Sunday, September 25, 2005

Evolution: Just a Guess?

The blog Religion Clause has great primer for what is shaping up as a classic court case over the teaching of evolution or intelligent design in science classes. The federal trial begins Monday Sept 26th in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania regarding the "Dover Area School District's policy on intelligent design. Intelligent design has become a flash point in the war over the role of religion in American society, and Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District seems destined to become a symbolic battle..... At the heart of the case is a statement that the school district requires biology teachers to read to ninth-grade students:
The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin's theory of evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part. Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations. Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, "Of Pandas and People," is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves. With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments.

No doubt one aspect of the case will be the religious right's slippery use of language. One key argument in the religious rights's grab bag is that the theory of evolution is well, "just a theory" and that other "theories" such as intelligent design, deserve to be presented in the name of academic freedom. The New York Times recently published a set of F.A.Q.s about evolution borrowed from a pamphlet used by the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, NY as part of their staff training program.
Is evolution 'just a theory'? A "theory" in science is a structure of related ideas that explains one or more natural phenomena and is supported by observations from the natural world; it is not something less than a "fact." Theories actually occupy the highest, not the lowest, rank among scientific ideas. ... Evolution is a "theory" in the same way that the idea that matter is made of atoms is a theory. Is it true that there is lots of evidence against evolution? No. Essentially all available data and observations from the natural world support the hypothesis of evolution. No serious biologist or geologist today doubts whether evolution occurred.