Saturday, January 22, 2005

An Interesting Reader's Comment About Evolution

One of my readers who teaches in the biological sciences had this comment about the teaching of evolution. At his request, he is anonymous:
I thought I would draw your attention to three items in the ongoing hoopla

about evolutionary theory (yes, it is a theory).

I send these as one having a PhD in a relevant field and having taught students in evolutionary theory.

1) Whether you are a logical positivist like Popper or a pragmatist like Laudan, you have to accept that all theories are ultimately flawed (think Newtonian versus Relativistic physics). However, many scientists who publicly advocate on behalf of Darwinian Selection do not behave in this way. Consider Richard Dawkins, arguably the most famous advocate and author of The Selfish Gene. Dawkins' ideas are controversial and far from the consensus view in evolutionary biology, but his recent statements to the New York Times are over the top.

It seems that he cannot conceive of any evidence that would reduce his faith in natural selection. In my mind, this disqualifies him, and people like him, from participation in scientific discourse. It's possible that he was merely using NYT as a rhetorical platform, but if he accepts Darwin on faith, he's guilty of all the errors he levels at his opponents.

2) Most people, since the "neo-Darwinian synthesis" fused Mendelian genetics with natural selection, have viewed natural selection as the sine qua non of evolution. Those who accept drift, self-organization, and population bottlenecks as other factors often consider natural

selection as the dominant or most important force in evolution.

Unfortunately, natural selection starts with the assumption of a finite group of organisms with heritable variation in reproductive output. Thus, it cannot explain the origin of life. The theory begins and ends with a population of organisms. Where they came from is not a question Darwin can answer. It is possible that recent advances in self-organization, complexity theory, and thermodynamics might offer a way to explain the origins of life in chemistry, but this is still uncertain.

3) Finally, I should take some pains to defend evolutionary theory (but not natural selection in particular) as the best theory we currently have. Belief in natural selection over the alternatives (Biblical literalism, Intelligent Design) is warranted because each alternative makes testable predictions. Most predictions flowing from Biblical literalism are not supported by the available evidence.

It is possible that God made this evidence as a test of faith, but that is

a subject for theology class, not science class.
I think if evolution were taught more consistently with this approach--one that recognizes the limitations of any theoretical model--there would be a bit less upset from Creationists of many stripes. Certainly, I would have less reason to sympathize with those who are upset.

No comments:

Post a Comment