U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Evolution versus Creationism: Why Teach Science

Texas Governor, presidential hopeful, and prominent conservative culture warrior Rick Perry, when asked recently about his views on evolution, responded: “It’s a theory that’s out there. It’s got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both Creationism and evolution.” The thing that most horrified some Texans about his response was the implication that their state was intentionally violating constitutional law. In the 2005 case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a U.S. Federal Court ruled that teaching “intelligent design,” the latest in creationist thought, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Perry’s comments thus reveal either ignorance of the law, or disdain for it.

Constitutional mandates against the teaching of creationism go at least as far back as the Supreme Court’s 1987 decision, Edwards v. Aguillard. In that case the Court ruled that Louisiana’s “Creationism Act,” which prohibited the teaching of evolution except when coupled with equal curricular time for creationism, was unconstitutional on the grounds that it “advance[d] the religious viewpoint that a supernatural being created humankind.” But then, as now, conservative culture warriors sought ways to resist court-ordered rules against the teaching of creationism—part of a larger struggle against a liberal public school curriculum they deemed a Trojan horse for secular humanism.

In the 1990s, the Christian Right implemented a new technique in its fight against the liberalized curriculum. Activists ran “stealth” campaigns for local school boards, only campaigning amongst their coreligionists, who were expected to vote in high numbers. “We’re trying to generate as large a voter turnout as possible among our constituency,” the Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed explained, “by communicating with them in a way that does not attract the fire of our opponents.” The plan worked to perfection in Vista, California, a suburb of San Diego, where conservatives gained a three-person majority on the five-person school board in 1992. John Tyndall, one of the newly elected conservatives who worked as an accountant for the Institute for Creation Research, a creationist think tank, attracted controversy when he asked a committee of science teachers to review a manifesto for intelligent design—Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins—for inclusion in the curriculum. Soon after the committee predictably rejected the book, the conservatives on the board rewrote the local science standards to include the following clause: “To enhance positive scientific exploration and dialogue, weaknesses that substantially challenge theories in evolution should be presented.” Such organizing at the local level set the table for bigger moves, such as when conservative culture warriors gained a majority on the Kansas school board and then controversially removed evolution from its state standards in 1999.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the leading professional association of scientists, fought back against this culture wars creationist push with the publication of two pamphlets for general consumption: Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science (1998); and Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences (1999). The NAS posited these two pamphlets as an appropriate response to a 1996 Gallup Poll that alarmingly showed fewer than half of Americans “believe that humans evolved from earlier species.” In contrast to millions of Americans, the NAS pamphlets were insistent about the veracity of evolutionary science:

Those who oppose the teaching of evolution in public schools sometimes ask that teachers present ‘the evidence against evolution.’ However, there is no debate within the scientific community over whether evolution occurred, and there is no evidence that evolution has not occurred. Some of the details of how evolution occurs are still being investigated. But scientists continue to debate only the particular mechanisms that result in evolution, not the overall accuracy of evolution as the explanation of life’s history.

From my vantage point—as a non-scientist seeking to understand enough of the science to get a fair reading on the politics of a curriculum controversy—these two pamphlets, together, represent one of the clearest explanations about the science of evolution, and the lack of science informing creationism and intelligent design. They convincingly demonstrate that scientific fields informed by evolutionary science—genetics, molecular biology, paleontology, comparative anatomy, biogeography, and embryology, among others—confirm one of Darwin’s key theories: natural selection, or, that naturally occurring variations are hereditable. “Although the genetic variation on which natural selection works is based on random or chance elements, natural selection itself produces ‘adaptive’ change—the very opposite of chance.”

The NAS authors also do a good job of showing the gaps in logic—the anti-science—that inform the various creationist arguments. For instance, one of the creationist contentions is that the fossil record studied by evolutionary paleontologists is too incomplete to be revealing. Although this was true when Darwin conceptualized natural selection in the 19th century, by the late 20th, this was patently false. Paleontologists have shown that “undisturbed strata with simple unicellular organisms predate those with multicellular organisms, and invertebrates precede vertebrates; nowhere has this sequence been found inverted.” Furthermore, to put it in terms my three-year-old might understand, nowhere on Earth did fossil evidence suggest that humans lived alongside dinosaurs (for now, I’ll keep this a secret from my son, since he is drawn to stories about human-dinosaur interaction). Moreover, the trump card of “intelligent design” rests on a post hoc fallacy: that some biological workings “are so irreducibly complex that they can function only if all the components are operative at once,” thus mitigating against the possibility of natural selection, which requires the isolation of single genetic functions. This is fallacious because it assumes that something complex is not comprised of several less complex parts. “Natural selection can bring together parts of a system for one function at one time and then, at a later time, recombine those parts with other systems of components to produce a system that has a different function.”

Despite such lucid scientific explanation—and despite the patient debunking of creationism—the NAS pamphlets are less sensible about curricular politics. For instance, they imply time and again that those who oppose the teaching of evolution on religious grounds need not do so because most of “the major religious denominations have taken official positions that accept evolution.” That Catholics or Buddhists have adjusted their religious doctrines to account for evolutionary science is small consolation to those fundamentalist Christians who cannot reconcile their faith with Darwin. Thus, if this rhetorical strategy is meant to convince, it fails miserably—fundamentalist Christians have long taken pride in their doctrinal differences with Rome, not to mention with secular humanists! If it was meant to condescend, well, it works, but to what end?

Another problem with the NAS pamphlets, more serious from my perspective, is that they ignore the Big Question, which has never fully been settled in the teaching evolution controversy, going back to the Scopes Monkey Trial: Who decides what is taught to the children? Should democratically elected local school boards control the curriculum, as argued by William Jennings Bryan? Or should experts, those with their fingers on the pulse of science and scholarship, as argued by Clarence Darrow?

Related to this problem, the NAS offered only a half-hearted defense of science education. Like historians and other assorted humanists, scientists rationalize the need for science education as essential to democracy. Democratic citizens need “the same skills that scientists use in their work—close observation, careful reasoning, and creative thinking based on what is known about the world.”

Not that I disagree with this assessment of scientific thinking, but I would like a more fully developed epistemological rationale for science than the notion that it inculcates democratic habits of mind. Because, as I think Jackson Lears brilliantly shows in his superb takedown of Sam Harris, sometimes scientists are prone to anti-democratic scientism, or, they arrogantly apply science where it has no application.

This leads me to my concluding question: does anyone know of a good epistemological defense of science, historical or contemporary?

As I argued a few months ago with regards to the secular humanism question, I think we as educators should always be clear about the epistemological foundations of our pedagogical and intellectual approaches. And if our approaches challenge the epistemological foundations of our students, these gulfs should be explored, not shoved under the rug so as to avoid controversy or hurt feelings.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Achieving scientific literacy, much like the ability to think historically, is a necessity in order to not only function in our modern “knowledge societies,” but also to combat the all too common human trait of reductive thinking.

    You might find an older book entitled Epistemic Cultures by sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina to be helpful. She compares the “epistemic cultures” across a wide range of scientific disciplines and finds incredible diversity and fragmentation. I wish I could give you more, but if have time and can access a copy, you should check it out.

  2. “This leads me to my concluding question: does anyone know of a good epistemological defense of science, historical or contemporary?”

    can you be more specific? are you after a philosophy of science? Karl Popper? It seems somehow wrong to attempt to answer this kind of patent disregard for scientific knowledge with a stronger philosophical defense–as is generally the case, what’s being contested isn’t whether we’re going to teach science or not, but what counts as science (this is why it’s a problem about the limits of democratic control). it feels as though you’ve already given up something very important if every school board meeting gets to decide again if they think that intelligent design is in principle falsifiable and therefore scientific (or meets whatever criteria for genuine knowledge one chooses to apply).

  3. Brian, thanks for the reading suggestion.

    Eric, honestly, I’m not really sure what I’m looking for–something that uses the lens of political controversies about science education as a way to defend science knowledge at the epistemological level? Not sure this exists, but it should.

    And don’t get me wrong, I’m not making the case that every school board should have the creationism/evolution debate. I want evolution and only evolution taught in science classes as the scientific way of understanding human origins. But I think we’d be well served if scientists hashed out better political, philosophical, and epistemological rationales than I read in the NAS pamphlets (which I admit is a narrow archive).

  4. Andrew,

    I, too, would be interested in such a defense. It’s a fundamental problem. My own work is largely on Third Republic France, where they had a much sharper form of a similar debate–but there was generally a sense that you couldn’t have it both ways. Science was science, and implied a whole worldview that was incompatible with Catholicism. In fact things were much more complicated, for instance many of the leading scientists of the time were, in fact, practicing and believing Catholics–it didn’t stop them from being mathematicians. But at the level of the school-house, the conflict over science education was always political in the clearest sense. There has generally been a strong defense of this agenda on the part of historians. The Third Republic was democratic, anti-authoritarian, and in general an open society–and science was a part of that. to attack secular schooling is to attack the third republic, which is to attack liberal democracy. More recent scholarship has eroded that triumphal account of laicite, but i think this only increases awareness that science (which we could even try to define as the realm without subjective values, where demonstration compels assent…the opposite of politics) is, always, political.

    OK, rather than wandering about among abstractions here, winding back down to historical/historiographic earth: what about books on the politics of teaching racial science? there was after all a well-developed body of research ‘demonstrating’ the inferiority of african americans. this even has to do with the early debates on evolution, i suspect. were there debates about teaching this science in school? how did the politics of scientific authority work in this case?

  5. “The thing that most horrified some Texans about his response was the implication that their state was intentionally violating constitutional law.”

    Is there some other kind? On a less jocular note:

    “In the 2005 case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a U.S. Federal Court ruled that teaching ‘intelligent design,’ the latest in creationist thought, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Perry’s comments thus reveal either ignorance of the law, or disdain for it.”

    The premise of this statement is faulty. Perry can use the Kitzmiller decision to wipe his butt for all he cares. As the decision of a single district court judge in Pennsylvania, it doesn’t even set a precedent for all of that state, let alone one for Texas. That court has absolutely zero jurisdiction over Texas, so its judgement is entirely irrelevant for that state. I don’t see the current intelligent design controversy becoming ripe enough (in judicial terms) to allow the Supreme Court to revisit its decision in Edwards.

    On the more general issues, has anyone looked at how much, if at all, conservatives have borrowed from the anti-science criticism of postmodernists? There seems to be a belated recognition by some postmodernists (e.g. Michael Berube) that global warming skeptics are in a lot of ways looting the postmodernist arsenal. Are the creationists doing this, too, to call science into question, or does religion play such a dominant role that postmodernism is a non-factor?

  6. Andrew: As far as a good defense of science, the best place to start is with science itself. You can’t do better than Galileo, or Darwin, or Bacon. The philosophy of science is a huge field now, as are the history and sociology of science. All deal with the questions you are asking in their own way. Philosophy of science would probably have the most to say about epistemology, the other two about the social and cultural aspects. Frankly, a lot of stuff I’ve come across in the latter (admittedly a small selection) was rubbish. You’ll have to dig around. I found this book which shows that a lot of people are thinking about these things. I have no idea if it’s any good.


  7. One last note. The epistemology of science is a hugely controversial subject. You’re talking about debates like: “Does data not produced by direct observation count as knowledge?” and “In what sense are the theories and predictions of quantum physics ‘true'”?

  8. Thanks for the comments, Varad. On my Kitzmiller faulty premise, technically you are correct, of course. I should have been more careful/less sloppy. That said, as you know, federal courts that reinforce Supreme Court decisions based on new contexts set important precedents. As such, if the Supreme Court chooses not to hear a case on intelligent design, the implication is that Edwards applies. (Not that Perry would care about precedent, especially when coming from the northeast.)

  9. I’d likewise be curious to hear what kind of “exchange,” if any, is occurring between science skeptics of the postmodernist and fundamentalist persuasions. And Varad also hits upon something I’d been thinking, when you (Andrew) ask where the epistemological defenses of science are. I mean, presumably philosophy of science covers this and might even treat it as a rather elementary issue. Would philosophers of science, then, be at apt to fill this void? Would they see such a task as beneath them, or be seen by others as condescending/opaque/irrelevant?

    As neither a philosopher nor a scientist, I must say that at first I don’t see much wrong with the argument that good science can help inculcate democratic values, while granting the problems and arrogance of scientism. But I see your point that, either way, it’s not going to convince proponents of ID/creationism. What would matter, though? There’s no convincing such people that ID isn’t science in the first place.

  10. Andrew,
    I suspect you might already be familiar with some of John Rudolph’s work on the history of science education, but if not, that is one direction I might turn. Of note, Rudolph is also the new editor of the journal Science Education, which (along with the Journal of Research in Science Teaching) is the leading journal in the field of science education. Solid writer. Very clear. Smart. Hear he’s also remarkably nice guy.

  11. Though I have no doubt that the NAS pamphlets that Andrew mentioned are as valuable as he says they are, one of the quotations he cited showed their authors engaging in one of my pet peeves: the personification of evolution itself. I have seen this over and over again from writers on the subject, including professional biologists. I think it is a pernicious trend that does no favors for those who believe in biological explanations that depend on natural selection.

    “Natural selection can bring together parts of a system for one function at one time and then, at a later time, recombine those parts with other systems of components to produce a system that has a different function.”

    “Natural selection” does not “bring together,” “recombine” or “produce.” In fact, it does not do much of anything. It is the name that we give to a sequence of unrelated events, much like “the market.” As a concept, it provides a framework for us to understand and explain those events. But natural selection is not a force that causes those events to happen.

    I can imagine that many might view this concern as nothing more than a pointless quibble, but I think that it raises an important point. This consistent linguistic tic represents, in my view, the proponents of the explanatory power of natural selection giving away the intellectual store.

    Darwinism represents a paradigm shift away from Paley’s watchmaker: it says that we can explain the created without resorting to the hypothesis of a creator. The wonder of life and human existence that we see all around us can be just a bunch of stuff that happened. To say that natural selection “did” this is to–subtly, implicitly and, in most cases, unintentionally–refuse to reframe one’s intellectual orientation in accordance with this understanding. Passages like these really are guilty, in my view, of doing just what creationists say that they do: substituting evolution for God.

    God really does make for a more satisfying god than does natural selection. So the widespread acceptance of the Darwinist frame, I think, is the only thing that will lead to the widespread public acceptance of evolution. Those who write in its support need to be very careful not to reinforce the ways of thinking that stand in the way of its acceptance.

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