Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Professor Larry Moran has written an astonishing post over on his Sandwalk blog, in which he rejects a proposal by David Evans, Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association, that Texas students be taught “evolution by natural selection as a major unifying concept in science,” and suggests that they simply be taught “evolution” instead, adding in a comment that “there’s no reason to eliminate the possibility of directed evolution” – a term which is broad enough to include both “theologically-directed evolution” (as one commenter calls it) and “the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”
Readers may be wondering what accounts for Professor Moran’s surprising latitude of opinion. It turns out that he’s a big fan of evolution by random genetic drift, and he thinks that the phrase “evolution by natural selection” is simply inaccurate:
The problem with leaving the phrase is that it eliminates evolution by random genetic drift and that’s definitely known to occur. This means that the statement from David Evans is actually incorrect and not what the vast majority of expert scientists believe.
In his post, Professor Moran quotes two paragraphs from a Live Science Op-Ed titled, In Texas, Standing Up for Science (Op-Ed) (November 8, 2013) by David Evans. Here’s the first:
There are countless differing opinions about how best to educate our children, but presenting non-scientific or religious ideas in science class or in science textbooks is simply wrong and blurs the line about what is and what is not science. This will only confuse and mislead students and does nothing to improve the quality of science education and everything to weaken it. Decisions about what counts as science should not be a popularity contest. No matter how many people object, public schools must teach what the vast majority of scientists affirm as settled science.
Am I the only one to notice that the last two sentences in Evans’ paragraph are mutually contradictory? If decisions about what counts as science “should not be a popularity contest,” then it is absurd to claim that “public schools must teach what the vast majority of scientists affirm as settled science.” (Apparently none of Professor Moran’s commenters picked up on that contradiction.)
Professor Moran comments:
I like the way he expresses the idea that we “must teach what the vast majority of scientists affirm as settled science.” This avoids getting into definitions about what counts as science. It avoids the “methodological naturalism” trap. Well done!
Why does Moran think methodological naturalism is a trap? In his own words:
It’s a trap because some scientists and philosophers want to restrict science to studies of the natural world. They do this as a way of protecting religion from scientific investigation or as a way of excluding supernatural explanations from the American classroom.
In fact, the scientific way of knowing can been applied to ALL questions, including hypothesis that involve the supernatural.
Apparently Professor Moran thinks that Intelligent Design is legitimate science: it’s just bad science. As he explained in a post one year ago, titled, Is Intelligent Design Scientific? (November 12, 2012):
Intelligent Design is often dismissed as unscientific because it violates various criteria used to define “science.” One of the restrictions imposed upon science by some philosophers is “methodological naturalism.” This rules out any hypothesis that invokes a non-materialistic cause such as an intelligent designer.
I reject that limitation on science as a way of knowing.
In a comment on the same post, Moran goes on to say that he thinks the claims of Intelligent Design are scientifically falsifiable:
One of the main claims of Intelligent Design is that irreducibly complex systems cannot be explained by evolution. That’s definitely falsifiable. (In fact, it has been falsified.)
Another claim is that systems exhibiting specified complexity can only be created by an intelligent designer. That claim is also falsifiable.
Intelligent Design requires the existence of an intelligent designer and that’s a claim that can be falsified — although admittedly it’s hard to prove a negative.
Of course, most readers will be aware that the first two claims cited by Moran aren’t claims made by the Intelligent Design movement.ID proponents don’t claim that irreducibly complex systems cannot be explained by evolution; what they claim is that unguided evolution is a very poor explanation that’s astronomically unlikely to generate such systems. Also, ID advocates don’t claim that systems exhibiting specified complexity can only be created by an intelligent designer; what they claim is that systems exhibiting specified complexity beyond a certain threshold are best explained as the products of an intelligent designer, since an intelligent designer is perfectly capable of generating a high level of specified complexity, whereas an unguided (non-foresighted) process is extremely unlikely to do so, during the lifetime of the observable universe. In other words, Intelligent Design is the only reasonable explanation of the existence of systems exhibiting specified complexity beyond a certain threshold.
Nevertheless, I am heartened that Professor Moran regards the claims made by the Intelligent Design movements as scientific claims, even if he thinks they’re dead wrong.
In the second paragraph of the Op-Ed quoted by Professor Moran, David Evans continues:
Texas students deserve the best science education possible, as do students everywhere. This means teaching them sound science, including evolution [by natural selection] as a major unifying concept in science. It is firmly established as one of the most important and robust principles in science, and is the best and most complete scientific explanation we have for how life on Earth has changed and continues to change. Furthermore, the very foundation of science is grounded in, and based upon, evidence. Classrooms will use the textbooks Texas adopts for years (the last science textbook adoption was a decade ago). Compromising the integrity of science for a whole generation of students to satisfy a few vocal ideologues is simply not acceptable.
The next paragraph isn’t quite as good. It could have been a lot better. All he had to do was leave out the little phrase that I underline and enclose in brackets. It would not change the meaning but it would properly reflect “what the vast majority of scientists accept as settled science.”
But as we’ve seen, leaving out those three little words leaves evolution without a specified mechanism – which means that the course taught to Texas students would be compatible with intelligently guided evolution. It appears that Professor Moran is happy with that. I presume he believes that these science textbooks could also include proposed (unguided) mechanisms for generating systems exhibiting a high degree of specified complexity. Actually, ID proponents are fine with that – as long as the limitations and uncertainties of these explanations are also pointed out to students.
And while we’re on the subject of academic honesty, how does Professor Moran feel about Texas students being exposed to evolutionary biologist Dr. Eugene Koonin’s peer-reviewed article, The Cosmological Model of Eternal Inflation and the Transition from Chance to Biological Evolution in the History of Life (Biology Direct 2 (2007): 15, doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15)? In his article, Dr. Koonin claims that the emergence of even a basic replication-translation system on the primordial Earth is such an astronomically unlikely event that we would need to postulate a vast number of universes, in which all possible scenarios are played out, in order to make its emergence likely.
How does Professor Moran feel about including Dr. Koonin’s article in the Texas school curriculum? Or what about claims by paleontologists Douglas Erwin and James Valentine, that currently known evolutionary processes are utterly unable to account for the relatively sudden appearance of about 30 phyla of animals with different body plans, in the Cambrian period? Should Texas students get to hear about that too?
What do readers think?