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On the “Settled” Science of Darwinian Theory, Tennessee’s Evolution Lobby Is Simply Bluffing

Tennessee’s own Darwin Lobby is working hard to pressure Governor Haslam into vetoing an academic freedom bill that has passed both houses in that state. One of their main talking points holds that there is no controversy over Darwinian evolution, so of course there’s nothing to teach. As an op-ed in The Tennessean by a trio of academics asserts:

It is misleading to describe these topics as scientifically controversial. What is taught about evolution, the origin of life, and climate change in the public school science curriculum is — as with all scientific topics — based on the settled consensus of the scientific community. While there is no doubt social controversy about these topics, the actual science is solid.

Every time I hear a Darwin lobbyist declare that “There is no controversy” over evolution, I think of Darth Vader in the confrontation scene with Luke, darkly insisting that “There is no conflict” between himself and the dark side of the Force. For years we’ve been hearing from the Darwin lobby that “There is no conflict” over Darwinian evolution, and in a similarly menacing tone. Any Star Wars fan knows Darth Vader was bluffing. So too is the Darwin Lobby’s claim a bluff.

Notwithstanding that op-ed says to the contrary, scientists have not demonstrated that life could form on earth by natural chemical means, and neo-Darwinian evolution is under more intense scientific scrutiny today than ever before.

As evolutionary biologist Massimo Pigliucci said: “[I]t has to be true that we really don’t have a clue how life originated on Earth by natural means.”1 Or as science writer Gregg Easterbrook wrote in Wired, “What creates life out of the inanimate compounds that make up living things? No one knows. How were the first organisms assembled? Nature hasn’t given us the slightest hint. If anything, the mystery has deepened over time.” 2 Likewise a few years ago Harvard chemist George M. Whitesides said in accepting the highest award of the American Chemical Society:

The Origin of Life. This problem is one of the big ones in science. It begins to place life, and us, in the universe. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea.3

Many other similar statements from evolutionists themselves could be provided but the point is clear: It hardly sounds like the science of the origin of life is “settled.”

Darwin lobbyists are also bluffing about the “settled” nature of Darwinian explanations of the diversification of life. In fact, the core tenets of neo-Darwinian evolution are noticeably unglued. Over 800 PhD scientists have signed a statement expressing their skeptical view of modern evolutionary theory’s “claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.” These scientists urge that “[c]areful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

Meanwhile, the mainstream scientific literature is saturated with papers that challenge the central tenets of neo-Darwinian theory. A 2008 article in Trends in Ecology and Evolution acknowledge this, noting that there exists a “healthy debate concerning the sufficiency of neo-Darwinian theory to explain macroevolution.” 4 In 2009, Günter Theißen of the Department of Genetics at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, wrote in the journal Theory in Biosciences that modern Darwinian theory has not fully explained biological complexity:

[W]hile we already have a quite good understanding of how organisms adapt to the environment, much less is known about the mechanisms behind the origin of evolutionary novelties, a process that is arguably different from adaptation. Despite Darwin’s undeniable merits, explaining how the enormous complexity and diversity of living beings on our planet originated remains one of the greatest challenges of biology.5

Theißen is far from the only mainstream evolutionary biologist who has criticized the very core of the prevailing neo-Darwinian paradigm. U.S. National Academy of Sciences member biologist Lynn Margulis was, before recent death, a notorious critic of neo-Darwinism:

We agree that very few potential offspring ever survive to reproduce and that populations do change through time, and that therefore natural selection is of critical importance to the evolutionary process. But this Darwinian claim to explain all of evolution is a popular half-truth whose lack of explicative power is compensated for only by the religious ferocity of its rhetoric. Although random mutations influenced the course of evolution, their influence was mainly by loss, alteration, and refinement. One mutation confers resistance to malaria but also makes happy blood cells into the deficient oxygen carriers of sickle cell anemics. Another converts a gorgeous newborn into a cystic fibrosis patient or a victim of early onset diabetes. One mutation causes a flighty red-eyed fruit fly to fail to take wing. Never, however, did that one mutation make a wing, a fruit, a woody stem, or a claw appear. Mutations, in summary, tend to induce sickness, death, or deficiencies. No evidence in the vast literature of heredity changes shows unambigious evidence that random mutation itself, even with geographical isolation of populations, leads to speciation.6

In 2008, Nature published an article covering the Altenberg 16 conference, quoting biologist Scott Gilbert stating that “[t]he modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest.” In the same article, biologist Stuart Newman commented, “You can’t deny the force of selection in genetic evolution . . . but in my view this is stabilizing and fine-tuning forms that originate due to other processes.” Evolutionary paleobiologist Graham Budd was open in the article about deficiencies in explanations of key evolutionary transitions: “When the public thinks about evolution, they think about the origin of wings and the invasion of the land, . . . [b]ut these are things that evolutionary theory has told us little about.”7

The same year, William Provine, a Cornell University historian of science and evolutionary biologist, gave a talk before the History of Science Society titled “Random Drift and the Evolutionary Synthesis.” An abstract of his talk states that “[e]very assertion of the evolutionary synthesis below is false”:

1. Natural selection was the primary mechanism at every level of the evolutionary process. Natural selection caused genetic adaptation . . . . 4. Evolution of phenotypic characters such as eyes and ears, etc, was a good guide to protein evolution: or, protein evolution was expected to mimic phenotypic evolution. 5. Protein evolution was a good guide to DNA sequence evolution. Even Lewontin and Hubby thought, at first, that understanding protein evolution was the key to understanding DNA evolution. 6. Recombination was far more important than mutation in evolution. 7. Macroevolution was a simple extension of microevolution. 8. Definition of “species” was clear [namely,] the biological species concept of Dobzhansky and Mayr. 9. Speciation was understood in principle. 10. Evolution is a process of sharing common ancestors back to the origin of life, or in other words, evolution produces a tree of life. 11. Inheritance of acquired characters was impossible in biological organisms. 12. Random genetic drift was a clear concept and invoked constantly whenever population sizes were small, including fossil organisms. 13. The evolutionary synthesis was actually a synthesis.8

Despite these problems, as we showed last year here at Evolution News & Views, textbooks continue to teach neo-Darwinian evolution as unqualified fact. Our report, “Not Making the Grade: An Evaluation of 22 Recent Biology Textbooks and Their Use of Selected Icons of Evolution”, illustrated the numerous errors in textbooks that purport to teach the evidence for evolution. If scientists can challenge the evidence for neo-Darwinian evolution, why must students be taught the science is “settled”?

The anti-academic freedom op-ed continues:

In opposing the legislation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science explained, “There is virtually no scientific controversy among the overwhelming majority of researchers on the core facts of global warming and evolution. Asserting that there are significant scientific controversies about the overall nature of these concepts when there are none will only confuse students, not enlighten them.”

Another bluff! In fact, science education theorists say that teaching students about scientific controversies is the best way to help them learn science. This is the big secret in the debate over teaching evolution.

Leading science education authorities agree that students learn science best when they are allowed to study scientific topics through critical analysis.

In 2000 the National Research Council published a guidebook for teachers, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards (NSES), which explains:

Inquiry is a multifaceted activity that involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results. Inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations.9

In 2001, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) co-published the Atlas of Scientific Literacy, which emphasizes that students should “[i]nsist that the critical assumptions behind any line of reasoning be made explicit so that the validity of the position being taken — whether one’s own or that of others — can be judged.” The Atlas further suggests that students “[n]otice and criticize the reasoning in arguments in which fact and opinion are intermingled or the conclusions do not logically follow from the evidence given.”10 Likewise, in 2009 the College Board, which issues the SAT exam and Advanced Placement course curricula, released recommended science education standards that strongly emphasize the importance of inquiry-based science learning:

In the course of learning to construct testable explanations and predictions, students will have opportunities to identify assumptions, to use critical thinking, to engage in problem solving, to determine what constitutes evidence, and to consider alternative explanations of observations.11

The standards go on to recommend that “[b]oth the evidence that supports the claim and the evidence that refutes the claim should be accounted for in the explanation. Alternative explanations should also be taken into consideration.”

In 2010, we noted an article in Science titled “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse,” in which education theorist Jonathan Osborne explains the importance of using debate, argument, and critique when teaching science. According to Osborne, there are “a number of classroom-based studies, all of which show improvements in conceptual learning when students engage in argumentation.”

In Osborne’s view, “Critique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science, but rather it is core to its practice, and without argument and evaluation, the construction of reliable knowledge would be impossible” (emphasis added). He cites work from sociology, philosophy, and science education showing that students best understand scientific concepts when learning “to discriminate between evidence that supports (inclusive) or does not support (exclusive) or that is simply indeterminate12

Leading scholars on various sides of this debate agree that science education is in crisis. If they are right, then the situation won’t be improved simply by maintaining the status quo. For decades the Evolution Lobby has had near-complete control over science education and has successfully pushed the one-sided teaching of neo-Darwinism in virtually all U.S. public schools.

Obviously something about this strategy isn’t working. Why not try a different approach? Allowing students to weigh the both the pros and cons of modern evolutionary theory would make a vital contribution in the overall effort to sharpen and strengthen the way they learn about science. Teaching the evidence for and against Darwinian evolution would both improve critical thinking skills and increase student interest in science. And whether young people ultimately agree or disagree with Darwinian theory, they will understand it better. Any way you look at it, this inconvenient truth stands: teaching the controversy over Darwinian evolution can only improve scientific literacy.

And that’s no bluff.

References Cited:
[1.] Massimo Pigliucci, “Where Do We Come From? A Humbling Look at the Biology of Life’s Origin,” in Darwin Design and Public Education, eds. John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2003), p. 196.
[2.] Gregg Easterbrook, “Where did life come from?,” Wired, p. 108 (February, 2007).
[3.] George M. Whitesides, “Revolutions In Chemistry: Priestley Medalist George M. Whitesides’ address,” Chemical and Engineering News, 85 (March 26, 2007): p. 12-17.
[4.] Michael A. Bell, “Gould’s Most Cherished Concept,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Vol. 23:121 (2008)).
[5.] Günter Theißen, “Saltational Evolution: Hopeful Monsters are Here to Stay,” Theory in Biosciences, Vol. 128:43 (2009) (internal citations omitted).
[6.] Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of the Species, p. 29 (2002).
[7.] John Whitfield, “Biological Theory: Postmodern Evolution?,” Nature, Vol. 455:281 (2008).
[8.] William Provine, “Random Drift and the Evolutionary Synthesis, History of Science Society HSS Abstracts.”
[9.] National Research Council, Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards, pp. 13-14 (quoting National Research Council, National Science Education Standards, p. 23) (emphasis added).
[10.] AAAS, Atlas of Scientific Literacy, 17 (AAAS, National Science Teachers Association, 2001).
[11.] Science: College Board Standards for College Success, p. 5.
[12.] Jonathan Osborne, “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse,” Science, Vol. 328 (5977): pp. 463-466 (April 23, 2010) (emphasis added).