January 25, 2005


Crafty attacks on evolution (International Herald Tribune, July 25th, 2005)

America's critics of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution become more wily with each passing year. Creationists who believe that God made the world and everything in it pretty much as described in the Bible were frustrated when their efforts to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools or inject the teaching of creationism were judged unconstitutional by the courts. But over the past decade or more a new generation of critics has emerged with a softer, more roundabout approach that they hope can pass constitutional muster.

One line of attack - on display in Cobb County, Georgia, in recent weeks - is to discredit evolution as little more than a theory that is open to question. Another strategy - now playing out in Dover, Pennsylvania - is to make students aware of an alternative theory called "intelligent design," which infers the existence of an intelligent agent without any specific reference to God. These new approaches may seem harmless to a casual observer, but they still constitute an improper effort by religious advocates to impose their own slant on the teaching of evolution.

The Cobb County fight centers on a sticker that the board inserted into a new biology textbook to placate opponents of evolution. The school board, to its credit, had been trying to strengthen the teaching of evolution. When the new course of study raised hackles among parents and citizens, the board sought to quiet the controversy by placing a three-sentence sticker in the textbooks: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered."

Although the board clearly thought this was a reasonable compromise, and many readers might think it unexceptional, it is actually an insidious effort to undermine the science curriculum. The second sentence makes it sound as though evolution is little more than a hunch, the popular understanding of the word "theory," whereas theories in science are carefully constructed frameworks for understanding a vast array of facts.

A more honest sticker would describe evolution as the dominant theory in the field and an extremely fruitful scientific tool. The sad fact is, the school board, in its zeal to be accommodating, swallowed the language of the anti-evolution crowd. A federal judge in Georgia ruled that the sticker amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion because it was rooted in long-running religious challenges to evolution. In particular, the sticker's assertion that "evolution is a theory, not a fact" adopted the latest tactical language used by anti-evolutionists to dilute Darwinism, thereby putting the school board on the side of religious critics of evolution. That court decision is being appealed. Supporters of sound science education can only hope that the courts, and school districts, find a way to repel this latest assault on the most well-grounded theory in modern biology.

You want crafty? How about: “Warning: It is against the law to question evolution.” That ought to get the kids' attention.

Posted by Peter Burnet at January 25, 2005 5:23 PM

Where is it against the law to question evolution?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 25, 2005 11:12 PM

On the cover of a textbook, apparently.

Posted by: Timothy at January 26, 2005 12:51 AM

Harry, the place is called the United States of America.

Posted by: Bob at January 26, 2005 9:42 AM

Metaphysical questions (which is what the creationist debate is mainly about) should be addressed in a class on philosophy. Science classes should be concerned with the scientific method and current scientific consensus.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at January 26, 2005 11:36 AM

It's a political question, Chris.

Posted by: joe shropshire at January 26, 2005 1:04 PM

Even Orrin admits that there is no scientific alternative on offer for the darwinian version of biology.

He is forced, then, to argue that darwinism is not science, either.

Anybody can offer an alternative theory. That no one has, despite the apparent cosmic significance of it, suggests that people who hate darwinism have neither knowledge of nor any interest in science.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at January 27, 2005 4:01 PM

Who are you trying to shine here, Harry? Your own interest in Darwin is that he's a beard for your politics -- he's a stick to beat the priests with. "Interest in science" isn't the same thing as "hatred for churchgoers", and it doesn't excuse it.

Posted by: joe shropshire at January 27, 2005 7:34 PM