December 08, 2007

The Best Evidence that Science Education Needs Improvement Often Comes from the Opposition

Today's Bradenton Herald includes a brief list of public comments made on the Florida Department of Education's website for comments on the new educational standards proposed for the state. A couple of these comments stood out to me as providing excellent evidence as to why there is a necessity to specifically teach evolutionary theory and to improve science education generally. They fall so wide of the mark in terms of an understanding of these things generally that they speak volumes as to where there is room for improvement.

"How can anyone accept the theory of evolution? The last time I went to the zoo the monkeys weren't evolving into a man."
This comment reveals a tremendous misunderstanding of every aspect of what evolutionary theory says. It shows that the commenter doesn't know that speciation is a process that normally (though not always) occurs over a geological scale of time, so you can't stand around at the zoo and watch captive animals turn into different species. It also fails to take into account that speciation occurs in populations, and that not every population of a given species will evolve into a new species even when other populations have done so. Indeed, there are organisms on earth which have remained unchanged for many millions of years (e.g., Limulus) and zoo animals are generally removed from the sorts of selective pressures that foster speciation in the first place. It also misses the point that nowhere in evolutionary theory is it posited that human beings are descended from monkeys, though we certainly shared a common ancestor with monkeys (and apes, and squirrels...) if you go back far enough. That ancestor itself, however, was not a monkey. This level of ignorance provides a good demonstration of why there is a need to teach evolutionary theory in schools.

If you want to challenge evolutionary theory, you may certainly do so. In fact, I'll be the first to get in line and encourage anyone to have a crack at it. However, you can't challenge something if you don't know what it is you're challenging first. I'm a professed science geek. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I manage to tweak the nucleotides of a chitinase gene from an insect a little bit and come up with an active site for a mammalian lysozyme. I truly am that geeky, and discovery truly is that exciting for me. If anyone can come up with real evidence that there is a fundamental flaw in the conceptual framework that we call evolutionary theory, you will have my eternal admiration as being one of the greatest scientists of all time. Until you actually know what evolutionary theory is, though, you are in no position to make such a discovery. Get educated and have at it! But if you want to call a halt to the teaching of one of the best-evidenced theories in all of scientific inquiry based upon falsehoods like those embodied in the above comment, I and others like me who have bothered to learn what the theory actually says are just going to see you as an ignoramus telling tales. You have no basis upon which to justify your opinions being considered seriously and you absolutely have failed in your attempt to challenge evolutionary biology.
"Please do not let these liberal wackos in the Washington foundations warp our young minds into thinking that their existence is an accident."
And again, this is a profound misunderstanding of what evolutionary theory says. There is nothing political in evolutionary theory. Indeed, the mechanisms by which evolution occurs are generally rather conservative in nature. For instance, when constructing a molecular clock, we often talk about the rate of mutations accumulating at something like 10-8 per year in a given species at a given locus on a given chromosome. This is very conservative stuff and something based on observation, not on some political agenda. This is no more "liberal" than is equating pi with 3.14... Nor does evolutionary theory state that any individual's existence is accidental. In fact, part of it is the notion of sexual selection which is anything but an accident. Moreover, we acknowledge that sexual selection occurs because both observation and experimentation allow us to see it at work over and over again. Humans, we know, also make conscious choices about mating, so it can hardly be said that anyone's existence is "accidental." There's nothing in evolutionary theory that tries to dismiss the importance of families, of love between individuals, or the idea that each of us is free to find purpose in our existence. It doesn't back up the notion that such meaning is preordained by a supernatural force, though, and that's really to what this comment is objecting. Such an assertion is clearly a statement of belief, and if you want to believe that's true, fine. If you want to propose that it's a statement of the objective nature of the universe and so turn it into a scientific principle, though, you're going to have to find the same sort of evidence that I have to provide when I want to make a much less important assertion about some far more trivial item. Again, have at it! Bring on the evidence and if it's sound, evolutionary theory will be revised to incorporate this new data or tossed entirely if the model doesn't fit at all. Science deals in provisional truths, not absolutes. Old theories get revised all the time... but first you have to know what theory you're challenging.
"This is unacceptable, unless Biblical Creationism is taught alongside evolution."
Why Biblical Creationism? Why not one of the six Creation stories from the Linga Purana or the Navajo creation myth? This is typical for someone who believes that public schools should act as religious indoctrination centers. Unless one can support the idea that one creation story is better than another one by providing empirical data showing that it is correct and the others are wrong, there is no reason that one should be favored over another other than pure personal bias. The reason, then, that Biblical Creationism isn't taught along evolutionary theory is that the former is an opinion based solely on something that approaches a cultural norm while the latter is based on evidence of how the world actually works that has been subjected to rigorous testing that comes from the overall scientific method. Most of those who make this argument don't have the first idea about how hard we look at this thing we call evolution, how we test all of these mechanisms and pathways and genes and all of it, and how it does get challenged and revised within the context of valid inquiry. They don't know about it because they don't care to know about it. Does this mean we should leave students unable to mount those challenges themselves and so eventually improve upon our understanding so as to prop up some dusty religious theory, whether it is Biblical Creationism or the Hindu idea of Yugas?
"I will not allow you to teach my child this no matter what you put in your curriculum. I stand for Christ and his creation."
Funny thing about arguments like this; I've read Genesis and I can't recall Christ showing up in there at all. Beyond that, I suppose that every parent has the right to keep their child ignorant of whatever they want to so long as that child is under the age of majority. That's a sad thing, but it's perfectly legal as far as I know. However, that parent is certainly limiting that child's options later in life, after he/she becomes an adult. What are you going to do if that kid, upon reaching the age of majority and escaping this sheltering shadow of imposed ignorance, finds out about this thing called "science" and decides to pursue a career therein? Shoot him? Disown him? Lock her in the basement for the rest of her life? Evolution isn't just something taught in schools, after all. This comment is made out of fear, and fear is quite often the result of ignorance. It is also made out of a desire to impose a religious nature upon publically-funded education which, thankfully, is out of the question. Eventually, your child enters the great, big world, a world in which evolutionary theory has been tested again and again and is the glue that not only holds together biology but is drawn from and informs chemistry, statistics, and numerous other fields. Unlike the world of people who believe that the world is a neatly compartmentalized place in which you can shut out an idea by shutting out some small bit of life, it's far messier than that. Ideas and theories slop over into many disciplines, many areas, and it's not always that easy to see. If you want your child to have the wherewithal to challenge evolutionary biology, he/she must first know what evolutionary biology is.
"How is anyone's life improved by believing in evolution?"
Short answer: it isn't. Evolution is not a matter of belief but an explanation that incorporates absolutely every bit of data that we have about life in the entire universe (which, at the moment, is restricted to earth — but should we find extraterrestrial life someday, evolutionary theory will have to accommodate that new set of data or else face the scrapheap of history like any other unsupported scientific theory). However, the principles comprised by evolutionary theory have improved our lives whether any one of us agrees with it or not, and that is a hallmark of a sound theory. We posit and design new medicines based upon information that has come about as the result of evolutionary biology. We understand heredity and can predict and treat heredity diseases because of it. There is software that runs the internet and other communication networks that incorporates evolutionary principles. We select and breed plants and animals based on this knowledge. All of us, whether or not we "believe" in evolution, benefit from the products of this theory every day, although we are generally unaware of our doing so because it has become some commonplace and so integrated into our existence that we don't question and investigate these things unless it's our job to do so.

Do you have a lawn? Do you put fungicide on that lawn to keep it nice and green? Do you feel that you benefit from having a green, fungus-free lawn? Then you benefit from evolutionary biology, the principles of which led us to an understanding of the mechanisms of chitin synthesis and so to something called Polyoxin-D, a chemical which is structurally analogous to the monomers that fungi use to build the chitin which is essential to their survival. Thanks to an understanding of evolution, this compound is now commonly used in fungicides that don't harm mammals or birds (since they don't synthesize chitin) nor insects (since they use a different genetic, evolution-derived pathway for chitin synthesis that doesn't incorporate this particular competitive inhibitor). The benefit that you derive from having your nice lawn, that mundane little bit of a better life, comes to you precisely from the wonderful world of evolutionary biology. All you see is your nice, green lawn and, perhaps, a little increase in your property value. Does it matter whether you "believe" in evolution or not? That Polyoxin-D works in just the same way and just as well... but if not for evolutionary theory, you wouldn't have it. What far more important benefits would we not have if the discipline didn't exist in the first place? Again, the comment shows nothing more than the ignorance that utterly necessitates that we do a better job of educating our children about science, including (but certainly not limited to) evolutionary biology.

The very presence of comments like these don't lend any weight to the assertion that evolutionary biology shouldn't be taught as evolution in public schools and they certainly don't lend weight to some necessity that there is a competing theory that must be taught alongside evolution. All they do is demonstrate very clearly that those who oppose the teaching of evolution generally don't know to what they are opposed in the first place.

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