Colin Atkins’ letter to the editor in the Sept. 5 edition of the Brandon Sun is a shocking reminder of how far we need to go in our education of students and citizens on basic scientific principles.
Evolution, the relatively simple process by which all human and animal life came to be, is only one example. However, as a major issue in the debate between lingering religious dogma and advanced scientific thinking, it is a good place to start.
It is unfortunate, but unsurprising, that a person of Mr. Atkins’ own ideological faith would decry the scientific enterprise as “blind” and “without evidence.” Although I do not know him, I can safely assume that his own education in science was influenced by broader cultural factors, meaning that the person(s) responsible for passing on basic principles of biology may not have conveyed how central evolutionary theory is in biological science.
Alternatively, he may not have been taught evolution in any form, a reasonable conclusion because his letter is riddled with misconceptions and false statements about biological science.
By the content and tone of Mr. Atkins’ rant against a fundamental scientific principle, he assumes the widely held assumption that “theory” has the same meaning in scientific discourse as it does in the everyday exchange of language. It does not and I cannot stress enough the importance of this distinction to anyone who desires to learn more about this debate.
“Theory” as we typically use it means an attempt to explain related phenomenon through conjecture, and often our theories of everyday behaviour are weakened by a shortage of facts or an inability to observe the complexities of the subjects about which we form theories. Alternatively, the use of “theory” in scientific discourse is about well-substantiated knowledge: the most comprehensive, reliable, and rigorous form of scientific knowledge is deemed a scientific theory, and it is only given that label once enough evidence has been presented.
Evolution has been observed in nature and repeated in laboratories since Darwin did his own observing in the 19th century. By most informed accounts, it is as factual as the Earth revolving around the sun. “Evolution” exists whether Darwin would have “discovered” it or not, but it is still a discovery in its sweeping significance for how humans conceive of our tenuous place on earth. Humanity cannot be understood without taking into account the evolutionary process that is central to our biological makeup and the full scope of its effectiveness is only just beginning to be felt in disciplines of the social sciences and humanities.
The kind of thinking expressed in Mr. Atkins’ letter shows confusion and he opts for rhetorical appeals instead of knowledge that has been exhaustively examined and tested since 1859. That we are still having debates over the “truth” of the matter is disheartening, but as long as there are students being taught the fabrications of Creationism, it is an argument worth having.
Mr. Atkins, who shows no real knowledge of evolution or biology, feels the right to question an established scientific theory on the basis of “evidence” while he defends Intelligent Design, a stupefying piece of romance fiction that has no practical significance in serious scientific study.
For students who express interest in the subject and wish to question an agenda that may have been pushed upon you as Mr. Atkins has done to the readers of the Brandon Sun, I encourage you to read widely on the subject to comprehend the theory for both its scientific and sociocultural importance.
Although the theory itself has massive implications for modern thinking, evolution is a relatively simple idea at its most basic formulation. Robert Wright, author of the informative and stimulating The Moral Animal,” puts it this way: “If within a species there is variation among individuals in their hereditary traits, and some traits are more conducive to survival and reproduction than others, then those traits will (obviously) becomes more widespread within the population. The result (obviously) is that the species’ aggregate pool of hereditary traits changes.”
Mr. Atkins’ mistaken notion that evolution is simply “blind chance” shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the science.
It is more accurate to call evolution a “blind watchmaker” because it is an unconscious process that occurs to create complex species capable of surviving and adapting to the environment. Our ability to perceive colour and beauty is one component of that process. Tigers have stripes for the purpose of camouflage, a necessary function for a species that relies on hunting for survival. Multiple explanations have been put forth concerning zebra stripes, but camouflage is also likely because its main predator, the lion, is colour blind.
Although debating the details is important in order to clear misunderstandings, it is the larger issue of teaching evolution that Mr. Atkins is criticizing.
He shockingly believes that it is “massive child abuse at taxpayers’ expense,” a declaration so absurd that it may induce a mild stroke in anyone who has dedicated his or her life to educating children in science.
As the imitable Bill Nye — an important figure in the public fight to properly educate students in science — said recently, “To the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we’ve observed in the universe, that’s fine. But don’t make your kids do it — because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.”
The noble goal of scientifically literate voters is a taxpayer expense that we cannot afford to be flippant about, one that scientists and educated citizens should feel obligated to defend against attacks and misconceptions perpetuated by people with Mr. Atkins’ views.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 8, 2012