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Louisiana: Taking a stand for Jesus…on teaching Creationism in the schools

August 23, 2011

cave art by early modern humanity – Chauvet – France

Thinking About  Evolution, Pandering to the Christian Right – which in any event seems to be losing some of its clout – Perry, Palin and Bachmann Duke It Out on Creationism…

Among his other intemperate comments pandering to the Christian right wing in his home state, Texas, Governor Rick Perry takes a shot at evolution. Knowing it plays well among the political neanderthal types that so populate the `great lonestar state’, and in an obvious effort to outflank the likes of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann on the right, Perry stoops to joining the science bashing crowd, dismisses evolution as `just a theory’ and one that “has some gaps.”

While any scientific theory, including the theory of natural selection, has gaps, the biggest gap here seems to be not in Darwin’s hypothesis, but in the space between Perry’s ears. Furthermore, as the recent 3 part tv series on NOVA `On Becoming Human‘ suggests, our understanding of the main lines of human evolution over the past fifty years has become more and more sophisticated and down right fascinating.

But then Perry did have stiff competition to contend with:

– In her memoire, Going Rogue’ Sarah Palin reveals that she  “didn’t believe in the theory that human beings — thinking, loving beings — originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea” or from “monkeys who eventually swung down from the trees.”

– Not to be outflanked on the right by Perry and Palin on the great evolution debate, Michele Bachman has also entered the ring with with her own canned manure, claiming that important scientists question or deny evolutionary theory and placing the anti-evolutionist latest line of offense – defense of what the call `intelligent design’ , a kind of last line of defense of anti-evolutionary strategists.

Actually for Perry, kicking Darwin’s theory of natural selection in the teeth is actually just a warm up for his main target – global warming – that he explains is simply a cynical mechanism for scientists to get plush government contracts. One wonders if Perry has ever read Darwin’s Origin’s of Species, even has the vaguest notion of what is the theory of natural selection…or more basically, should I dare to ask, if he can read at all?

It’s getting tougher to openly defend Darwinism these days in this great land of ours. I used to teach the stuff and on some days – like today – miss talking about australopithecus’ small brain size, neanderthal burials and Cro-magnon cave art. It’s been a few years now and have lost my edge concerning the latest developments, but the subject of Human Evolution is one that is near and dear to my heart. Although he wrote more than 20 years ago and might not be considered `up to snuff’, my favorite writer on the topic, easily, remains John Pfeiffer. I still consider one of his later works: The Creative Explosion to be as fine and wondrous explanation of the long human journey as one can find anywhere.

Evolution – human or otherwise – still fascinates me and every year I try to pick up one or two works on evolution in general, human evolution in particular. To that end, last summer I re-read Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation To Sex. This summer, among other things, I’m plodding through Stephen Jay Gould’s opus magnus The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Also had an interesting discussion with a friend (my father in law!) about the presence of Omega 3s in the human brain and its possible evolutionary link to a fish diet. I do all this now `for fun’, out of respect for the field, and I suppose also `in solidarity’.

Gould was a few years ahead of me at Jamaica High School (in Queens, NY) and I have always been especially proud that my high school produced such a genius, and a political progressive. I’ve read most of the other stuff Gould has written, much of it columns in Natural History that were then turned into books. The news that Jamaica High School is closing its doors, reported in the New York Times saddened me and I would not be surprised to read that Gould is organizing against the closure, even from the grave…but once again, as usual, I digress.

Where I now teach, there is little room for much integration of human evolution – although in a course on the global politics of birth control, about to take place again this fall, I do go over Darwin’s theory of natural selection both to expose the students a tiny bit to it and to explain how early 20th century eugenicists misused it. I can think of few theories that have been twisted all out of meaning as this theory, used to justify, among other things, international bullying and capitalist predation.

These last years, the few times that the theory has come up, it is striking how few students coming out of American high schools are in any way familiar with it. Few think of it more than some kind of contest between male moose in rutt.

I regret this because not to be familiar with, understand Darwin’s theory of natural selection is to be, early in the 21st century, scientifically illiterate. It is one thing to be scientifically illiterate and quite another to be scientifically illiterate and proud of it.

But then, that is what make America the great nation that is: the only country I can think of it where people vote against their class and general interests and are proud of the fact. I can’t do much to counter that general trend – a part of the right wing Christian fundamentalist political thrust that includes worshiping privatization economically, supporting tax cuts for the super-rich, anti-abortion extremism, savaging science and saving only those Jews who convert to Christianity from purgatory.

Evolution in general and human evolution in particular have long threatened Christian fundamentalists with their miopic literalist interpretation of Genesis. They see it as an integral part of the secular humanist modernist paradigm the fundamentalists find so threatening. Yet much more than their holy texts, it is human evolution which holds us together as a species, that connects us to each other and to our shared past not just with other humans but with all living things.

Nor is it all Christians that find the study of evolution threatening. Many Protestant and Catholic thinkers have found a way to reconcile the fossil record with their religious views. Some of the great evolutionists, Darwin included (de Chardin comes to mind as well), were quite religious. Still, the intensity, nay, the violence with which Christian fundamentalists attack evolutionary theory has in recent years overshadowed these more moderate, thoughtful Christian voices.

And the anti-evolution offensive continues..

Chauvet cave art…

The anti-evolution offensive, hardly noticed anymore in the mainstream press or political circles, continues virtually unabated. For some years now, I have been a card carrying member of the National Center for Science Education  that tries to counter the creationist trust in state legislatures and schools throughout the country. Its executive director, Eugenie C. Scott has done yeo(wo)man’s work to that effect.

A recent letter from Scott from  notes that `in the seven-year period between February 2004 (during the Bush years) and February 2011 (well into the Obama years) there were thirty-nine anti-evolution bills introduced into state legislatures across the country.’ With a sense of history, one of these resolutions, Alabama’s House Bill 391, was introduced on the 145 anniversary of the publication of Charles’ Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Touching, no?

These bills claim to be extending `academic freedom’ to K-12 teachers in public schools, but their not so hidden agenda is to undermine the teaching of Darwinian evolution and to encourage the teaching of creationism, the latter being nothing more than pseudo-science and gobbledygook.

In 2011 along…

  • In New Mexico, a creationist lobbyist was quoted in the press claiming that evolution was `a dogma’ pushed by `a priesthood whose underlying philosophy is scientific materialism’ (sounds pretty serious and subversive!)
  • In Tennessee, where they never quite got over the Scopes evolution trial of the 1920s, bills introduced in both the state house and senate defend intelligent design (the latest and not particularly effective creationist fabrication) as `a theory that many scientists are beginning to consider and hold’. Put politely, this statement is untrue. Put more rudely but to the point it is a bunch of nonsense
  • Not to be undone by Tennessee’s leap into medievalism, Oklahoma, often a `vanguard state’ in that great leap back into the past (too many football players hit in the head I would guess), is putting for a bill that would require “every publicly funded Oklahoma school to teach the `debate’ of creation vs. evolution”
Of those 39 states where legislation was introduced, only one actually passed the legislation – the great state of Louisiana, which in 2008 passed the so-called Lousiana Science Education Act despite protests from the scientific and educational communities. Shortly thereafter, in 2010, the Livingston Parish School Board moved from teaching both creationism and evolution to `taking a stand for Jesus. The Livingston Parish board is moving to include creationism into its science classes, citing the state legislation of the year before as a basis for moving in this direction.
Eugenie Scott’s letter (cited above) quotes one board member “We don’t want litigation, but why not take a stand for Jesus and risk litigation’.
Livingston Parish is only formalizing a growing trend in high school science teaching nationwide. A recent survey of high school biology teachers conducted in 2006 revealed that as many as 13% of high school biology teachers were already explicitly advocating creationism in their classrooms. Another result is that to avoid controversy, many high schools are simply dropping the subject altogether.
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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Ed Augden permalink
    August 31, 2011 10:56 am

    While other nations embrace science, this one seems to be embracing the supernatural. It’s not difficult to grasp why our students lag behind other nations.

  2. Kyle C permalink
    August 31, 2011 3:46 pm

    While I agree that teaching creationism alongside evolution in a science class is quite silly, I believe that to remove creationism myths from schools is also a disservice. In my middle school, we learned about evolution in science class and then various creation myths of different cultures and religions in our social studies class. Creationism is not a science and should not be taught as such.
    To wholeheartedly attack people who strongly believe in creationism is not at all productive. Describing them as “bozos” and “illiterate” does not lead to moderate voices, but continued mudslinging. Using passion filled “fightin’ words” leads to the same from the opponent. A field dominated by reason and fact, and advocating those same things, should arm themselves with reason in the rhetorical ring as well.

    • May 16, 2014 1:31 pm

      unfortunately Kyle, I do not agree with you. The opposition to evolution is little more than a kind of bigotry and should be condemned as such..

  3. August 31, 2011 4:49 pm

    This from a friend in Maine…

    You might read Krugman’s last op-ed on anti-science Republicans. It generated a storm of comment, the vast majority of which supported Krugman. The vehemence of much of the comment was gratifying; there is some vestige of sanity left in the USA.

    One the best responses to anti-evolutionism I’ve heard of was a letter from a physician published in the Philadelphia Enquirer ten years or so ago. The import of the piece was that nonbelievers in evolution should be willing to disregard their physicians’ admonishment to complete the regime of antibiotic after they’ve begun to feel better. They would then die off from antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and disappear from the gene pool to humanity’s benefit, an interesting twist on eugenics. (Of course, the rest of us would succumb as well.) As you well know, your physician’s admonishment to take the entire course of antibiotic is indeed based on evolutionary theory. Bacteria constantly mutate (as do all organisms), not killing all the bugs by not completing the regime of antibiotic could mean that one mutated (and deadlier) strain could survive. The physician who wrote the letter, was joking, of course, but I wish a reporter would Bachmann, Palin, Perry, ad nauseam if they know what the underlying biological mechanism is behind their physicians’ admonishment to complete the regime of antibiotic.

  4. August 31, 2011 4:50 pm

    This from the great bass fiddle lobbyist in Congress, whose influence is third only to the NRA and AIPAC…it’s long but filled with interesting content.

    Guess we have more in common than the New York Public school system
    and a having spend (or perhaps misspend) some of our youth in bowling
    alleys. I also try to read at least a couple of books a year on
    evolutionary theory. This year I’ve read Richard Dawkins The
    Greatest Show on Earth (and am half way through a second reading) as
    well as finally reading the Voyage of the Beagle. Reading the latter
    I’m continually struck by how incredibly intelligent and curious
    Darwin was about everything around him. Its hard to imagine how
    anyone could read this and not be struck by this and think this man is
    much more intelligent than I or anyone else I know is.
    Richard Dawkins wrote a great column on Perry for the Washington
    Post: ttp://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/attention-governor-perry-evolution-is-a-fact/2011/08/23/gIQAuIFUYJ_blog.html
    Think Carl Sagan said something to the effect that Darwin and
    Wallace’s theory of evolution is just a theory in the same manner that
    its just a theory that the earth revolves around the sun. Common
    sense would seem to dictate that the sun revolves around the earth
    since none of us feel the planet move and we see the sun moving in the
    sky everyday? Wonder if Perry, Bachmann, et al. would want this
    competing theory of planetary movement taught in science class?
    Probably so, since they seem to believe that everything revolves
    around planet earth and more specifically the American God fearing
    capitalist.
    In fact the theory of evolution is the major explanatory principle
    in biology. When a biologist looks at a new species or some
    characteristic of an existing one they say ” wonder what Yahweh had
    in mind”.
    If you’ve never read it, The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen is
    one of the my favorite books. Written by a non scientist the primary
    focus is on Biogeography, but its funny wide ranging book covering the
    history of evolutionary theory, the correpondence between Wallace and
    Darwin as well as their difference in class. and the current
    discussions in the field. It talks about a time in the nineteenth
    century when more and more species were being discover and their were
    debates among scientists regarding the number of cubits in Noah’s Ark.
    Anyway, its long but worth the time – one of my favorite books.
    Thanks for the blog,

  5. Naftali Feldman permalink
    August 31, 2011 6:00 pm

    It’s interesting that there is never any discussion of what Native, indigenous Americans think about evolution and its modern lingo; namely DNA, colonial biology, and the like. I’ve heard Hopi elders say that it is only the white man who descends from monkeys/primates. Allegedly, his people are merely close relatives of those creatures, and share most of their DNA with the trees native to their indigenous lands. What a concept, huh?

    In short, I think it’s time for us to get a grip, and stop reducing this issue to a narrow-minded “dialogue” between Western scientists and Western fundamentalists. These two camps both rely on their own version of sensationalism and colonialism, in order to subjugate the “lesser” humans of the world! Let’s remember who took care of the land we’re on before we came, the land/the EARTH that has been daily exploited by a highly unethical “scientific method”……What happens if (actually, WHEN) the water runs out? No Western soul will survive on this planet if they don’t know the source of their water/food/medicine…..Both Western christians and Western scientists have aided white people in the quest to destroy every human being’s indigenous identity.

    And for all the Marxists out there, this whole notion that “primitive peoples” will eventually “evolve” into a classless, egalitarian commune…..man, you guys gotta own some stuff here!!! There are SO many indigenous people that lived MORE egalitarian lives than any of us leftists could EVER hope for! And they did it for THOUSANDS of years…..

    Anyway, just food for thought…..I’d be interested to hear everyone’s thoughts.

    • September 1, 2011 7:54 am

      first naftali, …thanks for your reply. it was interesting.

      concerning your critique of Marxist views on primitive peoples, i happen to agree with you. it was rigid, mechanical and based upon what i think to be a strange view of human progress that was all too common in the 19th century.

      you are also on to something by arguing that alot of unsavory stuff has been done in the name of science and the scientific method (especially where it concerns propagating colonialism) and to raise more and more urgent environmental concerns.

      frankly, while i admit that my whole being relies on finding ways to `rationalize’ a pretty irrational world and have long believed that there is wisdom in the humanities as well as in the sciences that will be needed to preserve the planet…still, your remarks fail to take into consideration the ways that different fundamentalist religions – in the case above, most specifically Christian fundamentalism – has used the issue of evolution as a kind of ideological punching bag. there is alot to learn from darwin and from the insights he penned in his great works and ignoring the wisdom his life long studies have provided.

      best, rjp

      • Naftali Feldman permalink
        September 1, 2011 4:09 pm

        Thanks for the reply Rob! It’s great to hear nuanced replies like yours, concerning these huge, systemic issues!

  6. September 1, 2011 10:20 am

    This from a former fine reporter from the Denver Post, essentially purged from the paper for having been too good at what she does..

    I, too, read Krugman’s column on the right’s war on science. Apparently, fewer and fewer people are falling for the fundamentalists’ line, but whether the demographics will change in time to save us remains an open question. On a lighter note, do you know about the annual Darwin awards given to winners of the most spectacular deaths resulting from stupidity? Pretty entertaining.

  7. September 1, 2011 10:22 am

    This from one of the nation’s finest geo-chemists…

    Rob- Darwin was born on the same day as Abe Lincoln: Feb 12, 1809. So Alabama House Bill 391, passed by the Al house in 2004, was introduced 145 years after the first publication of Origin of Species (1859).

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