|An Open Letter
to the Kansas State Board of Education |
By: Dr. Philip S. Skell
Dr. Philip S. Skell
|An open letter
to the Kansas State Board of Education from Professor Philip S. Skell, Member,
National Academy of Sciences, Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus Penn State
May 12, 2005
Dr. Steve E. Abrams, Chair
State Board of Education
C/o Kansas State Department of Education
Topeka KS 66612-1182
Fax: (785) 296-7933
I have been following the controversy over the adoption of new
science standards in your state with interest. I am writing—as a member of the
National Academy of Sciences—to voice my strong support for the idea that
students should be able to study scientific criticisms of the evidence for
modern evolutionary theory along with the evidence favoring the
All too often, the issue of how to teach evolutionary theory has
been dominated by voices at the extremes. On one extreme, many religious
activists have advocated for Bible-based ideas about creation to be taught and
for evolution to be eliminated from the science curriculum entirely. On the
other hand, many committed Darwinian biologists present students with an
idealized version of the theory that glosses over real problems and prevents
students from learning about genuine scientific criticisms of it.
these extremes are mistaken. Evolution is an important theory and students need
to know about it. But scientific journals now document many scientific problems
and criticisms of evolutionary theory and students need to know about these as
Many of the scientific criticisms of which I speak are well known
by scientists in various disciplines, including the disciplines of chemistry and
biochemistry, in which I have done my work. I have found that some of my
scientific colleagues are very reluctant to acknowledge the existence of
problems with evolutionary theory to the general public. They display an almost
religious zeal for a strictly Darwinian view of biological
Darwinian evolution is an interesting theory about the remote
history of life. Nonetheless, it has little practical impact on those branches
of science that do not address questions of biological history (largely based on
stones, the fossil evidence). Modern biology is engaged in the examination of
tissues from living organisms with new methods and instruments. None of the
great discoveries in biology and medicine over the past century depended on
guidance from Darwinian evolution---it provided no support.
As an aside,
one might ask what Darwin would have written today if he was aware of the
present state of knowledge of cell biology, rather than that of the mid 19th
century when it was generally believed the cell was an enclosed blob of gelatin?
As an exemplar, I draw your attention to what Prof. James A. Shapiro,
bacteriologist, U. of Chicago, wrote
(http://www.bostonreview.net/br22.1/shapiro.html [Link no longer available]).
For those scientists
who take it seriously, Darwinian evolution has functioned more as a
philosophical belief system than as a testable scientific hypothesis. This
quasi-religious function of the theory is, I think, what lies behind many of the
extreme statements that you have doubtless encountered from some scientists
opposing any criticism of neo-Darwinism in the classroom. It is also why many
scientists make public statements about the theory that they would not defend
privately to other scientists like me.
In my judgment, this state of
affairs has persisted mainly because too many scientists were afraid to
challenge what had become a philosophical orthodoxy among their colleagues.
Fortunately, that is changing as many scientists are now beginning to examine
the evidence for neo-Darwinism more openly and critically in scientific
Intellectual freedom is fundamental to the scientific method.
Learning to think creatively, logically and critically is the most important
training that young scientists can receive. Encouraging students to carefully
examine the evidence for and against neo-Darwinism, therefore, will help prepare
students not only to understand current scientific arguments, but also to do
good scientific research.
I commend you for your efforts to ensure that
students are more fully informed about current debates over neo-Darwinism in the
Professor Philip S.
Member, National Academy of Sciences
Evan Pugh Professor of
Penn State University