Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Now about that evolution bill

You know, I'm not a very politically active or informed person. I'm not a registered member of any political party. I don't watch Fox News or CNN. I know that law is not my expertise, so when I get a letter from a trusted friend saying that my opinion is "legally and politically naive" I listen. No one needs to "turn the screws" on me. I'm a big boy, and I can make my own decisions to take down a blog post that in retrospect doesn't meet my own quality standards.

That said, I do think a few comments are in order. Despite my naïveté, I still think the "academic freedom" law just enacted in Tennessee is really, really wrong-headed. The problem as I see it is a cultural one that cannot be solved by the law. The evolution issue is extremely complex and challenging. It's not easily resolved at all. Just look at the diversity of opinion that divides those who question all or part of evolution. Some are species fixists, some accept universal common descent with divine assistance, some accept limited common descent with fixed "kinds." Some think the earth is really old, some insist that the evidence unequivocally supports a young earth. Some look at the fossil record as evidence of progressive "creation" of species. Others think the fossil record supports evolution of "kinds" or even universal common descent. Others think the fossil record was deposited by a single catastrophe. I could go on (and on), but you get the point. I seem to recall Jesus saying something like, "how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and look, there’s a log in your eye?" I know for a fact that evolution cannot be falsified; it can only be replaced. As long as there is no agreement on the replacement, as long as we're walking around with logs sticking out of our eyes, evolution will continue to hold sway in science. That's just how life works.

What we need more than anything, then, is to develop the alternative to evolution that will become compelling, widely-accepted, and ultimately (and perhaps inevitably) part of a responsible science curriculum. Skipping to the end of that process is bad. Skipping to the end by running around the process and trying to legislate (or sue) your way into the classroom is extremely bad. We're just not ready for that. We could have been if we had given more attention to developing a serious response to evolution 150 years ago, but here we are. Still disagreeing about the basic parameters of what an alternative to evolution will even look like.

I can see a few ways to justify this "academic freedom" law. One way might be that evolution really is controversial and is being propped up by a corrupt "Darwin lobby" that needs extraordinary legal remedies to oppose. Since there is generally little or no internal debate about evolution among evolutionary biologists, that justification fails. Another justification might be that evolution really is falsifiable and falsified (without replacement) and the "Darwin lobby" is covering that up. That's also false. There will be no falsification of evolution without replacement. Alternatively, one might argue that since there's been such a legal storm over this issue, teachers need clarification about what they can and can't teach. If that were true, the problem would be resolved by educating the teachers rather than by legislation. My biggest concern here in Tennessee is the popularity that Dr. Dino still enjoys. You talk about challenges to evolution, and that's who people in this state are most likely going to think of. Ugh. We should be helping our science teachers to understand the complexities of this issue, not passing laws that are so veiled as to give no actual directions to teachers at all.

To the opponents of the bill, your hysteria just feeds the fire of those who believe in a "Darwin lobby." How is the Tennessee government supposed to make intelligent choices about this legislation when you're whining about Sunday School teachers teaching biology and dragging us back to the dark ages? It's completely ludicrous. Practically speaking, since this law doesn't actually require anything, and since even the Tennessee Science Teachers' Association opposes it, I think it is mostly going to be ignored. Making it out to be the end of education as we know it is beyond foolish, because when you react that way, you play right into the hands of propagandists who want legislators to believe there's some big conspiracy to shield evolution from critical thinking. Way to go.

Back to my own experience: 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. Given the constitutional realities of Tennessee government, I think Governor Haslam did as well as could be expected. He didn't bow to the propaganda of either side on this law. He reasoned through the issue himself, and he came to his own informed conclusion. And good for him!

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. I'm certain that many of the good folks in the ID movement really do want to help develop a good alternative to evolution, and I applaud them for that. I hope that ID can find its way again. I really do.

But if you still think this "cranky creationist" is naively spouting absolute nonsense, have at me. Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.