Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Anti-evolutionists Form, Fund Think Tank

A press release dated August 10, 1996, announced that two private foundations have granted the Seattle-based Discovery Institute nearly a million dollars to establish the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. The Center will sponsor conferences, disseminate research and support postdoctoral students.

Individuals associated with the Center include some familiar old-earth anti-evolutionists employed at secular colleges and universities: Stephen Meyer (philosophy, Whitworth College), John West (political science, Seattle Pacific University), Phillip Johnson (law, University of California-Berkeley), and Michael Behe (biology, Lehigh). The current crop of research fellows include William Dembski (mathematics, formerly at Princeton), Paul Nelson (philosopher, former editor of the Bible-Science Newsletter and recent University of Chicago Ph.D.), and Jonathan Wells (molecular and cell biology Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley.)

Think Tanks and University Anti-Evolutionism

The funding and deployment of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture is a major step towards scholarly respectability for a relatively new group of anti-evolutionists: religious conservatives based at secular universities. They are organizing (or have organized) Internet list serves and web pages, conferences, new journals (see NCSE Reports 1996 Fall; 16[4], p 5) and, now, think tanks.

We are witnessing the embryogenesis of what I shall call "university-based anti-evolutionism". This term, though imperfect, reflects the fact that the newer crop of old-earth, mostly "design theory" anti-evolutionists are disproportionately located in secular institutions of higher learning, rather than at the more familiar independent, not-for-profit centers such as the Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis, and so on. Because most of them are not, in fact, in science departments, it would be inaccurate to refer to them as creation "scientists".

Historically, the leading anti-evolution activists have been such "young-earth" creationists as Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research. However, the publication of Phillip Johnson´s Darwin on Trial in 1991, encouraged the growth of a more moderate, "old-earth" anti-evolutionism which, because it accepts that the earth is ancient, is perceived by the public as being less on the fringes of science than other creationist models. Although they disagree on the age of the earth, neither old earthers nor young-earthers accept biological evolution (descent with modification) as the basis for the emergence of new species from ancestral forms. Most will accept mechanisms and processes of evolution such as natural selection, but they balk at a natural origin of new "kinds" and "basic body plans".

Phillip Johnson, a nationally-known scholar at a major secular university (Boalt School of Law at UC-Berkeley) legitimized the concerns of conservative Christians that their views were being systematically excluded from the secular institutions in which they worked. Johnson and others supporting university-based anti-evolutionism have challenged academe that if it is acceptable in academia to teach and do research from the perspective of an "ism" such as Marxism or feminism, why is it not also acceptable to argue from the perspective of Christianity? A concern of university-based conservative Christians is the increasing secularization of society and what they see as the abandonment of faith. Their own universities, they believe, are mainsprings of this tendency, and they don´t like it. They believe society is locked in a struggle between materialism and theism.

Materialism and Theism

Materialism is the view that the natural world can be explained in terms of matter, energy and their interactions. It may be expressed as a methodological rule "science is restricted to explaining the natural world through natural means", or as a broader, philosophical conclusion that, "therefore, there is no God." Theism is the belief in a supreme God, and for conservative Christians, this God must be an active participant in the running of the universe and in the affairs of humankind. But instead of arguing philosophically about the values of theism vs. materialism, the university-based anti-evolutionists use evolution as a stalking-horse. Evolution is a symbol of these conservative Christian professors´ discontent with secularism in academia and in society at large. NCSE objects to books by Johnson (Pennock 1996; Fezer 1996) and Michael Behe´s recent Darwin´s Black Box (see review by Miller 1996) not because they promote a philosophy, but because they unjustifiably attack a science.

The focus on theism vs. materialism is well exemplified by "intelligent design" (ID), the argument that some aspects of nature are "too complex" to have occurred through evolution, and thus a place must be left in science for supernatural intervention. But the practice of modern science is overwhelmingly (methodologically) materialistic: supernatural explanations are dead ends that do not lead to further understanding. University-based anti-evolutionists object to the current primacy of methodological materialism in science and request that we scrap a methodology that has worked very successfully for over a hundred years. I have frequently run into a, "but-if-it-is-the-truth, why-can´t-we-teach-it?" argument for allowing supernatural explanations into science classes. Members of the public who feel this way can now claim support from an impressive source: scholars based not just at Bible colleges, but at secular universities.

The rise of university anti-evolutionism is relatively new, and the promised hard-hitting critiques of the science of evolution have not yet appeared. ID has not influenced evolutionary biology or any other mainstream science, for example. However, although it has been inconsequential in science, university anti-evolutionism appears to be seeping into philosophy, history, "science studies", and social studies classes, in which works by Johnson, Behe, and others are being assigned and read. As valuable as it may be for understanding the social context of late 20th-century science to read these modern critiques, the question arises as to whether a philosopher or a sociologist has sufficient scientific background to see and to articulate to students how these books and articles fail as science.

What will be the future influence of university-based anti-evolutionism? How will its rise affect the current struggle to keep evolution in the schools? Currently, resources and influence of the Center for Renewal of Science and Culture pale next to the vigorous proselytizing of the Institute for Creation Research, the Bible Science Association, or Answers in Genesis. But there is another, more long-term way that university anti-evolutionism may affect the creation/evolution controversy: To the extent that anti-evolutionism spreads throughout the secular university community, its major influence is likely to be in training the next generation of teachers (and school board members and state legislators) to be suspicious of evolution. It does not matter that university-based anti-evolutionism is not rooted in science departments: most students take few courses in these department anyway. If university-based anti-evolutionism expands, there will be ample opportunity for them to learn erroneous science in non-science courses.

University scientists should watch for opportunities to open channels of communication when colleagues in other disciplines assign readings that distort or misrepresent science, such as Johnson´s Darwin on Trial or Behe´s Darwin´s Black Box. The point that should be made is that although the philosophical issues raised in these books are legitimate subjects for debate, the science is often substandard, and if the books are used, scientific errors should be noted for the student.

As an example, if a history teacher wanted to discuss the historical issue of the divine right of kings, he would be unlikely to use a source that claimed that ancient Egyptians ruled 15th-century France -- the historical issue could be discussed, but the historical example itself is just bad history. Similarly, Johnson brings up issues of philosophical interest, but Darwin on Trial is not a source one should use to learn the science of evolution (see Scott and Sager 1992, Scott, 1993).

Ironically, from the standpoint of evolution education, it is far preferable to have anti-evolutionary ideas expressed and debated at the university than in the local school board meeting. At least at the college level, individuals can be found who can show the scientific flaws in anti-evolutionist arguments, as has been done with Behe´s and Johnson´s books.

By Eugenie C. Scott
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