Monday, March 21, 2005

President's Column - Evolution, Creationism and Academic Integrity

Well, if you read Salient from cover-to-cover, you will have read Emily’s column on censorship. Here’s my column on academic integrity.

Earlier this week I was doing the dishes with my flat-mate Ray, who’s an ecology student. Ray’s a fairly switched on character, and our flat conversations are often over my head, leaving me with a semi-glazed look on my face. The dishes conversation that night turned to the evolution / creationism debate in American schools, and the flaws in each of the arguments. As the conversation progressed, and Ray explained each side of the argument to me, the more I realized how much academic integrity and freedom had been impinged upon.

In 1831 Charles Darwin set sail on the HMS Beagle for a five-year voyage around the world, as an unpaid naturalist and companion to the ship’s captain, Robert Fitzroy. During this voyage, Darwin visited the Galápagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean, 1000 kilometres off the coast of South America. It was on these Islands that Darwin noticed there were slight variations in Finches on different islands, while there should have only been one specie, originating from South America. All in all, Darwin identified 13 different species of the bird, differing most markedly in their beak shape. Darwin concluded that the variance in beaks stemmed from the differences in the diet and eating patterns of the different Finches on the different Islands. All the Finches had come from the same origin (South America) and were the same specie, but had been separated for a significant period of time. Rather than the environment changing the characteristics of the Finches, Darwin concluded that only those with the specific characteristics were able to survive in the environment they had been faced with, and the rest simply died out - hence the “survival of the fittest”.

This all seems to me to be fairly plausible, from a scientific perspective. However, there is a significant school of thought which is governed by the biblical book of Gensis, which violently disagrees:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

(Gensis 1:1-2)

This school of thought (known as “Creationism”) believes that God created the earth and all that is on it in a perfect form (including man that was made in an image of Himself). Since God’s creation is perfect there would be no reason to believe that it would need to evolve to improve it’s standing in it’s environment (as the Darwinist school of thought would lead us to believe). Creationism goes one step further, in linking “the truth about science” to god’s word, as revealed to us through scripture. Subsequently, the importance of studying the bible is paramount, as it cannot be divorced from true science.

OK, granted that’s a very simple and rough explanation, but there is significant debate in the United States as to weather each of these theories can be or should be taught in public schools. The Darwinists site numerous scientific flaws in the creationist argument (such as those raised by Darwin), while the Creationists site the fact that evolution has never been indisputably proved beyond a theory (similar to, say, the theory of gravity, for example).

Does this fly? I’m neither a biologist, nor a theologian, but this is not a peer-reviewed academic journal, so I can basically spout on about whatever the hell I want (within reason of course). I would say there is very little evidence outside of the bible to support the Creationist argument, although Creationists would argue that that would suffice. There is, however, significant research to show a natural evolution of different species. However, this does not mean that I think only evolution should be taught in schools.

If academics (or teachers or religious leaders) were to say that one theory is right, and all other theories should be destined to the dustbin of time, then students of whatever discipline are never going to be able to learn from other’s mistakes. In order for a theory such as evolution to be taught comprehensively, one most also understand the conflicting theories (this is not to say anything bad about any of the academic staff in the School of Biological Sciences) – this gives a more well rounded education, and makes students more apt at handling everyday life.

Of course there is one ultimate irony in all of this: Darwin was originally trained as a theologian.
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