Problems and Solutions in Science Education
Let us now turn to some faux pas that scientists make when confronting creationists. Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but simply a series of points we need to consider to understand the evolution – creation debate and the public misunderstanding of the nature of science.
One of the specific cases that evolutionary biologists tend to overstate when confronted by creationists is the one concerning macroevolution. This is usually defined as evolution above the species level, and it deals with major transitions between types of organisms, or with the origin of so-called “phenotypic novelties” (i.e., new body structures, such as a four-chambered heart). It is true that biologists are starting to understand at least some macroevolutionary events.
For example, recently we have made much progress in uncovering clues to the evolution of whales from terrestrial ancestors, with the discovery of several skeletons of some of the intermediate fossils in the process. However, we still know very little about how these transitions actually occur. We do not have a good knowledge of the genetics of whales, for example, and we understand even less about their developmental systems, the very ones that had to be altered in order to produce the changes that led from terrestrial to marine mammals. There is of course no contradiction between this limited knowledge and the theory of evolution, but we do not know even close to what we would like to know on such matters, and it is dangerous and intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise.
A favorite topic of creationists is the origin of life, which they ascribe to miraculous intervention and consider inexplicable by scientific means. Scientists tend to fall into old clichés when they respond to this challenge, citing the famous experiments on the so-called primordial soup conducted by Stanley Miller in the 1950s. Miller’s demonstration that it is possible to obtain some of the building blocks of living organisms by completely chemical means if given the right conditions indubitably was historically important. But it is a far cry from saying that we know much about the origin of life. We actually don’t, despite plenty of theories on the subject.
For one thing, most scientists now think that the conditions used by Miller did not accurately reflect those on the primordial earth, and new theories (one of which has been dubbed “primordial pizza”) suggest that life did not originate in an aqueous environment, but on solid substrates. This state of affairs is not surprising, however, given that life originated almost four billion years ago under conditions that are difficult to define exactly, and that the process probably took several million years to unfold.
It is not only honest to admit this with creationists, it is necessary, since they usually do their homework and they will nail any biologist who will try to “bluff” her way out of the topic. Instead, we should point out that this is an exciting field for young biologists to get into. For one thing, they can rest assured that should they make any major contribution to it, a very well deserved Nobel prize would soon follow.