Some Thoughts on the Teaching of Evolution

It’s gratifying for me to see that there are a more than a few who would not uncritically accept Laura Lorentzen’s “Why We Must Teach Evolution in the Classroom” in the Summer 2008 edition of the Phi Kappa Phi Forum.  Having done the “Masada” deal with that publication myself, I’m glad that there are some who would take issue with her position on the matter.  It’s a pleasant surprise.

One of the more extensive responses is that of Mr. Michael A. Flannery, Professor and Associate Director for Historical Collections, Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences, University of Alabama at Birmingham.  His in particular has nudged me to make some comments I’ve wanted to make for a long time on this issue, coming as I do from a) the applied sciences (engineering) and b) the geosciences (geotechnical engineering) as part of my expertise.

One of the big differences between pure and applied sciences is that, if one makes a faulty hypothesis about a phenomenon and it is later proven false, the universe will go on as before and no one (except for the scientist’s reputation and ego) is the worse for it.  In the applied sciences, if one makes a faulty design and it fails, the consequences only start with reputation and ego; they can involve public safety and economic loss.  That’s a major reason why engineers and designers tend to be conservative; the cost of failure is too high.

Unfortunately, advocates of evolution have taken what can only be described as an apocalyptic view of the consequences of not teaching what they believe to be true.  They seems to imply that the universe will stop if their idea of how it evolved is not set forth as unquestionable dogma.  Such panic is, IMHO, unjustified, at least form a scientific view.

In the case of evolution, as many critics of the original article have pointed out, it’s impossible to replicate experimentally the events of the past.  All theories set forth–evolution, ID and the like–are, from a scientific standpoint, interpretations of data subject to change, especially since the data itself is expanding.  Such a difficulty should inculate a sense of humility that the hypotheses being put forth are subject to future modification and/or even being discarded.  Given these uncertainties, the best thing to do is to set forth these hypotheses as just that: the best state of knowledge we have, subject to change, and concentrate (especially at the secondary level) on that which has the most practical application to the widest spectrum of students.

And it’s the practical application situation where things get complicated.  One thing evolutionsists hate to discuss is just what would happen if their dogma is not taught.  Using Young Earth Creationism as a red herring isn’t an answer, but that’s what generally gets done, either explicitly or implicitly.  As Mr. Flannery points out, the interpretation of the causes of changes in the species has been subject to variation from the very beginning of the debate, even when the age of the earth and the general chronology of prehistory is not an issue.

Concerning that, one thing that gets lost is an important change in the way physical causality is viewed.  In Darwin’s day, Newtonian mechanics were the “state of the art,” and this resulted in a deterministic bent in philosophies of the era (Marxism is another good example of that.)  Now we know that Newtonian mechanics are a special case and that quantum mechanics have taken away absolute determinism in causality.  The result we see around us today is not the only possible result, and this can be affirmed both from a scientific and a theological standpoint.

The last thing I’d like to observe–and I’ve mentioned this before–is that I find the trend in science towards litmus testing and dogmatism very disturbing.  The rise of secularism has been accompanied by the increase in turning science–real or perceived–into a religion, one enforced by state and institutional fiat if necessary.  One thing I’ve always liked about science and engineering is that they are open disciplines, subject to the laws of the universe.  If this is taken away the result will be the loss of qualified people going into the sciences, and that would be a tragedy for everyone.

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