Teaching evolution

The theory, science and religion of evolution

Evolution consists of two very different things. One is the algorithm of evolution itself (the theory). The other is whether evolution applies to our particular planet (the science). The Huxley quote about finding a watch implies a watch maker is an example of an attack on the algorithm itself, whereas claims that we haven't found several missing links is an attack on the application of evolution to our planet. One could call these two different pieces the "theory of evolution" and the "science of evolution."

Comparing Evolution to Newtonian physics

These two pieces are similar to the two pieces that make up Newton's contribution to science. His two great contributions are his invention of the calculus and his application of the calculus to physics: A theory part and an application part. The theory part of Newton's work has been shown "wrong" but it still is what is taught during a year of painful undergraduate mathematics. In other words, it is close enough to right to get useful answers. The applications part has also been shown to be wrong. Newtonian physics is an approximation to Einstein's relativity and to quantum mechanics. But again it is close enough to holding that it is taught in undergraduate physics classes. One can go around saying that Newton was wrong, but it requires a fairly good knowledge of physics before you could back such a statement up. Once that level of knowledge is obtained, usually what one is inclined to say is that it is a damn good approximation to reality.

Let's return to evolution. Before one attacks the theory part of evolution it is a good idea to understand what it is that one is attacking. Amazingly enough, the theory part is almost entirely unchanged from Darwin's original statement (particularly the first edition of the _Origins of species_--in each successive edition it was watered down a little bit to keep from annoying the truly religious-- Like his wife.) Rather than reading the original, an easier way of become familiar with the theory of evolution is to read Dennet's book _Darwin's Dangerous Idea_. Anyone who can finds a substantial hole in either Darwin's original book or Dennet's exposition would be instantly famous. All it would take is one hole. Such an objection has not been found by anyone in the 100+ years since Darwin wrote his book. In other words, the theory has had much fewer changes than Newton's theory has had.

The second part of evolution is whether it fits the world or not. This attack can not be done from the arm chair--it requires going into the field and showing that some other theory fits the data better than evolution does. Given how many predictions of evolution have been born out, any alternative theory had better be pretty close to evolution or it won't be able to fit the data that evolution has already fit. In other words, the theory that replaces evolution will be one that still leaves evolution as a damn good approximation.

Believing in evolution

It is said that 50% of Americans don't believe evolution. This really doesn't bother me very much. Well over 50% of Americans don't understand Newtonian physics well enough to use it to compute the path of a baseball. Probably less than 5% of Americans could use Newtonian physics to describe why a top doesn't fall over when it is spinning. So people who believe physics are believing something they haven't a clue about. They are simply bowing to authority. Personally I think this is no better than bowing to other forms of authoritarian sources of knowledge. It would be much better for these people to say, "You know, I haven't a clue as to how to apply Newtonian physics. They say it explains gravity, baseballs and tops, but I can throw a mean baseball without understanding the theory. So I don't feel much need to have an opinion on whether it is true or not. I'll let others who care more duke it out." The fact that people "believe" Newtonian physics tells us more about the ability of physicists to intimidate people than it tells us about the truthfulness of the theory.

Physics is hard to understand--it does require understanding some quite advanced mathematics. So the fact that people give up on it makes sense. This is not true for evolution. It is a quite simple and easy to understand theory. So what does bother me is that so many people haven't every taken the time and energy to understand evolution. Once they understand it, I really don't care if they believe it or not. If they understand the theory, they pretty much are forced to believe the theory part. If they don't believe that it is relevant for the world we live in, that simply shows that they live in a city where the theory truly isn't relevant.

Teaching evolution

So teaching the theory part of evolution is a reasonable thing to teach in school since it makes internal sense and is fun. Teaching the science of evolution requires discussing lots of different animals and how they evolved to be the way they are. This also would work well since talking about animals always goes over well in classes.

But this isn't what people mean by "teaching evolution in schools." What they mean is teaching that humans evolve from apes who evolved from single cells muck. This has no theoretical content since no one can say why we evolved from apes. Further, it has very low scientific content since most of the species discussed are extinct. So this sort of lesson plan could be justified for indroctionation reasons, but not for scientific reasons. I personally view this sort of version of evolution as identical to teaching creationism. Teaching this sort of evolution or teaching creationism both are unamerican since they condone following authority rather than thinking for oneself. I personally call this the "religion of evolution."

So I think the easiest scientific theory to teach is evolution. It can be described to elementary school students in a fashion they could understand. So it is a great theory to talk about. I also think the science of evolution should be taught in schools. Dawkins describes a wonderful demonstration that he does with insects concerning camiflog. Other experiments can be done using currently existing animals. Hence they would relate to the world the student actually lives in. It would actually be science.

So I don't care about whether the religion of evolution is taught or not. If it is taught, hopefully a little theory and science will creep in. If it isn't taught, at least the students won't be confused into thinking that scientist believe that some religion should pass for science or theory.