Fragmentary Truths and the Intellectual Imbalance in Academia
Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C — © 2014
Department of Biology, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
[click on title to be redirected to The Standard Times]
“…If we ought to quote E.O. Wilson in the context of what is good for science and science education, then we must look at his unyielding journey in support to fundamental research and long-standing concerns about the future of academia. Although open to dialog with spiritualists, Wilson has never endorsed creationism under the principle of Consilience, nor sponsored profit at the expense of quality schooling…”
Some months ago, an administrator ventured to school me by asserting: “E.O. Wilson is known for his books in popular science, but his area of research is ants.” I will return to this fragmentary truth after documenting what can be done, following Harvard Professor Edward Osborne Wilson’s example, to make outreach to students —our public— via proper science education.
Above, Professor Edward O. Wilson, painting by Jennie Summerall
When I arrived at UMass Dartmouth in 2007, the evolution wars were at their peak. Although Intelligent Design had been defeated in the 2005 Dover, Pa., trial for violating the rules of science by “invoking and permitting supernatural causation” in matters of evolution and for “failing to gain acceptance in the scientific community,” the 21st century anti-science crusade had just began. Current legislation constraining the teaching of evolution reigns in 12 states.
According to Intelligent Design, evolution could not explain holistically the origin of the natural world or the emergence of intricate molecular pathways essential to life, nor the immense phylogenetic differentiation of biological diversity and, instead, proposed an “intelligent agent,” a designer, as the ultimate architect of nature.
During the process of ripping Intelligent Design apart, earlier variants of creationism resuscitated —mostly in media-driven discussions, which I never considered harmless since they reflected the quiescent mind of the public— and newly emerged as, allegedly, better alternatives to Intelligent Design. I discuss them in my 2013 book “Evolution Stands Faith Up: Reflections on Evolution’s Wars:”
Among the former were Theistic Evolution and Creation Science, creationism in principle and practice (God the maker of the universe, always present in the fore- or background of causality); among the latter was BioLogos (2000s), which aimed at merging Christianity with science by proposing a “model for divinely guided evolution” that required “no intrusions from the outside for its account of God’s creative process, except for the origin of the natural laws guiding the process.”
Supporters of BioLogos suggested that “once life arose, evolution and natural selection permitted the development of biological diversity and complexity,” including humans. After evolution got underway, “no special supernatural intervention was required” (quotes from “The Language of Science and Faith” 2011, co-authored by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins —the latter Director of the National Institutes of Health). In essence, the Creator was done, but remained in touch for eternity! This is, of course, inconsistent with everything we know about reality.
As an evolutionary biologist and university professor, I considered a duty to properly educate my students and prepare them to examine, by themselves, the anti-science cultural pollutants that aim at “zombieing” their minds, “corpseing” their innate spirit of inquiry, and perpetuating societal confusion around empirical discoveries.
New England has the highest acceptance of evolution in the U.S., only 59 percent. Back in 2008, when I first polled the UMass Dartmouth campus, our biology graduates used to join the workforce with an acceptance level evolution of 65 percent; the freshman —right out of high school— were at 52 percent. A year later, in May 2009, after I restructured the core biology courses with an evolutionary perspective, acceptance of evolution jumped to 82 percent among the youngest undergrads. Today, 95 percent of graduating bio-majors accept evolution at UMass Dartmouth, the highest score ever reported for college students in the U.S., and comparable to 97 percent of the New England faculty.
Evolution literacy matters: It correlates with understanding climate change, support for stem-cell research, vaccines, alternative sources of energy, respect for education and human rights.
And this brings me back to my allusion to Professor E.O. Wilson. Indeed, he had (still does) a celebrated career in the study of Hymenoptera (ants, wasps and bees). But there is high complexity in Wilson’s contribution to theoretical science, far beyond “ants” (which vastness has been revealed by his passionate disciples).
Forgive my professorial account: Concepts such as Island Biogeography (1967), the still controversial Sociobiology (1975), Biophilia (1984), Biodiversity (1988), Consilience (1998), “The Creation” in the context of what nature can do to assemble life (2006), are among Wilson’s seminal proposals. But he also co-founded “evolutionary biology” in 1960, in an attempt to address “the intellectual imbalance of biology at Harvard,” and his fears of seeing ecology and evolution “being outgunned, outfunded, and outnumbered” by alternative fields of investigation, as he narrates in “Letters to A Young Scientist” (2013).
If we ought to quote Wilson in the context of what is good for science and science education, then we must look at his unyielding journey in support to fundamental research and long-standing concerns about the future of academia. Although open to dialog with spiritualists, E.O. Wilson has never endorsed creationism under the principle of Consilience, nor sponsored profit at the expense of quality schooling.
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