Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute Jonathan Wells and Harvard Professor of Biology Stephen Palumbi debated the merits of evolutionary theory last night at the Kennedy School of Government’s ARCO Forum.
Although Wells and Palumbi disagreed about evolutionary theory, both said presenting multiple viewpoints on evolution is an important part of education.
Wells pointed to what he saw as the fallacies of Darwinian evolution. Wells said he accepted some of the basic tenets of evolution—that a fossil record exists and one can observe changes within species.
However, he claimed that Darwin made an illogical jump when he linked these tenets of evolution together under the model of natural selection.
“Darwinism extrapolates the evidence for evolution in one sense to evolution in the other sense, not on scientific grounds but on the basis of a philosophical assumption,” he said.
Wells argued that the Darwinian mechanism did not account for large-scale evolution, was “speculative” and relied on “an inferred pattern.”
Wells presented the notion of intelligent design as an alternative to Darwin’s concept of common ancestry.
“Were all features of living things produced by undirected natural causes or were some of them produced by an intentional planner?” Wells asked.
Wells’ main objections did not involve the nature of Darwinism, but rather the dogmatic teaching style of most schools.
Palumbi—who followed Wells’ speech—agreed with Wells’ observation that fossil history goes back billions of years. Palumbi offered two explanations. The first was that “the complicated came from the simple”—natural selection. The second was the empirically disproved notion of spontaneous generation.
Palumbi said he valued the evolutionary process more for its ramifications than for the theory’s internal worth. One example: the HIV virus, which has a high mutation rate that allows it to evolve within days or weeks.
“Understanding what’s going on within someone with HIV is impossible without recognizing the evolutionary process,” Palumbi said. “Evolution allows us to explain this phenomenon so that middle school and high school students can understand.”
The forum ended with a question-and-answer session for the 400-person audience.
One audience member asked whether Wells linked religion to his criticism of Darwinian evolution.
“Religion is a major issue in the way Darwinism is taught,” Wells responded. “Only [the way it is taught] is an attack on religion.”
In the end, both Wells and Palumbi reached virtually the same conclusion—that teachers should offer a critical approach to Darwinian theory.
“Darwinism holds a monopoly over our public school system and over our public money,” Wells said. “This is illegitimate in the same way that creationist monopoly is not OK. We do not want a monopoly of one viewpoint.”
Audience members said they found the forum both interesting and applicable.
“It is important to acknowledge that there are people who believe differently,” Matthew J. Ferrante ’05 said. “Children need to be exposed to different theories and options.”