Icons of Evolution?

I spent the day yesterday in New York City. On the ride from Albany to NYC, I pulled out an old copy of Jonathan Well’s Icons of Evolution.  I purchased the book as a high school student (10th grade, if I’m not mistaken), when I was first getting into paleontology and evolution.  The title of the book looked interesting, and glowing reviews from people who I once thought might be well-respected mainstream scientists (these “mainstream scientists” were Philip Johnson, Michael Behe, and Guillermo Gonzalez) due to lack of scientific background on my own part led me to purchase the book, hoping to see an exposure of big gaps in evolutionary theory.  As you can tell, the book did not convert me.  I read the book, although something about it seemed fishy (as I now know, there are major scientific inaccuracies within the book which I will not address here; for more on them, click here).  I wasn’t some dogmatic, atheistic Darwinist hoping to squash opposing views; I was a highschooler who engaged opposing views just in case there was something to them.  I still hold the same practice today; when faced with opposing views, I do what every truly curious person does…I look at the facts.

However, a book such as Icons of Evolution can be confusing to a highschooler or even an open-minded adult with little or no scientific background.  I picked up the book thinking, at least for a moment, that there must be some sort of “controversy” over evolution (I had the same initial reaction to Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box as an 11th grader).  After a deeper analysis of the books and also available refutations of them, I realized that the supposed “controversy” was really only skin-deep.  Evolution isn’t a “theory in crisis”, but a well-developed and well-supported scientific theory.   However, looking back to this youthful stage, it is entirely concievable that I could have walked away from Behe and Wells with the idea that evolution really is a scientifically controversial issue.  If I had not been deeply interested in paleontology and evolution already, perhaps I would have just read Behe and Wells and then concluded that evolution is indeed a “theory in crisis”.  After all, their books were found in the science section of a major bookstore. 

I think that this is an important issue with regards to public perceptions of evolution (or science in general).  Anyone with an interest in a scientific topic can walk into a bookstore and pick up the first book on a topic to catch their eye.  Unfortunately, not all books are of the same quality.  In popular writings, there is no peer-review process to make sure that books on science are scientifically sound.  Major errors can slip right through the editorial process into print, and also into the hands of readers.  Yet the popular realm is where pseudoscience makes its push for credibility.  The general public, relatively lacking in scientific literacy (as I was as a highschooler), is often perceptive to pseudoscientific ideas.   If you look at an issue such as climate change or evolution, you will find a much larger percentage of the general public in opposition to the idea than you will for scientists.  Pseudoscientific ideas are often presented side-by-side with valid science (in bookstores, newspaper articles, and so on), thus implying a sense of equality between them.  Often, people do not have the time (or interest) to do a background check on the ideas to distinguish between valid and invalid ideas.  Due to this phenomenon, I would suggest that some sort of philosophy of science course (one that deals with the science/pseudoscience divide as well as what science is and isn’t) has a place in high school curricula in America. While there are numerous complaints against the American educational system, a course such as this could at least expose the general public to the difference between science and pseudoscience and equip them with the tools to tell the difference.

Also, on a relatively unrelated note, I recently read an interview on the ActionBioscience site with Philip Gingerich on the origin of whales.  It’s pretty good. If it’s an area you’re interested in, here’s a link to the interview.

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