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Distributed January 14, 2005
Contact Mark Nickel

About 930 Words

Kenneth R. Miller
Evolution: You Bet – It’s ‘Just’ a Theory

Of course evolution is a theory – the biology textbook already said so. So why did the Cobb County Board of Education order stickers affixed inside the book’s cover, warning students that evolution is a theory? Kenneth Miller, co-author of the textbook and a witness at the trial in federal district court, has a theory ...

Isn’t evolution a theory? Of course it is. So why, on Jan. 13, 2005, did Federal District Judge Clarence Cooper order a board of education in Georgia to remove stickers from biology textbooks that seemed to tell students that evolution was just a theory? Is this a case of censorship? Is a closed-minded scientific establishment trying to keep evidence against evolution out of the classroom? Is a federal court telling educators that that evolution is now federally protected dogma?

Ken Miller

The answer is far simpler. The judge simply read the sticker and saw that it served no scientific or educational purpose. Once that was clear, he looked to the reasons for slapping it in the textbooks of thousands of students, and here the record was equally clear. Insertion of the sticker favored a particular set of religious beliefs – exactly the argument advanced by the parents of six students in the district who sued the Cobb County Board of Education to get the stickers removed.

So what’s wrong with telling students that evolution is a theory? Nothing. But the textbook they were using already described evolution as a theory, and I ought to know. Joseph Levine and I wrote the biology book Cobb County’s high school students are using. Chapter 15 of the book is titled “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.” Hard to be clearer than that. So why did the Cobb County Board of Education find it necessary to place a warning label inside a book that already refers to evolution as a theory? Judge Cooper hit the nail right on the head when he wrote that “By denigrating evolution, the school board appears to be endorsing the well-known prevailing alternative theory, creationism or variations thereof, even though the sticker does not specifically reference any alternative theories.”

Exactly. What the sticker said was that “Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things.” The problem with that wording is that evolution is both a theory and a fact. It is a fact that living things in the past were different from living things today and that the life of the past changed, or evolved, to produce the life of the present. Recent news, for example, reports the discovery of a new mammalian fossil in China that has a small dinosaur in its stomach. This fossil is a fact – clear evidence that some early mammals were able to prey upon dinosaurs, at least little ones. And it is just one of millions of fossils supporting the fact that life has changed over time, the fact of evolution.

How did that change take place? That’s exactly the question that evolutionary theory attempts to answer. Theories in science don’t become facts – rather, theories explain facts. Evolutionary theory is a comprehensive explanation of change supported by the facts of natural history, genetics and molecular biology.

Is evolution beyond dispute? Of course not. In fact, the most misleading part of the Cobb County sticker was its concluding sentence: “This material [evolution] should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” Think about that. The sticker told students that there was just one subject in their textbooks that had to be approached with an open mind and critically considered. Apparently, we are certain of everything in biology except for evolution. To tell students that would be to mislead them utterly as to the true nature of biological wscience. What that sticker should have told students is something that our textbook makes clear in its opening pages. Namely, that everything in science should be approached with critical thinking and an open mind. Everything.

The forces of anti-evolution will pretend that the sticker case is an example of censorship and that the sinister forces of science have converged on Georgia classrooms to prevent honest and open examination of a controversial idea. There is great irony in such charges. As conservative icon Alan Bloom pointed out in his landmark book, The Closing of the American Mind, one of the worst forms of intellectual intolerance is to promote a false equivalence between competing ideas. Acting as though all ideas (or all theories) have equal standing actually deprives students of a realistic view of how critical analysis is done. That’s as true in science as it is in the cultural conflicts that were at the heart of Bloom’s book.

Judge Cooper saw this point clearly: “While evolution is subject to criticism, particularly with respect to the mechanism by which it occurred, the sticker misleads students regarding the significance and value of evolution in the scientific community.” Does it ever. In reality, evolution is a powerful and hard-working theory used at the cutting edge of scientific inquiry in developmental biology, genome analysis, drug discovery and scientific medicine. To pretend otherwise is to shield students from the reality of how science is done today.

What the removal of the sticker will actually do is not to close a window but to open one – a window that will let students see a science of biology in which all theories – not just one – are the result of constant, vigorous, critical analysis. A science in which evolution is at the centerpiece of a 21st-century revolution in our understanding of the grandeur and majesty of life.

So, what should be done with those stickers, now firmly glued into thousands of textbooks? Given the power and scope of the Judge’s ruling, I’d pass along a suggestion I received from a science teacher in Cobb County itself: Paste a bright, shiny American flag on top of each and every one of them.

Kenneth Miller is professor of biology at Brown University and co-author (with Joseph S. Levine) of Biology, published by Prentice Hall – the biology textbook used in the high schools of Cobb County, Ga. Miller also serves as chair of the Education Committee of The American Society for Cell Biology.

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