The complete IDiot’s guide to teaching evolution

Kansas Outlaws Practice Of Evolution

In response to a Nov. 7 referendum, Kansas lawmakers passed emergency legislation outlawing evolution, the highly controversial process responsible for the development and diversity of species and the continued survival of all life. Lawmakers decried spontaneous genetic mutations.

“From now on, the streets, forests, plains, and rivers of Kansas will be safe from the godless practice of evolution, and species will be able to procreate without deviating from God’s intended design,” said Bob Bethell, a member of the state House of Representatives. “This is about protecting the integrity of all creation.”

…”Barn swallows that develop lighter, more streamlined builds to enable faster migration, for example, could live out the rest of their brief lives in prison,” said Indiana University chemist and pro-intelligent-design author Robert Hellenbaum, who helped compose the language of the law. “And butterflies who mimic the wing patterns and colours of other butterflies for an adaptive advantage, well, their days of flouting God’s will are over.” The Onion, Nov 28, 2006 


A few weeks ago a fourth grader’s science quiz went viral on the internet. It was a creationist exam and the questions and answers included:

The earth is billions of years old.   FALSE

On what day did God make the dinosaurs? THE SIXTH

Dinosaurs lived with people. TRUE

What is the “history book of the universe?”  BIBLE

What did Noah tell God to build?  AN ARK

What caused there to be fossils? THE GLOBAL FLOOD

The next time someone says the Earth is billions (or millions) of years old, what can you say?  WERE YOU THERE?

There have always been many Christians who have rejected the theory of evolution. But before 1925 it was very much a religious dispute between fundamentalists and modernists. However, as public education expanded, what high school students were learning in their science classes began to attract more attention. And it all came to head in one of America’s trials of the century – a trial about an idea.

The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes is popularly known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. It took place in July 1925 and was immortalised in the film Inherit the Wind. However, this presented a rather simplified vision of events. In fact, the reality was in many ways was much more interesting. The trial, which was the first to be broadcast on national radio, was quite frankly a bit of a media circus. It was deliberately staged in order to attract publicity to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, which had seen its local industry decimated in the years before the trial. Indeed, Scopes, a substitute high school teacher, was unsure whether he had ever actually taught evolution, but he allowed himself to be incriminated himself so that the case could have a defendant. Scopes was charged with violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach human evolution in any public school.

At the heart of the story were three larger-than-life characters – Clarence Darrow William Jennings Bryan and Henry Louis Mencken. Darrow was the big-shot lawyer and religious sceptic who, for the only time in his career, waived his usually hefty fees in order to represent the defendant. Bryan, the prosecution lawyer, was a devout Christian, a genuine radical and a brilliant orator, who had unsuccessfully stood for the American presidency three times. An opponent of laissez-faire capitalism, social Darwinism, eugenics, and militarism, he argued that the citizens had should have their say over what was taught in public schools. He just didn’t trust science, which he perceived as an elitist enterprise. Finally, there was the professional cynic H.L. Mencken, who had a glorious time laying into the locals. A mob almost lynched him after he called the people of Dayton “yokels,” “primates,” morons,” and “hillbillies.” But Mencken saved his worst barbs for Bryan:

It is a tragedy, indeed, to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.”

Generally, when you hear about the trial you get an image of Bryan as the religious nutter. That is how Darrow wanted to portray him in his famous cross-examination. The fact that the prosecution lawyer was cross-examined by defence counsel was rather unusual. Here are some of Darrow’s questions to Bryan:

If Eve was actually created from Adam’s rib, where did Cain get his wife?

How many people lived in Ancient Egypt?

But, when you read that Jonah swallowed the whale – or that the whale swallowed Jonah, excuse me, please, how do you literally interpret that?

Do you believe Joshua made the sun stand still?

Do you believe at that time the entire sun went around the earth?

Darrow wanted to portray him as a biblical literalist but Bryan’s views were more nuanced:

“But I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in 600,000,000 years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.

We don’t often hear about the textbook at the centre of the controversy. Hunter’s Civic Biology, which was published in 1914, did undoubtedly reflect early 20th century mores. Here are a couple of extracts which capture the flavour:

The Races of Man.At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest race type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.

Eugenics When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, syphilis, that dread disease which cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent children, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics.

This makes chilling reading but it has nothing to do with whether evolution is legitimate science or not. Eugenics, which had a lot of supporters on both the left and right, but this will have to be a subject for another post. Anyway, back to the trial. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, but the verdict was subsequently overturned on a technicality. Bryan died in Dayton less than a week after the trial, but the struggle continued. The anti-evolution statute was upheld maintained and similar measures were brought in by other states and school districts.

There has been an ongoing debate about the teaching of evolution ever since. The fist step in this battle was to ban teaching of evolution outright. And this happened until the launch of Sputnik I created a panic about the scientific race with the USSR. Evolution came back into favour in school biology classes. Now the demand was for equal time for creationism and evolution. When this was unsuccessful, creationism morphed into creation science. But in Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a Louisiana law requiring that creation science be taught in public schools, along with evolution, was unconstitutional because the law was specifically intended to endorse a particular religion.

The final incarnation has been intelligent design. The basic idea is that the design we see is too complex to have emerged by itself. Therefore, there must be a creator at work. This assumes that design must be top-down, but evolution is a bottom-up process in which design and complexity emerge out of blind but non-random processes. If we look around us, we can see that bottom-up design all around us. Many species have genetically determined structures which appear to have lost most or all of their ancestral function. This is known as vestigiality. In whales there are small vestigial leg bones deeply buried within the back of the body. The wings of ostriches, emus, and other flightless birds remind us that their ancestors were able to fly. In humans the coccyx, is the remnant of a lost tail.

Whereas scientists do not seriously dispute that evolution is a robust theory, ordinary Americans think very differently. Opinion polls suggest that only 15% of the public believe that humans evolved without any divine help, whereas 46% think that God created humans in their present form and 32% think that humans evolved but with God’s help. American fundamentalist Christians are the most notorious example but evolution is under threat from many religions around the world. There are Hindu creationists in Asia, and Islamic creationists in Turkey. There are a variety of views in Judaism with regard to creationism. Many orthodox Jewish groups accept Darwinian evolution while many conservative Jewish groups reject it. Why do we always hear about the American case? I suppose that this is partly because it is shocking that in the country with the best scientists in the world these ideas still persist. But maybe it is also considered culturally inappropriate to criticise other religions.

Creation science and intelligent design are bullshit, whatever the source. This is pseudoscience which posits supernatural causes which lie outside the realm of methodological naturalism and scientific experiment. Science can only test empirical, natural claims. By invoking miracles they go beyond what science can deliver. Their claims are not falsifiable i.e. there is no way to show the theory to be false, regardless of any conceivable observations or experiments.

But, creation science and intelligent design are also bad religion. If there is a God, it will not be through science and reason that you find Him/Her, but through faith and revelation. There is no incompatibility between evolution and religion.

2 Responses to The complete IDiot’s guide to teaching evolution

  1. Jerry says:

    Nicely put.

  2. David says:

    As a practicing Christian, I am frequently concerned by those who try to prove scientifically that God exists. The whole point about religion is faith, and faith implies believing without having proof. If you have proof, you cannot have faith (remember Doubting Thomas?). If you have faith, you do not need to prove. But what’s more, the stronger the proof that God does not exist, and you continue to believe, then the stronger your faith. Only those whose faith is weak should fear science. Those whose faith is strong should welcome science for making their faith stronger. Every time I read one of Dawkins’s books – and I am willing to accept his arguments – the stronger my faith

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