A decision in Kansas to question evolution dogma has given rise to hysteria and intolerance
December 1, 1999
In 1995 the National Academy of Sciences, through its National Research Council arm, issued a set of national science education standards calling for "dramatic changes" in the way science is taught in grade schools and high schools. Several years later the Kansas State Board of Education appointed a panel of scientists and academics to advise it on bringing state guidelines into conformity with the national standards. As the time drew nigh for the board to vote on accepting the revised guidelines, however, a problem cropped up. Alerted by concerned parents, the board discovered that the National Academy had aggressively promoted evolution into a central "unifying concept" of science education, on a par with such fundamentals as "evidence" and "measurement." Students were to be told definitively that "Natural selection and its evolutionary consequences provide a scientific explanation for the fossil record of ancient life forms." Even in the murkiest areas of biology such as the origin of life, the academy made clear in its pamphlet Science and Creationism (free when you order a copy of the science standards) that skepticism was not to be countenanced. The academy explicitly warned schools that "'biological evolution' cannot be eliminated from the life science standards." Last August the Kansas board balked. Led by board member Steve Abrams, a doctor of veterinary medicine, a 64 majority declined to adopt the academy's standards on speculative aspects of Darwin's theory, although students' knowledge of "microevolution"--small changes caused by natural selection that can be observed in the laboratory--would still be tested.
That minimal act of defiance triggered an explosion of scorn and rage, whose intensity can best be gauged by the chilling suggestion of John Rennie, editor of Scientific American, that Kansas schoolchildren be held hostage until the board acquiesces. He urged college admissions officers to “Make it clear that in light of the newly lowered education standards in Kansas, the qualifications of any students applying from that state in the future will have to be considered very carefully. Send a clear message to the parents in Kansas that this bad decision carries consequences for their children. If kids in Kansas aren't being taught properly about science, they won't be able to keep up with children taught competently elsewhere. It's called survival of the fittest. Maybe the Board of Education needs to learn about natural selection firsthand.”
Rennie's threats aren't an isolated overreaction. An influential segment of academia, with sympathizers in the press and elsewhere, regards public acceptance of Darwinian evolution as strictly nonnegotiable. Even First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion take a back seat to the requirement for everyone to affirm evolution. Trumpeting what he viewed as the inevitable victory of Darwinism, in his 1995 book Darwin's Dangerous Idea cited by the National Academy as a reading resource by the prominent atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett made ambitious plans. Religions should be caged, he wrote, like dangerous wild animals. "Save the Baptists! Yes, of course, but not by all means. Not if it means tolerating the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world." How Do You Know?
What is it about the topic of evolution that drives so many people nuts? Why does a change in a farm state's high school examination policy call forth damning editorials all the way from London, England, and have normally staid editors threatening children? The answer is convoluted, but several tightly intertwined factors can be teased apart. The first, of course, is religion. Some nonbelievers and adherents to minority faiths hold Christianity in contempt, and fight frantically to minimize the public influence of America's majority creed. The second factor is politics. Since activist opponents of evolution are as a rule politically conservative, any move against Darwinism is treated by some overwrought folks as the first step on the path to fascism, with a flat tax and a ban on abortion soon to follow. So the camel's nose must be shoved back with the same vigor and tactics as was the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. A final factor is more fundamental than the others, and more fateful. It's a question about knowledge itself a clash over what we think we know and how we think we know it. Although seemingly esoteric, it can spark real trouble. People can get supremely irritated when other folks just won't listen to reason, especially if they think they have the unvarnished facts on their side. One reason for agitation is that a person's self image is often wrapped up in what he thinks he knows about the important questions of life. Richard Dawkins, the prominent Darwinian popularizer, wrote that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist," and few people give up their intellectual fulfillment quietly. At a more banal level, many manage to feel good about themselves by feeling superior to creationists. While one may not have a clue about the subtleties of the evidence for or problems with Darwinism, he is automatically part of the smart set when he accepts evolution.
The knowledge conflict is played for high stakes when government bureaucracies or professional organizations gain the power to decide what we officially know. As Dennett and Rennie showed, the side with enough cultural power may try to coerce the assent of whoever is vulnerable, such as children in public schools and their parents. At that point real knowledge hardly matters; rather, the imperative of power is to force others to accept your premises. For example, the National Academy of Sciences is the bureaucracy that decides what we officially know about evolution. Yet even while admitting that the problem is "seemingly intractable," the academy nonetheless dictates the premises for public discussion of the origin of life; For those who are studying the origin of life, the question is no longer whether life could have originated by chemical processes involving nonbiological components. The question instead has become which of many pathways might have been followed to produce the first cells. Bureaucracies with power do not relinquish it easily.
Conflict aside, a serious evaluation of what we know about a question as complex as evolution has to examine not only facts, but premises too. For the segment of the public that is conscientiously trying to sort through the evolution controversy, the difficulty is that the two poles dominating public discussion--scientific atheism and biblical literalism--both have strong philosophical views that color any discussion of the facts. So when reading the arguments of either side, one has to worry whether the conclusions come mostly from the facts or the premises. This usually isn't difficult to do in the case of biblical literalism, since in the wake of Kansas there is no shortage of commentators willing to bring problems with its presumptions to our attention. On the other hand, critical probes of Darwinism by the major media are rare. So let's focus on some problems of Darwinian literalism.
Darwin fleshed out his theory in several hundred pages of The Origin of Species, but the main idea is easily summarized. Darwin saw variation everywhere in life; some individuals of a species are bigger than others, some faster, some brighter in color. After reading Malthus, Darwin realized that there was not enough food to allow all animals that were born to survive. So he reasoned that those members of a species whose chance variation gave them an edge in the struggle to survive would tend to live to adulthood and reproduce. If the variation could be inherited, then over time the characteristics of the species might change. And over eons, whole new kinds of animals might arise. It was, and remains, an elegant theory. From just a few factors--variation, inheritance, and a struggle to survive--everything seems to follow. In fact, to some the theory is so compelling it seems as though it just has to be right. Richard Dawkins has written poetically of "universal Darwinism," courageously predicting that wherever life exists in the universe, we will find it has evolved by Darwinian means. Yet from the beginning Darwin's theory has had its problems, and they are not getting fewer with time. The theory's biggest embarrassment is the profound mystery of the origin of life. To avoid the subject, some Darwinists coyly say that the theory doesn't deal with life's origin; it concerns changes once life has started. But, as the National Academy's premise bullying makes clear, Darwinists care very much about the origin of life. Because they want to retain control of the premises of knowledge, they need the public conversation to presume that unguided natural forces are responsible for all aspects of life on Earth. Otherwise, if nature needed a little boost to get life started, then who's to say that factors different from the ones evolutionists study didn't have a role in shaping life? And if Darwinism has to prove its just-so stories instead of having them accepted as the default explanation, it would effectively lose its privileged position in Western intellectual society.
A classic Darwinian problem is the fossil record. In his own day Darwin recognized that it did not square with his expectation of innumerable transitional forms. It still doesn't. Although Darwinism expected anatomical differences between classes of animals to start out small and then get greater with time, the opposite is often true; as a rule very different forms of life appear within a brief time, and only later do variations within the deeper categories show up. New forms of life typically appear in the geological record with no obvious precursors, persist essentially unchanged for a time, and then disappear. Stephen Jay Gould once wrote that "the extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of paleontology." Aghast at Gould's bluntness, in Science and Creationism the National Academy made a stab at damage control. It quoted Gould calling persons who cited his remark "dishonest," because he intended " to discuss rates of evolutionary change, not to deny the fact of evolution itself." Yet whatever he personally wanted to affirm or deny, his factual observation of the lack of transitional fossils stands. Recently Darwinism has suffered a series of embarrassments as textbook examples of evolution have turned out to be not what they seemed. The most serious reversal was in developmental biology. Based on nineteenth century drawings, the embryos of fish, amphibians, birds, and mammals were thought to look virtually identical. Much was made of the resemblance as evidence for evolution. Probably the majority of American schoolchildren in the past 50 years have seen drawings of the embryos in their biology textbooks. Carl Sagan once wrote in Parade magazine (circulation in the tens of millions) that human embryos have "something like the gill arches of a fish or an amphibian." And eminent scientists declared that the great similarity only made sense in the light of evolution. But the embryos don't look like that. Recent research has shown that these century old drawings, by Ernst Haeckel, an admirer of Darwin, are quite misleading. In reality the embryos are significantly different from each other (although there are similarities). This turns out to be a real puzzle. If fish evolved into amphibians, then the program that turns a fertilized egg into a fish had to have changed into the program that makes an egg into an amphibian. Drawing on Haeckel's work, scientists thought they understood how that could happen. Crucial early development was conserved, while later, less important stages could vary. But now that scenario has been falsified. In trying to decide what we know about evolution and how we know it, the embryo fiasco is quite instructive. The scientists and textbook authors who touted the nineteenth century drawings with utter confidence are now exposed as clueless. (They include the president of the National Academy of Sciences, Bruce Alberts, whose textbook Molecular Biology of the Cell prominently cites Haeckel's work.) They assured the public that they had strong evidence for evolution, but they didn't even know what the embryos looked like. Their " facts" didn't come from nature, but from their Darwinian premises.
An axiomatic evolutionary idea to run into trouble recently is the concept of an "arms race"--one involving predators and prey. An improvement in the ability of the prey to avoid being caught sets the stage for an improvement in the predator to catch it. Then the prey improves again, and so on. Like natural selection itself, the idea of an arms race seems like something that just has to be true. In his influential book The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins averred that "the arms-race idea remains by far the most satisfactory explanation for the existence of the advanced and complex machinery that animals and plants possess." Yet however tempting such an explanation may seem, there is little biological evidence for it. Recently a research team from the University of Chicago looked in a place thought to be a very likely candidate for an arms race: genes for disease susceptibility or resistance in plants. When no supporting evidence was found, these researchers declared; " We reject the arms race hypothesis."
The dry results with plant diseases have implications for a livelier subject: sex. It turns out that sex is a big puzzle for Darwinian theory. In fact, a literal interpretation of the theory predicts that sexual reproduction should not exist. Here's the problem. Given two organisms, if both are asexual, both can reproduce. If both are sexual, only one (the female) can bear young. A little math shows that asexual organisms should rapidly outbreed sexual ones and dominate the world. But since sexual species actually dominate, Darwinism has some explaining to do. In the past century dozens of guesses have been made as to why, against straightforward expectations, sex predominates. The current favorite is that sex helps in a putative arms race against parasitic diseases. But if the idea of an arms race is itself in doubt, then sex, the core of Darwinian evolution, remains an enigma. A theory of evolution that predicts most species should be asexual is like a theory of gravity that expects things to fall up.
Not Even the Shadow Knows
The audacious claim that unguided natural forces organized nonliving matter into cells and then produced the complex biological systems we see today is as solid as Swiss cheese. When treated with even the mildest skepticism, the mighty Darwinian citadel fades into a Potemkin village. No wonder that the National Academy brooks no discussion of the theory's premises; premises are just about all it's got. Yet some people are eager to join the Darwinian team, even though that means going well beyond the facts--taking a leap of faith. Leaps of faith can turn into pratfalls when what we think we know isn't true. And so it was that much dubious wisdom was dispensed following Kansas by savants whose knowledge of Darwin's theory stops at that bumper sticker of a fish with feet. While smiting biblical literalists hip and thigh, film critic Roger Ebert weighed in with, "I am encouraged by evolution, which suggests that things keep improving"--a view that would drive Stephen Jay Gould to distraction. Gould and any other evolutionist worth his salt will tell you that natural selection is as likely to lead to regress as progress. A proevolution Seattle columnist wrote of "Lucy, the famous 3.2 million year old Ethiopian mummy once admired by President Clinton." Lucy, however, is a fossil, not a mummy; Clinton's eyes sparkled for a 500yearold mummified Incan maiden (aged 13 years at death), not (yet) for the fossilized hominid. Echoing the official line, columnist Ellen Goodman wrote, "There's no serious dispute about the fact of evolution.... There is scientific dispute about the theory of evolution--how and why and when life began and species evolved." But the National Academy insists discussion of the "how" be strictly confined to unintelligent, unguided, wholly natural processes. In a funny piece in the Washington Post, Gene Weingarten wrote that "the genes that have made (the Kansas board) such pinheads will be eliminated through natural selection. Because that is how it works." Weingarten should sober up and take his own scenario more seriously; If dumb genes haven't been eliminated since Lucy's day, why does he think selection can do it, let alone make smart genes?
We shouldn't be too hard on the pundits, though, because even the experts get their conclusions from their premises. Several years ago I argued in Darwin's Black Box that many of the exceedingly complex molecular machines that science has unexpectedly discovered in the cell appear to have been purposely designed, because of the way their parts work together. On the PBS show "Think Tank," Ben Wattenberg asked Richard Dawkins--Mr. Darwinism--for his response. With his trademark charm, Dawkins choked that I was being " cowardly" and "lazy" for invoking a designer. Nonetheless, he admitted that since he wasn't a biochemist, he couldn't answer the argument. Yet if he doesn't know how evolution might have made the basic machinery of life, how can he be sure that Darwinism is a complete explanation for life? And if Richard Dawkins doesn't know, who does? And if nobody knows, why teach children that we do?
Darwinians Against Competition
Most Americans have long recognized that claims by scientists about global warming, nuclear winter, overpopulation, stem cell research, and so on can't just be taken at face value. Scientists are people too and suffer from the same defects as everyone else, including hubris, self-interest, and wishful thinking. This goes for science organizations as well. The National Academy of Sciences can be as biased in its recommendations on science policy as the American Bar Association can be on legal matters. On the other hand, science does come up with important findings on occasion, such as the link between smoking and health. So how is one to sift the useful information from the hype? The best (although not perfect) way to do that is to have a wide-open discussion. In controversial scientific matters no less than in political ones, the responsibility for persuasion then rests with the advocates of a position. The public has no moral obligation to blindly trust science groups. If a majority of the public disbelieves the National Academy of Sciences, then that should be the academy's problem, not the public's. A Gallup poll taken after the Kansas decision showed only a minority of respondents wanted the teaching of evolution eliminated from schools. A strong majority, however, responded positively when asked if both evolution and creation should be taught. It's likely that the response to the canned poll question translates into an attitude something like "be less dogmatic about teaching evolution; point out problems of the theory and include alternative views." Yet this entirely sensible position is anathema to most evolutionists, who seem to argue both that Darwinism is a compelling explanation and that it has to be shielded from rival ideas. Two objections are most frequently raised against teaching alternatives to Darwinism in the public schools. The first is that science classes should teach only what scientists think about scientific topics, and few scientists doubt evolution. Science classes, however, should not limit themselves to what most professional scientists think any more than English classes should teach only what the Modern Language Association approves. Experience shows that entire professions can get stuck in an intellectual rut. In order to prepare schoolchildren to be citizens overseeing competing segments of society, the scope of a class should intentionally be wider than the mindset of its professional practitioners.
A variant of this objection is that it's okay to discuss evolution alternatives in social studies class, but not in science class. (This seems to be the spot where Vice President Gore landed after unexpectedly announcing his support for teaching creationism.) That, however, is intellectual compartmentalization at its worst. The point of study is to seek the truth, or at least to become aware of what other people think may be true. If the topic of a class is how life on Earth arose, then all ideas about that question should be discussed in any class where the subject is raised. To do otherwise would only teach students that knowledge has to conform to bureaucratic guidelines. A second objection is that discussing alternatives to evolution would open the floodgates to innumerable theories on the origin of life, with every person's pet idea requiring equal time. But this objection is just a scare tactic. Other classes cope with the situation all the time. For example, there are countless political viewpoints. Nonetheless, for the most part high school history classes manage to discuss the major ideas that have shaped nations without getting bogged down in, say, Warren Beatty's personal political theories.
Religion in the Classroom
The National Academy of Sciences has a plan to end the conflict over the teaching of evolution. Taking a page from Daniel Dennett's book, they want to put religions in cages. Not abolish them, you understand, just make them safe, and stop them from misinforming children about the natural world. The idea is to get anyone who still wants to believe in something to subscribe to " theistic evolution" which to the academy means that whatever some god may or may not have done, it had to have happened before the Big Bang, left no physical traces, and be indistinguishable from the random working of natural law. As the academy encouragingly points out in Science and Creationism, " Many religious persons, including many scientists, hold that God created the universe and the various processes driving physical and biological evolution." Happily, theistic evolution "reflects the remarkable and inspiring character of the physical universe revealed by (science)." Best of all, though, is that "this belief...is not in disagreement with scientific explanations of evolution." The least worrisome aspect of the academy's remarkable statement is the tenuous grasp on logic that the nation's leading scientists are shown to possess. If there is indeed a God who "created the universe," how is one to guarantee that he wouldn't interact with it in ways the academy would disapprove? And if he might have done something besides set the ball rolling, shouldn't that be a matter for evidence to decide, rather than premises? The most worrisome aspect is that a quasi-governmental agency with substantial influence on public policy has gotten heavily into the religion business. Not content to advise the public on mundane matters of how the physical world works, the academy is acting to promote a theology that causes the least trouble to Darwinism. While adults may be able to tell the academy that they will make up their own minds about their religious beliefs, thank you very much, the academy will help make up the minds of schoolchildren.
Although not an official part of the national science education standards, the academy's religious philosophy expressed in Science and Creationism will get wide distribution among science teachers and will influence many a lesson plan. Reasoning from the academy's premises, the more consistent students will see that, if God is forbidden to act in history, miracles are out. Saint Paul's encounter with God on the road to Damascus, for example, is best explained as a hallucination brought on by a small cerebral accident. Indeed, since the Resurrection itself must be a myth, then as Saint Paul says, their faith is in vain. Better to leave such irrationality far behind. Eventually the fight over teaching evolution will be over. Most Church/State conflicts are at the very far margins of "establishing a religion"--whether parochial students can ride public school buses, whether a creche can be displayed in a public park, and so on. The evolution conflict is at the heart: An agency of the federal government is attempting to inculcate a religious premise into children using the public schools. The premise--that God would not act in history, would not affect the physical world--isn't an observation of science, but a theological presupposition that stands against Christianity and other religions. Given all the scientific problems with Darwin's theory, it's not surprising that the National academy wants no classroom discussion of its dubious premise. How heartening to see the people of Kansas and other states fighting back.
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