Monday, August 08, 2005

Newtonian Gravitation is just a Theory, too

The past couple of days have been pretty busy, not only for myself personally, but also for every other scientific pundit who has been working overtime contributing their own views on whether evolution in the United States is an established fact or a dangerous distraction from the serious business of promoting Christianity. What with everything else going in, I have not had time to gather many of the promised quotes demonstrating Darwin's own sympathies with the idea of nature as the tireless designer of the species of the earth, so instead I'll post a couple of thoughts about what others have written more recently.

One of the most interesting is the stance of the school board from Dover, Pennsylvania. No, not Kansas, but our very own PA, the home of Benjamin Franklin (discoverer of electiricity in the lightning bolt), and of the writing of the American Declaration of Independence. In a similar spirit of seeking discovery and questioning misplaced authority, the schoolboard of Dover has apparently ordered that a "disclaimer" should be added to the teaching of Evolution. You can find a sympathetic discussion of the disclaimer in this article, which is honest enough both to reproduce the entire text and to admit that this is only a first step towards the proper goal of teaching history from the book of Genesis.

The beginning of the decalaration to be read to students in Dover reads as follows:

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Rather than expressing outrage, I think most scientists could heartily endorse the spirit of scepticism expressed by the Dover declaration. After all, people (especially the media) are all too willing to encourage the public to swallow "science" without sensible questioning, and without distinguishing theory from fact. For example, "thing tend to fall downwards" is a fact. "All objects in the universe exert gravitational influence on all other according to their mass and to the inverse square of the distance in between them" is a theory, and only an approximate theory at that. Perhaps the Dover educators will extend their scrutiny of the curriculum to add the necessary disclaimers before the theory of Gravitation is taught to students. In fact, as soon as the school board gets down to business properly, they will discover a host of assumptions and incompletenessed in many other scientific theories that have been parading as truths for far too long, and I trust that the board will be willing to continue down the path of intellectual emancipation that it has so nobly begun.

Fortunately, our high school students are deemed too unsophisticated to be inculcated into the deeper mysteries of Quantum Theory and the Theory of Relativity, otherwise the list of cautions would probably take longer to read than teaching the theory itself. But these should at least be mentioned, otherwise students may be taught about the electric motor and the electromagnetic spectrum without realising that Faraday's and Maxwell's theories were, again, just theories, and relativity and the quantum theory have plenty to say in improving both of these. But there may be ample opportunity to teach the Copernican Theory of the solar system, and in this case the arguments for the Geo-centric Ptolemaic Theory and the Flat Earth Theory should be presented, at least to enable students to make up their own mind. Of course, the idea that humans are heterosexual and monogamous may be just a theory, but I wonder if it's even that general - the Bible certainly presents alternatives, and our children should probably be exposed to these and left to choose their own path. The modern value given for pi is deduced from the mathematical theory of complex analysis, and students should be told about the Biblical value of 3 as well.

Imagine the intellectual honesty that could result from a society where children are actively encouraged to question the things taught as scientific fact in less enlightened places. I should keep an eye on developments in Dover, if they encourage so much open-mindedness, I might be tempted to move there for the sake of my children's education.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Intelligent Design is a version of Evolution

In the past couple of days, George Bush has caused a news stir by advocating the teaching of a theory described in its modern guise as as "Intelligent Design". In essence, protagonists of Intelligent Design claim that natural selection alone cannot explain the compexity of biological species, therefore the living world has to be the work of an intelligent Creator. The idea is not new, of course - called variously "the teleological argument", "Paley's Watch", many great scientists, theologians, philosophers and certainly poets have believed in a great Creator and Designer of the Universe. The ridiculous thing about the current fracas isn't that some form of Intelligent Design might be a tempting point of view for a scientist to hold: it is that this view is being put forth as an alternative to the theory of Evolution.

Intelligent Design is not a competitor with Evolution. It presupposes Evolution, while advancing an explanation of how Evolution may have taken place. The scientific concensus upon Evolution itself is virtually complete: the geological record, the fossil record, the link with cosmology, biological observations, all bear witness to the fact that human beings and every other species evolved gradually from the first tiny single-cell creatures.

Religious conservatives did fight a bitter rearguard action against Evolution itself when the theory was young. When the Origin of Species was first published, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester expressed horror in the famous quote: "Descended from the Apes? My dear, let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it does not become widely known." But in spite of her plea, the theory of Evolution - if not that we are descended from current apes, that we and the apes share common ancestry - is accepted beyond reasonable doubt, and has become widely known. In scientific terms, Evolution is "true" - as true as the fact that electrons orbit nuclei. The remaining questions are about how and why Evolution happened, and who is responsible, and it is here that present day religious conservatives are trying to assert their agenda, while at the same time trying to obscure the fact that all parties agree on the fact that Evolution itself happened.

In other contexts, people find it very easy to distinguish between the "what" and the "how, who and why" of a scientitifc or historical question. Suppose that when General Relativity corrected Newtonian Gravitation, people claiming to be scientists tried to use this fact claim that "we should stop teaching that things fall down, things falling down is just a theory". Imagine that someone was claiming that they had "a new theory about who killed JFK", and then asserted that their theory was a viable alternative to the theory that John J. Kennedy was assassinated in the first place. After all, the idea that he was assassinated is just a theory, right?

The proper comparison is not "Evolution vs. Intelligent Design". It is "Intelligent Design vs. Natural Selection", Natural Selection being Darwin's own answer to how Evolution took place. I will try and do some small justice to this debate in a subsequent article. I hope that it is what Darwin would have wanted - at least, I will try to discuss the great naturalist's teaching. This may come as a surprise to people from both camps. The sad thing here, of course, is the presumption that people are of one camp or another - based on your political views, you have probably already been informed by the media about whether you are a supporter of Evolution or of Intelligent Design. But if folks from either side were to take down Darwin's dusty Victorian hardback and read a few bages, they might find a few surprises.