Response to McLeroy Editorial

An essay, submitted in consideration of the events culminating in the March 27 vote of the State Board of Education on the Texas Essential Knowlege and Skills standards, and in response to the March 25 special contribution to the Austin American-Statesman by SBOE Chairman Dr. Don McLeroy.

I am a Republican, both fiscally and socially conservative, and attend a local church with my family. I hold a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and teach and conduct research at the university level. I am a candidate for the May election of Place 2 on the College Station Independent School District Board of Trustees.

The question at hand regards the teaching of "Intelligent Design" in the science classrooms of our public schools. The proponents of this idea are generally careful to avoid explicit religious language, and often cast themselves as the protectors of science, innocuously seeking to probe the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolutionary biology and big-bang cosmology in an open minded manner. Certainly science embraces skepticism, but there is a deep flaw in the vision of science which is being advocated. Skepticism in the face of a preponderance of evidence is only unreasonable doubt.

The stars (by the great expanses across which their shining light has patiently traveled and also by the measurable rate of their recession) and the Earth itself (within its tediously accumulated strata and by residual proportion of radio emitting isotopes) testify in unison to the great age of our planet and universe. The older and deeper places of the Earth hold the remains of primitive creatures which increase in variety and complexity as the hand of geological time winds forward. The DNA of our very bodies tells the history (within mutations of long silenced genes and the remnants of ancient viral intrusions) of our separation by degrees from other creatures of the Earth in a common descent. Imposing a false ambiguity on these facts makes mockery of the precious drops of knowledge which mankind has slowly wrung out of the natural world. It is pure scientific retreat, not progress.

I cringe at the prospect of assigning a narrow definition of what science "is", but I do know it when I see it. Good science is always simple at its heart; no insight can be gained from an explanation which is of equal complexity to the thing it would attempt to explain. Good science unifies apparently distinct phenomena into a single larger description, and makes detailed predictions which supersede the initial observations. Good science often goes beyond the "what", satisfying the curious mind with a palpable sense of "why", even as it reveals mysteries anew, deeper and more profound.

The domain of science is surely though by definition confined to rational, testable and universal natural law. If I understand the crux of Dr. McLeroy's complaint, it is that the paradigmatic exclusion of supernatural events will by necessity lead to naturalistic explanations of observations. I don't suppose that there is any flaw with this logic, as far as it goes. Certainly, we are not free to simply define away the possibility of the supernatural. Whether the history of the universe may in fact be chronicled in succession of natural events, and is thus amenable to scientific description, is a question only for experiment and observation. The answer resounds in the affirmative. The wholesale forfeiture of mutually consistent advances in cosmology, astronomy, paleontology, anthropology, geology, biology, genetics, chemistry and physics required to accept the young-earth creationist's premise would shame the burning of the Alexandrine library in scope of intellectual loss. If the hand of a creator lies behind this design, he paints with a brush more subtle and more sublime than has been dreamt of in their philosophy.

Dr. McLeroy frequently focuses discussion on periods of "stasis" within the fossil record, which he describes as the "opposite of evolution". In his article, he quotes the late Harvard University paleo-biologist Steven Jay Gould: "The great majority of species do not show any appreciable evolutionary change at all ... " [The quote is not actually by Gould himself, but it does appear in his book, and Gould does support the statement.] I will let Dr. Gould defend himself as regards use of the technical term "species" (as opposed, for example, to family or genus): "Since we proposed punctuated equilibria ... it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists ... as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups."

The technique is broadly typical of attempts by the Intelligent Design contingent to suggest a field in disarray, awash in controversy, where the experts routinely undercut the consistency of their own foundational arguments. The addition of context reveals only an example of the healthy vigorous debate which is common with regard to the details of evolution (such as explanations for observed variations in pace, the relative importance of various selection mechanisms, and whether a given pair of related species exhibit literal ancestry or are instead "cousins") between specialists who have no disagreement on the core principles of evolution (diversification by accumulated genetic change driven by mutation and differential reproductive success in the passing of these genes). A man who will not fairly discern the printed word cannot be trusted to do better by the record written in the stars above us, in the Earth beneath us, or on the code of life within us. Please see for a classic deconstruction of the practice of "quote mining".

The persistence of certain stable forms across comparatively long periods of geological time presents no problem of principle for biological evolution. A cup of ice water displaced from the refrigerator will enjoy a rapid transition toward a warmer temperature before assuming stability with its new environment. Its subsequent stasis does not deny its prior change. It is true that a comparatively rapid diversification (not instantaneous, but occurring over some tens of millions of years) into the antecedents of most modern phyla (the next largest grouping after kingdom) is seen in the fossils of the Cambrian and the preceding Ediacaran eras, beginning around 600 million years ago. This blossoming of sea life into a world dominated for billions of years by single cell organisms such as colonies of algae will not however be joined by even plant life on dry land for some additional 200 million years. Meanwhile, the first bony jawed fish are appearing, which will subsequently trace through to the amphibians and next the reptiles. Another hundred million years will pass before appearance of the first mammals, and almost as long again (in a separate schism from the reptilian branch) before the time of the dinosaurs, who themselves later fork into the lineage of birds. Only in the most recent several millions of years are hominid remains to be found. Taken in full, the accumulated evidence of a logically sequential appearance of living forms is at utter odds with the picture of an Earth whose age is measured in thousands of years, and whose flora and fauna originated fully formed, essentially simultaneously.

Admitting some few exceptions, the considered verdict on these matters among active researchers in the relevant fields is settled, with a statistical weight approaching unanimity. It is inappropriate to ask our high school students to sit in their judgment; we must first simply educate them as to what has been learned. Surely the ultimate truths of science are not up for, nor are ever settled by, a vote of men. As a practical matter however, the science standards of our state are up for vote once each decade. An entrenched mindset bordering on reflexive antipathy to the opinions of our most distinguished scholars has no place on our State Board of Education. It is not in keeping with the mission of the Texas Education Code nor does it well serve the obligations of that high post to our students and citizenry. The struggle continues, with biology texts up for approval in 2011. We must vote with vigilance to achieve sound representation.

As postscript, I send my thanks to fellow Republicans Craig, Hardy, and Miller of the State Board who stood firmly with the Democratic minority on these issues in the face of a regrettable application of pressure from the state legislature.

A history of minor edits to the content of this article is recorded here.

Election Wrapup
Sound Science
Response to McLeroy
Letter to SBOE
Special Needs
Bond Proposal
Contact Me