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Handling Challenges to Evolution

Post of the Month: November 2005


Subject:    Re: "Should "intelligent design" be taught in schools? I say absolutely."
Date:       22 November 2005

I was recently fortunate enough to witness a high school biology teacher get hit by a question about Evolution.

In early September, I stopped by to visit my High School Bio teacher. I try to make a trip back to see him once a year, largely because he was the man who inspired me to pursue science as a career. It has been almost seven years since I graduated, but he's still teaching the same course. I make it a point when I come to sit at one of the lab benches in the back of the classroom to sit in on one of his lectures; just for old time's sake, I suppose.

At any rate, he was starting evolution that day (he has some leeway as to the order in which he covers the material; he usually puts evolution near the beginning since, as Dobzhanski put it "Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution."). So, as he began into his lecture; starting with some of the history behind it, one student (clearly in a somewhat confrontational mood) pointed out that the evolution was "just a theory."

I spent four years completing an undergraduate degree in physics, I'm now within eight months of completing a Ph.D. in Biophysics. So when I say that in the five minutes that followed, I witnessed the single best explanation of what a scientific theory entails that I have ever seen; I want you to understand my full meaning. I wish I'd been taking notes, because the lecture was simply brilliant; so what follows is largely me paraphrasing him from my (admittedly somewhat sketchy) memory of the event.

First, he made sure that he had the class' attention: "What I'm going to tell you in the next few minutes is the single most important thing you will learn in this year in any of your science courses."

"Your classmate has just pointed out that evolution is just a theory. He is absolutely, 100% correct. This begs the question: what, exactly, is a theory? When I'm talking about science, and I talk about a scientific theory, does that mean that I'm not sure that it's right?"

The class was silent.

"Tell you what, we'll come back to that one. Okay, let's look at something that you might be a little more familiar with: gravity. Gravity is a theory. Now, show of hands; how many of you are about to start gluing your feet to the floor?"

Nobody raised their hands.

He turned around and started writing on the board. "Any science; whether we're talking physics, biology or chemistry; is trying to answer two questions: 1) What happens?" He wrote it down on the blackboard behind him, "and 2) how does it happen?"

"Okay, show of hands: does anybody doubt that gravity exists?"

Again, nobody raised their hands.

He removed his left shoe and held it out at an arm's length (I remember that he seemed to find a reason to remove one of his shoes in each of his lectures; he said it makes the students pay attention). "If I let go of this shoe, how many of you think that it won't fall?"

Nobody raised their hands.

He dropped the shoe, and continued in one socked foot. He's a little quirky that way. "We see evidence of gravity all the time. Planets in their orbits, people sticking to the ground instead of flying off into space; dropped shoes hitting the ground; gravity literally holds the world together. I think it's fair to say that we have 'what happens' pretty well worked out, don't we?"

Murmurs of agreement went through the class.

"So, here's the $64,000 question: if we're so sure that we know what is happening with gravity, if we're so sure we know what gravity does; why is it just a theory?"

For a moment, the class was silent.

"You don't have to raise your hands, just shout out whatever comes to mind."

One girl in the front row piped up: "we don't know how it happens."

"Exactly," the teacher agreed, "now, let's bring this back to evolution. Evolution is possibly the single most-supported theory in biology. The fossil record supports it, genetics supports it. The evidence for evolution is every bit as solid as the evidence for gravity. So why are we still calling it a theory?"

"Because we don't know how it happens?" It was someone different this time; it may even have been the student who asked the original question; but I couldn't tell for sure. It was either him or someone sitting close to him.

"Exactly. What a scientific theory is is the explanation which fits all observable facts. If you perform an experiment which contradicts your theory, the theory is changed to explain this new data. The theory of evolution has been changed and added to countless times since Darwin first proposed it; it will be changed and added to countless times in the future, the day may come when many of Darwin's ideas will be seen as absurd by the scientific community; but at this moment, the theory of evolution is the only scientific theory that explains all the observable data we have in our hands right now."

"Is evolution a theory? Absolutely. Does this mean that we're not sure that it's true? Absolutely not."

That, in my humble opinion, is how you address challenges to evolution. With a little luck, students might actually learn something.


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The God of Truth

Post of the Month Runner-Up: November 2005


Subject:    The thing about ID...
Date:       1 November 2005

As a Christian, I get very depressed watching the antics of the IDiots. I am prepared (and, I think, it is a good spiritual discipline) to "see" God as the ultimate ground of all that happens around me -- as a source (in some sense) of every chemical reaction, of every biological conception and development into viable organisms (and, as the overly pious seem to wish to avoid at all costs, as the source of all the miscarriages and horrors that any much view of the world would acknowledge as being just as much our reality as the pious seriously wish to ignore and attribute to some other source -- but there is no other source, unless we are heretical dualists.)

A reading of Job, and especially the uncomfortable (to the pious) verses of Job, should bring shame to all the morons who think of God as goody-goody, while the world is not so at all, in any simple sense of "good".

From God's perspective, possibly, it all may be pronounced as "good" -- but no honest human perspective could agree to that, and only humility and our admitted ignorance can cover the huge gap facing the rigorous "discipline" I advocated up above. We just don't know enough to speak for God -- whatever the arrogant zealots may wish to claim. Go read some Isaiah, for God's sake, if you find yourself telling someone else what God has in mind. And, again, go back to Job.

ID is a (seriously dishonest) attempt to repeat the same stupid pieties that have failed, time and time again, over the last two+ centuries, as critics of chemistry or biology (and earlier, of physics) confidently proclaimed, over and over, that some particular thingy was "beyond" the scope of naturalistic explanation -- only to find a decade or so later that the explanation was in hand. Like Behe and blood clotting or bacterial flagellae :-)

I suppose the terminally pious "need" this kind of bedtime story, to sleep well. But it is pathetically similar to the continued devotion of mindless "sheep" to "pastors" who keep naming the "new" date of the End Of The World immediately after the last one they named proves false. Gospels and Epistles should tell these morons that they CANNOT know the time. But they are always ready to listen to someone who insists he can TELL them. I wish I understood why...

Demski wants to obfuscate obviously inapplicable math (that it is unclear he understands even in its abstract setting) to "prove" that what he doesn't want to happen can't. Behe wants to believe that, as long as he stops reading the literature, he can assert that there "can't" be evolutionary explanations for the things he finds inexplicable. But these two clowns AVOID answers with a pathological earnestness that can only mean that they KNOW they are likely to be shot out of the water in any honest examination of the things that they want to think support their notions.

As I said at the start, this is depressing. I don't have any prejudice against the notion that God might leave "traces" of un/non/super/natural "action" in the world around us. In some ways I'd be a lot happier if I felt there were such traces. But things like the Roman canonization procedure are nothing but the glorification of unexamined anecdote, and everything else that folks use in this regard is even worse. You'd think that folks as savvy as the Jesuits would be embarrassed by this, but they sure don't let on (in public).

The sheer FAILURE of intellectual honesty involved in all this pious crap bothers me, as I wish and hope to be a follower of a God of Truth. But humans don't LIKE truth; that is as much the case now as when Jesus bothered his countrymen 2000+ years ago. And claims of being "Christian" or "born again" that do not in fact exhibit any signs of connection to God's reality are not particularly good as "evangelical" witness.

Pardon me for venting. I don't know what else to do about these wayward and annoying "brothers" in faith... They sure don't listen to me.

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