Friday, December 30, 2011

Faith based science

Everywhere I look I see signs of spontaneous generation. Scum blooms in a puddle of water, flies erupt from a wintry beach, and I once found a possum carcass writhing with maggots obviously emanating from its flesh.

We see this, but we all know that spontaneous generation does not happen. We know this with a certainty, a certainty that confounds me given the evidence to the contrary all around me.

Comb jelly spontaneously generating from wet sand.

A colleague reproduced Pasteur's experiment with the gooseneck flask and chicken broth. We both watched the open flask for a full school year. We both knew in our heads that nothing would grow, yet we were surprised anyway.

I have yet to meet a child, however, who believes in spontaneous generation. We've knocked it out of our culture, more through magic than science.

We tell kids every year that every cell comes from a pre-existing cell, and every year the students write this down like ancient Irish scribes, preserving truth without question, to be recited as Gospel, never questioning where the first cell came from.

Here in urban New Jersey, evolution gets presented with hardly a murmur. Most students think it's obvious, this evolution thing, and if surveyed by Gallup would call themselves "believers."

My frustration with those who accept the theory of evolution is not that descent with modification is invalid. It's not--it's a wonderful schema that makes sense of all of biology. No, my frustration is that most adults I know do not grasp the fundamental idea behind Darwin's work, the same fundamental idea he wrestled with for decades:
While natural selection is not random, the genetic variation it acts upon is random.
Humans, it turns out, were not inevitable. Evolution has no goal.And our demise is inevitable.

I am not saying we should teach children that life springs up from spontaneous generation, and that evolution's goal is to produce the perfect human. That would be silly, and grounds for my dismissal.

If a child accepts evolution  and denies that spontaneous generation occurs before dabbling in anything resembling science, then my job is paradoxically much more difficult.

Science starts with your relationship with your senses, not your culture. We're raising priests, not science literacy.

Good Lord, it's gorgeous outside--see you again when winter returns. 
Pasteur's flask came from Microbiology GPC.

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