Monday, September 13, 2004


Sound-bite approach doesn't provide understanding

By Tom Baillieul


In my op-ed column a few weeks ago, I stated that those individuals who criticize the Theory of Evolution most strongly demonstrate by their comments that they don't understand modern Biology and evolutionary theory in particular.

As a response, Carl Rardon, former high school math and chemistry teacher trotted out two 1993 quotes, attributed to biologists, and intended to show that even knowledgeable researchers have significant doubts concerning modern evolutionary theory. This is a standard creationist tactic known as "the argument from authority."

It is doubtful that Mr. Rardon actually read the works from which he quotes. Otherwise he would have noticed that the quote attributed to Dan McShea is incomplete and totally misrepresents his views. Read in its entirety, McShea's statement is not a criticism of the Theory of Evolution, but rather of a common public misperception about the theory. McShea was critical of those who believe that evolution is directional, leading always to more complex and "advanced" organisms. That is the concept for which there is no evidence.

Similarly, the quote attributed to ornithologist, Alan Feduccia, makes it appear that there is a great disagreement among scientists about the origin of birds. In reality, there is no disagreement that birds evolved from reptiles - the debate 10 years ago was over which branch of the reptiles was the ancestral one. In 1993, Dr. Feduccia held the minority view that birds evolved from the archosaurs. That view has become increasingly marginalized by the discoveries in China over the past decade of feathered dinosaurs and additional species of early birds. Today, the overwhelming consensus of biologists and paleontologists is that birds - like the Archeopteryx - evolved from the dinosaurs.

That's how science works, by building consensus around a body of evidence and its interpretations. This is true whether we're talking about the evolution of body structures or the structures of molecules.

The scientifically-derived view of the universe changes and becomes more complete over time. Our public schools need to present both the methods of science and the current consensus viewpoint of how natural systems work. It is wholly inappropriate to present minority and fringe viewpoints as though they have the same level of acceptance as the consensus scientific view. Critical analysis of those minority views cannot take place until a solid grounding in mainstream science has been achieved.

Finally, it should be recognized that attempts to represent a scientific field as complex as evolution through isolated and incomplete quotes is like trying to represent the complexities of Christian theology with isolated and out-of-context biblical quotations. In neither case does the sound bite approach provide any meaningful understanding.

Tom Baillieul