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Science as a Glorious, Skeptical Enterprise

Healthy science is not a list of orthodox beliefs, but more like an endless, running debating club.

by
James Lewis

Bio

January 27, 2010 - 12:00 am
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1. Creationism is the real intellectual background of Darwinian theory.

Creationism is where Charles Darwin got started, and you can’t understand The Origin of Species — a very beautiful book, by the way — without understanding those arguments. You also can’t understand why it was so hard for other naturalists at the time, who knew the same facts, to come to Darwin’s conclusions. Darwin had great intellectual courage, and you don’t get that by sticking to orthodoxy.

2. Science is a Darwinian enterprise.

But even more important, to understand biology you have to argue biology. You can’t do that unless you see the pros and cons. Darwin never thought all the evidence was in his favor, because he had a very deep understanding of the facts. Darwin was an amazing observer. He learned from the behavior of his dogs, from seeing earthworms in his garden, from talking to animal breeders and farmers. He thought the overall weight of evidence favored “descent by variation and selection of the fittest.”

But as a naturalist Darwin loved to wonder about the questions he couldn’t quite resolve. Some of those puzzles are still unanswered. They are fascinating, and real biologists think about them. We still don’t understand how new species arise; we see mutations, all right, but speciation continues to be an incomplete story.

Biological dogmas are overthrown all the time. Crick and Watson called their understanding of DNA “the basic dogma of molecular biology.” Calling it a “dogma” was a little joke. They understood that like other scientific beliefs, it was likely to be overthrown in the future. And guess what? The “basic dogma of molecular biology” has now been found to be flawed. Science is fun.

I have a suspicion about repetitive media alarm that somebody might be teaching Creationism in the schools: It comes from people who don’t understand Darwin. If they did, they would trust the evidence. All the hysteria about Creationism is batty because Darwinian theory is taught in every biology class in every high school and college in the world. There’s no lack of evolutionary theory in the classrooms. So the fear of Creationism is just a little weird.

To teach biology you have to encourage students to learn all sides of an argument. Kids should see science as an adventure. Adventures are open-ended. You don’t know the ending when you start. It’s got danger and excitement and thrills. You get forbidden ideas and unexpected facts. Suppose the earth were flat? How do I know it’s not? Suppose God created the first human being? How do I know if it’s true or not? If you can’t figure out the answers, you haven’t learned how to do science. You’ve only memorized a catechism. Our trouble is that we teach Darwinism as a catechism, when we should be teaching it as an adventure.

Richard Feynman used to say that if you can’t explain physics to a six-year old you don’t really understand it. He meant that you can take physics apart piece by piece and make everything so simple and clear that anyone who bothers to pay attention should be able to get it. You only get that if you think about all the pros and cons with the kind of love and attention that an artist devotes to looking at colors, textures, and shadings to see how they set each other off.

That’s why Creationism is important for biology students. I don’t think Creationism is scientifically satisfying, because it explains too much, and the explanation always sounds post-hoc. But kids need to play with it to understand why both sides are important.

And whether it’s true in the long run — who knows?  Allow that shiver of doubt. It’s good for you.

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James Lewis is a scientist by trade, and carps as a hobby about the passing parade of human fraud and folly.
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