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Evolution, Alberta and Headdesk Denyse - Part I


  12:10:54 am, by Nimble   , 1885 words  
Categories: Thoughts, Religion, Science

Evolution, Alberta and Headdesk Denyse - Part I

Rob Breakenridge wrote this article for the Calgary Herald, entitled "What is it about evolution theory that Albertans don't get?" in response to this Angus Reid poll. On the third page of the poll results, there is a percentage, by region, of the percentage of people surveyed whose views came closest to one of the following statements:

  • Human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years
  • God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years
  • Not sure

Alberta was the embarrassing outlier in this poll, with only 37% of respondents going with the first option (the next lowest was Atlantic Canada with 56%) and 40% going with the second (almost double the 22% of the next highest three regions).

Breakenridge mulls over the problem and, apart from the general pro-evolution point of view, says something that is sure to bring a certain type of folk out of the woodwork:

Furthermore, although Alberta's model of school choice is commendable, is may also be a source of the problem.

Alberta taxpayers should not be subsidizing pseudoscience and religious dogma masquerading as legitimate curriculum.

The government recently announced an increase in per-capita funding to private schools, providing those schools meet a specific set of criteria. That criteria should include a ban on the teaching of creationism and its gussied up offspring, Intelligent Design.

Now it's possible that there may already technically be a provision for covering evolution in the requirements for the increased funding. According to this:

Funding increase announced for 2008-09 for Accredited Funded Private Schools

Accredited funded private schools will receive 70 per cent of applicable per student instruction grants such as the base instruction and English as second language grants, Alberta Initiative for School Improvement grants, and plant operations and maintenance per student grants. In exchange, eligible schools must agree to increased accountability measures or choose to remain at the current 60 per cent level of eligible per student grants.

There is a section defining the kinds of private schools that can and cannot receive funding. Registered private schools do not have to teach the Alberta Programs of Study (more on that later), but they are also ineligible for funding.

One kind of funded private school is the following:

Accredited funded are entitled to partial provincial funding for meeting educational standards. Section 13 of the Government Organization Act provides the authority to provide funding to private schools under the School Grants Regulation A.R. 72/95), amended AR206/2001. Students write the provincial tests and are taught the Alberta Programs of Study by Alberta certificated teachers.

Now, the Alberta Programs of Study do include evolution in the Biology 20 curriculum:

General Outcome 2
Students will explain the mechanisms involved in the change of populations over time.

Specific Outcomes for Knowledge
Students will:
20–B2.1k explain that variability in a species results from heritable mutations and that some mutations may have a selective advantage
20–B2.2k discuss the significance of sexual reproduction to individual variation in populations and to the process of evolution
20–B2.3k compare Lamarckian and Darwinian explanations of evolutionary change
20–B2.4k summarize and describe lines of evidence to support the evolution of modern species from ancestral forms; i.e., the fossil record, Earth’s history, biogeography, homologous and analogous structures, embryology, biochemistry
20–B2.5k explain speciation and the conditions required for this process
20–B2.6k describe modern evolutionary theories; i.e., punctuated equilibrium, gradualism.

I would agree that evolution should be introduced earlier if possible. Biology 20 is a very easy course to avoid, and we end up with some profound ignorance of the topic that we should not.

A pro-evolution piece in an Alberta newspaper in a province with apparently a 40% belief in Young Earth Creationism. Can the moonbats be far behind? Of course not.

I have been watching and participating in the evolution 'debate', and if there is one thing that can be counted on from the anti-evolution crowd, it is ignorance, pre-approved and pre-packaged by a group of people who, somewhere up the chain, should and may actually know better. The talking points are almost exactly the same as they were two decades ago, and creationist authors have never met, so it seems, a good-sounding argument which they cared was correct.

Now first, there were the letters in response to Rob's article. For the sake of "balance", letters from both pro- and anti-evolution points of view were posted. The pro- ones were well done, but as the anti- ones are almost always of the head-hurting variety, those are the ones I will be covering.

Mark Bylsma makes the time-honoured creationist mistake of equating scientific Theories with the vernacular just-a-guess definition. That's something along the lines of equating sir with Sir or, to bring a point closer to home with creationists, just any old god with God:

...Breakenridge misses the fact that evolution theory is just that - a theory. As a result, the result of his argument is rather embarrassing.

Is creation a theory? Absolutely - both it and the theory of evolution require a level of faith since none of us was there 10,000 of hundreds of millions of years ago.

Science hasn't proven either theory beyond a doubt. As a result, students should be exposed to both theories...

If you are familiar with the Index Of Creationist Claims, he has committed CA040 (requires equal time, which also falsely ignores non-Christian creation models), CA201 ("only a theory" misunderstanding) and CA221, the latter waving away every last shred of forensic evidence for evolution, including modern-day genetic comparisons.

It almost demands a shorthand, since anti-evolution letters, screeds, books, blogs and papers make these mistakes all the time.

Edgar Nernberg is worried that banning creationism in the classroom would lead to everything else being banned:

Rob Breakenridge's suggestion to ban teaching creation in private schools begs the question of where else he would ban the free flow of ideas and alternative opinions. Should churches that still hold to a literal interpretation of Genesis be forced to remove it from the Bible? Should speakers and writers who promote creation be banned? Should creation museums such as the one in Big Valley be banned? For Breakenridge to suggest banning opposing opinions because he does not agree with them is stunning...

I've seen this opinion tossed around south of the border, and it is, as always, a bogus slippery slope argument.

Is the classroom for the free flow of ideas and alternative opinions? Are educational subjects "opinions"? There is certainly a lot of leeway in subjects such as English, but science is for science, not for the treating of unproven alternatives as fact.

The teachers here are in positions of authority and, in their positions as educators, representatives of government. South of the border, for free speech law purposes, the classroom is known as a closed forum (see here for applicability of free speech provisions on school grounds in the US).

Edgar implies a jump from the closed forum classroom scenario to churches and open forums. That he cannot appreciate the distinction in terms of free speech and why classroom dicta do not automatically lead to widespread bans is disturbing.

He closes the letter with an amusing paragraph:

Evolutionists must ban any opposing views to origins because when the evidence for creation vs. evolution is presented in a scientific and unbiased manner, the majority will invariably choose the creation model of origins as their world view.

It's funny because, apart from the "Evolutionists must ban any opposing views to origins", it's true. The evidence has been presented in a scientific and unbiased manner, and the majority (at least in Alberta) choose the creation model.

It is not, however, for the reasons that Edgar likely believes, but rather that the majority believe the creationist-biased presentations that they have already been given.

Inadvertent truth indeed :)

Charles Warren Hunt writes in with a very odd anti-creationist but anti-totally-naturalist view:

The scientific nonsense that creationists advance under the name of intelligent design does a disservice to the originator of the term and distorts its meaning. Evolution of species is based on hard evidence and is not rationally debatable.

Well, good so far, but...

However, the application of simple Darwinian evolution - incremental changes in response to environmental conditions - cannot explain the development of particular organs.

Uh, oh.

The eye has many complex components and unless they are all present and working, the eye cannot work at all. Incremental improvement during many adaptive stages would have been blindness right up to the point where all components were assembled. Therefore, there would have been no possible incremental improvement.

That reminds me of the equivalent question I was posed re: heart evolution as in "what good is half/three-quarters of a heart?", when it turns out that our four-chambered heart is just the latest variation on a theme, all of which had functional intermediates.

Similarly, with the eye, eyes can and do work in the absence of some or many of the components, from the eyespot of a Euglena, to the eyecups of Planaria (flatworms) and the pinholes of Nautilus (link).

This also shows the 'blueprint' misunderstanding of the way the gene works, where everything must somehow be maneuvered into place.

Apart from the homeobox genes which lay out a general front-to-back plan, genes do not have a blueprint of the final product. Genes and proteins operate by chemical networks, e.g. membranes or "skins" forming at the boundaries of two chemicals, for example, much more akin to a recipe.

Modern evolutionary theory would posit that there was no great period of blind intermediates. Ed Brayton's Exaptation vs Front-Loading explores the whole idea of organisms saving up genes that they do not use, which is an even weaker claim than that of unused pieces of body parts.

He continues:

This conundrum was recognized by the eminent astrophysicist, Sir Fred Hoyle, who surmised that development of complex organs such as the eye would have required intention and intelligence for their creation. He coined the term intelligent design to describe the process.

Creationists certainly have co-opted this version of intelligent design. Hoyle was no expert on matters biological, however. He is also famous for the "Boeing 747 argument":

A junkyard contains all the bits and pieces of a Boeing-747, dismembered and in disarray. A whirlwind happens to blow through the yard. What is the chance that after its passage a fully assembled 747, ready to fly, will be found standing there?

As an objection to the naturalistic origin of life, it is poor, as it assumes a complex first cell, only one way to assemble that cell, and one or few trials. People have been using these assumptions in one way or another to justify bad probability arguments ever since.

He used these objections in an argument for panspermia, which is still using bad arguments today here.

Yet, Charles ends on a semi-sane note:

Creationism corrupts Hoyle's meaning by claiming the whole process must be intelligent, an assertion for which there is no evidence.

Breakenridge is quite right that children's education should not be left in such irresponsible hands.

As fun as the letters are, they could hardly hope to approach the sheer head-on-oak-desk density of the "rebuttal" op-ed by Denyse O'Leary.

There is too much manure in that particular barn to muck out in the time remaining today, so I am leaving that for Part II.

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