Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Quackery by any other name: Intelligent Design and the future of American antievolutionism.

--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
--Cobb County Board of Education; March 28, 2002

Antievolutionists are an interesting group of people—as are Scientologists, mind-readers and the ever-so forward-looking people of the Flat Earth Society. The aforementioned groups are all easily dismissed as ignorant people with their heads in the collective sand, though there is a very real problem: they all vote. Anti-evolutionists; however, pose the greatest threat to American science education, and that's after the budget slashing and over-regulation and bad turnover and a whole host of other problems public education already faces.

This is the point where blood begins to boil; however, like all seemingly unending issues, this one, too, must be put in a historic context:

John T. Scopes, a teacher from Tennessee, was arrested and prosecuted in 1925 for teaching evolution in public school, setting in motion what would become a nearly 200 year legal war in the American public school system. Now, if you thought Scopes was done and over with in 1925, think again. The Butler act—the law that Scopes was arrested under in 1925—remained on the books until 1960. Shortly thereafter, Creationism was repackaged as Intelligent Design and was again taught in some public schools until the 2005 Dover Trial, which exposed ID as a tool for injecting religion into public schools. With no scientific backing, its proponents—mostly lawyers and a handful of failed academics—resorted to subtle subterfuge and flat-out falsehoods. The problem, at its core, is religious fundamentalism.

According to literal interpretations of the bible, it is impossible to accept evolution because it goes directly against Genesis and “original sin,” as clearly indicated by other organisms preceding humans. Thus, fundamentalists claim that acceptance of evolution must lead to the disbelief god, which further leads to materialism, communism, Nazism, etc. For those who think I'm extrapolating, the “recommended literature” section of the Discovery Institute boasts the titles “From Darwin to Hitler” and “Darwin's God: Evolution and The Problem of Evil” in the very first column. Science aside, their arguments often fall into the well known literary, logical fallacy of Pandora's Box—a sign of pure philosophic ignorance compounded with a pre-existing scientific one.

As absurd and unfounded their arguments are, the creationists never cease to amuse. Between the Creation Museum (which depicts humans riding dinosaurs,) statements that the world is 6000 years old or that fossils were “placed by god to test our faith,” the straight-faced delivery of these arguments is enough to cause a scientist to re-calibrate their lack of faith in humanity, or stay well humored, depending on your point of view. Either way, we are left with a simple question: with all of the creationist arguments seemingly thrown out the window, how are these people still able to wield any influence in public education?

Enter Michael Behe, an x-cell biologist who published the only paper in Nature making an argument for Irreducibility Complex. This was at the hight of the evolution debate in 2004 and, given the style of Nature, an article evaluating Behe's article was simultaneously published. It turns out that Behe's work was wholly unfounded and did not take into account any recent literature, once again proving the illegitimacy of creationism.

Despite global condemnation from scientists during the peer-review process, Behe's article was—and is—heralded as a legitimate biochemical argument against evolution by creationists and some politicians. While the jury is thankfully settled on keeping creation and other forms of pseudoscience out of the classroom, this 2004 article seems to be the last false-argument the creationists intend to pedal in the years to come. In the world of science, Behe's argument was immediately rendered to be incorrect, though in the world of politics, it might just be a while before we actually see the end of it.

Posted by Alexander Simolaris


  1. Despite of how far we have come with new discoveries in the topics of evolution, I am still amazed by the amount of individuals who deny the fact that there was life before the existence of humans. Back in 2007/8 it was expressed that 16% of US science teachers believed in creationism. I wonder if that number has decreased, increased or has stayed the same since then.

    Posted by Nelson Milano

  2. "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"

    Every time I see statements this philosophically ignorant and intellectually bankrupt, it makes /facepalm so hard that I'm surprised that my nose isn't broken. Evolution is a both a theory in that it describes the mechanism for how adaptive complexity CAN emerge as a consequence of as the laws of physics in the absence of teleology, and a fact in that it describes how the adaptive complexity we see throughout life here on Earth DID emerge. I wish this was one of these issues where our generation could say, "Man, I can't wait until for these old bigots to die so we can finally be done with this crap", but knowing the state of the American educational system, that's probably not going to happen anytime soon.

    Connor Finnerty

  3. It is one thing to accept the views of those who advocate for Creationism; as Americans, we are expected to tolerate everyones beliefs. However, the same is not to be said for anti-evolutionist views being brought into public education classrooms. Not only does this violate the separation of church and state, but biology teachers who do not enforce the understanding that evolution is something that did in fact occur are not doing their job. Educators with the inability to correctly teach evolution as science says it occurs should not be placed in a public school setting. The phenomenon of evolution should be taught without bias at public school just as the values of a particular religion should be taught in an unbiased way at religious gatherings. That way, a person has been presented with many ways of thinking about a certain subject and his or her eventual choice in what to believe is strictly their own.

    Posted by Brianna Lee

  4. Nelson,

    The last study I read on the numbers put biology teachers in the upper teens/lower twenty percent in terms of creationism v. evolution in the classroom, granted, that number is utterly pathetic. A large portion of the problem is the science-teacher talent pool. Science is a professional world, where the "best and brightest" tend to go into medicine, research and industry. Meanwhile, those that tend to have grades high enough to graduate but low enough to be prohibited from well-paying jobs end up teaching biology and other science classes.

    This is not to say that HS BIO teachers are universally sub-par and, in fact, there are some good science teachers, but economics plays the largest role in where the best--and worst--science graduates go, and HS BIO tends to be lower end of the scale.

    Posted by Alexander Simolaris

  5. Connor,

    As mentioned in the response to Nelson's post, education is the greatest problem. Education is politicized, and in politics journalists and lawyers are always taught to "see things from both sides and let the viewer decide" which is nice for the liberal arts, though that philosophy is nontransferable to scientific truth. There is simply no legitimate argument for creationism, and therefore no reason to study it. That said, I think studying the rationalization behind creationism would make for a really nice psychology research thesis.

    Posted by Alexander Simolaris

  6. Brianna,

    It's interesting you bring up the idea of teaching religion in an unbiased way. Religious texts and beleifs are fundamental in understanding political science, anthropology, literature and history. In many ways, understanding religion to the liberal artist/anthropologist is just as important as a scientist studying evolution. Understanding the religious beliefs of a people at a particular time opens the student to an understanding of a societies particular values. That said, teaching religion in the context of historic understanding is mutually exclusive from injecting religious beliefs into the school system.

    Posted by Alexander Simolaris

  7. Regardless of whether creationists and anti-evolutionists are able to vote, I'd assume they represent a small minority in any sort of presidential/ senatorial race. In addition, issues such as a candidate's view on evolution would be small in comparison to other their views on other pressing topics in today's society. Issues such as this seem more like an article out of a tabloid than front-page news. Although creationism has been backed by prominent people such as Ben Stein and Pat Robertson, figureheads such as these only preach to those who are too stuck in their beliefs to see it otherwise.

    I do, however, see the harm in the dogma that backs anti-evolutionist ideals, and see it as being tied in to denial of climate change, over-consumption, etc. However, even Pat Robertson (who is so dogmatic as to say that the snow storms in New York were God's way of keeping New Yorkers from doing "gay things,") backs the notion that human activities are changing the world's climate. In short, I feel the debate over creationism is a matter of free speech, and the federal government is at the mercy of the voters to say whether creationism can be included in the textbooks of federally funded school. Indeed, there are far more harmful forms of free speech protected by the first amendment; next to the ku klux klan, neo-nazis, etc. creationists should not pose too much a threat to anyone's well-being.

  8. btw that last post was written by Luke Brewer