Not teaching evolution

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This NYT article is fairly depressing. The author claims that teachers in a lot of schools are avoiding teaching evolution for failing to get into trouble. I don't know what the environment in my high school was, but I remember when I took biology that my teacher started the class by explaining that evolution was the central organizing principle of biology--which is exactly right.

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12 Comments

Look on the bright side--all those teachers could be explicitly teaching "intelligent design", or some other warmed-over variant of creationism.

Yes, evolution is a cornerstone of biology, and an essential part of a well-rounded science education. But every schoolchild fails to get taught all sorts of fundamentally important material. The gaps will always be there, and parents, or libraries, or later life can eventually make up for some of them.

It's the outright falsehoods that kids are taught as fact that worry me much more. Ignorance is much easier to fix than misapprehension. And if one year religious fundamentalists were suddenly unable to stop evolution from being taught to their children, what makes you think scientists would be able to stop "creation science" from being rammed down millions of kids' throats the following year?

Dan,

I take your structural point, but what I think is depressing here is that the environment makes this even a question. After all, you could make a similar structural point about the shape of the earth, but there's no significant opposition to teaching that the earth is round, not because we have the right decision structure but because noone believes that it's flat!

Yes, I agree it's sad that there's so much resistance to teaching evolution in the schools--as you say, it's a fundamental idea, and no doubt there are prospective biologists, medical researchers and so on who are being cheated out of promising careers (and the rest of us out of their contributions to the field) by biology courses crippled by this major omission.

But to be honest, this one is fairly low down on my list of glaring holes in America's school systems. There is no shortage of schools where basic English, mathematics, history, geography and science of any kind are not being taught. And there is no shortage of militant advocates of keeping all of this knowledge from being taught to children--not just evolution.

I'm not joking, either. It's scary, really, how many people are working very, very hard to make sure that schools teach children as little as possible. By comparison, the creationists are model supporters of good schooling. (And don't worry--that's not meant as a compliment to them.)

It is only a theory, after all... not a fact. The Clovis First theory on the peopling of the Americas was the organizing principle between much of earth science related to North and South America. It was such a powerful force that scientists were known to hide evidence against the theory for fear of being called heritics. Of course, we now know that Clovis First is incorrect and there are numerous theories on how the first humans came to the Americas.

Evolution is only a theory the way that gravity is only a theory. It's about as close to fact as anything we have in science.

It's funny how most people misconstrue the scientific use of "theory" and the popular use. In science, a theory is a hypothesis that has a substantial amount of supporting evidence and there is conceivable evidence that would disprove it, though it hasn't been found.

In the case of evolution, the amount of supporting evidence is absolutely enormous and the search for contradictory evidence has been very thorough. The Clovis First theory was not nearly as well supported and the fact of the matter is, the evidence saw the light of day within a few decades. That's how science is supposed to work.

What's funny about creationism/intelligent design is that it's not even a theory. There's no conceivable way to disprove it so it's not a well-formed hypothesis.

Well, you can try to take me to school on basic scientific terminology all you want, but...


Gravity is a law, not a theory.


My point regarding Clovis First is all the more relevant when defining it as a "scientific theory" -- an explanation of a set of related observations or events based upon proven hypotheses and verified multiple times by detached groups of researchers and often taught as fact. So it is actually more accurate to say "Evolution is only a theory the way that Clovis First is only a theory." Except we now know that Clovis First is wrong.

"Gravity is a law, not a theory"

Really? Which gravity are we talking about? Newtonian gravity, which is wrong? Or Einsteinian gravity which is probably also wrong, but in a way we don't know about yet.

Law isn't really that useful a term from an epistemic perspective anyway, since it spans a range from things like Hooke's law and Ideal Gas Law, which are more like rules of thumb to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics which is true, at least statistically, to Newton's 2nd Law, which is true at least at low speeds.

Sure, if you insist, I'll take you to school a little more:

Gravity is really a bad counter example as Eric noted. As far as I can tell, you're confusion here is between observation and theory. The "fact" that things fall to the Earth (as far as we know) is an observation. Newtonian and Einsteinian gravity are two theories to explain this observation. As far as physicists are formally concerned, there is no such thing as the Law of Gravity.

And you're continued harping on Clovis First really shows a complete lack of understanding of or an intentional desire to misrepresent the issue. The whole point about "theory" in the scientific sense is that there is a spectrum from strong to weak.

Because you're so fond of analogies, I'll use one to demonstrate the fallacy of your reasoning. You say:

(1) Clovis First and Evolution are both theories
(2) Clovis First was wrong
(3) Therefore, evolution is wrong

Let's see if this logic works in general:

(1) Yugos and Ferraris are both cars
(2) Yugos are slow
(3) Therefore, Ferraris are slow.

Nope, doesn't work. To get technical, "wrong" and "theory" are overlapping sets just as "car" and "slow" are overlapping sets. A member of "theory" is not neceessarily a member of "wrong" (and vice versa) just as a member of "car" is not necessarily a member of "slow" (and vice versa). But perhaps the teachers in your state didn't teach Venn diagrams. Good thing I took you to school on this distinction.

Evolution is an incredibly strong theory. The evidence to support Evolution is truly staggering in its scope. The search for evidence to disprove it, thanks to general sceptics and religious ideologues, has been quite thorough. With no contradiction yet discovered.

But if you have some real evidence rather than vague insinuations of a conspiracy, let's hear it.

So it's quite OK for science to have two laws on gravity depending on which is most convenient but how dare anybody have even a reservation about the vastly more complex theory of evolution?


To set the record straight, I never said anything about the theory of evolution being wrong, but I do hope your fancy Venn diagrams also show that a member of the "theory" set is also not necessarily a member of the "right" set. My point about Clovis First is that well-regarded theories tend to bias the search for the truth in that many scientists purposefully hid (some even buried) evidence contrary to it so they wouldn't be called heretics or be neglected funding.


Is the theory of evolution right or wrong? I don't know, but with an incomplete fossil record and things like the recantation of African Eve, I can see how some people would have their doubts.


Unwavering faith in man's science is a every bit a religion no matter how much you dress it with intellectual snickering at the other churches.

"So it's quite OK for science to have two laws on gravity depending on which is most convenient but how dare anybody have even a reservation about the vastly more complex theory of evolution?"


I think the problem here is a lack of specificity about what the "theory of evolution" means. There are a number of issues here:


1. Natural selection--natural selection is easy to reproduce in the lab and we have any number of examples to work from. There's no realistic doubt about the fact that natural selection works.


2. Evolution of humans--we obviously don't know how to evolve humans in real time but we have overwhelming evidence that current humans evolved into our current state from animals which looked very much not like humans. This evidence comes in the form of fossils, radioactive dating, anatomical studies, and extensive molecular biological data. There's no realistic doubt about this either. The fossil record may be incomplete (see below) but it's easily complete enough to make this story the only plausible one.


3. The exact set of steps by which humans evolved--what isn't understood that well is the exact set of historical stages and selective pressures that created homo sapiens. This is where the incompleteness of the fossil record gets problematic. But, whatever creationists would like you to think, this doesn't cast doubt on the overall theory in any meaningful sense.


A similar situation obtains with gravity.


1. Objects are attracted to each other--it's well established that there is an attractive force between any two objects in the classical domain. We have a rough theory (Newton's) that does a pretty good job of approximating them. This is good enough for 99% of situations and since it's pretty simple to express we use it most of the time.


2. It turns out that under certain extreme situations (very large or fast moving) objects, Newtonian mechanics isn't that great an approximation. We've got a better approximation (GR) which we can use in those situations. There's nothing puzzling or unprincipled here, any more than it's unprincipled to use a ruler to measure the size of your paper when you could use vastly more accurate laser measurement techniques. It's simply a matter of Newton being good enough for most purposes.


3. GR has great explanatory power but it doesn't mesh well with another theory that also has great explanatory power (QM). Everyone expects that there's some merger to be had that has better explanatory power but there's a lot of uncertainty about what it is, just like there's uncertainty about the exact evolutionary history of humans.


"Unwavering faith in man's science is a every bit a religion no matter how much you dress it with intellectual snickering at the other churches."


This kind of argument gets hauled out a lot in debates like this, but frankly it's not very powerful in this particular case. The part of science that you have to take on faith (cf. Quine, Popper, etc.) is the epistemic validity of the scientific method. Once you've done that, deciding on the validity of any individual scientific claim about the way things are is mostly a matter of crank turning (from a philosophical perspective.) If you want to deny that science is a valid way of addressing this kind of issue, that's fine, but once you've bought into the scientific method you pretty much have to play by its rules about how to determine truth, by which rules evolution is basically about as good as it gets.

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