Teaching Evolution:
A Letter to the Alligator
August 1, 2000

On August 1, 2000, the Alligator published an abridged version of a letter I sent in response to a letter that had appeared two weeks earlier. My original letter was too long to be published intact, but as a result of deletions made by the editor, certain statements in the published version appear as non-sequiturs. Also certain words that I intended to be italicized for emphasis were not. The original version that I sent to the Alligator appears below.

Page references in my letter are to the paperback version of the booklet Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences; the on-line version mentioned in the letter does not list page numbers.


Eric Corpus' July 18 letter ("Fair shot for God in school") exemplifies the murky arguments put forth to justify teaching creationism in public schools.

Unfortunately it only takes a few seconds (or lines of print) to spread misinformation by sarcasm and catch-phrases, as in "The educational system should strive to impart rock-solid principles, like the theory of evolution ... oh, is that STILL a theory?"--while taking much longer carefully to refute a poor argument. Mr. Corpus seems unaware of what "theory" means in "theory of evolution", of the mountain of evidence favoring this theory, or of existing refutations of anti-evolutionary arguments.

Mr. Corpus notes that "Merriam-Webster defines a theory as `an unproved assumption'." He neglects to mention that Merriam-Webster gives six definitions of "theory", among them "a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena" (emphasis added by me). This is what scientists mean by the theory of gravity, the germ theory of disease, and the theory of evolution.

Using Mr. Corpus' tactic, I could note that Merriam-Webster defines "school" as "a large number of fish or aquatic animals of one kind swimming together", then poke fun at his concern over what should be taught in public schools.

One cannot present a mountain of evidence in a sound-bite or in a letter to the editor, so no one should be convinced by my letter or Mr. Corpus'. Instead, go to reliable sources. Read the writings of the most respected scientists in the world, not second- or third-hand distortions. For example, read what the most prestigious body of scientists in the country, the National Academy of Sciences, says in its booklet "Science and Creationism", which can be viewed online at http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/creationism. It being impossible to condense scientific evidence into this letter, I will just quote a definition and a few conclusions from this booklet.

"Theory: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses." (p.2)

"Science cannot comment on the role that supernatural forces might play in human affairs. But scientific investigations have concluded that the same forces responsible for the evolution of all other life forms on Earth can account for the evolution of human beings." (p. 24)

"Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention ... are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science. These claims subordinate observed data to statements based on authority, revelation, or religious belief. Documentation offered in support of these claims is typically limited to the special publications of their advocates. These publications do not offer any hypotheses subject to change in light of new data, new interpretations, or demonstrations of error. This contrasts with science, where any hypothesis or theory always remains subject to the possibility of rejection or modification in the light of new knowledge." (p. 25)

Note the last sentence, Mr. Corpus. No scientific theory can ever be proven in a strict logical sense. This is part of the essence of science, and it is as true of the theory of gravity as it is of the theory of evolution.

"[Q.] Is evolution a fact or a theory? [A.]... In scientific terms, `theory' does not mean `guess' or `hunch' as it does in everyday usage ... scientists can also use `fact' to mean something that has been tested or observed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples. The occurrence of evolution in this sense is a fact. Scientists no longer question whether descent with modification occurred because the evidence supporting the idea is so strong." (p. 28)

"[Q.] Don't many famous scientists reject evolution? [A.] No. The scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming. Those opposed to the teaching of evolution sometimes use quotations from prominent scientists out of context to claim that scientists do not support evolution. However, examination of the quotations reveals that the scientists are actually disputing some aspect of how evolution occurs, not whether evolution occurred." (p. 28)

In short, there is no debate among reputable scientists over whether evolution occurred. Zero.

"The courts have ruled that `creation science' is actually a religious view. Because public schools must be religiously neutral under the U.S. Constitution, the courts have held that it is unconstitutional to present creation science as legitimate scholarship." (p. 29)

Hopefully Mr. Corpus would agree that only "legitimate scholarship" should be be taught in the public schools.

"[Q.]If evolution is taught in schools, shouldn't creationism be given equal time? [A.] ... Scientists have concluded that evolution--and only evolution--should be taught in science classes because it is the only scientific explanation for why the universe is the way it is today. ... [T]here are thousands of different ideas about creation among the world's people. Comparative religions might comprise a worthwhile field of study, but not one appropriate for a science class. Furthermore, the U.S. Constitution states that schools must be religiously neutral, so legally a teacher cannot present any particular creationist view as being more `true' than others." (p. 30)

A good source of analyses of anti-evolutionary writings is the National Center for Science Education's publications page, http://www.natcenscied.org/pubs.htm. For refutations of popular works of creationist darlings Philip Johnson and Michael Behe see also http://www.natcenscied.org/aladont.htm and http://www.world-of-dawkins.com/box/behe.htm.

Finally, it is worth noting that most major religions have no problem with the theory of evolution and oppose the teaching of creationism in schools. At the "Voices for Evolution" website, http://www.natcenscied.org/voicont.htm, one can view 16 statements by religious organizations to this effect (along with 41 statements by scientific organizations, 35 by educational organizations, an Amicus Curiae brief submitted by 72 Nobel laureates, and more). I close with a quote from one of them:

"If the world is not God's, the most eloquent or belligerent arguments will not make it so. If it is God's world, and this is the first declaration of our creed, then faith has no fear of anything the world itself reveals to the searching eye of science."--Rt. Rev. Bennett J. Sims, Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta.

David Groisser
Associate Professor of Mathematics