Still in defense of evolution theory
In his June 21, 2012, rebuttal to my op-ed (``In defense of evolution curriculum in Korea”), David Theissen argues that religious theory, not science, is the appropriate curriculum for science classes in Korean public schools.
His arguments rely on the standard attacks of evolutionary theory as ``unproven” whilst providing no facts to substantiate the biblical account of creation. I would like to explain where Mr. Theissen and I find common ground, and where we differ in what science is and how it should be used in public education.
Science and religion share the common characteristic of being a way in which human beings interpret unknown phenomena. During prehistory and historic times, shamans and alchemists cast spells, interpreted tea leaves and attempted to intercede on behalf of human beings to the spirit world as a means of attempting to control weather, diseases, and other mysterious events.
Given the incomplete nature of science, people still find solace in spiritual explanations where hypothesis testing is inadequate. Cosmological questions such as ``What prompted the Big Bang?” or ``Where do we go when we die?” are outside the realm of scientific method because they are untestable using experiments and observation.
However, it is false to claim that there is no evidence for evolution and that the Bible should be the only source of scientific knowledge permitted to be taught in public schools. The evidence for evolution is found in three primary realms: rich and abundant fossil records, observations of evolution occurring in rapid-speed in the bacterial and insect kingdoms, and the inductive sequencing of DNA genomes of various members of the animal kingdom.
A specific example of observed evolution is found in the case of MRSA (``staph”) infections, which are now common in hospitals. Completely unknown until 1961, the commonly accepted theory for why MRSA infections occur is the overuse of antibiotic antiseptics and medicines, which pathogens have circumvented through a series of mutations and a breeding cycle over 400,000 times faster than that of humans. And, evolution continues to occur. The genetic makeup of Staphylococcus aureusis is substantially different today than its 1961 progenitor.
How do we know this? Scientists propose hypotheses, establish a series of experiments to test them, and then present the data in peer-reviewed journals. Scientific tests can be reproduced. Science is open for criticism. There is no financial or professional incentive to ``lie,” as Mr. Theissen suggests. Bad science is exposed, scandalized, and careers are broken if deliberate falsehoods are put in print.
Although space prohibits a lengthy presentation of all of the evidence in support of evolutionary theory, my central argument is that it was a bad decision by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) to remove fossil evidence for evolution from the biology curriculum in Korea. By capriciously removing text discussing Archaeopteryx and fossil horses, MEST is complicit in whitewashing fossil records from textbooks. The risk is that Korean children will grow up as ignorant of natural history as Mr. Theissen, which would be regrettable.
In the end, people are entitled to believe what they want regardless of whether or not they understand the evidence available to them. There are some who still believe that the Earth is flat.
However, science curricula cannot accommodate every pre-Industrial Revolution dogma about the origin of life and exclude mountains of facts and evidence based on rigorous academic research. If our children grow up to disbelieve evolutionary theory, it shouldn’t be because they weren’t taught the facts in school.
The writer is assistant professor of the Department of Archaeology and Art History, Seoul National University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.