On evolution: An open question

Every so often, I hear something that makes me go, “Huh?” As a fairly non-traditional college student in a traditional program at a small liberal arts university, this happens more frequently than I would like to admit.

Such was the case in one of my education courses earlier today. A biology ed major was talking about the idea of sending out a newsletter at the beginning of the school year (as a future teacher, of course), and (I can only presume he expects to teach high school biology rather than a middle school course like life science) he said that he would explicitly tell parents in the newsletter that he plans to teach evolution and exactly why he feels such.* This isn’t bad in itself, but the way he delivered it was fiery in his fervor – as if he had something to prove. Moreover, he said that the reason he felt compelled to do so is because evolution is necessary to understanding anything in biology.

Now, I’ve not been secretive about my views on evolution, particularly that I do not doubt that macro/microevolution has happened, nor do I doubt common descent. But I am curious – why is the understanding of evolution so vital to understanding literally anything in biology? I took biology as a freshman in high school, and I’d like to think that my understanding of the subject wasn’t hindered by the fact that we didn’t cover any evolutionary theory in the course. (It should be noted that the teacher wouldn’t have shied away from the topic on her own principles – she was/is a staunch atheist and also affirms the truth of modern evolutionary theory.)

So here’s my open question: If, as [edit: Dobzhansky’s] infamous dictum goes, “nothing makes sense in biology except in light of evolution,” what makes this claim true? Note here that I’m not asking for a rationale of why evolution should be studied in the biology classroom – clearly, if it’s good science, it belongs there – but rather why evolution is indispensable in the study of biology. If it’s not vital to the study, that doesn’t mean it should be discarded, but it seems to me that the claim might just be hyperbolically made out of a knee-jerk reaction to those who openly reject it (i.e. creationists), as I suspect is the case with this future biology teacher. If so, then that is worth reflecting on for those who are so sorely tempted to react similarly.

*What occurred to me immediately is that this teaching candidate might have a shock coming depending on the district he gets hired in – evolution might not be a standard part of the curriculum for the courses he gets as a first year teacher.

Edit (2/1): I also found the way he expressed his fervor at telling parents that they could not allow their children to opt out to be a little counter-intuitive – teachers shouldn’t be so openly antagonistic at some unknown set of parents who might be not be totally on board with evolution because it only sets them up for problems. It makes me wonder what would happen if I taught freshman English and sent a note home, “We’re reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and if you don’t like it, tough.” Granted, there is a difference between science and English in this regard, but the attitude is equally detrimental to good parent-teacher relations, possibly even among parents who wouldn’t have a problem with their child being taught evolution.


8 Responses to On evolution: An open question

  1. myrmecos says:

    A worthy question. Speaking as someone who does research for a living, biology *is* evolution. At least, the field has become that way in recent decades.

    Evolutionary theory isn’t just a veneer of philosophy that we apply for kicks after the lab coats are hung up for the day, or a weapon we bring out now and again when we have a creationist to beat on. It’s what we actually do all day. Our experiments are about evolution. Our grants are written to answer evolutionary questions.

    If you’ve been paying attention to the sciences over the past several decades, one of the major stories has been the emergence of the life sciences to dominance. A driving factor in this meteoric rise is the energy created by the connection of previously disparate fields. Findings from one subdiscipline suddenly spark a revolution in another one, and so forth, and in a chain reaction the entirety of biology suddenly found itself maturing. Evolutionary theory has been the major conduit for these connections, and a major reason behind the rise of biology.

    For instance, the field of genomics- the study of the whole of an organism’s genetic material- is essentially a merger between biochemistry, genetics, and evolution. Nowadays, the function of unknown proteins can be predicted using mathematical applications deriving from common descent. Natural selection is routinely applied to locate areas of functional importance in genes.

    There are a great many such examples. Conservation biology relies heavily on the mathematics created in the NeoDarwinian synthesis to predict and avoid problems with inbreeding in dwindling populations. Taxonomists now almost universally use common descent to craft their classifications. Drug regimes for managing HIV infection have to be sensitive to post-infection evolutionary dynamics.

    From our perspective, it’s just downright bizarre that biology classes get by without even mentioning the dreaded “E” word. It’s like English class without verbs. It so totally misses the reality of what biologists actually do.

  2. Ronald Cote says:

    As a biologist with years of experience in R&D in industry, a thorough understanding of both sides of the controversy and having taught “alternative theories “ as guest lecturer in a local high school” science curriculum, let me offer the following advice:
    1) Evolution is ‘sold” as fact. The only fact is that it is a lie, a myth and wishful thinking masquerading as science. Its past is crammed with a shameful array of fraud, lies, hoaxes and deceptions.
    2) In two cases, the US Supreme Court has declared that evolution, a prominent component under the broader umbrella of “secular humanism” is a non theistic religion in accord with the First Amendment. Evolution, therefore is as much a religion as creation.
    3) What needs to be taught in the science classroom is science. Not filtered, censored hand picked, selected portions to support a biased belief, but all science in order to fulfill the mandate that our public schools should adhere to for providing students a learning experience. Such is being violated when evidence is suppressed. Presenting all scientific evidence allows students to base conclusions and decisions on the weight of the evidence, not the one sided propagandized views that support a specific hypothesis.
    4) Creationism has as much, if not more, sound, valid, scientific evidence to support its belief as evolution. Much of evolution is based on biased guesswork and a large measure of speculation, slanted toward their view.
    5) The demonstrable indication that evolution is weak and unraveling is in the concentrated and continuous effort to relegate anything in opposition as “religious” in order that it not be allowed into the classroom and to effectively censor it by so labeling.
    6) If there was confidence in evolution as a substantiated, valid, supportable theory, evolutionists should not fear that other evidence would denigrate or weaken their theory, opposing evidence should be welcomed as a means of convincing the masses of its validity. Instead, every effort is made to censor and withhold such information. This has a resultant of denying our youth of an opportunity for independent thinking that should be part of a true learning experience.
    7) I can further assure you that in applied science, evolution is NOT indispensable and NOT necessary to understand everything in biology. What products owe their existence to evolution?
    Your teacher friend needs to defend it because his livelihood depends on it as long as it remains the state religion.
    I would also differ on macroevolution. No such evidence exists!. Microevolution is valid when taken in the context of variation and adaptation within a kind

  3. Brody says:

    myrmecos, your response was something like what I was expecting. Still, though, it seems that the importance of modern evolutionary theory as you state it is primarily in research and scholarly work; at least, none of the things you stated apply to the high school biology classroom at large, which is one of my concerns. I of course wanted an answer to the whole question, though, and your response went some way to that effect, but there is still somewhat of a disconnect for me between what biologists do and what biology is – the latter is what I’m mainly getting at. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, though.

    Ronald, thanks for the comment as well, but I’m not sympathetic to most of your points (and actually think them false), especially the idea that creationism has “as much, if not more” evidence than modern evolutionary theory. myrmecos has offered some examples of the predictive power of MET, and I don’t think creationism has that by any stretch. I also dispute whether or not evolution is a religion in anywhere near the sense that Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism are religions, especially since there are adherents of other religions that do not dispute its scientific efficacy. I would also suspect that evolution can only be considered secular humanism when it is presented as such in a classroom where the teacher is opening showing his/her bias toward that ideology.

  4. Ronald Cote says:

    Brody, If you “don’t think” creationism has much evidence to support it, that implies that you have not given it the research that it deserves. But that assumes that your quest for the truth is genuine and unbiased. Evolution has a long shameful history of lies, deceit, hoaxes and has, as its basis, speculation as its major tenet. I maintain that it takes more faith to believe in evolution than in Creationism and more to believe in Darwin than in God. What is the “evidence” that you refer to for modern evolutionary theory? In the “goo to you” aspect name any evidence (not speculation) that any something became something else. The so called “fossil record should be full of concrete examples after 150 years of digging, but there is nothing, zilch, nada. Doesn’t that tell you something? Evolution is a fantacy for atheistic grownups.

  5. Brody says:

    Brody, If you “don’t think” creationism has much evidence to support it, that implies that you have not given it the research that it deserves.

    This is such circular logic that it makes me not even want to read the rest of your comment. A mere disagreement on the evidence does not mean that I haven’t done my research. I’ve been interested in this debate for quite some time now, and pure creationism just doesn’t answer any important scientific questions or make any significant predictions. Modern evolutionary theory does, especially since the neo-Darwinian synthesis (alluded to by myrmecos above when he/she mentioned genomics). Moreover, adherence to MET is not done along ideological lines; again, there are numerous religious persons that accept evolution – John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins are two exceptional thinkers that do, for instance. One need not believe in Darwin (as if adherents of MET really do this, anyway…) rather than in God; there is a range of compatibility.

    And I take great offense to the implication that my “quest for the truth” is not “genuine and unbiased.” It is precisely because my worldview is amenable to evidence that I accept MET, not because I want to deny the evidence. If you want to use such rhetoric, go do it elsewhere.

  6. Ronald Cote says:

    Brody, boy are you touchy! I said i assumed your quest to be genuine. What is offensive about that? My experience is that the more people get touchy, the more of their nerves have been tweaked. If you use your brand of rhetoric, I resciprocate the invitation for you to do it elsewhere also.

  7. Brody says:

    Ronald, that response was asinine. For one, your statements:

    Brody, If you “don’t think” creationism has much evidence to support it, that implies that you have not given it the research that it deserves. But that assumes that your quest for the truth is genuine and unbiased. (emphasis mine)

    do not really imply that you thought my personal search for truth to be “genuine and unbiased.” The vagueness of the bolded statement (especially “that” – what does this pronoun refer to?) led me to believe that you were suggesting that acceptance of evolution implies bias. If you did not mean such, then I rescind my comments to that regard, but I won’t apologize for taking those statements to mean such since you weren’t clear about them.

    Also, I should point out that it is quite absurd to suggest on my own blog that I should use “[my] own brand of rhetoric” (which really wasn’t what I was getting at with my previous comment, but whatever) elsewhere. What better place would I have to use “my own rhetoric” than my own blog?

    Your comments have, however, demonstrated to me how easy it can be to get riled up over this issue. On the other hand, getting a little peeved at a commenter on a blog is different than being openly antagonistic to parents of your students, which was partially my point in writing this entry.

  8. Beanybag says:

    Thank you for the intelligent debate going on here (even though it was not the intended result of the original poster, but anywhere where there is a public forum and the MET debates are soon to follow). I am writing a thesis paper in High School currently on Evolution and I have been trying to find both sides of the argument. Finding both sides in one place like this with actual grammatical accuracy and good rhetoric is really enjoyable.


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