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From Safety of the Internet, Scientists Yell "Fight! Fight!"

According to Wikipedia, arbiter of all truth, physicist Victor Stenger is known for the phrase, "Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings." Or, more to the point: Science good, Religion bad. (With feeling.) So it is unsurprising that Stenger recently declared via the pages of the Huffington Post that science and religion are at war with one another.

Yosemite_Sam.jpgBut why think that? Because, says Stenger, science backs the idea that causes and events in this world are at bottom unguided, purposeless, whereas religion is dedicated to the opposite proposition. As applied to the origin of man, "[h]umans evolved due to luck, not divine purpose," says Stenger. (Emphasis added.)

Is it really that simple?

Sure, evolution as change in life over time is an uncontroversial idea. But evolution as change in life over time by means of natural selection and random mutation (i.e., "luck")? Them's fightin' words.

In particular, words like "random" and "natural" are often used to express a personal view on matters of ultimate causation, and that gets us into "the areas of the dead," to borrow a line from David Berlinski. Science as science can't say what, if anything, is behind the causal forces it studies, not ultimately at least.

Evolutionary Biologist Jerry Coyne feels differently, and calls for action. He writes:

It should be no crime -- in fact, it should be required -- for teachers to tell student [sic] that natural selection is apparently a purposeless and unguided process (I use the word "apparently" because we're not 100% sure, but really, do we need to tell physics students that the decay of an atom is "apparently" purposeless?).
The analogy of physics to evolutionary biology is instructive. Let's go with it.

To teach radioactive decay is to teach physics. But to teach the purpose or purposelessness behind radioactive decay is to do something else. Likewise, to teach selection is to teach evolutionary biology. But to teach the purpose or purposelessness behind selection (or the randomness or non-randomness behind genetic mutation) is to do something else.

So, no, teachers should not be required to say what is or is not "apparent" to them on matters of ultimate purpose. To require otherwise, as Coyne commands, is to invite nonscience into the science classroom, and to court trouble. Schools and lawmakers do well to ignore those who rattle sabers at a safe distance.

Image source: Wikipedia.