Evolution

Kevin Padian discusses common misconceptions about evolution

Jerry Coyne shares Kevin Padian’s new paper (available for free) on some of the most common misrepresentations of evolution and how to avoid them…

Why Evolution Is True

If you teach evolution, or like to read about it, there’s a new paper you should read by Kevin Padian in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach(free download; reference below). It’s a discussion of misrepresentations about evolution that occur not only in popular science writing, but also in textbooks. As president of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), and a respected paleontologist at Berkeley who works on the evolution of birds and flight, Padian carries considerable authority in this area. And indeed, his points are generally good. In fact, I was embarrassed to see that I’ve been guilty of some of these misrepresentations, for which I’m sometimes called to account by readers here.

I do have a couple of disagreements with Padian’s points (more below), but on the whole they’re solid and worth absorbing.  Here are some that I agree with, or at least don’t strongly disagree with:

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On Correcting Bookstore Mistakes – Intelligent Design is Not Science

A few days ago, I took a trip to a small town in central Texas and, as is habit, stopped by a local bookstore. I was a little shocked (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) to find two fringe “science” books displayed prominently near the door: Stephen C. Meyer’s recently released “Darwin’s Doubt” and physician Eben Alexander’s “Proof of Heaven“. The rest of this particular bookstore’s science section, meanwhile, was suspiciously weak, relegated to one small wall of five shelves and containing only three or four volumes on Darwinian evolution. The Christianity section, meanwhile, stretched across six aisles.

Meyer’s book, which I have not read, apparently advocates for Intelligent Design (a movement that should be categorized as religion, not science – see overview here, description of the Discovery Institute’s “wedge strategy” here, and if you have lots of time, a fantastic PBS documentary on the controversy here). Alexander’s book, “Proof of Heaven” is even more offensive as a representation of responsible science. You should first read his account here (he, like many others, had a NDE, or near-death experience, that he says proves consciousness exists outside the brain) and then read Sam Harris’ response here, which rightly decimates such a stupendous claim. The two most important points to remember – being a neurosurgeon doesn’t mean you actually understand neuroscience all that well (cutting brains is not the same as studying them), and being highly educated doesn’t mean you have much critical thinking capacity (since he wrote a book, he apparently emerged from his COMA, so isn’t it much more likely he had his NDE as he was regaining consciousness, and not while completely “brain-dead”?).

Proof of Heaven?

Bookstores have no obligation to maintain a balanced inventory of material. They are businesses that need to cater to customer demands in order to make a profit and survive. But I can’t help feeling sad that customers in this particular location (and probably numerous others throughout the country) are in some way being cheated out of access to proper science and instead being fed garbage.

I did the only thing I could think of – moved Meyer’s book out of the thin science section and put it where it belonged, in the middle of the Christian apology aisle (well, it was more of a wing).

Debating Evolution Skeptics on YouTube (with a little help from Stephen Jay Gould)

Evolution untenable?

Evolution untenable?

I get a bit worked up about evolution deniers. So much so that I spend much more time than I should engaging individuals in online discussions and forums, who, for whatever reason (okay, the reason is always religions) deny evolution. Without a doubt, they get most upset when I use the word “fact” to describe evolution by natural selection.

“Isn’t that very unscientific of you, to say evolution is a fact? It is just a theory after all.”

Well, yes and no. That last sentence betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the what a scientific theory is, relative to other types of “theories”. A scientific theory is a very specific thing, it’s not the same thing as a theory about who killed Kennedy or a theory about who will win the Superbowl or even a theory about market behavior in economics. A scientific theory is an idea that has broad explanatory power, has been tested and verified by different objective observers, is consistent with other bodies of scientific knowledge, and explains particular facts. Facts, in turn, are just things that happen: e.g., apples fall when you drop them, humans evolved from apelike ancestors, the earth is an oblate spheroid. Scientific theories explain these facts – the theory of gravitation in the first (and last) instance, and Darwin’s theory of evolution in the second. It is possible these theories will be modified in the future, as Newton’s was by Einstein, but apples will still fall and humans will still have evolved from apelike ancestors – the facts don’t change.

A few individuals seem to be under the impression nothing can be proved or rightly called a “fact”. These people are playing a game with semantics. In any real sense, evolution is a fact, and descent with modification (Darwin’s preferred term) is the profoundly powerful theory that explains it.

If I could ask the American public to sit down and read one essay, it would be the late and inimitable Stephen Jay Gould’sEvolution as Fact and Theory” – he says everything I just have with much more eloquence. Go read it, and consider offering it up the next time you’re spending too much time in a debate on YouTube.