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[2005/01/29] Teach Scientific Controversy About Origins of Life
Teach Scientific Controversy About Origins of Life 01/29/2005

What should public schools teach about life's origins?

Should science educators teach only contemporary Darwinian theory, or not even mention it? Should school boards mandate that students learn about alternative theories? If so, which ones? Or should schools forbid discussion of all theories except neo-Darwinism ?

These questions are arising frequently as school districts around the country consider how to respond to the growing controversy over biological origins. Dover, Pa., for example, has attracted national media attention by mandating that students learn about the controversial new theory of intelligent design. Of course, many educators wish such controversies would simply go away. On the one hand, if science teachers teach only Darwinian evolution, many parents and religious activists will protest. On the other, if teachers present religiously based creationism, they run afoul of Supreme Court rulings. Either way, it seems educators face a no-win situation.

So what should they do?

Surprisingly, there is a way to teach evolution that will benefit students and satisfy all but the most extreme ideologues.

Rather than ignore the controversy or teach religiously based ideas, teachers should teach about the scientific controversy that now exists over Darwinian evolution.

This is simply good education. When credible experts disagree about a controversial subject, students should learn about the competing perspectives.

In such cases, teachers should not teach as true only one view - just the Republican or the Democratic view of the New Deal in a history class, for example. Instead, teachers should describe competing views to students and explain the arguments for and against these views as made by their chief proponents. We call this "teaching the controversy."

But is there really a scientific, as opposed to just a cultural or religious controversy, over evolution? In fact, contrary to recent mainstream media reports, there are significant scientific controversies about key aspects of evolutionary theory.

First, some scientists doubt the idea that all organisms have evolved from a single common ancestor. Why? Fossil studies reveal "a biological big bang" near the beginning of the Cambrian period when many major, separate groups of organisms or "phyla" (including most animal body plans) emerged suddenly without clear precursors. Fossil finds repeatedly have confirmed a pattern of explosive appearance and prolonged stability in living forms - not the gradual "branching-tree" pattern implied by Darwin's common ancestry thesis.

Other scientists doubt the creative power of the Darwinian mechanism. While many scientists accept that natural selection can produce small-scale "micro-evolutionary" change in, for example, the shape of finch beaks, many biologists now doubt that natural selection and random mutations can generate the large-scale changes necessary to produce fundamentally new structures and forms of life. Small-scale micro-evolutionary changes merely utilize or express existing genetic information ; the large-scale macro-evolutionary change necessary to produce new organs or body designs requires entirely new genetic information.

Not surprisingly, some 350 scientists, including researchers from MIT, Yale, Rice and the Smithsonian, have signed a statement questioning the creative power of the natural selection /mutation mechanism.

Finally, some scientists doubt the Darwinian idea that living things merely "appear" designed. Instead, they think that living systems display telltale signs of actual or "intelligent" design. Prominent scientists, like former San Francisco State University biophysicist Dean Kenyon and Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, have cited intriguing evidence in support of this theory: the presence of digital information, complex circuits and miniature motors in living cells.

Behe, for example, examines the rotary engine that powers the propeller-like tails of certain bacteria. These machines - with their rotors, stators, Orings, bushings, U-joints and drive shafts - require the coordinated interaction of some 40 protein parts. Yet the absence of any one of these parts results in the complete loss of motor function. To believe this engine emerged gradually in a Darwinian fashion strains credulity, Behe argues. Natural selection only selects functionally advantageous systems. Yet the motor has no function until after all 40 parts have been assembled. Thus, natural selection can "select" or preserve the motor once it works, but it can do nothing to help build the motor before then. Behe concludes that a designing intelligence played a role.

Recently, mainstream academic publishers, notably Cambridge University Press, have published books and articles that present the scientific case for, and the debate over, intelligent design.

Since intelligent design is a new theory of biological origins, we recommend that students not be required to learn about it. Nevertheless, we think they should learn about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of orthodox Darwinism. Clearly, teachers should also be free to tell their students about alternatives like Behe's design theory, provided such theories are based (as Behe's is) upon scientific evidence, not biblical passages.

There are many reasons to adopt this "teach the controversy" approach.

First, constitutional law permits it. In the controlling Edwards v. Aguillard case, the Supreme Court ruled that state legislatures (and by extension state boards) already have the right to mandate teaching scientific critiques of prevailing theories. Interestingly, the court also determined that teachers have the right to teach students about "a variety of scientific theories about origins... with the clear secular intent of enhancing science education."

Second, federal education policy calls for it. The authoritative report language accompanying the No Child Left Behind act states that "where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of views that exist."

Third, polls show that over 70 percent of the electorate nationally favors teaching the evidence both for and against Darwin's theory of evolution.

Finally, teaching scientific controversies engages student interest and encourages them to do what scientists do - deliberate about how best to interpret evidence. Italian philosopher of science Marcelo Pera has shown scientific understanding advances through a process of argument between advocates of competing ideas. Or as Darwin wrote in his "Origin of Species," "A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question."

   [2005/01/30] Smithsonian in Uproar Over Intelligent-Design Article


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