Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ignorance in a Biology Class

As I mentioned a few months ago, I’m actually studying biology at the University of Auckland this year, and today I heard some baffling statements made by people sitting behind me before one of my lectures today that made me cringe.
It was the first lecture on the topic of evolution, and I assume this prompted the group of people behind me to start discussing it. Before the lecture started there was a picture of the stereotypical deity figure and a cell. The first thing I heard from this discussion that made me eavesdrop was hearing one of them say something like “I don’t even consider creation because I’m an atheist”. Over the course of the next 5 minutes before the lecture started I heard some horrendous things like “It’s still just a theory”, and “Until science proves evolution I can’t fully believe in it”. I am hoping that these individuals just went to bad schools, or didn’t study biology at all prior to this course (or science at all), because those are some pretty ignorant statements. If neither of those are true then I am ashamed of our education curriculum.

To address the first statement, that evolution is only a theory, is quite simple. No, it is not ‘only a theory’. There are facts, and the theory explains those facts. There are also sub-theories and working hypotheses. There are also many areas which require much more research to be done. Even the language of ‘only a theory’ annoys me, because it implies that a theory is nothing to be proud of, which is about as far from reality as you can get. The theory of evolution (in fact any scientific theory) is a wealth of facts combined with descriptions of mechanisms and explanations of those facts all woven together into a cohesive unit. Evolution is perhaps simultaneously the simplest and most intricate theory in all of science.
Thankfully, in this introductory lecture, the professor began to explain this concept, and said he would elaborate more on the duality of the fact/theory of evolution in tomorrow’s lecture, so hopefully he’ll set those kids straight. He also gave some excellent quotes from the likes of Darwin and Dobzhansky,
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

-Charles Darwin
“Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”

-Theodosius Dobzhansky
As for the second statement, I can only attribute that to ignorance of both the evidence for evolution and the definition of proof. Many of you will be aware of the enormous mountain of evidence for evolution, from palaeontology, through to genetics that has accumulated over the last century and a half since Darwin published his theory. If you are not aware of the full extent of the evidence, here is a link to the TalkOrigins archive.

Regarding the issue of proof... Proof is only truly found in deductive arguments, which science does not make. Science is involved only with inductive reasoning. Science establishes ‘facts’ and creates theories to explain facts. Inductive reasoning is far more useful than deductive reasoning. We can leave proofs to mathematicians and philosophers. That is mostly a semantic issue, as they were most likely using the word proof in the colloquial sense, and in that case, they are also wrong. Evolution is an extremely well established theory, in fact as I just mentioned, the evidence for it is astounding. On top of that evidence, not a single piece has been found that contradicts the theory. You’d think that in 150+ years if the theory wasn’t true to a large extent that some evidence would have been uncovered to falsify it. With that in mind, if someone does not accept evolution, they are either ignorant or a fool (or an ignorant fool), there is no way around it.

I never studied biology in High-school outside of my 5th form general science class, so I do not have much idea about the biology curriculum. Although I distinctly remember that class did not cover the topic of evolution in the biology section, and I remember at the end of the year after the curriculum had been covered and we had a free period, when the teacher asked what we wanted to talk about, I (remember I was an evolution-denier at the time!) asked the teacher to talk about evolution. She refused because it wasn’t part of the curriculum. Who knows, perhaps if she had obliged, and presented the case for it well, I may have been set straight 4 years earlier.

1 comment:

  1. The only reason students will harbor this belief that 'it's only a theory', is the fear high school biology teachers have when presenting the part of the curriculum devoted to evolution. The biology teacher at the school where I teach has clearly stated that she focuses on cellular (micro) evolution, and not macro. There needs to be stronger mandates of what MUST be taught in science class, as well as other discplines, regardless of pressures from parents or school boards.