Evolution, Creationism, and the ‘Cautious 60 Percent’

Steven Newton, Programs and Policy Director for the National Center for Science Education:

… Why is “neutrality” toward evolution such a disaster for college-bound kids?

Evolution is the foundation of biology. Just as geologists cannot decipher the earth’s features without plate tectonics, and physicists cannot understand the interaction of light and matter without quantum electrodynamics, biologists cannot explain the diversity of life on earth without evolution. Trying to teach biology without evolution is like teaching auto mechanics without discussing engines. Teachers should not be neutral toward evolution because scientists are not neutral about evolution. …

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9 thoughts on “Evolution, Creationism, and the ‘Cautious 60 Percent’

  1. Newton is not right. Teaching mechanics without discussing engines is NOT teaching about mechanics. Neutral treatment of evolution is to explain exactly what he has said about it “evolution is the only theory that accounts for the facts of diversity of life on earth”. All other ways of looking at that diversity cannot explain any of the facts. That is neutral.

  2. I am a believer in evolution, but I still can not find a practical application for the science as it stands. Specifically abiogenesis and “macro” evolution.

    your example of “teaching auto mechanics ” I view macro evolutions value to biology sciences the same as teaching an auto mechanic how to find iron ore mine it and smelt it.

    Acceptance of micro evolution or minor changes to a species while remaining the same species would seem to fit any practical applied science on the books today. Only when you get into the evolution sciences would you need to buy into macro evolution. Simply put I can see no reason that one needs to believe fish became man in any applied science.

    another way to put it would be that no applied science would suffer if a creation scientist who accepted the world in it’s current state would not be able to deal with the current or forseable world for the next 50,000 years.

    If a creation biologist accept the world and bio diversity that is here currently, would said scientist not be able to do his job? Is there a need for him to buy into species likely to change over millions of years?

    How would this deficiency manifest itself.

  3. Ken: Not really. The non-evolution based “applied science” of biology is stagnant and lifeless, and is unguided, unstructured, can’t be developed further and, in the final analysis, makes no sense.

    Do you know why it makes no sense?

  4. Greg,

    No I don’t know why it would make no sense. Acceptance of the world as it is with species diversity would seem satisfactory. As far as stagnent the world is kinda stagnant regarding appreciable species development on a time scale of humanity. We are not likely to see the genesis of a new species within our current age. I see micro evolution as answering any questions we are likely to run into before we blow ourselves up :). I would see private

    How would failure to buy into macro evolution manifest itself in applied sciences like biology? If nothing is likely to change for thousands of years but by small increments we are only ever exposed to micro evolution.

  5. Ken, we’ve seen hundreds of new species in our own period of scientific observation. We have a fossil record that absolutely requires that we see species change, new species emerging, and extinction as a dramatic and dynamic process happening over a long period of time.

    And, of course, my question was a reference to Theodosius Dobzhansky. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.)

  6. Ken, the questions you ask are often addressed at PZMEyers’ blog http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/ and http://ncse.com/evolution

    Micro-evolution and macro-evolution are not used in the biological sciences, as “micro-evolution” applied over very long time scales is demonstrated by the fossil record to result in “macro-evolution”. Denying macro-evolution is like denying the Civil War occurred. Sure, you can show me archeological sites all over the country with bullets, pieces of uniforms, mass graves, and so forth, but I’ll only accept that some skirmishes (micro-civil-wars) happened, not a Macro Civil War.

    Something doesn’t have to have practical applications to be true. You are willing to stop at the fact of diverse species, but why? The current theory of evolution explains the totality of diversity, not just diversity within narrow lineages.

    Understanding how we evolved from vastly simpler life forms has direct application in physiology and medicine. It can help explain the cooperation between mitochondria and our cells (as symbiotes of two different kinds of cells!). Cancer research is benefiting from evolutionary insights.

    You seem to want to restrict the view of biological history to only the past few thousand years. Why? Isn’t that akin to restricting your view of US History to what you can remember for the past week or two? So let me turn the question around: What possible benefit can there be to historians to study events that occurred before any of us was alive?

    You seem to want to restrict scientific investigation to those areas and time scales in which you are comfortable. How can we teach scientific investigation if you include a deliberate blindness to certain facts that don’t fit preconceived notions?

  7. Well, I would describe micro-and macro-evolution somewhat differently. And, we don’t have to be on Pharyngula to talk about Evolution, obviously. (Sometimes I wish I kept the old name of this blog!)

    Both terms are borked. They have been abused by creationists enough that when people use them, and Ken, you have been having this conversation long enough to have learned this by now, they are often dog whistles. Someone saying “I believe in micro evolution but there is no evidence for macro evolution” IS a creationist. Someone who makes that statement about evolution but claims to not be a creationist is not being honest with someone. Themselves? The rest of us? I don’t know.

    Maybe your Scott Adam’s sock puppet.

    Anyway, aside from the creationist damage to the terms, most people who will tel lyuo to your face that they know all about evolution mess up the discussion of the terms, so it’s a mess.

    When we look at the evidence for evolution, we see two thigns: 1) Tiny changes in organisms that have often been documented as adaptive changes (but no always) of the kind that one can easily see would make for different subspecies over very short periods of time, or that one might track over time as organisms adapt. The Grant’s work with finch beaks changing in response to rainfall, size changes over time tracking climate in pack rats, and Burr’s work (with me) on rodent masticatory morphology in relation to diet are all examples of traits different under selection at the level of species and subspecies.

    Meanwhile the fossil record shows larger changes than this, and it is at first glance unclear if this is because large rapid changes have odccurred, or because the fossil record is coarser. Like leaving a downtown area on a train and watching out the window evvery minutes, seeing the transition from urban to suburban to rural, vs. looking out the window every half hour and seeing a more abrupt transition.

    Macro-evolution has come to mean different things to different people:

    1) sudden dramatic change … one species gives rise to another species all at once, many things happening all at once.

    2) Regular micro evolution happening as expected but only being sampled now and then by a coarse fossil record.

    3) Rapid evolution (but not as rapid or dramatic as number 1 above) happening often (but not always) when a lot of species suddenly evolve more or less at the same time in a “punctuation” event following, likely a mass extinction.

    Number 1 is the “hopeful monster” theory. Strong voices shout down any suggestion that this ever happens, and for good reason. Yet it remains a theoretical possibility and probably has happened now and then, but would only explain tiny bits of the evolution. We can put that one aside. It is, however, the one that creationists insist is meant by “macro evolution.” I suspect this is because it is easiest to be incredulous about.

    Number 2 obviously happens, as does number 3, but to what extent?

    My preferred way of looking at this is in part similar to what Timberwolf says: Enough micro-evolution can make for new species. However, there is also evidence that speciation is patterned in the fossil record, with lots of it happening in short periods of time now and then. Since we have not nailed down the details of how this all works, I like to use the term “macroevoution” to refer to a PATTERN rather than a PROCESS. Microevoution (but with varying rates) is the process.

  8. Ken, there actually -are- practical applications for understanding “Macro” evolution. The most basic is the idea of using other animals to learn about ourselves. If evolution weren’t true, or if we didn’t have an understanding of it, we wouldn’t be able to use what we learn about different animals’ immune systems to help us learn about our own. By observing related animals and their biologies, we are able to see analogues with our own biologies and can use that knowledge to treat and cure disease. By understanding how different species adapt to different conditions, we are able to improve our own lives.

    “Macro” evolution happens on ALL levels of biology, from ecoystems and animal populations on through to proteins, chemistry, and right down to particle physics (I remember reading an article about how plants take advantage of certain properties of the physical universe that we’ve only recently begun to observe ourselves in photosynthesis). If we can understand how, for example, one protein evolved into another protein, we can maybe use that knowledge to make a better drug, a better food, a stronger building material.

    Even beyond the basic drive just to KNOW what’s real, evolutionary biology has enormous practical applications in the real world.

  9. I think the notion that we acquire knowledge only to serve some immediate purpose for the good of living people is simply crazy. We all acquire information all the time which we selectively use as we need it. Sometimes we ignore something that is of use to us and that has bad consequences. So just in terms of the way we use knowledge the position is absurd.

    But then there is another little problem. Archaeology and its offshoots shows convincing evidence that at various times in the past, say particularly 4 million years ago, and say, 300 thousand years ago, and say , before 60 thousand years ago, and again, say, before 12 thousand years ago, the behaviour (and biology) of our ancestors was recognisably different. Our understanding of our human nature might be affected by understanding how recently that was. That our ancestry includes times when “we” did not make stone tools, “we” did not have skeletal form that would be recognised as that of modern humans–and there were no creatures with our skeletal form–when “we” did not make “art”, not live in all parts of the world, such as Australia and the Americas, and when “we” did not have agricultural practices anywhere in the world. If we do not look at these changes in an evolutionary framework, how do we look at them? I, for one, think it makes more understandable sense of the way we depend on the achievements in our ancestry to put them in an evolutionary framework.

    And then if you like, we can move on to the whole field of evolutionary psychology, but I prefer not to.

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