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Evolution Wars, Evolving

with 5 comments

Not all the books I’ve been unearthing in my office have been light and shiny ones like the one on Piero della Francesca I talked about yesterday.  I read a lot of books about policy, and some of those have come to the surface, too.

One of those is a thing called The Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism, by Robert T. Pennock.   Pennock is (was?) an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of New Jersey.  That  name always shakes me up a little, because at the beginning of the country, “The College of New Jersey” was the official name of the place we now call Princeton.  This College of New Jersey seems to have nothing to do with Princeton, although from what I can see from their web site, they do like to go on about how very selective they are.

At any rate, Pennock was teaching philosophy there when he wrote this book, which is an analysis of the arguments put forward by people like Philip Johnson and Michael Behe and the then newly emergent Intelligent Design movement.

I say then newly emergent, because this book is not in any way new.  It was published in 1999.  At that point, there had recently been a couple of high-profile court cases on evolution in public education.  Some of them had concentrated on positive efforts to get Creation Science or Intelligent Design taught in publc schools. Others had concerned themselves with negative efforts to undermine the confidence of students in evolution as a fact as well as evolution as a theory.

The latter are those things like getting stickers put in biology textbooks to say evolution is “only a theory” or demands by school districts that the textbooks they buy not discuss evolution in any way.

(In that last case, what textbook publishers do is to take out the word “evolution” and replace it with something like “change over time,” and then just explain evolution as usual.  They have to.  Modern biology is based on evolution.  Without it, there’s nothing you can say about biology at all.)

Very often, when I come across books I haven’t seen for a while but that I remember with admiration, I reread them. 

And I took this book into the living room with me with just that in  mind.  It was well written.  It was informative.  It had provided me with a lot of useful information.  It’s always a good idea to revisit all that.

After I’d had the book out for about an hour, I changed my mind.  No, I didn’t remember anything discreditable about the book, and I hadn’t gone off the  idea  of reading about evolution.

What became clearer and clearer to me as I flipped through the thing, though, is that the nature of the evolution wars have changed significantly since 1999.

When Pennock made his case, the great push was to find away around court rulings that  banned Creationism in public school classrooms.  It was, in fact, a lawyer’s movement.  Philip Johnson was one, and the Discovery Institute had them. 

One of the things Pennock does very well in his book is to show how Johnson, especially, uses counsel-for-the-defense strategies to try to create “reasonable doubt” in the minds of laypeople, therefore–at least theoretically–making them more amenable to installing Intelligent Design in the curriculum.

The strategy did not work, and the whys and wherefores of why  it did not work are interesting in themselves.

But Pennock’s is not a book about that.  It is set of arguments meant to be  used by supporters of evolution in the particular kind of evolution war occuring at that time.

From what I can tell, that particular kind of evolution war is no longer occuring.

I don’t mean that we’re not fighting about evolution any longer.

Sometimes it feels to me that we’re not only still fighting, but that we’re fighting harder.

It’s just that the nature of the argument has changed.

In 1999, science still  had the upper hand.  The Intelligent Design people, and even t he Creationist  proper people, usually went to great lengths to at least appear scientifically respectable. 

These days, it’s as if the Creationist side has stopped caring. More and more school districts with Creationist-friendly school boards seem to be simply installing whatever version of Creationism they want to teach and daring the other side to go to court,  or plastering their curricula with anti-evolution messages and letting whoever wants to complain complain.

Fifteen years ago, most people arguing against teaching evolution in the schools were convinced that their fellow citizens had a great respect and admiration for science, even if they didn’t themselves.  And they assumed that that respect and admiration had to be placated, if nothing else.

Now it’s almost as if they’re convinced of the exact opposite–that their fellow citizens disdain science just as much as they do, that to designate something as “science” now is to use a pejorative.

And, of course, that their fellow citizens will agree with them.

This would be bad  news no matter what the circumstance were that made it show up, but it makes me much more nervous because I’m almost certain that the evolution wars are not about evolution.

Dozens of good and dedicated men and women spend their time these days trying to convince people that evolution is true.  They marshal evidence, outline arguments, put up web sites with links to all the data.

And none of it matters.

I have a friend with whom I’ve been arguing about evolution for years.  Every time we do, I send her a link to TalkOrigins and their transitional fossils FAQ.  It’s all laid out there, transition after transition, transitions within species, between species,  in long descent lines from one species to another to a third.

There are nearly 30,0o0 documented cases, all properly footnoted and everything.

Every time we have this argument, I send her there.  Then the argument stops, and when it starts up again six or ten months later, it’s as if she’s never heard of TalkOrigins before.

Part of this  may be self protection.  She adheres to a brand of Protestantism that insists she take Genesis more or less literally, and she doesn’t want to endanger her faith.

But I think the bigger problem is this:  she doesn’t bother to look at the evidence, because the truth or falsity of evolution is beside the point.

Evolution isn’t what we’re really talking about.

Written by janeh

July 22nd, 2013 at 7:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Evolution Wars, Evolving'

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  1. Hello, climate change nee global warming. None of these arguments are about what they purport to be about. They’re about fundamentalist religion v rationalism.


    22 Jul 13 at 9:02 am

  2. It always struck me that the pro-teaching evolution forces in Round 1 were mostly led by morons. If you can get schools which have not taught evolution to do so at the price of a disclaimer in the back of the book, or just calling it “biological changes over time” you’ve won. In fact, the disclaimer would get the students to consider the evidence and reasoning pro and con, which used to be considered a good thing in teaching. Instead, the morons insisted on terms which would preclude evolution being taught in those schools.

    As for the current state of affairs, I’d say the prestige of science isn’t what it was, and for good reason. The hard scientists have tended not to maintain standards. We get “proofs” of this or that causing cancer which are classic instances of statistical clustering, for instance–to the point that the average new “scientific discovery” published in a peer-reviewed journal has a half-life of about two years. Worse, scientists haven’t policed their borders. Obama can announce that he’s “going with the science” on stem-cell research, and no scientist says “this is ethics, not science.” Or should I mention the “science” behind racial quotas in school admissions?

    Respect comes at a price. You do what you say you’ll do, and you adhere to a standard even when there is a short-term advantage in cheating. And the price is not a one-time payment, but rent, paid perpetually as the price of respect. Sadly, “science” is a little behind on the payments lately.


    22 Jul 13 at 9:14 am

  3. Do you mean that the morons in sisted on terms with would preclude creationism being taught, Robert?

    I certainly agree that science has lost some of the respect it had 100 or even 50 years ago, and that people are far less inclined than they were to accept the word of experts on any matter – oddly so, because we seem to have more experts than ever before, many of them self-appointed or at least of dubious expertise.

    I’m not entirely sure that its only a case of religion vs rationalism. Certainly, religion has been a motivating force for many people, but the underlying conflict seems to be over who dictates culture, or who dictates what we can believe and do. Who decides what’s taught children in school? The state or the parents? Religions are often able to coordinate their members and lobby vociferously, and so get a lot of attention, but other people are also fighting strongly over who gets the final say over what’s going on in schools, what medical care (including vaccination) should be required or allowed, what kinds of food and drink should be consumed, what drugs should be legal and, if they are legal, which ones are socially acceptable, even whether human euthanasia is acceptable.

    They all have their experts – they all still want experts, even though the day of automatic deference to the expert seems to be over. And, most oddly of all, they all want everyone in society to approve of – maybe even praise – their stand on their pet subject. None of them ever seem to say or think, well, I can do and (possibly with the exception of the euthanasia example, although not if I extended it to suicide) no one can stop me or punish me, and it doesn’t bother me if the rest of society disapproves and in fact lives another way; teaches their children something else about evolution or has a different diet.

    There’s a desperate need to be right and virtuous and also to be seen to be right and virtuous.


    22 Jul 13 at 10:31 am

  4. Cheryl, I mean the morons would rather have evolution not taught than have it be called “biological changes over time” or have a note in the back of the textbook pointing out that there were counter-arguments in the library.
    But yes, I would rather see modern biology taught in competition with creationism than not be taught at all. I think the evidence for evolution will hold up under examination. But many on the–well, call them the “anti-creationist” side–don’t seem to be so confident.
    Normally it’s the side with the weaker argument which wants to close down discussion, which has made the teaching of evolution in the United States and the European criminal penalties for “holocaust denial” especially interesting.


    22 Jul 13 at 1:06 pm

  5. Yes, that’s what I thought you meant, and I agree it shows a lamentable lack of faith in their position on the part of the “anti-creationists”.

    Trying to use some niggling point to gain an advantage over one’s opponents instead of compromising is, alas, a common procedure. There was a rather discreditble incident in the local history of education back in the 1800s which illustrates this. There was a push to provide common schools for everyone – since we weren’t really supposed to be a colony in the first place, the only education that was provided in the early days was provided by various churches. The proposal collapsed because not only did the various combatants disagree on which version of the Bible to use, some of the Protestants insisted on having the Bible – their version, of course – listed as an official textbook, no other versions allowed. Naturally, this ensured that the Catholics wouldn’t agree at all, although they might have had they either been able to use their own translation or at least not been forced to use someone else’s.

    It’s a way of enforcing one’s will – or trying to do so – by acting as though insisting on ‘minor’ details isn’t going to alienate the opposition, and ensure you don’t have to cooperate with them, also of course implies that your own views are so weakly rooted that they need legislative backup.

    Incidentally, the local school system didn’t become non-denominational until 1998, and that only over strong opposition, not just from the Catholics, either.


    22 Jul 13 at 1:40 pm

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