Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Origins or Evolution: What are we Debating?

In the wake of President Bush's endorsement of intelligent design, some of the news coverage has tended to use the terms evolution and origin of life interchangeably.

For example, Joe Garofoli, writing an otherwise excellent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, says:
The real impact of President Bush weighing in on the national debate over how to teach the origins of life may be felt in the classroom, where much of the anti-evolutionary lobbying is done under the radar.

The fact is, however, scientists and educators aren't the ones who propose teaching the origins of life in high school science classrooms -- creationists and intelligent design "theorists" are the ones who want desperately to inject origins into the science curriculum and use it to sow doubts in student's minds about evolution.

In Kansas, for example, the pro-science majority of the science curriculum committee didn't propose teaching the origins of life -- that is the change from inorganic matter to living organisms -- it was, instead, the intelligent design activists organized by the Discovery Institute and the ID Network who pushed for inclusion.

Most of the witnesses they brought to Kansas focused their testimony on origins. In fact, they devoted so much time to origins that at one point board member Connie Morris blurted out "I'm a little confused by the prebiotic soup!"

Fellow board member Kathy Martin rushed to her aid, as she so often does. "We can't see a soup in nature, so talking about it is not naturalistic. It's speculation."

At this, all three board members nodded sagely.

Scientists and educators don't propose teaching origins in an introductory biology class because there is, as yet, no scientific consensus on how life grew out of inorganic matter. As Ernst Mayr puts it in What Evolution Is:
In the last 75 years, an extensive literature dealing with this problem has developed and some six or seven competing theories for the origin of life have been proposed. Although no fully satisfactory theory has yet emerged, the problem no longer seems as formidable as at the beginning of the twentieth century (p. 42).

If there is no scientific agreement about origins, then why do creationists and intelligent design activists want to teach it to high school students getting their first exposure to the biological sciences?

First, it is a gap in our knowledge -- like the so-called gap in the fossil record they seem to find so congenial -- that science has not yet been able to fill. It's a gap that ID activists want to exploit to raise doubt in student's minds about the scientific consensus on common descent and other widely accepted elements of evolutionary theory.

Second, because these members of this holier-than-thou "values crowd" have absolutely no compunction -- the depth of their cynicism, apparently, is boundless -- about using our children as cannon fodder in this culture war they have chosen to fight.

Origins is an interesting area of research that one day may yield new insights into the story of how we humans got here -- but it is not one that scientists, educators, or supporters of science education propose putting into the high school science curriculum now.


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