Tuesday, January 24, 2006

An Important Theory

I usually try to avoid writing polemics against intelligent design, but this letter by Dr. Philip Skell to the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee made my blood boil:

[T]he issue of how to teach evolutionary theory has been dominated by voices at the extremes. On one extreme, many religious activists have advocated for Bible-based ideas about creation to be taught and for evolution to be eliminated from the science curriculum entirely. On the other hand, many committed Darwinian biologists present students with an idealized version of the theory that glosses over real problems and prevents students from learning about genuine scientific criticisms of it.

Both these extremes are mistaken. Evolution is an important theory and students need to know about it. But scientific journals now document many scientific problems and criticisms of evolutionary theory and students need to know about these as well.
If unresolved "problems" and "criticisms" are grounds for discarding an otherwise successful theory, physics is in very grave trouble (cf. intelligent falling), along with the rest of the sciences, and the humanities, and - oddly enough - whatever slender logical crutches support ID.

The reason high school students get a "glossed over" and "idealized" account of evolution is because you have to start somewhere. By the same token, a high-school history class will tell you the basics about Oliver Cromwell, but it won't spend an entire semester exploring scholarly debates over the role of fen drainage in the English Civil War. That sort of specialized study is what college, and graduate work, and post-graduate work are for. If we applied Skell's logic to physics, we'd be confounding kids with esoteric ontological debates over quantum theory before they'd grasped Newton.
Darwinian evolution is an interesting theory about the remote history of life. Nonetheless, it has little practical impact on those branches of science that do not address questions of biological history (largely based on stones, the fossil evidence)....None of the great discoveries in biology and medicine over the past century depended on guidance from Darwinian evolution---it provided no support.
Frances Crick would argue otherwise, I think, as would John D. Watson. And there's certainly evidence that Mendel read Darwin carefully, and was influenced by him.

Putting aside Skell's calculated use of the misnomer "Darwinian evolution," it's hard to conceive of an area of modern life that evolutionary biology doesn't affect (to say nothing of the stark physical fact of descent with modification). Medicine is an obvious example: the evolution of drug resistance, the identification and treatment of genetic diseases, the yearly creation of flu vaccines...hell, most ID theorists admit that drug resistance is a perfectly obvious example of Darwinian selection, before dismissing it as a "mere" example of micro-evolution.

What does Skell make of the link between sickle trait and malaria resistance? And as far as practicality goes, what about agriculture and animal husbandry? And what about ecotoxicology, microbial hazmat remediation, and forensics? Apparently, it's all castles in the air:
For those scientists who take it seriously, Darwinian evolution has functioned more as a philosophical belief system than as a testable scientific hypothesis.
So Skell thinks evolution's important, and should be taught in schools, but he also thinks that "scientists who take it seriously" are quasi-religious fanatics. Fair enough.
Intellectual freedom is fundamental to the scientific method. Learning to think creatively, logically and critically is the most important training that young scientists can receive.
True. But unless you're a solipsist, intellectual freedom doesn't include the freedom to ignore facts that are reasonably well established. I have no intellectual freedom to say that the sun goes around the earth, or that I was born before my parents, or that I can fly if I flap my arms fast enough.

As it stands now, every biologist has the freedom to believe in a creator, but does not have the right to make that belief a methodological or philosophical obligation for other biologists, or for students. That seems like a pretty good set-up to me.

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