Teaching evolution in schools: what science explains and what explains science
An Indian Union Minister of State recently triggered a furor by stating that evolution is unproven scientifically and shouldn’t be taught in schools.
Before examining the tenability of this statement, we need to understand what is implied by the word evolution. It refers to different things in different contexts.
In today’s public discourse, evolution is used in three broad senses:
- Adaptation of species
- Emergence of new species
- All-explaining naturalistic ideology
Adaptation of species: Evolution can refer to the variation that happens within species as they adapt to their environment by developing certain features. For example, flora and fauna in deserts develop mechanisms to store water. Such adaptation is a well-documented phenomenon that doesn’t need to be doubted or disputed. Nature has endowed living beings with the capacity to adapt to their environment – in that sense, living beings do evolve. Almost all the hard evidence provided by science textbooks for evolution is for such biological adaptation, which can be termed as micro-evolution.
Emergence of new species: Evolution also refers to the mechanism by which one species changes into another – a phenomenon that can be termed macro-evolution. Whereas micro-evolution connotes a mechanism for the survival of the fittest, macro-evolution connotes a mechanism for the arrival of the fittest, or, in general, for the emergence of any entirely new species. The notion that incremental variation within a species can lead to the formation of another species – that such gradual change explains the origin of all species – is a leap in speculative inference whose basis in evidence is open to question. While much evidence is presented to support this, not everyone finds it persuasive. Embarrassingly for such evolutionists, many of those who question evolution are credentialed scientists. And not just a handful, but several hundreds, as is evident from the list at dissentfromdarwin.org. It has over 800 scientists, with the number continuously increasing.
As a society, we value freedom of expression. So, shouldn’t we value the freedom of expression of those scientists who question evolution’s scientific tenability?
All-explaining naturalistic ideology: Beyond macro-evolution, evolution is often used to refer to something much bigger: philosophical naturalism. Herein, evolution becomes like a magic wand that explains everything existing in nature: the emergence of human beings to the emergence of all pre-human species and even the emergence of consciousness. Evolution expands to go beyond biological evolution to chemical evolution that claims insentient chemicals gave rise to conscious life.
However, evolution of consciousness is an intractable problem. The 125th anniversary issue of Science listed 125 questions for which science had no answer. The second question was about the origin of consciousness. (The first pertained to the origin of the universe.) That question about consciousness remains unanswered even today, despite much high-sounding evolutionary psychobabble broadcast in the media.
- Nobel Prize winning neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles observed: “If you look at most modern texts on evolution you find nothing about mind and consciousness. They assume it just comes automatically with the development of the brain. But that’s not the answer. (International Herald Tribune, 31 March 1981)
- Physicist Nick Herbert underscores in his book Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics: “Science’s biggest mystery is the nature of consciousness. It is not that we possess bad or imperfect theories of human awareness; we simply have no such theories at all. About all we know about consciousness is that it has something to do with the head, rather than the foot.”
In fact, when evolution becomes an all-explaining truth-claim, it no longer remains a science, but becomes an ideology. Philosopher of science Wolfgang Smith points out, “Darwinism, in whatever form, is not in fact a scientific theory, but a pseudo-metaphysical hypothesis decked out in scientific garb. In reality, the theory derives its support not from empirical data or logical deductions of a scientific kind but from the circumstance that it happens to be the only doctrine of biological origins that can be conceived with the constricted worldview to which a majority of scientists no doubt subscribe.” The doctrine Smith refers to is philosophical naturalism, which holds that everything in existence can be explained solely through natural mechanisms.
From what science explains to what explains science
Science presumes the existence of some natural order which it tries to understand. But it can’t explain the rationale for the existence of this natural order. Consider, for example, the scientific theory that fruits fall because of the force of gravity. But why does gravity exist in the first place? Even if it is attributed to some further scientific construct, such as the curvature of space-time, that only takes the question one step back: Why does space-time have such features? Ultimately, science requires the pre-existence of some natural order. Pertinently, physicist Paul Davies points out, “Science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview … even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of a law-like order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us.”
To better appreciate the implications of this founding presumption of science, we need to recognize that what science explains is different from what explains science. “What science explains” refers to the explanations in terms of natural laws or natural mechanisms, such as gravity, that science comes up with on observing the natural world. In contrast, “what explains science” raises the question why nature works according to the laws that science uncovers.
Let’s compare science with eyes. We may look with our eyes and explain what we see. But explaining what we see doesn’t explain why there exists something worth seeing and explaining. Similarly, explaining the mechanisms operating in nature doesn’t explain why nature has any mechanism at all. Actually, what science does is describe how nature operates; it doesn’t explain why nature operates that way. If Ajay hits Vijay, describing how Ajay’s fit smashed Vijay’s jaw doesn’t explain why Ajay did what he did. German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein puts it succinctly: “The great delusion of modernity is that the laws of nature explain the universe for us. The laws of nature describe the universe, they describe the regularities. But they explain nothing.”
That’s why the truth-claim that evolution is a grand non-theistic alternative for explaining everything goes beyond the range of valid science. It becomes scientism, the ideological imperialism of science extended into all domains of knowledge.
Allowing such scientism to be taught in schools is a disservice to science because it gives a misleading picture of reality. People who use science to search for the deepest answers, for answers to question about the meaning and purpose of life, will find science falling short of their expectations. This is no fault of science, for no field of knowledge can be expected to answer questions outside that field. But when education sets up the expectation that science has the answer to all questions, the ensuing frustration only alienates people from science.
Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar, despite being an atheist himself, cautions scientists in his book Advice to a Young Scientist: “There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and upon his profession than roundly to declare – particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for – that science knows, or soon will know, the answers to all questions worth asking, and that questions which do not admit a scientific answer are in some way non-questions or ‘pseudo-questions’ that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer.”
Thus, by recognizing the multiple connotations of the word evolution, we can address the question of teaching evolution in an appropriately sophisticated, multi-faceted way.
- Evolution as adaptation of species can be taught.
- Evolution as a mechanism for the emergence of new species, indeed all species, is debatable. This debate exists for real in the scientific world, and its existence needs to be acknowledged in educational curricula.
- Evolution as an all-explaining ideology – where it becomes a convenient tool of atheists to arrogate the prestige of science to themselves and to brand anyone who opposes atheism as unscientific or even anti-scientific – is a misrepresentation of reality and a misappropriation of science. It needs to be strongly contested and corrected.