In their letters attacking the teaching of evolution in public schools, John Stevens ans Cameron Whitehead trot out the same old tired and fallacious arguments that fundamentalist biblical creationists have been resorting to for more than a decade now, arguments that are grounded in an in-depth ignorance of both the nature of science and of the theory of evolution.
Both gentlemen appear to think that they have made a great point in contending that there is no "proof" of the theory of evolution. This reflects an unfortunately widespread misconception that scientists spend their time trying to prove their theories. In fact, philosophers of science have long recognized that "proof" is a concept that is really at home only in the non-empirical sciences, such as pure math and logic. Since theories are creations of the human mind that seek to explain some aspect of reality, there is always the possibility that someone can come up with a better theory.
Indeed, the whole history of science has been an ongoing validation of this, with theory after theory being overthrown by theories that do a better job of explaining. Thus, to contend that the theory of evolution has not been "proven" is not only irrelevant, it also reflects a basic misunderstanding of the nature of science, in that the same "criticism" can be legitimately leveled at virtually every scientific theory!
What scientists do spend their time doing is trying to disprove their theories. If I develop a theory, the first thing I do is to try to disprove it myself. If, after repeated efforts at finding evidence that contradicts my theory, I continue to find none, then I would consider publishing my theory. This would be so that other scientists could proceed to try to disprove it. Herein lies the most basic conflict between evolutionary science and the supernaturally grounded concept known as creationism.
The theory of evolution is a legitimate scientific theory precisely because it is at least potentially disprovable (witness Whitehead's own attempt at disproof in his citation of alleged gaps in the fossil record). The supernaturally based creationist "theory," on the other hand, is not a scientific theory precisely because there is no conceivable way in which it can be disproven. Given an all-powerful supernatural being, such a being can be invoked to explain away any contradictory evidence. Such a being could produce a fossil record with gaps or a fossil record with no gaps.
Stevens suggests that we simply stop teaching evolution because (1) it constitutes an infringement on the right of free exercise of religion, and, (2) it causes confusion in children who are taught one idea at home and another idea at school. I can appreciate Stevens' concern, but I cannot agree with his solution, which is, basically, to sweep the problem under the rug.
The simple fact is, as recognized by the State Textbook Commission, that the theory of evolution is the central integrating theory of all the life sciences. Teachers have the duty to expose their students to state-of-the-art thinking in whatever field it is that they teach. Would Stevens have our schools skip over atomic theory, the germ theory of disease, and the Copernican theory because they might conflict with some parent's religious beliefs? Is the teacher to spend half the school year determining the religious beliefs of parents in order to avoid subjects that might conflict with those beliefs? I might also ask, why shouldn't children be confused? Why should they be any different from the rest of us? Is it not best that they learn from an early age that there are in fact a diversity of answers to life's questions?
LEON H. ALBERT
Albert is a professor of anthropology at East Los Angeles College.