Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Teaching evolution

Clayton Cramer has a good post about teaching evolution and/or competing theories in public schools. He gets at the heart of the matter:
FACT: Most animals have blood using hemoglobin, which shares the essential porphyrin ring of chlorophyll (but chlorophyll has a magnesium ion in the middle of the ring, not an iron ion).

FACT: The Republican Party pushed for the abolition of slavery after the Civil War.

The interpretations that you bring to these facts, of course, will be controversial, at least to some people.

The evolutionist would say that the shared porphyrin ring is because of a common ancestry, or perhaps that this particular structure is so well-suited to the processes of distributing oxygen and dividing carbon dioxide back to oxygen and carbon, that random processes caused the same structure to be used in both cases. This is certainly a plausible explanation, if you buy the idea that this could have happened at random. The creationist would insist that God liked the design so much, that he re-used it. This is certainly a plausible explanation, if you buy the idea that there is a God who created life. Trying to prove that either is certainly correct is going to be rather difficult!

The Republican Party's involvement in the abolition of slavery is also subject to differing controversial interpretations. Some would argue that Republican interest in abolishing slavery was because a significant faction of the party, the abolitionists, had done an effective job of appealing to the moral revulsion of Americans about slavery. A Marxian interpretation might argue that Republican opposition to slavery was because it was interfering with capitalist development of the South, preventing capitalists from fully exploiting the black workforce. Trying to "prove" either of these theories clearly right or wrong is going to be somewhat difficult.
What's really being fought over is more philosophy than science. However, many scientists and like-minded advocates don't look at the issue this way. They think teaching anything other than evolution is a disservice to students, at best wasting their time on unscientific theories. To avoid a lengthy digression, let us use what scientists do as a working definition of science. If the purpose of the high school biology class is to train the next generation of biologists, then they have a point. Theories like intelligent design aren't going to help anyone actually do biology (in the sense of our working definition). However, only a small proportion of high school biology students become biologists or even scientists. When you keep that fact in mind, teaching evolution and giving a little time to ideas like intelligent design seems like a reasonable compromise respecting differing desires about cirricula within a community.

Of course, the best way to resolve this controversy is with more school choice.

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