Gravity, Evolution and Religious Dogma

07/28/2010 10:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Unwittingly, I'm sure, Erik Verlinde may have provided a defining moment for the Discovery Institute and other groups that pretend their attacks on evolution are made in the name of science rather than as a mechanism to promote their narrow sectarian religious beliefs.

Verlinde is an internationally respected physicist who recently published a paper in which he asks the provocative question: does gravity exist? As Dennis Overbye explained it in the New York Times:

"For me gravity doesn't exist," said Dr. Verlinde, who was recently in the United States to explain himself. Not that he can't fall down, but Dr. Verlinde is among a number of physicists who say that science has been looking at gravity the wrong way and that there is something more basic, from which gravity "emerges," the way stock markets emerge from the collective behavior of individual investors or that elasticity emerges from the mechanics of atoms.

What does this have to do with the Discovery Institute's position on evolution?

The link is actually quite straightforward. Their rallying cry, taken up by the Texas State Board of Education; the Louisiana legislature and its governor, Bobby Jindal; and a number of other states, is that students are best served when they are taught the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. They've taken to using this shibboleth as a means of hiding their real intent -- bringing intelligent design creationism into public school science classrooms and laboratories.

If I'm wrong about their intent, we'll soon be seeing the Discovery Institute urging school boards to completely rework their basic physics curricula. But I'm not holding my breath.

The thing is, unlike virtually all those who attack evolution, Verlinde is a part of the mainstream scientific community and his challenging ideas are being published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. More than that, Verlinde is not alone in questioning what we know about gravity. Indeed, the community of professional physicists has been unable to adequately explain the mechanism of gravity. Some, mostly string theorists, posit the existence of a massless particle they've dubbed the graviton and claim that it is responsible for mediating the force of gravity, a force that has unlimited range. Others simply scoff at the notion of such a particle.

And yet, to date, there haven't been protests about the way our children are being taught physics in general and about gravity in particular.

The mechanisms of evolution, on the other hand, have long been understood, observed and measured. The attacks on evolutionary theory are coming from outside the scientific community, by people who are not actively conducting research in the field, by people who invariably have a religious rather than a scientific agenda they're trying to advance.

Does this mean that we currently know all we will ever know about evolution? Of course not! The scientific literature is replete with fascinating papers advancing our understanding of the field, questioning which evolutionary mechanism takes precedence under which set of environmental conditions, and providing experimental support for various ideas.

Beyond that, because of the seemingly endless attacks on evolution from those who find this scientific concept offensive on religious grounds, scientific societies around the world have weighed in by issuing statements in support of evolution. Sixty-eight Academies of Science, for example, have jointly authored a Statement on the Teaching of Evolution that makes it absolutely clear that there isn't a scientific controversy surrounding evolution. These academies represent countries as diverse as the United States, Albania, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, to name just a few.

In the United States, the American Anthropological Association, the American Geological Institute, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the Botanical Society of America and the Society for Neuroscience along with a host of other high level organizations have issued similar statements. The fact is, regardless of what the Discovery Institute and others of its ilk claim, there isn't any controversy within the scientific community about the centrality and importance of evolutionary theory.

But expert opinion has yet to cause those attacking evolution to pause. Instead, they claim scientists are biased and our students deserve better. I'm well aware that the latest questions about gravity aren't likely to change the nature of the attacks. I am hopeful, however, that they might provide an opportunity to help the general public recognize the constant demand for school boards to reshape their curricula to allow students to focus on the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution for the sectarian ploy that it is.

If the Discovery Institute doesn't take up the scientific uncertainty of gravitational theory in the same way that it has approached evolution, then we can turn to one of the great philosophers of our time for guidance. As I Love Lucy's Desi Arnaz so presciently said, the Discovery Institute "has some 'splaining to do."