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Reflecting on Darwin

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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Charles Darwin, photographed by Julia Margaret...
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As many are probably aware, the 12th of February was the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. It seems appropriate, then, to reflect on the latest attempts to challenge evolutionary biology through a belief in what is called “intelligent design.” But first, I think, it’s important to note that much has changed since Darwin first proposed his theory, and referring to modern evolutionary biology as “Darwinism” is in many ways misleading (Let’s Get Rid of Darwinism – Olivia Judson Blog – NYTimes.com):

“Why Darwin was wrong about X”; “Was Darwin wrong about Y?”; “What Darwin didn’t know about Z”: these are common headlines in newspapers and magazines, in both the biological and the general literature. Then there are the words: Darwinism (sometimes used with the prefix “neo,” Darwinist (ditto), Darwinian.

Why is this a problem? Because it’s all grossly misleading. It suggests that Darwin was the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega, of evolutionary biology, and that the subject hasn’t changed much in the 149 years since the publication of the “Origin.”

He wasn’t, and it has. Although several of his ideas — natural and sexual selection among them — remain cornerstones of modern evolutionary biology, the field as a whole has been transformed. If we were to go back in a time machine and fetch him to the present day, he’d find much of evolutionary biology unintelligible — at least until he’d had time to study genetics, statistics and computer science.

The “theory of evolution” has itself evolved. Of course, many dismiss it as “merely a theory”–but as the scientists and teachers in Nova’s program “Judgement Day” point out, that does science a disservice. A theory is not just an idea. It is well-supported, integrating facts and discoveries of all kinds. Above all, it must explain the natural world in a testable fashion. That is, evolution creates a testable prediction, and new discoveries support it. Thus in the case of evolutionary theory, facts keep supporting evolution and extending it, not contradicting it (genetics, new DNA research, new fossil discoveries that demonstrate the “links” in evolution).

But nevertheless the controversy continues outside of science (Four Stakes in the Heart of Intelligent Design – NYTimes.com):

As recent court cases in Kansas, Georgia and Pennsylvania demonstrate, we are still, more than 80 years after the so-called Scopes monkey trial, suing one another over whether evolution ought to be taught in the schools, and for those who are opposed, it’s not just an idle matter.

. . .”Teach the controversy” is the watchword of those who want to smuggle the notion of intelligent design into the school curriculum. . . . Like most evolutionary scientists, [Jerry A. Coyne] contends that there is no controversy to teach, because intelligent design, which is really creationism in a new garment, is simply not a legitimate scientific theory. But if there is no controversy there is certainly an issue — one that might profitably be studied not in biology class but in history or civics. It reveals a lot about the great American tradition of anti-intellectualism, which seems to be getting stronger, not weaker, even as the country supposedly becomes better educated, and about the strange way we’re turning the court system, of all places, into a referee on scientific principles.

Intelligent design ought to be taught, but I agree with the above that it ought to be taught in history, civics, or similar classes. It is a fascinating look at human thought, belief, and psychology, but it is simply not science.

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