MORAL IMPLICATIONS OF TEACHING EVOLUTION IN SCHOOLS: Evolution and creationism/intelligent design have been a topic of discussion for a while on Transterrestrial Musings (Rand Simberg) and other blogs, notably The Volokh Conspiracy (Eugene Volokh). As often happens, I'm late to that party, but I just sent an email to Rand with some comments about the discussion. Please note that I'm not making any effort to look at the two theories in a scientific way, because that's not my area of expertise and I would only embarrass myself thoroughly. You may think I do anyway, but that's for you to decide.
The headline above, and the email itself, should serve as sufficient introduction:
I've read with interest your commentary about evolution vs creationism (I prefer the term "intelligent design"). One of your major objections to the teaching or adherence to a theory of intelligent design is that it limits scientific exploration. You also see it as a weakness of faith, a fairly harsh assessment. While I do agree that blind adherence to a theory can limit a search for truth, and a weak faith breeds fear, I think you are showing your own bias in your discussion, as well as not fully addressing the moral implications of an unchallenged presentation of evolutionary theory.
As long as intelligent design is a valid theory - which I think Volokh argued eloquently is the case - then refusing to consider it as an option is biased and unscientific. It's a theory of origin, not a theory of escapism. While it is inappropriate for someone to say, "Well, it's that way because God made it that way" and thus refuse to explore a question further, it is just as inappropriate to say, "Because eventually this explanation might lead to an irresolvable question, we're going to refuse to accept that this could be the answer even though it fits the facts".
It is the fact that it [intelligent design] is not disprovable (i.e., falsifiable) that puts it outside the realm of science. It's not simply an uninteresting theory--it is a useless copout (again, purely from a scientific perspective).
Is general evolution in its full manifestation provable? It's not replicable, we don't have historic accounts; it will never be more than an extrapolation from evidence. To assume it is to limit your explorations. Conversely, if someone developed a theory of how things should look if there was an intelligent designer, and set out to test it, would that be bad science? The originating event is not replicable, but its manifestations might be evident. If this scientist found, for example, that man appeared in his current form at one point in history, or other evidence that seem to point more to intelligent design than evolution, would you try to fit it into your own theory, or ignore it, because you don't see intelligent design as a valid theory? Especially given what you say here:
If I were to teach evolution in a school, I would state it not as "this is what happened," but rather, "this is what scientists believe happened."
Belief without proof is called "faith".
But my major objection to evolution being taught in the schools without any reference to intelligent design as an alternative is the social implications of the "religion" of evolution. I've taught both introductory psychology and sociology on the college level, and in every case the texts explained both individual and social behaviors in an evolutionary context, with many attendant moral extrapolations. An example is the "fight or flight" response. I'm not saying humans don't have that response, but the evolutionary explanation given for it is an extrapolation that isn't supported. The development of that response cannot be scientifically tracked or established, given that it happened prior to recorded history and is not still developing, so whence the conclusions as to why it developed? It is assumed that the extrapolation is true, which actually limits exploration rather than encouraging it - we know why it's there, so why look more deeply into its manifestations? Setting it as a trait that developed as an evolutionarily-preferred behavior gives its manifestations, in the eyes of some, an almost moral rightness. You have to go outside science to find reason to stem it in some contexts, when it would not have that moral gravitas to begin with if some evolutionists didn't present extrapolations as truth.
If you've been following the recent discussions of teen sexuality on some of the blogs, you've seen a number of references to "natural" behavior, to evolutionary imperative. That is a moral conclusion arising from evolution-as-religion. It's also used as a reason behind why sexual photographs of teenagers are so desired online - we're evolutionarily hardwired to seek out the best bets for self-perpetuation, thus, youth and attractiveness, so naturally people are drawn to sexual photos of youth. I'm not saying that all the arguments using evolution in their supportive statements would be endorsed by evolutionary scientists, but it is a major source of reasoning for those taking a variety of moral and behavioral stances. It is not a value-neutral, or morality-neutral, scientific theory. It is in our society treated as fact, and many people base their behavior on its extrapolated moral tenets. At the very least, schools should separate fact from those extrapolations.
As for the weakness of faith that belief in intelligent design supposedly indicates, I would posit that a similar weakness of faith exists in a scientific community fearful of incorporating intelligent design in its assessment of information, at the very least as a valid theory of origin until proven otherwise. It is either a fear that intelligent design is true, or an adamant belief that general evolution is law, not theory, despite its lack of full support; in either case the scientific pursuit is polluted by bias. What avenues of exploration are closed because of a belief in evolution similar to the religious closed-mindedness you mention in association with a belief in intelligent design? Why is questioning evolution considered heresy?
My psychology and sociology students were always treated to a lecture on how what you believe about origins has an impact on what you believe about behaviors and morality today. I made my own beliefs on it clear, and did not color my presentation of the class material with my own biases in the balance of the class except in asides offering an alternative extrapolation very obviously my own. I don't see how such an approach would suddenly destroy the foundations of scientific endeavor in this society, nor how intelligent design reasonably presented as an option of origin, in all its advantages, flaws and implications, would do the same. It also is not "promoting religion", if dissociated from the Bible and taught as a valid scientific option - which it is. Religion is about who the intelligent designer is, and different groups have different conclusions. I'm not suggesting we teach in public schools which conclusion is most likely - just as you would say "I would state it not as 'this is what happened,' but rather, 'this is what scientists believe happened.' "
And as a religious person, I'm not afraid of science in full flower, exploring every corner of the universe. I encourage it. I'm fascinated by it. Maybe there is intelligent life elsewhere, although I doubt it. I wouldn't stop scientific exploration for fear it will prove my faith wrong, nor do I deny that many aspects of evolutionary theory offer an excellent structure for scientific study. But I also don't believe evolution and faith are antithetical, or reasonably separated into 'reality' vs 'emotion'. It is that characterization in the face of the moral implications of belief in general evolution that give rise to my desire for intelligent design to be presented in schools as an optional theory of origin.
Thanks again for your thorough exploration of the topic.
UPDATE: Weary and frustrated, Rand Simberg has nonetheless rolled up his sleeves and taken me apart piece by piece in response to the above email. I appreciate his time and his tone, especially given that he thought he'd already done all that was needed and then here I come, late to the party, and start asking more questions. Since my goal is learning, and not debating for its own sake, I won't extensively answer his post right away. I need to absorb the information, from all his posts, and do some other reading. One thing I know is that I have not spent sufficient time reading the original texts of evolution. This is a topic important to me in part because I hope to be back in the classroom in a couple of years, and some of these implications may arise again. Since my area is criminal justice, the issue of origins and the evolutionary implications for behavior doesn't often come into play, except when the etiology of violent behavior is under discussion, so it's not something I have to know immediately how to address. Rand thinks what I've done so far is wrong. I think he didn't address my central concern - as evidenced by this comment (mine, then his):
[Susanna says] My psychology and sociology students were always treated to a lecture on how what you believe about origins has an impact on what you believe about behaviors and morality today.
[Rand says] If that's the case, then I beg your pardon, but you were misteaching them. Perhaps it does, but it most emphatically shouldn't.
The "perhaps it does" is quite disingenuous, because of course it does, and a scientist saying, 'Well, I can't help it if people misunderstand and misuse my data, and you shouldn't teach something you can't support even though they do rampantly', is not precisely fair.
A few notes from my brother Alan: For centuries scientific advancement was made by people who believed in God - and continues to be, in some quarters - so the two can march together. Also, what would be accepted as "proof" that evolution is false? The theory is never discredited, only modified with the new information. Also, Alan (who occasionally shows up in comments here) says:
...as Philip Johnson points out--and this guy proves - they will always trot out the 'scientific method', pat you on the head and send you away when at the end of the day they have made a philosophical, not a scientific, stand.
...any mention of God is fundamentally dismissed under the guise of 'scientific method' yet if they were scientists worth their salt they would come up with ways to test that theory, too.
If any of my readers would like to tackle this, I will post emails about it (that are reasoned and not just spoutings or attacks) on the writings page and link them here. Also, the comments section is open for business and ACD has already promised compelling argumentation as soon as he finishes his Gould book. If I decide to write more about it, it will also be on the writings page and linked here.