Evolution not Revolution

Roger Titcombe's picture
This is a popular cliché but it has a much more profound meaning if taken to apply to 'evolution' in the strict Darwinian sense rather the loose sense of general gradual change.

To explain this I have to refer to the attempts made by the religious to discredit Darwin's theory. One of the strongest arguments that still surfaces today from religious fundamentalists is the alleged problem of 'design'.

The classic exposition of this is to imagine that a visitor from another planet when walking on a beach comes across a discarded watch. It (the alien) picks up the watch, takes it back to his spaceship, and subjects it to meticulous examination. The conclusion is that it is a beautifully manufactured and designed mechanism for telling the time. Clearly an artifact showing such evidence of design, with every component apparently especially constructed explicitly for its function in the watch, must have had a designer. It is mathematically impossible that it could have come about naturally by chance interactions of matter and chemistry.

So when those of religious disposition examine any number of complex organs of living things they find the same exquisite evidence of design for a purpose. Hence there must have been designer - God

The most used example is that of the human eye, so close in form and function to a camera that not only must it have been designed by God but by a God with an all knowing knowledge of optics. It was not until Richard Dawkins published his brilliant book, 'The Blind Watchmaker' in 1986, that this argument was finally, comprehensively and completely refuted.

Dawkins' contribution was twofold. The first part is to point out that evolution did not suddenly produce a human eye by natural selection or any other method. The eye evolved in millions of small steps over many millions of years. The key requirement for natural selection to work its illusion of 'design' is for each and every tiny improvement to confer an inheritable survival advantage.

Dawkins' second essential contribution concerns the intermediate stages - the so called 'missing links' so beloved of creationists. In the overall evolutionary tree of life some missing links have been hard to find in the fossil record but fossil evidence for the gaps has gradually emerged. It would still be difficult to find all the intermediate developmental stages of the human eye in the fossil record but fortunately we don't have to. This is because there are modern descendents of ancient life forms that have light sensitive organs representing all the intermediate stages - species whose ecological niche in the diversity of life allows them to get along fine with what they have got.

If you want more explanation and evidence there is no better place to start than Dawkin's readable and inspiring book.

But this is a education website so why is Titcombe droning on about science again?

Because there is a direct analogy in the process of recent changes in the education system. These have been revolutionary changes imposed god-like from above. The arch-deity was Margaret Thatcher, who struggled with the emerging complexities of the task. Fortunately she could call upon senior archangels, Blair and Blunkett. Finally a shining newly ordained angel of educational deliverance has been sent earth to dispel ignorance and unbelief by deploying his limitless zeal to refresh once again the canon of the one true faith: marketised public services. Gove cometh.

From the perspective of parents, children and teachers here on earth instead of a glorious revelation of educational excellence we see a growing wasteland of dysfunction and folly that grows in excess and absurdity as fast as it collapses under the weight of its contradictions - all tracked daily through posts on Local Schools Network.

How then to mend the education system? There is growing consensus amongst parents, teachers and educationalists about where we need to be. Many, including me, have posted detailed prescriptions that have many common features, but we find it much harder to agree on how to implement them.

Here then is the lesson from nature. Take heed of the mechanism of godless evolution in producing the human eye. Proceed in small, modest steps, but most important of all, each step must produce a significant improvement on what went before. This is the only way to persuade doubters and successfully implement long term change in a democracy. I do feel that progress can be made by a political opposition that adopts that strategy - no more revolutions imposed from above please.


I see signs that it is happening.
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Andy V's picture
Sun, 11/05/2014 - 16:20

It is clear from other educational systems around the world that the biggest hurdle in changing from the inherited, ingrained, traditional approach to another is consensus among the main political parties that education is far too important to be riven by the ravages of party ideologies and their desire to exercise popular control over big issues through rhetoric and grandstanding.

Thereafter the strategy to change from the old education policy and strategies to the new is clearly a matter of evolution. There is no big bang approach or single magic bullet approach (e.g. Finland took 40 years, Canada is still evolving at Federal and Provincial levels).

For me therefore the strategy of using religious ideas as a comparator is irrelevant and thus unnecessary and redundant.

It strikes me that a more positive and fruitful approach to engage in debate on how to achieve the first goal and then initiate the evolution necessary to refocus education policy and its raison d'etre (how the eat the elephant in the room).

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