Monday, August 01, 2005

The Evolution of Science Class

Teaching Creationism or even Intelligent Design in the classroom may be going too far for even some solid conservatives. Writing for Time Magazine, staunchly conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer opposes those who would seek to add faith into the science class.

Krauthammer’s conclusion says it all:

To teach faith as science is to undermine the very idea of science, which is the acquisition of new knowledge through hypothesis, experimentation and evidence. To teach it as science is to encourage the supercilious caricature of America as a nation in the thrall of religious authority. To teach it as science is to discredit the welcome recent advances in permitting the public expression of religion. Faith can and should be proclaimed from every mountaintop and city square. But it has no place in science class. To impose it on the teaching of evolution is not just to invite ridicule but to earn it.

I should first say that I find the theory of evolution to be extremely compelling. But I also believe in God and do not think our presence here is some kind of cosmic accident. As such, I find the Intelligent Design (ID) assertion a plausible means by which to integrate my faith with science.

But here’s the thing: ID is nearly impossible to observe. We can suppose the hand of God, but we cannot see it. And although it is true that we cannot observe evolution in the sense that we can’t see it happening, we can observe mutations, gene flow, genetic drift and specification through natural selection.

The difference is that evolution can be studied using science. Intelligent Design can only be assumed or debated from an intellectual or theological standpoint. And that’s the difference between faith and science. We need no hard evidence to have faith in the existence of God. But we need facts, experiments and verifiable evidence to believe a scientific theory.

Perhaps the theory of evolution explains how God made all this happen. But science has no means to study that. And thus, God’s role is not scientific. That doesn’t mean science is opposed to God. It simply means science is separate from religion. And maintaining that separation is essential in educating our children.

I would certainly support more comprehensive theology courses in schools (the study of religions being integral to the understanding of world societies). But I simply have not been convinced that creationism or intelligent design deserve a place in our science classes. They just aren’t assumptions that meet the qualifications to be considered science.


At 9:53 AM, Blogger AubreyJ said...

Good morning… I agree with Charles on this issue all the way... but I didn’t know that he ever wrote anything for the TIMES… Just doesn’t seem to be his kind of group to work with...
Good read to start the week with though…

At 10:28 AM, Blogger Jonathan C said...

While I certainly agree that creationism should not be taught in schools, I do tend to think that (in the Northeast anyway) biology class may have gone too far in the other direction.

Most bio teachers like to assert as fact that all evolution, from the formation of primitive peptides to natural selection, was entirely spontaneous without any nudge from a divine power.

While that is certainly a reasonable hypothesis, it is not grounded in the same sort of evidence that accompanies the rest of evolutionary theory.

The fact that species have evolved over time is near undeniable, and should certainly be taught in any responsible classroom. The supposition that mutations were random 100% of the time and cannot be attributed to a higher power is not provable. I believe that denying the possibility is just as out of bounds as teaching it.

At 4:18 PM, Blogger Tom - doubts and all said...

Well reasoned positions from both Charles and Alan.

Jonathan, how did you manage to determine what most biology teachers "assert as fact"?

I myself have rarely, if ever, heard any teacher say anything outside of mathematics was true "100% of the time".

At 6:05 PM, Blogger Ted Carmichael said...

Aubrey ... FYI, the essay is from Time Magazine, not the Times ... Krauthammer is a regular contributor.

Jonathan ... a Christian science teacher once told me that one of the great gifts that God gave the world were the 'laws' of science, and that they are immutable laws. Thanks to the absolute consistency of these laws, we are able to intelligently study, predict, and understand how the universe works. It is, in his words, a blessing.

As such, for a scientist to deny any "nudge from a divine power" could be a Christian point of view as well as an atheist one. The challenge is to discover how things like 'random' mutation occur, and how natural selection takes advantage of such mutation, rather than giving up and saying "God did it."

Scientists may accept that God created gravity, but that doesn't preclude them from trying to discover how it works. Similarly, scientists search for a consistent framework to understand 'random' mutations and their effect on evolution. To claim that these mutations are directed by the hand of God would mean that the laws governing the universe have been suspended, however briefly, by God, which would completely undermine the scientific method.

You may continue to believe in the 'hand of God' argument if you wish, but you won't find any proof of it. Indeed, if my understanding of Christian doctrine is correct, such proof is not only unattainable, but also unnecessary, as belief in God is guided by faith. As such, any scientist that was searching for evidence of God's influence isn't much of a scientist ... and, frankly, isn't very clear on his faith, either.

At 11:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still vividly remember my first year of teaching. One of my students brought in an article about a new dinosaur found. Another student jumped up and began screaming at the top of her lungs, "There is no such thing as dinosaurs. Scientists made them up to kill God. My Grandpa wasn't a monkey."

Needless to say, I was stunned but I gathered myself together and attempted to correct her misunderstandings.

Last week, Toyota chose to build a blant in Canada rather than the U.S. Why? Because the American workers are uneducated (and because Canada provides healthcare but that's another story).

The point is that scientific literacy is pathetic in this country and the debate over intelligent design proves this. No where else in the developed world would this even be debated. In our ignorance, the American people do not even understand what science is and is not.

At 3:09 PM, Blogger Jonathan C said...

I sense I have been misunderstood by Tom and Ted, known hereafter in this comment as the singular entity "TT."

If you would read my comment completly before shoving me into your pigeon-hole, you would have read that I do not support the teaching of intelligent design in schools. As a further note of clarification, I'd also like to point out that I in no way consider intelligent design a scientific "theory," because by definition a theory must have supporting evidence.

My point only was that it is equally inappropriate for a curriculum to take the position that the origins of both the universe and life must have happened in a "god-vacuum."

I am also interested in why you chose to include the word "random" in quotes since evolutionary theory is predicated on randomness. As an aside, we know how mutations can occur. Besides the swapping of large segments of chromosones during meiosis, smaller point mutiations can occur during this same process, usually by basic transcription errors. We know how natural selection takes advantages of the exceedingly few random mutations that are beneficial (all but one in a few million mutations is harmful to an organism), simply because it promotes survival of the organism, which alows the organism to pass on that same gene, in "mutated" form to its offspring. I don't really see how any of this is "giving up and saying 'God did it.'"

Despite all that, I wasn't talking about point mutations and natural selection, anyway. I was talking about the origins of the first primitive amino acids, and how those amino acids naturally bound together without the benefit of a ribosome to form peptides, and how out of all the billions of peptides that must have necessarily naturally formed some were found to actually be stable in the hostile earth environment, and how out of the billions of stable peptides that would be required, how one of them would have stumbled upon the formula for self replication, and out of all the self replicating peptides, how some mutated enought to make different kinds of peptides that actually had function, and how these peptides that had function eventually came together to make a small "community" of peptides, and how that community was able to have enough functional peptides that were aware enough of each other to build the first cellular membrane around themselves out of other organic material to make the first one celled, non-DNA based, organism.

To say with certainty that all this happened without outside influence not only has no scientific proof (if you disagree, find me some), but is pretty much thumbing its nose at some of the basic laws of thermodynamics.

As far as northeastern teachers are concerned, you are correct, I did not conduct a statistically significant poll of biology teachers to arrive at my conclusion. However, as a biochemistry major in college, I have had more than a dozen biology / life-science teachers or proffessors, and all but one of those would dismiss the possibility of a guiding influence out of hand.

Oddly, now that I work in the biotech industry, I find many more Bio-ish Ph D. non-atheists than I did among the "proffessor" set. I'm still trying to figure out why that is, but I expect that it is because acedemia is more interested in style, while industry is interested only in results.

At 3:47 PM, Anonymous Dan Harkavy said...


You said that you have trouble with the idea of primative amino acids assembling themselves, eventually forming proteins.

Leaving aside recent examples of self-assembling small peptides, that concept has nothing whatsoever to do with evolution, despite the confusion of most creationists and some scientists and teachers.

Evolution deals with how life has changed since it first started and reproduced. It does not (and due to lack of data CAN NOT) address where life comes from.

The origins of life are speculation at best, and even experiments that test whether or not life COULD have assembled spontaneously do not and can not address whether or not it did.

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Jonathan C said...


That depends on what scope of evolutionary theory is being discussed. True, basic Darwinian Theory dealt only with the divergence of species. But as has been noted before, evolution has become much more refined and far reaching in the past century due to the extraordinary amount of research that has been performed since Darwin’s first junket to Galapagos. Evolutionary theory stretches at least as far back as the supposition that the first eukaryotes formed as the descendants of prokaryotes who ingested other prokaryotes and assimilated their meal’s specialized functions. That takes us almost to the point where I left off my narrative (aside from the evolution of DNA itself). That particular piece was more of an illustrative rant directed at those who claim creationists simply lack cognitive capacity. I apologize if I blurred the two fields.

As far as the self-assembling peptides are concerned, those were built by other organisms, and as such do nothing to prove that the huge thermodynamic hurdles of creating those primitive proteins spontaneously could be cleared. In my mind, it is likely that the first life arose in the progression I spelt out in my last post. Of course, I’m sure I’m wrong on some (if not all!) of the details because, as you were absolutely correct in pointing out, we have no data to corroborate any model at this time.

What my fundamental point (which no one seems interested in addressing) is that due to the precise reasons that Dan spelled out (lack of data), teachers should neither claim nor deny that any outside influence has occurred during the origins of life (which I did, in fact, discuss back in my AP Bio class in high school, and continued in college during introductory Biochemistry classes), or in Evolution itself. When confronted with the inevitable question of whether or not God played a role in Evolution or the OoL, the answer should be “we have no data on that,” instead of the absolutist “no.”

At 12:21 AM, Blogger Cantankerous Bitch said...

I won't pretend to engage you in the parsing of biological mechanisms, for I'm simply not qualified. I would venture to comment on the response of scientists (and educators) on the question of divine influence.
Let's assume there's a biology lecture in progress, and someone chirps up from the back row "What about God?"
I would hope that the lecturer would simply respond by saying "This field of study does not offer conclusions on the presence or absence of God. That question is one for theologians and philosophers, and has no relevance to the topic at hand."
Would this, in your view, be an offensive reply, lacking in disclosure somehow?

At 12:24 AM, Blogger Cantankerous Bitch said...

Sorry -- it's late, and I've posted prematurely. I see your "we have no data on that" suggestion.
Nothing to see but blog fatigue here folks. Move along.

At 6:15 AM, Blogger Ted Carmichael said...

Jonathan - First let me say, I get the feeling I may have offended you. I wasn't trying to shove you into a "pigeon-hole" or anything like that, and I'm sorry if you were insulted, even a little. Please believe that any antagonism I may have conveyed was an error in my word choice, rather than a true expression of my opinion.

As such, let me try to clarify a few of my points, and respond to a few of your objections. The easiest first:

I am also interested in why you chose to include the word "random" in quotes since evolutionary theory is predicated on randomness.

I used the single quotation marks only to draw slight attention to this word (as well as the word "laws" in a previous paragraph), not to disparage the validity of randomness in evolutionary theory. A "law" in science is generally thought of as an immutable and consistent force or idea, which is not the primary definition of this word. In a similar vein, "random" can have more than one conception. It could refer to a chance encounter, or something that is unpredictable, or unknowable, or even used to describe "noise" in a signal or data set. I merely meant to highlight the ambiguity that could exist with this word.

And, indeed, pointing out such ambiguity is not just a digression into the minutia of etymology, but central to my point. Sometimes, using the word "random" hides a reluctance to explore the reasons why something happens, perhaps because it is thought to be unknowable, or unpredictable, or even negligible.

The idea of a God or Gods has also been used in similar circumstances. When I said some people "give up" and say it was God's hand, I was alluding to this phenomena, which has occurred time and again over the centuries. Why does the sun move across the sky? Apollo pulls it with his chariot. Why do volcanoes erupt? The Gods were angry. Why did these particular amino acids form as a prelude to life? Intelligent design.

What my fundamental point (which no one seems interested in addressing) is that due to the precise reasons that Dan spelled out (lack of data), teachers should neither claim nor deny that any outside influence has occurred during the origins of life...

In my view, the role of the scientist is to explore the reasons behind events, rather than the purpose of those events. In doing so, it is entirely appropriate and consistent to deny "outside influence" in the creation of life. (This is also, I believe, consistent with Christian doctrine ... but only inasmuch as "outside influence" means something that would violate the natural laws.) "Purpose" is a matter of faith. "Method" is a matter of scientific inquiry.

If one believes as I do (as a matter of faith?) that God doesn't interfere with the natural laws that He created, then it is a simple step to extend that and say He never interfered with them. Certainly, we can't "prove" gravity exists ... we take it on faith, as we have never identified a counter-example. Similarly, we assume gravity existed since - or was created by - the first singularity that sparked the big bang. It is a solid, but ultimately unprovable, assumption.

Yet solid nevertheless, because we have used such reasoning time and again to unlock the secrets of the world. A belief in a set of consistent laws is paramount to the role of a scientist, and refuting intelligent design merely extends that belief. What scientist could have discovered that the Earth revolves around the Sun without first denying Apollo and his chariot?

To say with certainty that all this happened without outside influence not only has no scientific proof (if you disagree, find me some), but is pretty much thumbing its nose at some of the basic laws of thermodynamics.

I assume you are referring here to the idea of entropy, that is, the idea that the universe is inexorably degrading towards a uniform state. As you undoubtedly know, since life - and evolution - describe a process of increasing complexity, the creation of life can be viewed as counter to entropy, extremely unlikely, and therefore something that probably couldn't happen without a little help along the way.

I'm afraid I can't find you proof that the creation of life wasn't so unlikely. I always sucked at biology, an area you obviously have a firm grasp of. But I've already addressed why I'm looking for an alternative explanation, so I'll leave that part alone here.

What I can do is point you towards a very exciting, but relatively new, field of study that ignores the why and attempts to explain the how ... that is, how life "thumb[ed] its nose at some of the basic laws of thermodynamics." Sometimes called "complexity," sometimes "emergence," sometimes described as the study of complex adaptive systems, this new field outlines how systems of simple elements can easily - perhaps inevitably - self-organize into more complicated forms. It is still a vague theory, in the early stages, but reaches across many disciplines: biology, physics, economics, computer science, and others.

"Complexity..." by Michael Waldrop is an excellent primer on the subject, and talks about the Santa Fe Institute, which was created to support research in this area. There are other books as well, which I'd be glad to recommend, but they're pretty easy to find ... just search for some of the terms above.

Anyway, I've enjoyed the debate, so thanks for that. Even if I didn't convince anyone else, it helped clarify my own thoughts. At something close to 1000 words, it better have. ;-)

Cheers. 1/2(TT)


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