The Magazine

Teaching Darwin

Why we're still fighting about biology textbook.

Mar 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 26 • By PAUL R. MCHUGH
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EIGHTY YEARS AGO THIS SUMMER, the Scopes trial upheld the effort of the state of Tennessee to exclude the teaching of Darwinian evolution from Tennessee classrooms. The state claimed Darwinism contradicted orthodox religion. But times change, and recently a federal judge ruled that a three-sentence sticker stating that "evolution is a theory not a fact" must be removed from Georgia high school biology texts because it contradicts orthodox science and represents an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. Both legal mandates--no Darwin yesterday, nothing but Darwin today--look less like science than exercises in thought control.

Everyone agrees that the Scopes trial (viciously caricatured in the play and movie Inherit the Wind) was a setback for the teaching of scientific reasoning. But the same is true of the Georgia ruling, Darwinism being quite obviously a biological theory and open to dispute. To claim otherwise is to be woefully misinformed.

Science, as high school students need to know, is a logically articulated structure of beliefs about nature that are justified by methods of reasoning one can evaluate. It is whether the methods pass muster that counts for or against a scientific opinion, not how the opinion fits our preconceptions.

Charles Darwin proposed that random variation within life forms, working together with natural selection ("the preservation of favorable variations and the rejection of injurious variations") across the vast expanse of time since the earth was formed, explains "how the universe created intelligence," as Francis Bacon had stated the problem a few centuries before. To judge whether the matter is now closed to all criticism, such that Darwinism stands with scientific facts like "the earth is a planet of the sun" or "the blood circulates in the body," demands we consider Darwin's method of reasoning.

The leading Darwinist in America, Ernst Mayr, describes the method:

Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science--the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place. Laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes. Instead one constructs a historical narrative, consisting of a tentative reconstruction of the particular scenario that led to the events one is trying to explain.

Darwin, Mayr goes on, "established a philosophy of biology . . . by showing that theories in evolutionary biology are based on concepts rather than laws."

After noting Mayr's fearless use of the words "tentative," "philosophy," and "theory," one surely is justified in responding: No wonder Darwinism, in contrast to other scientific theories, seems an argument without end! It's history--indeed, history captured by that creative-writing-class concept narrative. If historical narrative--and the "philosophy" it propounds--are what justify the Darwinian opinions, the textbook writers of Georgia can legitimately claim that Darwin's "tentative reconstruction" is not only a theory but a special kind of theory, one lacking the telling and persuasive power that theories built on hypothesis-generated experiment and public prediction can garner.

DARWIN HIMSELF UNDERSTOOD that questions raised about his narrative had substance. In Chapter IX of On the Origin of Species, he noted that the fossil record had failed to "reveal any . . . finely graduated organic chain" linking, as he proposed, existing species to predecessors. He called the record "imperfect" and went so far as to say, "This, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory." Darwin presumed that the problem rested on the "poorness of our palaeontological collections" and would be answered when more of "the surface of the earth has been geologically explored."

In the same Chapter IX, Darwin also acknowledged that the fossil record does suggest the "sudden appearance of whole groups of allied species all at once." He noted that if this fact were to stand, and "numerous species belonging to the same genera or families have really started into life all at once, . . . [it] would be fatal to the theory of descent with slow modification through natural selection." He forestalled that fatal blow to his theory by asking his readers not to "over-rate the perfection of the geological record."