Randomness plays no part in evolution

9th March 2007 at 00:00
Tom Bryceis professor of education at Strathclyde University Richard Dawkins, among others, has remarked that intelligent design is just "creationism in a cheap tuxedo". I suspect that jibe might be appropriate for Alastair Noble, given his recent article about intelligent design (TESS, February 9).

In pleasant tones, Noble tries to persuade us that the discussion of ID should figure in school science. Pupils can indeed get interested in, say, the nature and origins of structures like atoms and molecules, even genes and organs; and their questions may be deep and worthy of discussion.

However, it is unhelpful, to say the least, that they should then be taught wrong science. Saying that chance cannot account for wonderfully complex structures, such as birds' wings (such as Leonardo da Vinci's drawing, right), bats' echo detections, human eyes, and so on, is to completely misunderstand Darwinian natural selection.

Evolution isn't about "awkward randomness". Complex structures are certainly awe-inspiring and may seem to be extremely improbable at first view. But, at the slow incremental pace directed by the survival of the fittest, the cumulative process which Darwin helped us to understand does account extremely well for their evolution. Natural selection mechanisms (now underpinned with our grasp of genes) are the very opposite of chance events. Invoking divine intervention isn't just unnecessary, it is anti-science when it is coupled that way.

Pupils do need help to see how evolution works. However, should the religious "alternative" be raised by youngsters, they needn't be confused or misdirected by anti-scientific reasoning. Why on earth undermine the valuable learning that has taken place?

Noble makes out that, as educators, we have a duty to "follow the evidence where it leads". Prompted by this, Stuart Farmer argued in the following week's TESS that there was no room for ID in the science classroom. I would go further and say it has little place in school (other than to alert young people to complex, at least suspicious and possibly dangerous motives that some people have in trying to influence others).

If Noble's science is wrong, then we should ask about his naivety, if not the integrity of his motives. Isn't he aware of the debate about the efforts of "religious nuts" (his term) to corrupt school education, and scientific education in particular, for the sake of far right, religious conversion? Does he realise how much of a challenge there is to open, democratically determined school education in the United States, where creationism is spreading steadily? Does he know how many US school boards require teachers to teach it in opposition to scientific understanding?

And if you think I am talking extremes, let's stop with two US presidents.

Asked whether he recognised the equal citizenship of Americans who are atheists, George Bush senior's answer was: "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots.

This is one nation under God" (quoted by Dawkins in The God Delusion). And we know that George W Bush said that "God told him to invade Iraq" (as Dawkins quips, "a pity God didn't vouchsafe him a revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction").

Come on Alastair Noble, get back to chemistry and read up on some evolution while you are at it. I would like to think you might read Dawkins's The God Delusion. It is an inspiring rebuttal of religions of all forms. Then again, maybe your thoughts about intelligent design are a sign of your age.

It is well known that religiosity increases with age. There is a footnote at one point in Dawkins's book where he cites a friend who describes this as "cramming for the final".

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