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Evolution

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Moderator (moderator):

Thank you for joining us today for an online chat about the science and politics of evolution. I'd like to welcome our participants: Dr. Kenneth Miller, Professor of Biology at Brown University; Dr. Barbara Forrest, Professor of Philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and co-author of "Creationism's Trojan Horse;" and Dr. Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education.



Washington, DC:

What is contemporary evolutionary theory, and how does it differ from the theory of intelligent design?



Kenneth Miller:

Okay, I'll start out this way: Are you sure that you've asked a large enough question? Explaining all of the details of evolutionary theory would take a book, maybe several books. But the essence of evolutionary theory is really quite simple. That is, that we can explain the history, development and specific adaptations of life and living things by looking at forces and processes that are active today in the world around us. What this means as a practical matter is that evolutionary theory attempts to take what we have learned about genetics, biochemistry, population biology, and molecular biology and use it to explain the history and development of life on Earth. The theory of intelligent design, by contrast, argues that an outside intelligent agent operating outside the rules of nature and therefore inaccessible by science is responsible for these very same developments and for the history of life. What this means, of course, is that intelligent design, because it appeals to agencies that lie outside of nature, is not testable and therefore is not science.



Barbara Forrest:

Dr. Miller just said that the essence of evolutionary theory was very simple. The essence of Intelligent Design is also very simple. First, Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory. It explains nothing scientifically. The reason is that Intelligent Design rejects the methodology of modern science. Instead, as stated by its leaders, Intelligent Design is rooted in the first book of Gospel of John. So, the combination of rejecting naturalism and the appeal to the New Testament means that intelligent design is not science. Intelligent design is a religious belief.



Eugenie C. Scott:

Modern evolutionary biology consists of three parts. The big idea is the inference that living things have common ancestors, and are descended, with modifications, from them. The second part is the pattern that this common ancestry takes: the branching of the tree of life. The third part is the mechanisms that bring this change about - natural selection, genetic principles, and many others. Intelligent design, boiled down to its essence, says that evolution didn't happen. It has no picture of the past, makes no comments about the pattern of evolution at all, and offers no mechanisms. Not for nothing is intelligent design called "creationism lite."



Marcia Clemmitt, The CQ Researcher/Washington, DC:

A few intelligent design proponents, including Jonathan Wells and Michael Behe, have recently published articles in scientific journals -- Behe in Protein Science, Wells in an Italian journal, Rivista di Biologia. From the abstracts of these pieces, I can't see that their hypotheses really relate to intelligent design. Wells seems to be comparing centrioles to turbines, which are human-designed, but is there any reason why an evolutionary scientist, thinking of functional adaptations, couldn't also examine whether centrioles behave like turbines?



Kenneth Miller:

You noted in your question that the hypotheses of Wells and Behe don't actually relate to intelligent design. That, in fact, is absolutely true. Let's take Behe's paper first. What the paper actually says is that to evolve a particular function in a protein that requires six specific mutations in two specific locations, in one specific gene, in one specific population, under conditions where natural selection is not allowed to operate, and when the only form of mutations allowed are what scientists call "point mutations." Finally, if the organism is non-sexual, then it will indeed take a large population and a very long time to evolve this collection of mutations. All of the conditions that I just cited amount to stacking the deck for a particular conclusion. It's not unlike demanding that a particular deal of cards at a poker table not merely produce a full house, but rather that it produce a full house with two kings and three aces, and that those cards go to a particular player, and finally that the cards be dealt in exact sequence with two kings first followed by the three aces. It's just not going to happen. The most important thing to note in the Behe paper is a sentence on page 2658, and in the author's own words, here's the quotation: "We strongly emphasize that results bearing on the efficiency of this one pathway as a conduit for Darwinian evolution say little or nothing about the efficiency of other possible pathways." What that means in layman's terms is that Behe has not even examined the major pathways by which protein evolution is known to take place. Therefore his article, despite the hype with which it was greeted by advocates of intelligent design, actually in his own words says "little or nothing" about actual evolutionary mechanisms. The article by Wells is similar in that respect. The article, which appeared in a very obscure Italian journal, with which most scientists I spoke to are completely unfamiliar, puts forward the hypothesis that the structure or design of a small structure within the cell called the centriole can be used to propose an important hypothesis about their function. The only reason this paper is cited as an example of intelligent design in science is because the author claimed in the article that a neo-Darwinian biologist would not have thought of such a hypothesis. Unfortunately, the scientific record shows very clearly that even that statement is flat-out wrong. In 1981, a scientist, a neo-Darwinian scientist I would add named Guenter Albrecht-Buehler published a paper entitled "Does the Geometric Design of Centrioles Imply Their Function?" This paper shows very clearly that the notion of "design" implying function is actually a traditional one in biology, and therefore Dr. Wells' comment in his recent paper in this obscure Italian journal, arguing that Darwinism would not provoke such hypotheses, is simply incorrect. Bottom line? Neither paper makes a serious criticism of evolution or puts forward the slightest evidence on behalf of so-called intelligent design.



Barbara Forrest:

Dr. Miller mentioned that the Italian journal in which Wells published his paper is very obscure. It is interesting to note that one of this journalís editors, Giuseppe Sermonti, is an Italian creationist who testified on behalf of intelligent design proponents at the recent Kansas Board of Education hearings in May. All of the people who testified at the hearing were creationists of one kind or another.



Mike Lafferty, science writer/Columbus, Ohio:

Is the assault by ID really an attack against science? Should scientists be more active in explaining evolution to the public?



Eugenie C. Scott:

Scientists should be more active in explaining evolution to the public, definitely. This is not the same thing as "defending" evolution against attacks by creationists, that evolution is somehow an unusually weak scientific theory. ID and other creationist attacks against evolution are indeed attacks against science in two ways. First, although in this discussion we have limited ourselves to evolutionary biology, evolution is a concept that applies to all sciences, from astronomy to chemistry to geology to biology to anthropology. Attacking evolution means attacking much of what we know of the natural world, that we have amassed through the application of scientific principles and methods. Second, creationist attacks on evolution are attacks on science itself, because the creationist approach does violence to how we conduct science: science as a way of knowing. In fact, as Barbara has written so eloquently, ID creationism has as one of its goals to change the very way we do science itself, by abandoning the reliance upon natural cause as the keystone of explaining the natural world. The abandonment of what is called "methodological naturalism" would be a serious blow to science as we know it today, and result in a reduction in the amount and quality of information we can gain about the natural world. What the ID creationists want us to do is abandon methodological naturalism, throw up our hands and say "This problem is too hard. God did it."



Barbara Forrest:

I would add that intelligent design (ID) is very prominently an attack on secular public education and secular culture. ID creationism represents the attempt by a creationist organization, the Center for Science and Culture, to fashion public policy so as to reflect its religious agenda.



Wesley R. Elsberry, Concord, CA:

For Dr. Forrest: Could you explain what the Discovery Institute's "wedge strategy" is, the history of the "wedge" document, and what this means for modern antievolution efforts?



Richard Hoppe, Ohio:

The Discovery Institute's "Wedge" strategy laid out a series of multi-year Phases in their socio-political campaign of scientific and cultural renewal. How are they doing so far?



Barbara Forrest:

The Discovery Institute's "Wedge Strategy," made public in a document of the same name, is a twenty year plan to attack secular culture by undermining the teaching of evolution in public schools. The strategy is outlined in three phases. Phase 1 is supposed to consist of "research, writing, and publicity." Phase 2 is to consist of "publicity and opinion making." Phase 3 is a plan for "cultural confrontation and renewal." The Wedge Strategy clearly was supposed to begin with scientific research that would establish intelligent design as a scientific theory. None of that scientific work has been done. Instead what the Wedge Strategy amounts to is a well-funded public relations campaign and the attempt by the Center for Science and Culture to cultivate political influence at local, state, and national levels. So far, the Wedge Strategy has succeeded only in public relations and politics. The Center for Science and Culture's efforts mean a future in which public education and secular government will be constantly challenged.



Martha Heil, College Park, MD:

How should reporters deal with the fact that news stories tend to portray two sides equally, even if one side is experts talking about their subject of expertise, and the other side has a definite agenda that simply opposes the first group's evidence?



Kenneth Miller:

I think the most important thing for reporters, raised in the point-counterpoint school of journalism, is to appreciate that science is fundamentally a critical exercise. All ideas in science are not created equal; rather, they are judged on the basis of the evidence behind them. It certainly is appropriate for reporters to describe both sides of the public controversy over evolution, but it seems to me that they are being unfair to their readers if they do not also explore the scientific side of the empty assertions frequently made by opponents of evolution. So I think the best way to present such stories is always to make reference to the support, or rather lack of support, for the ideas and assertions of intelligent design within science itself.



Barbara Forrest:

Giving equal journalistic coverage to "both sides" in the controversy about evolution fomented by ID creationists is not the same thing as being objective. Journalists have, as their first responsibility to the public, the obligation to present the true state of current science to their readers. That means telling readers the truth about the robust state of evolutionary science and the religious nature of ID.



College Park, MD:

Why isn't intelligent design appropriate in science classrooms? Some might argue that a rational parent would want their children taught evidence for and against evolution.



Eugenie C. Scott:

If there were scientific evidence for and against evolution, obviously teachers would be teaching it. Unfortunately, the public has been misled by years of attack by creationists against evolution, and a substantial percentage of Americans mistakenly believe that evolution is weak science, on its way to being rejected by the scientific community. Nothing could be further from the truth. I always encourage doubters of evolution to go to any college or university or community college library, and pick up a half dozen or so science journals, like Science, Nature, American Scientist, etc., and see if any of the articles are discussing whether or not living things have common ancestors -- the big idea of evolution. What you will find is plenty of articles discussing the pattern and process of evolution, about which we're happy to debate, and which legitimately can be taught in the high school classroom, if the teacher wishes to go into that much detail. What you won't find is articles debating whether evolution took place, although this is the message that creationists want high school teachers to present to their students. Intelligent Design is inappropriate to the science classroom, and will be inappropriate until and if its proponents convince the scientific community that there is "there" there.



Marcia Clemmitt, The CQ Rsearcher:

Kids ask questions in the classroom when things bother them. When intelligent design/creationism questions come up, how should science teachers handle them in ways that move science learning forward but don't shut the student down? Shouldn't teachers be trained to help students evaluate claims that are presented as scientific, think about the philosophical/cultural context of science, and so on? Isn't this an important charge for high school science education, since high schools are really offering general training to prepare kids for citizenship?



Barbara Forrest:

Science teachers should, of course, be able to explain the way scientific explanation and scientific practice actually work. But they should not be asked to teach religious ideas such as Intelligent Design (ID) as science. Neither should they be asked to explain the religious implications of teaching creationism in a science class. Examining the question of Intelligent Design and other "alternative explanations" is not something science teachers should be asked to do. For one thing, science teachers who are under-prepared to teach science should not also have to explain religion. And, unfortunately, a few science teachers would use this as an opportunity to advocate for ID creationism. Good science teachers have their hands full, just teaching science. Science teachers did not start the Intelligent Design controversy and should not be tasked with resolving it. School principals, school boards, and state boards of education are responsible for protecting the science curriculum so that teachers can do their jobs.



Egbert Manns, Science Editor, Suedwest Presse, Ulm, Germany :

I read Pope Benedict referring to micro evolution as an accepted part of evolution theory and of macro evolution as not proved. Does this distinction make scientific sense or is it an artificial distinction made by creationists (it's the typical creationist argument against evolution theory in Germany to declare macro evolution as not possible)?



Kenneth Miller:

The macro/micro evolution argument is just as you say: An artificial distinction made by creationists. It's really a debating strategy in which any and all experimental support for evolution is labeled "merely" as evidence for microevolution. Pope Benedict's views on evolution have clearly been misunderstood by much of the press and media. I would refer those interested to a 1995 book called "In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and The Fall." This book, written by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, takes a profoundly pro-science view of human origins and the history of the universe. It is also worth noting that Ratzinger presided over the production of a document from the Vatican called "Communion and Stewardship," which also strongly endorsed evolution. A quote from that document reads "Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for a theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution." I think most biologists today would agree completely with the sentence I have just quoted from that report. Ratzinger has emphasized that acceptance of the scientific story of evolution does not contradict the essential Catholic, indeed the essential Christian understanding of God's providence in the universe, or of God's plan for man's place in it. Bottom line? Pope Benedict XVI is a friend of science and a supporter of the scientific evidence for evolution.



Washington, DC:

Do you feel that science and religion are inherently opposed?



Barbara Forrest:

No.



Kenneth Miller:

No, not at all.



Eugenie C. Scott:

No.



Washington, DC:

How will the current debate on teaching evolution affect the future of science education? What changes do you envision over the next ten years?



Kenneth Miller:

I fear it will affect science education profoundly, and not for the better. Specifically, my concern is that the political and public relations successes of the Intelligent Design movement will drive a wedge between the American people and their support for science. What the ID movement may do is to convince a large segment of young people in the United States that mainstream science is inherently anti-religious, thereby causing them to turn their backs on science and scientific careers. We face powerful scientific competition in the world around us, and if we allow this wedge to actually develop, scientific leadership will be snatched from us by our competitors in Europe, Asia and Southeast Asia.



Eugenie C. Scott:

Already the majority of graduate engineering and science students are from outside the United States. This is not a problem, as long as they stay here and contribute to American scientific and technological progress. However, things are getting better back home in India, China, Korea and other parts of the world, so many of these well-trained, intelligent young people are returning to their home countries with their American educations, to contribute to the scientific and technological progress of their own nations. Unless we do a better job in American K-12 education, American scientific and technological innovation is going to suffer, because we won't be able to depend upon the foreign nations' brain drain that has fueled our success to this point.



Moderator (moderator):

Thank you for joining us for today's chat. Visit http://www.eurekalert.org/expertchat for details on future chats!