Monday, January 24, 2005

Miller on the Cobb County Decision

Brown University biologist Ken Miller, whose book Finding Darwin's God is essential reading for anyone interested in this subject, has written this characteristically insightful op-ed for The Boston Globe:

So what's wrong with telling students that evolution is a theory? Nothing. But the textbook they were using already described evolution as a theory, and I ought to know. Joseph Levine and I wrote the biology book Cobb County's high school students are using. Chapter 15 is titled “Darwin's Theory of Evolution.” Hard to be clearer than that. So why did the Cobb County Board of Education slap a warning label inside a book that already refers to evolution as a theory? Cooper hit correctly he wrote that “by denigrating evolution, the school board appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof, even though the sticker does not specifically reference any alternative theories.”

And later:

The forces of anti-evolution will pretend that the sticker case is an example of censorship and that the sinister forces of science have converged on classrooms to prevent honest and open examination of a controversial idea.

There is great irony in such charges. As conservative icon Alan Bloom pointed out in his landmark book "The Closing of the American Mind," one of the worst forms of intellectual intolerance is to promote a false equivalence between competing ideas. Acting as though all ideas (or all theories) have equal standing actually deprives students of a realistic view of how critical analysis is done. That's as true in science as it is in the cultural conflicts.

Judge Cooper saw this point clearly: “While evolution is subject to criticism, particularly with respect to the mechanism by which it occurred, the sticker misleads students regarding the significance and value of evolution in the scientific community.” Does it ever. In reality, evolution is a powerful and hard-working theory used at the cutting edge of scientific inquiry in developmental biology, genome analysis, drug discovery, and scientific medicine. To pretend otherwise is to shield students from the reality of how science is done.


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