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A view from Kansas on that evolution debate


I have recently attended two lectures in the wake of the controversial decision by the Kansas State Board of Education to “eliminate” the required teaching of evolution (see Nature 400, 701; 1999). Philip Johnson, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and John Staver, co-chair of the committee responsible for drafting the new Kansas standards — and whose draft had been, according to him, “severely edited” by the board to “remove evolution” — both presented their definitions of science and evolution to sympathetic audiences. Both erroneously presented what they believed to be the other party's definitions of these concepts.

The crucial difference between what the creationists believe and what the proponents of evolutionary theory accept concerns the issue of whether the origins of life were driven by randomness or by an intelligent creator. Many creationists are supportive of scientific enquiry for biblical reasons such as in Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made”.

Creationists, according to Johnson, do not doubt that DNA encodes the features of an organism or that changes in DNA (mutations) give rise to variation in those features which are subject to selective pressures in nature. Mainstream creationists also accept that genetic and phenotypic changes could result in speciation. They consider evolution as a plausible model to account for the natural history of living things, but they see a great distinction between the empirically proven elements of evolution (micro-evolution) and the explanation of speciation and origins of life (macro-evolution). Students in Kansas will still be required to learn the former, but it will be left to local school districts to decide whether they are required to learn the latter.

The lesson to be learned from the events in Kansas is that science educators everywhere must do a better job of teaching evolution. It must be made clear that the evidence supporting the mechanism of evolution is empirical and proven, but that speciation and natural history are derived from the admittedly weaker evidence of observation. The fact that one cannot reproduce the experiment does not diminish the validity of macro-evolution, but the observed phenomena supporting the theory must be presented more clearly.

Additionally, one must question the interpretations of the observed phenomena and discuss the weaknesses of the model. Honest scientists are far more inspiring than defensive ones who scoff arrogantly at the masses and fear that discussing the problems of macro-evolutionary theory will weaken general acceptance of it. On the contrary, free debate is more likely to encourage the curious to seek solutions. Most important, it should be made clear in the classroom that science, including evolution, has not disproved God's existence because it cannot be allowed to consider it (presumably).

Even if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such an hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic. Of course the scientist, as an individual, is free to embrace a reality that transcends naturalism.

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Todd, S. A view from Kansas on that evolution debate. Nature 401, 423 (1999).

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