It may come as a surprise to learn that evolutionists have a great deal of work to do to put their house in order. Although the title of Kevin Padian's article refers to common misrepresentation of evolution in textbooks and the media, the abstract makes it clear that many of the problems are "confusingly discussed in the scientific literature" (meaning that professional evolutionists are also at fault). Nevertheless, textbooks are Padian's main target, and we agree with his thesis that changes are long overdue. Nevertheless, the details of the proposed changes need to be considered critically. We cannot discuss in this blog all the issues raised by Padian, but we shall look at some in each of the three sections in his article.
The Cobb County textbook sticker was deemed unconstitutional, but the need for critical appraisal of evolutionary concepts has not gone away. (Source here)
The ideas and language of evolution
What does the word "evolution" mean? There are several meanings, says Padian, and he is correct to argue for greater precision of terms. What he does not say is that demonstrating validity for one meaning of evolution should not be used to validate or reinforce other meanings of the word. As an example, consider this sentence: "science understands that life has evolved through time, and there is no reasonable doubt about this anywhere in the scientific community." When textbooks develop this argument, they use the peppered moth or the Galapagos finches as case studies of evolution. There are changes over time and no one can deny this evidence. There is no controversy here and no one contests the observed variations. Where the problems start is when textbooks treat this evidence as validating Darwin's thesis of common descent by natural selection acting on varying traits. Padian does not even acknowledge that this problem exists.
Take another example: evolution is "a change in gene frequency in a population". This definition also is uncontroversial and is not contested. Yet how many times is it used to stand as evidence for the evolution of all life's diversity from the first living cell? Padian overlooks this abuse of the word "evolution" and contents himself with the words: "This simple (or simplistic) definition gets to one level of the processes of evolution (yet it misses many processes from speciation to what causes changes in gene frequencies in populations)." Yes, it is simplistic - but that is not the real problem.
Padian reflects approvingly on Darwin's definition of evolution as "descent with modification". He claims: "It is as useful on a short timescale as on a long one; it suggests minor evolutionary modifications as well as major ones." But this claim IS controversial! Of course, Darwin thought that evidence for minor evolutionary modifications over short timescales (which are observed) is also evidence for major evolutionary transformations over long timescales (which are not observed nor are they documented in the fossil record). This is the issue that is urgently in need of clarification - but which Padian covers over. He refers to pre-Darwinian concepts and to a century of debate about what controls morphology and asserts (wrongly) that Darwin's approach settled this debate:
"Darwin brushed away this conflict in a single paragraph by showing that common descent could explain the common body plans of related organisms, and that natural selection could explain their adaptive differences as they were modified to fit the conditions of existence." (page 2)
Historical and philosophical aspects of evolution
Padian points out that the architects of the Modern Synthesis (Neo-Darwinism) made much of "slow and insensibly small changes". However, Darwin's use of the word "gradual" was closer to the root meaning of "step" (from the Latin gradus or step). Padian goes on to suggest that Darwin would have seen "little difference between the evolutionary tempos of classic Mayrian 'gradualism' and 'punctuated equilibria'." It is surprising to see these arguments being presented again - they were (apparently) fully explored before Gould's untimely death. The issues go much deeper than a consideration of the question: how large can a step be? In particular, the evidence for stasis needs to be considered. Darwin's branching model of descent with modification did not anticipate stasis, nor does the fossil record provide a good fit with any form of Darwinian gradualism. Padian's approach appears to rob students of some interesting discussions.
Padian advises educators to use care in characterising the religious beliefs of historical figures. These people may have championed ideas that are out of favour today, but they do not fit into the predetermined profiles devised by popularisers of science. In the main, historians of science have recognised that these scholars deserve a more rigorous analysis and Padian draws attention to some relevant literature. What would have been helpful would be to give the same advice about the religious beliefs of contemporary influential thinkers who question evolutionary theory. Popularisers have a highly polarised view of dissenting scientists. What appears to matter to them is whether they can be labelled as mainstream evolutionists or creationists (of any kind). This means they rarely engage with rational arguments and they end up contending with strawman adversaries.
The article promotes the NOMA principle advocated by Gould. This requires a strict separation of "science" and "religion". It leads to statements such as the following:
"All science is non-theistic, by which is meant that it does not entail or require any concept of a god or other supernatural being or force. In fact, science is completely independent of any ideas about gods or other supernatural beliefs. But science is not anti-theistic: it does not deny such beings or forces, any more than it accepts them (or leprechauns or unicorns), because these things are not within the purview of science."
There are numerous problems with this approach: historical, philosophical and theological. The NOMA principle turns a blind eye to the scientific revolution of the 17th Century, when all the leaders of science were theists whose science was an expression of their Christian calling. The autonomy of science came with the 18th Century Enlightenment - which is when Padian seeks to ground the roots of science. By contrast, many Christians today do not regard the Enlightenment as a positive intellectual movement. In stressing the autonomy of reason, Enlightenment scholars drove a wedge between Christianity and science. This led to the mechanical view of man, and ultimately spawned a plethora of non-rational ideologies that were driven by the search for meaning and purpose in a mechanistic universe. These issues are with us today. Students should be exposed to the alternative view that all science is theistic. The axioms of theism that are relevant to science, and which were important for triggering the scientific revolution, are: nature is real; nature is good; nature is created; creation is rational; creation exhibits "laws"; creation is designed. These axioms have their roots in the Bible, but cannot be derived using reason alone. The Enlightenment scholars took the axioms they liked and built on them. However, reason alone does not provide these foundations.
Natural selection and related concepts
There have always been concerns that natural selection is perceived as a force that moulds organisms, as in the phrase: "Natural selection would favor the acquisition of such-and-such a feature". It has often been pointed out by both evolutionists and dissenters, that this leads directly to Darwinian story-telling rather than science. Padian has helpful things to say here:
"This phraseology suggests a naive faith in the optimality of evolutionary processes, and some omniscience on the part of the author, in continuing to personify natural selection as if it were a conscious being. Of course, scientists do not really think these things (do we?); we just write as if we do. Natural selection is a description of a process, not an actor; we recognize it as a post hoc outcome of the struggle for existence."
"Remembering the previous point, it is more accurate to say that in the struggle for existence, some individuals are weeded out before they can reproduce. This process is not creative, any more than a lawnmower is creative with your backyard grass." (page 9)
This interaction with Padian's article has had to be selective, and there are many other issues worthy of discussion. Padian's desire to see evolutionary theory taught well is commendable, and he puts his finger on a number of relevant topics. However, in many cases, Padian does not succeed in counteracting the misrepresentation because he replaces one form of misrepresentation with another.
Correcting some common misrepresentations of evolution in textbooks and the media
Evolution: Education and Outreach, 25 June 2013, 6:11 | doi:10.1186/1936-6434-6-11
Abstract: Topics related to evolution tend to generate a disproportionate amount of misunderstanding in traditional textbooks, other educational materials, and the media. This is not necessarily the fault of textbook and popular writers: many of these concepts are confusingly discussed in the scientific literature. However, faults can be corrected, and doing so makes it easier to explain related concepts. Three general areas are treated here: ideas and language about evolution, historical and philosophical aspects of evolution, and natural selection and related concepts. The aim of this paper is to produce a template for a more logical, historically and scientifically correct treatment of evolutionary terms and concepts.
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