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Bird Beaks, Bible Belt Biology, And Bigfoot

Bird Beaks, Bible Belt Biology, And Bigfoot

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Published by ahiggins5816
An essay addressing aspects of the 2009 controversy in Texas regarding proposed revisions to science standards. Contributions of Charles Darwin and the historical relationship of science and faith are noted, and the suggestion that evolutionary theory is beyond criticism, as seemingly implied by supporters of The National Center for Science Education, is questioned.
An essay addressing aspects of the 2009 controversy in Texas regarding proposed revisions to science standards. Contributions of Charles Darwin and the historical relationship of science and faith are noted, and the suggestion that evolutionary theory is beyond criticism, as seemingly implied by supporters of The National Center for Science Education, is questioned.

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Published by: ahiggins5816 on Feb 04, 2009
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09/28/2009

 
Bird Beaks, Bible Belt Biology, and Bigfoot
By Alton Higgins29 January 2009Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancywww.texasbigfoot.org
On February 12, 2009, the world observes the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. By any accounting,Darwin must be included with the most influential thinkers in the history of science. The young naturalist’s five-yearvoyage on HMS
 Beagle
gave him an extraordinary opportunity to examine rich fossil beds and explore the diversityof life on many distant shores. Upon his return to England, Darwin spent the next forty-plus years contemplating hisobservations and writing books on a variety of subjects, including a four-volume set based on his eight-year study of the natural history and classification of barnacles, sessile marine crustaceans living in shallow water. In 1859 hepublished his landmark work, often abbreviated as “On the Origin of Species.” Contrary to popular opinion, theseminal premise presented in his book was not the concept or theory of evolution; the idea of descent withmodification had been discussed for centuries. Darwin proposed a process, natural selection, by which populationsmight change. It continues to represent a central tenet of biology.As almost any schoolchild can relate, variation in the beaks of Darwin’s finches, birds living on the GalápagosIslands, is one of the most prominently portrayed examples illustrating the influence of natural selection.Interestingly, at the time of his visit to the islands, Darwin was not overly concerned with the birds, which werelargely collected by his servant, and comprehended little evolutionary significance to their characteristics until theyhad been studied by ornithologist John Gould. Gould’s opinions regarding the number of species collected and theirrelatedness surprised Darwin and played an important part in the formulation of his ideas regarding species changeand differentiation and, by 1839, the full development of his concept of natural selection.Initially, the publication of Darwin’s views regarding the role of natural selection in evolutionary change receivedonly modest support from the scientific community, although this response is seldom acknowledged in contemporaryassessments. Indeed, as noted by Harvard evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr in his introduction to a facsimile editionof 
On the Origin of Species
, more papers were published in opposition to Darwin’s ideas in the first fifty yearsfollowing its appearance than in support of it.Although little appreciated now, Darwin’s work represented a radical departure from the approach and methodstraditionally used by scientists. For example, his arguments were placed entirely outside the purview of the opinionsof philosophers. According to Mayr, this was almost unthinkable, if not unforgivable, stating, “No other workadvertised to the world the emancipation of science from philosophy as blatantly as did Darwin’s
Origin.
” Inaddition, Darwin used a model-making strategy, revolutionary for its time but commonly employed today, wherebyexperiments are used to test the validity of concepts or hypotheses. Even without his ideas regarding naturalselection, these two achievements alone represent significant contributions to the advancement of science.Textbooks and popular treatments often portray the church as rising up in opposition to Darwin’s
Origin of Species
 and his (perceived) attack on faith. Mayr notes that, through much of the nineteenth century, evolutionary conceptsactually appealed most strongly to laymen. Darwin’s target audience was his scientific peers, not the church. Mayrinsists that Darwin went to great lengths to avoid offending people of faith. Indeed, as documented in his book
ThePost Darwinian Controversies
(1981), authorJames R. Moore states that many of Darwin’s strongest supporters andmost attentive correspondents, those “who most readily accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection,”were Protestant ministers and Christian laymen, men who would today characterize themselves as conservatives,evangelicals, and even fundamentalists (Aulie, 1982). In some ways Darwin’s ideas regarding the equality of all thehuman races, as presented in his book
The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex
, mirrored themonogenesis beliefs of Christian abolitionists, standing in stark contrast to the theories of mainstream
 
anthropologists and other influential scientists of the day, who considered some races inferior and argued for theseparate creation as distinct species of the races of mankind.Still, one cannot deny that some religionists objected strongly to Darwin’s writings. Mayr concluded that “nearly allthe denunciations of Darwin’s ideas on natural selection were based on an incomplete knowledge of the
Origin
andon misunderstanding,” but concern or outright rejection of evolutionary concepts grew to be widespread amonglaymen in the twentieth century. On the other hand, with the integration of Mendelian genetics into Darwin’s take onevolutionary change, acceptance by scientists of this “synthesis” became pervasive and was seen as a way to unifythe branches of biology and anthropology, in addition to other fields of science.In the U.S. the focus of these disparate viewpoints came to rest in the public school arena. Laws and/or standardswere adopted in some states that served to limit the teaching of naturalistic evolution. Other states, including Texas,adopted more generalized policies encouraging discussion of various perspectives regarding scientific theories aswell as their problems and weaknesses. Many opponents viewed such policies as encouraging faith-basedperspectives. In response, legal and scientific organizations fought back with increasing success to eliminate anykind of religious reference or activity in the public schools, based primarily on the establishment clause.In January 2009 the Texas State Board of Education met to review science standards, a process undertaken every tenyears. The National Center for Science Education, an institution dedicated to “defending the teaching of evolution inpublic schools,” spearheaded the effort to eliminate the “strengths and weaknesses” clause from the currentstandards. NCSE executive director Dr. Eugenie Scott argued that requiring students to critique the strengths andweaknesses of scientific theories would lead to the adoption of “textbooks that contain pseudoscience andinaccuracies,” causing Texas students to suffer as a result. The recommended wording under consideration states,"The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning,and experimental and observational testing."The new recommended wording certainly appears to retain the ability of students to examine possible weaknesses of theories, including naturalistic evolution, as they “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations.” The greater concernis the apparent attitude of proponents for change that seems to imply that it is not possible for theories or “scientificexplanations” to have problems. For example, Kevin Fisher, a past president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas, said the "strengths and weaknesses" language is "an attempt to bring false weaknesses into the classroom.”David M. Hillis, a University of Texas biology professor added, "Every single thing they are representing as aweakness is a misrepresentation of science ... These are science skeptics. These are people with religious andpolitical agendas.”While acknowledging for the sake of argument the possibility that misguided skeptics have attempted to undermineeducation in Texas, one should not presume to suggest that the scientific enterprise is perfect. There
are
weaknessesin some, probably most, scientific explanations. Although practitioners in all fields of knowledge may tend towardintellectual imperialism, scientific knowledge should never be confused with truth. Scientists
 pursue
truth, butexplanations for observations should always be seen as tentative. Little pleases a scientist more than disprovingsome aspect of the work of another scientist.Science is a process. Charles Darwin is acknowledged as a great scientist, but not all of his ideas stood the test of time, or more importantly, stood up to testing. Pangenesis, his proposal for a hereditary mechanism and part of hiseffort to describe population variation, was an erroneous explanation. Darwin’s theory was discarded while GregorMendel’s superior model for variation and inheritance was eventually accepted. Teachers do their students a servicewhen they encourage critical analysis of theories and illustrate how paradigms shift or are discarded over time in thewake of new discoveries. Even natural selection, the dependable old saw of evolutionary processes, has shown someexplanatory weaknesses.
 
Recently, for example, researchers at Uppsala University suggested that a nonadaptive process (i.e., unrelated tonatural selection) “has made a significant contribution to human evolution.” Many human genes appear to haveevolved rapidly; the “process increases the rate at which certain mutations spread through a population.” MatthewWebster, one of the authors, concluded, “The research not only increases our understanding of human evolution, butalso suggests that many techniques used by evolutionary biologists to detect selection may be flawed." Wouldproponents of the Texas proposed standards object to this portrayal of the weakness or insufficiency of naturalselection as an explanatory process in human evolution?Clearly, controversy can stimulate scholarship, so long as it is partnered with a genuine openness to the unforeseen.Eugenie Scott, of the aforementioned National Center for Science Education, recently propounded on the subject of “Bigfoot and Other Wild Men of the Forest.” One portion of her talk concerned the question, “Could Bigfoot Live inTexas?” Some of her comments may relate to a perspective regarding the primacy of scientific knowledge.For example, at one point in her Texas-related comments, Scott said, “If you’re going to look scientifically atbigfoot…the first question you want to ask is, ‘How do these observations fit with everything else we know fromscience?’” While this may sound logical, it hearkens back to the conflict Darwin encountered in emancipating thescientific process from previously stated opinions of philosophers. Certainly scientists should be familiar with theapplicable research of their fields, but if they deliberately discredit observations that run counter to prevailingwisdom, progress would never take place.Near the conclusion of her presentation, Clark made another interesting comment: “And like I say, either bigfootexists, or we have to throw out an awful lot of our knowledge of natural history.” It seems reasonable to infer thatwhat she meant to imply was that, if the sasquatch or bigfoot exists, scientists would have to rewrite much of what iscurrently understood regarding natural history. However, taken as presented in the context of an either/or choice,such dichotomies have little applicability in scientific discourse, whether they come from scientists or young Earthcreationists. Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, writing in
Wonderful Life
, argued that such choicesshould be avoided and indicated that, “More fruitful perspectives often require that we step off the line to a siteoutside the dichotomy.” Just because one is presented with two options doesn’t mean that either of the options iscorrect or that no other options exist.Fortunately, scientists don’t have to choose between “Either bigfoot exists and we have to throw out what we knowabout natural history, or bigfoot doesn’t exist and we are safe in our preconceptions” (as we might rephrase Scott’sdichotomy). In spite of the efforts of the media or some skeptics to disparage or sensationalize the subject, at its rootthe sasquatch phenomenon simply appears to be derived from the presence of a rare and reclusive bipedal primate.The ecological and biological and anthropological sciences will continue to flourish when and if the sasquatch isever documented.In the meantime, the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy will continue to pursue its mission and documentationefforts. Part of that mission includes education. TBRC speakers have been privileged to give presentations in avariety of settings, including universities and public schools. Students benefit when they are exposed to andparticipate in the free exchange of knowledge and ideas. Educators should be granted academic freedom and trustedto act responsibly in pursuing goals of scholarship. The TBRC welcomes the opportunity to continue to play a smallpart in that process.Without question, science plays an important role in society. Many historians maintain that modern science is aproduct of the Protestant Reformation. In the spirit of the reformers, modern science is shaped and driven bycontroversy and the questioning of standing precepts. As exemplified by Charles Darwin and his Christiancorrespondents, science, as a way of knowing, should not be seen as a threat to faith, properly understood. Science

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