Commentary

Censorious Academics Forget that Their Hero Darwin Wanted an Open Debate

By Herman B. Bouma | February 12, 2020 | 3:07pm EST
Evolutionism is portrayed. (Photo credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Evolutionism is portrayed. (Photo credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Recently the chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis called on Google to take action regarding YouTube videos promoting “climate denial and climate misinformation.” Not surprisingly, many strongly criticized this attempt at censorship.  

Most reasonable people believe that when it comes to disagreements on policy and scientific theory, the best approach is to promote debate rather than censorship.  Open and honest debate has always been “the American way.” However, in the case of Darwinian theory, the scientific establishment has been promoting censorship rather than debate for quite some time now – contrary to Charles Darwin’s expressed wishes.  

The first edition of Darwin’s book The Origin of Species was published in 1859 and set forth his theory of the origin of species by means of natural selection.  Darwin’s theory was at odds with the theory of design, which was the dominant biological theory of the time.  

Many eminent scientists of Darwin’s day had strong objections to Darwin’s theory, including Louis Agassiz, a world-renowned professor of geology and biology at Harvard University known as a “founding father of the American scientific tradition;” Adam Sedgwick, a professor of geology and paleontology at Cambridge University and one of Britain’s most distinguished geologists; and Karl Nageli, a Swiss professor of botany at the University of Munich who was famous for his work on plant cells.  Darwin took great care to reply thoughtfully to the scientific arguments against his theory and, by the time of the sixth edition of his book in 1872, approximately one-third of the book consisted of his response to numerous scientific arguments against his theory (all of which still have merit today).  



 

Darwin clearly took his critics seriously, and did so even though most were proponents of design.  He never considered the theory of design to be unscientific and in fact stated that it “has been ably maintained by many authors.”  (Even he theorized that the first forms of life were the result of design.) Darwin treated his critics with respect, referring to them as “the most eminent paleontologists” and “our greatest geologists”.  Darwin acknowledged that there were “a crowd of difficulties” with his theory and that a number of objections carried great weight.

For example, one objection was based on the existence in certain insect communities of sterile females which “often differ widely in instinct and in structure from both the males and fertile females, and yet, from being sterile, they cannot propagate their kind.”  Darwin stated that this difficulty “at first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fatal to the whole theory.” 

Darwin’s response to his critics makes clear that he was interested in carrying on a civilized and rational debate, taking his critics’ objections seriously and responding to them not with deprecation, but with evidence and logic.  In this respect, Darwin is an example for all to follow today. Unfortunately, many in science education today strongly oppose the mention of any arguments against the theory of natural selection.  

At the annual conference of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) in St. Louis, Missouri, in April 2019, I was scheduled to give a presentation on Darwin’s response to his critics.  The presentation had been approved by conference organizers six months earlier. However, 15 minutes before I was to begin, three high-level NSTA officials, accompanied by several security guards, entered the meeting room and told me to pack up my laptop and papers and leave the room immediately.  Apparently the presentation was considered a threat to Darwinian theory, even though it focused exclusively on Darwin’s writings.

It was Darwin’s hope that young scientists would be able to consider carefully the scientific arguments both for and against his theory. He stated, “I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.”  Hopefully, the rising young naturalists of our age may at least be taught how Darwin responded to his critics. Is that too much to ask?

The National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) recently came out with a new book called It’s Still Debatable!  Using Socioscientific Issues to Develop Scientific Literacy, K-5. The book “gives students practice in the research, analysis, and argumentation necessary to grapple with difficult questions with roots in life, physical, Earth, and environmental science.” Hopefully the NSTA (and the scientific establishment in general) will also begin promoting debate rather than censorship when it comes to Darwinian theory because ... It’s Still Debatable!

Herman B. Bouma is the Executive Director of The National Association for Objectivity in Science. 



 

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