Here’s an interesting link that Jana recommended I watch: it’s an episode of Nova, recounting a town’s (Dover, Pennsylvania) fight over the inclusion of Intelligent Design/Creationism curriculum into the public schools’ education system.
In brief, the Dover school board mandates curriculum that the teachers and other members of the community disagree with. A trial ensues, which debates whether or not Intelligent Design/Creationism is a scientific theory and which secondarily addresses the constitutionality of mandating curriculum in the public school system. Watching the program, I was surprised that primary issue in court was the science of Intelligent Design.
Personally, I think Intelligent Design is a pretty simplistic and boring idea, but I find it funny that we had to go to court to find this out. (What ever happened to reading?) I was much more interested in whether and what kind of rights a community holds, as to what is taught in their schools.
This program focused more on Evolutionary Theory and its differences with Intelligent Design. I spend a fair amount of my spare time reading about animals, so I enjoyed this. …until, as is usually the case, I became frustrated by the program’s language.
It’s not just a problem with Nova. The problem is that almost all curriculum on Evolutionary Theory uses imprecise language.
I frequently have a beer over a chapter in one of my favorite books, called Animal Behavior, by John Alcock. Alcock uses the generally accepted definition of evolution: “Evolution is the process of change in traits of a population of organisms over time.” It is important to note that the “theoretic” portion of this definition is the PROCESS of change and not the fact that traits change over time. To emphasis this, others (Wikipedia for example) often add to end of that definition “…due to a number of mechanisms and processes.” Evolutionary Theory is not change itself; it is a process which (we may assume) contains a Cause, Reason, or Mechanism by which change occurs.
Natural Selection is this mechanism. What is Natural Selection? Merely survival. As Kenneth R. Miller says, evolutionary theory implies that “there's a struggle for existence, whether we like to admit it or not.” (link) The struggle he speaks of is both active and passive, and it is between more than 1, 2, or 3 variables. Strong species actively compete with weaker species for food and habitat, but that is only part of the struggle; weak species passively fill previously undiscovered niches, or—due to seemingly random changes like climate change, habitat change, or individual mutation—find themselves in a natural environment that is not well-suited to their traits. It may be easier to understand that, depending on the species, a species’ struggle for existence may be with many different elements of existence, including seemingly passive elements, like Time or Chance.
I get frustrated while listening to and reading about Evolutionary Theory because we speak of Natural Selection as a causal solidarity, in the same way we’d speak of a god. This is a huge language problem. It comes from two places, I think. First, as a species of story tellers, humans invented god-orientated causations for most unexplained phenomena, and this general acceptance of underlying Cause probably trickles into our language as much as it effects our understanding of our environment. Second (and more importantly) we are a reactionary species with the ability to understand abstract chains of causation. We benefit ourselves by finding the source of a stimulus, rather than immediately reacting to it. For example, compared to many animals, humans react much slower to most sights, sounds, and smells. We get around our slowness by addressing problems proactively. We might not be fast enough to outrun a flash flood, but we may have remembered a life preserver. Or perhaps we built a levy. Our propensity to compile our observations into patterns allows us to predict the future. When we find constants in our patterns, our predictions succeed more often. GOD—as a constant, the ultimate source—provides gratification to a species that is constantly thinking about causation.
For the purposes of Evolutionary Theory, our causation is Natural Selection. But Natural Selection by what, or whom? Do you see how this language gives sentience to an unknown subject?
Consider, for example, this narrative passage from Nova’s program: “…the forces of nature, such as the environment of an individual island in the Galapagos, select those organisms best suited to that environment. And [Darwin] believed that, over time, this could give rise to new species.” (link) I notice statements like this—statements that reference ambiguous subjects like “forces of nature”—everywhere, since I've started listening for them.
One might argue that “heritable traits” are usually the responsible subject, and that the term “Natural Selection” is a substitute. In other words, instead of saying “Natural Selection favored large-billed finches over their small-billed cousins,” we might say “Heritable traits favored large-billed finches...” But this is still imprecise. Firstly, it implies that heritable traits are collectively “doing” something. More importantly though, it is incomplete; heritable traits are not solely responsible for the survival of large-billed finches but not small-billed finches. Couldn’t we also say “Exceptionally hard nuts kept food sources scarce for small-billed finches because the nuts favored finches with large-bills?” We could, but we probably wouldn’t, because it isn’t clear that large-billed finches serve the best interest of the nut. Finches serve their own interest actively, and the interests of the nut (if at all) passively. Would we ever say “the Galapagos Islands favored finches by providing them with food and shelter when the birds were blown off course during a migration?” Probably not, because it’s much too imprecise an explanation for how the finches survived. Finally, one might argue that heritable traits, hard nuts, and the Galapagos Islands collectively favored finches; combined, we might refer to these variables as Natural Selection. What an imprecise statement! I might as well have said, “All natural things worked together to favor big-billed finches.” And we haven’t even discussed what variables are considered “natural,” and what aren’t.
All I’m saying is that we’re using a creationist language to talk about Natural Selection in broad terms. I’m definitely not criticizing the science, our methods, or Evolutionary Theory at all. On the contrary, I enjoy these concepts and hope to hear more and more about our new discoveries. But for the purposes of disambiguation, I feel compelled to criticize the language used by this Nova special and programs like it. The overly dramatic production compromises the legitimacy of several issues:
(1) Creationism and Evolutionary Theory are dissimilar areas of study, the goals of each also dissimilar.
(2) Public education, despite being a publicly funded institution, contains an elaborate hierarchy of representatives (teachers and administrators alike). The democracy within our school systems is convoluted, to say the least. The citizens of our country should dictate the public curriculum.
(3) Wealthy interest groups frequently insert themselves into the public arena, posing as a larger body than they are, with an agenda that ill-represents the constituents they claim to represent, and proceed to fuck over those with contrary opinions.
That said, I enjoyed watching the program and recommend it.