February 04, 2008

Fred Cutting: Framer of Florida Science Standards and "Teach the Controversy" Advocate

Fred Cutting, a retired engineer and one of the framers of Florida's proposed science education standards, has a column in today's Tallahassee Democrat in which he explains his critical position on teaching that evolution is the underlying principle across modern biology. He raises some rather familiar — and massively misguided — objections. First, here are some salient points from and a link to his column:

Teach critiques of Darwin, too

...At our May framers' meeting, a major concern from the experts brought in was that in the United States we are teaching science "a mile wide and an inch deep." American students are each a walking encyclopedia of facts without sufficient depth of understanding of the underlying concepts in science.

In order to remedy this problem, the Proposed Florida Science Standards included a requirement that students must "recognize that the strength and usefulness of a scientific claim is established through scientific argumentation, which depends on the use of critical and logical thinking, and the active consideration of alternative scientific explanations to explain all the data presented."

This is a good approach to science education. Somewhat inexplicably, however, there is no indicator in the proposed standards that applies this philosophy of science education to the teaching of evolution...

...As a member of the Framers' Committee, I am submitting a minority report suggesting that the following language be adopted into Florida's science standards:

"Students should learn why some scientists give scientific critiques of standard models of neo-Darwinian evolution or models of the chemical origin of life."

I oppose including religion in the science classroom, and this proposal in no way brings religion into the science classroom. There are serious scientific critiques of neo-Darwinism that deserve to be heard by students...

For example, the proposed Florida science standards claim that, "Evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence." This is true for micro-evolution but not so for origination of organismal forms or the origination of life itself (i.e. macro-evolution)...
The scientific critiques of Darwinian evolution aren't critiques of evolutionary theory, a point which I think Cutting is missing. For example, the theory (once a hypothesis, now well-supported enough to be considered a theory itself) that eukaryotic cells as they now exist are the result of endosymbiotic events is a valid, scientific critique of Darwin's original ideas. It is a scientific critique because the hypotheses that Margulies put forth were testable and falsifiable. In the end, they also explained a number of natural phenomena of which Darwin wasn't even aware (mitochondrial genomes and multiple cell membranes among them).

Now, this critique of Darwin is taught as a standard part of evolutionary biology.

Another critique is the theory of horizontal gene transfer. Darwin knew nothing about it. It is now a standard part of evolutionary biology. You would be hard pressed to find a biologist who would say it doesn't happen, in fact.

There are other examples, but these are two valid critiques that should — and are — taught in science classes. They're scientific critiques, and they demonstrate that biologists aren't "dogmatic" about inquiry beyond the scope of Darwin's old books. However, they also demonstrate that a critique needs to conform to general principles of good science in order to be considered by scientists. The kinds of criticisms that Cutting seems to be talking about aren't science, they're speculation at best and argument from tradition at worst.

Cutting tips his hand when he makes the claim that there is a distinction between micro- and macro-evolution. In fact, macro-evolution (speciation) is nothing more than the cumulative effect of microevolution (the change in allelic frequencies in populations, including the rise and occasional fixation of new alleles by mutation). In fact, the whole of phylogenetics is based exactly on what Cutting calls macroevolution, and phylogenetics is falsifiable and predictable. Moreover, Cutting is dead wrong when he tries to assign the "origination of life" to macroevolution. In fact, this is an entirely separate issue and has its own name — abiogenesis. Abiogenesis is a question of biochemistry, not evolutionary biology. The latter has its purview in explaining the origin of the diversity of life and how it changes over time. In other words, where the first living thing came from is not necessary to know, although it is an interesting question and research — primarily carried out by biochemists, not evolutionary biologists — is ongoing and productive.

Still, even if we never discovered that first organism itself, that doesn't stop us from saying anything about all the organisms that came afterward.

Whatever Cutting's axe to grind here is, he's going to have to do a lot better than what he's written in this column if he wants his criticisms to be taken seriously by anyone but those with a religious or political agenda in this question. As his comments stand, they stink of either ignorance or willful deceit. Which stink is wafting from them isn't important, however. Neither one portends anything good for the quality of science education in Florida.

Note that I am emailing a link to this entry to Cutting and inviting his comment on what I've written here. I am interested to see what further he has to say on these points. Whether he'll choose to respond is, of course, entirely up to him. I'd rather that he reply here than in email, however, so that anyone interested can also follow along and reply if they so desire.

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