Amy Binder and John H. Evans, associate professors of Sociology at the University of California at San Diego, have written a piece on efforts to force religion in the guise of Intelligent Design and Creationism down the throats of children in Texas.

A proposal before the Texas Board of Education calls for including the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution in the state’s science curriculum. This initiative is understood by supporters and opponents to be a strategic effort to get around First Amendment restrictions on teaching religion in science class. The proposal is a new round in an old debate, and, if it fails, creationists will innovate once again, just as they have since the 1920s.

If they succeed, there could be national implications: Because of Texas’s sizable school population, the state curriculum can influence national standards. Book publishers don’t want to produce multiple versions of the same text for different states or regions, so ideas that work their way into Texas’s curriculum often end up shaping content in classrooms elsewhere. Check it out.

I’m afraid the authors of this commentary are making an error. Two errors, actually…

Check it out.

The article borders on suggesting an appeasement strategy (as in that aspect of the old framing debate), but stops short and suggests that science teachers compromise with the moralists who are pushing creationism in one area: Make a clear statement that Evolutionary Theory should not lead to social Darwinism and other icky stuff.

Binder and Evans, well meaning and essentially correct, must be new to this debate. What they are saying is, unfortunately, offensive and incorrect, for two reasons.

First, in order for their argument to have any traction whatsoever, it has to be acknowledged that the religion side of this debate is actually the moral side, the side that is trying to protect ethical and moral values and behavior. But this is not true at all. The religion side of this debate is simply trying to push their particular religion (one of hatred, fear mongering, and intolerance) on others. Binder and Evans have been fooled by the rhetoric of the religious right into thinking that the pro-morals side of their argument is fundamental to their motivation. It is not. It is added as part of their strategy (and this has been the case for a very long time). All Binder and Evans need to know to figure this out is to read about the actual events, look at the actual documents, learn something about the actual politics of the evolution vs. creationism ‘debate.’

Second, we do this already. We (science educators) have been doing this for decades and decades. We already ” … tell students that even though evolutionary science talks about the survival of the fittest organism (sic), it is not a model for how humans should treat each other…” We already “… explain that students should not make an “ought” about human behavior from an “is” of nature and that competition in contemporary society will not lead to increased survival rates. (sic)”.. We even “… explicitly note that just because mutations in organisms are random, it does not follow that human morality is random.”

I’m glad that part of the message is presented in this commentary. Science educators who do not to this are doing it wrong, and hopefully they will read the Washington Post and get this message. But the message we are given here smells to me like little more than an “aha” moment someone had while taking a shower presented to us in a naive, though potentially useful, way.


  1. #1 RBH
    July 26, 2008

    I can only infer that the authors live in an academic dreamland, safely insulated from the facts on the ground in school districts like mine.

  2. #2 Paul Burnett
    July 26, 2008

    The authors of the Washington Post article are indeed “largely ignorant of the fabric of this complex issue, (and) present (it) in a naive, though potentially useful, way.

    Let’s resurrect Neville Chamberlain as the type specimen to demonstrate what happens when naivety leads to appeasement with dominionist monsters. This level of ignorance will lead to evil.

  3. #3 Pete M.
    July 26, 2008

    Greg wrote:

    We already “… explain that students should not make an “ought” about human behavior from an “is” of nature and that competition in contemporary society will not lead to increased survival rates. (sic)”.. We even “… explicitly note that just because mutations in organisms are random, it does not follow that human morality is random.”

    I have to say, as a graduate student in philosophy studying ethics, this is the thing that bothers me most about the public perception of morality. Why do folks assume that materialism implies amoralism or nihilism? The best moral theories that we have, like Kantian ethics and utilitarianism, do not require a God or religious or spiritual force to derive their central moral principles.

  4. #4 Dr. Kate
    July 27, 2008

    Pete, my husband and I were discussing this just last night. We did not come close to a resolution, but we did come up with a few ideas:
    1. A main tenet of fundamentalism is that that particular religion is the only correct one–i.e., that that religion has an exclusive line on morality, ethics, and living the good life. So, someone who doesn’t follow that religion can’t possibly be moral. Someone who follows A religion is a little bit less threatening, because at least there’s a possibility that they have someone telling them what is right and wrong. But an atheist doesn’t have anyone telling them what to think, so they must not know what is moral and what is not (because humans are inherently sinful and MUST have the guidance of a god in order to keep them from acting like ravening beasts).
    2. We suspect that some of the hatred (as with most hatred) is rooted in fear or a sense of being threatened. Perhaps people who know atheists who ARE moral realize that said atheists have morality WITHOUT needing the church’s guidance–which implies that the church isn’t necessary. This could lead a theist to question why s/he DOES need the church to tell him/her what to think.

    Basically, it boils down to this: people assume that materialism/atheism implies a lack of morals because they get their morals from their church, and can’t imagine any other way of figuring them out.

  5. #5 Citizen Z
    July 27, 2008

    Ugh, what a lousy piece.

    From a more humanistic viewpoint, stigmatizing those who believe in intelligent design does not get us any closer to a respectful discourse.

    Nice statement of the obvious. What do they think the purpose of stigmatization is? Also presumes we should engage these charlatans in respectful discourse.

    But by taking seriously a concern of critics of evolution, educators could offer an olive branch that might result in less debate overall and in better-informed students.

    It’s not a serious concern, it’s a sleaze tactic.

    More recently, “the Wedge,” an infamous leaked strategy document of intelligent design proponents, suggests that advocates are not as concerned about the truth of evolution as they are about the underlying values they think it teaches.

    What kind of buffoon brings up the Wedge document without mentioning it is smoking gun evidence of the IDers’ dishonesty and their intent to push religion?

    Most defenders of evolution do not consider valid the critics’ fears that evolution teaches values. Even so, teachers could take these concerns seriously by clarifying what evolutionary theory does not imply about values.

    “Even though they are not valid concerns, teachers could always help spread creationists’ talking points for them.”

    I’d love to see them design a TV spot for a political campaign. “Congressman Joe Smith: Not currently under indictment. Also doesn’t eat babies. Paid for by the Joe Smith Has Not Been Indicted For Eating Babies Committee to Reelect.”

  6. #6 andrea
    July 27, 2008

    Not only does “survival of the fittest” not necessarily mean that fighting for resources is hardly a social model, it also ignores that cooperation improves survival.

    (“Surely the latter could be said to support a moral framework?

    What? You can’t pick and choose bits of science to support your pet moral framework?”)

    Well OF COURSE you can’t! That’s because creating moral frameworks is not the job of science! It’s the job of ethics. And yes, religion is not the only source, and indeed is not necessarily a reliable source, of ethics.

    Does the application of science need to be guided by ethics? You bet. Does ethics need to be guided by the discoveries of science? You bet.

    But please, don’t go conflating religion with “always good ethics” and science with “lacks ethics”, because that invariably lands us down that slippery slope to the figurative hell.


  7. #7 jerry
    July 28, 2008

    The authors failed to note the language the current TX SBOE is advocating exists in the current standards. A draft set of standards does not include this language.

    The authors of the W Post are quite naive in thinking their strategy would quiet, or using the language of some of the earlier posts, appease the anti-evolutionists, who want students to reject evolution. Because they have failed to have the teaching of evolution prohibited 40 years ago, a variety of strategies have emerged in attempts to marginalize the teaching of evolution. Unfortunately, the public attention that has accompanied a series of failed attempts to mandate policies that would neutralize or weaken the teaching of evolution has tended to intimidate many biology teachers with the result that are not emphasizing evolution in a manner commensurate with its importance in understanding the nature and history of the natural world.

    The bottom line is the the TX SBOE and organizations characterized with an anti-evolution agenda are pushing for the alleged weaknesses of evolution to be taught or, using alternative language, want the alleged controversy surrounding evolution to be taught. The controversy is embedded within a cultural context and not a scientific one. Likewise, the questions (which some twist into weaknesses) of scientists have to do with the mechanisms of evolution and not whether it has occurred.

    Finally, an argument can be made that evolution does have moral significance and influence. If Earth is the only place in the universe where life has involved and, in particular, life that has developed a civilization, then we need to care for it and make sure that it survives, which is a major moral imperative.