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.