Science - March 5, 2009


Darwin and his evolution theory are still the subject of much debate. At Resource’s request, four Wageningen scientists – three Darwinists and one ‘born again’ creationist – met at a round table in Hotel de Wereld to discuss evolution, religion and the results of the Resource survey on the two. The participants were philosopher Professor Michiel Korthals, geneticist Professor Rolf Hoekstra, zoologist Professor Johan van Leeuwen and plant breeder Dr. Herman van Eck.

Round table debate at Hotel de Wereld.
The Resource survey on evolution and creationism revealed that over thirty percent of the Wageningen University population believes that a Creator was the source of life. Korthals: ‘I don’t find that so astonishing, actually. I am struck by the fact that more English-speaking than Dutch-speaking respondents believe in a Creator. That is an issue in Wageningen. We have a lot of foreign students and it seems that we are not doing enough to make the value of evolution theory clear to them.’ Hoekstra: ‘What’s more, evolution is really the link between all the life sciences.’

Van Eck: ‘That’s when I begin to splutter. I think Darwinisim is a bit of an oversold hypothesis. The origin of species can be explained very well by Darwinian mechanisms. But the theory has now gained an iconic status in academic thinking. It gets applied to all sorts of things, sometimes to the point of caricature.’

Hoekstra: ‘I agree entirely. You have to stay critical. Darwinist thinking gets applied to fields in which I think: nice stories, but where is the evidence?’
Van Eck: ‘In an academic environment, you know that there is quite a taboo on religious faith. At a university it is easier to come out as a homosexual than to teach biology as a Christian. I feel I am forced onto the defensive. If I then look at these percentages, I think: I thought secularization had gone further than that. Perhaps the students’ rural backgrounds play a role. And the fact that Latin America is Catholic and Africa largely Christian. Muslims probably opt for the Creator too. And the Chinese are brainwashed with atheism, because all religions are the opium of the people.’

Van Leeuwen: ‘Brainwashed! And you use the word for atheists and not for religion! That's strong language you are using there, and it comes across as quite denigrating too. It doesn't sound very friendly.'

Van Eck: ‘It may also be that the life sciences here mean we know more about the merits of evolution theory, and that we therefore also realize that science alone cannot explain life. That people here have a better grasp of the hypothetical nature of evolution theory, so that it is not strange at all that they also assume that there is a Creator.’

Van Leeuwen: ‘But Herman, evolution theory is extraordinarily well-founded.’ Van Eck: ‘Of that I have no doubt.’ Van Leeuwen: ‘I thought I had just detected some. And the alternative of creationism and intelligent design is an unscientific approach. With those ideas you’re in a different domain altogether. You’re bringing in things from outside science.’

Van Eck: ‘No, no, no. I want to be quite honest about this. My scepticism about some points of evolution theory is scientifically based. I do not believe that my scepticism should be based on my religious beliefs.’

Van Leeuwen: ‘To me the percentage of people believing in a Creator seems quite high for a scientific institution. It seems that religion is in people. If people don’t understand something, they invoke a higher power to make some sort of sense of it.’

Hoekstra is astonished by the response to the question about teaching creationism ‘because you can interpret it as saying that the creationist view should be taught.’ Van Leeuwen: ‘And if you then go on to take it as a starting point for research, then we really are on the wrong track in this institution.'

Van Eck: ‘If by creationism you mean pseudoscience, that certainly shouldn’t be allowed any role in education and research. But if it’s a question of integration between the natural sciences and the social sciences, I think we’re doing less than ever in this area. Since the BaMa model was introduced, biologists aren’t taught philosophy of science any more.’ Hoekstra: ‘That is serious indeed.’ Korthals: ‘But the question is: what is pseudoscience? The philosophy of science comes up with a great many controversial answers to this. I do think that teachers should be able to show the relationship with non-science. Students must be educated to be able to give good answers to this. Plausible answers. Because these questions can be relevant to science. For generating new hypotheses, for example.’

Van Leeuwen: ‘I think the philosophy of science aspect is important in our courses. But more because of basic questions such as: how do I conduct my science, what is my methodology, what are the limits to what I can and cannot do? But I’m not going to present creationism and intelligent design, because they do not belong to the domain of science.’

Hoekstra: ‘I think students benefit from clarity. Like: look, guys, you may come from Christian homes, but here we're in the business of science. And I’ve got nothing against your Christian ideas, but this is how it is. Creationism in research is just not on.’ Van Eck: ‘Science has its own rules of the game, and you can’t mess around with them.’ Van Leeuwen: ‘You bring a force into it that is beyond what you can observe yourself. This does not enable you to unravel a mechanism or answer a scientific question that you’re asking. So it is pointless.’

Evolution theory and the philosophy of science should be more prominent in degree courses at Wageningen UR. That is the conclusion of the round table discussion between four Wageningen scientists reported on this page. Evolution theory is currently only taught to biology students, but that is far too restricted, thinks experimental zoologist Johan van Leeuwen. 'Evolution theory has had an enormous impact on many sciences. And it still does.' Philosopher Michiel Korthals thinks we should look further than the relationship between evolution and creationism. ‘You need to initiate discussion, so that the process of scientific questioning and criticism is set in motion among students.’
Geneticist Rolf Hoestra has already taken the first step towards the wished-for educational improvement by submitting plans for a minor course on evolution. More importantly perhaps, he thinks more attention should be paid to the philosophy of science, preferably during MSc courses. ‘There are far too many students whose thinking about all sorts of concepts is terribly sloppy. If we just stick to evolution theory, I hear things like: it’s just a theory. Or: it has not yet been proved. These are weak statements. It just isn’t true.’