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Mark Borello stands with a skeleton in the background.

Mark Borrello's research focuses on evolutionary theory in the 19th and 20th centuries as well as the history of genetics and behavioral biology.

Between science and society

U professor looks at evolutionary theory in the 19th and 20th centuries

By Jack El-Hai

Nov. 3, 2006

Last year, when Mark Borrello returned to campus after taking part in a public radio call-in program about the controversy over teaching intelligent design as an alternative to the theory of evolution, he met a mixed response.

"I got largely positive comments from most colleagues," says the assistant professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, "but others thought I was too easy on the advocates of Intelligent Design."

From his perspective as a historian of science, "we see that science has nothing to say about the existence of a creator, and the controversy over evolution is largely a cultural dispute, not a scientific one. We're better off when we're clear about that."

As an explorer of the region in which biology, history and philosophy overlap, Borrello knows that it pays to tread carefully through cultural clashes that involve science. His research focuses on the history of evolutionary theory in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the history of genetics and behavioral biology. "My goal is to promote the position that one's religious perspective doesn't matter in terms of science," he says of the evolution debate. "If we understand science as a historical process and acknowledge the parameters within which science works, then faith and science ought to be able to coexist." Yet cultural differences often prevent ideological opponents from finding that common ground.

Nov. 11: Science Education Saturday

Minnesota Citizens for Science Education presents "Teaching Evolutionary Biology in K-12 Schools" at the Bell Museum of Natural History on the Twin Cities campus on Nov. 11, from 9 a.m.-2 p.m.

Some of the most popular and dynamic University professors involved with evolutionary biology--Mark Borrello (see story), Randy Moore, Paul Myers and Greg Laden--will join a panel of K-12 teachers and administrators to explore the cultural, historical and educational aspects of evolutionary biology.

See the Science Education Saturday Web page for more information.

The controversy over the teaching of evolution, Borrello notes, is uniquely American. "It is not an issue anywhere else in the world. Even in Catholic countries, when I meet with Italian or French colleagues, they are consistently flummoxed by it," he says. He observes that the debate periodically reignites in times of deep social stress, such as the period of rapid modernization between the world wars, when the Scopes "monkey trial" grabbed national attention, and the 1980s, when the rise of conservatism tipped the social balance.

He was drawn to the history and philosophy of science after studying biology as an undergraduate and later working as a forestry volunteer with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. In subsequent work as a researcher for an archaeological consulting firm in Hawaii, Borrello saw history and science interact every day. He completed his Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University and came to the U of M in 2004.

Borrello believes that this year's judicial decision that prevented the board of education in Dover, Pennsylvania, from bringing Intelligent Design into the classroom will carry lasting importance. "Intelligent Design theory will have to retool and get renamed and get new primary advocates," he says. But the conflict will undoubtedly resurface--a phenomenon that intrigues him.

Republished from BIO, spring 2006, a publication by the College of Biological Sciences.