Todd Wood, the Disco. 'tute, and the Monkey Bill

Todd Wood is a professor at Bryan College, in Dayton, TN. Dayton, you'll recall, was the home of the Scopes trial, and Bryan College was named after Scopes's prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, and was founded in part to carry on Bryan's anti-evolution crusade. Wood himself is a prominent young earth creationist, a leader in the creationist answer to phylogenetics (baraminology), and director of Bryan's Center for Origins Research. Which is to say, he's a creationist's creationist.

And he's against the Tennessee monkey bill.

Last month, he wrote to Governor Haslam, asking him to oppose the bill. He's pulled down the letter from his blog, but for posterity and clarity, here's what he said:

Dear Governor Haslam:

My name is Todd Charles Wood, and I am a biology professor at Bryan College in Dayton, TN. You might recognize Bryan College as the Christian school named for William Jennings Bryan and founded in the wake of the Scopes Trial. (Please note that the opinions expressed in this letter are my own and do not represent the opinions of Bryan College.)

I recently noted that the Tennessee state senate passed SB0893, the so-called "Monkey Bill" (ironically on William Jennings Bryan's birthday of all days). I am sure that you've already received quite a number of heated letters and phone calls about this bill. As you certainly know, critics of the bill view it as a thinly-veiled attempt to inject creationism into the public science classrooms.

Because of my religious convictions, I am a committed creationist, but unlike many creationists, I have grown quite weary of the creation-evolution propaganda war. I believe this bill is an ideal example of what's wrong with the creation-evolution war. For example, since the bill clearly states that religious discussions are not protected, it could not be used to permit "some Sunday school teachers to hijack biology class by proxy," as the editorial in the March 21 edition of the Tennesseean suggested. On the other hand, my own reading of the bill indicates that it provides no protection that teachers don't already have. Teachers are already well within their rights to discuss any scientific evidence that pertains to the prescribed curriculum and to encourage critical thinking about it. Many already do. Any teacher trying to bring creationist arguments into a public science classroom will run afoul of legal precedent. Judge Jones's decision in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District found that the anti-evolution arguments of Intelligent Design are a form of religiously-motivated creationism. The controversy surrounding the other issues mentioned by SB0893 (human cloning and climate change) are also permissible subjects to discuss in science classes already, and therefore do not need any additional protection. Thus, if critics are correct that this is an attempt to inject creationism into Tennessee science classes, the language is so vague and watered-down that it would be incapable of performing that task.

Legally then, it seems that this bill is simply unnecessary. It does not directly challenge Kitzmiller v. Dover, and it does not offer any protection that does not already exist. Because the bill is useless, I ask you to veto it. Please do not allow Tennessee to become a pawn in the creation-evolution propaganda war.

Respectfully yours,

Todd Charles Wood

Wood later explained that he withdrew the post because he was concerned that the blog post "doesn't meet my own quality standards," and because a colleague indicated unspecified legal naivete. Since I assume he actually mailed a copy of the letter as well, and it's thus part of the public record, I think it's worth preserving.

Also worth preserving are the lengths creationists went to in trying to press Wood to withdraw his opposition. According to his blog today:

I took my letter to the governor down less than 24 hours after I put it up, and a few days later, a staff member at the college passed along a letter from John West of the Discovery Institute trying to drum up some resistance on the Bryan campus to my opinion. As far as I know, his efforts had zero effect on campus, since I didn't hear from any other person on campus about it. In his letter, West described me as "one cranky self-described 'creationist' who seems to get his facts from Panda's Thumb." Then in a recent blog post, Casey Luskin (also of the Discovery Institute) described the governor's ambivalence about the bill (which mirrored my own) as the result of being "duped by the Darwin lobby." It's comments like these that affirm my own refusal to identify with the "intelligent design movement." To address serious misgivings about the Discovery Institute's legal strategies with personal insults is disgusting. Governor Haslam and I both have brains of our own, and we can think for ourselves.

What's particularly entertaining about this is in promoting a bill which purports to advance academic freedom, the Discovery Institute chose to assault the academic freedom of a fellow creationist. The Disco. 'tute truly seems dedicated to redefining irony at every opportunity.

Wood closes by offering an assessment of the current state of ID that I think is widely shared among many of ID's early supporters, and in some sense by many of its opponents:

You know, when ID was picking up steam in the nineties, I was really excited. I thought that this sort of research program could be incredibly fruitful and helpful. Maybe I misunderstood its beginnings, but somewhere along the line, the movement seems to have lost its way. It went from an interesting research program to a populist anti-evolution campaign that often recycles arguments directly from vintage creationism. Maybe that's my naïveté shining through again, but I really don't think that ID was intended to be just a disguised form of creationism to circumvent court rulings against religion in science classrooms.

Not that ID's opponents ever thought it was a genuine challenge to modern evolutionary biology â that was always PR fluff. But for a while it seemed like they might actually break some new philosophical ground, and perhaps generate something that, while wrong, would at least be intellectually stimulating. But, as Wood puts it so eloquently, they've never really gotten beyond being "a populist anti-evolution campaign that often [or, indeed, exclusively -JR] recycles arguments directly from vintage creationism." There's nothing new or interesting here anymore.

The monkey bill is an interesting legal innovation, and the consequences for classrooms in Tennessee may yet be dire. But the ID movement was never built on a promise of legal innovation, and as they themselves declared: "Without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade." And that's all they have left.

As evangelical Christian biologist Steve Matheson put it in a loving letter to Disco's Stephen Meyer:

you seem to have abandoned scholarship and the intellectual community, and instead embraced apologetics and political persuasion. â¦

â¦you desperately need to get out of your freakish little gated community and talk to people who know that the initiation of cancer is indeed fueled to a large extent by driver mutations, and that genome sizes are indeed a hard problem for design theorists to tackle. When you have Wells whispering to you in one ear, and the bizarre perspectives of Richard Sternberg echoing in your mind, you have a huge problem: you're out of touch with real science, with real biology, with the ideas that you have to engage â¦

Your Discovery Institute is a horrific mistake, an epic intellectual tragedy that is degrading the minds of those who consume its products and bringing dishonor to you and to the church. It is for good reason that Casey Luskin is held in such extreme contempt by your movement's critics, and there's something truly sick about the pattern of attacks that your operatives launched in the weeks after the Biola event. It's clear that you have a cadre of attack dogs that do this work for you, and some of them seem unconstrained by standards of integrity. I can't state this strongly enough: the Discovery Institute is a dangerous cancer on the Christian intellect, both because of its unyielding commitment to dishonesty and because of its creepy mission to undermine science itself. I'd like to see you do better, but I have no such hope for your institute. It needs to be destroyed, and I will do what I can to bring that about.

When creationists and evolution's defenders can agree about the perfidy of the Discovery Institute, I think it's time for some serious self-reflection in Seattle.

More like this

I believe most people who take their religion seriously refer to the above attitude as "cafeteria Catholicism" TTT

You don't understand what I said.

I said that religion is free to accept ideas from science whereas science can't take its ideas from religion or any extra-scientific areas. Science is restricted to only that information that it can process with its methods and tools, religion isn't restricted in that way.

You also don't understand Catholicism which holds that anything about the universe which is true can inform belief and that, ultimately, individual people are answerable to their own conscience. 'Cafeteria Catholic' is a term of right wing invective, one that is never applied to people like Antonin Scalia when he chooses to ignore Catholic teaching on social justice, for example. I'm not qualified to comment on Kosher law which is impressively specific.

Bronze age barbarism is a rather silly cliche of new atheist invective, considering how much our science and logic, not to mention our entire written culture and agriculture are dependent on things discovered during the bronze age. I'm a lot more impressed with the discoveries of the bronze age than I am the endless repetitions of cliches, logical fallacies, bigotry and false lore from the age of new atheist blog activity.

Leebowman, everyone could have saved a lot of time by saying what I did when that movie came out, Ben Stein is a hack who couldn't care less if what he said about evolution is true or false or if he really believed what he was saying as he was paid to say it.

Todd Wood: â ⦠when ID was picking up steam in the nineties, I was really excited. I thought that this sort of research program could be incredibly fruitful and helpful. Maybe I misunderstood its beginnings, but somewhere along the line, the movement seems to have lost its way. â

ID is a difficult row to hoe, since

â¢It has been mischaracterized as a Creationist âMovementâ,
â¢Itâs so-called political nature as more of a âdefensiveâ nature (ACLU, NCSE, AAAS),
â¢Opposition not only from mainstream science, but also mainstream religion,
â¢No funding allowed for otherwise legitimate studies [novel enzyme/ protein formation, molecular studies, other genetic studies,
â¢A conflation of terms [IDC] based largely on a âselectedâ case, ergo "We didn't just win; we won big. [7:50]" * *

* *

and more. So yes, politics are certainly involved, but primarily defensive, rather than assertive.

Todd: âIt went from an interesting research program to a populist anti-evolution campaign that often recycles arguments directly from vintage creationism.â

Terms like âanti-evolutionâ are unfounded with ID, except where âselectâ religious groups may/do have that goal in mind. And no, the ârecyclingâ is by detractors, who love to raise those non-relevant points, and attach them fallaciously to ID proponents. In short, the separation of ID and Creationism is no less distinct than the separation of church and state.

And then thereâs the purported theist Steve Matheson, who once blogged in response to a comment from âHuman Ape regarding the referenced open letter to DI,

â Hi Kevin and Ape. Yeah, Iâm a believer. Right now, that applies about 5 days a week. The other two Iâm a skeptic.

Kevin, Iâm sorry that you object to the âsupernaturalist elementsâ of my letter, though I donât know where they are. As for âengagingâ me on faith, letâs hear a question. I make no guarantees about your satisfaction with my answers.

And Ape, thanks for the compliment. My very best friends right now are both atheists, and I am honored to be compared to them.â…

By leebowman (not verified) on 12 Apr 2012 #permalink

"ID is a difficult row to hoe"
because it is simply creationism repackaged is what I believe you meant to say. Somehow you go derailed.

"Terms like âanti-evolutionâ are unfounded with ID"
I laughed quite hard at this when I realized you had to be kidding. (You are, right?)

Josh, as I understand it, this bill specifies only two areas: evolution, chemical origin of life, cloning(?), and global warming, as those where "freely examining the evidence" is explicitly mentioned. Was anything made of the specificity of the targets of this bill? There are some full time cranks who, I would have guessed, loved inclusion of physics in this. Could the targeting come back to bite them?

"the Discovery Institute is a dangerous cancer on the Christian intellect, both because of its unyielding commitment to dishonesty and because of its creepy mission to undermine science itself."

The phrase "the Christian intellect" needs more definition because many Christian intellects think the DI is not an example of ID. But he's right, other than that.

leebowman, there is an essential distinction that has to be made between proponents of "Intelligent Design" that presents itself as science, it can't be, and people who accept the fact of evolution and who also believe that the ways and means of that evolution which can be found by science are aspects of the continuing creation. Science is a far smaller area of thought because it restricts what it can study in ways that exclude the possibility of a divine creator among many other ideas people have. Religion isn't restricted, it can accept everything that science can reveal and more. There is nothing to keep religion from accepting the entirety of present day science, while science can't deal with religion at all except in so far as some claims about the physical universe are made within religion. Those are susceptible to the methods of science. The belief that the way the universe actually is, is the design of a creator is not susceptible to science. People are always having mistaken ideas how the universe actually is, within religion, even within science. We don't have the whole picture.

"Religion isn't restricted, it can accept everything that science can reveal and more."

I believe most people who take their religion seriously refer to the above attitude as "cafeteria Catholicism" or "cafeteria Kosherism" or "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." Yes, religion really can accept anything if you make yourself an equal intellectual arbiter of this God character and simply ignore the parts where he flat-out declares what he will and will not accept.

Don't get me wrong - I wholeheartedly approve of the "let's-just-edit-out-nasty-stuff" technique, without which modern civilization would never have emerged from the Bronze Age barbarism in which most of our current religions were born. But that is an attribute of the human brain - the evolved brain - in dealing with a wide variety of topics, and not at all uniquely inherent to the fans of particular mythologies.

Does anyone have a working link to Matheson's letter to Meyer? The one in Josh's post is broken, and I can't find the letter on his blog.

By Red Right Hand (not verified) on 14 Apr 2012 #permalink

thanks lee

By Red Right Hand (not verified) on 16 Apr 2012 #permalink