February 2010 – The latest origins debate is over the claim that there are no weaknesses or alternative explanations to the theory of evolution.
In early 2009, the Texas Board of Education triggered a national debate over whether or not their state science standards should continue to include strengths and weaknesses of the theory of evolution. Hearings that often became contentious lasted for months as experts argued for and against the “weakness clause” in the standards.
The final version of the standards included “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations” of concepts relating to origin. This earned Texas a grade of F in the new report in Evolution: Education and Outreach* on how state science standards measure up when it comes to teaching evolution. The authors referred to phrases such as analyze and evaluate as creation jargon.
The report made it clear that the preferred definition of evolution is “descent with modification from a common ancestor” rather than “change through time.” In a firmly-stated rebuke to states like Texas that allow criticism of evolution, the report says, “It is simply not true that there are credible scientific alternatives to evolution, nor that evolutionary theory has ‘weaknesses’ that make it unlikely to be true, nor that scientific work has been done that casts doubt upon it. Students should be left in no doubt on this score.”
As a career educator, I read the reports on the hearings with great interest, knowing that science textbooks nationwide are often influenced by the state science standards of Texas. Not only do I disagree with the claim that Darwinian evolution has no weaknesses that make it unlikely to be true, but I am also convinced that the Texas approach provides an A+ way of teaching about origins with scientific integrity and with little controversy.
The next few topics are currently taught in most biology classes and cause little controversy, even though many people disagree with all of Darwin’s conclusions.
Darwin’s observations, conclusions
Darwin’s famous book, The Origin of Species, had its beginnings as Darwin journeyed by sea aboard the HMS Beagle to places separated from his European homeland by the Atlantic Ocean. He observed many of the same kinds of living things in North and South America as there were in Europe.
However, he was amazed to see animals such as tortoises that were many times larger than any he had ever seen before. He recognized a number of other living plants and animals, as well as fossils that were distinctly different from European varieties. He recorded details about visible differences in coloration, patterns, sizes and shapes.
As a former divinity student, Darwin was familiar with a common notion that every species had been created immutable and unchanging. By using a narrow definition of the term species, Darwin rejected this idea and claimed that new species do evolve over time. He continued to expand the idea that living things change until he proposed that all species evolved from the same one-celled ancestor.
Observing changes over time
Actually, the idea that groups of living things change in coloration and patterns, size, shape, and even number of appendages, is a non-controversial concept today. There is an abundance of evidence both from observations of living organisms and from fossil remains showing that living things often change over time in relatively minor ways.
Almost all textbooks give examples of living organisms that have been observed to change over time. Most students are familiar with dark-colored peppered moths that became more common as the trees in England were changed by pollution during the Industrial Revolution. They learn that squirrels on opposite sides of the Grand Canyon have developed differences in coloration patterns, size and other minor ways over time, even though they likely had the same original ancestors. And the beaks of finches on the Galapagos Islands have been observed to thicken after a prolonged drought. Similarities and differences are also seen in fossils.
Identifying mechanisms for change
About the same time Darwin began to realize that groups of living organisms sometimes change, he was also identifying a mechanism known as natural selection that could provide an explanation for how groups of living things change from generation to generation. Darwin’s finches are the classic example of how natural selection works. Birds with thicker beaks have an advantage over birds with thinner beaks during periods of drought when food becomes scarce, because they can crack the harder seeds and find more food. After a few generations, and as long as the drought continues, the finches with the thicker beaks are found more often than the finches with thinner beaks. Today, natural selection, mutations, geographical barriers and other factors are recognized as mechanisms that may bring about changes in groups of living organisms.
How science works
Science educators agree that students need to understand the principles of how science works in order to better understand evolution. Some of the key concepts students should understand are that facts must be interpreted, that the same set of facts can be interpreted in more than one way, and that scientific explanations must be based on evidence. Students should realize that scientific knowledge becomes more credible when scientists have the freedom to debate, analyze, question and critique each other’s work.
Up to this point, there is little, if any, controversy in the teaching of evolution. So, what’s all the fuss about?
No-debate Darwinian evolution
Of all the ideas proposed in the history of mankind, Darwinian evolution is one of the most radical, controversial and socially changing ideas ever. Since The Origin of Species was first published in 1859 , it has never ceased to be a hugely divisive topic. Yet today, virtually every public school biology textbook gives this idea a no-debate status.
Neo-Darwinian evolution proposes that every living thing on earth, including man, evolved from the same original cell over millions of years. It supposedly happened by means of natural processes and without design. Incredibly, this notion is full of scientific weaknesses that students never see.
Following evidence, not philosophy
Most fields of science try to provide explanations for things in nature based on natural processes only. This works well for most fields of science, but in trying to reconstruct where the first living things came from, a different approach often has to be taken. The evidence for origins is limited to whatever clues remain, and as scientists try to reconstruct the past, the evidence is often scanty.
For years, leading scientists such as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and Johannes Kepler recognized design in nature and acknowledged that living things might have been created by processes unknown to man. Today, the philosophy of naturalism has gained prominence in the field of science and dominates scientific thinking. This kind of thinking has reached the point that some scientists consider anything that can’t be explained by strictly natural processes as false or irrelevant to the study of science. That, of course, includes a Creator who designed and planned the entire universe.
Evolutionary naturalists believe that a natural explanation for the origin of all life exists. They see no need or place for anything that hints of a supernatural explanation. However, other scientists maintain that scientific studies should simply follow the evidence rather than trying to force all ideas into a naturalistic philosophy.
A 2009 Zogby poll suggests a practical solution. The first question asked respondents to choose between “Biology teachers should teach only Darwin’s theory of evolution and the scientific evidence that supports it” (favored by 14%); or “Biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it” (favored by 78%). Seven percent answered “neither” or “other/not sure.” Even though teaching evidence both for and against evolution is a mainstream idea, this is precisely what many influential groups that favor evolution don’t want to see happen.
Modern biology textbooks tend to present only evidence for naturalistic Darwinian evolution, omitting even scientific evidence that challenges this viewpoint. This one-sided explanation for where humans and every other living thing came from is unsatisfactory to many parents and students.
It is also an unnecessary method of teaching evolution. For example, the emerging field of intelligent design provides fully scientific information about such ideas as irreducible complexity of living cells and systems, cellular machines, and encoded information that is stored and used by cells. By studying conditions before and after the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980, some interesting information has been collected about rapid formation of strata in rocks and complex gully systems, as well as about the accuracy of radiometric dating of rocks.
Almost all biology textbooks and state science standards are written to answer the following four questions.
1. Do groups of living things change over time, and what is the evidence that this happens?
2. What mechanisms explain how living things change?
3. What is science, and how does science work?
4. What is the scientific evidence that all living things arose from an ancestor cell by means of natural processes through a series of small evolutionary changes?
The fourth question has long been a source of controversy in public schools, but most parents are willing to accept it if it is balanced with the following question:
5. What are the scientific evidences that challenge the neo-Darwinian explanation for the origin of life or offer alternative scientific explanations for the origin of life?
States who want to include something similar to question five when it comes time to revise their science standards will likely meet stiff opposition. However, including all five questions provides students with a balance that most parents and students can accept.
Omitting question five gives an unfair advantage to the philosophy of naturalism, which often becomes a foundational part of the worldviews of students.
Thinking parents and students are left wondering if no one with any scientific credibility has a problem with Darwinian evolution when there are clearly multiple challenges to this idea.
Carolyn Reeves, Ed.D., a retired science teacher, lives in Oxford, Mississippi. She is currently co-authoring a series of elementary science textbooks that incorporate good science and Christian apologetics.
*Louis S. Mead and Anton Mates, Why Science Standards are Important to a Strong Science Curriculum and How States Measure Up. Evolution: Education and Outreach, Volume 2, Number 3/September, 2009, Springer, New York.
Next steps …
1. Cultivate a relationship of respect and common ground with teachers and administrators in your school district.
2. Take every opportunity to commend your child’s teachers and the school system.
3. Educate yourself on the creation-intelligent design-evolution debate, so that you can differentiate between what is good science and what is questionable and speculative.
4. Courteously express your concerns about the no-debate status of Neo-Darwinian evolution in textbooks.
5. Consider sharing the results of the 2009 Zogby poll question cited in this article, and express your opinion that students have the right to know more than just the Neo-Darwinian arguments for evolution.
Review: ‘The Mysterious Islands’
Quoting the words of pastor John Piper, “I invite you to seek a ‘freshness of vision,’ to look, as though it were the first time, not at the empty product of accumulated millennia of aimless evolutionary accidents, … but at the personal handiwork of an infinitely strong, creative, and exuberant Artist who made the earth and the sea and everything in them.”
One way to seek this freshness of vision is by watching The Mysterious Islands: A Surprising Journey to Darwin’s Eden, a new DVD from Vision Forum Ministries. The approximate 90-minute presentation documents a life-changing journey that Doug Phillips and his 16-year-old son Joshua took to the wondrous Galapagos Islands. Joined by a film crew and noted researcher Dr. John Morris, the father/son duo captured remarkable footage of the life and land that function as a “showcase for the wisdom of the Creator.”
Although the Galapagos Islands were made famous by Charles Darwin and are referred to as the “Jerusalem of the evolutionary world,” Phillips and his team use their amazing findings to weigh in heavily on the creationism side of the great debate of evolution. And they do so with passion, purpose and conviction … not humdrum statistics.
Phillips, once an evolutionist himself, debunks Darwin’s theories with a wealth of information that is astounding and thorough but not too scholarly for the average viewer. Vibrant cinematography and brilliant photography make the islands come to life and reveal them as “a showcase for creation, not a laboratory for evolution.”
In addition to the Galapagos footage, The Mysterious Islands provides historical and biographical accounts of Darwin’s life, the efforts of his followers and the tragic impact of his claims. The historical reenactments appear real and are exactly what’s needed to tell the whole story.
In the end, viewers, both young and old, are challenged to embrace and extend a Biblical worldview that proves the fingerprints of God are all over creation.
The Mysterious Islands comes with a bonus disc full of additional features that scream, “This is my Father’s world.” It’s not rated and is available at afastore.net or by calling 662-844-5036, option 3.
Review by Rebecca Grace Davis