The Alleged "Weaknesses" or "Critiques" of "Darwinism"
by Steven Schafersman
Texas Citizens for Science
2008 February 6
What Critiques of Darwin?
Op-ed columnist Fred Cutting (link no longer available, but reprinted below), who is also a member of the Framers' Committee that is writing Florida's proposed new science standards, makes what appears to be a reasonable suggestion: students should learn about the "scientific critiques of standard models of neo-Darwinian evolution or models of the chemical origin of life" so that "alternative scientific explanations to explain all the data" can be actively considered. Unfortunately, Mr. Cutting's proposal in his minority report (reprinted below) to the Florida State Board of Education is not reasonable. In fact, he is a stealth Creationist who is attempting to promote the strategy of the Discovery Institute (DI) of Seattle, WA, which is trying to force alleged but bogus weaknesses of evolution into new state science standards (the DI is especially active in Texas, which has great influence on science standards and textbooks). It is illegal to teach either Young Earth Creationism or Intelligent Design Creationism in public schools (because courts have recognized that these are religious doctrines, and requiring them would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution), so the DI is instead trying to weaken and corrupt science standards by asking malleable and complicit state education officials to get the appropriate pseudoscientific language into science standards that discuss two topics: evolution and the origin of life. The DI hopes thereby to confuse students and make them uncertain and suspicious of the high reliability and acceptance by scientists of evolution and abiogenetic origin of life. This, in turn, will make them more receptive to Creationist proselytization that they receive in churches, Sunday schools, and by Creationist marketing campaigns.
Mr. Cutting obviously doesn't understand biological evolution. He claims that the standards as written "dramatically overstate the degree of proof supporting Neo-Darwinian evolution and theories of chemical evolution." Nonsense. Evolution by natural selection (what Creationists term "Darwinism" or "Darwinian evolution" or "Neo-Darwinian evolution," not terms that biologists often use today*) and the abiogenetic chemical origin of life are both firmly established explanations in science since early in the previous century, about 100 years ago. There has not been any legitimate scientific objection to these explanations since then and there is none now. Only Creationists think there is. It should be emphasized that modern biological evolution has much greater explanatory content than any explanation of the origin of life. The Florida standards state that, "Evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence." That is an accurate statement, but a similar statement would not be true about any explanation of biogenesis, and the Florida standards do not make one, contrary to the assertion of Mr. Cutting. There is no governing theory of the origin of life today, only a consensus that non-living prebiotic chemicals became living biological chemicals by natural processes approximately 3.8 billion years ago. The Florida standards also don't claim or imply that any single explanation of abiogenesis is correct, only that the process was fully natural, a statement sufficient to cause Creationists to object.
[*Readers may wonder why Creationists and anti-evolutionists never use the terms biological evolution or evolutionary biology or the Synthetic Theory of Evolution or even just the theory of evolution. Instead, they always refer to the evolutionary explanation or process as Darwinism or Neo-Darwinism or Darwinian evolution or Neo-Darwinian evolution. Modern biologists try to minimize using terms that use Darwin's name, although there are occasional lapses. Creationists personalize evolution for several reasons. First, "Darwinism" is used to suggest that evolution equates with Freudianism, Marxism, Trotskyism, Leninism, Stalinism, and other failed nineteenth and early twentieth century ideologies, some of which were quite immoral. By naming the natural process after a person, they attempt to suggest it is controversial and thus demonize it (regardless of the fact that Darwin's reputation among scientists is unparalleled).
Second, they try to confuse the theory of evolution with the many evolutionary processes (natural selection, genetic drift, sexual selection, species selection, gene selection, neutral evolution, group selection, etc.) that have been discovered to be important, but several of which are still being debated and thus subject to exploitation by Creationist quote mongering. The most important of these specific processes is natural selection, the process actually discovered and promoted by Darwin and the single process that makes evolution Darwinian. Creationists frequently use language or quotes of legitimate scientists that criticize some aspect of evolutionary theory to suggest that the evolutionary process itself is being criticized, when this is not the case. Calling every evolutionary process Darwinism or Darwinian is an attempt to confuse readers.
Third, Creationists want to confound the fact of evolution (an ongoing and historical natural process) with the scientific theory of evolution (the full explanation of the mechanism of evolution and all its elements), so they often term both "Darwinism" to conflate them and promote confusion. Just confusing a reader or listener about evolution, rather than convincing them that evolution is false and Creationism is true, is often victory enough, since the ultimate Creationist goal is to cause ordinary students and citizens to lose their confidence and trust in science and thus in methodological naturalism and materialism. This, they feel, will promote belief in supernaturalism and religion.
Fourth, evolution had a scientific literature and history before Darwin wrote anything. Evolution was accepted as true by many European scientists long before Darwin, although the hypothetical explanations of evolution were primitive and now known to be wrong. Darwin's original theory, in fact--the true "Darwinism"--contained many errors. For example, Darwin believed and wrote that Lamarckism, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, was as important as natural selection (the process is known today to not occur). Darwin believed that inheritance was a blending process, which he termed pangenesis, not a particulate or Mendelian process as we know today. Pangenesis holds that body cells shed gemmules, which collect in the reproductive organs prior to fertilization. Thus, every cell in the body has a 'vote' in the constitution of the offspring. Pangenesis is now seen as a deeply flawed hypothesis that with no supporting evidence. Darwin largely did not believe that evolution occurred in rapid spurts or punctuations, but was always gradational and usually slow, while today we know that both occur. Neo-Darwinism is often defined as the combination of Darwin's natural selection with modern population genetics that became the scientific consensus early in the twentieth century. But evolutionary biology today is much more than just those two concepts. So the various personalized terms using the name Darwin should frankly be abandoned, and evolutionary scientists today do this.]
Mr. Cutting objects to the statement that "Evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence." This statement is perfectly true and would be non-controversial to all scientists. His reasoning that the statement is true for microevolution (what he terms "micro-evolution") but not macroevolution (what he terms the "origination of organismal forms") is nonsense. These words are technical terms biologists use to distinguish and describe levels on which evolution is operating. The natural process of evolution itself does not distinguish between microevolution and macroevolution. In nature, microevolution grades seamlessly into macroevolution without human input or distinction. There is no biological disjunction, only an explanatory disjunction created for the convenience of evolutionary theorists. Only Creationists make the scientifically-meaningless claim that microevolution is acceptable but macroevolution is not.
What about "alternative scientific explanations" to explain data. Historically, in the nineteenth century, there were plenty of alternative scientific explanations for evolution and the origin of life. But by scientific testing using experiments and repeated observations, scientists were able to accept natural selection and natural abiogenesis as both reliable and accurate explanations for the biological processes they explain. Of course, many secondary or auxiliary processes (such as the origin of eukaryotes by endosymbiosis, the dominant role of genetic drift rather than selection in small populations, the idea that molecular evolution is dominated by selectively neutral evolution, and many others) have been added to the primary explanations over the decades, and more will in the future, but these don't mitigate the fundamental concepts that all scientists accept. Scientists would be willing to consider "alternative scientific explanations" to evolution, natural selection, and abiogenesis, such as Intelligent Design or Special Creation, if these new explanations were truly scientific and had evidence to support them, but they are not and they don't.
Finally, let's look at the so-called "weaknesses" of evolution that the DI and other Creationists allege exist and should be addressed in science standards. Mr. Cutting refers to evolutionary "weaknesses" as "scientific critiques," and this term mirrors the other DI marketing slogans, "critical analysis" of evolution and "teach the controversy" about evolution. The DI thinks that if they repeat their marketing slogans enough, people will begin to think their product really exists. And the DI is right about people, since their advertising has been remarkable successful among the scientifically illiterate, which also happens to be the vast majority of citizens. But in fact, there is no controversy about evolution among scientists or science teachers. There are no Creationist-alleged "weaknesses" or "scientific critiques" about evolution. The reason the DI and Mr. Cutting can get away with claiming that there are is because they indulge in a duplicitous sleight-of-hand: they comb the scientific literature and find useful quotes that make it appear that scientists have problems with some aspect of an auxiliary evolutionary explanation, then they use those quotes to try to make it appear that the problems are with the basic framework of evolution itself. In short, Creationists misrepresent the evidence and confidence that scientists have in modern evolutionary biology.
Because the Creationists never define exactly what they mean by "weaknesses" or "critiques," they are able to deceptively use legitimate scientific research to cast doubt upon the main ideas of evolution and origin of life that are universally accepted. No scientific explanation is complete or in final form; scientists still have gaps in their knowledge and they do argue about details of many aspects of evolution and natural abiogenesis. But these are not weaknesses or critiques of the topics as they would be presented in public school biology classes. To achieve their goal of injuring science standards, Creationists try to make it appear that legitimate scientific unknowns or disagreements actually represent serious scientific uncertainty or weaknesses about the most basic natural processes that are well understood. This Creationist activity is a program of deception, antithetical to real science.
If you turn to the lists and descriptions of the "weaknesses" and "critiques" that Creationists claim exist, the full mendacity of their strategy becomes apparent. You discover that their so-called weaknesses and critiques of biological and chemical evolution are bogus. They are phony. They involve things such as Cambrian fossils, vertebrate embryos, moths and finches undergoing natural selection, complex organic molecules and structures, anatomical homology, vestigial organs, patterns of fossil succession, genetic mutations, and a host of other examples. In every case, the Creationists twist the facts using a series of specious arguments, misrepresented evidence, and quotes out of context to create a misleading case to convince the reader that their examples document the serious difficulties scientists have with the basic framework of evolution. All of these sophistic tactics have been documented by science defenders. DI's goal is to cast doubt upon the accuracy and reliability of evolution and abiogenesis as legitimate scientific explanations, but they can only do this by fooling the very individuals they are trying to convince.
The suggestion to require "weaknesses" or "scientific critiques" of biological and chemical evolution in state science standards is therefore a sham: it is a tactic that Creationists use in their stealth marketing campaign to corrupt and damage science in our country. If they really had evidence for their weaknesses and critiques, they should publish it in scientific journals and convince the real scientists of its validity. But they never do that because they know their evidence and arguments are bogus. And let's not try to deny that this effort isn't ultimately religious. Of course it is. The proponents of perverting science standards by inserting phony weaknesses or critiques of evolution and abiogenesis are all religious Creationists of either the Young Earth or Intelligent Design variety. They mask their religiosity by only using scientific language, but they can't mask the fact that they are using the political process and the power of state agencies to achieve their goals, rather than the patient, legitimate scientific process of demonstrating their case using the scientific method in the scientific literature.
In short, Fred Cutting and the Discovery Institute are using a deceptive, religiously-inspired political program to promote their Creationist goals. They rely totally on marketing and the power of state officials to achieve their aims, not on real science. This is really a shameful activity.
I wrote the above--linking Fred Cutting and the Discovery Institute in their joint effort to undermine science education by trying to get "weaknesses" or "critiques" of evolution reflected in Florida's science standards-- on February 5 without realizing that the two were linked by something more than sharing the same idea. The next day I discovered in a Discovery Institute news blog that Mr. Cutting contacted the Discovery Institute before he wrote his minority report and inquired about how to address the new Florida evolution requirement and draft his report in a way that would best undermine the new science standard. The DI was naturally happy to help. The author of the DI news blog, Casey Luskin, is highly complimentary of Mr. Cutting's minority report, calling it an "excellent proposal." From the DI's point of view, it certainly is, especially since they helped to write it and it follows the DI party line. I next discovered on the Florida Citizens for Sciences website, after a search, that Mr. Cutting has a long history as an active creationist, so he really wasn't a very stealthy Creationist after all. Why wasn't his long Creationist affiliation mentioned in his personal description at the conclusion of his column (no longer available on the Web, but reprinted below)?
Casey Luskin points out that the proposed Florida standards creditably asks students to "use critical and logical thinking, and the active consideration of alternative scientific explanations to explain all the data presented." No scientist would object to this science standard requirement. But then Mr. Luskin quotes Mr. Cutting's minority report: "Somewhat inexplicably, there is no indicator in the proposed standards that applies this philosophy of science education to biological origins." This kind of statement sort of gives the story away, since only a Creationist would make such an misleading statement.
Here are the reasons why applying the "consideration of alternative scientific explanations" to evolution won't work. First, applying any specific obligatory standard, such as "consideration of alternative scientific explanations," only to the topic of "biological origins" is illegal, because the sectarian anti-evolution intent is obvious and would quickly be recognized as a violation of the Establishment Clause by any federal court. I thought that Creationists knew not to do this anymore. The "consider alternatives" standard only works legally when it is applied to all scientific disciplines, not just evolution (aka "biological origins").
Second, the creditable proposed Florida Nature of Science section benchmark or standard has that one problematic word that keeps tripping up Creationist efforts to undermine science education. You know the word: scientific. Here's the full standard:
Benchmark SC.912.N.2.4: The learner will recognize that the strength or usefulness of a scientific claim is established through scientific argumentation, which depends on the use of critical and logical thinking, and the active consideration of alternative scientific explanations to explain all the data presented.
Yes, the proposed standard says it's important--students "will recognize"--that scientific claims should be examined and active consideration given to "alternative scientific explanations to explain all the data presented." I have italicized the Creationist problem word. For this standard to work, there first have to exist alternative scientific explanations to evolution, and there just aren't any. But wait a minute...what about Intelligent Design Creationism? Isn't that an "alternative scientific explanation"? No, it is not. IDC is not scientific, as every legitimate scientist will testify and a federal district court judge recently ruled. There now exist dozens of books and hundreds of papers written by scientists describing in magnificent detail why Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design Creationism, Scientific Creationism, and all other forms of Creationism are not real science. So Mr. Cutting's and the DI's proposal to require in the standards that students learn the "scientific critiques of standard models of neo-Darwinian evolution or models of the chemical origin of life" is just not going to be acceptable for substantive logical, scientific, educational, and legal reasons.
Another similar problem for organized Creationism is that the proposed Florida nature of science benchmark is that the standard says that scientific claims depend on the "use of critical and logical thinking." Creationists love to ask that science standards, curricula, and textbooks use "critical analysis" in any discussion of biological origins. There is no question that critical thinking--which can be defined as the use of logical, empirical, and skeptical thinking--is a foundational skill of scientists and an underpinning of the scientific method. There is nothing wrong with asking students to learn critical thinking skills and engage in critical thinking, despite the fact that these are usually ignored by textbooks, teachers, and students in the actual practice of K-12 education. But how does the standard apply to Creationism or "critiques" and "weaknesses" of evolution? If taught and followed correctly, a critical thinking standard will inevitably lead students to acceptance of evolution as the correct explanation of biologic origins. After all, this critical process led every life scientist to this conclusion 150 years ago when they scientifically analyzed and rejected the traditional creationist explanation for the existence and diversity of life. And this process continued to reject Creationism and support evolution for the subsequent 150 years, and continues to do so today.
The same problematic word and critical thinking standard has been tripping up Creationists in Texas for over 20 years. The equivalent Texas process of science standard--the notorious Rule 3A--is as follows:
The student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions. The student is expected to analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.
In 2003 in Texas, Creationists emphasized trying to "critique scientific explanations" of biological origins by invoking their alleged "weaknesses" of evolution, the very same ones listed above, and asked that these bogus weaknesses be inserted into biology textbooks. In 2008, their stated intention is to insert some of these same specific but phony "weaknesses" of evolution directly into the revised science standards. But the Creationists have always failed, because the rule clearly says that only "scientific evidence and information" can be used to "critique scientific explanations," and they have never been able to convince a majority of State Board of Education members that genuine scientific critiques or problems of evolution exist. That's a good thing, too, since scientific objections to evolution do not exist in the real world, but only in the minds of Creationists and other anti-evolutionists. Rule 3A requires that students use "critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions." This is completely laudable. Unfortunately, however, the actual practice of applying critical thinking and scientific problem solving skills is usually lacking in Texas biology classrooms, because information about evolution is usually diminished or omitted. It is impossible to use critical thinking and problem solving skills when students are not first given the correct information about which to think. In Texas biology classrooms, willful ignorance about evolution is more common than "critical thinking and scientific problem solving" about it.
The controversy has certainly intimidated teachers from instructing many Texas students about the true nature of biology, so student science education significantly suffers in Texas, which is the real goal of anti-evolutionists, because they are fundamentally anti-science. The ultimate cause of this problem is the poor leadership of members of the Texas State Board of Education, which not only passively allows evolution to be euphemized, avoided, and omitted in Texas, but actively encourages this by their constant efforts to censor the topic. Texas public officials talk about wanting good science and technology education in Texas, but when it comes to evolution and the origin of life, they are unwilling to match their words with deeds.
Florida Science Standards
In the May  framers’ meeting, a major concern from the consultants, Dr. Jean Slattery, Ted Willard, and Bill Schmidt was that in the US we are teaching science “a mile wide and an inch deep.” American students are each a walking encyclopedia of facts without sufficient depth of understanding of the underlying concepts in science. In order to remedy this problem, the Proposed Florida Science Standards include the following requirement:
Benchmark SC.912.N.2.4: (As released to the public) The learner will recognize that the strength or usefulness of a scientific claim is established through scientific argumentation, which depends on the use critical and logical thinking, and the active consideration of alternative scientific explanations to explain all the data presented.
Somewhat inexplicably, there is no indicator in the proposed standards that applies this philosophy of science education to biological origins. We do not advance science by canonizing our predecessors but by challenging our successors. What challenge is there if we tell students “this is the only way to look at this issue”? Thus, in order to increase the effectiveness of Florida’s Science Standards by helping students to develop critical thinking skills and better understand life-sciences, we propose that the language stated in the SC.912 standards below be adopted into the proposed standards as a benchmark under the section “Evolution and Diversity”:
“Students should learn why some scientists give scientific critiques of standard models of neo-Darwinian evolution or models of the chemical origin of life.”
It is a great improvement that the proposed standards teach students more about evolution. But as currently written the following proposed standards and benchmarks take a dogmatic tone that do not reflect the true nature of science, and dramatically overstate the degree of proof supporting Neo-Darwinian evolution and theories of chemical evolution. For example in the Life Science Evolution and Diversity ‘Body of Knowledge’ starts with the statement “Evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence” This is true for micro-evolution but not so for origination of organismal forms or the origination of life it’s self. We thus recommend the following changes:
SC.912.L.1.5 Origination of Eukaryotic Cells
Explain the extent of the evolutionary proof as demonstrated by the fossil record, comparative anatomy, comparative embryology, biogeography, molecular biology of the origin of the eukaryotic cells (endosymbiosis).” (Please note the leading nature, implied conclusion, and overstatement of data available.)
Change to: “Use critical and logical thinking to explain and analyze the origin of eukaryotic cells (endosymbiosis).”
Explain the extent of the evolutionary proof as demonstrated by the fossil record, comparative anatomy, comparative embryology, biogeography, molecular biology.
Change to: “Use critical and logical thinking to analyze and explain the extent of the evolutionary proof as demonstrated by the fossil record, comparative anatomy, comparative embryology, biogeography, molecular biology.”
SC.912.L.2.9 Origins of Life
Express scientific explanations of the origins of life on earth.
Change to: “Use critical and logical thinking to explain and assess scientific hypotheses for the origin of life on earth. Explain the solved problems, and the unsolved problems in origin of life research.”
SC.912.L.2.12 Human Evolution
Identify basic trends in hominid evolution from early ancestors six million years ago to modern humans.
Change to: “Identify the types of fossil hominids species and use critical and logical thinking to explain aspects of human origins that are documented, and those that are not documented by the fossil evidence.”
If Florida students are to remain competitive in science, students need to see how scientists debate important topics, such as Darwinian evolution or the chemical origin of life. We sincerely hope that those approving the writing in our standards will remain open to these requests for the sake of our students and the excellence of Florida’s science education.
Science Framer Committee Member
Teach critiques of Darwin, too
My View [Op-Ed]
February 4, 2008
http://tallahassee.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080204/OPINION05/802040304/1006/NEWS17 [no longer available]
As a retired engineer and a member of the Framers' Committee for Florida's new science standards, I must express a deep concern about part of the proposed standards.
At our May framers' meeting, a major concern from the experts brought in was that in the United States we are teaching science "a mile wide and an inch deep." American students are each a walking encyclopedia of facts without sufficient depth of understanding of the underlying concepts in science.
In order to remedy this problem, the Proposed Florida Science Standards included a requirement that students must "recognize that the strength and usefulness of a scientific claim is established through scientific argumentation, which depends on the use of critical and logical thinking, and the active consideration of alternative scientific explanations to explain all the data presented."
This is a good approach to science education. Somewhat inexplicably, however, there is no indicator in the proposed standards that applies this philosophy of science education to the teaching of evolution.
We do not advance science by canonizing our predecessors but by challenging our successors. What challenge is there if we tell students "this is the only way to look at this issue"? As a member of the Framers' Committee, I am submitting a minority report suggesting that the following language be adopted into Florida's science standards:
"Students should learn why some scientists give scientific critiques of standard models of neo-Darwinian evolution or models of the chemical origin of life."
I oppose including religion in the science classroom, and this proposal in no way brings religion into the science classroom. There are serious scientific critiques of neo-Darwinism that deserve to be heard by students. This is a scientific debate, not a religious one.
It is a great improvement that the proposed standards teach students more about evolution. But as currently written, four of the proposed standards take a dogmatic tone that does not reflect the true nature of science and dramatically overstates the degree of proof supporting Neo-Darwinian evolution and theories of chemical evolution.
For example, the proposed Florida science standards claim that, "Evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology and is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence." This is true for micro-evolution but not so for origination of organismal forms or the origination of life itself (i.e. macro-evolution).
If Florida students are to remain competitive in science, students need to see how scientists debate important topics, such as Darwinian evolution or the chemical origin of life. We sincerely hope that the Florida State Board of Education will remain open to these requests for the sake of our students and the excellence of Florida's science education.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Cutting is a retired aerospace engineer living in the Tampa Bay area. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Texas Citizens for Science Last updated: 2008 May 24