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Eugenie Scott: Nature of Science


Q: What can science say about the existence of God?

A: You can find scientists who will say that evolution, any kind of science, means that God is irrelevant. There is no God. Science has disproved God. To me that just really misunderstands the nature of science, because if what we're trying to do is explain the natural world using natural causes, and if, in explaining the natural world, we have to test our explanations against the natural world, that means that we are restricted to natural cause. We cannot introduce the idea of supernatural cause, which also means we can't say God didn't do it.

Evolution or science in general can't say anything about whether God did or did not have anything to do with it. All evolution as a science can tell us is what happened. It can't tell us "whodunnit." And as to what happened, the evidence is extremely strong that the galaxies evolved, the planets evolved, the sun evolved, and living things on earth shared common ancestors.

Q: What areas does science address?

A: One of the things that I have to do at the National Center for Science Education is try to get out the simple ideas. And to me the basic, most simple idea of what science is is that it's a way of testing explanations against the natural world. What do we mean by test? To most people that means experiment. Well, experimentation is one kind of test, but you wouldn't be correct to say that science depends on experimentation, because there are a lot areas of science where you cannot directly observe [or] directly manipulate a phenomena of variables, but they still are very scientific. In particle physics you're not directly observing the phenomena you're studying, but very few people would say that particle physics is not science.

You can explain what science is, but non-science is a much wider range of things. You can explain science as a way of testing explanations against the natural world in an attempt to explain the natural world, and that's pretty understandable. But there's a lot of other ways of knowing as well. There's religion. There's aesthetics. There's poetry. There's literature. All of these can offer insight in a variety of things that human beings think [are] very important. But look at what science is actually trying to do: Science is limited to explaining the natural world. And frankly, if what you're trying to do is explain the natural world, science is the best thing we've come up with to do that.

Q: Why does teaching evolution remain controversial?

A: I think this remains a controversy, especially in the United States and Canada, because people actually don't understand the issues. People are being told, first, you have to choose between faith and science. You have to choose between especially Christianity and evolution. They're being told it's only fair to give both points of view. It's only fair to teach evolution and balance it with creation science or intelligent design theory or something like that. They're being told scientists are giving up on evolution, it's not as strongly supported as it used to be. All three of these are just flat wrong. Particularly the last one, that evolution is some sort of weak scientific theory. That's real nonsense. But the idea of fairness and the idea of an incompatibility with religion are themes that I hear all the time in my job. I hear this from teachers, I hear it from parents, I hear it from people at school boards. I talk to teachers at science teacher conferences, and they tell me that their principal has told them just to skip evolution this year because it's an election year. There is a new school board coming on, and they don't want any problems. That is crazy. I mean, that is just not the way to run a coherent curriculum.

Now, sometimes people say, well, how about other theories of origin? And yeah, there are lots of theories of origin. Just about every human society has one. Christianity has four or five alone. The Native American tribal groups have one for almost every single [tribe] -- four or five hundred different origin stories just in North America alone. And then you have Africa and you've got a lot of other parts of the world, too. So, yeah, we can talk about other origin theories, but what does this have to do with science? In a science class we ought to be teaching science. I am all for teaching comparative religion -- I'm an anthropologist by training, and I think that would be just great. I think we need to know more about religion as a cultural system, as a system that has inspired people across the planet for thousands of years. But we don't teach it in the science class. What we teach in science is science, which, of course, is why creation science was invented: so that they could get into the science class. They wanted to hide the religiosity of it so that they could make the claim that they could be taught legitimately in science. And this is also what intelligent design theory is doing, as well. They are trying to claim they're scientific so that they can be taught in the science class.

Q: What about "intelligent design" theory?

A: The question is sometimes raised, well, what about intelligent design theory? Can we teach that in the high school? And of course, the answer is sure, if it becomes part of mainline science. But it's definitely premature to make that conclusion at this point, because they haven't won their spurs, so to speak, within the scientific community itself, [within] the scholarly community. I personally think that they won't, because I think that it's basically a religious idea that they're trying to gussy up with science and other philosophical scholarship, a little hand-waving about information theory and so forth, and I don't think it's going to make it. Now, I have attended conferences of intelligent design folks, where I have spoken to scientists who have attended other conferences. And what happens is that they throw these conferences and they invite a bunch of scientists in. The scientists listen to what they say and say, "What? No. Here's where you're wrong. Okay." And then they go home. Then the ID folks have another conference, and they invite a whole bunch of new, virgin scientists, so to speak, and they hear the message and they say, "What? No. Here's where you're wrong." And then they go home. And then the intelligent design people have yet another conference and invite a bunch of new scientists in. They keep getting told the same thing: They kept getting told that irreducible complexity does not disprove natural selection. They keep being told by theologians and religious scientists that God can be the creator and still work through evolution. You don't have to have some sort of a notion of intelligent design in order to retain the idea of faith. They keep being told that science has to restrict itself to natural cause; it cannot bring in supernatural cause. They keep being told the same things. They keep, in some cases, even being told the same scientific examples -- blood clotting and so forth and so on, and bacteria flagellum gets trotted out at every single one of these ID conferences. People are sick to death of it. But what's not happening is that the intelligent design people are not going to conferences within their own professional specialties. The geologists don't go to the geology meetings. The anthropologists don't go to the anthropology... I don't know if there are any anthropologists. The biologists don't go to the cell biology meetings. They don't go to their own scientific specialties and do the arm wrestling with their scientific colleagues. Instead they have these public conferences where they invite in laymen and some scientists who generally treat them very politely but don't take them very seriously.

Q: How would you describe the process of science?

A: It's the nature of scientific research and discovery to butt heads, to be contentious, to argue strongly, to marshal the evidence for your point of view, criticize the other person's evidence and interpretations. That's the way science grows, and that's the way our understanding gradually improves. Sometimes it's a couple lurches sidewards before you go forward, and more frequently it's a few lurches back. But eventually, the whole process lurches forward and we do understand more about the natural world. So the fact that you can get scientists arguing with each other, listen carefully, because what you'll most frequently find is that they're arguing over how evolution takes place. They're arguing over whether the pace of evolution is gradual or whether it's jumpy and broken up and punctuated. They're arguing over how important is natural selection versus other mechanisms of evolution. Is natural selection the most important, virtually the only one, as some of the hyper-Darwinists would say, or are there a whole series of other factors that also contribute? And if you really listen carefully, you're finding they're arguing over how it occurred, not whether. But you go to the creationists' literature and you go to these school boards around the country where they are holding up these creationist books and what you hear is "Scientists disagree with each other, therefore evolution didn't happen."

One of the things I think people need to understand about science is that you can think of the ideas of science as being a series of concentric circles, and there is a core set of ideas that we really don't challenge anymore. We really feel comfortable about these, and we're not constantly testing them. There's a frontier, where ideas are being tested and some of them are going to make it into the core, and some of them are going to be spun off. And then the third concentric ring is the fringe, ideas that may work into the frontier, but most of them are generally pretty nutty, and they're not going to get any place. Something like continental drift started out as a fringe idea, moved to a frontier idea, and is now a core idea. The idea that living things shared common ancestors was once a fringe idea. Through Darwin and the work of other people of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it became definitely a frontier idea, and now unquestionably a core idea of science.

Now, it's possible that maybe someday someone will discover, oh my gosh, planets don't go around the sun. We're wrong about heliocentrism, because after all, that's just an inference, right? Nobody has sat out in space for a whole year and watched the earth go around the sun. This is not an observation. It's an inference from a lot of measurements. But I don't think that's real likely to happen. And similarly, maybe someday someone will find a set of observations that disprove that living things shared common ancestors. And that will be really cool; that person's going to get a Nobel Prize. So if there is any possible evidence out there, believe me, there are going to be people who would be delighted to find it.

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