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Open Letter to Paul R. Gross, “Politicizing Science Education”

Dear Mr. Gross:

Your article, “Politicizing Science Education,” (available at http://www.edexcellence.net/foundation/publication/publication.cfm?id=43) recently came to our attention. While we share your concern for what you call “the maladies of contemporary education,” we think you have gravely misrepresented several of the key issues. Science education in this country cannot be repaired without candor and accuracy. Yet candor and accuracy are woefully lacking in your generally dismissive article, where the issues of the teaching of evolution and the intelligent design community are concerned.

Let us turn to the evidence. Your statements, drawn both from the main text and notes of your article, appear in bold; our responses follow as plain text.

“A very few biologists have mixed biology with deism or atheism, in public; but they are the authors of trade books, not curriculum-makers or schoolteachers.”

On the contrary, statements expounding philosophical naturalism are common in evolutionary biology textbooks and publications intended for use as teaching materials. Consider, for instance, the widely-used textbook Evolutionary Biology (Sinauer Associates, 1998), by SUNY-Stony Brook evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma. He tells us that Darwin’s “theory of random, purposeless variations acted on by blind, purposeless natural selection provided a revolutionary new answer to almost all questions that begin with ‘Why?” As Futuyma continues, the “profound, unsettling, implication of this purely mechanical, material explanation for the existence and characteristics of diverse organisms is that we need not invoke, nor can we find any evidence for, any design, goal, or purpose anywhere in the natural world, except in human behavior” (pp. 5, 8). Monroe W. Strickberger, of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, notes in his widely-used textbook Evolution (Jones and Bartlett, 1990), that “the fear that Darwinism was an attempt to displace God in the sphere of creation was therefore quite justified. To the question, is there a special purpose for the creation of humans, evolution answered no. To the question, is there a special purpose for the creation of any living species, evolution answered no. According to evolution, the adaptations of species and the adaptations of humans come from natural selection and not from design” (p. 56). Religion persists, Strickberger argues, chiefly to satisfy strong (if irrational) emotional needs: “Essential to the preservation of religion in the midst of the evolutionary bombardment was also the fact,” he concludes, “that religion answers a series of strong emotional needs” (p. 57).

Similar passages turn up in biological teaching materials like seaweed at the shoreline. We have scores of others which we could share with you, if necessary. Of course, this should surprise no one: the most eminent evolutionary theorists, such as Ernst Mayr or Stephen Jay Gould, explain with great consistency to their colleagues and the lay public that Darwinism devastated religious belief in Western culture (Mayr, for instance, developed this line of argument most recently in the July 2000 Scientific American, in an article, “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought,” to which we shall return below). But it misrepresents both the facts of history and the shape of current debates to claim, as you do, that only “a very few biologists” have intertwined philosophical or religious positions with the scientific content of evolutionary theory. With the possible exception of cosmology, no other science has been historically (or is currently) as influenced as evolutionary theory by the religious or philosophical presuppositions of its leading investigators. As the historian and philosopher of science Michael Ruse wrote in the National Post of Canada (13 May 2000, p. B3), “Evolution is promoted by its practitioners as more than mere science. Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion–a full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality. . . . Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today.” Let’s not pretend otherwise.

“Evolutionary biologists have squabbles, as do all scientists at the frontiers. But the belligerents are all Darwinians, and not because they fear punishment if they demur or defect, as creationists love to hint.”

Only evolutionary biologists can say if they “fear punishment” for dissenting from the mainstream of neo-Darwinian opinion. But there are good reasons to think that a frank discussion of the merits or shortcomings of neo-Darwinism has been hindered by fears of “creationists.” The computer scientist and theoretical biologist Danny Hillis, for instance, states that “there’s a feeling in biology that scientists should keep their dirty laundry hidden, because the religious right are always looking for any argument between evolutionists as support for their creationist theories. There’s a strong school of thought in biology that one should never question Darwin in public” (quoted in J. Brockman, The Third Culture [Simon & Schuster, 1995], p. 26). The evolutionary geneticist John Maynard Smith writes of his colleague Stephen Jay Gould, “Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by nonbiologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom we have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.”

We cite this passage from Robert Wright’s article, “The Accidental Creationist,” published in The New Yorker (13 December 1999, pp. 56-65). We’re sure you’ve read the article. Wright excoriated–i.e., punished–Stephen Jay Gould for supposedly giving comfort to the wicked “creationists,” because Gould challenges the received view of evolutionary theory. And thus what ought to be legitimate debates about neo-Darwinism are stifled by the abusive label of “creationist,” in this case, attached with the mocking adjective “accidental” to a distinguished Harvard paleontologist.

This doesn’t strike us as the typical bickering of an otherwise healthy science. Rather, significant scientific questions are being clouded by the political and religious anxieties of scientists–to the detriment both of science and culture at large.

“The evidence so far provides no reason to take species formation (‘macro-evolution’) as mechanistically distinct from what creationists mean by ‘micro-evolution’–change within a species.”

This is nonsense. Doubts about the efficacy of the mechanisms of microevolution for macroevolutionary change are widespread within evolutionary biology–so widespread, indeed, that researchers often refer to the issue by a kind of shorthand, i.e., as the “micro-macro” controversy. The University of Wisconsin developmental biologist Sean Carroll, for instance, writing last month in Cell (9 June 2000, volume 101:577-580), noted “the long-standing question of the sufficiency of evolutionary mechanisms observed at or below the species level (‘microevolution’) to account for the larger-scale patterns of morphological evolution (‘macroevolution’)” (p. 577) and “One of the longest running debates in evolutionary biology concerns the sufficiency of processes observed within populations and species for explaining macroevolution” (p. 579).

Are “creationists” responsible for keeping this debate alive? Of course not. Many evolutionary theorists do not think that micro-evolutionary processes are sufficient for macroevolution, and they adduce abundant evidence in support of their view. It is flatly false to state otherwise. The paleontologist Robert Carroll of the Department of Biology at McGill University, for instance, argued recently in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution that “the most striking features of large-scale evolution are the extremely rapid divergence of lineages near the time of their origin, followed by long periods in which basic body plans and ways of life are retained. What is missing are the many intermediate forms hypothesized by Darwin, and the continual divergence of major lineages into the morphospace between distinct adaptive types . . . . The extreme speed of anatomical change and adaptive radiation during this brief time requires explanations that go beyond those proposed for evolution of species within the current biota” (“Towards a new evolutionary synthesis,” TREE, volume 15:27-32; p. 27).

Arguments such as Carroll’s fill the current biological literature. They are even more widespread outside the English-speaking world. Should the public and the school children of America know about them? Yes.

“Meanwhile: teaching ‘Darwinism’ is not ipso facto an attack on religion. There are endless ways in which evolution could have happened in a ‘created’ world–if religion needs a deity-willed Creation. Even if we were to get better answers than we have now to remaining questions about the origin of life on Earth, and they were to prove that it had a material and apparently spontaneous origin, there would still be no necessary conflict. Scores of evolutionists are Christians.”

And how many prominent evolutionary biologists are Christians? Can you name one?

E.O. Wilson (an agnostic) is a former Southern Baptist. Will Provine (an atheist) is a former Presbyterian. John Maynard Smith and Richard Dawkins (both atheists) are former Anglicans. And thus the list goes, where the disappearance of religious faith in each case has been tied autobiographically by these biologists to their discovery of Darwinism.

In any event, it is beside the point to claim that it’s logically possible for both a materialistic origin of life and Christianity to be true. Any two ideas can be made compatible with sufficient fudging and tweaking. This triviality says nothing about whether Neo-Darwinism is, in historical motivation and implication, materialistic. As Ruse notes in his National Post article, Darwinian evolution “came into being as a kind of secular ideology, an explicit substitute for Christianity.” Ernst Mayr, in the current issue of Scientific American, puts the point with admirable bluntness:

Darwinism rejects all supernatural phenomena and causations. The theory of evolution by natural selection explains the adaptedness and diversity of the world solely materialistically. It no longer requires God as creator or designer (although one is certainly still free to believe in God even if one accepts evolution). . . . Eliminating God from science made room for strictly scientific explanations of all natural phenomena; it gave rise to positivism; it produced a powerful intellectual and spiritual revolution, the effects of which have lasted to this day.

(E. Mayr, “Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought,” Scientific American, July 2000, pp. 79-83; p. 81)

It smacks of naiveté and intellectual dishonesty to tell students that their religious faith will be unaffected by evolutionary theory. Even a desultory survey of the history of the discipline shows that your tendentious advice–“there would still be no necessary conflict”–is misleading at best.

“That’s what is done when we delete from the official science standards any reference to mechanisms of evolutionary change, and to anything else, in fact, that might offend biblical literalism. Such is the intent of the August 1999 action by the Kansas Board of Education.”

Your implication here is simply false. One of the Discovery Institute fellows, Jonathan Wells, compared the original 1995 Kansas standards to those adopted in August 1999 by the Board. In an article (available at http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=63), Wells points out that the Kansas Board actually increased the coverage of evolution by five-fold over the 1995 standards, adding discussions of the mechanism of natural selection, biological diversity, and microevolution. What the Board declined to do was place macroevolution beyond scientific dispute, or to identify scientific explanation with naturalism. Even if imperfectly exercised, that was their constitutional right.

“. . . anti-Darwinism, like other forms of rejection of intellectual authority, flourishes best in an atmosphere of delegitimation of science.”

We are told you were invited to contribute to the special issue of Rhetoric & Public Affairs dealing with intelligent design, but you declined the invitation. We encourage you to look again at that special issue. Where is the support for what you call the “delegitimation of science?” We see scientists and philosophers offering empirical and theoretical arguments against the explanatory sufficiency of neo-Darwinism–but not against the enterprise of science per se, or its enduring role in the growth of human knowledge. We see arguments against identifying science with philosophical naturalism, but such arguments would have been entirely congenial to Kepler, Boyle, Newton, Linneaus, and the other founders of Western science. Attempting to associate design theorists with the “delegitimation of science” is nothing more than a groundless, and offensive, calumny.

“It is certainly possible that there is a supernatural [world]. But by definition, natural science knows nothing about it. Those who do claim to know it should teach it in other classes, but not as science.”

This claim attributes arguments to design theorists that they do not make, it rests on a naïve and outdated philosophy of science, and it seems blissfully unaware of the actual writings of evolutionary biologists. If you have a copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s famous collection of essays, The Panda’s Thumb (Norton, 1980), open it to page 20. Gould writes there that “ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator. Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution–paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce.”

Interesting phrase, that–“a sensible God.” A few sentences earlier in the same essay, Gould writes: “If God had designed a beautiful machine to reflect his wisdom and power, surely he would not have used a collection of parts generally fashioned for other purposes.” That may be so, but from anyone’s perspective, Gould is employing theological premises in scientific reasoning. The evolutionary literature is filled with similar reasoning.

A few weeks ago, at the “Design and Its Critics” conference held at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin, one of the speakers–Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine–was asked in the Q & A following his talk if Gould’s essay on the panda’s thumb could be used in California public school science instruction. Shermer was silent for a moment, and then answered, forthrightly, “No–and a lot of evolutionary books shouldn’t be used in the public schools.” Shermer is a close friend and supporter of Gould’s (e.g., he is sponsoring a festschrift for Gould in October at Caltech), but he recognizes that any rule about the practice of science must be applied generally, if that rule is to have any authority or standing.

So we put the same question to you. Is The Panda’s Thumb suitable for public school science instruction?

In conclusion:

The intelligent design community will continue to grow. We welcome criticism, as should anyone who is committed to the pursuit of truth; but useful criticism should be accurate and well-informed. We encourage you to revisit and correct your statements about intelligent design in “Politicizing Science Education,” but also to think more deeply–and less dismissively–about the questions raised by design theorists.

Those questions will not go away until they are properly answered. And any proper answer will include an honest recognition of the role that materialism has played in politicizing science education.

Yours sincerely,

The Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture
Discovery Institute

The Center for Science and Culture

Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture advances the understanding that human beings and nature are the result of intelligent design rather than a blind and undirected process. We seek long-term scientific and cultural change through cutting-edge scientific research and scholarship; education and training of young leaders; communication to the general public; and advocacy of academic freedom and free speech for scientists, teachers, and students.