Evolution/Creation for Non-Eggheads

Every year I use Darwin’s birthday (last Tuesday) as an excuse to check in on the creation/evolution issue and the debate over what to teach in public schools. That pot is always simmering, so whenever you choose to pay attention something is bound to be happening somewhere. But it gets dull really quickly, because both sides repeat themselves a lot. Checking once a year is about right.

This year I watched PBS documentary “The Revisionaries” about the battle over curriculum standards in Texas. (You can watch it for free on the PBS web site until Feb. 28.) As always, I was impressed by how well the creationist side pitches its arguments to the general public. “Teach both sides,” they say. “Teach the controversy. Teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution.” It sounds so fair and reasonable — nothing at all like the stereotype of the crazy fundamentalist radical.

Then the scientists come on, and they look and sound exactly like their stereotype. You can tell they’re trying to be nice and non-threatening, but whatever they’re saying, the main thing that comes through is that they’re smart and they know better than you. It’s hard not to be reminded of all the other “experts” who are constantly explaining why everything you do is completely wrong: You eat wrong, you exercise wrong, you like the wrong kind of music, you watch the wrong kinds of movies and TV shows — everything you do is bad, and you should listen to them to learn how to do it right.

Most of all, you raise your kids wrong. When you let the kids do what they want, that’s wrong, but when you force them to do what you want, that’s wrong too. You talk to them wrong, you discipline them wrong — it goes on and on. And sure, you realize you aren’t the greatest human being who ever lived, but you do OK and your kids seem to be doing OK, so you wonder what you’d see if you walked into the experts’ houses and looked at their kids (if they have any). Are they better, really?

Sure, the evolution scientists are a different kind of expert entirely, but they look and sound exactly the same. You know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the look-and-feel thing is hard to get past. Watching them, all you can think is: “What do they want really? And why? Can’t they just come out and say that?” But they don’t. So when preachers tell you that the scientists want to destroy religion and convert everybody to atheism — well, at least that’s an answer.

I’ve lived a bunch of my life between the world of scientists and the world of ordinary people. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and spent a lot of afternoons helping my Dad on the farm. I went to a Lutheran grade school where we memorized Bible passages every night and had to recite them in the morning. (We definitely did not learn evolution. I started picking that up in the public high school.) But I was born with a knack for math and went on to get a bunch of degrees. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but I can hang with them when they let their hair down and not seem out of place.

Let me see if I can translate how this discussion looks to a university biologist or a high school biology teacher.

Politicians are telling them how to do their job. I’m guessing you can appreciate how that feels. They’ve devoted their lives to studying biology, figuring out how it all fits together, and coming up with ways to teach that knowledge to other people. And then a legislature or a school board or Congress wants to stick a hand up their backsides and turn them into puppets who repeat whatever they’re supposed to say.

You know how you feel when people who don’t know your kids tell you how to raise your kids? Well, people who don’t know their subject are telling them how to teach their subject. It pisses them off.

One of the reasons they so often look phony is that emotional outbursts aren’t valued in scientific discussions. In science, you’re supposed to be reasonable all the time, even when you’re really pissed off. So they can’t let on how they really feel. Instead, all that anger gets channeled into a biting cleverness that can be really, really annoying.

Why evolution is important to them. I’m sure they think they answer this question all the time, but it never comes out in the language ordinary people speak, so let me see if I can explain it better.

Have you ever listened to six-year-old boys describe a movie they’ve just seen? They remember all of it — probably more than you would if you saw it. Their young brains are sponges that soak up detail. But when they talk about it, those details come back out in some stream of consciousness that you can’t possibly understand if you haven’t seen the movie yourself. That’s because they haven’t learned yet what a plot is, or how use a plot to organize a whole bunch of facts into a story that people can understand and think about together.

Well, evolution is the plot of biology. By now, we know so much about cells and animals and environments and so forth that no one could possibly deal with it as a long list of details. You couldn’t learn it, you couldn’t teach it, you couldn’t even think about it, no matter how smart you are. But evolution arranges all that in a structure that people can learn and teach and think about. Even if evolution had turned out not to be true, biologists would still want to learn it as a memory device. It’s that useful.

Now, the obvious question is: Couldn’t creation or design become the plot of biology? It more-or-less was 200 years ago. And sure, we have a lot more details to organize now than we did then, but maybe biologists could make all that new knowledge fit somehow. So rather than saying “Giraffes evolved long necks because being able to eat leaves higher in the canopy gave them a survival advantage”, we could say “God designed giraffes with long necks because he knew they’d need to eat leaves high in the canopy.”

What’s wrong with that?

The first answer you’re likely to get from a biologist is that it wouldn’t work, because of things like your appendix. (It’s hard to make sense of the human appendix from a design point of view, because it doesn’t do anything useful. It makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, though, because similar organs serve a purpose in the digestive systems of animals we’re related to, and evolution works slowly, so it hasn’t been useless long enough to evolve away.)

But the better answer is: Who knows? Maybe there is some way to tie all our biological knowledge together in a design-oriented plot. But nobody has done it. Whether some design-oriented plot for biology could work or not, it doesn’t exist now. It’s like talking about whether solar power could someday supply all our needs. Maybe. But that doesn’t help me if I want to flip on a light now.

So if, today, you want to learn or teach or think about the full range of what we know about biology, evolution is all you’ve got. You either use it or you give up.

Creationist textbooks are facades. Biology teachers know that K-12 students in China, India, Europe, and Japan are learning real science, not fantasies about approaches to science that maybe could work someday (but don’t work now and probably won’t work ever). So they wonder: How are American kids going to compete if we’re wasting their time like that?

Creationists can hide this state of affairs from the general public by writing design-oriented grade school and high school textbooks. But those textbooks are like the facade of Dodge City on the set of Gunsmoke. You’re supposed to think a whole town is back there, but it isn’t. What you can see is pretty much all there is.

Similarly, that creationist high-school textbook looks like the beginning of a complete design-oriented biological education. But in fact students who finish it are pretty close to the end of the line. If they get interested in biology and want to go further, they’ll have to start over in college and learn evolution. That’s not because colleges censor design, it’s because there isn’t much more design-oriented biology to learn.

I know that’s hard to believe, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Go listen to a creationist lecture. I predict they won’t tell you much of anything about creationist biology. Instead, they’ll spend all their time criticizing evolution. That’s because they don’t have anything else to present. Creationists are also using evolution to organize their thinking; they’re just against it rather than for it.

And that’s not going to change anytime soon, because creationists are not even trying to develop their theory. The budgets of creationist think-tanks like the Discovery Institute are almost entirely devoted to politics and public relations, with barely anything for research.

Creationists cheat. If putting up that kind of facade seems like cheating, well, creationists cheat in a lot of other ways too. Many of those reasonable-sounding arguments are just word games designed to confuse people.

Like: “Evolution is a theory, not a fact.” Sounds convincing, doesn’t it? Even scientists talk about “the theory of evolution”, right?

Of course, scientists also talk about “the theory of gravity” and “the theory of the solar system”. The word theory has a specialized meaning in science that has nothing to do with uncertainty. Gravity isn’t doubtful just because we have a theory about it.

That kind of trickery is not exceptional, it’s typical. Creationist arguments are full of untruths, half-truths, and word games — and the arguments keep circulating no matter how many times the fallacies get exposed.

Which is another reason why scientists get tied up in emotional knots at these public hearings. Very often the folks presenting some totally bogus argument are mothers who have an honest religious faith and are very genuinely concerned about their kids’ education. But it’s hard to see how the people who invent and popularize these arguments — the folks at the Discovery Institute, say — can be anything other than con-men who know better.

Scientists don’t know how to deal with that. The whole culture of science (going back to the 1600s) is based on arguing in good faith and assuming that your opponent is doing the same. A scientist who gets caught cheating is finished. There’s no rehabilitation process, you’re just done being a scientist. But dishonest creationist arguments live forever, and the people who invent them are not even embarrassed.

We’ve been through this already. Now let’s talk about what’s wrong with “teaching the controversy”. When biologists refuse to “teach both sides” or “teach the controversy”, it sounds like they’ve made evolution into some kind of unquestionable dogma, like the Trinity or the divine inspiration of the Bible is in some religions.

Everybody knows that scientific theories are wrong sometimes, and history is full of controversies when one theory challenges another. (The most famous one is the Copernican Revolution, when a Sun-centered theory of the planets replaced and Earth-centered theory.) When scientists won’t “teach the controversy” of evolution, they seem to be denying this history and to be hypocrites about the whole process of science.

What most people don’t realize is that there was a creation/evolution controversy in science, but it has been over for a long time. Scientists argued vociferously about evolution in the 1800s. By the 20th century the fact of evolution was widely accepted, but scientists continued to argue over the mechanism (i.e. natural selection) until mid-century, when the modern evolutionary synthesis came together. Just about all the scientific questions raised by creationists today were asked and answered generations ago.

Here’s an example: “Evolution can’t explain a complex organ like the eye.” Evolutionists run into that claim all the time, but in fact the basic framework of how the eye evolved was laid out more than half a century ago. If you’ve got two-and-a-half minutes, here’s the simple version.

If you’ve got an hour, here’s more detail.

The creation/evolution argument continues today not because new evidence raises new questions about evolution, but because people don’t want to believe answers that conflict with their religion. That is a religious controversy, not a scientific one. And if enough people want to impose their religion on the rest of us, they can create a political controversy or a legal controversy. But you can’t create a scientific controversy just by refusing believe something you don’t want to believe.

So by all means let’s teach the creation/evolution controversy in a history of science course, or in a course on religion, politics, or law. But it doesn’t belong in a biology class.

What’s different about evolution? And now we come to the most recent creationist political strategy (the one portrayed in The Revisionists): demanding that textbooks and curricula teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolutionary theory.

Again, that is well constructed to make scientists look bad. What kind of dogmatist would refuse to let students learn about the weaknesses of his ideas? What’s he afraid of?

But a better question to ask at this point is: Why are we just talking about evolution? Why do the textbook stickers warn students to have “an open mind” just about evolution? Shouldn’t they also “critically consider” the “strengths and weaknesses“of theories like the solar system? the atom? continental drift?

What’s special about evolution?

Only this: Evolution conflicts with a popular religion. Otherwise, it’s like the germ theory of disease, electrical circuit theory, or any other scientific theory. (The solar system used to conflict with popular religion, but it no longer does.)

So again, this is dressed up like a conversation about science, but it’s really about religion. There’s no scientific reason to pick evolution out for special scrutiny.

What’s wrong with that? Some creationists are very open and honest about wanting to impose their views on the public through the public schools. In a democracy, the religion of the majority tends to become the religion of the government, and public resources are used to promote it.

I think the Founders looked at what had been happening in England since the Reformation — religious factions squabbling to get control of the government — and they wrote the First Amendment specifically to prevent that from happening here.

But that issue takes us into textbook history standards, and a whole other set of things people want or don’t want to believe. Maybe I’ll save that topic for James Madison‘s birthday in March.

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  • Michel S.  On February 19, 2013 at 5:22 am

    Bearing in mind the Golden Rule, I’m /sure/ creationists will be gracious enough if we rationalists request that a disclaimer similar to Cobb County’s be affixed to religious texts.

    Oh, wait. Just kidding.

    • Kimc  On February 21, 2013 at 12:51 am

      What a lovely idea. We can insist that they put in their bibles and religious texts that this is controversial and they should also study the other side with an open mind.
      Do you think it would slow them down any?

  • Furio  On March 21, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Some movies are just too bad even for Bad Movie Night. Like, say, Monster A Go-Go or the Star Wars Holiday Special or Bill Dembski Presents Specified Complexity.


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