Evolutionary Theory In The Lime Light
Evolutionary scientists have been awarded the top accolade by the journal ‘Science’ this year. Perhaps scientists until now have taken too much for granted the public understanding of the scientific basis of evolution; but recent attacks on evolutionary theory by proponents of ‘intelligent design’ have demonstrated the need to be much more pro-active about ensuring that the amazingly complex evolutionary process is generally understood.
The the leading U.S. journal Science has just published its top ten list of major accomplishments for 2005. Happily, its top placing, for ‘breakthrough of the year’ was awarded jointly to a number of studies about evolutionary theory.
The aspect of the science of evolution which attracted particular plaudits was the way the selected studies illuminated the very complex mechanisms underlying evolution as a general concept. These included the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome, reconstruction of the flu virus of 1918, and a study of European blackcap birds which demonstrated how two different populations can become separate species.
The fightback starts in earnest
Science says that its award this year was solely on the basis of the excellence of the work done on evolutionary studies. And deservedly so.
But there is also another aspect of evolutionary science which has for a while been of deep concern to observers and scientists alike – the attack on formally constituted science as knowledge, by proponents of ‘intelligent design’ and ‘creationism’. Neither of these latter ideas carries any credence as science.
There would for many be no problem if these ideas were claimed only as alternative, non-scientific, belief systems, but there’s a huge issue for the very basis of science itself if these ‘theories’ have to be placed in the school curriculum alongside the continously tested and explored notion of scientific knowledge. Yet that is exactly what sizeable, wealthy and powerful groups of people in the U.S.A. are currently seeking through their very highest law courts to do.
An attack on science is an attack on rationality
The debate about what this attack on evolutionary theory actually means is becoming much more overt (e.g. Guardian Unlimited blog earlier this week) but it still sees some scientists at a loss. Yes, there are risks in challenging big sponsors of universities and other large-scale institutions. But without peer-reviewed and tested knowledge, scientific education itself means nothing.
In the end an attack on scientific method (for such it is) is indeed an attack on science and rationality themselves – which makes for a strange conundrum, given that the ‘intelligent designers’ have chosen the courts of law as their vehicle for attempting to impose their ‘theory’ as a serious contender, against evolution, as an explanation of the physical basis of our being.