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Creationists have gotten clever, but there's still no debate over evolution

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Creationists are cutting in line

Because scientists are not debating evolution, it is wrong to teach students otherwise. In public school science classes and textbooks, the basic methods and results of the mainstream scientific consensus are presented – not untested fringe ideas, not speculations, but information fully supported by evidence. By demanding to cut in line, creationists ask to bypass the normal process of verifying scientific claims. They try to misuse public resources to foist their scientifically unwarranted denial of evolution on a captive student audience, and to force their culture war into America’s classrooms.

What creationists regard as “scientific evidence” against evolution is really a collection of debunked claims circulating and persisting like urban legends. For example, from the Scopes era to today, creationists have eagerly cited the so-called Cambrian explosion, a 10-million-year period about 530 million years ago when fossils record a blossoming of animal life. Creationists claim that the standard model of evolutionary change is incapable of explaining how so many new kinds of animals could have flourished so quickly.

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As Mr. Brecheen, the Oklahoma state senator, recently garbled it, “The main fallacy with Darwinian theory is the sudden appearance at about 540 million years [ago] of fossil records.” (In fact, the earliest fossils were formed about three billion years earlier than that.) The Cambrian explosion, he wrote, “debunks the tree of life” – a view not shared by practicing paleontologists.

Selective quotes from real scientists

Lacking any substantive evidence to make their case, creationists offer a few selective quotes from real scientists to give their arguments authority. For example, noted National Institutes of Health evolutionary biologist Eugene V. Koonin was recently quoted by a program officer with the leading intelligent design organization (The Discovery Institute) as saying that the modern synthesis of evolution has “crumbled, apparently, beyond repair.” The implication was that Mr. Koonin would agree that there is a scientific debate over evolution that deserves to be taught in the schools.

But when I talked to Koonin, he told me this interpretation was simply wrong. Creationists, he said, “delight in claiming that whenever any aspect of ‘(neo)Darwinism’ is considered obsolete, evolution is denied. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Koonin explained that what is “crumbling” in his view is a half-century-old approach to thinking about evolution. Modern evolutionary theory is “a much broader, richer and ultimately more satisfactory constellation of data, concepts, and ideas.” Evolution is alive and well, while creationist understanding of it is apparently stuck in the Eisenhower era.

The top 10 monkeys

Whether by banning the teaching of evolution, or requiring the teaching of creation science or intelligent design, or encouraging the teaching of long-ago-debunked misrepresentations of evolution, creationist proposals are bad science, bad pedagogy, and bad policy. Instead of proposing scientifically illiterate and educationally harmful measures, state legislatures – and other policy-makers – should help students learn about evolution. As the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said – and as Eugene Koonin explicitly agreed – “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Steven Newton is programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit defending the teaching of evolution in public schools.

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