Famed Microbiologist on Teaching Evolution: Don’t Start Until College
Famed microbiologist Carl Woese has a unique suggestion for teaching evolution to schoolchildren: don’t do it.
I recently talked to Woese, best known for rearranging the organismal kingdom from five branches to three, while reporting on an upcoming story about the union of complexity theory and evolutionary biology.
For decades Woese has argued — and many other scientists agree — that genetic mutations and natural selection don’t provide a complete explanation for Earthly life. He believes these mechanisms to be part of a grander phenomenon of evolution, in which jumps of extraordinary complexity — from single-celled to multicellular organisms, from organism to ecosystem — are non-linear emergent phenomena, a function of networked interactions obeying a variant on the second law of thermodynamics.
I asked Woese what he thought about the situation in Florida, where an evolution-heavy state curriculum was attacked by religious conservatives trying to balance classroom evolution with “alternatives.” These alternatives are generally creationist, and Woese is caught in the middle: he has no sympathy for religion masquerading as science, but mainstream evolutionary thought has little room for him.
My feeling is that evolution shouldn’t be taught at the lower grades. You don’t teach quantum mechanics in the grade schools. One has to be quite educated to work with these concepts; what they pass on as evolution in high schools is nothing but repetitious tripe that teeachers don’t understand.
I certainly don’t want any intrusion of religious ideas in the name of science — but I don’t want this bland soup that’s taught as evolution in the name of science, either. It’s not science — it’s catechism. Let’s hold off until college, then hire some teachers who really know what to teach them. You have to go to the higest levels to find people with an understanding. That whole setup isn’t there at all; all that’s there is teaching the same old pap for 150 years, modfied by neo-Darwinists but not in an useful way.
But what if a parent says that neo-Darwinian evolution still explains, for example, the primate family tree?
I don’t know, when you put it that way … you’d have to teach this stuff with the understanding that these are just the facts we can learn, and they don’t have a religious explanation.
[Mainstream neo-Darwinian evolution] doesn’t begin to talk about the evolution of the brain, and I think that’s what the whole difference is. Man is working now on a higher level of organization than you can get form any other biological organization on the planet, and it doesn’t do you a damn bit of good to say that the complex brain was a product of natural selection. It just doesn’t help you.
For more on Woese’s ideas, see the series of posts below, as well as “A New Biology for a New Century,” published in 2004 in Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.
- Evolution as Biological Thermodynamics
- Complexity Theory Takes Evolution to Another Level
- Superorganism as Window Into Complexity and Evolution
- Honeybee Weapon in War on Cancer
- Complexity Theory in Icky Action: Meet the Slime Mold
- Creationism in the Classroom: Florida and Texas, Then the Nation
- Anti-Evolution Gains Momentum in Florida
- Evolution Wins as Creationists (Accidentally) Switch Sides in Florida
- A Libertarian Solution to Evolution Education Controversy: No More Public Schools