June 18, 2001

Errors and Alarms

This week we have some splendid illustrations of the prevalence of errors and misunderstandings in Darwinist writing. These misunderstandings demonstrate the need for an open process of public discussion, to help citizens (and even professors) to become better informed. Finally, a huge bipartisan majority of the United States Senate has endorsed an intellectual freedom resolution for science education. The “sense of the Senate” is that “(1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; and (2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.” Believe it or not, some science educators find that language to be frightening.

1. Is the Cambrian Explosion the same thing as the Permian Extinction?

On Sunday, June 10, Steve Rissing published an article in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, titled “New Look at Fossil Record Might Alter Earth’s History.” Rissing identified himself as a professor in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University, and Director of OSU's Introductory Biology Program. If newspaper readers assumed that the bearer of those titles had at least an elementary understanding of his subject, they would have been mistaken.

Rissing was describing a recent scientific paper which corrected earlier work by paleontologists that had indicated that, following the Permian mass extinction of about 250 million years ago, the diversity of animals on Earth began a steady increase that continued until recently. The new paper suggested (tentatively) that this increase in diversity might not have happened.

So far so good, but Rissing seemed to think the authors were talking not about the Permian extinction, but about the famous Cambrian explosion, which happened 300 million years earlier. He explained that the new fossil data suggested that

The vast and rapid diversification of animals known as the "Cambrian explosion'' might have been a dud. No explosion might have occurred.... A number of independent creationist writers have struggled to explain away the "Cambrian explosion.'' There are no transitional forms, they argue. The rate of change is too fast. And how can fruit flies turn into elephants? I'll be curious to see their reaction to the suggestion that the event they wish to explain away might never have occurred.

The Cambrian explosion is the sudden and mysterious appearance of the basic animal groups within a very brief period of geological time around 550 million years ago. It is a phenomenon that has always been a major embarrassment to Darwinists. (Textbooks often omit to mention it for that reason.) The people who need to explain this phenomenon away (as an artifact of the fossil record) are the Darwinists, and for that very reason they would be very glad if the “explosion” could be replaced by a gradual increase in animal diversity. Creationists don’t explain the Cambrian Explosion away, but rather point to it with enthusiasm. But regardless of who likes the Cambrian Explosion and who doesn’t, evidence that a gradual increase in animal diversity may or may not have occurred after the Permian extinction could have no bearing on whether the initial appearance of the animal groups hundreds of millions of years earlier was sudden or gradual. And if there had been no increase in animal diversity in the Cambrian, sudden or gradual, there would have been no animal groups available to become extinct in the Permian.

It may seem odd that a professor with Rissing’s credentials would make such a howler. No doubt most evolutionary biology professors know better, and maybe even Rissing himself knows better. But Rissing was writing for a newspaper, and his evident purpose was to sneer at creationists. My experience is that Darwinists tend to be very careless about what they say in such a context, and their colleagues rarely correct the blunders. One sees this nonchalant attitude towards evidence in the reactions of Darwinists to the exposure of textbook errors in Jonathan Wells’ book Icons of Evolution. They are indignant not at the long-standing presence of the errors, but at the exposure of the errors.

2. Did you ever hear of irreducible complexity or complex specified information?

A similar combination of ignorance and illogic was evident in the article “Darwin Hits Back,” by Roger Downey in the June 14-20 issue of Seattle Weekly. Downey summarized what he knew of the case for Intelligent Design in biology:

Intelligent Design drives mainstream scientists crazy because it presents its arguments as scientific, yet it refuses to phrase them in the only way scientists recognize as valid: as assertions subject to disproof. Instead it appeals to emotion and intuition. Given the sheer complexity of the natural world, and living things in particular, proponents say, how can anyone believe that Mind and Will were not required to give shape to Creation?

Today's advocates of this idea have no better evidence to support it than Saint Augustine did in the 5th century, but they do their best to veil this weakness by finding people with reputable scientific credentials to act as spokespersons capable of dazzling a lay audience with myriad conundrums drawn from materialistic science itself. The argument boils down to "I've got a Ph.D. and I believe it, so why shouldn't you?"

If Downey has read any of the literature of the Intelligent Design movement, he hasn’t understood a word of it. Of course the hypothesis of Intelligent Design is falsifiable. Neo- Darwinism falsifies it - if neo-Darwinism is true. The design hypothesis is that intelligent causes were required to produce complex specified genetic information, and to get around the problem of irreducible complexity. Darwinists deny this, saying that the preservation of favorable variations (random mutations) by cumulative natural selection was sufficient to do the (apparent) designing. The question is whether the Darwinist claim is supported by an unprejudiced examination of the evidence. That is why it is necessary to investigate whether neo-Darwinism is true. Darwinists think that the only question is whether their theory is the most plausible naturalistic explanation. That makes naturalism unfalsifiable.

Any alert reader must sense that it is preposterous to write that the argument for Intelligent Design boils down to "I've got a Ph.D. and I believe it, so why shouldn't you?" This is a crude way of referring to the argument from authority, and of course that argument is available only to the people who possess cultural authority. If we add up the number of Ph.Ds on each side, the Darwinists win by a landslide. Anti-Darwinists of all kinds always have the burden of disputing the argument from authority, while Darwinists have the advantage of being able to rely upon it.

3. Is intellectual freedom threatening to science?

Examples like those are typical of Darwinist writing, so there is a pretty evident need to encourage good critical thinking in science education. Yet some in science feel threatened by even the most modest steps away from a “just repeat whatever the textbook says” approach. In his “What’s New” column for the American Physical Society on June 15, Robert Park expressed alarm concerning an amendment to the President’s education bill.

A "sense of the Senate" resolution, dealing with the teaching of biological evolution, was added to the bill. Introduced by Sen. Santorum (R-PA), the language raises concerns among scientists that it could be used by "intelligent design" (ID) proponents to insist that ID be given equal time. That does not seem to have been the intent of most of the measure's supporters. It states that students should be prepared to distinguish testable science from "philosophical or religious claims made in the name of science." That sounds good. Alas, the bill also calls for helping students "to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy." That's an opening to teach ID.

Here’s a more complete report. The Congressional Record for June 13 reveals that Senator Santorum offered this resolution:

It is the sense of the Senate that--

1. good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; and

2. where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.

Senator Santorum spoke briefly in support of his amendment, observing that “students will do better and will learn more if there is this intellectual freedom to discuss.” Senator Kennedy responded on behalf of Senate Democrats:

Mr. President, first of all, on the Santorum amendment, I hope all of our colleagues will vote in support of it. It talks about using good science to consider the teaching of biological evolution. I think the way the Senator described it, as well as the language itself, is completely consistent with what represents the central values of this body. We want children to be able to speak and examine various scientific theories on the basis of all of the information that is available to them so they can talk about different concepts and do it intelligently with the best information that is before them.

Following further supportive statements by Senators Byrd and Brownback, the bipartisan amendment passed the Senate by a vote of 91-8. A “sense of the senate” resolution has no coercive effect. It does not dictate any curriculum, nor does it tell school officials how to carry out the consensus goal of producing informed citizens who understand something about the issues that most concern their fellow citizens. I thought that goal was what education was all about, including science education. And yet Wayne Carley, Director of the National Association of Biology Teachers, hopes to arouse biologists to mount a last-ditch campaign against the resolution when the education bill goes to House/Senate Conference Committee. According to the Washington Times, Carley concedes that “biology teachers agree in some ways with the common-sense statement,” but fear that the resolution may be used by persons who oppose “a straightforward teaching of evolution.” In plain language, teaching people to think is dangerous to those who just want to preach a dogma.

Copyright 2001 Phillip E. Johnson. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 6.18.01