Monday, October 20, 2014


 The most recent reading I assigned to one of my English classes was a piece by the great Harvard biologist, E. O. Wilson, titled "Intelligent Evolution."  This essay first appeared in Harvard Magazine in 2005.  For my students, it appears in the 2012 edition of The Norton Reader. I introduced the essay by telling my students that we're going to have to study some key words that are used in many different ways for many different purposes.  Some of these words are especially used differently by people who accept the theory of "evolution by means of natural selection" and those who do not.  I decided to do a little research on one of these words: theory.  I began by gathering most of the dictionaries and basic biology books in my house.  That included a couple of thesauruses and a "book of synonyms" which are kinds of dictionaries.  In class tomorrow, among other points, we'll discuss the difference between prescriptive and descriptive dictionaries.  The above photo is what my work space looked like when I began the research. 
 The first book I checked was a junior high life science textbook written for Christian Schools.  Not all Christian schools, but a particular type.  That is immediately apparent from the introduction.  This book devotes an entire 21-page chapter to Biological Evolution.  The entire chapter can be summarized by this one sentence: "The theory of biological evolution is not true, because it contradicts the Bible."  [The editor failed to remove the superfluous comma.]  I found the last two paragraphs of the chapter particularly offensive.  Here they are:
"Worldly scientists present evolution as fact. Many people simply believe what these scientists say and have never really considered why they believe in evolution.  Worldly scientists also present evolution as something everyone believes.  For a person not to believe evolution, he must be willing to say that that the majority is wrong.  Some people believe evolution only because they do not want to be different or looked down on.
"Satan wants people to believe in evolution.  This is probably the main reason that evolution is so popular.  Satan is a deceiver (John 8:44), and he wants people to believe that God's word is not true.  He keeps the belief in evolution popular because he can use it to lead people away from God."

So, what is a "worldly" scientist?  I guess I'll need to research "worldly."  Amazing stuff. 
 The Synonym Finder, my 1978 edition of a thesaurus-like book published  by Rodale Press, includes some widely-used synonyms for "theory" that explain a lot of the problem that is explored in E. O. Wilson's essay.  The excerpt shown several photos below begins with "hypothesis" but it gets worse.
 Next, I looked into a widely-used basic biology text found in colleges and AP high school biology courses.  It treats the word theory the way one would expect in a legitimate science textbook.  More on that later.  Can you identify the "forbidden fruit" in this photo?  No, not the apple or the banana.  It's the biology book, a book of knowledge!
 My old "Webster's unabridged" is impressive for its size, if not its contents.  I'm not sure if I keep it as an heirloom or a doorstop.  It's fun to consult it from time to time.  It does contain one of my favorite new words: deipnosophist.  I like to think I'm one of those.
 So, photos of my findings continue.  As you can see, the definitions of "theory" are all over the map.  Thus, the difficulty of discussing an essay like Wilson's among a group of people who might hold to different definitions. 

 This next one (below) is one of the worst from a scientific standpoint.  Most of these synonyms have no relation to evidence, reason, or scientific principles and are close in spirit to the word "guess."  One might even add "wild" guess.  Sad.

 The one below, helped by my famous left thumb, says a lot in very few words. It would even fit on Twitter! To do the word justice, though, one would need an expansion of this definition and examples from practice.  These, of course, are provided in the textbook.
 One last definition from one of the dictionaries makes a total of 13 images for this post.  On the chance that some of my students might have superstitions in relation to the number 13 (not that they will be counting), I decided I'd better add one more:
 So, I gathered up my research materials for one last photo.
So, the first assignment I'll be giving in relation to E. O. Wilson's essay will be a word search.  We'll  research several key words (evidence, purpose, mind, fact, inference, etc.) in the essay, then try to gain a better understanding of what's at stake for our society in the seemingly never-ending battles over evolution. 

1 comment:

  1. Just curious. Have you ever read any of Joseph Wood Krutch's books? I am reading "The Great Chain of Life" right now and the chapter on "Devolution" made me think of your admiration for the dandelion, because that is the specific plant he speaks of. Mr. Krutch is, I believe, not a religious fundamentalist, but he asks a lot of legitimate questions about "evolution" that have simply not been answered by those who think they know. It would be interesting to have your view on some of the questions he brings up. I tend to be more in his corner (without religious prejudices) than to be in Darwin's corner myself, and I wonder how some of your students would view this book.