I have just completed four years in an engineering program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I thought that at least within the halls of a science-oriented program I would be insulated from the un-critical, un-supported notions of young earth creationism. I was wrong.
Unfortunately, with just 2 weeks to go before the end of the year, my professor of River Engineering decides to totally destroy his credibility by revealing that he is an anti-evolutionist. We had just arrived at the ecosystem restoration part of the class, and he began to struggle through the description of species’ interactions within a river.
It had started innocently enough, with the discussion of flood analysis, critical depths, flood plain progressions etc. But as we were entering the home stretch he began to make mistakes that would only be permissible if he was, perhaps, not a science educator.
He’s Uninformed and He Doesn’t Care
I guess that I can’t really fault him for not understanding evolutionary theory, as he is primarily an engineering professor. But because he decided to include aspects of biology into his curriculum, I feel that he has a duty to present the scientifically supported facts, and not his own irrational interpretations of something that he obviously knows very little about. I may seem a little vindictive here, but this is for two reasons: first, he obviously did not care that he was getting evolution wrong ( I think he liked it), and second, he was trying to present biological ideas while at the same time denying the central theme of biology. As a service to evolution and my readers, let’s take his misconceptions one by one and explain where he went wrong, and what is possibly behind these misconceptions. You can see the discussion of other misconceptions about evolution here and here and here.
My professor’s little diatribe about the “faults” of evolution was in relation to the complexity of ecosystems. He was in a state of disbelief about how all the relationships between predator and prey and environment could have come about. He made the following remarks:
This is why I don’t really agree with the theory of evolution. They expect us to believe that trillions of years ago, all these relationships developed simultaneously, and completely by accident.
I count four total misconceptions, so let’s take these in order:
“I don’t really agree with the theory of evolution…”
His emphasis here on the word “theory” is probably the most common talking point of anti-evolutionists. The misconception here is that theory means the same thing to science that is does in colloquial use. It does not. Theory, in a scientific sense, does not mean merely an educated guess. To science, A scientific theory comprises a collection of concepts, including abstractions of observable phenomena expressed as quantifiable properties, together with rules (called scientific laws) that express relationships between observations of such concepts. A scientific theory is constructed to conform to available empirical data about such observations, and is put forth as a principle or body of principles for explaining a class of phenomena.
A theory is not a guess, it is the best explanation for a certain set of phenomena, in this case biological diversity, supported by observable evidence and scientific law. Let me put it this way, gravity is also a “just a theory”.
This common kind of dismissal, based upon the fact that creationists don’t know the definitions of words, is indicative of a deeper distrust of science and scientists in general.
“…trillions of years ago…”
This is just plain wrong. Apparently, just getting the time line of evolution isn’t enough, he overestimates what science has agreed upon as the beginning of biological evolution (3.8 billion years ago), by around 263 times the age of the universe!!
“…all these relationships developed simultaneously…”
Evolution doesn’t work all at once. It is interesting that he first mistakes over how long evolution has been happening, then he expects it to happen all at the same time. The reason that the relationships between animals and other animals, animals and plants, plant and environment etc., are so intricate and well-developed is because they have been interacting and refining those relationships for billions of years. The feedback loop of natural selection selects those traits which produce said relationships exactly because they work. Billions of years ago, these relationships must have been very rough or non-existent. But, over time, nature selected those interactions, produced by random mutations in the gene pool, that helped the organisms survive. It would be easy to see then, how a few billion years and billions of generations of genes could produce the delicate and intricate relationships that we see today.
We are privy to the best which nature has to offer, but we must realize that we are looking at only a minuscule portion of the timeline. If we look at the whole of biological time, the intricate relationships we now see are only the tip of a much larger iceberg of mutation, reproduction, and survival-based selection processes.
It is easy for us to look at the world and marvel at its complexity. But it would be ignorant of us, however, to ignore the billions of years of history that we are not apart of, and assume that everything happened at once.
“…and completely by accident.”
The diversity of biology, and the complexity of interaction between biotic and abiotic factors is certainly no accident. There is a very good reason why plants are green, or how salmon know exactly where to spawn, or why animals and plants interact in the seamless ways that they do. Everything has been selected. Plants are green because the chlorophyll within their cells will absorb the strongest wavelengths of light that the Sun puts out, and reflects the others (green wavelength light). Salmon know the best places to spawn because there was a mutation which allowed salmon to more accurately select nesting areas, and this trait was passed along by the surviving salmon.
My point is this: The reason that biology works so well with itself and with the environment is because there is a natural feedback system, namely evolution, that selects what works and discards what does not work. The reason that all these amazing relationships between our world are so “perfect” is because all of the animals and plants who interacted in less “perfect” ways have died, unable to pass along their genes and traits.
Stick to Your Field
Misconceptions like these are the reason that engineering professors don’t teach biology 101. If you are not informed about the subject well enough to teach it, well enough to get the central theory of the entire discipline wrong, well enough not to interject your inane, fundamental right-wing nonsense, then don’t even try. Just leave it out; it’s better than butchering it. It makes you sound ignorant, and out of your element. You should really stick to your field.
Engineers have a habit of seeing a design in everything. In this case, this means that everything in biology looks designed to my professor, and because he cannot recognize that simple engineering common sense does not substitute for rigorous science, he was lead into the gibberish that is creationism.
I should have realized his views a long time ago, when I would go into his office and Rush Limbaugh was playing all day… It’s funny how politics can substitute for scientific fact sometimes. Funny, and very sad. But the great thing about science is that you don’t have to believe in it for it to be true.