Talk at Law Review Symposium

The following is the text of my five minute segment about evolutionary biology.


Evolutionary biology has a big idea, that organisms are linked in a shared history of descent with modification from one or a few original forms. This is the theory of common descent. In examining aspects of common descent, researchers are interested in both the patterns of heritable change in populations and the processes by which those patterns are made. I apologize for simply arguing from authority, but the short time makes any other approach infeasible.

In the 19th century, evolutionary views of species replaced the earlier idea of fixity of species put in place by special creation. Since 1859, the year of publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, researchers have assiduously put the theories concerning evolutionary pattern and process to rigorous test. The scientific literature developed since then is voluminous. Darwin’s work provided a starting point, but the field has grown in ways that demonstrate the diversity of views of the researchers, incorporating technical work on theoretical biology, mathematical models, observational studies, experimental studies in both the field and the lab, applied work in agriculture, medicine, and wildlife management, and even computational models that serve both theory and practical applications in engineering. The field of evolutionary biology today is state-of-the-art science.

Outside of the scientific community, though, evolutionary biology has been the target of concerted efforts to minimize its acceptance among the general public. These efforts began even before convincing accounts of evolutionary processes made their formal appearance in the mid-1800s. By far the most common motivation for this antievolutionary activity has been the promotion of a narrow religious view. In 1802, the Reverend William Paley published his book, Natural Theology, which presented forms of the very same arguments that are featured in creation science and intelligent design. Paley was forthright in saying that the appearance of design implies a designer, whose character and motivations can be inferred thereby. In 1825, one can find the first appearance of the claim that old earth speculations were being steadily abandoned by serious naturalists, who preferred the account of Moses in Genesis. This argument, modified and extended to say that evolution is a theory in crisis and that antievolution is the preference of more and more scientists is a canard belied by the fact that this supposed always-growing body of antievolutionists has over 14 decades remained a tiny minority of scientific practitioners. It is not clear that the growth has even kept up with the rate of human population increase.

Unable to make inroads in the scientific community, the antievolution movement has relied upon political action to gain the imprimatur of the government for their views. There are recognizable strategies. First, direct exclusion was tried. The Butler Act in Tennessee, the basis for the 1925 Scopes trial, banned the teaching of any theory contrary to the literal account in Genesis. In 1968, the Supreme Court struck down a similar law in the Epperson v. Arkansas case. The message was that things that are science cannot be excluded from the science classroom to favor religion. The next strategy was to simply label the same old arguments long known in the antievolution ensemble as science and insist that those be taught alongside evolution. This strategy was overturned in four cases, Daniel v. Waters, McLean v. Arkansas, Edwards v. Aguillard, and Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. Edwards was decided by the Supreme Court in 1987. Another strategy aims for indirect exclusion, most notably via the use of disclaimers that aim to de-emphasize evolution. This strategy was overturned in Freiler v. Tangipahoa and Selman v. Cobb County.

The current situation can be described simply. The religiously motivated antievolution movement is intent on inserting as many of the classic antievolution arguments as possible into science classes. What this may be labeled is unclear — teach the controversy, evidence against evolution, strengths and weaknesses, gaps and problems, purposeful arrangement of parts, free speech, academic freedom, sudden emergence theory, and intelligent evolution have all been heard. What we can confidently predict is that the content will be the same lame stuff that’s been passed around ever since Paley, previously sold under the labels of special creation, creationism, scientific creationism, creation science, and intelligent design.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

4 thoughts on “Talk at Law Review Symposium

  • 2006/02/25 at 2:40 pm

    Great job– you certainly got a lot of Bang for the Buck in that 5 minutes!

    Do you have a transcript of the Q and A segment?

  • 2006/02/26 at 1:24 am

    I do not have a transcript. I do, though, have the text that I prepared for answering the set of questions Prof. Minnich submitted for me. We were only able to cover a few of them in the session. I’ll check with the organizers and see if they have audio or video of the symposium.

  • 2006/02/26 at 10:52 am

    Over on, “neverbetter” points out that I missed “critical analysis” in my list of euphemisms for the same old antievolution content. I will endeavor to include it, and any others that people point out, the next time I give a similar talk.

  • 2006/02/26 at 8:32 pm

    What about “Full Range of Scientific Views?”

    They seem to add a few new ones every week.

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