Disclaiming The Disclaimer: Oklahoma Textbook Commission Redefines Evolution

Victor H. Hutchison and Frank J. Sonleitner

Copyright © 10 Dec 1999 by the Oklahoma Observer.

Governor Frank Keating called the Oklahoma Textbook Commission's disclaimer (to be affixed to any textbook that discusses evolution) as "thoughtful." An editorial in The Daily Oklahoman (14 November) labeled the disclaimer as "elegant" and "non-offensive" and asked "If the textbook disclaimer is dishonest or harmful, tell us why." We will try to do so. The overwhelming majority of scientists we know, especially biologists, as well as many informed citizens, will find the disclaimer to be highly offensive.

The contents clearly show that the authors of the disclaimer have a thoroughly distorted view of what science is and how it operates and a woeful ignorance of the process of, and evidence for, evolution. The statement is not a neutral stand, but is an advocacy for creationism. The Commission clearly intends "theory" to mean "an unsupported guess," the meaning often implied in day-to-day conversations; this is NOT the meaning in science. Evolution is called an "unproven belief." The disclaimer suggests that evolution is somehow different from other scientific theories. These allegations are false and misleading. The theory of evolution is logically similar to other theories in science and does not warrant being singled out.

In science "theory" is reserved for a general explanation of phenomena that have been extensively tested and corroborated by observation and experimentation and has a high probability of being correct. Science, which attempts to understand the observable universe, proceeds by discovering generalizations (laws) about phenomena and providing explanations (theories) for these generalizations. Theories are the ultimate goal of science!

A hallmark of all scientific theories is that their explanations most often postulate entities unobservable by human eyes: atoms, electrons, electromagnetic fields, etc. Thus the facts from many lines of biology, including the fossil record, are explained by evolution that cannot be tested and verified. Many criminals who committed serious crimes with no witnesses are behind bars or have been executed because forensic science reconstructed those crimes and demonstrated, beyond any reasonable doubt, the criminal's role in them.

Like the clues to a crime, the earth's ancient past has left its imprint on the present. The sedimentary layers allow geologists to reconstruct past geography and environments and the fossil record demonstrates the uncontestable conclusion that, over the long history of this planet, animals and plants have been changing and, in general, becoming more like those that exist today. In this sense, macroevolution is a fact! Furthermore, the finer details of the record reveal many intermediate forms between many major groups of organisms. Indeed, there are amazingly complete series of such forms documenting the transitions required by macroevolution between fishes and amphibians, amphibians and reptiles, reptiles and birds, and reptiles and mammals. The Commission's statement that no such transitional forms occur in the fossil record is simply incorrect.

In addition to the fossil record, the past has left many other clues in the bodies of living organisms that constitute a wealth of evidence supporting macroevolution. These include the (1) extensive similarities in the body plans of many animal groups documented by comparative anatomy; (2) amazing similarity of early embryonic stages documented by comparative embryology, (3) extensive sharing of the major regulatory genes among all animal forms discovered by modern genetics, and (4) the considerable similarities in DNA among organisms discovered by molecular biology. For example, why should humans and chimps share several identical but non-functional genes (pseudogenes)? Why should an occasional horse possess three-toed feet like those of their ancestors and an occasional whale have hind limbs? All of these lines of evidence strongly support the evolutionary concept that groups of modern organisms are related by a hierarchical series of common ancestors.

The effectiveness of mutation and natural selection in generating new information is so powerful that biochemists are using test tube evolution to evolve new molecules to perform specific chemical functions, some of which have valuable medical applications. Engineers, the prototypic designers, use genetic algorithms, a computer simulation of Darwinian evolution, to evolve new industrial designs and computer programmers use a similar technique to "evolve" new software! Not only will actions dictated by the Commission deprive students of a major part of basic science education, but will have major negative impact on producing the work force necessary to attract the high tech industries that Governor Keating has stated as a goal for the State.

No scientist denies that there are many unanswered questions about the details of evolution and its mechanisms, but they are not the questions mentioned in the disclaimer. The disclaimer does not define "major groups" of living things, but no major groups of organisms "suddenly appear in the fossil record (known as the 'Cambrian Explosion') as the Commission states. Some major groups appeared billions of years before the Cambrian period; others appear millions of years after the Cambrian. If taxonomic Classes are considered major groups (insects, reptiles, mammals, etc.), then these all appeared after the Cambrian. The fossil record contains many forms linking major groups.

That there are many questions still to be answered about evolution, speaks for the theory, not against it. Any scientific theory has two main functions: (1) to explain phenomena as we currently know them, and (2) to guide research by posing new questions to answer. Creationism, or the so-called "creation science," will not answer any questions or provide any guide to research. Resorting to a supernatural entity, whose nature and functioning, is by definition, beyond human understanding, will not explain anything. Science avoids the supernatural because it is inappropriate as an explanation, not because of any hostility to religious beliefs.

In spite of the fundamental flaws in creationism as science, State Education Secretary Floyd Coppedge supports teaching creation in the schools (as does Governor Keating) and suggested that the State give teachers supplemental packets on teaching creationism to students. Coppedge is apparently unaware of the difficulties involved. There are at least five major kinds of creationists, who hardly agree on anything among themselves concerning such questions as the age of the earth and universe, how Noah's flood came about, what kinds of organisms were directly created by God, whether the geological column is real or "faked," whether fossils are real or placed by a divine being to confuse humans, or aside from dinosaurs, any of the known fossils are different from living animals.

Science is concerned with ideas that are falsifiable, whereas religion is a matter of faith. It is important that each remains within their own domain for they share little in common. Throughout history organized religions have challenged scientific theories (such as those of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Darwin) and have been proven wrong. Organized religions have also challenged evolution repeatedly in the courts; to date the teaching of evolution and the exclusion of creationism in science courses have been upheld consistently, mainly on the basis of separation of church and state. Of the major religions of the world, only small minorities within each find a conflict between biological evolution and their faith. Indeed, Governor Keating does not follow the beliefs of his own faith; previous Papal encyclicals stating that no major conflict exists between evolution and Catholicism was reaffirmed clearly last year by the current Pope.

It is unfortunate that the ignorance of the theories and evidences for evolution by most creationists continues to feed the unnecessary conflict between science and religion. An acceptance of evolution and the possession of a religious faith are not mutually exclusive. Recent surveys show that a majority of scientists are persons of faith. Of thousands of doctoral level biologists we have known in our careers, we know of less than five who are avowed creationists.

When Governor Keating was asked if the religious beliefs of Native Americans, specifically on the ideas that humans came to earth by descent from the heavens or from the center if the earth, should be included as part of the discussion of evolution in science courses, he replied no and stated that they belonged in a course on comparative religions. Exactly, Mr. Governor! By the same arguments that is where creationism belongs, NOT within a science course.

The Republican Governor of Kansas and others of his political party recently expressed strong opposition to the actions of the Kansas State Board of Education to remove references to evolution from assessment tests. We regret that Governor Keating (who appointed the members of the Oklahoma Textbook Commission) does not agree with his fellow Republicans in our neighboring state.

The statute establishing the Textbook Commission [Okla. Const. Art. 13, 6 (OSCN 1998) Article XIII. Education 6. Textbook system for common schools Official multiple textbook lists] only authorizes the committee "to prepare official multiple textbook lists." It does not empower the Commission to become involved in substantive matters of curriculum determination as expressed in the disclaimer. We believe that the Commission's action goes well beyond that allowed by the statute and fully expect that legal challenges will be made.

Official resolutions and statements from the Oklahoma Science Teachers Association, the Oklahoma Academy of Science and the National Center for Science Education have condemned the disclaimer. Similar denouncements are forthcoming from major biological and scientific organizations at the national level. Perhaps these, and other likely actions, will result in a retraction of the textbook disclaimer and thereby lessen this major embarrassment to the State of Oklahoma.