Eugenie C. Scott
National Center for Science Education
Dear Ms Scott,
Thank you for your recent letter informing me of the efforts of your fine organization to discourage the teaching of creationism, elsewise known as intelligent design.
The answer to your questions is: yes, I did know that “evolution was under attack.” But unlike you, I am not that concerned about it. I’m certainly not concerned enough to part with the $100 you ask for.
Like you, I’m convinced that the Earth is more than six-thousand years old. The evidence that its age is four-and-a-half billion years old, plus or minus a few tens of millions, is multitudinous.
Life on Earth—however it began—increased in complexity through some form of descent with modification. Natural selection at the individual level explains most observed variation, but not all. There are small holes in the theory of evolution—as there are in all biological or physical theories—that will probably be filled as time progresses.
The animal homo sapiens sapiens is one of the creatures produced by evolution. The weight of evidence supporting that statement is enormous. However, it is also true that evolution is weakest when explaining human behavior. Some observations which are counter to strict “selfish” gene theories: abortion, adoption, altruism, to name just the As.
However, even though the theory is strained when it comes to explaining human behavior, it does not break. The probability that the theory of evolution is true is as high as the probability that any of our best scientific theories is true. This probability is close to—but less than—one.
I have a colleague who is an atmospheric scientist. He is well published and funded and so forth. He is a follower of one of the religions that are not convinced that evolution is true. He even openly states that the Earth is only a few thousand years old.
Now, any atmospheric scientist doing his job must be willing to accept that the universe is older than than this, especially when his work involves planetary atmospheres, as his does. He once told me, “I just push the ‘I Believe’ button” when working.
Best I can say is that his behavior is not inconsistent with my theory that most of the human race is insane. Point is: all educational efforts to put this guy on the right path have failed. But since he has no plans on becoming a biologist, he’ll never suffer from his disbelief.
Most people just don’t give a damn about evolution. And why should they? Knowledge of evolution isn’t needed in preparing breakfast, making copies, taking the kids to soccer practice, operating a computer, and on and on.
You can argue that the world would be a better place if only these sad folk were better educated about evolution. But that’s so if you replace “evolution” by “string theory”, “analytic geometry”, or a host of other theories. You might say that evolution is more important than those other sciences because evolution is the basis of all biology. That’s true, but physics is the basis of everything, yet there will never be more than a handful of people who care to, and will be capable of, learning it.
Am I wrong to say that your ardency is motivated by your dislike of religion? Do you feel evolution is a tool that can remove this supernatural splinter from thy brothers’ eyes? Do you, that is, believe that if Judeo-Christian literalisms can be proved false, then the religious will recant, abandon their God, and see the Light of Reason?
If so, then are you in for a surprise. Anyway, it’s obvious that the combative tone adopted by the majority of your compatriots, their pitting Evolution vs. Religion as an all-out, winner-take-all battle, is in large part responsible for the escalation in rhetoric.
But would I want, as you say, creationists to insert some of their “sneakier catchphrases like ‘strengths and weaknesses’ or ‘academic freedom’” into the classroom?
It would be mostly harmless, for at least the reason that I do not believe that parents should trust the complete education of their children to the state. We should always do our best as teachers, but it’s a losing battle for many kids, who won’t take away from their biology classes more than some half-remembered story about giraffes’ necks.
Plus, I don’t think that those catchphrases are sneaky: they are a constant necessity. Scientists are just as prone to dogmatism as the religious.
As you quote, “the Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring equal time for creationism [and intelligent design] were unconstitutional.” If this hasn’t lessened the trend in disbelieving evolution, than nothing will.
Except maybe if certain rabid scientists would stop shouting that everybody who disagrees with them, or follows a religion, is a fool.
William M. Briggs
P.S. Congratulations on your Pubic Welfare Medal. That’s quite an honor.