Triceratops skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History
Reach out to defend evolution
Author: Russell Garwood
Creationists seize on any perceived gaps in our knowledge of evolutionary processes. But scientists can and should fight back, says Russell Garwood.
Last month, this journal published a fossil study that described a new species of large tyrannosauroid dinosaur covered in feathers. A week later, the US state of Tennessee passed a creationist bill that encourages teachers to discuss the “weaknesses” of evolution. The first event provided fodder for a shrewd and calculated creationist machine; the second was its latest victory. As a palaeontologist, I believe the way that scientists and journals present research in my field can help to feed anti-evolution disinformation. Because we tend to stress novelty and play up scientific disagreement, and like to shift paradigms and break moulds, we offer our critics ammunition. As the events in Tennessee show, the fight against evolution comes with significant consequences. And it goes beyond the United States. The national biology curriculum of Pakistan, for example, dictates that students be taught “that Allah … is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe”.
The novelty of a large dinosaur with feathers was a selling point of the recent paper. However, in spite of a widespread agreement on birds' dinosaur origins, a limited number of researchers remain sceptical. Within days of the paper appearing, the influential creationist organization Answers in Genesis had exploited this disagreement. It misrepresented the Nature paper and disagreement about the equivalence of dinosaur feathers and bird feathers, concluding: “Dinosaurs did not evolve into birds … no evidence of feather evolution has been found in the fossil record.” It had presented an exciting discovery and a genuine scientific debate (albeit one that has almost run its course) as evidence against evolution, rather than as attempts to refine knowledge in this interesting area.
Another favourite anti-evolution tactic — the god-of-the-gaps — originated in the nineteenth century, and still flies today. This presents perceived gaps in scientific knowledge (genuine or spurious) as evidence in support of theistic world views. The lifeblood of this gappy god is uncertainty — yet good science thrives on unanswered questions. That papers frankly assess and admit shortcomings in current knowledge is vital. But the creationist lobby uses the same literature to try to undermine science.
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