December 04, 2007
From Scopes to Dover-29: What next for evolution and religion in schools?
(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
As a result of the long string of judicial rulings and Supreme Court precedents that have been outlined in this series that seem to have eliminated almost all their options, what can religious people do now about the teaching of evolution?
In 2007, IDC advocate Michael Behe published yet another book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits to Darwinism (which I have written about earlier) that tries to add a wrinkle to IDC ideas by arguing that the mutations that drive natural selection are not random but are somehow guided by their peripatetic and secretive designer to achieve a desired organism.
This is a pathetically feeble attempt that will not get anywhere legally. All the reasons given in the Dover verdict for
But the opponents of evolution are determined and there are rumblings that Texas may try to get creationism and/or intelligent design creationism and/or criticisms of evolution into their state curriculum. The state's state science curriculum director has been forced to resign her position and some suspect that this was a prelude to making such changes.
So what options does Texas or any other state body have left?
As I see it, there seem to be only three options left for those trying to undermine the teaching of evolution or otherwise get religion back into the public schools. One is to not single out just evolution for 'critical analysis' but include one or two other theories as well, and use them as a cover for the real goal of discrediting evolution. But given the legislative history of opposition to teaching evolution in schools, it is likely that the courts will see through this ruse to circumvent the establishment clause.
Another option is to ask that all scientific theories be subjected to critical analysis. This might pass constitutional muster but would not serve the purpose that religious people seek. It is, after all, what good science teaching has always professed to do and is routinely called for in present day science standards. Religious people seem to have no problem with, for example, the theory of gravity or Newton's laws of motion or the heliocentric model of the solar system or the laws of photosynthesis and presumably don't want their children's time wasted on discussing evidence against those theories or speculate on why those theories too are wrong and the associated processes driven by an intelligent designer. As I have shown earlier, what what really bugs them is evolution.
The third option is to seek what IDC advocate Phillip Johnson seemed to be hinting at, and that is to arouse public opinion against evolution theory, in order to foment some type of popular revolution. We see that in the creation of the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed to be released on Darwin's birthday in February 2008. (See Bad Idea Blog for a seven-minute promo for the latter film and a critique of it.) The aim seems to be to portray themselves as victims, oppressed by the scientific and legal establishment. They seem to be advancing the truly bizarre argument that scientists are secretly aware of terrible weaknesses in evolutionary theory and are afraid that the revolutionarily new arguments of the courageous IDC advocates will result in the structure of science crumbling. The only way scientists can prevent this, in their view, is by colluding to cover up the facts, suppressing all dissent, and expelling pro-IDC people from the academy.
In reality of course, scientists are comfortable with the merits of the theory of evolution even though they know it has not answered every question as yet, and reject IDC because it is an old idea that has no content that is of any value or use to scientists.
But even if this policy of painting themselves as poor, pitiful, oppressed victims is successful and arouses some public sympathy, I cannot see any way for this IDC strategy to achieve its ultimate goal of overthrowing the teaching of evolution in schools, since all their previous attempts to do so have run aground on the rocks of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the US constitution.
The only way that they can succeed, as I see it, is by calling for an overthrow of the establishment clause and undermining the whole idea of separation of church and state. But this is a huge barrier to overcome. The Bill of Rights and the other protections of the constitution have become seen as providing the bedrock protections of American society. As time when on, its protections have been expanded but never formally restricted, although administrations have from time to time curtailed those freedoms by fiat, as we see now with habeas corpus violations and gross violations of due process using the USA PATRIOT Act and the Military Commissions Act. But despite such setbacks for basic liberties and justice, it seems unlikely that an attempt to formally rescind those constitutional freedoms will succeed.
But constitutional issues aside, the important question has always been about who determines what should and should not be taught in public schools.
"Who does have "the right," [Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter] asked, to decide what gets taught as science in the public schools? Creationist parents and teachers, based on their relatively subjective religious beliefs, or professional scientists and educators, based on their relatively objective scientific theories?" (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 260)
This is an interesting question to explore. If a school district decides that it should teach something absurd or even flat out wrong, like the moon is made of cheese, is it allowed to do so? Can a parent complain and have the courts overturn such a policy even though there is no obvious constitutional violation involved? As we saw in the 1982 creation science case McLean v. Arkansas, the judge ruled that creation science should not be taught because it was not science but a religion. Some supporters of the decision criticized the reasoning, saying that the reason creation science should not be taught was not because it had failed to meet unjustifiable demarcation criteria but because it was bad science and simply wrong. But is teaching even manifestly absurd ideas a sufficient reason for the courts to intervene?
In 1926, in oral arguments during the appeal of the Scopes verdict to the Tennessee Supreme Court, defense counsel Arthur Garfield Hays raised the interesting possibility that the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution prevented the state from enforcing unreasonable laws and "Tennessee's "absurd" antievolution statute violated this standard as much as a law against teaching Copernican astronomy would." (Larson, p. 215). But as far as I know this issue has not been adjudicated.
Although this is an interesting hypothetical exercise, in reality, we may never be able to disentangle the ridiculous from the religious. The only time that people feel strongly about teaching things for which there is no evidence is when they are driven by religious convictions, such as that the Earth is 6,000 years old or that god intervened in the laws of nature to create humans.
Those who argue against teaching creationism and its derivatives in public schools tend to be split into two camps.
One the one hand there are those who think that mainstream religious beliefs are credible and valuable, but think that it is good to keep church and state separate. They argue that religious beliefs do not belong in public schools on constitutional establishment clause grounds.
On the other hand are those who are more sympathetic to Clarence Darrow's approach in the Scopes trial. He seemed to have a different goal. He set out to argue that religious beliefs were just nonsense and that no sensible person should believe them, let alone want to teach them to their children. After all, no one is asking schools to teach children that the Earth is flat, that the Sun orbits the Earth, or that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden. No legal protections have been necessary (at least not yet) to prevent teachers from teaching that thunder and lightning are symbols of god's anger with the world or that objects fall to the ground because the Earth is at the center of the universe. When Darrow said in his interrogation of Bryan that "You insult every man of science and learning in the world because he does not believe in your fool religion," he was trying to make a different point, that if you can show that a belief is silly, then no one would even want to teach that belief. And he felt that fundamentalist religious beliefs were patently ridiculous, requiring people to swallow, without any evidence, the most preposterous of ideas.
As Larson says:
Darrow. . .used his defense of Scopes to challenge fundamentalist beliefs. To the extent that lawyers defending the evolutionist position in later lawsuits appeal narrowly to constitutional interpretation, fundamentalist beliefs remain unchallenged. (p. 261)
Darrow's basic approach has been extended by modern day scientists and atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger to argue that even so-called 'moderate' religious beliefs are absurd and that it is futile to pretend that the beliefs of mainstream religions have any credibility.
POST SCRIPT: Philosophy panel on progress
The Philosophy Club at Case is having a panel discussion on the topic of progress and I will speak about the nature of progress in science. The program is at 7:30 pm in Guilford Lounge on Wednesday, December 5th, 2007. It is free and open to the public.