ARTICLES - 8 QUESTIONS
Regarding the Teaching of Biological Origins in Public Schools
Articles by Joe Renick
March 28, 2008
1. What are the basic principles of science that apply to the study of biological origins?
The basis of scientific inquiry and the means by which science establishes reliability in its findings is evidence derived from observations and experiments made in the material world. Observations and experiments provide the connection between abstract scientific theories, principles, and laws and the actual behavior of the natural world. Observation is what grounds scientific findings in reality.
Science seeks to discover natural causes to provide natural explanations for what is observed in nature. However, to say that natural causes are the only causes or to dogmatically assert that everything about the material world can be explained through material causes alone are philosophical statements and not objective statements about scientific methodology.
Science makes no presuppositions about the existence or non-existence of transcendent causes. Neither does science make any presuppositions regarding the influence or effect a transcendent cause might have in the material world or the ability or inability of science, using the methods of empirical science, to detect those influences or effects. Consequently, the impossibility of disproving the existence of a transcendent cause precludes an assumption that all observable effects must be due to natural causes and only natural causes. Imposition of such an assumption can only be made on the basis of ideology and within the context of public education, raises First Amendment issues.
Evidence bearing on a scientific question must be critically examined from all sides and evaluated on the basis of scientific merit, not religious or philosophical presuppositions. While it may be true that science can only study material effects in the natural world, there are some effects that cannot be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry, chance and time alone and point to the possibility of an intervening intelligence, or, a previously undiscovered law that mimics the actions of an intervening intelligence. To rule out the possibility of an intervening intelligence can only be made on the basis of ideology, not evidence.
The mindset of the scientist is cautious skepticism...a willingness to accept an idea but only when presented with reliable and convincing evidence. No theory of science is exempted from critique...including evolution. When critique stops, science stops (Thomas Huxley).
Reproducibility and repeatability of experiments are essential to the process of formally adopting a proposed hypothesis as an accepted theory of science.
2. What is the difference between microevolution and macroevolution?
Microevolution is the variation commonly observed within species and is an observed fact. Examples are the development of antibiotic resistance by bacteria or variations in some physical characteristic of a species. A popular example is the observation that the average length of the beaks of finches of the Galapagos Islands increased slightly when the islands experienced severe drought conditions.
When biologists use the term macroevolution they are referring to large-scale biological adaptations and innovations such as development of feathers, wings, avian lungs and all of the other anatomical features necessary for flight from a earlier forms that had no such features or capabilities.
Microevolution addresses the question of why the length of finch beaks might change while macroevolution addresses the question of where finches and their beaks come from in the first place. Science teachers must be careful to make that distinction.
Darwin hypothesized that the microevolutionary process could be extrapolated to account for macroevolutionary change. Mainstream scientists now doubt this.
3. Has science shown that macroevolution is fact?
Science takes the position that macroevolution is undisputed fact and insists that it be taught as such in public schools. However, macroevolution has never been observed...not in the laboratory and not in the wild...and scientists plainly admit in the mainstream scientific literature that the microevolutionary processes observed in living populations cannot explain the large scale biological changes and adaptations hypothesized to have taken place in the past.
In addition, science has not identified even a remotely plausible mechanism for explaining the diversity and complexity of life. Many scientists are skeptical of the ability of natural selection to account for the complexity and diversity of life.
Macroevolution may have taken place in the past as claimed, however, it has never been observed and because it has never been observed, there is no basis for claiming that it is fact and it should not be presented as such in public schools.
4. What is the difference between the historical sciences and the experimental sciences?
The development of modern theories of physics and chemistry are based on experimental science where scientists can make direct observations in nature of cause-and-effect relationships as they take place and conduct experiments under controlled conditions to test hypotheses proposed to explain their observations.
The study of biological evolution is unique in some respects in that present life, which is directly observable, is the result of an unobserved history.
Thus, the study of historical events and processes introduces special problems for scientists because the events and processes themselves cannot be directly observed and experiments cannot be conducted to evaluate hypothesized cause-and-effect relationships. In the historical sciences, scientists have to work with the "scraps" of history...the "leftovers"...in their attempts to reconstruct a historical narrative of unobserved past events and processes. Evolution, because of its historical nature, is inherently subjective, cannot in principle be reliably established with a high degree of confidence and is highly vulnerable to religious or philosophical bias.
5. Does the fossil record support macroevolution?
In Darwin's day it was well known that the fossil record presented serious challenges to his ideas about slow gradual changes and innumerable intermediates. Darwin expressed his hope that further discovery would fill in the missing intermediates. After almost 150 years of searching the rocks, the situation is worse, not better.
The fossil record is crucial to establishing the
validity of any theory of biological origins that claims
to give a scientific account of the history of life
because it is the fossils that provide the only direct
physical evidence regarding that history.
The problems with the fossil record, such as the sudden appearance of the great variety of Cambrian animals in the Burgess Shale followed by progressive major extinction of most of the Burgess animals, is not a prediction of evolution by natural selection. Sudden appearance of fully formed species with no apparent ancestors, followed by stasis and extinction are, according to leading paleontologists such as Stephen J. Gould, Niles Eldredge, Colin Patterson, and Robert Carroll, the dominant features of the fossil record. Only by incorporating a superficial selective examination of the data (as is typically done in high school biology textbooks) can the fossil record be reconciled to Darwin's predictions. (See Stephen J. Gould, Wonderful Life, 1989, P. 59; Douglas Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology, Third Edition, 1998, p. 710; and Robert Carroll, Patterns and Processes of Vertebrate Evolution, Cambridge Paleobiology Series, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 1-18).
In the preface and first chapter of his book, Patterns and Processes of Vertebrate Evolution, Carroll makes some extraordinary statements about pervasive problems in the history of life constructed from examination of the fossil record compared to the history predicted by Darwin. He even criticizes textbooks for perpetuating this false history. Here is Carroll..
Instead of showing gradual and consistent change through time, the major lineages appear suddenly in the fossil record, already exhibiting many of the features by which their modern representatives are organized.
Few fossils are yet known of plausible intermediates between the invertebrate phyla, and there is no evidence for the gradual evolution of the major features by which the individual phyla or classes are characterized.
Progressive increase in knowledge of the fossil record over the past hundred years emphasizes how wrong Darwin was in extrapolating the pattern of long-term evolution from that observed within populations and species.
Biology text books will usually say little about the fossil record but what is said will skirt these issues while being careful to leave the impression that macroevolution is supported by the fossil evidence.
Whatever may have happened in the past, the history of life revealed in the dominant features of the fossil record does not reflect Darwin's universal common ancestry descent model of that history or natural selection as a dominant - rather than incidental - mechanism for change.
6. Can Creation Science be taught in public schools? What about intelligent design?
The two most important cases concerning the teaching of origins science were the Supreme Court cases of Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968) and Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987). There are perhaps a dozen or more other lower court cases that also bear on origins science education. Edwards is probably the principal case for determining current legal precedent regarding the First Amendment and public education. (This commentary does not consider the 2005 Kitzmiller case.)
In Edwards the 7-2 majority struck down a Louisiana statute calling for balanced treatment of Creation Science and Evolution Science in public education. The essence of the Louisiana statute was that no school was required to teach either theory but if one was taught, both had to be taught. The rationale supporting the Court findings is tangled and complex but the end result was that the statute was struck down on the basis that it was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Basically, the Court concluded that teaching of any theory of science in public schools that is rooted in a religious source or doctrine constitutes promotion of religion.
The principle findings of Edwards were important and viewed as a great victory for evolution in that the ruling was accompanied by the perception that evolutionary theory had in effect been endorsed by the highest court in the land. However, in the process of throwing out the Louisiana statute, the Court also elaborated extensively on its opinion regarding the meaning and intended effect of First Amendment Law for public education.
Two important findings of the courts that bear on the current issues in science education in New Mexico are summarized as follows:
(1) With respect to religious and philosophical views, strict neutrality must be enforced in public education.
" Government in our democracy, state and nation, must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice. It may not be hostile to any religion or to the advocacy of no-religion; and it may not aid, or foster or promote one religion or religious theory against another or even against the militant opposite. The First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and non-religion." ( Epperson v. Arkansas )
The requirement for constitutional neutrality prohibits a state-sponsored ideology of any kind... religious or otherwise.
(2) The religious or philosophical implications of a theory of biological origins are irrelevant to its legal status under the First Amendment.
" ...a decision respecting the subject matter to be taught in public schools does not violate the Establishment clause simply because the material to be taught 'happens to coincide or harmonize with the tenets of some or all religions.' " ( Edwards quoting lower court rulings).
Thus it appears that the theistic religious implications of intelligent design simply do not bear upon its
permissibility under the First Amendment for
instruction in public schools and the same is true
for evolution in spite of its materialistic
implications. With respect to implications it
is constitutionally permissible to teach either or both in public education.
Creation Science was ruled unconstitutional, not
because it isn't science, but because it is based on
Biblical teachings. Perhaps one day a future court will discover that evolution is rooted in
materialistic ideology (and a strong case can be
made that it is) and declare that it is unconstitutional as well.
Intelligent design was recently tested in the 2005 Kitzmiller case which ruled that Intelligent Design was religion and to teach it in public schools would be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. For commentary on
the errors in Kitzmiller, go
Legal scholars have found nothing in Edwards v. Aguillard that would prohibit its teaching in public education.
7. Can chemical evolution account for the origin of life?
While official science tells the public an optimistic story about origin of life research, the truth is that 50 years of research is at a dead end. No one knows how the first living cell came into existence. Appropriately, "origin of life" is not addressed in the New Mexico 2003 Revised Science Standards.
8. Can Darwin's theory of natural selection account for the diversity of life?
There is no convincing evidence that it can and there are no observations that have been made in the natural world of large scale biological changes or undisputed speciation events above the species level. While the scientific establishment will generally tell students and the public that natural selection, along with "other mechanisms", can account for the diversity of life and all of the biological adaptations observed in nature, the mainstream scientific literature admits that science does not have a naturalistic explanation for macroevolutionary change and adaptation.
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