While perusing the world of Facebook a couple days ago, I came across this link, with the distressing title “Rick Brattin, Who Wants Anti-Evolution Lessons in Missouri Schools: “I’m a Science Enthusiast.” After reading the article, and then looking over the bill, HB 291, it became clear to me that while Rep. Brattin may be enthused about science, he hasn’t had extensive training in it. The bill contains confusing and inaccurate definitions and usages of terms like “evolution,” “theory,” and “proof.” Worse, it calls for “equal treatment” in the classroom of concepts that by no means have received equal support in the scientific community, which flies directly in the face of how the scientific community operates when considering weight of evidence.
I don’t usually write letters to political figures, but as a native Missourian who has tiny cousins beginning to enter the Missouri school system, this issue hits home for me. Here is the letter that I plan to send Rep. Brattin and his co-authors:
To: Rep. Rick Brattin
MO House of Representatives
201 West Capitol Avenue
Jefferson City MO 65101
CC: Rep. Kurt Bahr; Rep. Andrew Koenig
February 20th, 2013
Re: House Bill 291: Missouri Standard Science Act
Dear Representative Brattin,
I am writing to you as a native Missourian and a concerned scientist in regards to House Bill 291, the Missouri Standard Science Act (MSSA). I currently reside in St. Paul, MN where I received my Master of Science in Conservation Biology from the University of Minnesota, but I spent the first 22 years of my life growing up in Missouri, where I received a degree in Biology from Truman State University. Science – especially the Life Sciences – has been a lifelong fascination of mine and my passion as a career scientist is to further the public’s scientific understanding. I am deeply concerned that if the MSSA passes it will only succeed in deepening public misunderstanding of science.
House Bill 291 itself displays an incomplete understanding of biological principles. This is an excerpt of the bill’s definition of evolution:
(2) “Biological evolution”, a theory of the origin of life and its ascent by naturalistic means. … Theory philosophically demands only naturalistic causes and denies the operation of any intelligence, supernatural event, God or theistic figure in the initial or subsequent development of life.
This definition contains inaccuracies. First, the term “evolution,” as used by biologists, does not refer to any specific theory, but rather is a term which refers to the process of biological change over time. This change over time is well documented in the fossil record, can be inferred from genetic and physiological similarities among extant species, and is even observable on a small scale among certain species, especially in bacteria. Rather, an example of a “theory” that is related to evolution is Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. This theory helps to explain much of the biodiversity that we see in our world today and is widely accepted in the biological community; natural selection helps explain how evolution of new species occurs, but it is not the same as evolution itself. This is an important distinction.
Secondly, to say that the scientific understanding of evolution “denies” the role of God or another intelligence is simply untrue. The science around evolution neither denies nor confirms God; it says nothing about God, in fact. The role of science is to fill in the details of our understanding of the world; what one makes of these details from a spiritual standpoint is a matter of personal reflection. The biological processes behind the origins of life should not be confounded with reflections about the Meaning of Life. As a lifelong Catholic, I have never understood why some people feel that scientific and spiritual understandings of the world must be mutually exclusive. Evolution does not preclude a Creator.
However, even if these inaccuracies in the wording of House Bill 291 are corrected, I would urge you to reconsider your support of the MSSA. The Act calls for “equal treatment” of all “theories” of life’s origins, but specifically between “biological evolution and biological intelligent design.” Providing equal classroom time and attention to both of these concepts would be contrary to current biological knowledge and understanding. In the scientific community we use a system that I will refer to as ‘weight of evidence’. Nothing is ever “proven” in science (another mis-wording in your bill); rather, evidence is collected over time through many trials and observations. The more evidence that accumulates supporting a theory, the stronger that theory is. Therefore, given multiple theories, we must look to the weight of evidence supporting each to determine their respective likelihood of accurately explaining something in the world. In the case of biodiversity, the vast majority of biologists across a wide range of peer-reviewed scientific literature agree that new species evolved over time from earlier species, rather than having been created all at once with only minor changes since that time. They also agree that Natural Selection is integral to understanding how this evolution of species occurred (and continues to occur).
To give the concepts of evolution and intelligent design “equal treatment” in the classroom would falsely represent the views of the scientific community. Rather, if both of these concepts were to be taught in the classroom, they should each be given time proportional to the amount of support each has in the scientific community and literature. In the case of intelligent design, this would amount to a passing reference on a single class day, while evolution would require an entire semester.
This bill strikes a personal chord for me. Most of my family still lives in Missouri, and I have many young cousins that are starting to enter the school system. I am very grateful for the education that I received in Missouri, and it is extremely disheartening for me to think that their science educations may be compromised by uninformed policy. Representative Brattin, please consider the weight of evidence and the heeding of the scientific community and remove your support from this bill.
Amanda M. Kueper, M.S.
So, here’s to getting involved in your government!