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Geologic Column
Shakespeare or the Monkey?
Fred Schwab

I love that clever anecdote about infinity and random chance: It says that with an infinite span of time, a monkey typing randomly could eventually churn out the complete works of William Shakespeare. A single Geotimes Geologic Column would probably take longer! In the meantime, Shakespearean experts are convinced that his collective works are the product of Shakespeare’s “intelligent design.” Can evolutionary biologists say the same thing about Shakespeare’s brain?

The theory of evolution holds that his brain, like all of ours, and all living things are the product of random mutation and natural selection. Traditionally, creationists have tried to battle with that fundamental scientific theory, arguing instead for a patently religious explanation for life that literally accepts Biblical explanations, including a divine force, usually referred to as God. As legal obstacles have successfully blocked the introduction of creationism into science classrooms as a violation of the separation of Church and State, a new idea has come into fashion for many faith-based groups: intelligent design or ID (also see Political Scene).

This new wave of anti-evolution thinking is making serious inroads into the U.S. educational system. ID masquerades as a scientific alternative to evolution. It argues that life is too complex to result from random evolution through natural selection over almost endless time. While ID deliberately avoids endorsing religious beliefs, it accepts the notion of a supernatural creator. ID proponents like Michael J. Behe, professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University, claim the idea implies only a loosely defined blueprint and/or overpowering single “force,” as he described in his book, Darwin’s Black Box and his Op-ed piece in the Feb. 7 New York Times.

Most ID advocates are rooted in faith-based groups that use a very concrete strategy: First, they encourage or force public schools to give “equal time” to their quasi-religion-based explanation. Next, they cast doubt on the data of evolution: Warning stickers in textbooks covering evolution caution readers that evolution is ONLY a theory (recently ruled unconstitutional in Georgia, although the case is now being appealed). Also, ID is described as a true scientific alternative, not the ideology it is. Scientists are pressured to concede that an omniscient creator directed evolution. Finally, teachers are encouraged to skip or abbreviate coverage of Darwinian evolution.

As a result of the gaining popularity of ID movement, science teachers and textbook writers are increasingly being asked to soften the certainty with which evolution is taught in U.S. classrooms. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, laments in the Feb. 1 New York Times that science teachers increasingly “opt out” of teaching evolution “because it’s just too much trouble.” School principals pressure teachers to stay away from evolution, simply to avoid problems.

Americans also remain embarrassingly deficient in the strength of their convictions about evolution. A 2001 National Science Foundation survey revealed that only 53 percent of Americans believed that “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.” A 2004 CBS News/New York Times poll is more telling. Only 13 percent of Americans believe human beings evolved without God, another 27 percent believe that God guided evolution, and another 57 percent believe God created us.

A separate poll by John Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., showed Americans to be more evenly divided, with roughly 45 percent accepting evolution, and another 45 percent rejecting it (10 percent were undecided). Eighty percent or more of the people in industrialized nations (96 percent in Japan) accept evolution. The remaining people in those countries are unsure. Essentially no one rejects the theory outright.

Geologists must join this fight. Begin by being clearer about definitions. Science is “a knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths” (Webster’s Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, 2004). It differs from ignorance (“lack of knowledge, education, or awareness”) and misunderstanding (“incorrect knowledge”) and is based on data: a body of (possibly incomplete) facts. Science differs from belief and faith. Belief is intellectual assent, a conviction or persuasion of truth. “Belief may or may not imply certitude.” Faith involves “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Scientific theories are not fixed and final. Unresolved inconsistencies can cause temporary stumbling blocks. Continental drift stumbled badly because there seemed to be no viable causal mechanism. Science classrooms are roomy enough for theory and belief, and even faith, but not ignorance.

There may be a respected place for ID in the public domain and even our schools, but certainly not in science classrooms. Science requires constant testing. ID advocates take a leap of faith and leave nothing to experimentally test. The plate tectonics world is neat and tidy, but its systematic organization is a natural consequence of thermodynamics and Euler’s theory, not an original design or designer. If an original blueprint ever existed, scientists at Princeton and Columbia universities must have unearthed pretty good copies!

What specifically can you do? 1. Educate yourself about ID. A good first step is to look at the Web site of the National Center for Science Education or a Web listing of books on the topic. 2. Serve on a school board or encourage viable candidates to run. Contribute financially and vocally. 3. Visit your schools and get to know the faculty and administration. Offer advice and support. Provide appropriate literature. 4. Go public. Write letters to the editor. Speak out at city council, school board, and county board of supervisor meetings. Emphasize the impropriety of forcing science teachers and science classes to cover subjects that belong elsewhere. If they do not hear from you, they will only hear the voices of anti-evolutionists.


Schwab is a professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and a corresponding editor for Geotimes. E-mail: schwabf@wlu.edu.

Web links and resources:
"Creationism: Back in Kansas Again," Geotimes, April 2005
National Center for Science Education

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