dec 5 issue: margaret talbot on Darwin in the Dock
My favorite things about this article, long version:
"The trial also allowed the lawyers to act as proxies for the rest of us, and ask of scientists questions that we'd probably be too embarassed to ask ourselves." (67)
This actually follows something that is important for me, "[The judge] seemed particularly engaged when Kevin Padian, a paleontologist at Berkeley, started showing slides of pre-historic animals in order to illustrate that we have a lot of transitional fossils demonstrating the evolution of fish to amphibians and of dinosaurs to birds." (66)
The first quote I appreciate, because, like most people I know, I accept the theory of evolution on faith. Faith in my biology teachers and the scientific method and the existence of evidence somewhere out there that someone else has studied and that they have interpreted correctly. I admit it; I don't know the theory of evolution to be the best explanation for the development of species based on my own first hand knowledge or study. And neither do most of the scientists I know.
The second quote here does the same thing for me, but puts that faith in concrete terms. I have faith in this Padian fellow, and his fellows, and their fossils.
"Considering how often it is said that evolution is 'just' a theory, for instance, it is clear that many people either do not know or do not accept the scientific definition of a theory. The lawyers for the pro-evolution side went to great lengths to make the point that, although all science is provisional, a scientific theory is a powerful explanation that unites a large body of facts and relies on testable hypothesis. As Padian testified, it is not 'something that we think of in the middle of the night after too much coffee and not enough sleep." (69)
Owch. That smarts. But it's always a good idea to ask, "What is theory?" during business hours.
"The 'teach the conflicts' rationale for working intelligent design into public science classes has a certain appeal. It sounds to some people like a healthy aversion to orthodoxy. Of course, most scientists don't like it, because in science - as opposed to, say, literary criticism - interpretations can be wrong. Kevin Padian, the paleontologist told me, with characteristic bluntness, that the problem with this approach is that 'it makes people stupid. It pretends there is conflict when there is not and it wastes children's time." (77)
Again, a bit of zinger. But what I like that in the end evolution is science because it rests on a certain kind of disciplinary evidence. (Talbot makes clear that it also rests on the results of repeated experiments, but that doesn't do as much for me. Oh well.) And I love disciplinary evidence as much as the next literary critic. Maybe more. And that is why I think it is fun to teach writing. Because you get to tell undergrads about the joys of evidence.
I'm still interested in hearing more - what about popular notions of heredity that predate contemporary genetics type evidence, or our knowledge of the fossil record? Did Mendel theorize from peas and to people or did that come later? What about comparisons of horse breeding and people breeding? How did they think people inherited things before they used genes as an explanation? I generally tend to be suspicous of arguments about long lost twins with identical husbands and all that that implies . . . but I'm still fascinated by the historical evolution of the theory of biological evolution, so to speak.
Categories: currentevents, newyorker, literary, excitement/joy