaching of macro-evolution. We have never observed one species becoming a different species (macro-evolution).

In fact, we have observed species become a different species quite a number of times both in the lab and in the wild. Some nice (but not at all exhaustive) examples of these are detailed at the following links:

But on to more "evidence". Am I using sarcastic quotes too much?

And we have never observed how life began.

Indeed we have not, but then we don't teach highschool kids how life began. We don't teach abiogenesis as fact to anyone at all. It's not a part of the theory of evolution at this time and won't be until that evidence is in. At this time, the origin of life is rather irrelevant to the debate.

This is where we need to examine the scientific strengths and weaknesses. And with respect to macro-evolution there are numerous scientific weaknesses, to name a few: (1) the Cambrian explosion of life; (2) gaps in the fossil record; (3) the intractable origin of life chemistry problems; (4) the origin of information in the DNA molecule; and (5) irreducibly complex features. Honest scientists acknowledge these and other weaknesses—but atheists don’t want these weaknesses highlighted—particularly not to our children. This is the Scopes Monkey Trial in reverse.

It would take another blog post in itself to fully refute the five points outlined here. They are classic cliches, and nothing new at all. But briefly, number 1 is something of a mystery. That is to say, I have little idea what Garner is getting at and it's unlikely that she does either (I have seen one argument regarding the Cambrian Explosion used by creationists, but that argument was dropped some years ago when it was mysteriously removed from the creationist website that had hosted it). Number 2 represents limitations to our knowledge. I think we can safely say that were there no gaps in our observations, we would have little need for theory (or religion) and science itself would become a job dedicated to teaching rather than research. If the reader has been following closely, we can of course immediately dismiss number 3 as having exactly nothing to do with how evolution is taught. Number 4 is in a similar vein since it deals with events prior to the origins of life and with concepts of "information" that are perhaps rather beyond a high school class. Number 5 is a topic I've already made a nonsense of here.

She concludes her list of "weaknesses" by claiming that "honest scientists" acknowledge these issues. Certainly, mainstream biologists don't assume that abiogenesis is an answered question, but they also don't consider it a part of theory. The vast majority of biologists, and the scientific community at large, consider evolution accurate. Just as consensus determined by historians informs the history syllabus, so too does the scientific consensus inform the scientific syllabus. What Garner of course means by "honest scientists" is creationists and intelligent design proponents. What "atheists" refers to here is not clear, but is presumably "everyone else" including the scientific community and all of the science advocacy groups. And the Catholic Church. Hmm...

Because their fields are a pseudoscience (as distinct from a fringe science), these people are considered to be scientists only by themselves. But what if we decided to include creationists and intelligent design proponents in our definition of the scientific community? Would evolution remain accepted by consensus? Are scientists redrawing the lines of the definition of "scientist" so that they can maintain an artificial consensus?

In terms of raw numbers of people, it's hard to assess just how many creationists are active in research. Newsweek puts the figure at approximately 700 in the United States. There are 480,000 life scientists in the United States, and evolution also is accepted by the overwhelming majority of scientists in the physical sciences, an even larger group. Not to mention almost universal support in scientific communities across the world. Let us generously suppose then that we are talking about 2000 creation scientists in a worldwide community of just 1 million biologists and geologists. 0.2% of a community does not break a consensus. So even if we include creationists in the scientific community the consensus, unsurprisingly, remains that evolution is valid and thus it should be taught as valid.

The "scientific debate" is a fabrication. To the scientific community, it is a (scientifically) small and illogical tantrum. It is only in the public eye that the debate has any validity or support at all. And the bulk of creationist efforts are bent towards increasing that validity. We need only look at the publication patterns of the creationists to see evidence of this. They produce little original research, preferring instead to publish essays and glossy text books. In 2008 alone, biologists published over 3000 research papers with the word "evolution" in the title (plus over 400 reviews, an unknown number of essays and textbooks). We can assume that there were many more on the topic of course, since most papers would not mention such a broad topic as evolution in their titles. It would greatly surprise me if the various creationist communities combined have managed to publish 3000 research papers in the last 20 years. Or even an output of research comparable to their small size. This is not reflection of general poor output or funding,creation advocacy groups generate plenty of essays and command tens of millions of dollars annually. Propaganda is the priority, not science.

Ms. Garner has one more shot to fire. The cost. The terrible danger that exists if we do not allow the Creation Tantrum to be given the validity of discussion in the classroom. The cost of accepting that evolution is both a valid theory and a reflection of fact.

Thus she concludes:

Jeffrey Dahmer, one of America’s most infamous serial killers who cannibalized more than 17 boys before being captured, gave an last interview with Dateline NBC nine months before his death, and he said the following about why he acted as he did: “If a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we died, you know, that was it, there was nothing….” (Dateline NBC, The Final Interview, Nov. 29, 1994).

The implication is clear. Evolution is part of a nihilistic and atheistic attack on religion. It leads to more atheism. And atheism leads to cannibalism (oh okay, at least to immorality). And the moral expert she cites to both imply and support this? A serial killer and cannibal. It makes my mind sore.

Will evolution kill faith? The Catholic Church seems to think not. The 1 billion Christians who follow that church seem to have no issue accepting evolution and their faith side by side. Evolution only poses a threat to Christian faiths which consider the book of Genesis to be a literal account of Creation. And that by no means assures that those who lose their faith in that literal truth are destined to become atheists. And what if they do become atheists? It is, of course, utterly unsurprising that someone like Dahmer could only build morality on the basis of personal consequence meted out by authority. He was a psychopath. He did not value human life in itself.

If the punishment of God is all that keeps Ms. Garner from killing and eating people, then I do hope she retains her faith. But I suspect that this is not the case. There is, in truth, no evidence at all that atheists are less moral on average than Christians. But we're rather getting away from the point, which is that the path from evolution to people-eating is a fantasy. One dreamed up by people who seem to think that morality is a very thin veil, a tenuous construction drawn over the amoral animal that is man. And held in place only by the ten commandments. I do wonder how strong the faith of the Creationists must be if they really see science, the simple observation of nature, as this manner of threat. But certainly, a little more faith in people is sorely needed.


Conor said...

Brava! A well-written and accurate breakdown of how creationism and ID arguments fall flat. Keep up the good work!

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