Is Teaching Natural Selection a "Mass-Mind Tool of Financial Interests"?

Picture credit, Khan Academy.

Have a look at this article from the Khan Academy, in particular the section entitled Natural Selection:

Darwin, evolution, & natural selection.

What do you think? Is it a reasonably accurate and informative, if perhaps a bit bland and prosaic, summary of some of the key elements of the theory of evolution, suitable for the average high school student?

What if someone was to tell you that it is, instead, a “mass-mind tool of financial interests”, designed to indoctrinate unwitting students into accepting an outdated concept that is no longer accepted by modern science? That is the view of Suzan Mazur, who has written a scathing response to this seemingly benign article on her blog.

Mazur, for those not familiar with her (which I suspect will be most of you) is a freelance writer who mostly writes about science. In the opinions of some however, she is not very good at this. Her main stock in trade is arguing that the theory of evolution is a failed idea that needs to be replaced by a new scientific paradigm. As a result of this, she has a tendency to pump up and proselytize for the claims of creationists and other assorted and sundry crackpots. Though, as we shall see, there are times where she will also misunderstand and/or misrepresent the views of legitimately informed scientists.

As best as I can tell from this rather brief missive, Mazur is very concerned that Khan Academy is a large and profitable business and that many of the people involved in running the organization come from a business background. She seems to believe that the website’s mention of natural selection is part of some larger, corporatist agenda, though exactly what that agenda might be is not entirely clear from this article alone. Regardless, her claim is based on the premise that natural selection is no longer viable as a scientific idea. As she writes: “Natural selection is a metaphor that was decommissioned at the end of the 20th century. ‘No one in the mainstream scientific community now takes selection literally.’

That hyperlink is in the original blog post, and if you click on it you will be taken to an interview Mazur did with computational biologist Eugene Koonin. It’s an interesting and revealing read, and not only because Koonin gives lucid explanations of complex concepts in evolutionary biology. It seems to me that Mazur is trying to goad Koonin into making some comment that will support her anti-evolutionary agenda, but Koonin isn’t biting. Here is the passage from which that quote is taken:

Darwin did not mean natural selection to be taken literally. But we have to be, I guess, a little more specific about what it means to take natural selection or any kind of selection literally. It means, one would assume, the existence of a selecting agent. Perhaps making all these parallels between natural selection and artificial selection, the way Darwin does in his book, could be somewhat dangerous because in artificial selection there is someone who is selecting, even if unconsciously. In that respect, the evolutionary process is very different in nature where nothing is there to actually select. Darwin certainly realized this and wrote more precisely of “survival of the fittest.” In modern evolutionary biology, it is sometimes “random survival” but the key point remains the same: organisms survive and leave progeny differentially. I think it is quite alright to denote some forms of differential survival selection, metaphorically. And there is no confusion here, within mainstream thinking. No one in the mainstream scientific community now takes selection literally.

I don’t see how that can be honestly construed, in any way, as Koonin saying that the concept of natural selection no longer applies in evolutionary biology. In fact, I think the phrase “organisms survive and leave progeny differentially” would serve as a concise summary of the Khan Academy’s discussion of natural selection.

So perhaps that gives some idea of why Mazur may not be much taken seriously as a science writer by knowledgeable scientists. However, it probably will not come as a surprise that one place where she is taken seriously is within the Intelligent Design Creationist community. As it happens, the Discovery Institute’s website Uncommon Descent ran a breathlessly enthusiastic response to Mazur’s blog post. And while I am not at all certain what, if any, ideological bias drive Mazur’s antipathy to evolution, I have no such doubts regarding the fact that the DI is motivated by its conservative, fundamentalist religious agenda. Which makes this comment in the UD article all the more curious:

Here’s a thought: The problem with natural selection (survival of the fittest) as a concept is that it inevitably leads to notions of superiority/inferiority, which come to dominate thinking about evolution. That’s probably the main reason that evolution got mixed up with racism.

We needn’t spend much time pointing out the several fallacies committed here. Suffice it to say that even if were true that acceptance of natural selection made one more likely to be racist, that does not mean natural selection is false as a scientific idea. And the DI’s assertion requires that they ignore the well-documented role in promoting racist ideology played by creationist ideas such as belief in the story of Noah’s Ark. What I find most interesting about this UD post, apart from the odd dismissal of quantum mechanics, is the fact that, while the DI does not shy away from weighing in on political and social issues, it does not generally take any interest in social justice issues such as racism and equality. Almost the only time the topic is brought up is when it can be wielded as a Whiffle Bat to try inflict some damage to the reputation of Charles Darwin. That is to say, it is simply a cynical ploy to exploit anti-racist sentiment to bolster the creationist cause.