09 November 2004

So You Say You Want an Evolution

…it doesn't look to me like it's "gonna be alright." A trial started yesterday in Atlanta over stickers placed on high-school biology texts that proclaim that evolution "is only a theory" in an effort to placate fundamentalists and proponents of Inscrutable Design. There are news items all over; my favorite, because it's from an outside perspective, is in this morning's Guardian.

I'm afraid that after the election results we're going to see more and more of these things. Leaving aside the serious separation-of-church-and-state issues for just a moment, the sticker just plain doesn't belong on a science textbook. Inscrutable Design—indeed, creationism of all stripes—and fundamentalism necessarily presume inerrancy. Science embraces error as both a learning method and as the foundation for new scientific thought. These are incompatible modes of reasoning; and the one doesn't belong in a classroom devoted to the other. This is particularly true in a "foundational" course. Consider, for example, physics. Classical (Newtonian) physics simply cannot explain everything about the universe, or even all phenomena in physics. Nonetheless, that's where one begins a physics education, because understanding classical physics is a necessary step toward quantum physics, or optics, or cosmology, or indeed virtually anything else. Similarly, one does not question the parallel postulate in much (if any) of the basic high school math course in geometry, even though without the work of men who had the courage to reject it you wouldn't be reading this (the transistor, for one, depends upon non-Euclidean geometric concepts).

So I don't even have to reject religion to reject the sticker, because it's a truisim. Evolution is indeed a "theory"—but not a "theory" as fundamentalists would define the word. Perhaps their vocabulary is too small because the words "hypothesis" and "conjecture", among others, don't appear in their respective sacred texts. "Theory" does not mean "something that cannot be proven at all," which is what the ID people would have it mean. It means "an internally consistent, organized set of tested hypotheses that appear to explain a specific universe of evidence." That is precisely what evolutionary theory does. That is precisely the kind of facts and reasoning one is supposed to learn in a science class.

I find the selective quotation and citation from the Bible (among other places) used to attack teaching in science classes to be more than a bit hypocritical. One must wonder exactly who are the devils quoting the scripture in this instance; and perhaps try to reconcile the sixth seal with tectonic activity, which isn't actually very hard.

But then, excessive influence of one religious philosophy in this country should surprise no one. It's in our history (an article that appeared by coincidence today); and they did too burn witches at Salem.