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Steven Novella on Michelle Bachmann and Teaching Evolution

Michael Egnor

Steven Novella is commenting on intelligent design supporter Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s endorsement of academic freedom.

To be fair (this is not a political blog so I want to make sure I don’t come off as partisan) bad science is not limited to the Republican party. But there are some issues where they definitely take the lead – and evolution/creationism is one. In some states creationism is on the Republican party platform.

Bachmann said:

“I support intelligent design. What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to come down on one side of scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides.”

Novella loses it:

She is dead wrong, of course. There is no scientific controversy about the fact of evolution.

Novella couldn’t be more disingenuous.
All scientists do support evolution, if evolution is defined as change in populations of organisms with time. The fossil record amply documents evolution, but one need not cite scientific data. The population of squirrels in my neighborhood changes subtly each year. The evolution that all scientists support is that kind of evolution.
If evolution is defined as the specific theory that Darwin proposed — that all adaptation occurred by the mechanism of random heritable variation and natural selection — then Novella is utterly wrong. There is a raging debate in evolutionary biology about the genesis of adaptations, and there is utterly no consensus.
If evolution is defined as the transition from one species to another with time, nearly all scientists accept it, although many agree that the evidence is substantially incomplete for most species.
If by evolution Novella means common descent, that is supported by most, but certainly not all, scientists.
If by evolution Novella means absence of design, one must first define “design.”
If design means application of intelligent agency to the origin of life and speciation, then many scientists, even scientists who are atheists and who hold to strong materialist views such as Francis Crick, Leslie Orgel, and Richard Dawkins, have suggested that directed panspermia (i.e. intelligent design) may be the best explanation for some aspects of the emergence and evolution of life.
If design means the theory of intelligent design held by most ID scientists today, then there is a substantial minority of well-qualified (and vilified) scientists who hold that view.
If design means teleology in the sense of directedness or final causation, or more vaguely as some sort of “theistic evolution,” there are many scientists who hold to this view. In fact, any scientist who is a Christian, or Jewish (theologically, not just culturally), or Muslim almost certainly holds to some sort of teleology, because the belief that God created the universe necessarily implies some form of teleology in nature.
There are many different meanings that can be applied to “evolution.” In affirming that nearly all scientists accept evolution, disingenuous polemicists like Novella apply the most general meaning to evolution, and ascribe the most restricted meaning — young earth creationism — to opponents of atheist/materialist evolutionary theory.
It is a deeply dishonest tactic. The reason that Novella and other materialists do it is clear: if they acknowledged the broad spectrum of viewpoints in science regarding evolutionary theory, from selfish genes to neutral drift to directed panspermia to various kinds of teleological views — intelligent design, teleology in the Aristotelian/Thomist sense, and theistic evolutionists — they would have to acknowledge that such fervent debates are the heart of evolutionary biology and should be resolved in an atmosphere of vigorous scientific debate, mutual respect and academic freedom.
Contra Novella, there are very few settled issues in evolutionary biology, and the viewpoints regarding teleology in biology span an enormous range.
By painting a false picture of monolithic evolutionary biologists on one hand, and snake-handling young earth creationists on the other, Novella and his ilk build a straw-man to advance their obvious goal, which is to use intimidation and legal force to silence genuine discussion of evolution in classrooms.
Rep. Bachmann is no scientist, but she clearly has a healthy respect for academic freedom and understands that the essence of real science is honest debate.

The scientific community has spoken – we should listen to them. Teach whatever you want at home and at church – but science classrooms are for teaching accepted science.

Vigorous candid debate about evolution is accepted science. Censorship and the use of legal force to shelter atheist creation myths from public scrutiny are filthy politics, and not science of any kind. The American people are fed up with atheist ideologues masquerading as defenders of “consensus science” who censor honest discussion of evolution in schools.
Novella again:

The leaders of the Republican party should lead – just say it like it is.

They are leading. Like the overwhelming (and growing) majority of Americans, they are demanding academic freedom in science classrooms.
Cross-posted on Egnorance

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.