2/10/09

Understanding What is Wrong With Mississippi's HB 25

Clockwise from top-left: Loligo vulgaris (a mo...Image via Wikipedia

The following thoughts on Mississippi's latest anti-evolution bill, HB 25, were contributed by J, a Mississippian with ties to both Ocean Springs and Jackson. Since I have little doubt that HB 25 will be the last time we are forced to defend science education in our state, I remain interested in posting statements like this here so that they will be a resource the next time we must go through this. Besides, I don't think I could possibly improve on J's analysis of what is so wrong about this bill and similar efforts.

AN ACT TO REQUIRE THE STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION TO INCLUDE CERTAIN LANGUAGE EXPLAINING THAT EVOLUTION IS A THEORY IN THE INSIDE FRONT COVER OF CERTAIN PUBLIC SCHOOL TEXTBOOKS; AND FOR RELATED PURPOSES.

This bill's introduction follows the tried and failed method of attempting to obfuscate the different meanings of the word ‘theory.’
The word ‘theory’ has many meanings, including: systematically organized knowledge; abstract reasoning; a speculative idea or plan’ or a systematic statement of principles
As expected, the authors left out the definition of ‘theory’ in science. A scientific theory is an overarching explanation of a body of scientific facts and verified hypothesis capable of being tested and falsified through the hypotheses generated from it. This definition may seem a bit cumbersome for high school and middle school students. However, it is imperative that they know that a scientific theory is an explanation of verified facts. It must be differentiated from the everyday usage of ‘theory’ as an educated guess.
This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things.
The Theory of Evolution is not a controversial theory among scientists, as only 0.14% of all scientists in fields relevant to Evolution, earth and life sciences, do not accept evolution. The use of the phrase ‘some scientists’ is misleading in that it suggests that there is not a preponderance of scientists that accept evolution.
No one was present when life first appeared on earth.
Presence at the occurrence of an event is irrelevant and another misleading ploy, implying that if something is not directly observed, it is somehow unverifiable. Many aspects of science cannot be directly observed, such as atoms, viruses, and the Earth’s core. Either way, the Theory of Evolution does not deal with the origin of life. That would be the realm of abiogenesis.
Evolution refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced living things.
Evolution refers to the change in genetic frequency of a population of organisms over time due to mutation, reproduction, and natural selection. While a part of this may be seemingly random, such as mutation, the evolutionary process is not at all random. Its non-randomness is evidenced by natural selection. Natural selection is the mechanism whereby environmentally favorable heritable traits in an organism become more frequent in successive generations.
There are many topics with unanswered questions about the origin of life which are not mentioned in your textbook, including: the sudden appearance of the major groups of animals in the fossil record (known as the Cambrian Explosion); the lack of new major groups of other living things appearing in the fossil record;
The two bolded phrases seem to be in direct opposition. I imagine they are referring to differences in the rate of new ‘groups’ of organisms evolving over time. This is not a valid criticism of the Theory of Evolution, unless the authors are suggesting that the environment, thus natural selection, only changes at a constant rate. The evidence of ice ages and warm periods provides the evidence for invalidating this criticism.

The Cambrian Explosion was a period about 540 million years ago that lasted anywhere from 5-40 million years. A 5-40 million year period is not a short time for the evolution of organisms, as many of the more difficult complexities, such as eukaryotic cells, were overcome long before.

The statements are also misleading in that they do not give a definition for ‘major groups’ of animals. Without specifying if a ‘major group’ is a phylum, class, order, etc. the term is meaningless. All of the phyla of plants appeared after the Cambrian Explosion. The major classes of kingdom animalia, such as mammalia, reptilia, aves, and insecta did not evolve until after the Cambrian explosion.
the lack of transitional forms of major groups of plants and animals in the fossil record;
This is most assuredly false. There are numerous publications and online science websites that enumerate the thousands of transitional forms between organisms.
and the complete and complex set of instructions for building a living body possessed by all living things.
This “claim” does not make sense. For an organism to live, it must posses the necessary genetic code to build and support the various parts that make up that organism. Simple Mendelian genetics demonstrates how each organism receives a complete set of instructions from its parent organism.
Study hard and keep an open mind.
Of all the scientific theories, why exactly are our legislators singling out the Theory of Evolution? Why not point out that all of science has areas that require more study? I would imagine this is due to the dangers some people perceive the Theory of Evolution poses to their religious beliefs. Every argument calling the Theory of Evolution into question in this bill can be easily found on numerous religious websites.

By pasting a sticker that only calls into question the Theory of Evolution on the inside cover of science books we are implying to our students that every other theory or piece of information in this book is correct and does not need to be questioned. Again, everything in a science book should be approached critically, including the Theory of Evolution.

To the authors of this bill, ask yourself this question, “Why am I writing legislation that singles out the Theory of Evolution for criticism amongst all of science’s theories?” and answer honestly.