Evolution as Design

The world is flat; astronauts did not go to the moon; and the Earth is 10,000 years old.

A recent poll reported that very few people in the US accept the theory of evolution as a valid explanation for the creation of life on Earth. According to the National Center for Science Education, in a 24-country poll, 41% of the respondents identified themselves as “evolutionists” and 28% as “creationists”, and 31% indicating they don’t know what to believe. In the US, 28% were “evolutionists”, with the “creationist” view held by 40%. The evolution view was most popular in Sweden, with the U.S. ranking 18.

According to Edward O. Wilson, creation myths were Darwinian in nature in that just about all cultures devised myths for survival.  It gives members of society an explanation for human existence.  Wilson goes on to say:

Tribal conflict, where believers on the inside were pitted against infidels on the outside, was a principal driving force that shaped biological human nature. The truth of each myth lived in the heart, not in the rational mind. By itself, mythmaking could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity. But the reverse order is possible. The discovery of the origin and meaning of humanity might explain the origin and meaning of myths, hence the core of organized religion.  Wilson, Edward O. (2012-04-02). The Social Conquest of Earth (Kindle Locations 194-198). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Darwinian evolution and creation science (including intelligent design) are two world views, and Wilson asks if these worldviews can be reconciled?  His answer is no.  As he puts it:

Their opposition defines the difference between science and religion, between trust in empiricism and belief in the supernatural.  Wilson, Edward O. (2012-04-02). The Social Conquest of Earth (Kindle Locations 199-200). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Wilson explains that from the 1859 theory of natural selection by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, science has provided in part the following:

There is a real creation story of humanity, and one only, and it is not a myth. It is being worked out and tested, and enriched and strengthened, step by step. Wilson, Edward O. (2012-04-02). The Social Conquest of Earth (Kindle Locations 224-225). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Science teachers, who work to offer a bridge between the world of science, and the world of youth have to give experiences in an environment that is open and not dogmatic.  Students come to school with scientific perceptions that have been built up and learned over time. Students arriving in 9th grade biology have constructed ideas about origins, inheritance, genes, cells, traits, and the relationship between natural selection and the environment. Because these ideas overlap with their religious beliefs and their family’s political beliefs, there is often a conflict for them about evolution, and other controversial ideas in science. The important notion is that students enter courses in science with beliefs about evolution, climate change, and global warming, and each of these ideas has become politicized by various advocacy groups, and of course, the press.

Building on students prior knowledge is one of the guiding principles that teachers and researchers have discovered as crucial to deep learning.  Work in the field of the learning sciences has shown that one of the best ways for students to learn is in classrooms where teachers build on their prior knowledge.  In the context of teaching evolutionary theory, students views on evolution are probably not very different from the adult population’s acceptance of the theory of evolution as a valid explanation of the origin of life.  Research by Ron Anderson suggests that it is a mistake to ignore students’ world views which may conflict with the scientific worldview of the origin of life.  As I’ve suggested here, it flies in the face of constructivist learning and the learning sciences.

Science and religion are two differing world views.  But because we have created a curriculum that compartmentalized knowledge and study, science teachers are put in a precarious position.  Although we have experimented with interdisciplinary curriculum and study, science is taught in science class, and religion is taught in social science courses.  Although I agree with Wilson that science and religion cannot be reconciled, it’s not a valid pedagogical strategy to ignore the interactions in student’s minds about origins.

Unfortunately, for more than a century, the teaching of evolution has been politicized.  The famous Scopes Trial is the embodiment of the cultural war that succeeds to this day.  In the 1970s creation science made its way into schools, only to be rebuffed by the courts.  Intelligent design is a form of creationism, and especially promoted by the Discovery Institute.  Politicians and state and local school board members have worked in concert with the Discovery Institute to pass laws either suggesting that I.D. be taught alongside evolution, or that “controversial” scientific theories such as evolution, global warming, and cloning be scrutinized under the banner of “academic freedom bills.”


Click on Darwin Two Pound Coin to go to Evolution as Design

Evolution by Design is a new eBook exploring how the teaching of evolution has become a rallying cry for conservatives and religious fundamentalists who think that creationism or intelligent design should be considered along and be given equal time as evolution.  Creationism and intelligent design have been rejected by one court decision after another, but the forces behind this movement are still lurking.

They have made stealth appearances in Louisiana and Tennessee classrooms.   Over the past four years, these two states have passed laws that protect teachers if they present scientific information about the full range of scientific views about biological and chemical evolution in applicable curricula or in a course of learning.

Behind these two laws is the Discovery Institute, a non-science propaganda organization whose chief purpose is to attack Darwinian evolution, and wedge intelligent design into the science curriculum. Foiled by the courts to pull a fast one and claim that I.D. is science, the Discovery Institute now hides behind its new campaign of preserving the ”academic freedom” of teachers.

The academic freedom bills that were passed in Louisiana (2008), and Tennessee (2012) disguise their intent of teaching creationism and intelligent design using clever and slick language that they are coming to the rescue of science teachers by passing a law that protects teachers’ academic freedom to present lessons questioning and critiquing scientific theories being studied including but not limited to evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning. Kind of a poor “Trojan horse” scenario, don’t you think? Where is the theory of gravity, plate tectonics, and atomic theory on their to do list?

Evolution by Design is comprised of four chapters

  • The Law of Evolution: The title of this section comes from a statement made by James Watson in which he said, “Lets not beat around the bush–the common assumption that evolution through natural selection is a “theory “in the same way as string theory is a theory is wrong. EVOLUTION IS A LAW (with several components) that is as well substantiated as any other natural law, whether the Law of Gravity, the Laws of Motion, or Avogadro’s Law.”
  • Evolution in the States:  Over the past decade the evolution wars have been played out in a number of states, including: Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Texas, Tennessee and Louisiana.  We take a look at these events.
  • Intelligent Design.  I.D. is creationism in disguise, and has been used as a wedge to get into the science curriculum as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.  We ask what Darwin would think, and why a judge ruled that I.D. is not science.
  • Teaching Evolution: Teaching evolution in church, teaching science “critically,” and issues that teachers face in the classroom.

A Kindle edition of Evolution as Design is available on Amazon, and is free through August 14, 2012.

Intelligent Design Again in the News

Last Sunday (3/12/06), the Rev. Nelson Price of Marietta, GA wrote in his Sunday column in the Marietta Daily Journal, “Intelligent design infers there was a designer.” He brought up old arguments related to the issue: scientists are stifling free speech by not allowing intelligent design into the classroom of science; our youth are being protected from such dangerous concepts at I.D.; some things in nature are just too complex to have evolved by means of natural selection—a designer needed to step in and form these complex systems whole; the watch and watchmaker analogy; the orbit of the earth is just right because of an intelligent designer (this is a new one).

In response to Price’s article was one (3/15/06)by Ed Buckner, Southern Director, Council for Secular Humanism. The article, entitled Price wrong again about Intelligent Design claimed that Price’s column was nothing but old wine in a new bottle, and the wine had soured.

I submitted an article to the MDJ after reading Price’s article. Here it is:

Scientific Explanations need to underscore science teaching

I look forward to reading Rev. Price’s Sunday editorial in the Marietta Daily Journal. I generally find the discussions in his pieces thoughtful. I was, therefore, surprised at his piece last Sunday, entitled “Intelligent design infers there was a designer. I am surprised that Rev. Price does not see the religious basis for intelligent design, when interestingly he was arguing that it was a scientific idea, and that our youth were being prevented from learning about this idea.

Centuries before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (co-discoverers of the theory of evolution by natural selection), were born, the idea that an intelligent designer was responsible for an organism’s complexity was well know. The leading proponent of the idea was the English theologian Richard Paley creator of the famous watchmaker analogy, written in 1802, that Rev. Price referred to in his piece. Paley’s idea of an intelligent designer was replaced by the theory of evolution by natural selection about 50 years later when Darwin published his famous book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. In 2005, two books were published on Darwin’s contribution. Each book was edited by two well known scientists, James D. Watson and Edward O. Wilson. Each book contained four of Charles Darwin’s books, including his “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

The idea of intelligent design was revived in 1991 by U.C. Berkeley law professor Philip Johnson after he had a religious conversion, in his book, “Darwin on Trial”. Later Johnson joined with the Discovery Institute in Seattle to promote the idea by affecting change in the curriculum of the nation’s schools. Not through research (as they claim) but through press releases and propaganda. Johnson’s idea, known as “wedge theory” is designed to drive a wedge (as to split a log) into evolutionary biology. There is no research agenda; but there is a very rigorous public relations program.

The science education community has not been involved trying to hold our youth hostage or protecting them from ideas such as intelligent design. Instead our youth have been pawns in a game led by real activists—the Discovery Institute and the Thomas More Law Center whose goal is to wedge their way into science classrooms through intimidation and propaganda.

Rev. Price refers to a “ever-expanding cadre of academicians” that are associated with the intelligent design movement. An analysis of these academicians reveals that very few of them are in the field of science and most are lawyers, government employees, engineers, and theologians. There is no scientific basis for intelligent design, even though Rev. Price claims that there is. The Discovery Institute does not have a scientific research program, and the central concept of the intelligent design ideology, irreducible complexity (in lay terms, some things are so complex they came into being whole—e.g. requiring an intelligent designer). The example they use over and over again is that bacterial cells are propelled by rotary type engines called flagella motors. According to Michael Behe (I.D. proponent), the rotary motor is irreducibly complex, it couldn’t have come into being via natural selection; it must have come into being whole. The problem is that this is not true. Parts can be removed, and it still works. Flagella came into being through natural selection.

The flaw here is that I.D. proponents want to define intelligent design negatively, as anything that is not chance or necessity. Science requires positive evidence. And this is what Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace did independent of each other.

And finally, the orb of the Earth’s orbit that Rev. Price mentions was explained centuries ago for Sir Isaac Newton in his Universal Law of Gravity, or should we rename it the Theory of Gravity.

Darwin, like Newton, proposed a scientific rather than a religious explanation: the fit between organisms and environments is the result of natural selection. Like all scientific explanations, his relies on natural causation. And this is the kind of thinking that should be espoused in science classrooms.

The Art and Creativity in Scientific Theories

Two of the books (by Edward O. Wilson and Simon Winchester) that I am currently reading are based on two of the most robust and important scientific theories that humans have discovered to explain two different sets of natural phenomena, namely the origin of the species, and origin and movement of crustal plates. Charles Darwin conceived the idea of evolution by natural selection (along with Alfred Russell Wallace), and the theory of plate tectonics emerged in the 1970’s through the work of a number of geologists such as Harry Hess and J. Tuzo Wilson.

Each theory revolutionized the thinking and the research in the respective fields of biology and geology, and have continued to be supported by continuing research. Both ideas have a robust simplicity to explain a wide range of facts and observations. The creative process in the development of these ideas is not very much different than the creativity that we often associate with art. And finally we might add, that each new idea resulted in a paradigm shift in their respective fields of science.

I was reminded about a play that I read many years ago which was written by Jacob Bronowski entitled the Abacus and the Rose: A Dialogue on Two World Systems. The play explores the similarities between art (rose) and science (abacus) and suggests that there is a great deal of similarity between an artist’s painting (say of Rembrant), and a scientific theory (say of Rutherford), and links the two systems by claiming that the both the painting and theory reflect the creativity of the the artist and the scientist.

In a recent book From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Darwin edited by Edward O. Wilson, Wilson points out that great scientific discoveries such as evolution by natural selection (and I would add, the theory of plate tectonics), are like “sunrises” illuminating first the steeples of the unknown, and then its dark hollows. Darwin’s ideas, which first appeared in 1845 with his publication of the Voyage of the Beagle, followed by On the Origin of Species in 1859, and then completed in 1871 and 1872 by The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, respectively. You can read each of these books in Wilson’s edited compendium.

The idea of natural selection, according to Thomas Huxley, is such a simple idea, he thought himself stupid that he didn’t think of it himself. Wilson, in one of the essay’s introducing the book, writes that evolution by natural selection is perhaps the only one true law unique to biological systems. The simplicity of the idea suggests that if a population of organisms contains multiple variations in some trait (say tall versus short necks, or perhaps red versus blue eyes), and if one of these variants suceeds in contributing more offspring to the next generation than the other variants, the overall compostion of the population changes, and evolution has occurred. The power of Darwin’s theory of natural selection was that it was a phenomenon of populations, not individuals. Creation of subpopulations and the emergence of new species that descended from existing populatiions was part of his theory of evolution by natural selection.

The idea of plate tectonics, as envisioned by Harry Hess, J. Tuzo Wilson, and a few other theorists, resulted in the New Geology, which looked at the whole earth, rather than bits of rocks and minerals here and there. Alfred Wegener had suggested that the continents might have drifted to their present locations, but he did not have observations and facts to suggest how this might have happended. Like evolution by natural selection, plate tectonics emerged as a simple idea when one realized that the earth was one very gigantic system of ocean basins and continents that move, dive and collide due to radioactive decay within the earth that results in very large convection currents that push up new and drag down old parts of the crust. As in evolution by natural selection, the geological cycle of creation of new crust and the decay of old goes on endlessly.

For further reading:
From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, Edited by Edward O. Wilson, Norton, 2006

A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, Harper Collins, 2005

For further surfing:
Understanding and Teaching About Evolution by Natural Selection

The Story of Plate Tectonics