Wednesday, November 22, 2006


A disturbing article from the latest issue of Nature (subscriber link) documents the audible noises that creationist groups in Europe have been starting to make, to try to force creationism into science curricula. The trend is most evident in Turkey, and Italy also is in the throes of a similar debate. While the movement is still not large-scale, there are isolated pockets which have no remorse in flinging creationism at students as an 'alternative theory' to evolution. More than ever, scientists now have to take a deep breath and make sure that the exact meaning of evolution is made clear to students.

As an aside, about 70% of people in Europe believe in evolution. In Ted Haggard's America, the number has actually dropped down to 40% since 1985. What sweet irony I feel when I say "God save them" when I hear this. One of the reasons why I and others think fundamentalism has not cast such a long shadow in Europe is because Europe has seen such horrible religious conflict through the ages, that I would think it's simply too tired to get involved in relgious tirades anymore. Of course, Europe has also seen enormous non-religious conflict, so I believe it would be tired of conflict in general. In the much more historically liberal America, I fear that religious conflict may be a more welcome guest, ready to be invited in and nurtured until he erupts and spreads his poison among his hospitable hosts. Maybe it's European history and not creationism that should be made mandatory in American classrooms...

I believe that one of the problems that leads to such further unpleasant situations as are emerging in Europe is that evolution is really not taught too well in our classes. I don't recall it being taught too well in India (inlcuding in the ICSE and CBSE syllabus) nor did I see it being explained clearly and succintly in some American biology textbooks that are prescribed in schools and colleges here which I took a look at. On the other hand, what I find lavishly illustrated in most of these textbooks is the astounding diversity of life. If the books can do such a good job in illustrating this variegated diversity, it should be then a short step from there to connect it to evolution, and to explain how the central tenet of natural selection is a guiding force for all that spellbinding natural multiplicity that we see around us.

Perhaps the single-most important statement about evolution that teachers need to drive home into students' minds is this:


This misconception is widespread and easily assimilated. I found myself wondering about the 'chance' nature of evolution even when I was in my first year of college. Of course, that did not lead me as it might lead some, to believe in god as the default alternative. But the very fact that I kept on being puzzled by the chance nature of evolution makes it clear that I had really not understood evolution well. Many proponents of evolution (including Dawkins of course- "Darwin's rottweiler") have belaboured this point often; that the reason many people doubt evolution is simply because they haven't read up on it and tried to actually understand it. It is quite easy to get bewildered by the complexity around us and question how it could have arisen from simplicity. It takes a little more effort on our part to understand some basic aspects of evolution that can easily answer that question and convince us that evolution and 'chance' are diametrically opposite. To understand this "structured random" nature of evolution, I can heartily recommend any of Dawkins's, Stephen Jay Gould's, or Kenneth Miller's books (especially his Finding Darwin's God). A simple reading of three such books should largely get rid of the 'chance syndrome' that we might suffer from. The non-chance nature of evolution is manifest through mountains of evidence from history, as well as modern experiments done in laboratories.

But if even adults can suffer from this affliction of ignorance, then we should surely take many more efforts to make children understand the true nature of evolution. Evolution is surely a theory of simplicity and supreme elegance, but from a pedagogic perspective, I think it can still be tricky to explain some of its fine points that are nevertheless central to its key hypotheses. Because of this, teachers and parents (charity begins at home) really need to take out the time to make sure that students and children are asking questions in the first place, and then getting them clearly answered. If not getting them completely answered, then at least doubting, and most importantly, being quite happy with exploring and saying "I don't know"

In the end of course, questions remain, and the beauty of science is that it always has questions to gnaw at. Evolution is not a perfect theory, and there are puzzles that have to be solved. But more than anything else, students should be finally told that because there are questions does not mean an entire theory should be debunked, something the creationists are fond of doing till they drop dead. Because evolution (or evolutionists- an appellation which I hate because it sounds like "leftists' or "corn lobbyists") cannot answer 'all' questions scarcely means that "evolution is wrong". In the more than one hundred years since Darwin set foot on The Beagle, natural selection has emerged as the grandest, simplest, and most elegant theory that explains our origins. Now what would we rather have; a theory that, through objective evidence we are 99% certain about, or a completely made-up 'theory' that we are 100% certain about that not only does not provide a shred of evidence, but also contradicts itself and basic logic, as well as actively lies about its 'hypotheses'? In fact, how can we be '100% certain' about such a 'theory'? The sheer self-contradiction even in making a statement about such a 'theory' boggles the most average of minds.

I don't believe in evolution because I think it's a perfect theory. I believe in it because of its pervasive simplicity, the countless examples that it provides to explain complexity, and the simple fact that it's really the best theory we have. I also will be constantly puzzled by how any kind of skepticism about a detail of evolution can make the default leap of faith into the existence of a designer. At the least, it insults our intelligence because it means that because we can't understand something right now, it means that a supremely competent designer must have made it possible, and that we should give up trying to understand it. Not just that but even in the absence of Darwinism, God is really a bad explanation of anything because then as Dawkins has said many times, we just come down to trying to explain God.

To teach evolution would mean to teach the nature of science itself, its self-correcting and gradually progressing nature, as well it's drive to become more and more sure about the truth through critical acceptance, and rejection, of theories and hypotheses. An active effort needs to be made by scientists, teachers, and parents, to rescue their students and children from the trappings of a dark age (I was startled when this last statement made me sound like a preacher. Never mind, preachers would never certify me as their own...)


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