Column: N.H. Education Pick Has Something to Learn About Science

For the Valley News
Wednesday, February 08, 2017

It is a very human thing to wonder where we came from. Every culture on Earth has an origin story. Some Abenaki, the first people of this region of New England, tell creation stories that humans come from the trees. Some in this region now believe the first man was created from dust and the first woman from his rib. And if you watch enough of the History Channel, you might end up believing that humans are the result of an intergalactic hybridization of apes and aliens.

Origin stories are fun, and they are important parts of our cultures. But, they are not science. Science helps us understand the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. It is rooted in doubt, not belief. Science is based on testable questions, informed skepticism and data. Science doesn’t “prove” anything; it seeks instead to disprove, making science a bit of a fun-sponge sometimes. It is tough and not for the thin-skinned. Even the most elegant ideas wither in the absence of data or in the face of new evidence.

It is only when a testable idea has withstood decades or even centuries of attempts to disprove does it reach the status of a theory. Gravity is a theory. Heliocentrism (the idea that the sun is at the center of the solar system) is a theory. Cells as the building blocks of life is a theory. Evolution is a theory. I don’t believe in evolution, for science is not about belief. Instead, as a scientist, I currently accept the overwhelming physical evidence that evolution best explains the diversity of life on Earth, both past and present.

I was therefore quite puzzled when Frank Edelblut, the nominee to be the education commissioner in New Hampshire, said that “In science, we should study all theories of human origins, all legitimate or substantive theories of human origins.” I was puzzled because I am a paleoanthropologist — a scientist who studies human origins. Recently, I was part of a team that discovered over 1,600 fossils from a new species of early human (named Homo naledi) in a cave in South Africa (Valley News, Sept. 11, 2015). There are no competing “theories” of human origins; there is no controversy. There is a single, robust scientific explanation for human origins and evolution supported by a wealth of genetic data, decades of studies of comparative anatomy and behavior of our ape cousins, and a rich fossil record consisting quite literally of thousands of remains of our ancient ancestors.

Of course, we still have many questions about our origins and continually make discoveries that amaze and surprise us, but in the last few hundred years, our species has developed a new origin story — a story all humans share — based not on belief, but on actual physical evidence.

While I’m encouraged that Edelblut continued that he is an advocate for “good science,” I must point out that good science does not — as Edelblut stated — “support all theories of human origins” any more than good math teaches that sometimes 2+2=5.

Yet, I sense in Edelblut’s comments a real sense of curiosity for human origins and I therefore extend an open invitation for him to visit my Dartmouth College paleoanthropology laboratory to see for himself the fossil evidence for the remarkable and wonderfully rich history of our species and our lineage. And I could not agree with him more that “You study science because science is what unlocks the wonders of the world.” Science truly inspires and I wish to do my part to help Edelblut in his admirable effort to unlock some of those wonders for the kids of New Hampshire and Vermont.

I therefore extend an invitation to my lab for any public school science teacher and their class. And if cuts to public education make it difficult for you to come to Dartmouth, contact me — I’d be happy to bring the fossils to your classroom.

Jeremy DeSilva is associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College.