Friday, June 24, 2011

Evolution: False dichotomy

I just suffered the pain of watching a YouTube video that featured the Miss USA contenstants responding to the question, "should evolution be taught in schools?" Sad does not begin to cover it, but of course it's unfair to expect these women to be able to speak cogently on every topic... they're not running for political office or the dean of a college. There are some central themes, though, that everyone should understand, and I find myself wondering why they're still so hard for people to grasp.

(embedded video first, then my take, below)

First and foremost, evolution isn't a counter-argument to religion. Religion is a means of explaining what we do not understand. Science (and evolution, in this case) is a tool for expanding what we do understand through observation and testing. The easiest way to understand the point of confusion is to replace all uses of "science" with "observation and testing." Then, when you ask if "observation and testing" should be taught in schools, it becomes obvious how foolish a question that was, and that that does not conflict with religion any more than the ability to see does.

Many of the contestants parroted the oft-repeated phrase, "all sides should be taught." Let's be clear, here: there are no other sides. There's no "religious counterpart to evolution." Creationism and evolution don't compete. If you're surprised by that, just ask a biologist who's a creationist.

But, Aaron, you ask: what about the origin of man? Surely evolution tells us that man is descended from monkeys (or, more accurately, that all primates share a common ancestry) and religions (most of them) tell us that man was created by a divine hand. How can those two be reconciled? The false dichotomy, here, relies on the idea that those two positions need to be reconciled. Why would that be? Observation and testing tell us that all life on earth share a common trait: DNA, and that DNA allows us to do things like determine how far back two species like monkeys and humans had a common ancestor (mitochondrial DNA, in fact, allows us to determine this to a fairly high degree of accuracy). To the creationist, this should be perfectly valid observation. How you choose to think about it in terms of your beliefs is your own lookout, but it doesn't change the data that has been observed and tested. Did God create man with monkey-relative DNA as a joke? Did God guide evolution? Is God just a metaphor? All of these questions lie outside of the bounds of what observation can resolve for us, and thus their answers cannot be scientific in nature. They must be faith-based. Again, no competition.

Another common theme was the idea that only facts should be taught in schools, not theories. Of course, as I've covered previously in this blog, facts are rarely as valuable in science and education as theories. The fact is that a dropped ball falls to the ground, but the theory of gravity tells us why and how to predict future behavior, which is far more important in many contexts. The theory of evolution is just a theory. It could be disproved tomorrow, and wow, would that make some waves. But that doesn't mean that using the theory of gravity, we can't navigate to the moon.

There's also a phrase that bothers me: "I (don't) believe in evolution." It's important to understand that belief doesn't enter into observation and testing. It's stands outside of them, and as such both has no place in science, and cannot be infringed on by scientific theory. For example, you might not be OK with buying into the idea of black holes. It's a pretty far-fetched idea, and there's no real reason for you to accept it. Never the less, black holes are a central theme of modern cosmology and the theoretical basis and observational evidence for them is reasonably irrefutable; nearly as irrefutable as natural selection or genetic drift. The closest science gets to belief is a hypothesis, but a hypothesis has no weight

Bottom line, however: evolutionary science is a broad field which includes hundreds if not thousands of discrete theories. If you're going to argue that an entire field of science not be taught in schools, why stop there? Why not stop teaching computer science, math, geology and physics while we're at it? Those are just as important to our understanding of the world around us as evolutionary biology, so if the one can go, they all can.

What I have to wonder is how can anyone call themselves a conservative in this country and simultaneously argue that we need to back away from the kind of commitment to high quality education that built our country? The freedom to teach your children your culture, customs and religion will always be yours. Just don't interfere with the ability for schools to teach students about observation and testing.