Theory is as much a fact as gravity
As chair of the Department of Biology at the University of Kentucky, I feel I must comment on the article concerning Hart County Superintendent Ricky Line's "deep concern" that educators are now "teaching evolution ... as a factual occurrence" and that "humans evolved from primates."
I appreciate Education Commissioner Terry Holiday's intent in deflecting Line's argument of "fact" by saying evolution is a scientific theory, supported by a wealth of facts, much more than a casual theory of, say, who will win a basketball game.
However, it is not explicit enough. Semantics of theories versus facts aside, let's just say this: Evolution is more of a fact than is gravity, the idea that everything is made of atoms, the concept that diseases are caused by germs or that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
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Whereas no one would dispute the latter four scientific theories, there is actually more direct, observed evidence (facts) for the theory of evolution than for those undisputed theories. Further, humans did not just evolve from primates. Humans are primates.
We share between 98 to 99 percent of our genetic sequences with living primates. Humans are genetically closer to chimpanzees than dogs are to coyotes.
DNA evidence from fossilized bones of extinct prehistoric humans such as Neanderthals and Denisovans show that we are related even more closely to these extinct creatures than we are to anything else. These are facts. Come back to school. I'll tell you more.
Vincent M. Cassone
Confusing belief and science
Hart County School Superintendent, Ricky D. Line does not seem to understand the distinction between belief and knowledge. Belief is a feeling of being sure that someone or something exists or that something is true.
All religion is based on belief without facts. Philosophy has traditionally defined knowledge as "justified true belief."
The relationship between belief and knowledge is that a belief is knowledge if the belief is true, and if the believer has justification — plausible assertions, evidence or guidance.
Scientific theory is defined as an explanation for a set of observations, defining knowledge about the physical universe. A scientific theory with a large set of observations in agreement is treated as fact.
The theory (or law) of gravity is a scientific fact because no observations are known that do not support it. The theory of evolution is a scientific fact because observations from many fields support it.
Some of the strongest observations come from new science, such as DNA, that was not known when the theory was proposed.
The end-of-course assessment for biology will evaluate the student's knowledge of the science of biology. It is not concerned with the student's beliefs in other areas such as religion.
Line needs to distinguish between his religious beliefs and the body of knowledge contained in the biological sciences.
He has the right protected by the First Amendment, to believe in creationism. His belief does not make creationism or any religious belief into scientific knowledge.
Real or not, theory is part of education
The Hart County school superintendant is upset because evolution is being taught "as if it were a fact, rather than as a theory." But I believe his real objection is that it is being taught as a believable theory.
A theory is a story that helps us organize and understand facts. Good theories lead us to notice aspects of the system that have been overlooked, and to suggest possible applications.
For example, you can understand a lot about electricity if you assume it is like a fluid that moves through the wires; if your toaster isn't working, perhaps there is a break in a wire somewhere.
Evolution and the big bang are very good theories because they organize a large number of observations and predict the outcome of experiments.
My theory is that the world was created the day I was born. I still need to know about Abraham Lincoln and King George III and Johannes Gutenberg and Christopher Columbus (who never existed, according to my theory), if I am going to understand the world.
In the same way, we have to teach evolution and the big bang as very good theories, whether we believe in them or not.
People have the same tailbones as monkeys, and the same number of neck bones as a giraffe. Whales have elbows. The biological world resembles a world that evolved, no matter how it was actually created.
Whether or not evolution actually takes place, we still need to know about and teach the relationships that the theory predicts.
Joseph P. Straley
'Scientists ain't gonna tell me'
It is funny, in an eye-rolling sort of way, that a Kentucky school superintendent can have such a poor grasp of science.
Hart County Superintendent Ricky Line recently complained to the Kentucky Board of Education about the teaching of evolution and supported his low opinion of science with this zinger: "It's interesting that the great majority of scientists felt Pluto was a planet until a short while ago."
Line is referring to the International Astronomical Union tweaking its definition of "planet" in 2006, resulting in the reclassification of Pluto as a "dwarf planet."
I'm not sure how this has any bearing on the teaching of evolution, pro or con.
It's like saying, "Them scientists ain't gonna tell me nothing about evolution. Heck, until 1959 they didn't even think Hawaii was a state."
Don't cheat Ky. students
Regarding the Dec. 13 article in which Hart County Superintendent Ricky Line objected to Kentucky's blueprint for its end-of-course test in biology, I firmly believe he is entitled to his personal beliefs. What he is not entitled to do is cheat Kentucky's students of the chance to learn scientific concepts which are accepted by the vast majority of scientists.
While evolution is a theory, it is a theory with mountains of evidence to support it and should be taught as such. By the way, gravity is a theory, too. I wonder if Line believes in it?