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Evolution debate revived

In the beginning, there was the report about the Creation Museum going up in Kentucky, where diorama dinosaurs will walk the earth alongside Adam and Eve. Then came Tuesday's primary election in Kansas, where Darwin's defenders gained the upper hand over intelligent-design backers on the state's Board of Education.

Those stories revived the discussion over the interplay of science and religion in modern society. It's not really a scientific debate in the classical sense, but rather a cultural dialogue that we repeatedly revisit. Read on for a selection of the latest e-mail I've received on both sides of the debate, and feel free to add your own comments:

Let's start with some observations from Kansans about the rhetorical back-and-forth over educational standards in that state:

Caren Rugg, community services coordinator, East Central Kansas Area Agency on Aging, Ottawa, Kan.:  "What do I think of the battle?  I think it’s one more unbalanced representation that this state is no longer a progressive beacon of hope to its citizens, but rather a backward-looking and backward-leaning environment.  It’s not enough that we go more that one state away, and whomever we speak with has to make a 'Wizard of Oz' statement, as though we haven’t heard that before.  Now the entire nation thinks we are a wheat straw-chewing, horse and wagon-driving, thinking-limited, turn-of-the-century, technologically challenged state. 

"The votes we are casting today in our primary for our state Board of Education will hopefully ensure that we are no longer the educational joke of the rest of the country. Businesses are safe here, families are welcomed, and we do have out-of-the-box thinkers who resent the maligned representation we have been given."

Chris: "I'm proud to be a citizen of the only state that stands together in their belief that man was created by God. Being ridiculed for your beliefs is part of being a Christian. The majority of Kansans see much of the country as 'backward and ignorant' because they haven't an ounce of faith. Much of the country has been so concerned with being 'politically correct' that they have lost touch with the basic values and social standards that this country was founded on. I do believe in separation of church and state, but keeping God out of the history of Man is forcing Atheism into classrooms."

Angela: "I'm a microbiologist who was born, raised, and works in Kansas.  I've been watching the 'Science Standards' circus off and on for several years, and I have to tell you, I'm enraged.

"Firstly, the Kansas Board of Education needs to recognize that religions other than Christian exist in the world.  We don't need to be violating kids' civil rights by shoving the mainstream Christian view down their throats.

"Secondly, a 'theory' is what scientists call something which is overwhelmingly supported by scientific evidence. A 'hypothesis' is what we call something which is still in the early investigative stages. The idea that the moon's gravity influences the ocean's tides is a theory, even though it's pretty well proven and not especially controversial.  Evolution is a theory, not a hypothesis.

"Thirdly, there is fossil evidence of species which are in the transition state between the parent species and the new species which will be.

"Fourthly, evolution has been demonstrated to occur very rapidly, in spurts.  This means that the transitional forms of the species won't exist for millions of years like the parent species, which in turn makes the transitional forms less likely to be fossilized.

"Fifthly, the earth is not a closed system.  The sun is constantly providing energy, which means that entropy is not the inevitable, irresistible force some creationists claim it to be.

"Sixthly, those people who claim that 'even if early conditions on Earth did lead to the formation of amino acids and nucleic acids, those molecules would be just as likely to break apart as to form chains' need to take Biochemistry 101.  Chains of amino acids and nucleic acids are actually much more chemically stable than their individual components. Additionally, ribonucleic acids in a specific order in a chain are able to grab free ribonucleic acids and add them on to the end of the chain.

"Finally, an experiment performed more than 60 years ago demonstrated that, by adding the inorganic (mineral) compounds present on the early Earth into a flask, and bombarding the flask with electrical charges to simulate lightning, amino acids and nucleic acids were formed.  Further experiments showed that the amino and nucleic acids eventually attached to clays of a type which would have been and still are present on Earth, formed into chains, and were able to extend and maintain themselves.  This is particularly interesting when you consider God's statement, 'I formed you from the clay of the Earth,' which is found in Genesis.

"I believe in an omnipotent God, and if he/she/it wanted to use evolution to create life, he/she/it sure could have. If creationists believe God isn't omnipotent, or planted millions of fossils for giggles, they're welcome to go tell him that. As for me, I feel privileged to be a member of the only species capable of scientific inquiry."

Ann Snell, Kansas City: "Both should be presented and let the student make up his own mind. That's how I learned it in the 1960's.  We should not only have freedom of speech, but freedom of thought, as well. That's the American way.  One party cannot force-feed  their version to the other party.

Mike: "It's easy to ridicule anytime some party or other takes an extremist viewpoint - right, left, middle, whatever. The bottom line is that intelligent design mirrors religious views. That isn't science and therefore should not taught alongside the theory of evolution in science classes. That's what Sunday School is for, yes? And as a 'theory,' evolution does not require 'believers' to rely strictly on faith, as does creationism. At least there's a fossil record, and a rather formidable one when it comes to the development of Homo sapiens."

"Personally, I'm embarassed to be from Kansas. It was hard enough getting over the ridicule of Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. Is this all we're known for? Oh, the shame!

"(Well, except for KU basketball in a good year!!!)"

You don't have to be from Kansas to weigh in:

Billy A. Silva, senior archaeologist, B.A. Silva Sensing Systems, Lodi, Calif.: "As a Christian and archaeologist I was forced to deal with this issue early in my career. The evidence and the logic of Darwinian Theory is overwhelming.  That is not to say we have it all figured out or that all the dots connect.  I mean let's face it we are dealing with an incredible amount of time depth and an incomplete fossil record.  Not to mention the minute changes that occur within a species over time that lead to newer species.

"Consequently, as a Christian, the evidence and logic of a Creator makes perfect sense as well.  That we have various versions on who the Creator is is also not surprising; considering the stories are told by different people in different cultures. What was my solution to this seeming disparite lines of evidence?  Theism: If God seeded life as a single cell billions of years ago, knowing that they would differentiate into multiple species; then I'm OK with that.  What a wonderful, marvelous and powerful creator. If, on the other hand, God introduced man at some point in time by creating him out of mud and then cloning woman from man's rib, that's just as miraculous. 

"This is not a cop-out (i.e., playing both ends against the middle).  The fact is, the creation story is not the 'theme' of the Bible.  It is a beginning.  It introduces the characters and part of the 'theme' to a people that for the most part were goat herders.

"The 'theme' fully developed throughout the Old and New Testaments is the connection between man and God, what broke the connection, man's attempt to correct the connection, God's solution to the connection problem (Christ) and God and man reunited in space and time.

"What I have felt interesting about this battle between creationism and evolution is that it has absolutely nothing to do with personal salvation.  The real story. Albeit an interesting incidental discussion that involves some fun intellectualism, but which results in no definitive solution.  My message to those spending their time on this is to get involved with the real problems facing the world (e.g., poverty, hunger, etc.).  This is where Christ has called us."

Ray LaFehr, author, "Breaking the Female Code": "The Bible itself is a testimony, of God and His revelation of Himself to man.  Man couldn’t imagine or create such an account of God and His creation of humankind (both man and woman) and all other species; existence of evil; redemption of man; the incarnation, etc. The Bible claims to be inspired by God Himself, and Jesus puts His stamp of approval on it (the Old Testament).

"The best man can come up with, who refuses special creation, is that 'humans evolved' from nothing - into a species so complex that they themselves can not even decipher their own being or what really is the fact or fable.  So his best answer is to introduce evolution and tack on a few billions years for whatever they can not explain.  The truth is, if you are not going to believe in God’s revelation of Himself to man – you have to believe in some alternative.

“Evolution is really man’s attempt to make a monkey out of himself.”

David and Sue: "The only question my wife and I have is, if the scientific community considers them both 'theories' then how is one better than the other.  Why not teach both?  We personally believe that it would have been very hard to just pop into existence and then evolve from monkeys.  The monkeys are still here, aren’t they?  Why are we allowing this to happen in our schools? They should be cutting-edge, investigating for the truths behind everything.  Again, why is everyone so scared of teaching another theory?"

John Myers, Kirkland, Wash.: "Creationism, including Intelligent Design, is not science and has absolutely no place in a science classroom.  Period. Case closed.

"If people want alternate ideas to evolution presented, then let them discuss these in a non-scientific setting - such as church, philosophy, or religion studies class.  But presenting these ideas as alternate scientific theories is a sham, and is a grave injustice to our school system and to our children.

"Evolution is considered by the vast majority of scientists today to be one of the most concrete and solid theories of modern science.  It is not an idea that was produced out of thin air, as creationism seems to be.  On the contrary, there is an immense volume of empirical evidence that supports evolutionary theory, from the fossil record and plate tectonics to genetics and molecular biology.

"There is very little controversy in the scientific community toward evolution.  Any controversy is drummed up by religious fundamentalists, most of whom seem to have little understanding of how science works.  There are a few scientists, such as Michael Behe and William Dembski, who attack evolutionary theory.  But they do so because of their religious fervor.  They do not, and have not, presented a viable scientific argument against evolution itself."

Carlos Darweeny: Please, stop all this talk about evolution.  We know, just as we knew in the Middle Ages that the heliocentric theory was the way to go then, that evolution and its explanations for all those dinosaurs clogging up our museums is not the way to go today.   Let's just burn all evolutionists at the stake and be done with them once and for all. 

"P.S.: Have any of you seen that Galileo chap around lately.  He's also a real pain in the cerebral cortex!  Oh, how I wish they would never have believed him when he said he was recanting all those screwy theories he had concocted."

Gayle Coleman: "The National Center for Science Education says a 'theory' is 'a logical, tested, well-supported explanation for a great variety of facts.'

"Your definition of theory was correct.  I used to teach biology and it is spot-on the book definition.  My question is how evolution fits into the definition.  Evolution has never been observed and never tested.  And there are so many conflicting evolutionary theories to choose from.  Each group says their theory is correct.  So, I doubt that the 'well supported' part of the definition applies either.

"You are going to say that evolution is just a general term referring to all the theories.  How many theories of gravity are there? Gravity can be easily observed.  The Law (not theory) of Gravity can be easily tested.  The Law of Gravity is logical. Evolution is not mathematically logical.  There is not enough time for the random mutations to occur.  It cannot be tested.  Biology texts have one possible example of observed evolution:  the moth whose wings change color. This example has recently been shown to happen not as the result of evolution but because of genetic switches that are turned on and off by environmental factors.  Yet this example still turns up in biology texts. 

My point is this: be truthful about the problems with evolution.  Stop sweeping things under the carpet.  The public is being told evolution is 'scientific gospel'.  It is far from that.  Evolution is closer to being 'scientific guessing' than anything else. Call it something else besides 'a theory.'"

Actually, gravity is an observable phenomenon that is the focus of Newton's theory of universal gravitation as well as Einstein's general theory of relativity. Similarly, evolution is an observable phenomenon that is the subject of Darwin's theory as well as follow-on theoretical work. For more in this vein, check out this discussion of Einstein vs. Darwin.

The saga of the peppered moth is dissected in depth on the Talk.Origins Web site, which I've recommended in the past as a good resource for discussions of evolutionary evidence.

Some folks raised a red flag over our unscientific Live Vote, focusing on the suggestion that there are "alternatives" to evolutionary theory:

David Bible: "The questions being used in the live vote about evolution in science classes are misusing a word - 'alternative.' There are no alternatives to evolution as the explanation for the diversity of life.

"Evolution is a fact and the theory is the explanation of the processes of evolution.  Stating that there must have been or is a tinkering intelligent designer or creator involved in biological processes explains nothing.  A stated belief that is not even a testable hypothesis can hardly be considered an alternative to anything, evolution or otherwise."

A Maryland biology teacher: "In regards to the Live Vote choices presented on the MSNBC Web site, I feel there is a major problem with the wording of the choices.  Two of the choices indicate that 'alternatives to evolution theory should/should not be be given equal weight in science textbooks.' The choices should have read 'scientific alternatives to evolution theory should/should not be be given equal weight in science textbooks.' Intelligent-design theory is not a scientific theory and therefore has no place in a science textbook.  The scientific community welcomes other possible scientific explanations."

I realize the Live Vote's wording is a bit ambiguous and provocative, but I suppose that's part of the intent. It's a way of phrasing the issue that's a bit different from the "Darwinism vs. intelligent design" split. I do appreciate your messages pointing out the gaps in the phrasing. That's part of the debate as well.

One of the questions we threw out was whether creationism should be considered science, in light of the "science" being presented at the Creation Museum. Here are some of your comments on that score, starting with the legal view:

Donald: "No, creationism is not science in any way shape or form. Legally this was decided principally in three different legal cases.

"First in the case of McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education, 1982. A federal court found that an Arkansas statute requiring equal treatment of creation-science and evolution-science in public schools violated the Constitution's Establishment Clause. They went on to provide a detailed definition of science and found that creation-science was in fact not a science.

The second case of Edwards vs. Aguillard (1987) was similar. The U.S. Supreme Court found that a Louisiana law banning evolution from schools unless it was accompanied by creation science was unconstitutional. The court stated that by advocating the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind, the fundamental of creation science, creation science was endorsing religion and therefore could not be taught in public schools.

"Finally, the last major case was in 1994: Peloza vs. Capistrano Unified School District. Here the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the schools did not violate a biology teacher's First Amendment rights by requiring her to teach evolution. The court found that the school was in fact only requiring a science teacher to teach a scientific theory, therefore declaring evolution to be a scientific theory.

"Between these cases we see that evolution is a scientific theory while creationsim is not any form of science at all. It is also very true that creationsim does not follow the simple precepts of science and the scientific method. It begins with the conclusion and gathers evidence to support it later; this is completely backwards from the definition of all sciences.

"After these and many other court developments the creationism movement died out because it had clearly lost. Since then intelligent design theory has arisen, but it has been shown to be only creationism in a new package."

Here's a nice wrapup of legal precedents on the issue of creationism in public schools, including the most recent case from Pennsylvania. But the debate goes beyond legal or even strictly scientific considerations:

Wan Chi Lau, managing editor, Rainy Day magazine: "With the U.S. falling behind in science and math, calling a bedtime story 'science' is just plain dangerous.  Science does not care if you believe it or not ... sooner or later, what is 'true' will rise to the surface. Creationism requires a belief in 'God,' and it is just building a house of cards."

Sandy Blanchard, Mondovi, Wis.: "Yes, creationism (intelligent design) is science.  Do your homework.  Better question: Do editorial comments belong in a news article? No. Statements like, 'That, of course, is contradicted by science' have no business appearing in anything except an editorial - and should be clearly labeled as such. (Journalism 101)"

Rick DeYoung: Creationism is science in the same way ghost hunting is science, or looking for the Loch Ness monster is science, or the way spontaneous human combustion is studied is science - it starts with a conclusion and tries to make the data fit the conclusion.

"The same as when Ptolemy got stuck in his proofs for a earth-centered universe - he just couldn’t see that the model was flawed.  Creationism today is very similar. Zealots with some ax to grind seem to feel this is important. It's not.

"Incidentally, using creationist methodology one can also prove the existence of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Great Pumpkin, and that flies can spontaneously generate from a pile of old rags.

"There's nothing wrong with creationism or any of the above - so long as they're left on the back burner.  When they are moved to the pressure cooker and force fed to the education system then it becomes religious zealotry - something the world is too full of these days for my taste."

David A. Tucker Sr., engineering manager: "Creationism is science.  All true science starts with the observed data - in this case, the universe and (especially) our planet.  All observation of the data is necessarily understood (i.e., interpreted) in accordance with already-obtained and understood information.  In other words, the previous knowledge of the scientist is always involved in his/her interpretation of any observed data, whether admitted or not.  Therefore, creationist scientists use their previous knowledge of the Bible to interpret the observed data.  The method is still scientific; the predisposition of the scientist is the key difference.

"Beyond that, any researcher will also attempt to make his/her interpretation of the data either construct some logical framework or fit some predetermined framswork.  It has been my experience that both creationists and evolutionists typically try to fit the same observed data into their own predetermined framework.  At this point, the outside observer must make a value decision, determining which framework best fits and explains the observed data.

"From my current vantage point (and having earlier in life espoused the evolutionary framework), I've come to the conclusion that the creationist framework fits the data far better than the evolutionary framework."

Tom V., Somerville, N.J.: "Yes, I believe that the Earth is relatively 'young' and that people did not evolve over billions or millions of years as current evolutionary theory goes. The problem with all the radioactive dating and archaeological dating is that they are not taking into consideration the global catastrophe of the biblical flood which throws off all the calculations.  This is what Ken Ham is demonstrating.

"Many other evidences exist which fit the creation theory much better than evolution theory.  An almost complete lack of transitional forms in the fossil record, the rapid decay of the Earth's magnetic field, and other indications are that the Earth is not millions of years old. 

"The book of Genesis does give us much more historical fact than most scientists currently are able to accept."

So what's the bottom line? Will the debate ever end? Should I end it?

Garrick Sitongia, Corvallis, Ore.: "This whole debate would collapse if students were taught just what science is. Science is the observation of physical phenomena, followed by a theory about why the phenomena, followed by the testing of the theory by devising experiments and observing if the physical result of the experiment confirms the theory.

"Intelligent design and creationism are based on 'life is too complicated to figure out so there must be a god who created it.' What's the conclusion of accepting this statement? 'God must exist.'

"Using the credibility of science as a vehicle is the whole reason for the creationist movement, to use science to prove that God exists. (And therefore you better join our church, etc.)

"But how do you use physical phenomena to prove that life is too complicated to figure out? How do you devise an experiment that can confirm or deny, based on physical evidence, that God exists? You can't. Therefore Creationism cannot be tested, and it therefore is not a theory, and it is not science, even in the most liberal sense. Sooner or later, they will have to get over it.

"In the meantime, I wish that science teachers all over America would do a better job of teaching what science is, and what it is not. Then maybe kids can educate their parents about it."

Brian Ampere Smith, Ph.D.: "I am appalled at the fact that your e-publication chooses to provide oxygen to the 'debate' surrounding creationism. By choosing to publicize such idiotic perspectives, however well-intentioned, you legitimize them and further scientific illiteracy. Biological evolution, as described by Darwin, is nothing more than an explanation of one aspect of change occurring in a constantly changing universe.

"To deny that organisms change over time is equivalent to denying that inorganic changes (i.e., seasons changing during the year, the birth and death of stars, etc.) occur. This denial requires the denial of hard, cold empirical evidence in a broad range of sciences ranging from geology to chemistry to physics and, of course, biology.

"Observations of changes occurring in non-living systems led to the realization that organisms also change over time. It's pathetic that Darwin's and Wallace's discovery, which stands as a shining example of science in action and one of the greatest intellectual achievements in all of human history, is summarily made impotent by such articles. Airing this superstitious, nonsensical moronic denial, based on the rambling, self-contradictive, multi-translated, 2,000-year-old text is irresponsible.

"What's next in the Cosmic Log? Perhaps an article about how the Bible clearly states that the number pi is equal to 3, or that Earth is flat? A belief in the biblical story of creation has no more merit than these.

"By airing this 'debate,' you pander to illiterate morons whose beliefs endanger us all."

We've been chewing over this subject since the very beginnings of Cosmic Log, and I have a feeling we'll continue chewing over it till Kingdom Come. We might retread some old ground along the way, but somehow I don't see anything wrong with that. Feel free to add your comments below, but any observations that use inappropriate language or attack the comments of others will not be approved.