Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Jump Down, Spin Around . . .
Scientists should stop whining about threats to the teaching of evolution and spend more time discussing values. The thought occurred to me recently when I was attending my son’s medical school commencement.
Following the well-trod path of a graduation speech, the dean, a highly regarded physician and scientist, told the new MDs they would face many challenges. These included, he said, a world where science endured constant assault as evidenced by the recent attempts to bring "intelligent design" into the curricula of Dover, Pa., and other high school districts.
He fails to note, however, the dilemma that such doctors, who know that certain treatments or procedures or devices are safe, effective and of benefit to the patient, might face in the future when a meddlesome government, fueled by the anti-scientism of certain religious groups, makes them choose between their Hippocratic oath and staying within a sectarian-inspired law.
Bazell then proceeds to make a pretty good case for the importance of teaching evolution in high schools, only making a few slips along the way. One such is stating that "'survival of the fittest', or natural selection" was relied on by Hitler "as rationale for his racial horrors." In fact, what Hitler advocated was a kind of artificial selection, a form of animal breeding of H. sapiens, that is rooted in the domestication of plants and stock for farming and which has been applied to humans at least as far back as the Spartans.
But he correctly assesses William Jennings Bryan, his anachronistic politics by the standards of today's conservative religionists and at least partially understands the source of Bryan's distaste for evolution as based on the claims of German intellectuals and militarists in World War I for a peculiar doctrine of natural selection supposedly at work among nations.
He then starts his wind up with the banal thought:
Science is something very specific. It is a means of understanding the world around us by posing hypotheses that can be tested with experiments or observations. But science can never help us make moral or value judgments like those the new physicians will face.
Serious efforts in biology and medicine can no more ignore evolution than airplane designers can ignore gravity.
It is far more difficult to know what moral values should guide our decisions, and perhaps we should put more effort into helping students grasp that reality.