Should Evolution be Immune from Critical Analysis in the Science Classroom?
by David Buckna
This fall it was back to class for millions of students enrolled in schools, colleges, and universities throughout Canada and the United States. For those taking science courses such as biology, anthropology, and earth science, it's quite evident that evolution is the reigning paradigm in science today. University of Calgary biology professor Gordon Pritchard's statement on evolution is a good example of this mode of thinking: " . . . evolution currently provides the best explanation for the diversity of life on earth, including humans" (Calgary Herald, August 3, 1995, p. A5).
Michigan State physiology professor Robert S. Root-Bernstein wrote regarding his introductory course on evolution: "I encourage [students] to be skeptical—as long as their skepticism is based on logic and evidence. . . . Questions are what drives science, not answers. . . . Take nothing for granted, I counsel my students: that is what makes a scientist" ("Darwin's Rib," in Discover, September 1995, pp. 38–41).
Taking a cue from professor Root-Bernstein that "questions are what drives science, not answers," what follows is a partial list of questions that could be used to critically examine and evaluate evolutionary theory.
These questions would make good classroom discussions, initiated by either teacher or student, or good student research assignments.
- Microsoft programmers utilized complex codes to create the Windows 95 software. The genetic code, which is more sophisticated, controls the physical processes of life and is accompanied by elaborate transmission and duplication systems. How does evolution, using natural processes and chance, solve the problem of complex information sequencing without intelligence?
- Evolutionists believe the Cambrian explosion of new life began about 525–550 million years ago. Stephen Jay Gould writes: ". . . an elegant study, published in 1993, clearly restricts this period of phyletic flowering to a mere five million years." (Scientific American, October 1994, p. 89.) What is the approximate number of beneficial mutations which must have occurred per year during this 5-million-year period, given that billions x billions of information bits would have to be encoded? What percentage of mutations in multicellular organisms have been recognized as beneficial? List any you find.
- Within the field of biogenesis studies, there are a number of models which posit that the early, prebiotic earth must have had a reducing atmosphere (without oxygen or ozone). How could life begin to evolve without ozone to protect the earliest life forms from harmful UV radiation?
- Both "left-handed" and "right-handed" amino acids occur naturally. Life forms contain proteins consisting principally of "left-handed" amino acids. Assuming a simple protein molecule of 172 amino acids, what is the mathematical probability that all 172 amino acids would be "left-handed"?
- Megatons of amino acids would be required to reach the necessary concentrations for protein synthesis in a vast primordial ocean. Puddles and ponds have a limited duration. Does evolution address this problem?
- Molecular biologist Michael Denton (Senior Research Fellow, University of Otago in New Zealand) in his book, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, states there is not a trace of evidence on the molecular level for the traditional evolutionary series. Other molecular biologists agree/disagree with his conclusion. Why?
- How does evolution explain the emergence and development of sexual reproduction given that both male and female physiology would have to mutate simultaneously?
- True or False? Life appears abruptly and in complex forms in the fossil record and gaps appear systematically between various living kinds.
- Document from the fossil record the transitional forms leading up to the first fish, from their assumed invertebrate ancestors.
- Jellyfish consist entirely of soft body tissues. How do evolutionists explain the existence of jellyfish fossils, in view of their argument that soft body tissues of missing intermediate forms did not fossilize?
- The coelacanth fish was thought to be extinct for 70 million years, until one was caught off the coast of Madagascar in 1938. How do evolutionary biologists evaluate the discovery?
- Describe one undisputed example of a creature that was transitional between fish and amphibian.
- There are innumerable evolutionary enigmas, such as eyes, bat radar, and pterodactyl wings. In each case, all the component parts would have to evolve simultaneously in order to function properly. Discuss three other structures which defy evolutionary explanation.
- Describe one insect that was transitional between a non-flying insect and a flying insect.
- During the Industrial Revolution, dark-colored peppered moths appeared in larger numbers during environmental changes. Did a new species emerge, or did it already preexist? Is this macroevolution?
- "Bird-like" dinosaurs such as Struthiomimus were "lizard-hipped," while dinosaurs such as the low-slung, four-legged Ankylosaurus were "bird-hipped." How do paleontologists who believe dinosaurs evolved into birds, account for these characteristics?
- Is it possible to document from the fossil record the series of transitional forms that led up to any dinosaur species?
- (a) Were the feathers of Archaeopteryx identical to modern flying birds? (b) Are there any undisputed true birds in the fossil record that had teeth? (c) Archaeopteryx had claws on its wings. Name three modern birds that have claws on their wings (either in the juvenile stage or as an adult).
- Evolution teaches that mammals evolved from reptiles. All mammals have three bones in the ear (and the Organ of Corti) and a single bone on each side of the lower jaw. All reptiles have a single bone in the ear and on average six bones on each side of the lower jaw. Speculate how intermediate forms could have managed to hear and chew, while the necessary restructuring was taking place and the Organ of Corti was being developed.
- Has any creature been identified as a direct ancestor of primates? Has any creature been identified as the common ancestor of man and apes? Explain your answers.
- Evolutionist Dr. Charles Oxnard (Professor of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia) completed the most sophisticated computer analysis of australopithecine fossils ever undertaken, and concluded that they have nothing to do with the ancestry of man whatsoever and are simply an extinct form of ape (see Oxnard's The Order of Man, Yale University Press, 1984). How have paleoanthropologists responded to his conclusions?
- Stern and Susman write in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology 60:279-313 (1983) that the hands and feet of Australopithecus afarensis are not at all like human hands and feet; rather, they have the long, curved fingers and toes typical of arboreal primates. How, then, do some insist that the footprints Mary Leakey uncovered in strata (dated at 3.5 million years old) in Laetoli were made by Australopithecus afarensis, though these prints are indistinguishable from modern man? (Tuttle, Natural History, 64)
- Nebraska Man (based solely on a fossil tooth) became a significant image in America during the time of the Scopes trial (1925); later, scientists discovered the tooth came from a pig. A report in Nature (August 17, 1995) states that analysis of an incomplete shin bone from a creature dubbed Australopithecus anamensis suggests it walked upright "between 3.9 and 4.2 million years ago." How should we treat discoveries which have not yet faced the rigors of scientific validation?
- In 1982, Dr. Lyall Watson stated: "The fossils that decorate our family tree are so scarce that there are still more scientists than specimens. The remarkable fact is that all the physical evidence we have for human evolution can still be placed, with room to spare, inside a single coffin!" (Science Digest, vol. 90, May '82, p. 44.) Is Watson's statement still valid today?
- If coal formation was a slow, vertical accumulation of sediments over vast ages (a) why are fossil trees sometimes found upside down in coal seams? (b) why are marine fossils such as tubeworms, sponges, and corals often found in coal beds?
- Oil and gas, trapped within permeable sedimentary rock, remains at high pressure. If trapped for millions of years, why wouldn't these pressures have dissipated?
- Does the retrograde motion of Venus, Uranus, and Pluto support or contradict the theory of solar system formation?
- On March 25, 1996, Comet Hyakutake (classified as a short-period comet) made its closest swing by Earth, at a distance of about nine million miles. According to English astronomer Raymond A. Lyttleton and others, what's the maximum lifetime for a short-period comet?
- The Oort Cloud was first theorized by Dutch astronomer Jan Oort in 1950 to account for the existence of short period comets. Since 1950, has any portion of the postulated Oort Cloud ever been directly observed?
- Are new stars forming today? Are new planets which circle faraway stars beyond the solar system actually being discovered?
- If the universe is billions of years old, orbital mechanics require that spiral galaxies and galaxy clusters should have blurred or spun apart long ago. How do Big Bang advocates explain their present shape? Is there any direct evidence for the "missing mass" of the universe (Cold Dark Matter)?
- In his book, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Dr. Michael Behe defines an "irreducibly complex" system as a single system composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where removal of any one part causes the system to effectively cease functioning. Give an example of a system (living or non-living) that could be considered "irreducibly complex," and explain why.
- In his 1981 address to the geology staff at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Dr. Colin Patterson (Senior Paleontologist, British Museum of Natural History) asked: "Can you tell me anything you KNOW about evolution? Any one thing? Any one thing that is true?" The answer he got was silence. Can you state any one thing about evolution you know to be true? How do you know it is true?
To avoid the charge that evolution is presented to students as fact rather than theory, school boards may wish to consider the following Origins of Life policy:
As no theory in science is immune from critical examination and evaluation, and recognizing that evolutionary theory is the only approved theory of origins that can be taught in the [province/state] science curriculum: whenever evolutionary theory is taught, students and teachers are encouraged to discuss the scientific information that supports and questions evolution and its underlying assumptions, in order to promote the development of critical thinking skills. This discussion would include only the scientific evidence/information for and against evolutionary theory, as it seeks to explain the origin of the universe and the diversity of life on our planet.
If science is a search for truth, no scientific theory should be allowed to freeze into dogma, immune from critical examination and evaluation.
* David Buckna and Denis Laidlaw are both public school teachers in British Columbia, Canada.