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Anti-Evolution Bill Hits State Senate

In a perfect world, we'd have no reason to pause over the language of Florida's Senate Bill 1854, which reads, in part:

Members of the instructional staff of the public schools... shall teach efficiently and faithfully... the following:

(a thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution.

"Critical analysis" ought to be a good thing. That's how the study of science is supposed to work. You examine a theory, search it for flaws, and if the theory holds up, you've both deepened your understanding and strengthened the theory's claim to veracity. 

But Senate Bill 1854 was written by Sen. Stephen R. Wise, and he's a sneaky one.

In 2009, in an interview with the Florida Times-Union, Sen. Wise identified himself as an ardent anti-evolutionist and said he intended to get "intelligent design" taught in schools. "If you're going to teach evolution," he said, "then you've got to teach the other side so you can have critical thinking."

This gives us a hint of what "critical analysis" might mean to Sen. Wise and what it might entail if Senate Bill 1854 should become law. There are controversies worth studying in the field of evolutionary biology -- most famously the conflicting theories of "punctuated equilibrium" and "phyletic gradualism." (The former holds that evolution happens in fits and spurts, generally following on the heels of some cataclysmic environmental change; the latter suggests that evolution occurs more or less evenly over long periods of time. Scientists have duked this one out for 40 years and now largely agree that evolution probably happens both gradually and suddenly, depending on environmental conditions.) But there is no scientific argument against evolution, as such. There is no "other side."

It is clear that Sen. Stephen Wise and his allies do not understand science or even its terminology. "Evolution" is not a theory. It is a fact, demonstrable in laboratories and in nature. (Even "speciation" -- the divergence of one species from another -- has been empirically observed among certain populations of sea gulls, salamanders, and warblers.) The only theory is "evolution by natural selection" -- which is to say, it is theorized that the fact of evolution is made possible by the action of natural selection. There is a tremendous, incontrovertible amount of evidence to suggest that this is the case.

"Evidence" is the thing in science. In order for there to be an "other side" in a debate about evolution by natural selection, there would have to be a theory other than natural selection with its own arsenal of evidence. There isn't one. "Intelligent design" is an idea, an opinion, but it has no evidence to support it -- just the conviction of those who believe. Which isn't science at all.

America is a nice place largely because ordinary citizens, such as Stephen Wise, are responsible for shaping the vast bulk of our public policy. Too often, however, we mistakenly believe that the citizenry's authority confers upon it an automatic wisdom and competence in specialized fields. Many individuals -- perhaps even most individuals -- believe in some kind of "intelligent design." Unfortunately for them, reality is not a democracy, and the physical facts of the universe do not rearrange themselves to conform to majority sentiments. If they did, the sun would spin about a flat Earth, and disease would be caused not by bacteria, viruses, or genetic error but by imbalanced humours and the unlucky alignment of stars.

Yet still the idea persists that one can examine an endlessly validated scientific theory and dismiss it on grounds of incredulity. This propensity was demonstrated in the Times-Union story, in which then-Rep. Alan Hays explained that his skepticism of evolution by natural selection was inspired, in part, by his training in dentistry. He asked: "How can anybody study the human body and deny that it was created by a higher power?"

Of course, the same was once said of the Grand Canyon, before geologists got their hands on it. Hays' point ignores the fact that those who have studied the human body most intently -- biologists -- are far more likely to believe in evolution by natural selection than those who have not.

Alan Hays is now in the state Senate -- a body that, like the human one, gives no indication of intelligent design. No doubt, he will have much to say about Senate Bill 1854. Stay tuned.

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Brandon K. Thorp

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