February 27, 2005
Evolution, origins of life, and textbooksBy Patrick J. Casey
With each passing month, I grow more confident that a paradigm shift is drawing near in the scientific and intellectual community. The formerly impregnable facade of Modernity, with its creation story grounded in Scientific Materialism and its ethic expressed in Modern Liberalism, is crumbling before us. Postmodernism stepped in for a few decades to plug up the leaks in the dike of Modernity. But it too is unable to shoulder the weight of a world where an absolute truth in the ethical realm lurks behind every political and intellectual debate in the Marketplace of Ideas.
Like a ghost frequenting a former domicile, the moral standard of an Intelligent Designer haunts us and nags at our conscience as we stand in defiance, demanding individual moral autonomy. In order to expedite the introduction of a new paradigm that is friendly to the notion of a Designer, however, those who would work to usher in a new epoch in public debate must pay careful attention to recent events.
In mid—January, the Cobb County Board of Education (hereafter CCBE) in Georgia was ordered to remove 'unconstitutional' stickers that questioned the theoretical nature of evolution and evolution's relationship with the origins of life. Now that we are several weeks removed from this most recent foray against the materialist hegemony in the public schools, I thought it would be helpful to analyze the strategy employed by CCBE.
Much has been written on CCBE's decision to place stickers on its biology textbooks and the ruling passed down from District Justice Clarence Cooper that rendered the stickers 'unconstitutional.' The stickers read,
'This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.'
I suggest that one of the reasons the stickers ultimately had to be removed lies in a strategic miscalculation.
On the surface, it may appear as though CCBE misfired on the definition of evolution. Strictly speaking, evolution in the classical Darwinian sense does not explain the origin of living things. Rather, this type of evolution purports to explain only how more advanced forms of life come into existence. Natural Selection is the mechanism by which mutations in a certain species of living organisms can result in a new species. It is important to note that evolutionary theories of this stripe always begin with some existing set of particles or elements by which life came into existence.
Classical evolutionary theories always cheated in the sense that they started their hypotheses with the pre—existence of non—living 'stuff.' It wasn't until the mid—late Twentieth Century that the Neo—Darwinists began to tackle the inherent problem of life origins within the theory of evolution. Therefore, if CCBE really wanted to get technical, they could have worded their sticker as follows:
'This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the means by which a new species of living creatures comes into existence from an existing species of living creatures. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.'
At this point, any reader should recognize that the force behind the sticker, the part that really rankled some feathers, would be lost if the section concerning life origins was removed. Ultimately, CCBE picked the right philosophical subject matter for the content of its sticker (life origins), but acted on the wrong strategy (targeting evolution within the discipline of science) to bring about the desired end of fostering a climate of rigorous thinking in the Marketplace of Ideas.
It seems to me that CCBE would have been better served with two alternate strategies. First, CCBE should have recognized that targeting 'evolution' by name carries baggage that is difficult to overcome. Any attempt to challenge evolution in the public schools invariably will find the church—state veto pen waiting in the halls of the courts. Rather than targeting evolution, CCBE should have instead gone for the jugular by zeroing in on the worldview that depends upon evolution (in all its forms) as its creation myth.
As alternate sticker text, I would suggest something like,
'This textbook was written by Scientific Materialists. This means that the writers interpret scientific data assuming the truthfulness of a specific set of philosophical beliefs. An example of a philosophical question addressed in this text is the origin of life. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.'
A sticker with this type of language does several things. First, it separates the disciplines of science and philosophy. Science, as a discipline, is a field that studies empirically verifiable phenomena. However, as scientists construct their hypotheses regarding the data they collect, they must obviously make formulations concerning unobservable events or physical entities. Some of the greatest discoveries in science have been the result of hypotheses concerning unobservable phenomena (i.e.: electrons, quarks, etc.).
The subject of life origins is a philosophical question that is of particular interest to scientists because the correct hypothesis concerning the origin of life can shape the way empirical data are interpreted. But scientists do not have a monopoly on legitimate answers to philosophical questions. Prior to Darwin, the origin of life had been an issue addressed by philosophers and theologians. As institutions that purport to educate persons, public schools should note that the history of Western philosophy has 2600 years of answers to the question of life origins (among other philosophical questions). It seems a disservice to neglect that rich and storied heritage for the sake of one life origin theory that had its beginnings in the Nineteenth Century.
But my alternate sticker text also forces a particularly revealing admission from the inevitable unconstitutional ruling should some brave school board opt to act on my sticker text. How would a court/judge find my sticker text unconstitutional? Since the text does not specifically name evolution, it seems like the church—state violation would be an unreasonable stretch. With my alternate sticker text, the only apparent route available to hostile courts would be a ruling that addresses the subject matter of worldviews. Such a ruling would publicly endorse what we all already know to be the status quo: while other worldviews may have some truth value, the public school system must presume the truthfulness of atheism for its formal instruction. Would such an open and honest admission from the courts produce the type of grass—roots rebellion that would move us closer to the paradigm shift that welcomes speculation on a Designer? We can only hope.
But the most effective way to introduce debate on life origins might require a completely different strategy. Rather than demanding that science textbooks cede their evolutionary turf, forward thinking school boards should consider abandoning this conflict altogether. Instead, they should introduce a new requirement for high school graduation: the successful completion of two classes in philosophy (ideally Introduction to Philosophy and Philosophy of Religion). By adding this new requirement, school boards can dictate the curricula which, by virtue of the subject matter, would include an investigation of life origins from many different perspectives.
These classes can function as the corrective to the monopoly currently held in the science classrooms. Even if the classes are not taught competently, students interested in the debate will get the desired exposure through the readings required by the school boards. The goal is simple: give the science text its voice and allow it to compete in the philosophy classroom with many other voices. While a stratagem like the one just described will invariably draw the attention of secularist hawks, a court challenge against these classes, with the attendant accusations that God—talk is being smuggled in through the schools' back door, will be very difficult to win. For both public schools and state universities are privy to taxpayer dollars.
Many prestigious publicly funded universities have extensive Philosophy and Religious Studies programs, some of which are openly courteous to monotheistic traditions. How is it that taxpayer dollars are welcomed in a university where persons can attain doctoral degrees studying Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, yet public high schools cannot offer basic and introductory classes that review the historical problems of philosophy which, by definition, include a critique of the Scientific Materialist's creation myth? A Supreme Court majority opinion that provides an exposition on the unconstitutionality of such an endeavor would be a delightful example of the Court's employment of logic.
Which brings us to the final point: logical inconsistency in these matters weighs heavily upon the liberal scientific and intellectual establishment who, for so many years, have depended on their authority alone as the final arbiter of what is worthy of public investigation. The shadow of the Designer is growing ever larger across the Marketplace of Ideas and the paradigm shift that welcomes Him looms large.