AAAS S&T Forum Considers Strategies for Answering Critics of Evolution
Evolution is a strong and balanced explanation of how species change over time, and has no necessary conflict with religion, according to a science educator who is on the frontlines of the current battles over teaching evolution in schools.
Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, told the 30th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy in Washington last week that scientists must respect the religious beliefs of those who are uneasy about evolution.
But she pointed out fundamental misconceptions that critics of evolution have held since the days of the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Tennessee in 1925. That trial, over enforcement of a state prohibition on the teaching of evolution in public school classrooms, featured a courtroom clash between three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and noted defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Bryan, who made some of the same anti-evolution arguments heard today, derided the notion that humans could be descended from monkeys. In fact, evolution does not say humans descended from monkeys but that both evolved from a common ancestor.
Many creationists continue to insist that God created the universe in essentially its present form no more than 10,000 years ago rather than the billions of years ago established by scientific evidence. But criticism of evolution also has become more subtle in recent years, Scott said, as proponents of a new approach called "intelligent design" argue that the complexity revealed by modern biology could only have occurred through the intervention of an intelligent agent.
Scott said proponents of intelligent design promote some of the same flawed arguments as previous critics. Among them:
- Evolution is a "theory in crisis," that scientists are on the verge of abandoning.
In fact, researchers say, the theory is based on more than a century of solid science, and forms the bedrock of modern biology and geology. Far from being on shaky footing, biological evolution the inference of common ancestry of living things is no longer in dispute among scientists, though there is considerable debate over mechanisms of change and about the specific pattern the tree of life has taken.
- Evolution and religion are incompatible. Scott said that students often graduate from high school with no exposure to evolution, believing that it is necessary to choose between faith and science. She recounted the experience of a physical anthropologist who taught evolution to a group of such students in a community college in the South. Several of her students approached her after a few weeks of class. After learning about evolution, they had no quarrel with the fact that species change over time, she said, but, one of the students added, "we thought evolution meant you can't believe in God." Scott said she has heard similar stories from teachers at the high school level.
But evolution is not inconsistent with all religious belief, she said. Most mainline Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic Church and many other faiths believe that evolution was the way that God chose to bring about the universe . Scott said some liberal Christian theologians have criticized intelligent design on theological grounds, not liking the implications of God having to constantly intervene in the created order to produce irreducibly complex structures. The science of evolution, like all science, makes no statement about the existence or actions of God, Scott said, but "to say nothing of God is not to say that God is nothing."
- It is only fair to teach creationism with evolution. The fairness argument and the call to teach "the full range of views about origins" draws on a deep cultural tradition in the United States, Scott said. But, she said, "science is not a democratic process." Biologists may debate how speciation occurs and the rates of evolutionary change. But they accept that evolution occurs, and that it is backed by a wealth of evidence that has been subjected repeatedly to the process of peer review and published in scientific journals.
Lawrence Krauss, a physicist and author at Case Western Reserve University who also spoke at the AAAS Forum, said proponents of intelligent design have not engaged in the traditional process of scientific publishing. In a survey of 10 million articles in 20 major science journals over the past dozen years, Krauss said, a colleague of his found 115,000 articles with "evolution" as a keyword. Of those, "intelligent design" was mentioned in 88. All but 11 of those mentions were in articles about engineering rather than biology, Krauss said. Of the remaining 11, eight were critical of intelligent design and three referred to conference proceedings rather than peer-reviewed journal articles.
Whatever the weight of such statistics, Krauss said the effort to combat the anti-evolution movement will not be easy, given public misunderstanding of the facts of science. He said a recent survey of science literacy found that 45 per cent of adults believe God created humans within the last 10,000 years or so.
Krauss backed a tactic adapted by scientists and science organizations, including AAAS, in Kansas, where they are boycotting upcoming hearings on evolution by the state board of education. Scientists have described the hearings as an effort by faith-based proponents of intelligent design theory to imply that scientific conclusions are based on expert opinion rather than verifiable data.
In science, there can be debate over interpretation of data, but eventually, as Krauss noted, one side is shown to be "demonstrably wrong." Data is sifted and challenged through articles in peer-reviewed journals. Over time, a scientific consensus builds as others follow up the research and confirm it. "And then maybe after 30 or 40 years it gets into high school textbooks," Krauss said. "That's the way you do science if you want to be a scientist. The 'intelligent design' people want to skip the intermediate steps…If they wanted to be scientists they would submit their claims to scientific journals for peer review."
27 April 2005